He was a middle-aged businessman from London; she introduced herself as a hospital nurse who lived in Nairobi. They met by chance, in a virtual way, because they were both enthralled by the fiction of Haruki Murakami. It wasn’t clear if he followed her first, or if she was the one to initiate the conversation, but soon they were chatting regularly, in 280 characters or less.
And then their tweets went private, becoming direct message exchanges that were far more personal and far more intimate than what was permissible in an open Twitter feed. He told her of his marital frustrations and she said she was a single mother, working long shifts to make ends meet. Then, on a drunken impulse, he revealed that he had never had sex with a black woman. This was something about which he often fantasized. She tweeted back that she had never slept with a white man. She admitted that thoughts of this type of relationship turned her on.
He flew out of Heathrow on a dark, wintry night and arrived in Kenya on a bright, sunny afternoon. She met him at the airport and they embraced as if they had known each other for years. They took a taxi to a nearby hotel where they checked into the room he had reserved. Afterward they lay entwined on the sweat-covered linens, time slipping away and the real world calling for their return.
Their rendezvous was short-lived. He had a plane to catch. She needed to prepare dinner. He had to return to his business; she had a young child demanding her attention. He was sorry he couldn’t stay; she was upset that their affair was coming to an abrupt, although expected ending.
On his taxi drive to the airport a car pulled close to block the vehicle. Three angry-looking men emerged from within. They dragged him from the cab and pushed him into their car. He tried to protest but they tied a white cloth around his mouth. He had no way of knowing that these were the nurse’s brothers; they had come from their village to protect their family’s honor.
In a clearing they pulled out machetes and axes and had their way with the foreigner. They left him there, or what was left of him, for the lions. Then they wiped their weapons clean and returned to their car. There was plenty of homemade alcohol waiting for them in the village.
Later that night, their sister was at her computer, following her Twitter feed. A humorous tweet caught her eye. The tweeter’s profile was very interesting – he was a teacher from Copenhagen. It turned out they both shared an appreciation for Murakami’s novels. It wasn’t clear if he followed her first, or if she was the one to initiate the conversation, but soon they were chatting regularly, in 280 characters or less.
Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Huffington Post, and many online literary publications. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair.
I find myself in a horseless stagecoach with a notebook in my lap. The cover is blank. I have no memory of who I am. I know nothing beyond the dead brush and prickly pears of this lonely prairie.
Morning sun is fully above the horizon. Wavy heat mirages dance above the autumn wasteland. The stage’s inside, where I currently sit, is already unbearably still, buggy, and hot. I wipe the sweat from my face; the woolen sleeve scrapes the skin. I decide to investigate the notebook while waiting for someone to come.
The desiccated binding makes a cracking sound as I carefully bend it back. The page edges are darkened by ash from an imaginary campfire. I find a few rock-hard biscuits in my pocket and a half-full canteen of water. I chew the edge of a biscuit and listen to the silence between wind gusts. I read the first page.
Billy Bowles paid for space up top as a hanger on. He lay between tied down mailbags keeping him from falling off and landing in dried brush and prickly pear. He was a teenage drifter from Missouri. The product of a well-educated antislavery family, Billy felt ashamed when he witnessed the immoral crimes committed by the fraudulent anti-slavery Red Legs. At the age of fifteen he watched families being murdered by the vile invaders who used the ruse of anti-slavery enforcement to inflict fear and misery on anyone they chose. Cavernous black holes between the eyes of murdered townsfolk filled Billy’s dreams.
The day they came for his father, Billy gathered his critical possessions including the Derringer his grandfather had given him when he was too young to use it. On that same day he kissed his mother goodbye, mounted his chestnut quarter horse, and slowly rode through town. There was nothing else to do, but ride away. His mount whinnied and picked up speed when they passed Billy’s dead father propped up in front of the jailhouse with black bullet hole in his head, both ears taken for trophies, and scalped. A Red Leg held a thirty-inch sword with a score of impaled scalps. Billy watched as the man impaled his father’s scalp, wiping the blood on his face.
He reached the end of town and watched his mother try to resist what was inevitable. She was going to be raped, shot, and scalped. Billy watched the leader throw her to the ground and mount her like a dog. Billy did not need to kick his mount; she had already begun to gallop. The screaming faded with distance, but he feared the memory would never wane.
The following morning Billy woke to granite clouds. He had dreamed of his father’s-imposed philosophy of what it meant to be a good farming man. Billy did not want to be a farmer and he hated rules. None of that mattered now. He turned sixteen two days ago and was on his own. His dead parents would vanish into his uneventful history without imposing guilt. “It’s a dangerous country,” his father once said. “Don’t be cryin’ if me and your mother get killed or other such thing. You take care of yourself. All I ask is you honor the Bowles name wherever you travel.”
Billy’s thoughts were interrupted by voices from below. Inside the coach five fat men discussed their situation, a couple wanting to return to the comfortable East.
“I told you we’d get goddam stuck here,” a voice said loud enough t0 hear over the wheels crunching the withered prairie. “We’re vagabonds in this fuckin hellhole.”
“It’s not so bad,” a second voice said.
“Not so bad? Look around you. This is a goddamn wasteland.”
“A silver wasteland,” the second voice said.
“Well, we better find more—”
One woman also traveled in the coach, alone. She was on her way to visit her estranged mother who lives in Santa Fe.
The passengers had stopped talking. Billy listened and heard the pounding hooves of distant riders approaching from the north. He had overheard some poker players say three riders split from the Dalton gang in Kansas and were headed for New Mexico.
The Reinsman, or Jehu, as they are sometimes called, pushed the team to maintain a steady pace.
Billy searched for his Derringer to ensure himself it was still there in his jacket pocket. It was. The coach lantern provided no light on the trail ahead. The Jehu had to trust his memory and the horses’ senses to navigate the way.
Billy listened. He could no longer hear the approaching hooves.
The three riders hid behind a bluff northwest of the stage with pistols and rifle ready.
A man wearing a duster, rode a quarter mile behind the stage. His belt holster held a Colt Army and his saddle’s rifle holster stowed a Winchester 1873, lever action. He followed the stage like a patient predator. He was a man on one mission and the stage was the bait, although no one including the Jehu nor conductor knew. The man had read about the three gunmen from Kansas. Capturing all three, dead or alive, meant ten thousand dollars. A sizeable sum. And the territory was worth many times more. New Mexico was the hub of lawlessness with every decent gunman looking to cheat at cards, rob banks, holdup stages, and kill if necessary. They were a disease that needed to be cured. He was the territory’s remedy.
A burst of desiccated air blows the notebook closed as if it wanted me to stop reading. The early fall sun is still summer strong. It sits high overhead, building thermal layers for the hawks and buzzards. I hear gunshots in the distance, but no evidence of riders. And who is the duster man?
I sip from the canteen to help push the sand-like crumbs from the biscuit down my throat. Someone should be coming soon.
I read until dusk, slam the notebook shut, and gaze into the diminishing orange. A figure walks through my vision, stops, looks at me, and moves from my sight. I could be dreaming; it is becoming difficult to know. I rest on a mailsack and see the figure again. It is a wolf. My pounding heart wakes me. Crickets chirp.
After sunset, only two eyes shine through the black. And then howls fill the air. Quakes of fear rumble through me until I remember what a Missouri mountain man once said. “Wolves don’t attack us, they protect us.”
The duster man knew there was quite a bit of jewelry and cash on persons in the coach. Also, a trunk with more valuables was in the rear boot. The man’s experience told him this was the perfect stagecoach to ambush. The Jayhawkers were about to become road agents in New Mexico.
The duster man listened.
Wheels and hooves approached the bluff from the southeast. Multiple shots cracked the air. One man armed with a Henry repeater shot out the lantern and began firing at the horses. The other two fired their Colt revolvers in the direction of team. Panicked horses forced the Jehu to pull hard on the lines. The Jayhawkers sprayed the four horses with enough lead to sink a ship. Ears and eyes flew into the night with trails of blood. They were dead on their hooves.
Quickly holstering their weapons, the Kansas men mounted up and galloped toward the stage.
Duster man stopped and dismounted. His horse stood motionless. He sat on a boulder and listened to the hooves and shots. He had never known a Jayhawker, but it did not matter. Outlaws broke laws and bounty hunters caught them, dead or alive.
Billy Bowles remained in hiding among the mailbags, straining to see how many gunmen there were. The horses continued to bleed out. Both the Jehu and conductor jumped from the box and hid behind one of the dead horses. Their eyes fixed north.
“Conductor!” a man inside barked.
“Shut the fuck up! Keep yer heads low, below the windows!” the conductor yelled back.
Billy lifted his head. Three clouds of dust trailed three riders rapidly approaching. When he saw their weapons, he knew they were facing road agents.
“Howdy!” one of the three said.
“You shot our damn horses!” the conductor shouted with twelve-gauge Hartford shotgun loaded and ready.
The Kansas man looked at the rider to his left. “Was that you Jude shootin’ them horses?”
“Not me, Charlie.”
Charlie looked at the rider to his right. “Was that you Henry shootin’ them horses?”
“Not me, Charlie.”
“Seems it weren’t us,” Charlie said, then spit. “We’re jest some poor boys from Kansas lookin’ for some help. Maybe ask you kind New Mexicans for a few dollars so’s we can eat.”
The three men laughed.
The conductor had little choice. He could blow one man off his mount but would surely be shot immediately by the other two. He did not want to die as he had so many times in his nightmares. But he was paid to protect the paying customers and the valuables.
“You bastards killed our team and yer gonna pay for it!” the conductor shouted.
“Calm down now, mister conductor and slide that shotgun over to Jude, nice and easy,” Charley said.
The conductor cocked both barrels.
“Let’s all jest calm down,” the Jehu said with hands raised.
“Okay, Mister Jehu, ain’t you responsible for the passengers’ wellbein’?” Charlie asked with a stained smirk. “Cause if y’are, then you better throw that Colt to me and tell your conductor to slide his shotgun to Jude. Otherwise, can’t say what might happen.”
“We’re expected in Santa Fe by nightfall,” the Jehu said.
“One more time, Mister Jehu, and Mister Conductor, throw me yer weapons or get shot. It’s as simple as that. We’ll be long gone before anyone in Santa Fe gets word of our little robbery here.”
The wolf was gone the next morning, but I had a feeling he would be back. I read through the day with the cry of hunting raptors as music. The steady wind keeps them aloft indefinitely while their eyes focus on the prey below.
The sun begins to turn orange. I realize this horseless stage will be my home another night with nothing but the last of the biscuits, water, and oil lantern.
I break off small biscuit pieces and eat them without wasting water. Crumbs, like microscopic sponges, steal what moisture is left in my throat. I gag and throw up the saturated bits.
The pages beg me to begin reading again. Turning to the next page is what keeps me sane in this wasteland.
I light the wick.
I see the eyes.
I am safe another night.
Billy remained undetected. His sweaty hand gripped the Derringer. He doubted these gunmen wanted mail. They wanted money and jewelry. He thought about being a hero, but with only two shots and probably missing with both, his death would be assured. He kept his head down and listened.
The Jehu surrendered his Colt.
“In Kansas, we riders generally take what we want with the Law nippin’ at our butts,” Charie said. “I don’t see much law here in these parts to stop us. So folks, this is what I want ya t’do. Empty all yer pockets n bags and place them by Jude here.”
“Perhaps, Madam, you will come out first?” Charlie said and nodded to Jude, who opened the door and pulled the woman out with such force she lost her hat and tripped to the ground, skinning her knees through brand-new silk stockings.
Charlie dismounted yanked the sobbing woman up by the collar. “No need to cry, I’m not plannin’ to hurt ya. Jest hand over all yer jewelry n what cash you’re carryin’.” She fell back to ground and surrendered to Jude.
“We’ll git yer jewelry after,” Jude said and began to unbuckle his trousers.
Billy heard a faint sound from behind. Steady crunching of corn-kernel dirt grew louder until it stopped. A new voice sounded in the dead air. “I don’t think so.”
Billy took the gamble and raised his head.
Everyone stared at the new man with the baritone voice.
“Who the hell’re you?” Charley asked.
The man looked at each gunman with friendly eyes and chiseled jaw. His long coat was his calling card.
“Name’s John Stanton. You’d know me if you were outlaws in this territory.”
“We heard about you and yer duster roamin’ these parts, but you ain’t got business here,” Charlie said and spit some chew.
“But I do. I’m plannin’ on takin’ you boys back to Kansas and collectin’ my ten grand.”
No one said a word. The Jayhawkers appeared uneasy.
“Dead or alive, your choice,” Stanton said.
“Jest how’re ya gonna pull that off Mister—?”
John Stanton did not answer. Billy watched an explosion of bullets as the bloodbath unfolded.
Charlie fired at Stanton, missed.
The wayward bullet tore into the woman’s gut. Blood shot from the black hole.
The Jehu shot his pistol at Charlie who had re-cocked and returned fire.
The Jehu fell to the ground, rapidly staining the brown dirt scarlet.
Stanton fired his .44 caliber Army at Charley. His knee shattered into a spray of bloody bones. Stanton’s next shot exploded Charlie’s shooting hand, propelling his pistol into the darkness.
Standon obliged Jude and Henry with their own shot-up knees.
The three Jayhawkers fell from their saddles. Cries of pain filled the camp.
It had all happened in an instant. Billy’s heart pounded so loudly he could barely hear the shots.
“Reinsman’s been hit!” the conductor yelled.
The men stood over him and heard the gurgle of death. He stared straight up. Billy imagined how the stars might look to a dying man. Maybe a person can take one final memory to the next life.
Billy shook his head. Can’t be thinking of that now. With a burst of bravery, he jumped down and walked toward the crying woman.
“Where’d you come from?” Stanton asked.
“Hanger on…sir. The woman needs help, I think.”
“What’s your name?”
“Casper William Bowles, known in these parts as Billy Bowles.”
“Never heard of ya. Go see on her,” Stanton said.
Billy looked at a terrified conductor and five trembling male passengers. Their situation offered only one option, wait for the next stage, and hope these passengers could hang on until then.
“Can I please have your attention?” Stanton shouted. “We need to discuss a plan.”
“Plan?! He ain’t got no plan!” Charley screamed. “Yer all gonna die with us!”
The Jayhawkers’ cries echoed down the gulch.
“You know what they say in this territory, Charley? Shoot a man in the head or heart if you wanna killim. Shoot’em in the knees if you wanna hearim cry,” Stanton turned to the panicked passengers. “Pay him no mind. I’m takin’ him and the other two back to Kansas. They’ll be facin’ the hangin’ tree soon enough. I’m plannin’ to leave within the hour.”
“What about us?” one of the male passengers asked.
“Next stage should have room up top,” the conductor said.
Billy sat with the injured woman. He felt embarrassed. His hair was too long, and he needed a bath. It did not matter; she paid him no mind.
The dim lantern light tires my eyes. Early morning, before first light, chilled desert breezes snake through the coach. I mark my place and close the notebook. It comes to mind that I have not yet searched the surroundings. I pull all the mailbags from under both coach benches. The gold lever of a new Winchester 1873 reflects the lantern light. A woman’s handbag was hidden behind the gun. I open it and find a few pounds of gold jewelry, one-hundred twenty-dollar Double Eagle gold coins, and an unknown amount of paper currency.
Are all these valuables under my charge? Is someone coming with a team to move this stage?
I lie back and listen to the distant howl of a wolf, possibly the same one I’ve seen. The one who is watching over me.
The sun is high when I wake. The air is still and fouled by rotting horses. In the distance I hear hooves.
The sound tells me there are two horses coming toward the stage. I load the shiny Winchester with fifteen rounds and wait. Then I listen again, only wind. I rest my head on a mail sack and close my eyes. The wind stops, revealing the crunch of boots on the gravely prairie. My mind is fatigued and cannot be trusted. I lie again on the sack. More gusts blow through the coach.
Then the wind stops.
“What’s this, Frank? A brandy-new stage with a dead team.”
“Never seen nothin’ like it, Tommy.”
“I’ll check it,” Frank says.
I hear a man cock his revolver and dismount. I stay inside the stage.
“Well, howdy. Waitin’ for someone?” Frank asks.
It is my move. Pounding heart, sweaty hands, and no experience firing a Winchester, I must hide everything I am feeling. What I say next could mean my life.
“Maybe I was waitin’ for you two,” I say with the strongest voice I can muster.
“How’d you know we was comin’?”
As I suspect, they are not the brightest thinkers. “Word’s out you two were hangin’ around the territory. I’m here to protect what’s in this stage.” I suspect one man protecting a loot hidden in a grounded stage is irresistible to them. But I’m a wild card they weren’t expecting.
“Who the hell’re you?” Frank questions me. I see anger through the dripping sweat stinging his eyes.
Memories of the past two days do not include my name. I pick the first one that comes to mind under the stress of the situation.
“Name’s Billy Bowles.”
“Bowles? The same Bowles who knows that bounty man, John Stanton?”
“The same,” I lie, playing along. I’ve never met a John Stanton, bounty hunter.
“Listen, Mister Bowles, we don’t want no trouble. You can keep that there Winchester where it’s at, and we’ll be off. Tell Mister Stanton we was jest visitin’.” Frank says. He nods to Tommy.
I watch both men kick their mounts and head north.
The scene plays over and over in my mind. My alleged association with a bounty hunter is all that saved me.
Once calm, I find the pages.
The ensuing stage was scheduled for noon the next day. John Stanton had already left for Kansas with the three broken outlaws. He spoke to Billy before leaving.
“We need to talk.”
Billy knew bounty hunters could be just as dangerous as road agents and gunmen. He was not sure if he should feel fear.
“The conductor is a coward,” Stanton whispered. “Watch him.”
“Mister Stanton, I’m not sure if—”
“—no time for that now. Listen to me. The gold and other valuables will have to stay with the stage until another carriage with room can take them.”
“When will that be?” Billy asked.
“Can’t say. Let the others go. You gotta stay with the valuables until they can be retrieved.”
“Why me? I can’t shoot. And all I have is my Derringer,” Billy said.
“Look around. Who else besides you?”
Billy watched the bounty hunter gather the reins of the three horses carrying three whimpering Jayhawkers. They disappeared into the lawless night “Search the coach!” Stanton shouted to Billy.
The conductor and the five male passengers argued in loud whispers. Billy continued to sit with the woman. Blood slowly spilled from her stomach.
“You, there! Hanger on—”
“Name’s Billy Bowles.”
“Yeah, Bowles, we have a plan,” the conductor said.
“Did the plan come from Mister Stanton?” Billy asked.
“I’m the conductor and without our Jehu, I’m now in charge.”
“I don’t care what you all do. Mister Stanton told me to guard the valuables until a proper carriage could be dispatched from Santa Fe. And that’s what I plan to do.”
“Well, we plan to hop onto the top of the next stage,” the conductor said.
“What about the woman?” Billy asked.
“The plan doesn’t include her. Anyway, she’s just a rich whore who bought herself a seat inside the coach. She don’t deserve a space. Besides, she’s been hit. She ain’t long for this world.”
Billy looked at the woman. Her head had fallen into her lap. Black blood dried on her stockings. She was also bleeding from her gut; crimson stained her dress.
The men went their separate ways to sleep the remainder of the night.
Billy turned toward the woman. “How bad is it?”
She shook her head.
“May I ask your name…please?”
The woman looked at Billy with swollen eyes. “Margaret.”
“Show me where you were hit.”
Margaret opened her shawl. Billy saw a black hole in her stomach oozing too much blood.
“Is there anything I can do to make you feel better, Miss Margaret?”
“I’m terrified and dying and in too much pain to cry. But my mother is expecting me. Are you going with the others?”
“I’m staying with the stage. Stanton’s orders. You can stay with me.”
He told her the bleeding seemed to have stopped. He assured her she would be fine until they made it to Santa Fe. He lied, but what did it matter? Billy doubted the woman would live to see the next stage.
“Tomorrow a stage will come?” Margaret asked.
She handed him an addressed envelope for a house in Santa Fe. Inside was a letter. “I wrote this to my mother just in case—”
“—something like this happened.”
“Yes, you understand. If you are saved and travel to Santa Fe, would you mind giving her this short missive?”
Billy saw the pain in her eyes. He stowed the letter in his breast pocket and waited for death to arrive.
The wolf howled. Billy hoped it would take Miss Margaret to a better life.
When the sun began to heat the air and the flies became a morning nuisance, the five men, and conductor pissed in unison a few yards from the stage.
Margaret stared into the morning light; the wolf had not taken her.
No one spoke.
When the sun reached zenith, wheels and hooves sounded from the east.
“I see dust!” one of the men shouted.
Wheels and hooves grew louder. Gusty wind blew dust into everyone’s eyes. The Reinsman’s voice could be heard slowing the team until the stage came to a stop.
“You the folks we need to carry?” he asked.
“We’ll ride up top,” the conductor said.
“That’s the only room we got,” the Reinsman said.
“What about the woman?” Billy asked.
“No room,” the conductor said. “She ain’t gonna make it anyway.”
The stage left.
Margaret lay on her side, blood still seeping from the bullet wound in her stomach.
“Let me move you closer to the stage,” Billy said. He dragged her limp body over the brush while she moaned. He positioned her out of the sun and wet her lips with his canteen water.
Tireless buzzards circled the dead horses.
“Do you have a gun?” she asked.
Billy could not answer her. He knew she was in too much pain to continue the slow death she was facing. And he suspected she wanted him to take her out of her misery as if she were a mount.
“Do you have a gun!”
After a long pause, “I do, Miss.”
“How many bullets?”
“Only two in my Derringer.”
“Would you be so brave as to use one on me?” Her swollen eyes begged him.
“I’ll get you to a doc—”
“—too late. No one survives a bullet in the stomach.”
Billy never had a reason to kill another person. And even if he did have a reason, his trigger finger might still resist.
“Let me get you inside.”
“Please, shoot me between the eyes and get it over with. The pain—”
Billy removed the Derringer in his pocket. He looked at Margaret and saw a black hole. The Derringer slipped from his nervous hand and fell to the ground. She was asking him to be a murderer.
He knelt to retrieve his gun. “I don’t know if I can do this—”
“—you must!” Margaret screamed. “Please,” she whispered.
What choice did he have? What choice did she have? He aimed his Derringer, unconvinced finger touching the trigger. His dead father’s black bullet hole filled his vision. Then he saw Margaret’s unblemished forehead.
“Please God, if you’re up there, you know I have no choice.”
Sweat dripped into his eyes.
He held his breath.
He closed his eyes—
He opened his eyes and stared at the black hole in her forehead knowing he was a murderer regardless of her sanction.
The chapter ends. My stomach growls for meat. I have been feeling unsteady of late. I know I’m dehydrated, but with only half a canteen left I should conserve. Funny, it seems to never empty, although I know I’ve been drinking from the canteen for almost three days.
The last pages beg me to finish.
Billy dropped the Derringer, fell to his knees crying as a baby. Her face and his mother’s merged somehow. He had saved Margaret from unbearable pain and should have saved his mother from the rape. He wished he had shot his mother between the eyes. He pictured how her face would look with the hole. He placed a blanket over Margaret and retired to the coach, wondering how he would live with this crime he had committed.
He drifted into a daydream with a never-ending dead people’s parade, everyone’s forehead decorated with an oozing, cavernous, black bullet hole.
The wolf’s cry startled him. He could not remember where he was. The sun had almost disappeared, replaced with a full Moon. Tripping from the coach and skinning his knees, a reflection caught his eye. He turned and saw a silver broach pinned to a dead woman. Between her eyes was a bullet hole.
Who was this woman?
Who shot her?
Billy stumbled to the coach, unable to breath, heart pounding in his ears.
I read through the night. The horror Billy had to endure feels personal. When dawn finally arrives, I know I must leave the coach and evaluate my chances of survival. Another stage should have already come but has not. I look up and wonder if the buzzards are waiting for me to die.
I open the coach door. Blustery morning wind greets me. The reflection from a silver broach blinds me. A blanket partially covering something leans against the stage. The pop of a discharged Derringer strikes my ears. The image of a woman about to die flashes in front of me. I pull the blanket off a woman’s body with a black hole in her forehead.
Billy’s water ran out. Ants stole what was left of the biscuits.
He prayed to hear the baritone voice again.
He listened for wheels and hooves.
I listen for wheels and hooves.
My canteen is dry. Ants have taken my biscuits. A dead woman leans against the stage.
I sit next to her, and stare, in horror, at the bullet hole between her eyes, knowing I too will soon be dead.
A shadow blocks the unrelenting sun. A man in a duster kneels at my side. He wets his neckerchief and places it on my forehead. I try to decide if this is death.
I remember the notebook has a man in a duster.
I remember hiding among mailbags as a hanger on.
I remember the duster man saved the stage from Jayhawker road agents.
I remember ending Miss Margaret’s suffering.
I remember his name, John.
I remember my name, Billy, Billy Bowles.
“It’s over. I’ve brought a carriage.”
I remember a carriage was supposed to come.
“I murdered Miss Margaret,” I say. “Murder” is a word I have never said out loud.
“That’s and unfair word, Billy. You did what I’m sure she asked you to do.”
I rest against the broken stage next to Margaret. Maggots blanket the fallen team. John Stanton moves Margaret’s body to the carriage. Then he lifts my dehydrated body over his shoulder and deposits me next to the trunk full of valuables hidden in the rear boot. The two-horse team responds to John’s encouragement with a spirited pace.
“What’s next, John?”
“That’s up to you, Billy.”
And then I remember the last piece; the one I need to close the circle. The whole story is up to me, and I have not yet written the final chapter.
Kenneth is a writer of short stories. His publications include science fiction and period fiction. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his family.
Rennie’s Burgers stands defiant of all architectural progress, on the corner of 35th and Gunther. It’s always been there, it seems, and perhaps it will always remain. In the way that things on the West Coast can have that odd in-between feeling of not modern, but not quite decrepit, maybe Rennie’s Burgers will withstand the test of time.
I pull into its shadow and slot my rusted red bike into the bike rack. I lock it up and wipe the beads of sweat that formed on my forehead in the seven-minute ride to get here. The searing heat of this city seems to assault you from above and below; the sun bears down with the hottest breath that seems to just bounce up from the asphalt, trapping you here, in the middle.
I slick my hair back as much as I can, checking my faint reflection in the glass of the restaurant window. Uncooperative, strands of my hair fray in obstinacy. Accepting the futility of it, I walk through the doors to the vestibule. I breathe in the cooler air. I always stop here for a moment in the vestibule – this wonderful little purgatory. I’m here, so I’m not late, but I’m not quite here yet. I step through to the dining room.
The white tables silently rest where they always are, along with the chairs and their decades-old painted metal backs. Green here, red there. Maybe a faded blue that has almost become turquoise from age.
There’s a couple seated in the far corner. I never understand why anyone chooses to sit there. I suppose it’s because that table is the farthest from the counter, therefore farthest from the teenage rattle going on in the kitchen. But the thing is, that table, in the farthest corner, is surrounded by glass. The western sun shines its final brilliance rightthere, as if the architect wanted to line it up with the brightest point of the summer sun. I would never sit there to eat my dinner in the summer. The sun isn’t just bright, it’s thick. Gold blasting you, wrapping all around you and filling the whole area with itself. One last intrusion, one last infusion of its light and heat.
But, there they are.
I walk through the employee door, which is easy to do considering it must be the original wooden door of this shoddy construction. It doesn’t close properly.
The light pours in through the top corner. The bottom has this Tim Burton-esque slant to it, so I half expect some anthropomorphic creature to walk through and take me to a different world.
At the small closet where we keep our things, I slough my corduroy backpack off my shoulder and let it drop into a plastic chair. The timeclock is there on the wall. Large, old, imposing. A disgusting dark pea-green, with chips all over it. It looks like it fell out of a pick up truck on the way here for a bad burger. I take out my slip and slide it under. Pressing the reluctant button, it smashes down onto the card with what must be hatred. I look at the card. 7:58pm.
I stare at the ink on the card, slightly slanted. It almost looks like a library card. Like this card I had when I was twelve, and I’d gotten these books that –
“Thank God, you’re here! I’m dying.” Natalie whines. I break my trance to meet her glance.
“Yeah, and two minutes early, too, so there you go.”
She chuckles. Her eyes resemble crushed emeralds glinting in the sun.
“Hey, man.” It’s Greg, the shift leader. “Natalie’s drawer’s balanced. Your till’s in register two, ready to go. I’m heading out. See you later.”
I suppose he meant that for the two of us, because he raised his hand for about half a second. Now, he’s already in the vestibule, on his way out. Soon I’ll hear the roar of his obnoxious muscle car, and I’ll hear him needlessly peel out. I just wonder if Natalie will watch him drive out on Gunther in the front of the store. I know he does that so we can see him.
But she doesn’t.
Natalie is just grabbing the last of her things and stuffing them into her backpack. Like me, she doesn’t have a car. Normally, at school, I see her mom drop her off. But to work, she takes the bus. I always want to offer her a ride home, but I don’t have a car with which to offer. I suppose I could offer to walk her home.
But then again, I’m here, working. So I’m not sure how I’d do that, either.
She slings the bag over her now exposed shoulder. I’m in awe of how perfect her skin is. We’re just looking at each other, and I cannot for the life of me think of anything to say.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say, and immediately regret it.
She looks down for a moment, hands on the strap of her bag, hair loosely askance. “Yeah, see you tomorrow. Have a good night, Andrew.”
A couple of hours later, I’m completely alone in the restaurant. I’m going to lock the doors to the dining room pretty soon. A burger place doesn’t typically do all that well throughout the night, but this particular one has a long history of remaining open all twenty-four hours. The owner, Rennie, doesn’t want to change that at this point.
It’s what built this place. Its spirit is service. Duty. Persistence, I hear him say in my mind.
I really shouldn’t complain. If he hadn’t had this shift open, then I’d have been out of a job. But I hate this shift. And I especially hate being here alone.
I’m not sure why I thought this would be a good idea. I am not a fearless jock. I’m actually a nervous wreck most of the time. I get here two minutes early to my shift, every single time. No earlier, no later. Exactly that time. And really, that’s a lie. I know exactly why I’m here.
I needed a job but couldn’t find one that I wanted. So, my stepdad, being the great guy he is, told me to come here, told me to apply, told me to interview. And when they offered me the job, he told me to take it.
So, I took it.
And so, I am here now.
I’m not the type of person that enjoys solitude. There’s too much happening in my mind. I wish I hadn’t taken the job. My stepdad tells me all the time that this is good, though. Really builds character. And discipline.
Both of which I need, I guess.
I wanted to get a job doing something creative. I’d have loved to have gotten a job at a theater or something. Maybe working for the art department, creating intricate backdrops for low -budget productions. Hell, even the damn ticket booth would have been better.
My back suddenly hurts. I’ve been slouching here too long, sulking. I look through the drive thru window. I don’t see anyone. And at 10:45 p.m., I don’t really expect anyone. I lean out and peek into the dining room. All the chairs are upside down on the tables, and the checkered tile is ready to be mopped.
The flooring makes me think of the tiny tiles in the school bathrooms. I always stare at them when I’m in the gym showers, imagining what it would be like if one of them were chipped, but I failed to see it. In this daydream, while I’m showering and moving around, I jam my moist and swollen toe on it, tearing into the pliable flesh. I don’t feel it right away, but I look down and see the smoky red mixing with the water, the deepest crimson spilling out of the split toe.
My foot begins to tingle inside of my shoe, bringing me back, and I look away from the tile. Closing my eyes, I try to think of something else. Anything else.
I walk to the closet and grab the mop. The bucket water clouds as I pour in some sort of solution. It almost smells fresh, but at the same time, somehow manages to smell old. Dingy. Almost like an ancient public restroom that was just wiped down.
I’m plunging the mop in and out of the water mindlessly. The water sloshes and mixes. I’m thinking of Natalie. Now, of course, so many things populate my mind. All these things would have been great conversation starters.
Hey, so how close are you to getting a car?
Oh, not close enough! She’d say. And she’d laugh, tossing her hair.
I’m going to get an old Firebird with a huge engine and race Greg, I’d joke, and this would of course make her laugh even more.
I roll the mop and bucket out to the dining room, the headset still on so I can hear if anyone shows up at the drive thru. I fling the mop out onto the miniature tiles. Outside, the dull glow of the streetlamp filters into the dining room. I glance over the counter to the drive thru window. It’s dark.
I continue to mop, thinking of Natalie, thinking of –
Shit.I forgot to lock the front doors.
I take my keys out and make my way to the front entrance. I force the key into the door and turn. It clatters roughly, resisting my hand, but eventually falls fully into place. I look out the glass of the door.
It is really dark tonight.
I search for the moon, but it must be a New Moon; it’s nearly black out there. I hardly see any stars, and they seem to be receding. Falling farther away and disappearing completely. It’s as if there are clouds, but maybe they’re so thick and full of dark rain that I just can’t really see them.
I turn around in the vestibule and make my way back to the mop.
I freeze. A chill brushes against my spine.
Every chair is out. Lined along the walls in an interlocking pattern. Some are right up against the glass. It’s darker outside now. Thick. And writhing.
Every muscle in my body seems rigid. I can hardly move, and even breathing takes effort. I don’t know exactly what I should do right now. Worse, I’m not even sure that I’m still sane.
No. it’s not real. I’m here by myself. It’s late. It’s empty, I repeat to myself with my eyes smashed shut. The chill that whispers up my spine turns to icy sweat beads, and my shirt sticks to my chest. I can see it moving with my breathing, which is rapidly becoming heaving.
I glance at the door, then look at my register, focus on it. I’m determined.
I wait, build up the courage, then sprint.
I run with wide strides, covering as much ground as I possibly can. I’m almost there, I’m so close, but –
I’m slipping on the tiles, still wet from my mop. My left foot loses the last bit of grip it has, and my weight shifts. I reach out my hand, but I’m quickly becoming horizontal. My right foot follows suit and before I know it, I’m on my back. My head radiates with pain, and I realize I must have hit it. I don’t lose consciousness, thank God, but I’m in pain. I clutch my head for a moment, trying to think clearly. Trying to see clearly.
I slowly get up, feeling like everything is vibrating. Beneath my feet, at the tips of my fingers. I rub my head and turn toward Gunther Street.
All of the chairs are back on their tables. Upturned, revealing the dry tile, yet to be mopped.
I take a sharp inhale, expanding my lungs, relaxing the rest of my body. I exhale slowly and continue my internal mantra of, Everything is normal. It’s just my mind getting to me.
Although, the windows are still writhing.
Oh my God, I hadn’t noticed. But now I’m watching the billowing of whatever this blackness is. Complete absence of light plowing into the windows. The dull glow of the streetlamps is swallowed whole in this massive nothingness. This absence. Like a black hole’s mouth came down and swallowed the restaurant up whole, with me inside it.
Through the thin glass of the window, it looks like smoke, but deeper than the color black can convey. It’s billowing and swirling, dancing against the glass. Swallowing everything up. I can’t hear the traffic on the street, can’t see any light. I press my ear to the glass – frigid as ice – and I can’t hear a thing. Even through the thinness of this antique glass.
Oh God, what am I doing?
I jerk away from the glass. I stare intently through the window, as if my eyes are tied by rope to the window, and it’s trying to pull me out. Which is really how it feels. I am repulsed by this yet drawn to it with nearly irresistible curiosity.
I’m forgetting to breathe.
I inhale and close my eyes. But as soon as mine are closed, I feel a new set upon me. From behind the counter, behind me. I can feel them. Like marbles placed in the space between my shoulder blades. I shiver almost violently.
I swivel and open my eyes.
Small, squat, and square. A creature. A female of some kind. Patches of blond blurting from her cracked and bleeding skin, darkened with decay.
Oh God –
My stomach lurches, but I’ve nothing to vomit. I retch. My stomach is striving to vacate its very self, to turn inside out and leave my body altogether. I raise my head, but she’s gone. And I knew she would be. But she’s actually gone. I feel that she, or it, is gone . . . but that I’m still not alone.
Back at the window, new figures outline the smoke. The cloud. Whatever this black nothingness is that presses in on the old building. They’re tall, and gaunt. No color, and no real distinguishments. They’re just there, looking in. Or maybe It is there, just multiplied, all staring at me through nonexistent eyes. Sensing me. Feeling me. Knowing me.
The figures all seem to press in on the glass.
Something comes from my throat, I guess it’s a scream. Although at this point, I’m not sure if the sound is real or only in my mind. But now they step back, dissipating into the mass of black nothingness. The night fog. And it begins to move as one. Swirling. Rapidly.
I can’t help but wonder if there is some sort of eye above us forming. Perhaps unintentional. But an opening. I can’t keep pondering that though, because with the movement, I hear and feel the windows rattling in their places. They’re old, perhaps forty years at this point. I have no confidence whatsoever in them.
I decide to continue my sprint from before.
And almost telepathically, the smoke smashes into the windows, rattling them to the point that I can feel the vibration in my feet, through my shoes. The entire building seems to recoil at the assault.
I approach the counter and hurl my body over it. I land on my shoulder, hard, but I’ve arrived, and the pain seems much less than it ought to. My adrenaline is really carrying me.
Something within the great dark mass of amorphous cloud screeches. High pitched. Nearly pitiful, if I could ignore the pure rage in it.
I hadn’t noticed before, but I’m crying. And shaking.
What the hell am I doing here? What the fuck is this?
There is no time to contemplate this, as while these thoughts seem to be right here and now, I hear the doors violently shake. I freeze, the breath frozen in my lungs, suspending them in a painful expansion.
I exhale and jump to my feet. I sprint back to the doors to make sure this damned thing won’t get in here and… I don’t know, try to choke me or control me or just kill me for pleasure.
I arrive at the doors, and they’re shaking with the intensity of earthquakes. The very frames themselves violently convulse. I hold them tight, and look down at my hands, trying to ignore this living darkness. This cloud of hatred. Tears wrench themselves from my eyes and drench my hand. Movement outside of the window catches my eye.
The shaking stops as suddenly as it arrived. The street is dark and empty, the light reflecting on the late-night dew that hangs in the air. A clear night sky stretches above me. Every star shines individually and proudly.
Oh God, I’m fucking losing it.
I stop for a moment to breathe. I repeat my mantra.
I’m here alone. I’ve been alone all along. It’s late. I’m just seeing things.
I turn around and –
It’s there. By the counter. The figure. It’s not a female. Clearly dead. The tufts of hair sprouting are white with age and use. Its ancient hand is already clasped around my throat, oh God! I’d call it a monster if it didn’t look so human, so familiar…
It has no lips, and its teeth are long and gaunt and slanted in every way but straight. Its nails are long enough to sink into the back of my neck. It has me pressed against the glass, hard. I don’t know for certain if this is me – in some form or another – that I’m looking at, but I don’t care.
I raise my hands and bring them down, crashing as hard as I can against its forearms. The crack is loud and settles into my ears with a ringing. I feel the detachment, the disconnection in the grip of its hands around my throat. It reels back. Its hands of decaying flesh hang from my neck momentarily, while its body collapses about four feet away from me.
Scurrying past the heap of his handless body, I sprint back into the lobby. The headset is long gone, and I have no idea if anyone is in the drive thru. I run my hand through my cold, sweaty hair. I’m trying to think.
Spinning in place, I look around the lobby. The chairs are returned to the tables, statuesque. The windows are full of thick darkness again. Writhing with more anger, more intensity now.
Oh my God. Oh my God. Ohmygod!
My heart is blasting my rib cage with fear and anxiety. I don’t know what else to call it: there is an entity surrounding me – supposedly me, myself – and I cannot get away. I cannot reason with its animalistic instincts. It surrounds me. It pounds furiously against the windows now with formless hands. The entire building shudders under the ferocity of this blackness, this nothingness.
I crouch down and plug my ears. I’m crying. The floor vibrates ceaselessly.
Suddenly, I think of Natalie.
The craziest fucking thing happened to me last night, I’d say.
Yeah, I guess I fell asleep or something at the register, and I had this nightmare that this crazy cloud of like a demon or something fell over the whole building. It was trying to kill me. I even saw a version of myself, long dead. I don’t know what the hell it was all about, but it scared the shit out of me.
Holy shit, for real? Her eyes would widen here, full of disbelief, but also brimming with compassionate interest.
Yeah. But then I woke up, thank God. Anyway, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I wanted to see you so I thought I’d –
The floor shakes again, as if lightning struck just steps from the front entrance. I finally lift my head and uncover my ears.
Before me stands the dead version of me, again. Handless, lipless, bleeding.
I can’t scream. It’s inches from my face. Now I realize it’s eyeless, too. The blackness in the abnormally large holes seems so unreal that I can’t stop thinking, It must be fake. The absurdly long teeth grate together in what must be either hatred or fear.
Oh, shit. Fear.
I look at it, and it supposedly stares at me.
It fears me.
Its teeth part as if it would fain to say something, but being tongueless, it is incapable of speech. It just groans in a pitifully dark yaw. But I don’t need to hear anything: it’s trying to tell me to get the hell out of here while I still can.
I scramble to my feet, and the creature straightens as well.
Something crashes hard. In the kitchen. Pots, pans, cacophony; all seems to disassemble in a maelstrom of preternatural hatred.
I turn to look, faster than I have ever moved, toward the kitchen. The death doppelganger beside me fixes its visionless gaze ahead, over the counter and into the kitchen. All the while, a rumble begins to vibrate our feet, working its way up our ankles. It begins a silent sprint that only a corpse could accomplish, but is instantly impaled by a thick, writhing cloud of blackness and cold. Boxes of frozen food and dishes explode from the kitchen into the dining room in shards. Pieces lacerate my body and face painlessly.
The doppelganger hangs limp and is dropped. Its body shatters upon meeting the tile. A million fragments of whatever this thing was gather at my feet, like porcelain dropped from rooftops.
A figure emerges. Absence. Blackness, smoke. Nothingness. Nearly formless. Yet writhing, and multitudinous in its failing uniformity. It’s alive, it’s conscious.
“What do you want?” I scream at the mass.
It disassembles into a cloudlike shape and screams toward me, the screaming a complete inhuman and guttural sound. Something a fallen angel must sound like on its descent to hell. Agony. Pain. Regret.
I turn and sprint. The chairs are flinging from their tables and hurtling toward me. I dodge two and crouch beneath a third. Finally, I approach the glass.
It’s thin. Too thin. Four decades old.
I grab the fourth chair on its warpath toward me, and spin it around to redirect its inertia to the window. It impacts the window just as my body does. I fly through the shards. I can feel them elegantly pierce me. They imbed themselves. Deep. I have this oddly serene feeling of knowing that very important parts of my body are badly damaged instantaneously. I am flailing, and suddenly my body collides with asphalt. It pushes the more reluctant shards deeper into me.
More pieces of glass clatter and chime around me, bouncing off the cement. The sodium glow of the streetlamp refracts a million times around me, like glitter.
Rennie’s Burgers stands defiant of all architectural progress on the corner of 35th and Gunther. I pull into its shadow on my rusty old red bike. Slipping it into the bike rack. I attempt to fix my obstinate hair in the reflection of the glass…
But I can’t; the glass is shattered.
I rush to the vestibule and stop. I see Natalie through the doors, in the dining area, amid a mess of twisted colored metal and blood. She’s bawling. Greg stands there, arm around her, but his face betrays him. He’s frightened. I instinctively step through the doors through which I burst out of seemingly moments before. But suddenly, there are police everywhere, as if they’ve materialized.
I whirl every which way, but find myself out of place. I can’t sense anything right. I rush through the crowd of first responders, but they don’t notice me frantically shoving through.
Out on the sidewalk is a mangled mass of shredded flesh and cloth, matted together with congealed blood. And over the blazing curve of the setting sun, creeps the darkest plumes of absence.
Dylan Webster (he/him) lives and writes in the sweltering heat of Phoenix, AZ. He is the author of the poetry collection Dislocated (Quillkeepers Press, 2022), and his poetry and fiction have appeared, and are forthcoming in, anthologies by Quillkeepers Press and Neon Sunrise Publishing; as well as the journals The Dillydoun Review, Last Leaves, The Cannons Mouth by Cannon Poets Quarterly, and Amethyst Review.
Dylan has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as the Best of The Net.
“It’s October 28th. It’s her birthday again.” Marco opens Instagram and sees she just posted a picture of her sweet almond and cardamom flour cake with pistachio infused in coffee and agar agar. The bisque filling is topped with whipped cream and desert dry, dark brown raisins, like the cake Marco used to eat at the car factory when he met Mona five years ago. This one has love mixed into the batter though. He told her about it on their first date and she promised him with a fall in love with me smile that she would make him one too. Now, Mona shares it on the other side of the world with an older man that introduced her to opium and a different lifestyle. A warm rush of sadness flies through him. It was their ritual. Why is she sharing it? Why did she bother posting it today, and with that stupid ring?
Maybe she wants him to know she still thinks about him. Marco thinks and wishes her happy birthday with a copy-pasted blessing of health and prosperity he barely believes. He remembers the fights and the other signs, and it aches to remember he fell in love while she didn’t. He wants to write another message. Tell her that piece of cake looks like a bland piece of bread with rabbit shit splattered over it, but he knows better.
He gets out of bed and stands naked in front of the tall mirror of the AirBnb he’s staying at. Marco closes his reddened eyes and breathes deeply, slowly, and tries not to remember the invitation to her wedding he received a couple of months ago.
“It’s just your jealousy. It’s OK to grieve. It’s not about you, she’s proud of her cake. It has nothing to do with you anymore…Don’t you remember how vain she is?”
The sky is damp and grey. Good. Why should it be happy and colorful anyway? Truth hides in neutrality and maybe elegance. Yes. I must try to be elegant. He puts on a black tracksuit, sits half-dressed in the empty living room filled with dark green flora from floor to ceiling and various DVDs he’s never heard of. There’s a blank space on the wall opposite the mud coffee couch, a tall mirror hangs between it and the DVDs, some bison fake furs, and a hole in the ceiling just above his head where a projector used to be. He stares at it until deformed shapes and bony faces begin to crawl out of it. Open mouths with yellow teeth drip from the ceiling. Another deep breath then his mind focuses on one of the faces with long hair. He shapes it into hers. First, her small Italian nose, then her blue sapphire lively eyes, and the rest comes naturally. How easily he remembers the face that used to wake up next to him, the soft skin of her back that never pressed away from his chest. Her long thin neck that used to fall asleep in his right palm. How easily Love tricks the soul into melancholy.
If he was with her, it would be easy. I would know what to say, I would know how to embrace her and kiss the veins on her neck, bite her earlobe with tenderness, and wish her happy birthday the way it’s meant to. Mona’s curious eyes look at him and whisper.
“Then why aren’t you here? Why don’t you tell me now?” He looks away from the apparition and hides in the flowers. He looks again at the living room, there’s a large ebony table with three equidistant chairs opposite a long bench and another horizontal mirror the length of the table above them reflects the light from the garden and the tall chestnut tree that’s been there for at least 50 years. It looks like his host used to entertain, maybe there was a bigger couch too. One where she shared someone’s embrace did but not anymore. Escape is easy when you bring the past with you. The pain is there when you need to remember to live, and so is the joy when you want to smile.
“Why don’t you tell me now?” She repeats. He looks at her in the mirror again. My eyes changed. My cheeks are fatter than before but my hair is still the same. I know I’m beautiful, that makes everyone around me beautiful too. I could tell you everything but this is just another Friday morning. It’s another grey morning, what I feel for you pumpkin needs more.
“More of what? Don’t you know that every moment I spent with you was heaven? Your silence just makes me think you don’t care about me, about anything.”
That’s not true.
“So say it!”
“What do you want me to say?!” Marco jumps at the wall. “That every moment without you makes me feel like there’s half of me that’s missing! That you stole it and ran away from me?! That I despise you for breaking our promise.”
“What promise darling?! You only called me when you wanted to see me. You only kissed me when you wanted to kiss me. You only took care of me when I begged you to and you only held me in your arms after fucking me! Tell me what promise did I break by leaving?!”
“That we would spend our lives together and have children and build a long wooden deck together where we would grow old in each other’s arms. That we would smile at each other first thing in the morning then kiss and make love to chase away bad dreams!”
“But you’ve never said that to me and anyway it’s been years…”
“The years don’t matter. We both felt the Truth together. Why would you walk away?”
“The Truth Marco? Is it the warmth I felt in my chest and around my heart when you were holding me tight in your arms, the naked selfies in bed, green tea in the kitchen, making pasta embraced together, walks by the lake, and kisses behind trees? Or was it when you would leave and go see Beatrice back in your studio? That your fucking bed was one floor above mine?! Is seeing you passed out, high on my bed, unable to speak also the Truth?! Is the pain I felt those nights also the Truth?”
“Beatrice…Beatrice… That was before we got together, that was before we started living together. But I understand. I see where you’re getting at. You’re saying it’s all my fault?”
“It’s not just your fault, I should have spoken up, I should have told you how I felt about you… You should have told me too instead of trying to love me like a puppet at arm’s reach.” Marco closes his laptop and stands up as the apparition falls to its knees and wraps her arms around herself with pity. Warm, translucent tears drip down its cheeks and it quickly swipes them off with the back of its hand. He kneels by her side. She’s not real. She’s not real Marco.
“You know damn well I love every strand of your poorly cut hair and your tortured soul.”
“No! No, I don’t know that because you never told me anything like that! You think kisses speak a thousand words but they don’t. They only tell me I turn you on and that maybe, I’m a good fuck but they don’t say you love me. And now, when I remember them. They make me feel like a cheap doll.”
“Honey, you couldn’t have felt that way. There’s… I’m sure you knew how I felt. The way I took care of you when you were sick, the way I cleaned your make-up after a night out… The way we kissed every day…” He looks at her with pleading eyes and waits for an angel to give him absolution from the brutal memory of a regretful past and the eternal pain of knowing he could have done better if he knew himself.
“Why didn’t you say it if you felt it?”
“I thought it was cliché…” He says with a broken solemn voice.
“You don’t even realize how much I hurt, do you? You don’t even realize that I could be hurt because of you? Your stubbornness and your weakness cost me two years of my life and hoping will torture me for even longer.”
“Hoping? I’m the one that’s hoping. Wait! Hoping for what?”
The ghoul disappears with a fading veil through the white wall and leaves Marco on his feet. He scans his body with a sharp gaze that hides his built-up anger. He could almost let it slip through his skin and show it on his lips or let it pierce through his eyes. How much does it cost me to keep this up?
He goes back to his small room and packs his lenses, his films, and his Hasselblad in a large LV bag with a safety lock. He gets dressed quickly too, black socks, black Levi’s and black cotton second-hand shirt, a few rings and bracelets on his porcelain wrists, and Marco dashes through the cobbled street to catch the 8:50 metro going towards the lake.
Flavio, one of his Italian friends and promoter, rented a studio for today’s photo shoot. I didn’t even research the brand! I don’t even know what they want from me. At least I’m shooting with Domenica, she’s cool, and come on, relax, you’ve known her a long time. She’ll help me. Yeah. She’ll help. He closes his mind and looks at the crowd of people rushing to get to work, just as late if not more than him. They’re quiet, lost in their worries or their music or a book. At the next stop, a man of about 50 in a long wool coat and grey sweatpants comes in and starts making his way through the crowd. He’s not completely bald but his hairline is struggling and his eyes show that he’s had a long night. After a minute, he makes his way to the back of the metro and stands right next to Marco. He gives him an innocent and tired smile and Marco moves a little bit to the left to give him a breath more space. The metro brakes heavily at Marco’s stop and just before it fully stops, the older man slams into him and grabs onto his shoulders tightly. He also makes sure to poke and grind on his thigh with something hard underneath his waistcoat before he lets go still with a smile on his face. Marco’s first thought is to slam his face into the handrail but he can’t. The door’s closing and he’s late.
In the studio, Marco’s friend is nowhere to be found. Only Domenica is there and she struggles to set up the reflector under the white screen.
“I hear your footsteps, Marco! Bring me some tape. This piece of shit doesn’t want to stay open.”
“It’s good to see you too Domi.” They share a quick peck on the cheek and a hug.
“You seem upset amore? What’s going on?” Marco pulls her back and just as he’s about to open up, a crowd of assistants, make-up and hair artists, and other non-essential members of Marianna’s entourage show up in a loud ruckus that covers the emptiness in their hearts, and the lack of honesty their presence brings. A whiff of PVC and leather emanates from them as one of the skinny girls opens a window.
“I’ll tell you later.” The two split up and weave into endless half hugs and exaggerated kisses where everyone smiles through their teeth. Domi gets set up in a chair and Marianna’s needle-thin arms pull Marco aside. She pours it all out between her neon pink bangs and cloudy emerald eyes.
“Hey, hey, It’s good to see you again. You look great. I’m in charge today. So look, we want it to be fashionable, we want it to be modern but retro you know? Like give it a flashy feel but not too much, we don’t want to come off cheap you know? My boss warned me about looking cheap and I know it’s a tight budget but it’s all about the clothes in the end, right? You got me right?”
“Yeah. I got you, don’t worry. I’ll make it cool and sexy.”
“Great! Great! It’s so easy to work with you.” She runs her toothpick fingers over his arm. Marco knows it’s part of the job to always be flirty and relaxed but it only reminds him of the guy in the metro. He chases that thought away. Domi will make it cool and sexy. I just need to relax.
“Do you want some cocaine sugar? You seem a bit tense. Like you’re hyper tense you know.” One of the assistants comes over and shoves her slick, chiseled face into him as her pupils dilate.
“Thanks but I’m good. I always get like this. I just want the shoot to be great you know.”
“Oh don’t worry about it. I’m sure it will be fine.” It’s my job to worry about it, sugar. He adds to himself as Glamorous plays on the speakers. Marianna whispers something to Domenica then she turns around, raises her hands, and shouts at everyone.
“All right people, let’s make some magic.” Moments later she turns up the bass and the photo shoot becomes a pseudo nightclub. Domenica gets set up, unbuttons her shirt, clacks her pointy black lacquered heels, and strikes a few poses. Marco tries to get in the mood by giving her directions over Marianna’s screams.
“Beautiful baby! One more!” More and more people join the herd of the coked-up, hollow entourage. Not wanting to make a scene, Marco turns around and gives them a dark gaze that Marianna interprets as an invitation to join him behind the camera and take over the direction of Domenica’s poses.
“Open your chest a bit more, try… try and put your hands over your head. Yeah yeah.” She somehow found a moment to get drunk and is barely standing on her walking stick legs. She leans on the reflector and makes it tumble down over the white paper behind Domenica. A dry shriek fills the room as the crowd goes quiet and the umbrella slices through the paper. “Oh shit, oh fuck. I’m so sorry. It’s not that bad, we can fix it. I’ll fix it for you guys.” She tries to get back on her feet but her hair is caught in one of the tripods and she breaks the lighting too. Thank God I only brought my camera today. That thought calms Marco’s mind for a moment until he sees the arrogant emerald eyes staring right at him. She’ll find a way to blame him for all that’s happened. I need to act fast before she causes more damage! He gestures to one of the assistants to come help her.
“Listen up everybody.” He says. “This is a photo shoot, not a porno, not a nightclub. Everybody out, now!”
“You can’t say that!” Says Marianna. “I’m in charge here!”
“If you stay, I’m gone. I have two hours left to get your pictures. If I leave, good luck finding another photographer before you get fired.” Her hazed eyes clear up and she lets herself get carried away by the assistant.
“If I don’t get those pictures, it’s on you Marco!”
“Yeah, whatever, just leave.” Domenica turns to him and sees he needs a moment, she walks over to his bag and unlocks the compartment where he keeps his memory disks.
“How did you?”
“You showed it to me a couple of years ago. I know it’s still her birthday…”
“Well, who changes backpack locks?”
“People who change lovers usually.” A short cackling laugh bursts from Domenica as she passes him an empty memory stick. The large window behind Marco swings open and almost breaks as it bounces off the wall. Bright sun rays mingle with burping engines and annoyed honks downstairs as a swift breeze carries the lake’s freshwater dust into the studio.
“Let’s move the light there, actually just the diffuser. There’s plenty of sunshine there.” Olive-skinned Domenica sits on the edge of the window, readjusts her clothes then looks into the camera.
“Wait, you look too pretty. Scratch your head and mess up your hair. Make it look like one of those rolling balls of grass in Cowboy films.”
“Like tumbleweed? That’s a change. Normally, you want me perfect.” She notes before she violently shakes her head and almost falls out of the window. Marco steps quickly towards her slender frame and grabs her by the arm. Her skin is so soft.
Her pointy black heels intertwine and she lands flat on her back with a dry thump. The thump breaks the sound barrier of Marco’s thought and the moment, the image he couldn’t see before, manifests in his camera. Natural, and inviting, Domi looks beautifully vulnerable with a golden sparkle in her dark honey-glazed eyes.
“Close your blouse. I want them to focus on your eyes.” She flows from pose to pose like a venerable viper for the rest of the session and in half an hour, it’s in the bag. They go through the pictures and send a couple of them to cocaine skeleton Marianna as they open a bottle of Hendrix.
The night is almost here. Domenica comes back from the bathroom in the same rugged punk rock torn black jeans she came in. Her olive skin and tumbleweed hair still shine under the lonely reflector as she sits with her back against the torn white screen.
“I broke up with Julian last week…” She says in a lonely, mouse quiet voice. She almost hopes he doesn’t hear her.
“Oh, I didn’t know… You didn’t post anything.” Marco answers but his heart sinks when he remembers what’s happening a few kilometers south of the studio, in a cozy chalet by the lake. “I should have called…How do you feel?”
“How would you have known? You never call anyway. I feel like a punctured tire that’s been run over by a ten-tonne truck.”
“Did he cheat on you?”
“No. NO, he would never…but I would and I did.” Marco slides the half-empty bottle of gin towards her and drags the chair next to her. “You know what scares me the most? It’s how natural it came to me. How easy it was to seduce someone else and I feel so guilty because I’ve never been more turned on in my life. I knew he was at home waiting. You understand?” She says and sips the bottle then passes it back.
“Knowing you were hurting him made it that much sweeter.”
“It’s as if he was with me in that nasty bathroom. That’s how much I was thinking about him. The other guy’s hands were all over me, squeezing me tightly and I knew the other women in the bathroom could hear me but I didn’t care. I pictured Julian standing there looking at me. I swear I could breathe fire and when we came… Oh, God…” Marco crouched next to her while she talked and put his arm around her since her eyes watered under the reflector.
“Did it feel like you were cucking him or was it something else? Something just yours?”
“No, no. It’s just, he wasn’t there sexually, I just wanted him to see me. I wonder if that’s how Mona feels…”
“What do you mean?” He asks and takes another sip as she breaks apart and tries to get on her feet.
“I don’t know. I lost my train of thought.”
“You know she’s getting married as we speak?”
“Married? Her?! Where?”
“By the lake, I have the invite… I don’t know if I should go.”
“Oh you have to go. We have to go! Come on! Let’s get this party mobile. I’m done sulking about my shame.” They reach the door and Domi turns around and gives him a quick kiss out of nowhere. “Be straight with me Marco. Do you still love her?” She sees him get lost in a train of thought and barks. “Simple! Yes or NO?!” Her words slap the air out of him.
“Yes. Yes, I do still love her.”
“Then let’s go and get her back, for both of us! Who is she marrying anyway?”
“Some English lawyer, Brandon. I think.” They squeeze through the tight staircase and dash out into the crowded street where ten thousand ants carry their worries over the hot concrete. “And to think it was cloudy today, it’s a cauldron right now.”
“Some lawyer. She doesn’t belong with a lawyer. You make sure I tell her that. You make sure Marco it’s very importwant.”
“Importwant Domi? It’s importwant?!” He adds with a smile and hails a cab.
“You know what I mean.” Marco gives the address of the cozy chalet by the lake to the driver and they swerve through traffic as Domi takes a short but very effective nap.
The cab driver halts about 5 minutes away from the entrance. Marco hands him a couple of bills and they jump out of the cab, arms intertwined around each other more for balance than intimacy. Domi gives him a big thrust in the thigh and laughs. Her cackles echo over the still lake.
“You know I got groped by some weirdo in the metro this morning?”
“You got groped? Looks like it’s your lucky day big fella.” And she thrusts again, laughing even harder this time.
“Stop, it’s not funny. I felt disgusting afterward.”
“Just forget about the sad shit. Let’s get in. I can hear the band. Oh! It’s so pretty!” It was indeed beautiful and elegant. Long strands of fairy light hung from the second floor and went all around the chalet. Half of the lights were reflected in the lake and created a half-circle in the water just below a wooden balcony where some guests were taking pictures with their arms wide open. The rest of the lights shined elegantly over the roof and formed a blessed electric halo over the whole event. There was no one at the door so Marco and Domenica just walked right into what seemed to be Gatsby’s living room. Crystal chandeliers hung above every silk-clothed table, champagne towers stood proudly on every side of what was now a grand ballroom that still kept an intimate and cozy side due to the wooden pillars. White rose petals were thrown a little bit everywhere and the guests were dressed in black tie attire with the women mostly wearing long velvet dresses that went all the way down to their ankles, white pearls around their elegant necks, and long black gloves that covered their elbows. It looked like the party had been going on for quite a while now and even if everyone’s hair was a little messed up a snobbish air wave still lingered.
“Great! I feel like the ugly duckling now.” She says and tries to cover her punk rock torn jeans with her long olive-toned arms. “What do we do now?” Marco isn’t looking any better himself with a wide open, grey linen shirt and smelly armpits retorts.
“It’s a wedding. We get drunk of course!” They catch a few strange looks on their way to the bar and Domi lines up shots of VSOP cognac for them. They run a few more rounds with their backs turned to the dance floor until they’re both warm and comfortable. Only then do they turn around to find Mona with her arms crossed over a beautiful short white dress with lace details with a piercing rage in her pale blue sapphire eyes, hidden behind the thin white sheet of her calm expression. She hasn’t been a competitive swimmer in years but her muscles are still toned and cut sharp, just like her jawline. He steps back as Domi jumps in her arms and squeezes her tight.
“Hey, you two.”
“Bitch! You didn’t tell me you were getting married! Congratulations!” Marco remembers that drunk Domenica usually involves two non-exclusive reactions. Hypersexuality and brutal honesty as indeed, her long olive-skinned fingers make their way to Mona’s butt and give a gentle squeeze.
“Hi M.” Before he can continue, Domenica interjects.
“Now, who’s this wealthy daddy you’re getting in bed with? I mean look at this! It’s a Disney castle for the depraved.”
“I’m pleased you think that way since I’m taking care of the check tonight.” An older, slim man with a struggling hairline walks over and takes Domenica away from Mona. “My name is Luciano but you’re probably looking for my son Brandon.”
“Domenica. I think I’ve been looking for you for a long time Mr. Luciano.” She answers with a smile. “You should take me for a dance.”A quick thought crosses Marcos’ mind. That old man… Luciano nods and guides her to the only place on the floor without roses. Marco and Mona stay by the counter. The noise and the party quiet down all around them as he reaches over the bar and grabs a shot glass.
“Always a wildcard with Domenica.” He pours what’s left of the cognac and hands it to her but she puts it back on the counter.
“She’s hot-blooded what can you do? Thanks but I quit actually.”
“You did?” He says and puts down his drink next to hers.
“Yeah, a year ago now. When I met Brandon.” His heart sinks to the bottom of the lake.
“Well, congratulations. Are you happy? Are you loved?” He asks unsure if he means it and runs a finger over the edge of the glass. Mona’s hands hold on tighter to her arms, and her neck twitches just like it used to when cold winds breeze over her black hair.
“Thank you. I’m all right. I’m not running anymore.” Marco thinks about asking her to introduce him to Brandon but changes his mind once he sees the struggle in her eyes. I’m just causing her more pain. I’m her past now.
“That’s all one can ask for I suppose. I guess I better go. I hope this is the start of a very happy, loving life for you M.” He kisses her on the cheek and walks over to a swinging Domenica without turning back because if he did he would say something stupid like I’m sorry. “Domi, Domi! Let’s go! I can’t be here anymore. It was a bad idea to come here.” She stops dancing and turns around and seems to sober up when she meets his sad eyes.
“OK. All right, let’s go. The exit’s that way.” They walk through the crowd and end up outside, right below the balcony and the half-circle of bright fairy lights. “Ah crap, I think it’s the other way. Why did you let me lead? You know I’m drunk. These lights are making me dizzy, now I need to sit down.” She takes off her boots, rolls up her jeans, and dips her feet into the chilly lake. “AAAH, that’s better. Anyway, what happened?”
“She said she was a year sober. She quit when she met him.”
“So?” She asks puzzled. “That’s no reason to leave Marco.”
“I know but I realize I want her and I can’t stand to remember us. Our vanity, my impotence… That’s all I see when I look at her now. I don’t see this perfect, wonderful person anymore and it doesn’t help that she can’t hide the pain she sees in my eyes either.”
“It’s a strange thing how unbearable the most beautiful and loving feeling can become when you try to control it don’t you think? Regret is not a good dessert.”
“I didn’t understand a word you said.”
“Remember when I was telling you about Julian and the other guy? I remember why I thought of Mona but I think it was related to you. You didn’t trust her as you know you should have. You weren’t completely honest, naked with her and the regret is eating you away now. You know very well this could have been your wedding, minus the champagne and the chandeliers of course. Just like it could have been mine with Julian…” She adds and plunges her head into her hands. “Ah! Stop! I said I was done with this!”
“Domi, do you think we just made a mistake, or is it just something fundamental within us to hurt and run away from those that want to love us?” Marco hears dry leather footsteps thump clumsily on the patio.
“Beautiful!” says Luciano as he sits down next to Domenica and runs his hand over her dark curly hair. “Why are you so sad? Come on, come back inside and dance.” Marco leans forward to get a better look at him.
“Hey, old man, did you take the metro this afternoon? In a long wool jacket and grey sweatpants?” He senses his anger boil inside. It’s not all due to the disgust he feels toward him but it doesn’t matter. There he is. Luciano puts his hand over Domi’s shoulder plates and slides it towards her waist.
“No, nono.” He says with a smile but Marco stands up and tightens his wrist, his nails dig into his palm.
“Yes, yes you were. I remember that sleazy smile.” As Marco stands up, the DJ invites the guests to go on the patio for a group photo. Domenica misses that announcement and in a sharp, aggressive reflex grabs Luciano’s hand and throws him over the patio into the lake.
“Don’t touch me you creep!” She quickly raises her legs as Luciano tries to grab onto her feet and pull her into the chilly lake. The ripples in the water break the half-circle of light. More and more leather footsteps and heels clack on the patio behind them as a rough, strong hand snatches onto Domenica’s shoulder. She sighs in pain. In a flash, Marco punches the elbow up. The grip loosens and for good measure, Domi and Marco latch onto the man’s torso and throw him into the lake as well.
“Brandon!” They hear Mona shout behind them as she pushes the velvet and black tie guests apart. “There’s a way out, there on the right, swim!” She turns to Domenica who’s busy putting her boots back on. She doesn’t look at Marco. “What did you two do?! Why do you ruin everything?! Always!” She looks as though she rubbed her eyes and her cheeks with dry salt. Red and burnt all over. Domenica lashes out a powerful howl at her.
“That creep gropes people in the tube! And your hubby is no better, he’ll grow up just the same and just as pathetic! Look!” She turns around and reveals the reddening hand grip Brandon left on her left shoulder. “Just the same! Now, get out of my way!” Mona’s rage dissipates or translates a little over to Brandon and his father as the pair climb out of the lake, soaked and angry without helping each other. Mona’s clenches her fists and she’s on the verge of going nuclear. The guests start to murmur and whisper to each other as Marco casts a last look towards Mona’s white back before parting the crowd in the same place as Domenica with large swift steps. He catches up to her where they left the cab, she jumps in his arms and sobs before wiping her eyes on one of the wings of his grey linen shirt.
“That was a mistake you see.” She says as she gathers herself. “That was a mistake but it’s in us Marco, we destroy and we run. We’re destroyers of the ones who love us.” She adds with calm serenity as though everything made sense on a molecular level to her. Marco stays quiet as his What’s App rings. It’s skeleton Marianna. Domenica leans over to read it as well.
Loved the pics, excellent work darlings! Come join us at The King’s! We’re celebrating!
“What are we waiting for? Call a cab, and let’s celebrate that elegant wedding and our tasteless decision-making.” They cram into the backseat of a Peugeot cab. Another sip of their favorite lie awaits at the King’s as ghosts of an ideal past squeeze their hearts closer together with vines of hope that next time, they’ll get it right.
Inspired by existentialists, spiritualists, and horror artists, Vladislav Ceperkovic works as a business development manager and web developer. He likes to entertain and explore stories with characters and worlds in order to better understand himself while listening to old blues records.
Did you say you were a friend of Zeke’s? He’s dead, you know. Actually, worse than that. I’ll tell you, but I don’t think your boss will want to put it in his newspaper. Here comes the waiter. You tell him what you want while I collect my thoughts.
We had a small run out of Casper down here to Cheyenne. Only a hundred fifty-three head of cattle. I figured a little over two weeks. It was getting on into October and I wanted to beat Kincaid coming up from Colorado with almost a thousand head, so we took this short cut Zeke had heard about. Swore it would save us five days.
We were ten days out, and had been driving the cattle hard for last two, when we came out of the plains and into an area of low, rolling hills. The cattle were worn to a nub and cranky as all git out. We kept our eyes peeled for water, but the animals smelled it first. Just a little creek. Did us all good. Being as how we had a long ways to go yet, I decided we should stop for a day to let the herd rest.
Can’t tell you exactly where we were. Probably couldn’t lead you there either. Wouldn’t want to. We made camp and I sent three men to get the animals watered and gathered for the night while Snuffy whipped up some grub.
I walked off a ways to have me a smoke and appreciate the Lord’s gift of the great outdoors. Trail boss’s privilege, you know. It was just after sundown and the sky was every color of red you can imagine against a blue that was almost black. The cattle were all down by the creek and the men were either caring to the horses or helping with the fire. It should have set my heart at ease to see my crew so engaged.
But something was wrong. Something in the wind. The animals were restless and the men did not talk and joke much while they worked. I gazed at the fading hills and thought I saw something move far away. Like a thicket of scrub moving in the wind, only there wasn’t any wind. It was a long ways off and it was getting dark fast, so I figured it was probably just my eyes being weary.
We built a fire and had a nice hot dinner, then laid down in our bedrolls to sleep. Didn’t have to post a night man; cattle won’t stray from a water source. It was damn peaceful but I had a hard time getting to sleep. I laid on my back with my eyes open, listening to the cattle and trying to name what it was that was eating at me. There were a lot of shooting stars that night.
Here comes the waiter with your salad. Go on, eat up. I’ll wait for the main course. You just dig on into those greens while I talk.
The next morning I had barely got my bed rolled up when Hank ran into camp yelling that the cattle had been stolen. Well that got everybody stirred up and I was right sore with Hank for causing such a ruckus. I finally got the men to quieten down and we took a count and found out forty-seven head were missing. Mind you, that’s almost a third of the herd.
Those cattle were not stolen. You sleep good out on the range, but you sleep light. Nobody could have stolen the cattle; we would have heard the jingle of a bridle or our horses would have smelled the other horses. In fact, I woke up several times that night and was amazed at how deadly quiet it was.
Near as I can tell those cattle just up and walked away. Sneaked away is more like it. Easy thing, you think, to follow a bunch of stupid cattle out into the rolling scrub land? Harder than you might imagine. At first it was easy, the tracks stayed pretty much together.
And then they stopped.
I mean stopped completely, like they had run into a wall. Just over a rise the dirt and weeds went from trampled down to untouched. You could follow the line with your eye. It was weird.
On a hunch, I sent the men out alone to search for any signs of the missing cattle. I would fire my gun in a half hour and they would come back to report.
The time passed and I shot off my pistol and one by one the men arrived with nothing at all to report. Then Zeke came back. He had found some tracks off to the north.
We followed him out to where he’d found the tracks. You could tell the cattle were confused. The tracks split up and wandered off into the countryside. I had each of the men follow a track.
We gathered in another half hour. The men reported strange things. Sometimes the tracks would stop, then start again some hundred yards away. Jed told about how the track he was following went straight as an arrow for a good quarter mile, then began to go in circles. I myself followed one where it looked like the cow had been dragged for hundreds of yards. And all the tracks led in the same general direction. We followed.
Long about midday we came upon a clearing. It was several hundred feet across and looked like it had been dug up. Not plowed; plowing leaves neat rows. This looked it had been churned. There was a single dead tree out in the middle. The horses wouldn’t come near it.
Tracks came in from all directions and stopped about twenty feet from the edge of the clearing. Not one of us was willing to venture out onto the barren dirt. There was no sign of the missing cattle.
It was late afternoon by the time we got back to camp. I tried to keep spirits up by making sure everybody was busy. We were just about to sit down to dinner when the lookout came into camp and said one of the cattle was heading back.
We rode out to meet it. It was walking funny and had several deep gashes on one side. Zeke dropped the lasso on the its neck and had a loop of rope around the saddle horn when the animal slipped up and bit him on the leg.
Now, cattle don’t bite. You probably already know that. They might nip at you if you try to take their food away, but I have never seen a cow up and bite a person like that one bit Zeke. Bit him hard, too. Took a chunk out of his thigh.
We got Zeke back to camp and Snuffy and I cleaned the wound and got him bandaged up as best we could. He was in a lot of pain, but we got him to lay down on his bedroll. We put several blankets over him and went to look at the animal.
It was tied to a stake and stared at us in a most… unusual way. Like it was sizing us up. When the other cattle would pass by it would try to lick them. Some cattle came right up to the crazy one and let it lick their faces. I ordered the animal tied beyond reach of the herd.
It was a quiet dinner. We watched Zeke slip into a fever. We sat by him all night, keeping his brow cool, talking to him. I cleaned his wound several times that night and it kept oozing out this green stuff that stunk like something from Hell. Zeke spoke in tongues and screamed in terror. He spat up a lot of blood. We did what we could, but to no avail. He died not long after sunrise.
We buried Zeke on a hilltop Buried him deep so the coyotes wouldn’t get him. I said a few words and Jed read a little bit from his Bible and we filled in the grave and put rocks on top.
Again, it was too late to break camp. After dinner I put two men to watch the herd and went to look in on the cow that bit Zeke. It was laying down, breathing heavy. The gashes on its side glowed faintly green and had that stink-from-Hell. I planned to shoot it in the morning and bury the damn thing. Had a hard time sleeping again that night. Bad dreams. I would wake up and hear the others moaning and muttering in their sleep.
In the morning I went to take care of the sick cow. It was gone. It had chewed through its rope and wandered away. Over breakfast I enlisted a couple of the men to help me track it down. Then we saw Hank staring at something. We followed his gaze and there wasn’t a man there whose blood did not freeze.
The hilltop where we had buried Zeke was dug up.
We hurried up to the top of the hill. This was not anything the coyotes did, no matter what the others may tell you.
Nobody had dug up the grave.
Something had dug its way out of Zeke’s grave. And then that something had walked away to the north. The trail was not hard to follow. We knew where it would lead.
The tracks didn’t stop away from the clearing like all the others – they led out into the dirt. The horses caught wind of that churned earth and went crazy. We had to stop damn near a quarter mile away.
I was the only one who would venture onto the barren clearing. The earth felt soft and unstable, like I would sink into it at any moment. I saw a black something and went to it. It was one of Zeke’s boots. I could find no stick, so I tilted it up with my knife and looked inside. There looked to be the remnants of Zeke’s foot in the boot. Big white maggots reared up and hissed at me. All the way back to the horses I felt eyes on me. Gave me the willies.
So we left. What else was there to do? We still had a hundred six head of cattle to get here to Cheyenne and we were three days behind schedule. We had done what we could for Zeke.
We made it here with ninety-eight head. Several had gone mad on the trail and died. Or we shot them. We all agreed to not say a thing about it. Kincaid had beat us here, so we sold what we had at auction for a fair to middlin’ price. Some of restaurants here in town bought several on account of the reasonable prices.
But that first crazy cow – the one that bit Zeke — it’s got me worried. Licked a lot of the other cattle before we took it away. No telling how far that might have gotten around.
So you go ahead and enjoy that steak. I’m going to have the chicken.
Joshua Mertz is the son of a rocket scientist and a word savvy mother. He has had short stories published in Amazing Stories, Aboriginal Science Fiction, New Maps, and three in the award-winning Halloween anthology Harvest Tales and Midnight Revels.
The snow was stained with blood as the field ran down to the river. Yesterday, no one would have seen the blood midst the stubble of the field, but snow fell overnight. Weatherman said six to eight inches, drifts to twelve. Ben Weasley, moving his tractor from one of his fields to another along the road, saw it. He turned into one of his neighbor’s places down the road and called the sheriff. Ten minutes later the sheriff and his deputy were at the scene. They followed the trail, cursing every time their feet sunk into a ditch or gully. “It’s human alright,” the sheriff said, “You can tell by the drag marks.”
“Bet they was hoping, snow’d go on, cover the whole thing,” the deputy said, “Give ‘em more running time.”
There was more blood on the riverbank. The two poked around the shallows, but the current, moving fast at that corner covered all traces. “Damn to hell, now’s the hard part, got figure out who’s gone missin’. Hope nobody local.”
“And don’t forget,” the deputy added, “Who wanted him, or her, to go missin’.”
* * *
The wind ponies of her mind go to places she does not want to go. Olivia fears the thoughts ill formed, yet foreboding, of Jimmy’s absence. Her man is a man of habit. He goes out at 8 to do his jobs. He comes home at 6 for his dinner. They watch television. They go to bed at 9. Last night he did not come home He did not call. He always calls when he will be late. She would have gone out to look for him, but the snow: last night she tried at 8, a curtain of white, at 12, a curtain of night white, at 2 white out.
Olivia drifted into a snowy slumber in early morning thinking about Jimmy and his new nightmares, shadows of those that haunted him when he first returned. He called them, “frightened phantoms.” Always running at him.
This morning at 8 he is not home. At 9 she calls the sheriff. He is not in his office. She leaves a message.
* * *
Who has the right to live among us and who must die? It is a judgment reserved to God. By implication, the judgment is often usurped by the individual. It was I who judged Jimmy 10 years ago. To those who knew him in Kansas he was an upstanding man of good habit and character, a good tradesman, a good husband, a pretty good half back for his high school football team. He and Olivia were planning to have children.
Jimmy served in Iraq as a platoon leader for two years and received the Silver Star. In Iraq, he left villages shattered, silhouettes of mud huts with empty windows framing the sky. In Iraq he left nightmares that became shadows, shadows that returned to their cradles and birthed misshapen new ones. In Iraq he left sand littered with bodies, arms, legs, and broken dolls. My name is Basmina, I am the survivor of one of those villages.
Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence, and strong women. He has written a collection of short stories, “3 Women, 4 Towns, 5 Bodies & other stories,” (Deeds Publishing,2018), a novella, “La Ronde,” (Truth Serum Press, 2015) and over one hundred short stories and poems published in literary journals. His website is: https://www.townsendwalker.com
The killer pulled into the gas station slowly, tires crunching over the loose gravel dotting the asphalt. The station was small, one of those old stations right outside small towns where the prices are posted on signs with numbers someone changes by hand. It sported two pumps of an elderly vintage, and when the killer pulled alongside the first one, he saw the paper, handwritten sign taped over the handle: “Out of Order.” Sighing inwardly, he pulled ten feet forward to access the second pump. A similarly scrawled sign taped over the credit card slot read: “Pay Inside.”
With another sigh, this one audible, the kind that fills a given space with the weary frustration of its owner, he put the car into park, popped the gas tank open, and turned off the engine. The killer preferred to pay at the pump rather than walking inside ahead of time, waiting on whatever patron was buying scratch-off tickets and beef jerky, and then estimating how much he’d need to fill his tank. It was an inexact science at best, and it’d inevitably leave him with a gas gauge hovering just below the full line, as unsatisfying ending to a gas transaction if ever there was one.
He’d never understood people who said things like, “I’m just going to get five dollars of gas,” or shit like that. How could you possibly keep track of your fuel with a gauge that was forever short of full, never stopping at the top, just floating somewhere between half and three-quarters of a tank?
The door to the store was glass with one of those metal handlebars bisecting it. The kind that leaked heat in the winter and AC in the summer, which wasn’t the killer’s problem, but he did ponder the wasted money and energy for a second. The door swung easily, and the small bell hanging from a string on the inside tinkled to announce his entrance.
The clerk was seated behind the counter. This station was small, of course, and in one of those towns that liked to think it had low crime, so there was no glass barrier protecting the employee. More likely than a low crime rate was the chance that there was a shotgun underneath the counter, just by the man’s knees, providing assurance as he read the newspaper, drank coffee, and conducted the odd transaction or two that probably occurred no more than twice an hour; three times, tops.
Peering over his paper, the heavyset man, dressed in blue work chinos and a striped, short-sleeved button-up with his name stitched on the pocket—Stanley, it said—sighed as well, folding his paper carefully and setting it on the counter before regarding the killer over the bridge of his reading glasses.
“Fill ‘er up?” The man asked.
So, he wouldn’t have to guess how much to pay. That was a plus. He nodded, and the man pushed a few buttons on the console to his left, nodding back at the killer and grunting, “Go ’head, then.”
The killer didn’t know gas stations still existed where a person would be trusted to come back in and pay after filling up the tank. But apparently, here in the wilds of Georgia, they did.
Post fill-up, the clerk—Stanley—was friendlier. “That a hybrid?” he asked with genuine interest. “How many miles you get?”
Twenty years ago, the version of this man would’ve no doubt viewed such a car with suspicion, but now, with gas prices spiking, everybody and their grandma was interested in hybrids—what kinds of batteries they took, whether or not it had any pick-up, if he’d ever topped 50 miles per gallon, you name it.
“Averages about 45 on the highway,” the killer replied. “More than 38 in town.”
“That right? That’s the opposite of what you read about them,” Stanley quizzed.
“Yeah, I know,” the killer answered. “They got it all backwards, at least with mine.”
Stanley had a few more questions, and the killer, whose name was Tod, pronounced Todd but with just the one “d,” indulged him. Tod normally hated small talk—not because of his profession, though. He’d always been bad at it, not like those kids who could chatter away to a stranger in the aisle of a grocery store, telling some stranger all their momma’s business while she stood further down the aisle, trying to remember if they needed Pop-tarts or not. Tod had been the kid who stood, mutely, while some random adult asked random questions about what grade he was in and did he like his teacher and what not.
But in a strange town, with a job to do, it paid to be a little friendly, because in the South, you stood out more if you weren’t. He was known to be quiet in his own hometown down by the Gulf in Alabama, but here, he was more likely to be remembered if he didn’t converse than if he did.
Also, it was possible Stanley could help him.
After it was clear that Stanley’s curiosity about current hybrid technology had been sated, and he began to pick up his paper again, Tod ventured, casually: “Got any motels close by around here? I’ve got a long drive tomorrow, and I’d love to rest up, watch a little TV, catch a few zzz’s.”
Stanley, he knew, was likely to recommend the kind of place he was unlikely to find on hotels.com—a one-story motel with doors that opened right to your parking spot and clerks who didn’t mind taking cash with no reservation. Stanley did not disappoint, directing him to a homely establishment just about two miles down the same state highway and on the right. The Olde Towne Motel, it was called, and Tod knew the stylish nature of the extra “e’s” wouldn’t be reflected in the accommodations, but that was more than fine. Places like this catered to people who maintained a very small footprint in this world, whether they stayed a night or lived here, and they were unlikely to notice him or care if they did. They all had more than enough worries to occupy their time.
The room was gross, of course, but Tod had stayed in many worse places while in the military. A place that had a bed, even if he needed to don a Haz-Mat suit before lying on it, was superior in every way to a dugout in the mountainous desert or a back room in some shot-up house in Baghdad.
There was an flat-screen TV, the free-standing kind that you could get on the after-Thanksgiving Day sales at Wal-Mart if you were ready to take your life in your hands and do battle with all the heavyset ladies, Black and white, who’d crowd into surging hordes of shoppers against the closed doors, sprinting—their big chests heaving and bouncing—as they grabbed shopping carts and ran like hell for the electronics section as soon as the floodgates opened. It was scarcely bigger than the flat-screen monitor the killer used in his workstation back at his house, and the color on it was flat, garish, home-video quality circa 2006, making everything he tried to watch look like an episode of “Cops.”
Passing time in places like this required patience, and Tod had that in abundance. He was waiting on a call from his handler, Whippet, a man he knew from their mutual time in the military. Whippet was the guy who’d hooked him up with this gig, in those first disorienting, lonely days after he returned from his final combat tour with too much time on his hands and too much stored-up adrenaline and banked hypervigilance to enjoy it. Whippet had started his own business, helping people rid themselves of troublesome neighbors, acquaintances, and the occasional husband, when he returned, and his recruitment pitch to Tod had been simple: “Hey, man. Remember how they kept calling us ‘trained killers’ and all that bullshit? Well, I say stick with what you’re good at. Fuck trying to make it in the straight world. They trained us, and fairly expensively, wouldn’t you say? Might as well use it.”
And it had been, in the end, that simple. There was no shortage of small-town people with petty grudges they’d been carrying around for years. Being able to unburden oneself from, say, the anger one might feel at the snooty prep who’d called you fat in junior high, then grown up and married some Tuscaloosa business school graduate with a beer gut who golfed, an ever-present dumbass visor on his head, and moved to his wife’s town to open his own investment business, keeping selfsame preppy girl in Vineyard Vines and Lilly Pulitzer shifts until the end of time, was an appealing prospect for some. All Tod had to do was the take the contract from Whippet and figure out a way to make it look like an accident. Just by way of example, the middle-aged preppy girl-now-lady had succumbed to a freak accident involving the machine that pumped out tennis balls for practice on the courts at the club. She must’ve gotten distracted, the police said, and the machine’s last hit had been right at her heart, stopping it cold. Bless her heart; she’d always been so graceful on the court, too.
Anyway, that’s the kind of work that kept Tod busy and had done so for a number of years, taking him from those first awful days in 2005 all the way through to these current days more than a dozen years later.
When the call from Whippet comes, his boss-turned-handler sounds aggrieved, his usual disposition these days. For Whippet had succumbed to the same plague that, in his words, had “diluted the quality of everything from music to meatballs”: the buy-out. His upstart business had been spotted by a much larger outfit out of Atlanta working basically the same market, and he’d taken the big payout and rolled his smaller, south Alabama standalone into a conglomerate. Tod had told him it was a mistake; what did people in Georgia know about this business that Whippet did not? But Whippet’d had his head turned by the money and the vague idea that he would retire before 50, living the life on some beachfront property and keeping a place in the mountains in North Carolina so he could see whichever part of the seasons he chose.
Like Tod knew, Whippet couldn’t hang it up. He had nothing else in his life, and without the constant influx of jobs to manage and assets like Tod to wrangle, he’d been bored silly. So, Whippet was back within six months, working as an employee for the new, larger business. It was ok, he’d mused to Tod—all the big management headaches were taken on by others, and he had plenty of money, so he was just working to have something to do.
The killer had never understood this mindset. Tod didn’t understand what was wrong with people these days. Everybody was always retiring and then talking about how they were bored and then coming back and doing the same damn things they’d done for decades. To him, it spoke to both an immense insecurity in people—who ARE we if no one needs us to work?—and a profound lack of curiosity about the wider world. When he, Tod, had enough to retire and see him through whatever elderly ailments his body could possibly present—when he felt secure in the amount of digits in the number he saw when he logged into Fidelity—he was going to walk away, no question. He had a big stack of books and a long queue of movies and shows waiting on him, and he didn’t plan to miss this grind one bit. When he traveled in retirement, he’d make reservations ahead of time in places the guidebooks recommended; he’d stop all this find-an-anonymous-fleabag-motel stuff and travel like a civilized person.
Anyway, Whippet’s major discontent with his new lot had less to do with not liking his work and more to do with feeling like he’d been deceived by the people who bought him out. Said he’d been approached by a big Black dude, a tough guy whose service took place in Vietnam and who still looked like he could break heads using only his own hands, and he’d thought this dude intended to stay in charge. Didn’t know that less than a year after the buyout, the whole business would be turned over to a woman. Nothin’ against women, he said, but still, it didn’t seem right not to have told him, Whippet, the plan.
Now, on the phone, Tod listens patiently through the usual prefaces, tinged with resentments and can-you-believe-this’s that now accompany all his calls with Whippet.
“Well, the lady in charge has sent down the orders for the little people, you and me,” Whippet begins. “You ready for this bullshit?”
Tod mentally sighs and wishes Whippet had stayed retired.
“Yep. Let’s have it.”
“Now, I’m sure she knows what she’s doing, and I would never presume to question the boss lady,” he continues. “I mean, what do I know? I only got an MBA and years of experience doing this while she was probably watching soaps and shopping online.”
Whippet had completed his MBA online with the GI bill a couple of years ago, and he never fails to bring it up at least once in every conversation now.
“But anyway, the target is maybe a little more visible than usual.”
Here Tod’s ears perk up. For all his whining, Whippet does know the business, and when he’s on point, he gets more understated. So “maybe a little more visible” is important.
“The guy’s name is Guy. No shit, couldn’t make that up,” Whippet chuckles. “But you maybe seen his name already on your way into town.”
Tod reaches back to the recent memory of approaching this small town, thinking through billboards, road signs, stretches of road named after local celebrities, until it comes to him.
“The mayor? That Guy?”
“That’s the one,” Whippet sighs heavily. “The fuckin’ mayor. Runnin’ for re-election. Should be out and about a lot at least. County fairs, Rotary Club meetings, that kind of bullshit.
“But there’ll be people around him, Tod. Hangers on and such. So it’s a tricky one.”
That’s definitely an understatement. Even if Tod can isolate a local politician in the midst of an election season, nothing that happens to the man will go unnoticed. His death will be all over the local papers and probably get picked up statewide.
“That’s right, bud,” Whippet commiserates.
“There a good reason?”
One of the things that Whippet always insisted on—his “defining difference,” as he put it, for marketing’s sake—was the requirement that the buyer provide a motive. Didn’t have to be a good motive or even a particularly strong one. They just needed to know why, exactly, someone wanted this person dead. Gave them leverage over the client, hedged against a future guilty conscience in the form of anonymous calls to police that would expose their organization, and, most crucially, helped Tod and those like him figure out a way to off the person most subtly. Think of it this way: if the person who puts down the money hates a woman because of how she acts at work, then killing her far away from work, in location and manner of death, will be safest to protect them all. So, this was Whippet’s one requirement when he sold the business: at least for his guys, the motive requirement stays in place. To his surprise, the larger organization liked the idea and adopted in for all the contracts.
“Yeah,” Whippet murmurs. “Yeah, there is.”
A recorded voice comes over the line. It’s a woman’s voice, low and choked off, like she can barely get the words out.
“My husband is an angry man,” the voice begins. “He’s angry at the world, but he wants the world to love him, so all his anger is reserved for his family.
“It used to be just me, and I thought I could handle it. Calling me names in that low, hissing voice that no one else could hear, telling me I was fat, useless, ridiculous in whatever clothes I had one—it was bad but bearable. I married him when I was right out of college and just wanted to get out from under my parents. I figured his behavior was the price I would pay for being careless, for jumping without really looking, and it wasn’t so bad, really. We’ve got a nice house, plenty of money, and everyone thinks we’re a perfect family.
“I thought I’d kept most of it from my kids until the night he locked me outside, naked, and I had to knock on my daughter’s window after he went to sleep so I could come back inside. She was ten, then, and I tried to tell her it wasn’t a big deal, that Mommy and Daddy had just had an argument and needed to be nicer to each other, but she looked at me with her big eyes, and what I saw there was pity.
“That was five years ago.
“Guy’s been mayor for a few years now, and it’s not a full-time job, so he has to keep working, selling real estate, and it’s a lot. I know it’s a lot. He wants us to have everything, wants everything to look just so, and it’s hard for me to keep everything just so with two teenagers leaving stuff lying all over the place. But, you know, it’s bearable. I know there are other women who have it really bad. Mostly all he ever does to me, other than insult me, is squeeze my upper arms so hard he leaves marks. But I don’t really have good enough arms to wear sleeveless dresses—Guy says my upper arms wiggle like a turkey wattle—so I just cover up the marks and drive on, you know?
“But then I overheard my son talking to his girlfriend on the phone. He was in his room, and I usually can’t hear anything, but he must’ve been upset, because his voice was louder than usual.
“He was telling her how much he hates his dad. How scared he is that he’ll be just like him. How he wishes he could protect me, but he gets pissed because I won’t lift a finger to help myself, and he thinks I must be the weakest person alive. Then he feels guilty, and all he can think is that he just wants to kill his dad.
“I’ve not been a good mother, I know. A good mother could’ve figure out how to keep all this away from my kids, keep their home together better so they wouldn’t know any of this was happening, but I’ve failed them there. They both know all about their dad and me.
“But when my son said he wanted to kill his dad, I almost threw up. Hit me like a punch to the stomach, and I do know what one of those feels like. The reason I got so sick was that I realized that if my son killed his father, I’d just be relieved. But my son’s life would be over, too. I knew, in that moment, that I had to do whatever it took so that my son wouldn’t walk around feeling like he wanted to kill. I want my son to think about leaving for college next year, about meeting new people and not worrying about me, and one of these nights, if he gets upset enough at his dad, I won’t be able to stop him. I’ve never been able to stop any of them from doing whatever they want to do.
“This is the only way I can think of stop the whole thing from happening. This is the only way for me to help my kids. I want someone to kill my husband.”
Tod pauses as he considers. Truth be told, he finds himself thinking this woman is pretty weak, too, letting this go on for years and years, but you know, her heart’s finally in the right place.
Doesn’t change the fact that this’ll be one of the trickiest jobs he’s ever done. A visible target, and him on unfamiliar turf, too.
The killer finishes his call with his handler quickly and gets off the phone to think. How can he accomplish this? A prominent man—the mayor, for God’s sake—in a small town, a town he himself doesn’t know at all. An accident is always the best way to go; an unsolved murder would be disastrous, because though the primary objective would be accomplished, the resulting attention would be unfortunate and might, ultimately, make Tod a liability to his organization, which would prove bad for his own health.
An accident, then. Problems abound. First, there’s the issue of access—how will he get close to this man? And knowledge of his habits, his lifestyle, his routines—this is all foreign territory to Tod, who’s only worked on familiar turf with people he’s known for years and motives that help him construct a plan. This guy—Guy—all Tod knows about him is that he’s an asshole. That hardly narrows down a sensible method of death.
Tod isn’t given to fits of pique or temper tantrums; the killer was always known in his unit as even-keeled, the kind of guy you wanted around when shit started to get real, because he never loses his head. But this assignment is so far afield from his comfort zone and so potentially hazardous that his head is spinning a little. Grabbing the ice bucket, he leaves the room and goes in search of the ice and vending machines. There’s never been any situation that an ice-cold Coke didn’t make at least slightly better, that’s for sure.
The ice machine being located in its usual place by the stairwell and the Coke machine having delivered the goods without eating his change, Tod returns to his room, the can balanced atop the pile of ice in his left hand while he manages the key card with his right. Opening the flimsy door, he stops abruptly at the sight of a woman sitting at the small table in his room. Noting the handgun placed casually beside her neatly folded hands on the table, he’s considering whether to back out or lunge for the weapon when she says, quietly, “C’mon in, Tod. Just here to talk.”
The woman gestures at the seat across from her at the small, round table. Hesitantly, Tod places the ice bucket down, pulls out the ugly brown chair, and sits carefully down. The woman looks at the soda perched on the ice and says, “Grab a few cups, would you? I could use some caffeine, too.”
Tod, not knowing what else to do as he tries to figure out what the hell is going on, walks over the to the bathroom vanity where the obligatory flimsy plastic cups are stacked, each wrapped in shrink wrap. He pulls two apart and brings them back to the table. Placing one in front of the woman, she raises an eyebrow and asks, “You mind?”
She’s clearly not going to engage her hands until she wants to, and there is something in her eyes that tells him he won’t be able to get that pistol in time. He upwraps both cups, fills them to the brim with ice, pops open the can, and pours them each some soda, letting it fizz down and pouring more so that both cups are full.
Placing one in front of her, he sips his own.
“Thanks,” she says. “Glad you like lots of ice. Nothing worse than a restaurant where they bring you a Coke with, like, three cubes of ice floating on top.”
Tod nods in agreement. “I hate that. When there aren’t many cubes, they all seem to melt really fast and—”
They sip their Cokes in silence, the woman’s eyes never leaving Tod, who finds it difficult to maintain eye contact in the best of situations, which this isn’t. Instead, he looks with great interest at his cup, glancing up occasionally to make eye contact with the woman and then quickly returning to his drink.
The woman is average size, with a compact bearing that reminds Tod of a coiled spring. She’s anywhere between 35 and 55, one of those people whose appearance doesn’t announce their years of life in a loud voice. Her hair is a soft brown, sprinkled throughout with grey and cut in a straight line at line of her chin.
Despite the strangeness of this encounter, Tod finds himself feeling oddly comfortable. The woman is clearly ok with silences, and they sit, companionably enough, for a few minutes.
Finally, the woman speaks.
“Got a tricky one lined up, huh?”
Tod’s confusion shows.
“The mayor. It’s a tricky assignment, no?”
The killer is a man who is rarely surprised. The feeling is unfamiliar, but this day is only getting weirder, right? He may as well roll with it.
“Yeah,” he replies. “Trying to figure out a good approach. Not my typical gig.”
“I know,” the woman says calmly. “I wanted to see if you could handle something a little different.”
This is the woman, then. The mystery woman running the organization that bought out Whippet’s. How she found Tod’s exact location he does not know and won’t waste time asking.
“But I don’t want to leave you floundering,” she continues. “That’s not the point. I came by to help out.”
Tod works alone. That’s been the single best thing about this job—not having to work with other people. The killer always hated group work in school—one kid assuming leadership whether the others wanted them to or not, at least one other doing nothing and acting as a dead weight for the others to carry, the whole thing a joyless slog that resulted in a product owned by no one, loved by no one—and his military experience had been much the same. But this job allows him to work by himself, controlling the steps and assuring the outcomes. This woman, whoever she is, wants to “help”? That’s going to suck. Tod sighs and wishes once more for home.
“Don’t worry, Tod. We’re not going to hold hands, and both our names don’t have to go on the report cover,” the woman says, not meanly. “This is your job. I just have intel.
“The mayor is a hard guy to isolate, but he does like to ride his bike. Has an expensive custom job he rides, wears all the goofy tight clothes—the jersey and the padded shorts and what not—and likes to ride on the back roads here.
“Tries to ride three times a week,” she continues. “Always early in the morning. Tomorrow morning, I believe.”
With that, the woman places a piece of paper on the table. It’s a map of some sort.
“His route,” she states. “Joker maps his routes and tracks his workouts—his peak heart rates and what not—and he’s as predictable as farting when you eat beans.”
Standing up and picking up the gun—not too carefully, not carelessly, the way someone does when they know their weapon as well as their car keys—she moves toward the door. Before opening it, she turns back and says, with the finality of someone walking away, “He always leave at six a.m. Asshole doesn’t like it if his routine gets off in the slightest.”
She’s walking out the door when Tod says, not expecting an answer, “Might if I ask your name?”
The woman grins and instantly looks on the younger side of the supposed range.
“Susie. My name is Susie, Tod. Nice to meet you.”
And with that, she’s gone.
The next morning, Tod plans his route out of town carefully. The back road preferred by Guy, the mayor, really is a winding thing. Tod drives the same couple of miles a few times before he spots Guy coming toward him. He raises his hand in greeting, but the man on the bike ignores him. Once he turns the next corner, the killer quickly turns around, being careful not to slide the car on the narrow shoulder. Seeing the bike ahead of him, the killer speeds, makes contact, and then pulls over, gets out, and checks the pulse. The mayor is dead, so Tod gets back in his car and carefully drives away, the deserted back road looking back at him impassively. As he heads out of town, the killer makes sure to take a route that doesn’t take him past Stanley’s gas station.
He should be home in time for an early lunch. Driving the speed limit, he wonders when and if he might see his new boss again. He’s surprised—again—when the prospect doesn’t sound too bad. Turning his wheels toward Alabama, he selects a podcast, one of those true crime things that really are addictive, and heads for home.
Kay Summers is an emerging fiction author with a 20+ year career in communications. She’s written on behalf of others for so long that she started writing fiction to make sure she still had a voice. She does.
Say what you will about drunks," she said out loud to the dark around her, "but no one will love you like they can."
Rebecca Barry, Later, at the Bar
“You can’t sleep here.”
“Who says so?”
“I do, Asswipe, watch your step.”
I wondered who he was, telling me I couldn’t sleep where I wanted to. A more pertinent question would have been, “Where am I?”
I raised my head and opened my eyes. The place I was in did not look familiar. Besides, it was dark, and smoky, and there were all these strange noises that were unaccountable at first sight. I had the strange sense that the voice that addressed me was not the only foreign body in the room.
And I would be right.
Gradually, the place I was in, clarified. Behind the bar, dusty shelves of bottles, with their thin, metal speed pourers, and the ones with bulbous plastic tops, obscenely discolored by liquids trapped inside; graveyards for fruit flies and pickled eggs. The pickled eggs of my eyes looking back in this dream of jaundice, and of delirium tremens, of hallucinatory visions both auditory and visual. I felt as if I had moved beyond that place to some place even more threatening, some place where the scratched, broken back bar mirrors surfaces, had oxidized completely, had flaked off, and what I could see in the surface where the glass should have been, was an interior of my exterior body; the unshaven, filthy face, my discolored eyes in a bleak solution of chemicals, and acid washes, unable to be still.
“Something bothering you, Partner?” A voice nearby was saying.
“Pardon me?” I was thinking.
“There are no pardons here. Thought we lost you for a moment.”
“Maybe you did. Where are we?”
“After hours? Where’s that?”
“In the bar, After Hours. That’s what it’s called. Tells you all that you need to know. Opens when all the other bars close. And stays open as long as necessary. As long as it takes.”
“As long as it takes to what?”
“As long as it takes to fulfill the needs of the people who come in.”
“Then it must never close.”
“That about sums it up, Partner.”
I tried to focus on the speaker’s face. Besides the unhealthy light, my focusing problems, and, the man’s unlikely apparel, I could barely see his form, much less make out any specifics, despite his being seated only a few feet away.
“What’s with the dark sweatshirt hood?” I was asking.
“Cold in here. There’s been no heat in here since the last Ice Age. Aren’t you cold?”
“Not that I’ve noticed.”
“You will be.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I reached out to the bar and grabbed the green bottle next to the snifter placed in front of what must have been my space at the bar. The snifter was half-full, the beer had retained a light chill. It wasn’t a brand I favored but when in Rome…. I thought, seeing that my neighbor had the same combination in front of him on the wood.
The beer tasted like skunk piss and was notorious for the hangovers it helped induce. Whatever was in the snifter was an unknown at this point, but, more than likely, it was something lethal. The only sure way to dodge a hangover of epic proportions, one sure to follow a binge of unknown duration, was to keep on drinking. A wise man had said that. That was the myth, anyway. Like most drinking myths it was apocryphal. But that didn’t stop me from taking a healthy hit on the brown liquid inside the snifter.
After I swallowed, I released a protracted sigh, “Jesus that was good. Who would have thought a place like this could have such excellent cognac?”
“This place is full of surprises, that’s why I suggested coming here.”
“Wise idea my friend,” I said, toasting my neighbor, touching my glass to his, thinking that what he said did not indicate that he had suggested coming here with me, or that I had known him beyond this brief acquaintance.
“Yeah, this place has everything: atmosphere, conviviality and alcohol…”
“Conviviality. That’s quite a word. Where’d that come from?”
“If you’re good, I could spell it for you. Maybe even use it in a compound sentence.”
“Well, aren’t you the smart one? A man of hidden depths. What did you do before you came here?”
“Same as everyone else: got by, made a living.”
“Some people’s ideas of ‘getting by’ and ‘making a living’ are more complicated than others.”
“Ain’t that the truth. You know, one thing this place does lack is women.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Remember the women.”
“Haven’t seen any. Not that I can recall anyway. Where are these so-called women?”
“They went to freshen up.”
“Where? In Mesopotamia? They’ve been gone a long time if you ask me.”
“It just seems like forever.”
I took another healthy hit of my beer to wash away the lingering taste of the cognac. That, and all this aimless talking, could make a man thirsty. Thirsty beyond belief. I looked behind the bar for the man who was supposed to be tending.
“Where’s Smilin’ Jack?”
“The bartender. I assume he’s the guy that called me an Asswipe. What’s his deal, anyway?”
“He’s just pissed off that he’s working. The guy that was supposed to relieve him never showed up. When push comes to shove, he’ll be around when you need him.”
“A real joystick, huh?”
“Something like that.”
I was relieved to hear that we wouldn’t go thirsty. There was nothing worse than to being stuck in an arid desert, surrounded by potables you were unable to consume; a Samuel Taylor
Coleridge water-water-everywhere-nightmare voyage that never ends.
I wondered what I was using for money to keep the Good Ship Double Pop afloat. I hadn’t been flush in years. You didn’t need to see an IN GOD WE TRUST ALL OTHERS PAY CASH sign in front of you to know that your credit was no good here.
I heard some scuffling noises behind in the dark of the room. It sounded like sumo wrestlers locked in some sort of mortal combat, grunting, and thrashing about without thought or concern for what lay nearby.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The floor show.”
“I hope there’s no extra charge. I might be running a little short.”
“Don’t worry about it, everyone here is running a little short. Some might even say that’s the whole point of places like this.”
By the sound of what he was saying, I didn’t really want to go there. I turned away from where the noise was and took another sip from my drink.
“Ah, the pause that refreshes.” I said.
“You sound like a beer commercial.”
“Some of my best thoughts have come during beer commercials.”
We both laughed.
Then I heard it loud and distinct and clear, my favorite Rolling Stone song, “Tumbling Dice”. I began singing along in a low voice, becoming more and more animated as the song went on.
“You okay, Man?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re acting like you’ve got some kind of herky-jerky disease. A loud herky-jerky disease.”
“I’m just singing along. Singing along to my favorite song.”
“Man, I don’t hear nothin’. Nothin’ but the taps leaking, the ice meltin’, and the wheezing of the old geezer’s gasping for one last deep breath with cigarette smoke in it. In case you hadn’t noticed, even the TV’s ain’t got no sound.”
I looked at where the twin black and white TVs sat on their perches behind the bar, showing snow and flipping lines, where the picture should be, and the eyes of the old men watching just the same. Still, I could hear Mick singing plain as day, “Don’t you see the time flashin’ by Honey, got no money I’m all sixes and sevens and nines….”
“That’s one white boy doesn’t have to worry none about his job.”
“The way you sing, his job will be safe for as long as he wants it.”
I had to laugh at that. I was no Mick Jagger, nor was meant to be.
“Where are those women anyway?”
“The ones you spoke of before.”
“Wasn’t me, Bro, must have been someone else.”
“I thought it was you.”
“Not me, Son, I just got here. But you, you’ve been here God know how long. When I came in you were out, sitting up with your eyes wide open. At least, that’s how it looked to me.
“What happened to the guy that was sitting here before you?”
“Beats me. People move on you know.”
“Yes, they do.”
“If you’re waitin’ on some women, I’ll help you wait.”
“Be my guest.”
“Mighty kindly of you, Son. What you drinking, Boss?”
“Sounds good to me. Let me buy us one. Hey, Jack, two more of the same and take it here.”
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
“That’s, Okay, no big deal. About them women….”
“They’ve been gone a real long time.”
“You know women. That’s their way, Man. Always fixin’ themselves up. Making themselves look good. Truth is most of the time a man don’t care what she looks like after a while. All he care about is a warm body and a place to lie down.”
“Amen. I’ll drink to that.”
And we did, touching glasses, as if we were two men who had known each other a thousand years. Before long, we’d be going over good times we never had, with all the people neither one of us knew, and all the good times we imagined we had together, with and without them. I looked forward to that and, I’m sure he did too. We’d been through a lot together, whether we knew it or not, and there was a lot more to come.
“What do you do when you’re not here?” My companion asked.
“Me neither. It’s hard work. Harder than most people imagine.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“Where you headed after here?”
“Don’t know. Maybe nowhere. How about you?”
“Here’s as good a place as any.”
“You could say that.”
“I just did.”
We both laughed, on cue, as if this were a long-standing joke between us. Our hands reached for our cognac simultaneously, and we drank deeply before reaching for the long neck bottles of beer on the bar.
After a long silence, he asked, “You don’t suppose those women skipped out on us, do you?”
“It’s possible. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Well, if they don’t come back pretty soon, I’m a gonna drink her drink. Hate to see good booze go bad”
I looked to see what he meant by the women’s drink. Saw two cocktails melting down where they sat on cork coasters, their swizzle sticks sitting at an angle, bent butts of half-smoked, lipstick-stained cigarettes, sitting in glass ashtrays nearby.
“They were lookers, weren’t they?” I said.
“Sure were. Two finer women, I ain’t never seen.”
We both drank and sat silently for a while. Both of us feeling the great weight of absence pressing down on our shoulders.
“Sure, wish they’d hurry, I’ve got a powerful urge.”
We both drank at the same time, as before but, without the same energy and anticipation. Neither of us looked forward to what would happen if they didn’t come back. After hours just got longer and longer and longer with no one to help you fill them.
“Where do you think they’ve gotten themselves too?” I asked.
“Who?” My companion replied.
“The ones we’ve been waiting for.”
“I’m not waiting for anything, Slick. I’m just here to drink.”
I thought about that suggestion. It was as good as any I’d heard in some time. I wondered where my friend, the black guy, had gone, when he had left, and who this guy was in his place. I wondered how long he had been sitting where he was and, why I hadn’t noticed his arrival or, the other’s departure. I thought about asking him some of these questions but, I didn’t bother. I thought I already knew the answers.
There were only one kind of answer in a place like this and, it wasn’t good.
“I wish they’d do something about those TV’s.” I said, as much to make conversation as anything else.
“Like fix them, tune them in, or, something. There must be something to watch.”
“Why? No one is watching, no one cares what’s on. All the TV does is inhibit conversation and interaction. Besides, all the people here are here to drink. End of story.”
“Some people are watching.”
“You can call that watching if you want. It isn’t. Not really.”
“What it is it, then?”
“Staring. There’s a difference you know.”
“Yeah, I’ve been there, but I got away.”
“How did you think you got away?”
“By drinking. The more you drink, the less energy there is for anything else.”
“Amen.” I said.
I thought about leaving but I couldn’t.
I was down one drink and it was his turn to buy.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.
Oliver read the fortune a third time, then tossed a look over his shoulder. Somehow his empty house felt a little more occupied than usual. Wake up. Usually he only ordered one fortune cookie but he’d decided to indulge himself today and so had ordered two. He swallowed hard, trembling hand reaching for the second one. Deep breath; breath in, breath out. Wake up. He jumped from the couch and paced the living room.
One could maybe be written off as a weird joke or mistake; twice was intentional. Someone out there wanted him–or the population in general, yet that didn’t seem as likely in his mind–to wake up. What from, he didn’t know. Nor did he have the slightest clue how he’d go about waking up. A more innocuous interpretation crossed his mind. Perhaps the writer had meant it in a social sense, as in they wanted everyone to be aware of the inequalities plaguing society.
He knew damn well that wasn’t the case. This was more a matrix situation, stuck in a simulation, and apparently he was the chosen one of some sort, if those existed in real life. Made more sense to reckon some individuals received the long end of the stick based on nothing but luck purer than Colombian cocaine. He paused for a moment and ran a hand through his thinning hair. Mildly thinning hair, in fairness. Wasn’t even really that noticeable to be honest. He placed a hand atop his head; okay, so it was a tad–
“Wait, what am I doing? I need to focus.”
He picked up the fortune again and frowned. It now read, the narrow path is your salvation. That wasn’t a case of misreading it the first time unless he’d hallucinated an entirely different set of text the first time. The walls of reality were breaking down then. He’d known for some time this would eventually happen, just not so soon, certainly not in his lifetime. The text on the fortune changed before his eyes, morphed into gibberish.
The bottle of pills on his coffee table grew a pair of eyes and sprouted arms. “The world needs your saving, but it can only happen if you wake up.”
He scratched his chin. “Hm. That’s a tall order. I’m sure I can do it but I’m gonna need some help.”
“Put me in your pocket and allow me to guide you throughout this wonderful journey we’re about to embark on.”
He tossed the bottle into his pocket and nodded. Made enough sense. He cracked his neck, grabbed his gun from under the couch, and strolled outside into the chill morning air. Bob from across the street smiled and waved. He’d always been kind to Oliver, waving like that every time they saw each other. He smiled and waved back.
“Dispatch him,” the bottle said.
He frowned. “Why would I do that? He hasn’t done anything bad to me.”
“Not yet, no. But are you really content to just wait for him to stab you in the back someday?”
“Hm. Good point,” he said before shooting his neighbor three times in the chest.
“Yeesh, that was a little personal.”
He shrugged and continued walking down the street. “Perhaps. But it felt good. You had the right idea by telling me to off him. What. A. Rush.”
“Yes, probably felt better than huffing paint cans ever did.”
“You’re not wrong about that.”
For a brief moment that gave him both literal and figurative pause, he wondered if what he was doing might have been the result of unchecked mental issues including extreme paranoia and agoraphobia. He dismissed the idea as soon as it occurred to him. Made more sense that he’d discovered, before anyone else, all of existence was a simulation. One where only death liberated trapped souls, so in that sense he’d become something of a universal savior.
That made him feel much better about the whole ordeal; he was doing the right thing after all, saving more people than anyone else ever had or possibly could even if they tried. It’d take a lot bigger equipment than what he currently possessed to make any progress, though. He shrugged and trudged forth. There’d be plenty of time later to affect greater change with larger toys.
He popped in his earbuds, cracked his neck, and waved at an elderly woman crossing the street. Hard to say whether she was a construct of the matrix or another trapped soul, although it ultimately didn’t matter because she had to perish regardless. He brought his arm down fast and rushed her like a quarterback, tackling the old bitch before he shoved the barrel of his gun into her mouth.
“Any last words, granny,” he asked in a gruff voice.
She merely disrespected him by making a bunch of offensive noises as if her mouth were full of food.
“Good enough,” he said and pulled the trigger.
His eardrums nearly popped from the noise at the same time the back of her head did. He stood up, disoriented, and blinked rapidly until the ringing disappeared. The bottle of pills vibrated in his pocket, so he pulled the little guy to get some fresh air.
“Good, good. The one liner, though–that was eh. Wasn’t really feeling it, Oliver.”
He shoved the bottle back into his pocket and stole the woman’s wallet. “Maybe so. But we all gotta start somewhere, no? Nonetheless, noted.”
He stopped in front of a woman pushing a stroller. Her red dress was a dead giveaway she’d been created in a simulation. The baby looked sort of off too, like a piece of clay that had been tossed to the ground before the creators finished molding it. He shook his head and sighed. A weaker man might have qualms about exterminating a baby; him, not much.
Two shots later he was on his way to his buddy Dylan’s house. That dude managed to be more prepared for an awakening like this than Oliver ever could have hoped to be. Crazy motherfucker possessed all sorts of shit that would make an apocalypse nut’s dick harder than fucking after a night of drinking.
As he walked up to his door, fist raised and ready to knock, he wondered if Dylan wasn’t a part of the simulation too. The door swung open and who might have been his old friend or who might have been a bunch of numbers and code all along greeted him with what might have been a warm smile or what might have been the result of a programmer moving a model just the right way.
He sat across from Dylan, coffee table between them. “It happened. I got the signal.”
“No shit, bro?”
He examined his body language for any signs of deceptive behavior. “Yeah. Yeah. It’s just–” He whipped his gun out and aimed the barrel at Dylan the same time as his old friend pulled out his own pistol and pointed the barrel at Oliver.
“Looks like we’re an even match.”
“I guess so,” Oliver said.
“Put the gun down, man.”
“Better idea. We both shoot each other. If death is the only way to escape the simulation, then I scratch your back, you scratch mine. We’ll do it on the count of three.”
“Fuck. Okay, fine. Fuck it,” Dylan said. “One.”
Dylan took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “
They both pulled their respective triggers.
* * *
Oliver turned his head and groaned, then attempted to move his arms but couldn’t on account of them being chained to a rusty metal wall. He looked down and saw a pool of dark red liquid on the black floor. There were people to his left and right also chained to the wall, naked save for a scrap of fabric wrapped around their torsos. The expressions on their faces were content or happy–even the ones on the edge of his vision having their limbs sliced off and their organs harvested.
“Jesus fucking christ,” he whispered and strained harder.
One of the captors, dressed in red robes that covered their entire bodies minus their green scaly feet, rushed towards him and placed a clawed finger on his mouth. It cocked its head and called another one of its kind over. They looked at a blueprint, then the original one shook its head.
“Not enough juice to put him out again,” it said. “We’ll have to perform the surgery while he is conscious.”
They walked back to the other end of the room, leaving him to scream for help until his raw throat burned more than if he’d swallowed a box of lit matches. No help came, but another member of the ship did with a mobile cart full of sharp and dull instruments of torture alike.
Alejandro Gonzales is a horrorauthor residing in Northern California with stories in publications such as Trembling With Fear, The Drabble, and Cerasus Magazine.
Thalassa washed up on the sand with a crashing wave, the water still pushing and pulling at her body before receding into the ocean. The late afternoon sun gave her skin a natural glow, even underneath the fine layer of sand. Small vibrant shells and strings of seaweed surrounded her like a shadow. She lifted her head in the slightest, her hair draping over her shoulders in slick strands.
Crouched between jagged beach rocks, a young man rinsed his hands in a small puddle of salt water. Every time a wave splashed over it, some of his blood soaked into the wet sand and bled into the ocean. The scent tumbled in the waves, mixing with the sea spray, and finding its way to her.
His blood was how she tracked him to this thin strip of beach.
He stood, wiping his hands on his tan trousers. Red scratch marks ran along the back of his hands, up his forearms, and disappeared under his rolled-up sleeves. The saltwater rinsed away the blood and helped heal the wound, but it wouldn’t erase the act that caused both.
He glanced out at the ocean towards the horizon, his eyes traveling over the water until they landed on her.
Thalassa smiled internally. She was bait, and he was about to take it.
The coppery scent of his blood drifted in the breeze, mixing with the salt air as he approached. She craved it.
A faint smile broke out over his face as he ran a hand through his tousled blonde hair. His shiny eyes roamed over her pearl skin and her obsidian tail which shimmered with flecks of metallic green in the sunlight. By his expression she could tell, he’d seen mermaids before, but not a siren, otherwise, he’d stay clear. Cautiously he stepped closer, his hands outstretched to show he meant no harm.
She wanted to roll her eyes. They always meant harm, whether they realized it or not.
“Are you okay?” he said, a hint of worry in his voice as he crouched down.
A faint layer of stubble coated his face. His eyes were as dark as the deepest part of the sea, easy to get lost in and never to resurface.
“I got washed out,” she said, her voice shaking.
“Can I help you?”
She nodded. Wondering what his idea of help was.
She reached out, gripping his scratched arm. He winced but didn’t pull back. She readied herself to pull him into the water. Drowning him before drinking his blood and devouring his body.
“You are stunning,” he breathed.
She hesitated. He deserved to decay at the bottom of the ocean. With the fish breaking off tiny pieces of him until there was nothing left except bones. But she liked compliments and didn’t hear them often enough.
“Your skin is so smooth. Your hair is so very long. Your eyes piercing,” he said, looking down at where legs should be. “But your tail is the most exquisite.”
She flicked some of her hair back, exposing the charcoal scallop shells that held her breasts.
He swallowed. “I must sketch you.”
She waited for him to say he’ll go find some pencil and paper.
“I can take you to my home, it’s on the coast and part of the ocean flows into the underparts where my office is located.”
She scolded herself for even thinking it through, but she had all the time in the world. Her reward would come when she drowned him, but maybe she could have some enjoyment before then. Let the anticipation build-up.
“Is it okay if I…” He motioned to her body.
“Yes,” she said. He placed his arms under her tail and behind her back, then gently lifted her, positioning her until he had a comfortable hold. She threw her arms around his neck, he stiffened in the slightest. Then walked along the beach at a steady pace.
She expected him to want to stop to rest his arms, maybe catch his breath. But he held onto her like she was light as a shell, he adjusted his hold now and then, like he was used to carrying objects this far.
A square tower protruded from an array of rocks, the waves splashing onto the stone walls. Sea moss and algae cover the bottom half, while the top part was bleached by the sun and worn by the elements. It appeared to have been abandoned until recently, he’d thrown broken furniture onto a pile near the worn front door. The wooden pieces rotted and deteriorated.
“What a nice home you have,” she said with a sweet smile.
He smiled back. “It’s not much, but it keeps me warm and dry.”
He opened the door to a kitchen with a single table and two chairs. The cabinets were closed and the walls bare. A shell of a house. Stairs curled up and down, he took the latter.
They opened into a cavernous space. Part of it was stone floors, with a large table piled with papers and curiosities. Another table covered with a cloth stood against the wall. Next to it was a closed door. The other part was like a miniature indoor tidal pool with a few steps leading into the water, which moved from waves pushing in saltwater.
He descended the steps until she was covered in water, then let her go. She drifted back, aware of his eyes on her as she sunk underwater and resurfaced, water drops rolling down her skin.
He smiled. “I’m going to go change. I’ll be back.”
She smiled back sweetly, waiting for him to be out of sight before dropping it.
It was easy to deceive men. Usually, they were too full of themselves and their ideas to think someone would have the indecency to challenge them. Over time a few proved to be able to think outside themselves. To care.
He was not one of those men.
Maybe that’s why a part of her was so intrigued by him. He was himself, with no filters or pretenses.
An open book with blank pages instead of warding runes.
Her body floated from side to side as the waves crashed outside, stirring the water. She wondered how long she’d be able to keep this up. At some point, she had to complete what she set out to do.
“I brought you this.” His voice broke through her thoughts.
She pushed her tail under the water and floated towards the steps. He placed down a plate holding several small cakes. Probably bought from a nearby village. Their colors of crushed beige shells with hints of pinks, blues, and greens. Their sickly-sweet aroma drifted to her nose. Vanilla with a tang of something more potent. Maybe he was trying to poison her.
She spent most of her time in the ocean, but when the opportunity to go on land represented itself, she took it. Learning more about life on land. She still had some memories of being human, but they were faded and eroded to the point where she wasn’t sure if they happened in real life or her dreams.
“I’m not sure if you can eat human food. But I thought it was worth a try,” he said. “Otherwise, I can go catch you some fish?”
He would have difficulty catching what she liked.
“This will do just fine.” As long as she didn’t overdo it.
He breathed a sigh of relief. Then he sat down in front of her, stretching out his legs and crossing them at the ankles. He picked a cake at random and bit into it. Chewing as he watched her. She picked a cake and took a small bite. The sweetness made her want to gag, but when the initial sugar dissolved in her mouth, it became rather pleasant.
“Do you like it?”
She nodded with a shy smile. Licking the last of the crumbs from her lips.
“Mind if I draw you now?”
She shook her head. Then ran her fingers through her hair as he stood and retrieved a sketch pad and pencil from the table. He sat back down and started to sketch, his eyes moving from the paper to her and back again.
Thalassa liked being observed with such admiration and detail, she just hoped he was skillful at putting her on paper.
When he was done, he turned the pad towards her.
Her eyes widened. He was good and very detailed. But it wasn’t a sketch of art, but rather an illustration. Words floated around her, thin arrows from her tail to a small paragraph of description. Next to it was a drawing of her torso, but with human legs.
Bile rose in her stomach. A bad feeling spread through her veins.
“What do you think?”
“It’s very realistic,” she said.
He ran a hand through his hair. A strange look clouded his face, one which she had difficulty analyzing. “I can make it a reality,” he said, his eyes gleaming with the possibility. “I can make you into a human.”
His words caught her off guard. “Oh, is that so?”
He walked to the closed door, unlocked it, and disappeared inside.
She’d heard it all before. Somewhere in the mountains lived a witch that could cast a spell. Or a cave with clear water which granted immortality. Sometimes a rumor about a lamp that granted wishes. She didn’t doubt that any of those probabilities existed. But finding them and using them were two different things. Even so, she didn’t want to be human.
She had been once, and that had been enough.
When he came out, he wasn’t alone. He dragged a young woman in, her mouth bound, and hands tied behind her back. Her auburn hair was a mess, and dried tears stained her eyes.
“Look,” he said. Then lifted the woman’s skirts, revealing long slender legs of porcelain. “Aren’t they spectacular?”
She was silent.
“They would look even more spectacular on you.”
There it was. His insanity. His genius idea. A mad scientist at work.
She tilted her head. “I agree. Unfortunately, I do not wish to part from my tail.”
He scrunched up his face. “Then we can be together. We must be together.”
She nodded with an unsure smile. He dragged the woman into the adjoined room, her crying muffled as he locked the door.
“Soon, I just need to make a few more preparations,” he said, his smile determined.
When he disappeared up the stairs, she sank under the water. Swimming in the direction of the waves through an underwater tunnel. The water was fresh and livelier as she approached. Before she could swim into the open ocean, a steel barrier blocked her escape.
She should have known. Should have checked. She pulled and pushed on the steel, but it was stuck, even with the rust that ate it.
Thalassa’s demeanor slipped, and a pearl of fear formed in her chest. It was all fun and games, but now it was serious. She was trapped.
The next day the cloth which covered the table was removed. The sleek metal was unnatural amongst the damp rocks. Next to it was a smaller table organized with his medical instruments. The scalpel lay next to a knife, which lay next to a saw. Each one was worse than the other. Just thinking of them piercing into her flesh made her clench her fists. She took shallow breaths, trying to stay calm.
She had thought it through. Even if he managed to cut off her tail and sow on legs, who’s to say they would work. What if she bled out? What if she was a torso for the rest of her life? What would happen to her tail?
She imagined him placing it in resin and displaying it against his wall. Triumph worming through his veins every time he glanced at it.
His hair was tousled and stood out at different ends like wild seagrass. She was far less human than him, but the glint in his eyes was more feral than her own.
She waited for him to near her, to bend down and pull her out of the water. Instead, he walked to the door and unlocked it. From inside the dark room came a whimper. He stepped in, out of sight for a moment. Then reappeared, gripping the woman by her neck, and pushing her into the room.
“This will go much quicker if you cooperate.” He guided her to the table, and she lay down obediently, her whimpering silenced. He bound her one arm to the table. “First, I’ll give you a sedative so that you won’t feel me cutting off your legs.”
Her whimpering started again.
He gave a frustrated sigh, then turned to face Thalassa. “Then it’s your turn.”
A movement behind him. The woman sat up slowly, removing something from her pocket. Her eyes met Thalassa’s with urgency.
He made to turn around.
“Wait,” Thalassa said. “What if it doesn’t work?”
He smirked. “It will.”
The girl lifted her free arm, her knuckles white from gripping the rock, and brought it down on his head. Once. Twice.
He stood frozen, then tumbled to the ground like a wave had crashed over him.
She didn’t care about revenge anymore. Didn’t care that she promised to cut his lifeline. She just wanted to get away. Be free of this physical and mental prison. The open ocean called to her. Yearned for her and she desired its embrace.
The woman could barely stand, Thalassa wasn’t sure how either of them would be able to escape. If at all. The woman pushed herself up, using the table as support. She groaned, her body almost limp, yet some energy manifested, and she stood. Her darting eyes found Thalassa and she headed over with a slight limp. Thalassa glanced behind the woman. He still lay unconscious on the floor. She thought she saw his chest rise and fall. An urgency bloomed within her, and she tried to urge the woman on with her eyes.
When she finally reached Thalassa, she was out of breath.
“We have to go,” the woman said, each word a struggle.
Thalassa swallowed. “You can barely manage by yourself. How will you be able to help me?”
She shook her head again, a persistence in her eyes. Thalassa figured either she would die by the man’s hand or take her chances with the woman. Neither thought was pleasing.
Thalassa pulled herself up onto the steps. The woman bent down and grabbed her under the shoulders and pulled her out of the water. She picked her up under her tail and back, lifting her with some difficulty and strength, Thalassa didn’t think the woman possessed.
Thalassa wished herself as weightless as possible. They made it to the wall, the woman paused, leaning against the wall to catch her breath. She took another step, but her balance was off. Thalassa felt her stumble to the ground. The woman caught herself, they still fell on the stone floor, but not with as much force.
This wasn’t going to work.
Thalassa took a deep breath. “There is a way both of us can walk out of here alive.”
The woman looked at her with expectation but also a frown that asked why she hadn’t said something earlier.
“You’re saving my life, and for that, I owe you a wish. If you take the wish now and ask for strength. We’ll be able to leave.”
The woman’s eyes gleamed with possibilities, and she nodded.
Thalassa touched her tail, feeling for a loose scale and breaking it off. She handed it to the woman. It was round and shiny.
“Place it on your tongue and make a wish.”
The woman did and closed her eyes as if it would enhance whatever she asked for.
Thalassa waited in silence, a wave of fear passing over her. What if the woman asked for something else? She had so many options. Yes, strength and health were important, but she could heal with time. Instead, she could wish for something that would leave Thalassa stranded, and she won’t be able to do anything about it.
The woman opened her eyes, an unsure smile on her face.
Thalassa frowned. A tingle spread over her tail. She observed with wide eyes as her tail split into two, becoming obsidian scale-covered legs.
“What have you done?” she said to the woman, but her eyes remained on her legs.
The woman pointed to the stairs.
Thalassa had so many questions. Will her tail grow back? What exactly did the woman wish for? But her thoughts all stopped with a groan behind them.
The man was waking up. She could just kill him right there and then but killing on land was not something she wanted to do. She left that to land creatures.
The woman stood and held out her hand. Thalassa took it, and together they headed up the stairs, into the kitchen, and through the front door.
The ocean breeze broke against her skin, and she inhaled it deeply.
She stood at the edge of the waves, and as the sea foam spilled over her feet a tingling started again. She reached down and broke off another scale, handing it to the woman.
“Thank you,” Thalassa said. She turned and walked into the waves until her feet lifted from the sand and twisted together into her tail once again. The woman stood on the shore, giving a small wave before disappearing into the tree line beyond.
Revenge was lost.
Yet, there was a small part of her that thought otherwise. That if she did it the right way, he’d get what he deserved.
Instead of swimming into the big blue, she stayed. Near the rocks where he had found her, she draped her arms over one coated with limpets and acorn barnacles. Careful to let the sharp rock edges and shells cut into her skin.
She waited and waited. The sun cast new shadows every hour. It took everything in her not to sink into the water to wet her hair and skin.
Footsteps approached. She could tell it was him by the sickly-sweet scent of cakes and poison.
She knew his eyes had found her by the hesitation in his steps.
Something hit her shoulder. A rock.
He was checking if she was conscious.
Then another. She ground her teeth together.
More steps. And then a hand on her arm.
A smile spread over her features. He yelped, and she felt him loosen his grip. Thalassa snatched out her arm, fingers grabbing him. Latching onto his shoulder. He let out a scream, trying to free himself.
Her eyes met his. The innocence in them was replaced by her feral side.
Her other hand gripped his other shoulder and pulled him down. He lost his footing, stumbling forward. His body hit the rocks with a thud.
“Let go!” he yelled. Struggling against her grip.
Her nails grew into sharp points, piercing onto his flesh so he couldn’t escape. He winced as blood dripped from him.
“Why are you doing this?” he cried.
“Except for the fact that you almost mutilated me. I was asked.”
His breathing was ragged. His face became paler by the second. “By whom?”
“Your dead wife.” She sneered at him.
His face blanched.
“You drowned her in the ocean. You thought you’d get away with it.”
“You talked to her?”
“I am the Siren of Souls. I carry the drowned souls to the afterlife and grant them a wish. Your death was hers.”
He shook his head. “No, please. I don’t want to drown.”
She laughed. “Your window of drowning has closed. And my window of starving has opened.”
Her teeth extended into fine needle points, sharper than her nails.
Before he could scream, she sunk her teeth into his neck. Savoring the coppery taste as she dragged him underwater.
To the bottom of the ocean.
Felicia Change graduated with a BA in Creative Writing and her work has appeared in the YOU magazine and Coffin Bell. When she isn’t carving stories, she is traveling, exploring museums, or on the lookout for a dog to pet. You can find her online @feliciachange
We were on the edge of an unknown solar system in an unknown sector when the alien craft appeared.
It was massive, a perfect sphere. All black. Large hair like growths jutted out in all directions. The soft glow of the systems blue giant reflecting off its exterior was absolutely beautiful.
We hailed it to no avail.
A tractor beam locked on to us, trapping us within a false gravity. A set of bay doors opened at its front. Then a flash. Two metallic tendrils shot out of the dull blue haze within, their claw-like tips digging into the front of the ship.
Decks three through six lost both pressure and atmosphere. There were no survivors.
The captain gave the order. Ten volleys of plasma torpedoes followed and not a scratch.
We were pulled inside to the sound of klaxons and screams. Another flash and everything went black.
This was first contact.
This was a complete nightmare.
I woke in small cell without windows or doors. Cold. Fetal. A nutrient tube had been sown into my stomach. Dried blood surrounded the point of insertion. Pulling only made the stitches grow tighter.
There was a presence behind me. I could feel the coldness of it; the wrongness of it.
It shifted its weight and spoke.
“Hello, Pat, is it?”
I looked up, my eyes rolling lethargically within my skull. The ships waste management tech stood over me wearing a shiny robe of red velvet. His head came into focus. A glowing orb drifted above his face. Two wires in the back connected to the empty sockets of where his eyes once were.
I recoiled and scuttled backwards. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Stay calm,” he said taking a step towards me. His grey lips stretched into a smile. Purple liquid dripped from the corners.
His name was Raymond. There was a rumor among the ship that he was the sole survivor of a suicide cult on a desert planet. Their method of self-execution was walking out into the vast wasteland outside the safety of the port city and starving themselves of all water and food.
Two months after the cult’s leader broadcasted the groups intentions, Raymond was found drenched in blood in a small cave, thirty pounds overweight and surrounded by the hacked up remains of forty-three people.
The genitals were first to be eaten. Or so they said.
No one ever got too close.
“Do you trust me?” said Raymond.
“Not really,” I said. I was panicked. Hyperventilating.
“You should. I come to you today with a wonderful offer.”
The color of his face orb shifted. My breathing slowed. A strange calmness came over me.
It was hard to move.
It was hard to think.
Raymond sat down at my level. Legs cross. Elbows on his knees. He said I had a choice: accept the Pale God’s guidance or become an offering.
I could only stare. Whatever they had drugged me with was kicking in. I was trembling. My vision blurred. The walls vibrated all around us.
Raymond was a rock within it all. He gently put his hand on my shoulder and moved in closer.
With growing fervor, he told me how the Pale God only gave his blessings to those who joined willingly.
He told me how he couldn’t even begin to describe how good it felt to live in its light.
He told me how in its infinite kindness, it would absolve me of all my sins.
I just needed to say yes.
By now the entire room was shaking. Raymond praised the Pale God at the top of his lungs like a mad man, head up, arms to the ceiling, his face-orb brightly flashing a rainbow of colors in sync with the words.
My back was to the wall. There was nowhere to run.
Suddenly, Raymond froze and held up a finger. All went still in an instant. The orb drifted closer until it was inches from my face. A million tiny particles danced within its now soft purple glow. It was all I could focus on.
I was drawn to it, mesmerized by it.
Raymond reached out from beyond its light, squeezed my arm softly, and said, “My friend, I have no doubt that when the time comes, you’ll do the right thing.”
He then stood.
He then smiled.
Then flash, and he was gone.
A coldness came over the room. Everything seemed so empty and hollow in the absence of his orbs glow.
This was the part where I’d usually give you an engaging insight into my past, but my memory was fading fast within the fog. Only glimpses remained: A woman scorned. A cat smuggled. A plasma torch igniting.
This wasn’t the first time I was offered a false hope in exchange for enteral servitude.
We were all running from something…
I stood naked in near darkness, placed single file in line with my former crewmates, our muscles locked in place by some invisible forces. The air was thick and warmed. A severed nutrient feed dripped down my leg.
Glowing particles rose from the floor all around us, slowly merging and taking shape, forming the landscape of an Earth I’ve never seen with my own eyes.
In minutes we were all standing in a field of violet flowers within a mountain valley. Ethereal sunlight seeped through the cracks of large, vibrant clouds, shining onto a large stone platform engraved with intricate gold patterns.
But something off. Everything was too crisp, too saturated, all of it blowing in a breeze I couldn’t feel.
Shadowed specks drifted in and out.
Suddenly, a voice boomed over the valley.
“Please welcome your savior, the Pale God.”
A small creature appeared on the platform, serenaded by loud, disembodied claps, and draped in purple. It rode atop an elaborate machine, all torso and head without features. Fleshy growths clung to the cracks in skin textured like chipped marble. An orb twice its mass was embedded deep into its skull.
On either side stood a pair of massive aliens with massive limbs. Their heads were oval with jaws fillies with razors. Each had an orb of their very own, single wires extending into their single eye sockets.
The Pale God’s orb rippled and flashed green.
Our muscles suddenly freed. Many of my former crew looked around in confusion. Some murmured. Some wept.
Not one deviated from the line.
“This isn’t right,” a voice whispered from behind me. “Did they talk to you too? What’d they mean by ‘an offering?’”
I didn’t answer. All my focus was on the Pale God. I could feel a gentle vibration somewhere within the back of my mind. It was faint, almost soothing.
Our ships’ captain jumped up on the podium with gusto. Her crimson robes were pressed to perfection. Her face orb glowed bright blue.
“It’s a wonderful day for all of you,” she said with uncharacteristic glee. “Today is the day you get to receive the truth of our God’s glorious blessing.”
The captain motioned to the person at the head of the line. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile.
“You, Madeline. You get the honor of being first.”
Madeline held a rosary tight in her grip, her lips moving wordlessly. Two robed figures guided her up onto the platform until she was just feet from the Pale God.
Madeline brought the rosary to her face. She was sobbing uncontrollably.
“Kneel before him to receive his gift,” said the captain.
The woman froze. She shook her head ‘no’ rapidly, her eyes closed tight.
“Oh dear,” said the captain.
The Pale God’s orb turned red. It didn’t hesitate.
Madeline’s body was lifted inches off the ground, limbs locked and outstretched against her will. Her screams of protest cut off in an instant as a fine red mist her shape and size was ripped from her. The false Madeline hovered in the air for mere moments before being absorbed into the pale Gods orb.
A dried husk hit the ground. No longer moving. No longer defiant. It flaked into dust piece by piece, blown away by a gentle breeze.
When it was finished only the rosary remained.
The line erupted in terror. I vomited uncontrollably, starting a chain reaction that spread to the next three in front of me.
The orb flashed a warning. The vibration in my head was growing warmer. I tried to resist it, the comfort of it, the wrongness of it.
It was nothing more than a false hope, a tease to convince us to submit.
“Please, everyone, calm down,” said the captain, waving the crowd to silence. “I know how you all feel right now. I really do. I was hesitant to receive the gift myself. But, my friends, I assure you, I now can’t even imagine a life outside his grace. All the pain, all the suffering, ever sin I ever took part in or endured, all of it has been forever washed away. It will be the same with you. All you have to do is submit and we can continue our journey, spreading word of his eternal love to all we come across.
The vibrations grew stronger.
The man behind me whispered it was all bullshit. He said he saw our ship be destroyed with everything on it. Our only chance now was to fight.
The words were slow to sink in within the fog. Muddled glimpses of everything I had lost flashed in my head: A rock from my home planet. An engagement ring returned. A cat freed from a butcher in a shipyard in exchange for six pounds of thigh meat.
Everything I owned was on that ship, everything I ever knew and loved; all off stripped away in an instant.
My fist and jaw were both clinched tight. Sgt. Snugglesworth didn’t deserve any of this.
I whisper back to the guy behind me that I was in.
The podium shifted.
Next in line was the ships head cook. Old. Rotund. He made his way in front on the Pale God and dropped to his knees instantly, professing his undying devotion.
The Pale God’s orb glowed blue.
The captain plucked a fleshy mass out of a crack in its skin and approached the cook.
“Open your mouth,” she said softly.
He did as he was ordered. He was shaking. He was drooling. There were so many tears.
The captain gently placed the flesh on his tongue. It sizzled on contact.
Then a pause. A moment of silence.
The chef suddenly stood and turned towards the crowd in a panic, grunting and clawing at skin around his eyes as they started to boil and melt into a thin milky liquid that ran down his cheeks.
The chef dropped to his knees, gasping and pleading.
Two robed figures calmly approached, one with a uniform, the other with an orb. The former wrapped him in red velvet. The orb was placed just above his face. Two wire snaked from the back, slowly finding their target, and digging their way deep into the chef’s now defunct eye sockets, latching tight onto his cerebral cortex beyond.
The orb floated from the latter figures grip. It flickered green, matching that of a Pale God’s.
The cook froze, slowly lowered his hands, mouth agape with a look of wonder stretched across his face. A newborn discovering newborn things.
He welcomed the captain’s embrace with a smile.
He beamed when she told him how proud she was of him.
He jumped and clicked his heels together with all the grace of a seventy-four-year-old, proclaiming loudly to all of us how he had never felt better in his entire life.
Twelve people ahead of me and counting.
A woman with dreadlocks and a purple face orb moaned and writhed with delight atop the platform. I now knew with absolutely certainty that all my ex-girlfriends had faked it.
The vibration grew louder. The brain fog cleared. This bliss was just a taste of what the Pale God promised.
It was getting harder to resist.
Next up was a steel worker. As the captain cheered, he turned towards the crowd with a smile and an orb, just like the rest of them.
I was so close to the front. The fear was overwhelming. The vibration was overwhelming. A complete dopamine rush radiated throughout my entire body. Better than finest meal. Better than the finest drug. Better than sex.
I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to be stronger than this. I knew deep down that there was no real choice, no real way out. Die in excruciating pain and become nothing or live as monster, blinded and enslaved.
I was terrified of the things it’d make me do if I accepted. I was terrified I would only be a mindless husk of my former self. But most of all, I was terrified of eternity.
Do you really want to live forever?
The line inched forward.
At two from the front, the man behind me whispered it was time, he said he had a plan.
I was all ears and endorphins.
He moved in close, whispering that he had smuggled in two plasma grenades from the ship before initial blackout just in case. He said to not ask where he stored them.
The person ahead of me took the podium. He was only the second to refused. He shit himself as his soul was torn from his body.
The man behind me shoved a plasma grenade in my grip. He whispered to take the Pale God out and he’d handle the rest.
I armed it behind my back as the captain motioned me up. I looked from her to the Pale God on its tiny throne and took a deep breath.
Its orb was bright and all consuming.
I shook in awe of it.
I was so close to giving it.
I closed my eyes. The grenade felt so real in my grip. A tiny red light flashed on top. It beeped softly, a countdown my imminent demise.
But I no longer mattered. I was going to end this, for the man behind me, for my cat, for every single person and thing lost or indoctrinated. I was going make damn sure no one would ever be given this terrible choice ever again.
My eyes shot open. The grenade was white knuckled in my grip. I drew back for a pitch of a lifetime.
The captain smile faded.
The Pale God’s orb flashed.
The man behind me yelled to do it already.
It was then I heard a meow.
I froze mid-throw. Eyes wide. Mouth wider.
There among the initiated was Sgt. Snugglesworth. He wore a collar of red velvet. Dried eyeball juice was crusted into the orange fur around its now empty eyes. A tiny orb drifted just above it all.
He was a calico.
He was purring.
He was being held by the woman scorned.
She reached her hand out to me. All the horrible memories came flooding back; memories I joined this doom expedition into the unknown to forget; memories I never wanted to relive again.
It started when we were neighbors in a slums of dumpster fire of a planet. It was a new colony. The air was thin. The crops weren’t taking. Every night I went home starving to a tiny shack, eating what little rations remained from the ship. The distress beacon had been on for three months and counting. We were all getting weak and losing hope fast.
She lived only one shack over. We shared a wall of plywood and fiberglass. Neither muffled the sound of her husband’s abuse.
I didn’t just kill him for her benefit. No, it was a slow torture. I lost a hundred night’s sleep to his rage. I thought of every single time I had to hear her cried out in pain as I grazed my blowtorch against his skin.
I thought of her protests.
I thought of the sound of her body slamming into the wall.
I thought of every time I was too cowardly to stop him.
It took him hours to die. When it was done, all I could focus on was the smell of his burnt flesh.
I cut and rationed it carefully, hiding the rest of his remains deep down into a sulfur pit where they’d never be found.
It was that same smell that lured her over. She looked at me with eyes filled with the same exhaustion and desperation I felt. I should’ve turned her away.
We spend hours together, just talking and eating. At sundown she said it was getting late. She said she was starting to worry about her husband’s whereabouts. Then, as she reached for the door, she turned and thanked for the first real meal she had had in months, asking me where it came from.
Telling the truth was a mistake. I thought I’d be her hero.
Not long after the federation came with an offer and a way out. Three ships were being sent to scout the unknown regions. They were looking for the best of the expendable with the promise of unlimited food and shelter. No background check required. None of us had any illusion it was anything less than a suicide mission.
I signed up immediately, pretending to be surprised when I bumped in her in the shipyards. Going in for a hug was my next mistake.
I never did learn her name…
Back on the podium the Pale God shifted.
I looked around in a panic, the grenade still tight in my grip. Everything was hazy and out of focus. Figures drifted in and out in rapid succession.
The Pale God.
I raised the grenade above my head, my hands shaking violently, phantom orbs seared into vision. The fog was back. I was warm and fuzzy all over.
The man behind me ordered me to kill.
The Pale Gods orb turned red.
The brain vibration were teeth shattering.
Time froze. Suddenly everything went dark. I saw visions of countless alien races on alien planets. Their collective memories all rushed in at once. Their accomplishments. Their sins. Their wars. All of it wiped away.
They Pale God knew everything they knew; all knowledge was gained from those absorbed into it orb and feed directly to his disciples. It took what it needed and discarded the rest.
The vision shifted to a future with me and the woman of my dreams. Her past didn’t matter. Neither did her name. We were on Earth having a picnic, surrounded by countless indoctrinated. Everything was clean, and in perfect harmony.
All the people were polite. Everyone smiled and helped one another. There memories were my memories.
Underneath a twilight moon, the woman grabbed my hand and placed it on her stomach. She had the beginnings of a baby bump. There, poking through both her shirt and stomach, was two tiny wires connecting to a tiny flashing orb.
The vision shifted. I saw a million murders committed by a million species.
I saw a creature wrapped in the limbs of his enemies drive a sword down the throat of another of its kind.
I saw two lanky green aliens drive a probe into a caveman.
I saw Raymond castrate a dead bearded man with his bared hands.
The Pale God was there overseeing it all. There was no judgement. Only forgiveness. Only love.
The vision shifted.
I saw myself cooking another man alive with glee.
It was all too much. Complete sensation overload…
Back on the podium I dropped to knees, tears running down my face. The grenade was nearing its countdown. The Pale God’s orb dimmed, it’s two alien guards were tense and ready for anything.
This was the part where I was supposed to tell you that I could see through the fantasy to all the Pale God’s nefarious true intentions. I could say that it was all an illusion, a false promise devised only to expand his kingdom of slaves. I could exposé the virtues of how some people shouldn’t be forgiven so easily.
But I won’t.
I deserved this. I wanted this. Within his grace I could pretend I was still the good guy. The how didn’t matter.
I switched off the plasma grenade with only a second left, letting it roll from my grip, a coward all over again.
Sgt. Snugglesworth jumped into my lap, nuzzling up to my chest. His orb was yellow and pulsating in rhythm with his purrs.
As I scratched his ears, the captain asked me to open my mouth. I ate the flesh of the Pale God without hesitation, never noticing the man behind me running up, his grenade armed and blinking…
Joe writes out of Charlotte, NC. His work has been published in over 40 markets including K-zine, Strange Constellations, and Liquid Imagination, as well as having been twice nominated for the Pushcart prize. You can check out his blog at jablonskijoe.blogspot.com.
I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough LLC, a for-profit charity with headquarters in Baltimore.
I tell people that I work in data entry. I punch dates, dollar amounts, and names into spreadsheets from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM, sitting in a cubicle surrounded by other cubicles. The white walls and bright lights keep me from falling asleep between visits to the break room coffee machine. In passing, I usually end up running into Basil from Accounting, or Sheila in Public Relations. Dodging eye contact, we have interchangeable conversations with cookie-cutter responses.
How’s it going? Good.
Busy today, isn’t it? Sure is.
I don’t love my job; my hands cramp up by the end of the day, becoming stiff, awkward instruments I can barely hold a fork in. But I’m good at it, and it pays, so I swallow my gripes. I have become deaf to the nonstop clacking of the keyboard, accustomed to the eye strain from the blinking cursor.
Today, I’m cataloging potential hosts for our next gala, alongside an estimated budget for the event. The scroll bar gets a little longer with each addition. My mind begins to dull.
Walters Art Gallery – $10,000
Hampton Inn – $5,325
Pierce’s Park – $2,400
I pause, forgetting my place on the long list of transcribed names. It’s frustrating, squinting at the fine print where all the type jumbles together. I vent my frustration in the most childish way I can think, then backspace quickly, before anyone sees. All our screens are monitored, but I haven’t given HR cause to look.
Dickhead Boulevard – $5
After a hard blink, I try to divert my focus back to the sheet. I notice a blotch that wasn’t there a second ago, making the paper sag like somebody spilled oil all over it. The spot is black, and it spills down the page like a trail of syrup.
My confusion turns to disgust when the smell hits—raw sewage, fetid and mildewy-sweet. As I feel bile rising in my throat, I look up; the ceiling tile directly above me has loosened at a crooked angle, feeding a consistent drip of what I could only call sludge into my cubicle. It looks slightly more viscous than water.
I marvel in repulsion for a few seconds before standing up. What a mess.
When I step out of my cubicle, the look on my face must have been manic. I lock eyes with Harvey from Marketing, a friend of mine. Bald, heavyset, mid-forties, always in a blue shirt; I think we watched a Ravens game together, once. He complains about headaches a lot.
He spares a glance toward the faulty tile. “You’re deep in it now, huh?” he says, with a husky chuckle. “Let me help you out.”
I follow Harvey to the supply closet. Per company policy, we’re not supposed to be in here. But the two of us sometimes ‘appropriate’ cans of air freshener left lying around: it’s cheaper than a run to the dollar store.
He drags out a metal waste bucket that hasn’t seen the outside of the closet for months. “This’ll do.”
I wave at Harvey before returning to my cubicle. I keep thinking to ask him, we should go out sometime again, get some wings. Next week I will; next week for sure.
Although the company frowns on ‘non-productive activity’ outside of regular lunches and breaks, I discreetly take a generous helping of kleenex to my desk and wipe it down, then print a fresh list of gala hosts. The old list isn’t illegible, but it is disgusting: I crumple it into a ball and pitch it into the trash bin. I’m relieved to see the mess contained, but over time, I start to notice the sound. Every so often, my focus is interrupted by a wet splat as the ceiling regurgitates more mess.
I hear the splatter at random intervals; multiple times within a few seconds, or sometimes, minutes of silence before a wet one slops against the bottom of the can. I almost flinch at the noise; I can’t tune it out like I can the ambient chatter of the office. It’s driving me up a fucking wall.
I don’t have to take this. I shouldn’t have to. Fed up, I decide to draft an email to upper management. All correspondence goes through upper management; that much was made clear during the onboarding process; I email them, they email somebody else. It’s all very efficient, so I’m told.
It takes three drafts before I can phrase my request professionally. My inbox dings immediately after I hit ‘send.’ I don’t get my hopes up: more than likely an automated reply.
Thank you for your email. I will be out of the office for the next week and will have limited access to email. If this is an urgent matter, you can reach our senior staff during business hours at 555-6167.
My eyes glaze over the cut-and-paste response right as another drip hits the bucket.
Yes, Jenny, this is an urgent matter—so I dial senior staff. Waiting. Ringing. Waiting. Ringing.
“Thank you for calling Hartway & Burrough. A mediating team member cannot take your call right now; please hold for a response.”
The receiver dips in my palm. I tap my foot against the carpet tile while senior staff twiddles their thumbs. The hold music consists of upbeat acoustic guitar fed through a bad connection, looping every few seconds.
Every second I’m left on hold, I’m conscious of the bucket, slowly filling with this slop. After five, ten, twenty minutes, I give up on hearing back from them. If they won’t answer my emails or pick up my calls, then I’ll have to submit a formal complaint to upper management in person. I went through the proper channels and got nothing; I thought I was at least entitled to an answer.
I pass by cubicle after cubicle occupied by happy drones like myself, hunched over keyboards with listless eyes dead to stimuli. I’m sure they’re all thinking the same thing: how much longer until I clock out? Lucky them; they can work without distractions.
At the end of a long walk, I step out from the office into a hallway. The stairs going up are blocked with yellow tape: construction. It’s been ‘under construction’ for as long as I can remember. Instead, I step inside the elevator just beside the stairwell.
Upper management sits on the 33rd floor. I press the button and watch the analog face tick higher. I blink hard, thinking how to approach the issue with my superiors. Do I butter them up and hope I win them over with a smile? Or, should I bluntly state the issue and demand immediate action?
It only occurs to me that I could be fired for speaking out of turn. But then, losing this job wouldn’t be so terrible, would it?
Then comes a stinging pain. It throbs in my forehead: a headache that’s been acting up all week.
With budding anticipation, I watch the analog interface hit 33, punctuated with a ‘ding!’
I blink again. The doors open. I’m standing in front of the ground floor lobby. Pale daylight filters in through translucent sliding doors, the marble white floors squeaking with foot traffic.
What was I doing again?
Throat dry, I check my watch. Oh. Closing time.
A familiar fatigue washes over me. Frankly, I’m just glad to go home after the same old daily drudgery.
* * *
It’s morning now, the start of the working day, and I’m standing in front of the coffee machine in the break room. While I empty the last grains of sweetener into a styrofoam cup, Basil from Accounting walks past me.
“Is that a new shirt? Looking sharp today.”
It’s not a new shirt. It’s the same shirt I wear every day. But I nod and say thanks out of reflex.
As usual, I head to my cubicle with my coffee in hand. Upon reaching my desk, I stop dead in my tracks, staring blankly.
I want to retch just looking at it. That thick, dark sludge from yesterday has completely engulfed my working space. My computer monitor is coated in it, and it seeps between the gaps of the keyboard. Black liquid trickles down the partitions of the cubicle, leaving ugly trails and fat splatters. My monogrammed, stainless steel pens lie on the floor in an unsalvageable state. The bucket Harvey gave me has long since overflowed, toppled on the ground as the liquid flows freely around it. How could I have forgotten?
When the stench hits, I’m almost knocked flat. It smells like the curdled contents of a dumpster wheeled out into the rain; like rotting carcass left out in the sticky August heat. A lump in my chest forces its way up before I pinch my nose shut. I can’t stand to be around it.
No one else seems to be bothered by the continuous slew of waste seeping from the ceiling, not even my cubicle neighbors, who should have at least picked up the smell. Having lost my appetite, I pitch my coffee on my way to the elevator. I don’t get paid enough for this.
A sense of self-righteousness hastens my gait to the elevator; if the company can’t be bothered to pick up my calls, let alone deal with the mess, then I can’t be bothered to work. I drive home through morning traffic, expecting a pink slip or a furious voicemail by the time I get home. I’m white-knuckling the wheel; in place of the triumph I ought to feel at ‘sticking it to the man,’ I’m wracked with dread and fear. This will have dire consequences—I know it.
I pull into my townhouse driveway and order takeout on the couch. Not just a sad Whopper or something: a full course of dim sum and dumplings and a fifth of the bottle of Jack from my cabinet. If I’m going to be fired, I may as well treat myself to a good meal before running myself ragged on a job search.
I don’t get up from the couch for the rest of the day, only making exceptions to eat, shit, and sleep. My life is over, I tell myself, the TV’s light searing images into my retinas in the dead of night.
I don’t recall sleeping: only a bleary state that recedes when daylight breaks. Pain bounces between the walls of my skull. Maybe it’s a hangover.
I think to myself, this is release. I’m free of my shit job. I should be happy.
But right now I’m shivering in a threadbare blanket, straining at the sunlight in the window.
This isn’t living.
By some nervous compulsion I shamble over to my home office where my desktop sits. The plastic monitor shell, once opal-white, has long since yellowed.
I scroll through my inbox. No reply from upper management. No scolding from the boss. It’s 10 AM. I’m supposed to be clocked in right now. By all accounts, my head should be mounted on a pike. I keep expecting the floor to collapse from under me. Any minute now I should be fired, shamed. But the minute never comes.
I go to bed, but I don’t sleep. Can’t sleep.
The ensuing days and weeks are dull. It’s like work, in a sense: the same thing on repeat. I get food. I stare at a screen. I sleep. This mindless ass-scratching can’t go on. And yet it does.
It gets stranger when I receive a paycheck. And another. And another. I receive them all with a kind of bewilderment. The pay stub indicates hours that I’m being compensated for—hours that I did not work.
This is more than just a clerical error. Hell, I could go to jail for this. But whose fault is it, really? The checks keep piling up on my kitchen counter and I’ve stopped questioning why.
Two months into this bizarre retreat, I start to fantasize, the way people do when they imagine winning the lottery. I get the idea of flying from this urban hellscape: just getting in my car and driving as far as the highway will take me. I want to feel the wind in my face and get sloshed on watered down beer. I want to get in a fistfight and lose a tooth. I want to wake up in the bosom of a woman I don’t know. Anything to get away from sterile life at Hartway & Burrough.
s I look out the window and contemplate my flight, I start to feel my head tighten. It hurts; it hurts so bad. There’s a horrid pulsing in my skull, thumping, banging. My vision goes fuzzy, the slightest tilt of my head bringing on a spell of vertigo. It’s not just a headache anymore—I have to make it stop. I’d do anything to make it stop.
I strain to focus on the edge of the kitchen counter. I want to bash my head against the sharp corner and let the boiling blood spill out. It has to stop; I’ll make it stop. I’m gripping the granite top now. It’s too bright, too loud. My head is on fire and I’m going to put it out. PUT IT OUT. PUT IT OUT.
I blink. I’m standing in the kitchen island, hunched over the counter with a strange intensity. I can’t explain what I’m doing here, like walking in a room and forgetting why.
It’s quiet in this little townhouse. I can’t remember the last time I made genuine contact with another person. Even if it’s tedious, mindless work, maybe I was better off at the company. Maybe I should go back.
Next morning, I slip back into a familiar routine with far more ease than I fell out of it. I shave, put on my shirt, shine my shoes, and microwave an egg sandwich on my way out. There’s something strangely comforting about the ritual, as if I’m meant to do this. While I navigate my commute on the interstate, my time away from Hartway & Burrough feels like a distant dream.
My arrival back in the office is received without fanfare. I pass by Sheila from PR on my way to my cubicle. I put on a smile, as does she.
“Lovely weather today,” she says. I agree.
The building is the same as I left it: the light panels flickering slightly above; the brown coffee stains on the thin, polyester carpet; the indistinct murmur of three dozen phone calls at any given moment.
Upon reaching my cubicle, I remember why I left.
I stand at the edge of a roiling pool of black sludge. Nothing from my desk has survived, all congealed into a dark mass of absorbed shapes and protruding edges.
I gape uselessly, my face a caricature of shock like The Scream.
The stuff seeps out into the walkway and into other cubicles, yet nobody pays it any mind. My coworkers walk around it, through it, over it, leaving black tracks on the carpet. The sludge clings stickily to their shoes, dragging their steps, but they go about their morning like it’s not even there.
“What seems to be the problem?”
I whirl around to see a woman I’ve never met. She wears a sanguine skirt suit and glossy black heels that stand out against drab surroundings, her blonde hair tied up in a bun. She beams at me but through her dark-framed glasses I can see that her eyes are creased, impatient.
I mumble something about an unsafe work environment, gesturing feebly to my cubicle.
“Oh, right. I got your email some time ago. I’m Jenny. So sorry for the inconvenience; I’ll see that you’re relocated promptly.”
Like a lost lamb to a shepherd, I follow behind Jenny. She walks with a peculiar rhythm, click-clack click-clack, never faltering or slowing.
She stops at a cubicle identical to my own—rather, one that was identical to my own. Everything seems to be in pristine condition: a waste basket, a polished desk, and a shiny new monitor.
She smiles again. I don’t think her smile ever dropped, actually. “Here we are. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.”
I ease into my new swivel chair, my chest deflating with a breath. I remember how to do this; I remember how to work, I tell myself.
Like everything else today, it comes back easily. I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough LLC.
Another spreadsheet. More names. More dates. I punch them into an ever-expanding database, a page with no bottom. I’m efficient, and I waste no time. That’s why they hired me—right?
I blink. I must have lost my place in the sheet again. Before I resume working, I can’t help but glance over at the hole in the ceiling that compelled me to move. It’s not a steady drip anymore: only the last bit of runoff from a slanted tile. But the damage is already done.
I crane my neck to the screen and ignore the faint whiff of the sludge creeping up my nostrils.
At the end of the day, I hear lively chatter—a rare sound in the office. I’m more accustomed to the droning, client-friendly tones we habitually take over the phone. Following the sound, I find myself at the forefront of the break room, which in actuality isn’t a separate room at all: just a meager alcove in the labyrinth of the office floor.
It’s a party. Streamers drape the ceiling, red solo cups laid out next to generic dollar-store colas on the table. A dozen or so people are gathered here—celebrating what? They smile, they titter, but their faces don’t light up at all: just glazed happiness.
At odds with the party atmosphere, I approach Basil from Accounting, chatting up some woman too young for him as he props his arm up against the fridge. When we lock eyes, I ask about the occasion.
He turns to me right as the target of his unwanted affections leaves. I notice a sort of drunken sway in the tilt of his head, but it can’t be alcohol because drinking is strictly prohibited on building premises. “Didn’t you hear? Harvey’s getting promoted to upper management.”
Harvey—a name that hadn’t crossed my mind for months. Did he notice I was gone? Did he care?
Basil grins, the wrinkles of his pink cheeks accentuated by the strain. “The man of the hour hasn’t shown yet. What a guy, eh?”
I find myself pressing further. How did Harvey climb the ladder? I’d never heard of anyone managing a feat like that until now. Even if it’s not proper workplace etiquette, I voice the inquiry to Basil, wondering what he did to impress the bigwigs.
His fingers drum on the fridge. It’s strange, looking in his bespectacled eyes. I almost feel like I’m staring into the back of his skull: there’s nothing going on inside. Just a vacant stare that happened to be aimed in my direction.
“There’s a real shortage of documents and policy, you know?”
I take a second to process what Basil just said, waiting for it to make sense. But it doesn’t. Slowly, I repeat my question about Harvey’s promotion, rephrased just slightly.
He nods and says, “Weather today? Shirt suit sharp looking you think might. Soon productivity soon preferable excellent.”
It’s all nonsense, strung together in a way that sounds almost coherent. My heart quickens a little; has Basil lost touch with reality, or have I? Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand anymore. He still smiles at me, like he’s waiting for me to catch onto a joke. I back away slowly. Coming back to work was a bad idea.
That’s when I notice it. I must have mistaken it for a blemish or bruise earlier. An abnormality of the skin—a thin black vein that blushes darkly around Basil’s crown, running up his head and disappearing into his thin combover.
My stomach sinks as I eavesdrop on the conversations around me. I can only parse it as babble disguised as English, imitating the cadence and rhythm of conversation. Promotion Harvey great. Excited good metrics. Metrics ticket SEO.
Head spinning, I look around and see the same, dark vein rippling in the heads of everyone at the break room. I barely resist the urge to run far, far away; there’s no people here, only animals in suits and ties.
All except Harvey. I glimpse him standing alone at the window wall, cup in hand. I remember the Ravens game, getting hot wings with him inside a packed sports bar. He had me cracking up talking about the coach’s ‘square-ass face,’ but I can’t recall how the joke went. Maybe he’s different, so I pray. Desperate for a sane conversation, I sidle past my blissfully absent coworkers up to my friend.
He glances at me as I take my place beside him. I stare at him, wide-eyed, looking for any trace of the vein on his face. If I see it again, I might scream.
Silent, he looks back toward the city street below. His expression is weary, though lucid, gazing somewhere distant.
After a shaky breath, I try at small talk. The wife. The kids. What’s on TV. He gives short answers, never pulling his gaze away from the streets.
Then I ask how he got his promotion. He stops cold, glances at me in the corner of his vision, and brings the cup to his lips. His hand shakes.
“I tried getting out of here. Tried. But upper management said they got something for me, something that’ll change my mind,” he says. “It feels like I don’t really got a choice. Crazy, isn’t it?”
He smiles, but I can see the terror written on his face.
No, I tell him, not at all.
His smile fades.
When I think nobody’s listening, I ask him a simple question: are you happy, Harvey?
* * *
The following morning, I see everyone gathered by the break room window. Their faces are pressed against the glass like kids at an aquarium.
A murmur of gibberish floats in the air.
“Tragic sad condolences. Thoughts severance family.”
With a mounting sense of urgency, I shove past the suits until I can see it for myself.
Two-hundred feet down, Harvey is splayed across the curb. I recognize him by his wide frame and his blue shirt, not his face. His face is red mush. I don’t understand. Then I see the tire treads traveling up his chest, and realization sinks in.
Harvey has jumped in front of a bus.
I scream, shrill and raspy. The sound jumps out of me involuntarily, and I’m shocked to recognize it as my own voice.
The eyes of the office are on me now, incredulous that I’d react in such a way.
I remind them of his name. Harvey! Harvey is dead!
The crowd is unmoved. If only I could make them understand.
Taking advantage of the silence, I tell them that the company did this to him. I cry out that Hartway & Burrough has blood on its hands. Again, the crowd is unmoved. My heart pounds louder in the quiet break room.
Then, Sheila from Public Relations approaches me with a maternal smile, her eyes crinkled so kindly at me. I can’t help but focus on the black blemish in the skin beneath her forehead, a blossoming flower of bulging veins.
She gets a few syllables out before she gets out a wheezing cough. She gargles on her words, bile spattering the floor.
No, not bile; it’s black, and reeks of something oversweet. It dribbles from the corners of her lips and onto her chemise: the same sludge that coated my desk. My coworkers look on with half-lidded eyes, unfazed at the sight.
I bolt from the break room, panting, sweating. I need to get away from them, those animals. I don’t know what they’ll do to me if they get ahold of me, but I don’t want it. I run, and I hide.
After many panicked turns, I find refuge under my desk, cradling my head in my hands. The shade is comforting because the light is harsh. They can’t hurt me under here, in the dark.
Facing the cubicle wall, I lay wide awake for minutes, which bleeds into hours. I have no sense of time with no window to look through, but I know the building closes soon. What happens past dark? I don’t know; I haven’t thought that far ahead.
The chatter of the office becomes quiet, but never truly silent. I want so badly to cut across the floor to the elevator, but I can’t. If I see one of them again, I’ll pass out. I get why Harvey did it now. He didn’t want to end up like them.
I tell myself I still have one chance—that I can still leave and succeed where he failed.
I jolt and bang my head on the underside of my desk at the sound of numerous footsteps, coming from the opposite end of the office. I’m familiar with this meandering procession, because I’m usually part of it: the start of the day, 9:00 AM sharp.
It hits me that I’ve been holed up inside the building for a full day now. It didn’t feel like it, but it most certainly was.
Rising from my hiding spot, I peer out the window and see light, overcast clouds, confirming my fears. No one stopped me. No one even checked on me.
When the incessant noise of clacking keyboards starts up again, I remember that I shouldn’t be here. I need to get away. Now.
I look frantically around like a twitching rat, weighing my options. I tried to leave, once. They pulled me back; this I know to be true, but I can’t explain how.
If I can’t leave, then I’ll force them to remove me from the premises. That’s the only way out now.
With newfound determination, I lift the computer monitor off my desk. Hoisting it overhead is a terrible strain. My muscles must have atrophied in the time I’ve been working at Hartway & Burrough.
I shout, and throw the damned thing down to the floor, ripping out the cords in the process. The black display shatters into hundreds of little shards. Good. I start stomping the plastic shell beneath my polished dress shoes. There’s a manic joy I take in watching company equipment buckle, bend, break. I love this. A massive weight lifts from my shoulders, one that I never knew was there; I think I wanted to do this for a long time, before Harvey and before the sludge.
When I’m done, I stand up on my chair, almost falling off when the wheels move on the carpet. From this high up, I stand above all the cubicles in the office. Still riding the high, I cast my keyboard and pencils out into the maze. Did I strike anyone? I don’t know. I sing, I yell, I laugh.
My grin falters when I survey the cubicles again. None of my coworkers react to my show, my desperate little cry for attention. Their sagging, bloodshot eyes squint at the glow of their own monitors at their own desks. There is no acknowledgment, not even a sidelong glance.
A mix of fear and shame compels me to step down, like a misbehaved child meeting their father’s disdainful gaze.
I emerge from my cubicle into the maze and demand to be released, to be fired. My voice is hoarse, guttural; I want to sound forceful, but it comes out desperate. I will be free. I will not die as Harvey did. I will be free.
My pulse quickens at a familiar sound half-identified: an instinctual reaction. From a blind intersection emerges a pair of black heels in a slender—or maybe spindly—frame.
Jenny from upper management stands opposite me in this white aisle of cubicles. My eyes are naturally drawn toward her. In a monochrome-gray office she wears red. Surrounded by hunched animals she stands upright. Where all eyes are glazed over hers are alert. Short of breath, I realize she’s not like the others. Not even like Harvey. She looks like any other office worker, but her presence is otherworldly—something neither animal nor man.
“Is everything alright?” she asks; a formality, of course. There is no warmth in her stiff posture, hands steepled at the waist.
No, I tell her, I want to get the hell away from here.
No sooner after I voice my intention to leave does the pain strike: a killer headache knocking on the inside of my skull. Something is trying to cow me into submission, but I won’t let them. My knees wobble, not of my own accord. I can hardly stand. The elevator doors aren’t far; I can make it there, one step at a time…
“This doesn’t really seem like a productive use of your time,” Jenny says, her voice like a knife in my brain. “Why don’t you take a few deep breaths and try to focus on work?”
Breathing heavy, I tell Jenny to eat shit. The paychecks can’t make me come back. I let her know that I’m going to run far away from here and forget all about this. My life is my own.
I hobble past her, and she steps aside without complaint. Even with my back turned to her I can still feel her hawkish gaze, prying for weakness.
“Don’t you want to know?” she suddenly asks, in a tantalizing tone unlike her usual professional prattle.
I look over my shoulder, knowing she has nothing good to offer me. And yet I listen anyway.
She smiles at me. There’s something inhuman about her mouth, a little too thin, a little too long: red lipstick smears end to end, as if she’s bit into some succulent fruit.
“Harvey was going to see for himself. Got cold feet at the last second,” she explains, feigning disappointment in her voice. The black tinge blooms inside her head, throbbing like a heartbeat. “But you don’t have to end up like him. Come and see—the thirty-third floor.”
I blink. Jenny is gone, disappeared, but I remember what she said with perfect clarity.
My migraine is lifted. The elevator beckons me: a chance to escape!
My gait hastens to a full-on sprint. I press the button over and over. The steel doors part, releasing cold air.
And then I am alone inside a metal box.
I can leave now. I’m free.
I swallow a lump, staring long into the elevator buttons. My finger hovers over ‘ground floor.’ It’s so easy. All I have to do is push it and run when the doors open.
I consciously avoid looking at ‘33’ until I can bear it no longer. I expect something terrible to happen, but it’s only a button, I tell myself.
A dangerous thought crosses my mind.
Would it really be so bad to see it for myself? Just to satiate my curiosity—one peek, that’s all. It’s strange. Minutes ago, I wanted nothing more than to be free of this place, but now I feel like I haveto know the secret of this building. The question would haunt me if I left now.
My hand glides to the button labeled ‘33.’ The motion is graceful, almost effortless. Against every impulse of my rational mind, I press the button.
One by one, I watch the numbers tick up. Judging by the elevator’s long ascent, the building is much taller than I remember, impossibly so. The temperature falls chill, and I feel my breath start to hitch, as though I’m scaling a mountain.
A chime marks the end of my journey. 33, the analog interface reads.
The elevator opens to a cramped hall. A single, dim bulb lights outside the elevator. To my right is a dead end. To my left is a long stretch of hallway. I can’t even see the end of it through the darkness.
This must be where Harvey turned back and gave up, I realize. Unbearable anticipation swells in my chest, and when the lift closes behind me, I feel trapped.
The far end of the hall calls out to me in a way that defies the senses. I can’t explain how; it simply does. So I walk, guided only by the bulbs that light up one-by-one with my approach. Dear Christ, the smell; a single whiff makes my uvula quiver and my chest heave. It’s like I’ve buried my nose in it, the oxygen tainted with the scent of melted caramel and fly-swarming manure.
The smell heralds its arrival, of course. The black, bubbling sludge seeps from every orifice of the corridor, between the cracking seams of the walls and ceiling. It thickens to a fine paste on the floor, and I’m forced to wade through the ankle-deep puddles at my feet. It weighs me down every step, cold where it touches my bare skin.
Strange as it is, I’m not afraid. The pounding in my heart could be likened more to excitement more than anything else. And that terrifies me. Have I already gone mad? Am I no different than the mindless beasts wandering the office floor? I can’t be sure anymore. But I must walk.
As I walk further, the squalor spreads. The drywall has crumbled, revealing crumbling supports infested with rot. It looks more like a cave dwelling than a building now. I stand before a door, made of aged, termite-eaten wood with a greasy gold knob. There’s a sense of finality at this threshold, as if all the answers I seek are waiting on the other side, for better or for worse.
I open the door.
My eyes widen and water.
The walls are flesh, and the floors are flesh, and the room is beating, living flesh. I can only describe the texture as meat: red, pulpy meat.
My coworkers are here too. They cling to the walls like helpless babes, sucking on the teat of red, ringed tendrils. I watch their swollen lips pucker around the tip, and how they seem to shrivel for moments like they’re being drained from a straw. They feed from the tendrils. The tendrils feed on them.
Their cheeks are sallow, skin sunken. Their upper halves are identifiably human, but their lower halves bulge and swell beyond recognition, all slugs’ tails that beat contentedly on the floor beside their torn clothes. Black sludge pours out from their flabby skin, slipping through the gaps of intestine on the floor. My heart skips a beat, as I realize the cause behind the fallen ceiling tile in my cubicle.
At the center of the room sits a thing that defies classification. Bulbous and huge, it sits in a coil of itself, with that same pinkish slug’s tail as its brood. It lacks eyes, but bears many nostrils, in places where nostrils don’t belong. Its upper half sags beneath the weight of six breasts, and its mouth is a gaping sucker lined with teeth. Stringy cords adorn its body, connecting it to the walls of the chamber. It is the beating heart of this building.
It’s so beautiful. Mother! Mother, mother!
She has no eyes to see me but she must know I am here.
I tremble and shake with joy. I ache to be closer. I ache to be with her. I ache.
I take my last step closer, triggering metamorphosis.
My head is about to burst. I can feel it, birthing out of me.
My jaw is forced open by something from within. The bones crack loudly, the sound ringing in my ears. At last, a wriggling tail protrudes from my mouth, large and fat. The worm emerges from its willing host. For the first time it feels warm air on its smooth, segmented body. I am grateful to have nursed such a precious creature into existence, for this is what I’m meant to do. My agony is a small thing, compared to the euphoria of serving mother.
I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough.
Sam Bostwick is a Midwest-based author with a love for the strange. He is studying English at North Central College.
One of those small towns that has a Main Street nestled between two mountains.
A Main Street outlined with stringed lights slowed by one stop light, three stop signs, and four intersections.
Stop signs where people actually take the time to stop, even when there is nobody else around… And rarely is there…
One of those small towns that has one homeless person. A lady, Claire, who wheels a yellow suitcase up and down the streets at all hours of the night. Everyone hears the clacking of the wheels on the empty sidewalk echoing in the quiet darkness.
She appears to be in her Sunday best until she’s close by, and then one can see the tears and stains on her dress, her unwashed hair pulled back under a Parisian hat. A face aged beyond her years and teeth that expose her addiction.
One of those small towns where the town council can argue politics the night before, then share family pictures the next day at the cafe over glasses of orange juice and pancakes.
A cafe where at the lunch counter, the round mayor’s latest complaint about his wife is her inviting that one homeless woman, Claire, over for dinner the week before.
One of those small towns where the mayor wants to run Claire out to prove to his constituents, he’s tough on crime. Being homeless isn’t illegal, but when they have nothing else to complain about, it becomes a topic.
A Mayor who preaches about family values yet doesn’t speak to his daughter who is now his son and lives far away.
One of those small towns that celebrates flag day with a parade and makes a big deal about the little league opening day.
A place where people walk along the shops and wave to the volunteer firefighters as their shiny red truck passesby.
One of those small towns where the people gossip and whisper about the mayor’s wife who has been missing, and yet still welcome him into their homes for a cup of coffee.
The mayor explains his wife is visiting his daughter as he heavily pours the sugar and milk into his cup.
One of those small towns where the local kids ride their bikes, but after dark they avoid the street with the historic city hall building because they swear it’s haunted.
Claire hears those children who perpetuate the urban legend about how she worked in that city hall until she was driven mad by the evil spirits inside. The clacking of her suitcase scares them off.
After dinner at the mayor’s a few weeks earlier, the clacking seemed to slow down as the suitcase got suddenly heavier for her and took more effort to jump the sidewalk cracks. The years may be wearing on her.
One of those small towns where the police finally take a break from their usual worn stools along the lunch counter at the café and put Claire in the back of a patrol car because re-election day is coming. The officer does apologize for it.
Claire’s smell is so strong, the officer has to pull the car over. Not the smell of years surviving on the street, but something more deviant. A smell that’s not coming from her but her suitcase in the trunk.
One of those small towns where the officer opens the suitcase and the mayor’s wife is found in pieces. The whispers of gossip from the locals have now become open lunch counter conversation at the cafe.
Conversations about Claire being questioned by police. Her story of being greeted by the mayor’s wife when she arrived for dinner. Then the woman feeling ill and heading to bed early before Claire left but strangely never saying goodbye. She does recall a thud on the other side of the house just before the mayor returned to refill her coffee. If those walls could talk – that night, and every night for the last 20 years.
One of those small towns where nothing was ever proven but the mayor soon disappeared. The homeless woman Claire wandered her way back and life went on…Those small plastic wheels click-clacked one more along the concrete.
But miles and miles away was…
One of those towns that soon had a round homeless man who wandered the streets at all hours of the night, and who kids on their bikes avoided after dark… Whispering… “That’s the man who supposedly killed his wife…”
Sometimes his son, accompanied by his own kids, would bring him a sandwich and a cup of coffee…
It should have been a magnificent day in North Hollywood. Except magnificent would be pushing it. In all truth, the day was okay. Bearable at best. Intolerable, if one was being honest.
Marley stood in the canned vegetable aisle of the grocery store staring at the display and wondering where her marriage had gone wrong. It was Thanksgiving, although comical Halloween witches and friendly ghosts highlighting sales prices and
specialty items still decorated the store, hanging motionless among red and black streamers.
Marley smiled sadly, the irony of a frozen Halloween not lost on her.
It was hot in the store because the air was off. And quiet. She’d never thought the day would come when she actually missed Muzak, but that day was here. Staring at the cans, Marley was unable to choose. Amazingly, deliveries were still randomly being made, and many stores hadn’t been emptied out entirely.
As Marley inspected some Del Monte seasoned vegetables, someone shuffled past. She stilled. It wasn’t the vaguely familiar neighbor who had been in the candy section earlier. And it definitely wasn’t her husband. Where was Sean?
Poking her head out, Marley saw a middle-aged woman in a brightly flowered housecoat shuffling aimlessly forward like a sleepwalker. In other times, Marley would have assumed she’d been drinking. Heavily.
A loud clang issued from the back of the store, echoing like a gong strike. The automotive section. Sean. It was a tiny little display and she didn’t even know why he bothered. Especially since they hardly drove anymore. Marley watched as the housecoated woman’s step stuttered then picked up with renewed vigor, as if she had just remembered what she’d come into the store for. She beelined straight for the back.
Marley started to yell but then stopped. No loud voices. She glanced around. Where were the cops when you needed them? The ones who had stayed, anyway. She scooped up a can of lima beans, intent on hurling it in the opposite direction, like someone trying to lure a T-rex from an unsuspecting herbivore, but was suddenly paralyzed as bitterness and regret launched duel attacks on her psyche.
What if she didn’t warn Sean? Wouldn’t that just be…nature in action? Evolution? Fate.
Movement. The neighbor popped out of an aisle, swinging something over his head, but suddenly Sean lurched out of nowhere and grabbed his arm. The neighbor shrieked in terror and Sean bellowed, “No!” as the woman bore down on them. A resounding crack pierced the dead air of the store. The woman collapsed, her flowered housecoat fluttering daintily around her. Both men stood panting, the neighbor still gripping the axe, handle-side-up, because Sean had forced him to knock her out instead of splitting her skull open.
Sean zeroed in on Marley, frantic. Spotting the can in her hand, his expression immediately shifted toward…what was that, exactly? Was she imagining things? No, she was not. Suspicion and doubt raced through his eyes, but not fast enough for her to miss it, and invisible steam blasted from her ears. How dare he? How dare he! As Sean and the neighbor began to argue, Marley turned on her heel and left.
She stood on the deserted sidewalk coaxing her blood pressure down and only succeeded in amplifying the unpleasant images that signified the state of her and Sean’s union: impatience, sarcasm, snipes, bickering. She looked inward, trying to pinpoint the origin of the rot that had steadily swollen then burst its borders with a sickening pop. Stepping carefully over a dead squirrel, Marley fast-walked past a deserted Starbucks, intent on getting home before Sean, even though she knew she shouldn’t be out here alone.
For a while, the first two years at least, they had been inseparable. The honeymoon period, it was called. It was real. The most perverse April Fool’s joke nature had available. A delusion borne of crazed oxytocin and dopamine hijacking poor serotonin, then all of them leaping head-first into a super-obnoxious biological rumspringa.
They had met in Griffith Park one sunny Saturday, united by a strange incident involving a diapered toddler wandering around the parking lot alone. Each had zeroed in on the child from opposite directions and met in the middle, the boy their perigee. Amidst flashing smiles and thinly veiled suggestive banter, they’d delivered the child to park authorities.
A year later, they were married. Now, five years after that…what had she been thinking about today? That it was unbearable? Yes. No. Intolerable. Intolerable. And, yeah, the strange new flu that was causing an almost-worldwide epidemic was pretty bad too. But that wasn’t personal. Her marriage was.
And frankly, about the world situation, she wasn’t surprised. In fact, Marley found it ironic that something which had been the subject of conspiracy theories for years had finally been proven true and had ultimately brought the fall of humankind. Or a lot of humankind. Humankind in certain countries. That thing being the fluoridation of water.
Hearing a new sound, she tensed again, but it was only Sean across the street, pulling his pointless tire iron out of his backpack.
That look in the store, practically accusing her of premeditated murder, was enough to get him the silent treatment for days. Maybe she’d fantasized about life without Sean for five seconds—so what? She wasn’t a monster.
Across the street, Sean walked silently but then suddenly swiveled, surprising her with a smile. He was very passionate but didn’t hold grudges. Even for a sneaking suspicion of possible attempted murder. It wasn’t a big smile. Just a small, rueful smile like, “We’re really in the shit now, aren’t we?” and her heart melted a little to feel a tiny bit of that feeling again like, “It’s all downhill from here. But at least we have each other.”
Unfortunately, he destroyed any good feelings she was clinging to when he announced at home later, “We’re going to my parents’ today.”
Hardly anybody liked their in-laws, and Marley was a clichéd member of that club. She had tried, at first, but the in-laws had made it clear through body language and coded verbal messages that they didn’t approve of Sean’s choice.
Sean’s parents were from Brazil and claimed to be distant relatives of Machado de Assis, one of Brazil’s greatest writers. If that was true, Marley thought you would never know it from meeting Sean, who had been a professional motocross racer. He wasn’t dumb by any stretch, but he wasn’t a writer, and he wasn’t creative at all except when it came to engines and wheels and dirt and how their synchronization enhanced the purpose of the universe.
Now 36, he was semi-retired, dedicating his time to sponsorships, commercials, and guest appearances. Right now, of course, he was doing nothing, due to the almost-worldwide pandemic.
Marley watched Sean as he darted into his parents’ bedroom with a bucket half-filled with saltine crackers. A series of spine-tingling noises erupted from within, a disturbing clamor of gagging and gibbering.
Sean backed out quickly. Something thudded and scratched against the closed door. Sean’s parents. Then the crunching began. They loved saltines. It had been a happy discovery. Sean had experimented with everything before that: cooked and uncooked meat, rotting fruit, moldy bread, sardines, fish, cookies, salami. Then one day when he left some imported Harzer cheese and saltines, the next day the cheese was still there but the saltines were gone.
Sean needed a shave and his black, curly hair hung past his ears. He looked tired. After retrieving a soda from the fridge (power and water were still going strong) he slumped down on the dusty sofa and popped open the Orange Slice, holding it out to Marley first. She declined.
Sean’s parents had returned to “life” five days ago, so the hurt was still recent for him. The dreadful tableau describing their end had played out before them through grisly, static clues when they had arrived at the house one sunny morning bearing supplies from Whole Foods: a toppled ladder outside, his father’s neck at a gruesome angle, his mother’s heart pills spilled along the floor.
What had his father been doing, anyway, cleaning out the gutters on the roof? During a semi-worldwide pandemic? Marley imagined him careening off, and then the mother running outside, shrieking, her heart stuttering. But then she realized her former father-in-law was like many others who believed that things would go back to normal one day. He had no choice but to keep up the equity in his home.
The last they’d heard on the news two days ago was that everybody was taking a break in the flu-cum-fluoride-poisoning emergency because the Festival of Sam Fermin, Diwali, Glastonbury Festival, Octoberfest, Maitisong Festival, and Morocco’s Fez Festival, along with many others, were combining for the first time ever, like a humongous cultural Voltron. Festivities were slated to take place simultaneously somewhere in Western Europe and Northern Africa for a two-week balls-to-the-wall self-congratulatory “dodged a bullet” drinking and dance party. They had been smart enough, after all, to either ban fluoridation years ago or to never even consider doing it in the first place. The same could not be said for Singapore, Australia, Israel, the U.S., and the other fallen fluoridated countries.
Marley agreed. Anyone in their right mind would need time off from a sudden flu-like disease that reduced people to a shambling fugue state. Or for the really unfortunate—coming back to life after dying. The top brains in the world couldn’t, for the life of them, figure out how fluoride and some yet unnamed element within those who succumbed had combined together to create what was essentially zombies. That were blackout drunk mean.
At first everyone thought the fuguers were clawing at people to eat them, like the movies. That was why Sean had tried the German Harzer cheese with his parents, thinking the hideous odor might fool them into believing it was intestines. But the violence turned out to be accidental, attributable simply to poor coordination. Most of the time, the fuguers didn’t do much except just try to bite you.
Eyeing Sean’s soda, Marley’s stomach rumbled. Both of them had lost weight, more from stress than a lack of food, since things hadn’t gotten that bad yet. A plus for Marley at first, except that now even her breasts were shrinking, and she needed them, as “the twins” were a major male attraction.
Marley caught herself with a start. This was the first time she had actually been making plans. She wanted out. From Sean. She watched as he jerked at a particularly loud thud against the bedroom door. Marley felt pity for Mr. and Mrs. Sousa. They would suffer endlessly because one-time Junior Motocross champ and three-time pro Supercross champ Sean Sousa possessed an innate glowing optimism that even this fluoride-induced purgatory couldn’t dim. In short, he believed everyone was going to get better.
Marley couldn’t even broach the delicate subject of “dispatching” them. Sean would have an aneurism. The only saving grace was that the awkward chit-chatting and stifled silences of before were gone. The house was now flooded with guttural grunts and groans, wheezy breathing, clawed hands thrusting out mindlessly, reminding Marley of the strip club where she’d once worked.
Marley’s own parents had divorced when she was a child and her mother, from whom she was estranged, still lived in Ojai where she worked in a farm-to-table restaurant. Her father was a musician and her parents’ hippie-dippy ways were the reason for her stupid name, an altar erected in honor of Bob Marley. Marley had no idea what was going on with her mother and, sadly, cared very little about her or her loser beatnik friends.
Later, heading home, they walked in silence. Many buildings and houses were normal while others had boarded-up windows like a scene from The Birds. You could leave if you wanted to (but why would you; it was the same everywhere else in the U.S.) through one of the major checkpoints, if you weren’t sick.
Conveniently, symptoms began to show almost immediately for this disease: a steep drop in temperature (instead of a fever), loss of coordination and speech (as if drunk), and most noticeably, the whites of the eyes turned a deep bloodshot red. In other words, if you looked and acted like Keith Richards on a bender, you got a one-way ticket to quarantine.
Marley and Sean continued down the sidewalk beneath the cawing crows. Sean’s condo was several blocks away from Sean’s parents’ house, but obviously not far enough. They passed an apartment complex where an elderly woman in a jarring neon orange track suit stood pouring water out of a bowl onto a square of yellow, brittle lawn. The woman glanced at them and waved, though her face remained expressionless. Sean waved back. The hair stood up on the back of Marley’s neck.
The next block over she spotted a discarded set of shelves lying on its side that, even in its dilapidated state, she recognized as an Ikea product. Shuddering, she imagined the stray souls that might be stuck in the Ikea across town, shuffling aimlessly around. The definition of hell, in Marley’s opinion: bumping over and over into an Ekorre rocking moose or walking head-on into a Sallskap glass door cabinet for eternity. She was familiar with the products because she had worked at Ikea for half a year while she was still in high school.
Sean grabbed her hand and squeezed once before linking their fingers. He carried the tire iron in his other hand, swinging it back and forth jauntily like an umbrella or maybe a top hat. He used it to hold the fuguers back or to give them a good shove.
“Did you see that set of Expedit shelves back there?” Marley asked conversationally. “It was one of the most popular shelf sets at Ikea.”
Sean glanced at her and grinned. “Why? Are the instructions written in English instead of ancient Viking?”
Marley smiled tolerantly. “They discontinued it,” she said dreamily. She wasn’t sure where she had picked that information up, not having been involved with Ikea for many years. It bothered her. If her mind was a mysterious, powerful sponge that absorbed facts with a minimum of effort, then why hadn’t it gotten her further? Ingvar Kamprad had been 17 when he founded IKEA. Despite being dyslexic. What excuse did she have?
She knew why, though. She hadn’t necessarily wanted to work for success. She had thought her looks would get her far. Compared to Sean’s mocha skin and brilliant, seductive smile, she was his complete opposite with her pale cheeks and wispy blond hair but yet just as attractive, she thought, with her girl-next-door looks. Which made Mr. and Mrs. Sousa’s antagonism toward her even more disconcerting, because she’d thought Brazilians were super into white people.
Which led her to suspect that, even though Sean swore up and down that he’d never told his parents about her stripping (which she’d only done briefly; under a year) he was lying through his teeth.
Marley sighed, switching mental gears. “Why do you think we’re still alive?” She wasn’t expecting an answer. She knew Sean did not have an answer. Sean’s fingers, insanely strong from hanging onto various handlebars for dear life for ten years straight, clamped down hard, painfully compressing her knuckles.
“I don’t know, man,” he said softly. Sean always called her “man.” He called everybody “man.”
If you had to pick something from the list of everyday no-nos that went on, though, it could have been anything. Nobody was sure which bad thing had crashed into the other and then had taken a joy ride on fluoridated water straight into the DNA of the unsuspecting populace. Considering all the horrible things they were doing to the planet, it was kind of amazing that this hadn’t happened sooner. It was amazing that she and Sean remained virtually untouched. Or maybe their innards were floating, right now, in a menacing toxic cocktail, just waiting to be triggered…
Marley was torn from her reverie as Sean yanked her down roughly. She hissed, feeling gravel and dirt grind into her off-white culottes. They were on the sidewalk beside a dusty Audi with two flat back tires. Sean’s arm snaked up past Marley’s head and eased the passenger door open.
“Get in,” he murmured.
Hearing subdued panic, Marley obliged him. It was a 2014 model, so it wasn’t hard to scramble past the gearshift into the driver’s seat. She looked through the windshield. Two parking tickets lay motionless beneath the wipers. Beyond that, down the street, a dozen or more fuguers were shuffling straight toward them.
Where the hell had they come from? Once in the passenger seat, Sean eased the door closed. An odd scraping noise grew in volume. They sat rigidly as the small crowd approached the car and then swarmed past.
The group consisted of Mexicans, white people, and Black people, a mix you would rarely see together in L.A. Here they were ambling down the street like old friends after a barbecue. Some were blood-streaked, sporting bites and bruises, hair torn out, some pristine, as if they’d just exited a day spa. Their eyes were as red as a handful of fresh cherries from Trader Joe’s.
One man limped along, his foot swollen and purple, jammed between the spokes of an expensive mountain bike which he dragged behind him, creating the scraping noise. Having worked in a bike shop for several years, Marley identified the brand immediately.
The infected rider’s bright yellow biking outfit was missing from the waist down and Marley ogled the mangled remains of his manhood with muted horror. Beside him trudged a small woman dressed in a pale blue power suit, pristine except for one slash down the right sleeve. Something about her expression caught Marley’s attention. The eyes…looked almost focused. And not as red as the others either. Maybe just like someone with a bad case of pink eye.
Once the walkers had plodded several blocks away Sean said, “Come on, let’s go.”
“You need to put your parents out of their misery,” Marley blurted out, thinking of the bike rider wandering endlessly through North Hollywood with his damaged junk. She wasn’t sure why she cared, but even your worst enemy didn’t deserve that, did he? As expected, Sean’s newly-lean face blanched beneath his rich South American complexion.
“I can’t believe you just said that, man.” This, almost whispered. Then, louder, “Could you do that?” And louder still, “If it was your mother?”
Marley rolled her eyes. Sean made a disgusted sound.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “I forgot. You hate her. Because she actually cares about people. Because she runs a community garden. Because she feeds the homeless. She’s disgusting. Let’s behead her!”
“I don’t hate her,” Marley hissed. Her ribs felt like sharp knives barely holding in her guts. “But that hippie-dippy stuff doesn’t get you anywhere! Where did it get the hippies from before? Most of them just sold out and became yuppies later! And my mom’s just getting by. Like she always has.”
“Your mother isn’t a hippie because she feeds the homeless. What are you, crazy? You’re hung up on that word, man! And even if she was a hippie, she’s the coolest hippie I’ve ever met.”
Sean had met her mother once after they’d gotten married and then they’d all gone out again a year later. It was like he was in love with her or something. But he was only in love with an idea, the theory of philanthropy. The way Marley had been in love with the idea of marriage, which had only turned out to be a flimsy ideal, at best, like almost everything else.
“Hey, man,” Marley mimicked him, “did you tell your parents that I used to strip?”
Sean struggled to turn his big, athletic body in the passenger seat of the abandoned Audi.
“I told you I didn’t, man. Why don’t you believe me?”
“Because they’re never nice to me. Even now. I’ve never seen a corpse look so disgusted. They’re dead and they still remember how disgusted they were. They won’t let go of it.”
Sean stared at her, running his tongue along the inside of his cheek. More and more of that as the marriage went on. When had it started happening? She couldn’t remember. Supposedly, everyone went through it. And some people survived it. She didn’t know how that was possible, though, because her heart felt blocked off, like a construction site surrounded by scaffolding, like there would never be more funds to complete the project, so the scaffolding would never be taken down.
Sean shook his head slightly. “You think my altered—sick—parents…” He would never utter the D-word. “…are holding a grudge against you?”
She knew how ridiculous it sounded, but she knew how they’d felt while they were alive, before they were altered, as Sean would say, and she could sense that they still felt the same way. Like they were still in there. Like they hadn’t really died but were in some kind of suspended animation holding death at bay. Which would mean, inconceivably, that Sean was right, and nobody should be killing the fuguers.
Sean exited the car without speaking and Marley followed suit as the sound of screeching tires punctured the silence. Far down the street, a troop of cops clad head to toe in Hilason Bite Suits and protective head gear poured out of a black van and began herding the fuguers into the back. The dog training suits really had been genius, because the group clawed and bit and scratched and fumbled, but the padded troopers were untouchable.
One of the cops scanning the street spotted Sean and Marley and froze, raising a testing hand a moment later. When Sean and Marley responded in kind, he turned away, satisfied, and aided his brethren with their grim duties.
After the van departed, Marley joined Sean on the sidewalk, continuing home in silence. Not holding hands now. Sean muttered under his breath, and Marley knew it was ire directed at the police and the unknown destination of the infected. They passed a man slipping inside the glass door of an office building on Victory Boulevard who pretended not to see them. Then at the last minute he turned and called, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
Sean and Marley responded automatically, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
They crossed Victory, heading north, and were almost home when they were ambushed by someone hurtling out from behind a tree. All Marley saw were gigantic breasts before Sean unceremoniously shoved her aside, swinging the tire iron before him. Marley scrabbled backwards along the ground into a piece of wood. She grabbed it and stood up, shaking.
Sean yelled, “Oh, my God!”
Thinking he was reacting to the fuguer (What was wrong? Was her head teetering on her shoulders, connected only by sinew? Was a Chihuahua chowing down on her tongue?) Marley raised the wood high. This would be her first time assaulting a random stranger.
“No, wait!” Sean yelled, barring Marley with his arm. And then he said the last thing on earth she expected him to say.
“It’s my ex. It’s Sofia!”
Sean sat on the sofa at home, his head in his hands, probably wondering how he was going to keep Sofia alive. They had tried giving her saltines, but she apparently had different nutritional requirements than his parents. Now Sean was worried that she actually did want to suck on a raw pancreas, and how was that achievable? Since being a pacifist and a gentle giant meant that you were incapable of providing your beautiful ex-girlfriend with dogs or cats to tear limb from limb, it also meant your beautiful ex-girlfriend might starve to death.
Marley lay on the carpet in her sullied culottes listening to Sofia’s muffled groans and nails scratching on the door of the guest room Sean had locked her in. Of course, thought Marley. Of course this was Sofia. Sean had mentioned her once or twice before. But he had never fully described her, and she could see why. The sultry epitome of feminine womanhood locked in the back room was a beautiful Hispanic girl seemingly no older than her mid-20s. When Marley had met Sean, she had been in her late 20s. Now she was 32. Sean was 36. When had Sean dated this girl, while she was in high school?
To top it off, she possessed enormous breasts. They’d been the only thing Marley could see during the attack, blocking out everything else. Real. Not fake. Marley could tell.
Yeah, she was fugued out and Marley wasn’t, but so what? It was the irony that counted. The fact that the “world” had ended during Halloween. The fact that Sean had run into, of all the people in Los Angeles, his ex, a beautiful girl with breasts that had room to store the mysteries of the stars inside them. The fact that an all-consuming rot was forever seeking dominance, on so many levels, and Marley was powerless against it. The only comfort was that she wasn’t alone. The world was powerless against it too.
Due to the turn of events, they forgot to eat the deli turkey slices and cornbread they had made earlier to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Several days later, Sean caught some rats in a hamster cage. After trying everything under the sun to feed Sofia, including the failed saltines, he had finally given in to the thing he abhorred the most: murder. Even rat murder. He and Marley stood in the backyard of their condo, the dead grass poking at their feet over the sides of their flip-flops. It was a temperate 78 degrees outside. Now that Thanksgiving was past, Christmas would be here soon. It would probably be 85 degrees by then. Time to break out the shorts and tank tops, suck some gas out of abandoned cars, and head for the beach.
Sofia was tied to the fence with one of Marley’s silk scarves. She reached out listlessly now and then, swinging her hand in their general direction.
The experiment was on. Before they had come out here, Sean had taken four Entertainment magazines and wound two each around Marley’s arms, securing them with duct tape. She had no idea why they were even out here, why they weren’t just tossing the rats into the room with Sofia and locking the door. She sighed, at a loss to even begin to glean Sean’s thought processes.
“Where are your magazines?” she asked, holding out her awkwardly bundled arms.
He shrugged, preoccupied with the rats and the cage. “I’ll be fine.”
Which was actually funny, because as Sean lifted the cage, trying to decide the best way to feed the unsuspecting rats to Sofia, Sofia was suddenly standing beside Marley, also watching Sean.
Marley jerked, throwing up her armored arm, which Sofia immediately seized and sank her teeth into. I bet he used a half hitch knot, Marley thought incoherently, her gaze locked on Sofia’s light-pink (pink?) eyes. For some reason, Sean’s fondness for half hitch knots had only increased with time, despite the fact that they’d failed him in many situations.
Sean dropped the rats and threw himself at Sofia, grappling for her wrists. The diminutive woman ducked her head and nicked Sean’s forearm before he could yank it away. Not a lot. Just a nip. But there was blood.
Marley sat on a chair in the living room staring at Sean.
He lay on the sofa, one arm thrown over his face, eyes closed. It was many hours later, and he still didn’t seem to be displaying any symptoms, although he seemed a tad feverish, which was good, she guessed, because fever wasn’t part of the sickness.
Marley could hear Sofia in the back room trying the doorknob. At least that’s what it sounded like. That was weird. After the incident, she had helped Sean restrain Sofia and together they had delivered her into the back. Then they had dumped half a container of peroxide on his arm followed by antiseptic swipes followed by many globs of Neosporin.
Marley realized as she stared at Sean that she was mentally packing a duffle bag in her mind. No canned stuff. Too heavy. They had lots of potato chips, string cheese, wine (also heavy, but pretty much a necessity), the corn bread.
Out of nowhere, the abandoned toddler who had brought her and Sean together sprang to mind. He’d be about eight now, and with parents that dumb, he was probably hiding in the broom closet while his folks wandered in wide, clueless circles around the family room. She started tearing up and was rubbing her eyes when Sean woke up.
“Please don’t kill me,” he said immediately.
She sat up in the chair. “Why? How do you feel?”
He paused, assessing. “I don’t know, man. I feel okay.”
Marley leaned back, exhausted. She dropped her face into her hands. She couldn’t just leave him now. Could she? Maybe she was a monster.
“But when it happens…don’t kill me. I mean it, man. It would be a mistake.”
Marley considered that for a moment. Maybe for Sean it would be a mistake. Or Sofia, who looked okay. Or that lady in the power suit who had seemed fine other than a torn sleeve. But the guy with the mutilated genitals? Did he really want to miraculously wake up from this nightmare only to be immediately thrust into a new one?
“Marley. Marley. You hear me? Promise me.”
Marley looked up. “I promise.”
“And don’t kill my parents.”
She hesitated for two beats then nodded.
She rolled her eyes.
“I’m not going to kill any of you,” she snapped.
Beside them, the Entertainment magazines lay on the coffee table where she had torn them off. The one bearing Sofia’s teeth-marks lay prominently on top, a sad reminder of Sean’s wise forethought.
“I’m not going to kill you,” she said, more softly.
Sean exhaled and rolled onto his side. His teeth flashed in his face. He laughed. “Jesus,” he said, laughing. Marley laughed a little, too. It was contagious. And Sean had a great smile. She sniffled a little, feeling blue.
“Hey, babe,” said Sean, holding out his arms, “Come here.”
It was hard to resist Sean. That was why she had married him in the first place. She slowly lowered herself to the carpet and crawled over and laid her head on his chest.
“It’ll be okay,” Sean was whispering. “Don’t cry.” He rubbed her back gently in comforting circles. “I feel okay.” And then, the coup de grace. “Maybe nothing’ll happen.”
There it was again! Maybe, hopefully, if we’re lucky, possibly, probably. Pulling away, Marley sat back on her heels and gazed into the middle distance. She wasn’t Sean and would never be Sean with two parents who adored her, possible literary genius running through her DNA, and a talent for riding motorcycles which the excitement-seeking throngs elevated to a god-like status. Of course he was an optimist, coming out of that environment. Marley’s mother had been raised in a semi-commune, gotten pregnant early, always said, “It’s all good,” when it wasn’t all good. There had been times when Marley had been hungry as a child. Was that all good?
As Marley stared off, Sean heaved a tremendous sigh. A moment later he asked her, “What are you thinking about?”
“Ingvar Kamprad. The guy that founded Ikea.”
Sean closed his eyes, crossed his arms over his chest, and lay completely still as if he was dead. Marley pushed on.
“Can you even wrap your mind around the incredible potential,” Marley began in a low, passionate voice, “of a 17-year-old boy…starting a furniture store—not thinking about, not talking about—actually doing it, even though it was just a catalogue business at first, but still…” Her voice began to rise. “To be so young and so driven…and for this…catalogue business to turn into Ikea, this world-famous, multinational conglomerate…”
Sean had opened his eyes and was watching her with growing unease as if witnessing a terrible motocross accident unfolding before him.
“And then…” Marley continued, faltering. Her eyes filled with tears. “His stuff turns into crap.” She sniffled. “Everything turns into crap.” She lifted her shoulders and dropped them. “All that…red…hot… boiling…potential…” She gestured around her helplessly. “…just leads to cheap, rickety crap?”
Marley and Sean regarded one another silently. Then Sean swiped his weirdly damp brow with his wrist. He smiled without showing his teeth. “It’s not all crap,” he said softly. And then, “What about happiness?” He seemed sad. “He made a lot of people happy.” He closed his eyes again and didn’t move for so long, Marley thought he’d fallen asleep.
“Bring the rats in here,” said Sean said suddenly, and Marley started. “Let them loose. Sofia and I’ll catch them.”
The rats were still on the lawn in the cage where they had fallen. Outside, the sun was setting. Marley shook her head. “They’ll escape. You’ll never catch them. They can collapse their ribs, you know, and squeeze through a crack half an inch big.” Marley knew this because she had, at one time, worked in a pet shop for a year and a half. She had worked everywhere, and ended up nowhere.
She crawled back over to Sean and laid her head on his chest again, conflict raging through her. She couldn’t change who she was. Could she? She felt carved out of stone, immutable, as if her very being were a vast beach strewn with fatalism instead of sand. But some small part of her sensed a degree of alteration, a slight shift. She would change her mind—she would unpack her mental duffle—if there was proof otherwise. That in the midst of the boiling desert that it was okay, that it was not insane, to continue slogging forward through the desiccated soil, devoted to the promise of some yet unseen oasis.
Barring that outcome, she knew she couldn’t live with someone like Sean anymore. She saw now that his stale optimism and enthusiasm were a terrible delusion, part of a story he kept telling himself in order to keep going forward. Tomorrow will be better. Next week will be better. Next month will be better. Next year will be better.Don’t focus on the crap. Think of the happiness.
She was a realist. Maybe she couldn’t autopsy ruin, locate the origin of its wretched birth, prevent it from happening. But she could prepare for it. She could live her life knowing that love didn’t last. Hope was a crutch. And while fluoridated water might keep cavities from forming, it would also, in the end, kill (almost) everyone in sight.
“Then…bring ‘em in…leave ‘em in the cage,” Sean was whispering, sleepy again.
Oh, God, oh, God, was this it? The end? Marley felt like her heart was bruised and broken, but how was that possible, when it was protected by all that scaffolding?
“Leave ‘em in there and…we’ll figure out how to get ‘em out…”
In the middle of Sean’s brainstorming about the best way to consume the rats (as if he would ever eat a rat) something happened.
Sean stopped talking and opened his eyes. Marley lifted her head from his chest. They both looked toward the guest room. And then it came again. A voice. Someone was speaking. It was Sofia. It was Sofia. Sofia’s hoarse voice came rasping across the quiet room, “So thirsty.” A light cough. Then: “Can I have some water?”
Marley jerked upright, her spine rigid, and Sean’s fingers clamped, vise-like, on her arm. They stared at each other. Sean started to grin. Marley, aghast, stunned, stayed still, barely breathing, listening, waiting.
Stacey Bryan has worked at a dude ranch, as a gymnastics coach, an editor for a former Buddhist monk, and now closed captioning. Her work has appeared in Ginosko, The Rag, Eclectica, and the International Human Rights Art Festival, among others. She is working on Day for Night, a paranormal comedy series.
Three times in a week, Henry had been late for dinner. Wren noticed. Henry Jr. noticed. Elmo, the family mutt, noticed. Even two-year-old Rosie noticed as she played in the living room that third night.
“Mommy. Where daddy?”
Henry ought to know that Wren was not a fan of tardiness; he was twenty minutes late for their first date and she never let him forget it. For fifteen years they’ve known each other and not once after that first date was Henry ever late. Not until now.
The first night, Henry was full of regrets. He kissed Wren over and over, apologizing more than he needed to.
“Wren, my darling, I’m so sorry, I know how you hate it when I’m late. We had a meeting run long and I didn’t get the chance to call. I’m here now, it won’t happen again, I promise. I have Melissa sending you a cake from Oswald’s Bakery tomorrow, okay? Chocolate, your favorite. I’m so sorry.”
Chocolate’s not Wren’s favorite, but she figured she ought not to complain about a free cake. Melissa, Henry’s sixty-some-odd-year-old secretary, never did send a chocolate cake. Or any cake. She didn’t even answer the phone when Wren called her to ask about it.
Henry was late coming home again the next day. And again on Friday. That time the apology was less sincere but offered the same sorry excuse. A month or so rolled by and he wasn’t late again, but he wasn’t exactly present, either. He would often take his dinner into the office, lock the door, and wouldn’t come out again before Wren would retire to the bedroom. Henry had always kept the office locked, and Wren had respected that; Henry Jr. could be rather nosy. But it bothered her that she wasn’t allowed in there, either. She knew it was a pigsty without her to clean it.
A few weeks in to the new habits, she waited in the living room, determined to stay awake until she saw her husband again.
“What’s got you so busy, dear?” Wren had asked the moment he came out of the hall. “I hardly ever see you anymore. Henry J and Rosie miss you, you know.”
“It’s just a busy time of year for me. It won’t last much longer. Work stuff, you understand.”
Wren, in fact, did not understand.
“Who’s answering sales calls in the middle of the evening? Shouldn’t those people be spending time with their families, too?”
Henry cut a glare at Wren for her remark but didn’t entertain it as he mumbled into the dim room, “go to bed, Wren.”
She sat for a second in the stiff silence of the house. Henry let out a harsh sigh.
“Look, Wren, work’s getting a little more complicated than just making sales calls, okay? It’s been hard to keep up. When everything’s done and over, I’ll tell you all about it, okay? You wouldn’t understand it right now, anyway, and I don’t have the time it takes to explain it all to you yet. I just need you to trust me.”
Wren trusted him. She thought she did, anyway. He had never given her a reason not to. She continued to trust him even as the weeks went on and she saw less and less of him. She had grown weary of isolation and silent meals. At least he would always get the mail and take the trash out.
Weekends were fine. Fine during the day, anyway. He wasn’t home at night. They both played the roles of happy couple in public, masquerading perfection. But never any warmth. That wasn’t new; Henry had never been a fan of being affectionate in public. But he stopped touching her at home, too. The days they would spend together, Wren found herself constantly craving even just a pinky to hold.
She had started to suspect a mistress in the beginning. It would explain why they hadn’t slept together in months. But Henry had always expressed deep disgust when discussing friend’s affairs, giving Wren no reason to believe he would ever consider doing it himself. Right?
* * *
The nights got colder, and the sun set sooner. Wren no longer delayed dinnertime for her husband. Time had started to lose meaning for her, anyway. She took a long drag off her cigarette and blew it out the bathroom window. It was a new habit. She hated smoking, but she hated drinking more, and she needed something to calm her nerves. There was a knock on the door and Wren flung the cigarette into the toilet in a panic.
“Mama?” Henry Jr. knocked again and rattled the knob.
“One second, Henry J, I’m using the potty!” She flushed the toilet and mourned the half-smoked stick as it disappeared.
“Mama, when’s daddy getting home? I got a math question for him.”
Wren opened the door to her nine-year-old tossing a baseball up in the air and failing to catch it as it came back to him. She pushed past him with a heavy sigh and a discouraging, “I don’t know, J. And no throwing in the house, we’ve talked about this.”
“Is he ever gonna hang out with me again?”
Wren bit her lip and tried to soften her tone.
“Of course, he will. He’s just been really busy these past few months.”
“Well, can you help me with it, Mama?”
Wren turned to look at her eager son. She probably could help him, but her husband was a lot better at explaining things to him than she was. When she did try, he would often swoop in later and tell his wife she did it all wrong.
Wren rubbed her forehead and caught a whiff of the lingering smell of smoke on her fingertips. The timer went off for the lasagna and she decided her next break would be once the salad was prepared. She could feel her husband’s thirty-fourth tardy looming.
“I’m sure daddy will be home soon, kid, just ask him when he gets here. Go set the table, dinner’s almost ready.”
So, he did. Henry Jr. was a model child, there was no denying that. Hardworking, good listener, a heart bigger than Texas. He was born exactly nine months after Wren and Henry Sr. got married. Wren would always boast that he was the spitting image of her husband. Same brown eyes, same unusually small toes, same stupid, big head, only Henry Jr. still had the dark curls on top.
She had envied those curls since she first met Henry in high school; it’s what drew her to him in the first place. But it wasn’t just his good looks that caught her eye, or even that he excelled in sports. He was the star of their high school’s mathletes, and there was something so sexy to Wren about a man who was good at something she wasn’t. Back then, Wren was better at a lot of things. There were paintings and gymnastics medals hiding inside their garage to prove it.
Wren’s memories clouded her focus. Her knife had missed the tomato. She stared at the blood coming out of her thumb for a long time before she processed what had happened. It pooled around the tomato slices, picking up loose seeds like boats ready to set sail. She saw herself aboard a seed, arms wrapped up in the ropes of the sail, peering beyond the dark red horizon and bracing herself for the ride over the edge of the cutting board. Her vision started to spin.
All at once the pain hit her and she screeched. She grabbed the nearest rag and wrapped it around her thumb. It continued to throb underneath the cover, and tears fell from her cheeks before she even realized she was crying. She let out a whisper of a curse and the pain subsided just a little. Looking up from her wound, she saw Rosie in the highchair, eyes wide and curious. She asked her mother, “Okay, mommy? You okay?” over and over and over again. Her voice bounced around in Wren’s head, and she slammed her injured fist on the counter in a panicked attempt to shut her daughter up.
Both children froze in the dining room and stared at Wren, white with fear of the stranger claiming to be their mother. Her chest tightened with immediate remorse, and she apologized profusely. But the kids didn’t respond. Wren mumbled something about the bathroom and grabbed a loose cigarette from her purse as she exited. Henry Jr. stopped setting the table after two seats and picked up the sippy cup his sister had dropped.
It was another dinner without her husband. But this one was worse than the others. She had never reacted to her kids in such a violent way, she could tell they were still shaken from it. Rosie had quickly exonerated her, or just simply already forgotten, as toddlers do, but Henry Jr. wasn’t so quick to forgive. When she sent him to bed, he refused their nightly routine of butterfly, cheek, and forehead kisses. Wren’s chest continued to hurt until she went to bed.
She pretended to be asleep when Henry Sr. came home, hoping he would come to bed sooner. Her finger had been stitched up by the retired nurse next door, and she made sure to leave the wounded hand visible over the blankets. Henry didn’t even touch it. Or her. More tears fell onto Wren’s pillow as Henry clicked his lamp off and turned away from her.
Wren didn’t sleep. Well, admittedly she nodded off around two or three, but woke back up before the sunrise, so she didn’t count it. She’d never woken up before the rest of the house until about a month prior, and she’d grown to enjoy it. It was like a dream, watching the sky turn from red to orange to yellow to bright blue. The sunrise was a lot more beautiful than the sunset, she had decided, especially when she could have a cigarette with her coffee as she watched from the front porch.
The baby monitor lit up as she finished a second smoke; her morning of peace was over. She hung her coat up by the door and stared at the keys on the hooks. Wren and Henry had bought the minivan together when they found out about Rosie. It was a little on the expensive side as they bought it new, so they both gave up their smaller cars in exchange. They agreed that one car was sensible since Wren would be home most of the day with a new baby, anyway. But after going stir crazy for two years, she was beyond thrilled when Henry decided to buy another car a few months back. Although, she didn’t understand why it had to be a brand new, bright red, expensive sports car. She didn’t think they could afford it, but she’d always trusted Henry, and she assured her they could. She didn’t trust him anymore. She stuffed the keys to Henry’s car in her pocket and went to get Rosie ready for daycare.
Wren was just finishing her eggs when her husband walked into the kitchen. She made sure she took longer than usual this morning so that she would catch him. She watched as he poured his coffee into a travel mug. A scarlet tie sat over his belly and Wren didn’t recognize the pants he had on. When did he have time to shop for himself? She wasn’t sure if he was ignoring her or just hadn’t noticed her yet, so she decided to announce herself.
Henry almost dropped his coffee at her voice, then turned to her with a plastered smile.
“Hey, hey, morning. Didn’t see you.” He looked past his wife at his daughter in the highchair, having a battle with a Cheerio on her tray. “Hey, good morning, sugarplum! Oh, you are such a beautiful little girl.” Rosie cooed in response and wriggled her tiny fingers at him. “What are y’all still doing here, Wren? Where’s Junior?”
“He takes the bus now, remember? So that he can ride with his little Sarah friend. He’s been doing that for quite a few weeks, now.”
“Oh, right, right, right.” Henry tossed a bagel into the toaster and the house was silent again.
“Listen,” Wren finally said, “I need you to take Rosie to daycare this morning. I’ve got some things to do and—”
“What? No, Wren, I don’t have time for that now, I’m running late. Why didn’t you ask me this sooner? I could’ve made sure I was up earlier.”
“Well, I was going to ask you at dinner, but you weren’t there.”
Henry’s eyes narrowed, and Wren matched it. The bagels popped out and Henry flinched. “Look, I’m late, Wren. Use that brain of yours and text me next time. Or call me. Or email me. I got you that PDA for a reason. Why are you even still here if you’ve got so many things to do?”
“Because I never see my husband anymore and was hoping he’d be happy to see me, too.”
“Look, Wren, we talked about this. Work is… a lot right now. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“Right, and I’m at the bottom of the list, aren’t I?”
“Is that what I said?”
“That’s what you implied.”
Henry rubbed his neck and took a breath. “You don’t understand.”
Wren stood up.
“Wren, I’m already running late—”
“Marriage doesn’t work without communication, Henry.”
“I know, but now is not a good time—”
“Will there ever be a good time? It’s been months!”
“Yes, I know it has, Wren! Jesus, I know how time works. Like right now, if you look at a clock, you’ll see that I’m running late—”
“I don’t care. I don’t care! I want to know who and what is keeping my husband away from the family that he helped create.”
Henry slapped Wren across the cheek. He’d never done that.
“Don’t you dare use my kids against me,” Henry snarled, “and stop talking over me. It doesn’t make you sound any smarter. Work is busy. I am late. That’s all you need to know, got it?”
Wren nodded and watched as he approached the front door. Her cheek throbbed underneath her hand.
“Wren, where are my keys?”
Her pulse quickened and a rock formed in her stomach.
“I don’t know, honey, I haven’t seen them. You didn’t put them on the hook?”
“Of course, I put them on the hook, I always put them on the hook, but now they’re not on the damn hook. Where are they?”
Wren pretended to look in the kitchen, then pulled them out of her pocket while Henry’s back was turned.
“Look, Henry, they’re right here on the counter. You must’ve left them there last night.” He went to snatch them out of his wife’s hand, but she held on to them. Rosie was whimpering behind them. Wren’s voice went soft. “Kiss your daughter goodbye so she’s not scared of you.”
Henry rubbed the top of his head as if something had magically grown there overnight, but he complied. Rosie giggled as he dried her tears and smothered her with kisses. Then he went for the keys again, but Wren couldn’t let go yet.
“And your wife.” She paused. She couldn’t look at him. “Please.”
Henry huffed and reluctantly kissed her injured cheek before darting out the door. Wren rubbed the remaining key in her pocket. The tears came back. She thought the kiss would fill the hole he’d dug inside her. It only tunneled deeper. She didn’t recognize him anymore.
There was once a time when Henry couldn’t keep his hands off Wren. They were just young, little idiots, madly in love with the idea of being in love. They made it through high school together and getting married was just what high school couples in their little Southern town did if they survived that long. That’s what Wren’s parents did; “full of love until forever,” they would say. Wren thought she would last forever with Henry, too. She wondered if he ever really loved her in the first place.
Wren hated her PDA. The screen was too small and the little pen that came with it hardly ever worked right. But she used it that day. She waited impatiently for Melissa to pick up her call.
“Washburn Inc., this is Angie, how can I help you?”
“Angie? I thought this was Melissa’s number.”
“Sorry, ma’am, Melissa doesn’t work here anymore.”
“What? Henry didn’t tell me he hired a new assistant.”
There was a pause on the other end.
“Yes, he’s my husband.”
“I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you this, miss, but Mr. Wilson was let go.”
Earth stopped spinning.
“What did you just say?”
“Henry Wilson was let go quite a few months ago. He didn’t tell you?”
“No. No, he didn’t tell me.”
Wren hung up and threw the stupid PDA across the room. She broke into a sob and melted against the wall. Everything inside her body shattered, every fear in her brain conjured, every ounce of love tainted. She pulled a cigarette out from her back pocket and lit it right in the middle of the living room. The house would stink but she didn’t care anymore.
Halfway through the cigarette, the landline rang. Wren let the voicemail take it, thinking it was her friend, Lisa, calling to ask why she missed Mother’s Day Out for the third week in a row. But when Henry Jr.’s recorded voice instructed the caller to leave a message, there wasn’t one. The phone rang again almost immediately.
“Hello?” she shouted into the receiver. No response. “Hello? Who is this? This is Wren!”
There was a quick gasp on the other end. The phone clicked and the dial tone purred. Wren threw that phone, too. It was a woman’s gasp.
She stood in front of Henry’s office for a long time. She wasn’t sure how long, but she knew it was long enough for Elmo to fall asleep beside her. Her hands were balled up tight. She knew whatever else Henry was hiding would be on the other side of that door. She knew everything would change once she found out what he’d been doing all this time. But she needed to know. She was tired of waiting on her husband for answers. Her stomach turned and she was nauseous.
She stuck the key in the door and pushed it just barely ajar. Elmo, likely thinking that Henry was in there, pushed past Wren, his little stub of a tail wriggling.
The office hadn’t changed much since Wren had last been allowed inside, just a little messier. The chairs were all stained and mismatched. No lights except for an ugly lamp they got as a wedding present and a small saucer light on the ceiling. The air felt wet and thick. Wren’s chest tightened more with every inhale. He had clearly not been using the vacuum she gave him to clean the carpet. She opened a window.
There were no pictures on the walls, or anywhere. There used to be a framed picture of the family on the desk but had since disappeared. She caught a glimpse of herself in a stained mirror she had hung up when they first moved in; the lighting made her look old and sick. No wonder she was becoming invisible. She touched at her face and ran her hand down her braid. She’d always been a natural blonde, but she had just dyed it the week before. Rosie called her Ariel. Henry still hadn’t said anything about it. Her eyes went glassy, and the blue in her irises lost their shine.
Wren focused herself and went to the desk, rummaging through papers and any drawer she could open. All the documents looked like gibberish to her, obviously things to do with his job—or, what used to be his job. But there was one drawer that wouldn’t open. She pulled at it a few times, but it barely budged. The only other key that she saw on his keyring was to the house, so he had to have this one hidden somewhere. She threw papers around frantically. She ran her hand underneath the desk and around the open drawers. She checked inside a couple of books. She checked every possible spot she had seen people search on TV, but still couldn’t find anything. She plopped her little body into the giant desk chair and rubbed her forehead. She needed a cigarette.
Elmo nudged her free hand for attention, and she gave him a halfhearted scratch. He moved his head around her hand, and she went under his collar; that was his favorite spot. She moved to his chest and noticed he had something she’d never seen before stuck in between his rabies and ID tags. It was a small tag, long and thin, rectangular. How could she have never noticed this before now? Was it new? She took his collar off to examine it closer and realized there was a latch to open it. Inside was a very small key.
It was a perfect fit.
The drawer was full of mail. Mail? Why would he lock mail away? She pulled them out and noticed one from the bank. Two from the bank. Three. One with a big red “FINAL NOTICE” stamped across it. Two more from a loan company. An envelope tucked away in the bottom of the stack, handwritten and addressed to Wren. It had been opened, but Wren had no memory of ever reading it. So, she decided she would.
* * *
Wren made meatloaf, carrots, and mashed potatoes that night. It was both the Henry’s favorites. She made sure to text Henry Sr. in hopes that he would come home early. It wasn’t the best meatloaf she’d ever made. She wasn’t even sure she remembered all the ingredients. She had been preoccupied ever since she left the office, planning and plotting how she would handle the evening. Henry’s office keys sat on the counter, ready for the big reveal. Every time Wren looked at them, her heart rate would go up and she would get a craving. She took about four, maybe five smoke breaks during her meal prep. She was beyond nauseous. The bathroom reeked of cigarettes.
Both children were already in bed when Henry finally made it home. But not Wren. Wren sat in the faint light of the dining room, staring blankly at her husband’s dinner plate. There was a butt extinguished in his potatoes. Wren was on her second bottle of wine.
Henry tried to be as quiet as possible coming in the dining room, giving her a little smile as he went to grab his plate. Wren grabbed the other side. He wasn’t getting away this time.
“I know,” she said into the silence. Henry wrinkled his brow.
“You know? You know what?”
“I know your secret,” she sang, wagging her finger at him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about; are you drunk? You hate drinking.”
“Who cares?” she grinned. Her teeth were stained red, and her breath smelled burnt. “I hated it in high school, too, but that didn’t stop you from forcing me to get drunk all the time.”
Henry tried to back out of the room. “Okay, we’ll talk in the morning when you’re sober. I’ve got some work to do.”
Wren roared a sarcastic laugh.
“Oh, do you? You’ve got some work to do? With your job that you don’t have anymore?”
“How drunk are you, Wren? What are you talking about?” His voice had just a bit of a quiver. He was nervous and Wren knew it. Her eyes burned into his.
“I know, Henry.” She stood up and pointed at the keys on the counter. Henry’s face went snow white. “You can try and try to avoid me, to avoid telling me, but I am your wife, and we don’t keep secrets from each other. I called Melissa. Only it wasn’t Melissa, it was Angie. And Angie was kind enough to tell me all about how you got fired five months ago. I thought, ‘surely that’s not true, surely my husband who exchanged vows with me wouldn’t keep this huge, huge thing a secret from me for this long. Surely, he wouldn’t.’ So, I decided to confirm it myself. I didn’t have to look very far.” She pulled the mail out from under her chair and threw it at him.
“What the hell is all of this? Are you out of your mind?”
“Things have never been clearer. I know that you got fired, I know that our house is on the brink of foreclosure, I know that you bought that stupid car with Henry J’s college fund.” She picked up the handwritten letter. “And this? Are you serious? I’m getting letters from, what is she, a prostitute? Telling me my husband owes her money for her ‘services’? Why does she know where we live? Why is she contacting me?”
“She’s not a prostitute, Wren, Jesus. I would never cheat on you, okay? Just listen—”
“Right, right. You wouldn’t cheat on me, but you would keep your unemployment and our potential homelessness a secret from me.”
“Listen, will you? Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, okay?” Henry went to hold his wife, but she shook him away.
“Oh, you’re sorry, are you? Oh boy, my husband’s sorry! That fixes it! That’ll save our house. That’ll un-fuck the prostitute.”
“She’s not a prostitute!” Henry was shouting now.
“Then who the hell is she?” Wren matched his volume.
“She was my… business partner. Alright? I had this big plan to open a business of my own, you know, like a store where I could sell watches or sinks or whatever, and she was going to help me.”
“Yes, a business. But I got in over my head and I… reached out for help. I’m not proud of it.”
“You reached out to another woman for help?”
“Not like that, Wren.” Henry threw his hand over his head and groaned. “Look, God, she sells drugs, okay?”
“Yes, Wren, drugs. Cocaine. Marijuana. Whatever else. I bought the car before I got fired, a little something for myself for once, then I got fired, then I couldn’t afford the car anymore, so I was trying to find ways to pay it back. I was losing money taking out loans for my business, so that’s when I—”
“When you stole money from your own family?”
“It wasn’t like that!”
“That’s exactly what it was!”
“I had to pay for the car.”
“Then sell it.”
“It wasn’t that easy.”
“Then give it to the drug woman.”
“She doesn’t want a car, Wren.” Henry’s tone was sharpening.
“You don’t get it!”
“I think I’m catching on.” She crumpled up a drink receipt from Southside Casino and threw it at him. “You gambled with our money.” She threw another receipt at him. “Treated yourself to nice meals.” The letter was next. “Secretly got our family involved with selling drugs.”
“I wasn’t selling drugs!”
“What were you doing, then?”
“My store was going to be her front.”
Wren took a moment to comprehend what he just disclosed.
“You don’t understand. You don’t understand any of this!”
“Well, I certainly understand that laundering money is extremely illegal! Money laundering and gambling? Are you serious? That was your plan? How could you keep this from me? How are we going to pay her back? Pay any of this? All that money from your parents, all of that was in Henry J’s college fund. And the savings. And in this house! And you’ve spent it all on a fake business you can’t even afford to open. I didn’t go to college. I married you and had your babies instead because I trusted that you would provide. That’s what you told me you would do for me. I can’t do anything to help this. I have no skills, no degrees, no experience. Without you bringing in an income, we have no money. If we don’t pay our mortgage by next week, we’re going to be homeless. Homeless. Do you understand what that means? Do you understand what you’re putting your family through?”
“Wren, I wanted to tell you it just… it kept getting worse and worse and I didn’t even know where to start.”
Wren was sobbing. She slammed her fists on the table. The light above flickered.
“Start here, Henry. You could’ve started at any one of these letters. We could’ve fixed this.”
“I’m gonna fix this, you just have to trust me.” Henry approached her, his tone flirting with the line between calm and fuming.
“Trust you? You want me to trust you? You’ve been secretly unemployed and draining every penny we had into a business that doesn’t exist, and you want me to trust you? We owe over a hundred grand and counting to some drug lord I’ve never even heard of, and you want me to trust you? You’ve ruined our children’s futures. I did trust you. I’ve trusted you for years. Years! And I thought I was doing the right thing by trusting you.”
“You’re my wife, you’re supposed to trust me! For better or for worse. Remember those vows?”
“You want to bring up vows? Vows? Let’s talk about how you broke the vow of always being honest. And faithful.”
Henry slapped her, harder than he did that morning.
“I was faithful. Don’t you dare say I wasn’t.”
Wren was seething. She didn’t deserve to be hit. Months of not being touched and the only contact she received was violent.
“Apologize,” she said.
“No. It’s the only way to shut you up.”
She rushed at him and shoved. The dinner plate fell but he didn’t budge.
“You don’t get to hit me!” Wren shouted.
“You don’t get to accuse me of untrue things.”
“You weren’t faithful, Henry. You lied to me. Every day. For months.”
“It’s not my fault!”
Wren froze. Her version was red and slanted.
“Not your fault? Not your fault? This is all your fault. You’re ruining this family. Everything. Everything is your fault.” She threw a book at him. “See? That’s your fault. You made me so mad I had to throw a book. Look at what you’ve done to me! Look at who I’ve become because of you! You didn’t think. You never do. You’re just as stupid as me! This affects all of us. Not just you.”
She shoved him again.
“Your baby daughter.”
“Your fucking wife!”
She tried to shove him over the couch, but he was too heavy for her. She punched his gut over and over and over again until he grabbed her fists.
“Let me go,” she barked.
Henry slapped her for a third time and Wren spit in his face.
“Wren that’s enough. You’re acting like a child. Let’s calm down and talk.”
His voice was composed and unsettling, exactly how it sounded when he would scold Henry Jr. It only made her angrier. Wren didn’t want to calm down. Wren wanted her husband to pay for what he put her through. She squirmed in his grip and continued to scream. Her knee shot up to his crotch and he let her go. She slapped him across the face this time, again and again and again. He went to grab her arms again, but she shoved him against the couch. He tried to regain his balance and she saw an opportunity. Wren pushed her teetering husband as hard as she possibly could against the back of the sofa they bought together. He toppled over backwards.
She heard a thud, and the room was silent. She stood frozen. Everything was spinning. She wasn’t sure if it was from the wine anymore. The couch was miles away from her and she couldn’t move.
“Henry?” she whispered. She forced a foot forward. “Henry?”
Her stomach was churning with acid and regret. Her throat tightened. Another foot forward. She could see blood on the coffee table and Henry’s legs in the air. She wanted to act faster, wanted to undo the entire day. She gripped the couch and leaned forward.
His head was bent over his neck and blood was spilling out all around him. Elmo was scratching at the back door. Rosie was crying from her crib. She waited and waited and waited for her husband’s chest to rise and fall. But it never did. All the anger left her body and she fell to floor as if the strings keeping her up had been cut. Her cheeks were wet, but she couldn’t remember when she started crying. She crawled to her husband and held his face, blood now soaking into her shirt and hair. She didn’t care. She wanted to be a part of him. Set sail in the ocean streaming out of him. Dock her boat on his island and claim it as her own. Then he couldn’t get away from her. Then he couldn’t keep secrets from her. Then they’d be together forever.
Her son’s sobs shook the living room.
The boat sank.
The island crumbled.
Maggie Hall is a creative writing student at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She’s loved to write for as long as she can remember, though her earlier works were less about death and more about foxes and ducks playing computer games together. She hopes her work will one day gain the approval of her cats, Bob Elvis and Dolly. They’re very tough critics.
Maybe it didn’t happen the way you think. That’s what my friend Billy keeps saying, over and over, looking down at me, giving me his nervous, sideways look.
But it did happen. We were both there; we saweverything. I keep trying to tell him but he doesn’t seem to hear me. And for the sake of human race, for the slightest chance of saving the world, I need find a way to remember all of it.
My stomach still clenches when I think of it.
It happened without warning, cloaked in a summer heatwave, each silver-bright day the same as the one before it; it scorched all the lawns orange, turned our gentle curve of Little River into a stony ditch.
Even the crows complained about the heat, in their funny crow way, making guttural sounds, stamping their clawed feet on the parched grass, demanding the worms stop tunneling so deep; performing their stomping dance to conjure even the thinnest mist of rain.
I’d just turned fifteen that August, still decompressing after a stressful freshman year.
I was tired of being stuck in an air-conditioned house in North Branch, New Hampshire, in a neighborhood that was pretty much what you might expect: several neat rows of nearly-identical houses, most of them split-entry style, built in the late 90’s, planted like well-tended crops on the site of a once-thriving horse farm.
It was the kind of town that gets crazy full of skiers in the winter, with Waterville Valley not far away. It was the kind of town that attracts swarms of people in the fall, all googly-eyed over the foliage even after all the leaves have turned to rust.
In other words, it was a pretty freaking awesome place to live. Far from where anyone expects anything bad to happen.
Especially here, in our little neighborhood, complete with its fiber optic Internet and a million-dollar view. Behind our landscaped yards, above the tree line on a clear day, you can see Mount Washington and most of the Franconia Ridge in the distance. And sometimes, at night, me and Billy watch the stars. And we’ve seen really cool things, too, like the Starlink slipping like a diamond bracelet across the night sky, and other satellites, but we’ve also seen some things we can’t explain. Tiny specks of light that move in impossible directions at unbelievable speeds.
But it had been something like forever since I’d seen any clear view. With clouds flung like loose bones and teeth across a white canvas for so long, I was beginning to forget what our mountains and sky even looked like.
Everything was silver.
Oh, hell. I just can’t do it today. I’m going back inside.
The morning that the whole world changed, it was too hot even for bugs. I was in the backyard doing some chores, soaked in sweat, pulling some dead weeds from the garden, thinking about a ride I’d taken in Manny’s truck not that long ago. I’m trying to remember what day that was, because all the days seemed to blur together lately. And time seems different now; it doesn’t always move in straight lines; it unfurls like a threadbare flag in the hot wind. But this memory is a good one; it has some weight to it. And it feels so recent; it feels like it happened an eyeblink ago.
The sky cracked open like a hollow, dusty skull.
Sorry. That’s all I got right now.
Me and Billy were hanging out at Whistle Rock but on the way back we decided to go a different way home, down an old logging trail that led to Route 11. It was a short-cut of sorts, but it was really steep and dusty with a couple of narrow turns and you even had to clear one sharp elbow at the steepest spot.
And that’s why we liked it.
Right at that spot is where my back tire snared on a chunk of broken glass. Billy was in front of me; when I yelled to warn him, he slowed down to turn back to look at me, and I drove right into him. Both of us got tangled in the bikes, in the dust. I slammed down pretty hard, with Billy on top of me.
Billy was quiet. Like he was holding his breath.
I got off my bike and looked around. We were still a good four miles from home; that was a lot of walking in this heat.
I saw it first. It was like waking from a dream, and looking up to see two huge blue eyes opening wide. And then those eyes blinked and I saw an old blue truck bearing down on us.
With Manny Fuentes behind the wheel.
Manny killed the engine and jumped out. “Hey, you guys okay?”
He told us both to get in to his completely restored, aquamarine and white 1966 Ford F100. So cool. I’d never seen a truck like it. He’d even rebuilt the engine himself.
I couldn’t believe our luck. Manny Fuentes, a senior, captain on our football team, and a really great person, a kind person, a guy who would literally give you his shirt if you told him that you needed a shirt; that guy just happened to be driving down this logging road at the exact right moment that we needed him.
What were the chances of that?
I didn’t hesitate to jump up into the cab. But Billy seemed upset all of a sudden, pouting. He hung his head and I could see he was upset. He scuffed his feet against the ground, kicking up a spray of dust. I wasn’t sure why; it was so broiling hot; the two of us couldn’t ride back together on his small bike.
He said he wanted to ride back alone.
Manny wouldn’t hear it. “Easy, Billy, you’ll get heat stroke out here.” He lifted both bikes into the bed, taking such care with them, then got into the driver’s seat and popped the clutch to ease the truck down the twisting mountain road.
And out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white tail fly out the cab window with Billy trying to grab it. And then my vision was interrupted, suddenly, by something bright and silver and so high-pitched in frequency! So loud! It was a like an electric bolt to my body.
It threw me flat off my feet.
Or as my mom says, it knocked the stuffing right out of you.
The pain was excruciating. From my head right down to my tailbone.
For a moment, it felt like I had lifted right out of my body. I was weightless. Defying the laws of gravity. Then everything went dead quiet.
What happened was this: a ragged slit formed high in the clouds, ripping across the sky like a torn sheet. Then thousands–maybe a million–terrible, dark things tumbled out of the tear, thrumming their silver wings like angry moths, semi-obscured by the clouds.
Some kind of…spaceships!
I froze. My mind tried to reconcile what I was seeing.
I tried to take a photo with my iPhone but I was shaking too much; besides, I knew it would come out looking like an overexposed legion of ants.
Because what I was seeing was far more sinister.
Wobbly, I climbed to my feet. The ground wasn’t quite solid. I glanced across to our neighbor’s yard, and there was Mrs. Rosa. She was sitting in the middle of her lawn, her skinny legs sticking straight out in front of her. She held something round in her lap. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
She looked lost, dumbfounded.
“Don’t you see?” I yelled, pointing at the sky. My tongue felt like sandpaper.
She blinked her unfocused eyes. I saw the shudder in her face. “Was that an earthquake?”
I wanted to scream that what just happened came from above, not below. When I looked up again, a sharp pain blasted into my skull. But I could see that the sky had put up a serious fight — the clouds were completely shredded.
I realized my hands and feet had gone numb. The air had an electrical smell to it.
A few seconds later, the silence ended and a humming noise began. It was a deep, metallic hum, but it made the whole neighborhood feel secure again, because our private army of whole-house generators were faithfully defending our insatiable need for electricity.
It must have been the grid, everyone said.
Just a little blip in the grid. Of course! It had to be that. After all, we’d been warned that something like that might happen after so many days of extreme usage.
But no one else experienced The Event like I did. They were all so happy to be connected to the Internet again after not having it for at least five minutes; completely oblivious to the fact that life as we knew it had just come to an abrupt end.
Okay, so that was a lot to unpack. But some of it really did happen that way, I’m convinced of it.
And so it was that even after The Event, I was always trying to get outside, even though it felt safer inside. At least you could see what was coming at you. And despite what you might think, ninety-five degrees really isn’t so bad for a kid like me, especially in the mornings, when there is still a slight breeze, when I could still smell the pungent mix of pine and balsam like it was a sachet pressed beneath my pillow.
And beneath it, I could still hear the pervasive hum.
Even through my closed bedroom window.
I was taking my time making my bed that morning, because doing simple things like that, mundane things, almost makes you feel that everything’s still normal.
But it’s not. Ever since The Event, I don’t even want to eat anymore.
And it takes so much energy to even try to get myself to move; all those little sharp needles of pain.
Hold on. I need to rewind. I wish I could think in a straight line.
I hear Billy’s voice again. A whisper this time, near my right ear.
“There was so much blood.”
Blood? What are you talking about, blood? I don’t remember any blood!
I do remember looking at a poster.
It was tacked onto on one of the pine trees, on a trail up near Whistle Rock. There are lots of posters up there, and they’re all black with faded orange letters, ragged around the edges and hard to read, but if you squint, they all say the same thing:
But this said something different.
That beeping again. My phone?
A text from Billy.
Whistle Rock. Let’s go look.
Whistle Rock was our secret place, a cool stone formation in the woods that we discovered years ago when we went off-trail one day; it sort-of resembled a turtle. Billy said it was probably made by native peoples. Behind the rocks, in some dense brush, we also found a small stone chamber built into the hill. We named it Whistle Rock because when the wind started to pick up, there was a subtle whistle sound that came out of the rocks.
There was something special about that spot. Something magic. Before the Event, we spent every moment we could up here, alive and free beneath a canopy of pines, listening to the soft whistle of the wind. Digging in the cool dirt, looking for treasure. Finding a few arrowheads, pieces of old bottles.
But it just wasn’t the same now. We had always felt safe there. But not anymore.
Thunderstorms and flying saucers.
I went to let my dad know I was going to ride my bike; he was busy finalizing his latest work project, or as he put it “shortlisting the right candidates,” and didn’t appreciate the interruption. Frowning, he nodded, without even turning to look at me. Even with the shades drawn, I could see his bald spot; it seemed to be spreading daily. And what was left of his hair was damp and plastered to his head. I could smell cigarette smoke, too–no doubt he had snuck yet another one; the window was cracked open an inch. But the air was so dense outside, it pushed tentacles of smoke back into the room.
I wanted to explain something to him. But Dad, he’s only afraid of two things.
I hovered around the doorway, hesitating. Waiting for him to ask me, “What things?”
But he never did. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d had a long talk, or a short talk, or had done anything together as a family for that matter, really, although I do still have vague memories of doing outdoor things with my parents, like going up the lake, fishing with my dad, taking mountain hikes with my mom.
For the past few years, though, both of them had pretty much lived indoors—even our groceries got delivered – and they only left the house for absolute necessities.
They were closed in, closed up. Covid started it, for sure. We all stayed snug and safe inside. Thinking nothing bad could ever reach us in our homes.
But then, The Event.
I was convinced my dad didn’t fully grasp the enormity of the situation.
I didn’t want to bother him when he was so busy with his work, but I felt a sense of urgency. He looked over at me, then pushed out a long sigh as squinted at the screen — at a section highlighted with a blinking yellow cursor. The yellow was so bright in the otherwise dark room, like a tiny pulsating sun; I could feel the warmth of it even though it hurt my eyes.
Dad saw me staring and clicked back to his wallpaper screen. His eyes were muddy. And his skin was so pale and brittle-looking, I almost expected paper-thin slices of it to start sloughing off his cheeks.
I knew that look. His insomnia was back, big time. When he got this bad, he fought sleep, he said it was too much likely slipping away from everything he knows, slipping the bonds of his bones and skin into something he had no control over.
I knew how he felt. None of us had control anymore.
Pushing back disappointment, I turned to leave. Dad’s voice trailed behind me. “Come back anytime, Ethan. I miss our talks.”
As I drifted down the stairs, I could hear my mom yelling from the kitchen, “Ethan! I talked to the doctor.”
Oh, right. She must mean Dr. Karo, who was supposedly trying to help me with my “coping mechanisms.” Last session he wanted to work on “compartmentalization” techniques with me, but I kept insisting his time would be better spent helping my parents overcome their own agoraphobic tendencies.
He didn’t find that amusing, hiding behind his glowing monitor, in his locked office, in his sprawling house, complete with a ten-foot-high fence and a monitored security system.
To me, the thought of spending another minute online with Dr. Karo was even more reason to flee. Besides, I’ve been coping way better than my parents have (and better than most people I know, for that matter) ever since The Event.
I feel a change in the air. My palms are throbbing, just like they do when weather is coming in. And I hear a distant rumbling sound, like the mountain is clearing its throat.
Oh! My mom’s here. Hi, Mom! Missed you!
She always triggers me. I can feel a stream of water slipping from my eyes. Maybe, if we’re all lucky, I can cry enough to fill up Little River.
Mom caught me at the back door that day, a bit out of breath. Dressed in her steel-gray bathrobe, she glanced fearfully at the sky, then down at me, a perpetual worried look creasing her face. I noticed her bangs looked straggly lately, streaked with gray.
A visual reminder of how hard The Event had been on her.
On all of us.
Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be back soon. I just have to keep looking.
“I know, honey.” Her voice had a catch in it. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her robe and steadied her gray eyes on my face. “I know how hard you’re trying. You’re doing great. It’s just that I–I wish our world hadn’t…completely turned upside down.”
I know. Everything’s different now. But we’re all still here, right? We’re all survivors.
I gave her a quick, urgent hug, then pushed opened the door to a sharp slap of heat.
I jumped on my trail bike – a Schwinn Sidewinder – got it from a neighbor in trade for my MP3 player—and flew up the trail, ducking the low hanging branches, pushing my calves to near-spasm, feeling my pulse throbbing in my throat.
Took me about ten minutes to get there. When I did, Billy was in the middle of the trail, hunched over, clutching his stomach.
“What’s wrong?” I skidded to a stop, jumped off the bike and ran over to him. I could smell the puke from ten feet away. And a worse smell underneath.
Putrid. Like something decomposing.
Billy’s face was completely drained of color. His skin looked waxy. He pointed to the chamber. His lips twitched; he was about to cry. “I didn’t know what it was, at first,” his voice croaked. “I just knew…it was bad.”
I put my arm around his shoulder and led him through the scrub brush and down to the entrance to the chamber.
That’s when I saw it. My eyes clicked on it and went in close.
You couldn’t miss it – sun-yellow with a large, custom black patch in the shape of a flying saucer.
Something furry was stuffed into the backpack, and something dark had leaked out.
I felt dizzy, disoriented. My breath pushed high in into my chest, finding all the tight spaces. My mind hit the rewind button. I could hear Manny yelling, stop, stop, STOP!
I could see his thick fingers gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles bone-white.
I shook my head to erase the memory and turned back to Billy.
Are these dreams? Or memories? I’m not sure.
“You pull it out of there?” “No. It was…laying right there. Just…just like it is. I haven’t touched it.”
I was trying to breathe from my mouth, to keep from gagging.
Billy was shaking, his eyes were shut tight; trying to draw the blinds in his mind.
“What are we going to do?” He pushed his hands together, hard, trying to pray.
I wasn’t sure what to tell him. “It’s gonna be okay.” But when I lifted my hand from his shoulder, the trembling got even worse; I could literally hear his teeth rattling. (Billy’s smaller than me, even though we’re almost the same age. He’s thin and wiry; I’m taller and heavier set).
I led him away from the backpack, back up to the trail, where the smell was less overwhelming. “Try to slow your breathing, so you don’t hyperventilate.”
Billy nodded, then sat on a rock and put his head between his knees. I told him to take a few deep breaths and try to visualize something nice.
But I couldn’t think of anything nice.
I gave him a few minutes to compose himself. Then: “Did you look?” Billy nodded, gravely.
“Is it –”
“—yeah. I think it is.”
I kicked a stone with my sneaker. “Fuck.”
“Yeah.” The air was so heavy. Suffocating. Why wouldn’t it rain? Even just a few drops, even if it was black and oily and had a chemical smell or felt greasy. It would just feel so good on my face; it would feel like hope.
I had to do it. I had to go look for myself.
The backpack gleams like sunlight against the black earth. It reminds me of Manny’s smile, lighting up the gray day.
I want a happy ending. Who doesn’t? All those other scenes played themselves out in my mind, rolling like free movie previews. But I can tell the real movie is starting now, and after a such a long wait, here it is: – the feature presentation – but I’m afraid — I want to stop it; I really want to go back to a white screen again; I have way more control that way…but its already starting.
My arms and legs are itching with a million pinpricks and I realize that I have no choice but to watch the whole thing right from the beginning, until it pushes deep into the middle and spreads out to all the twisted edges.
I hope you’re proud of me. I think I got most of the edges right.
It was a bruised and broken sky. That’s what was different. There were black clouds on the horizon that morning, heavy and low-slung, threatening to rupture. The crows were doing their little stomping dance on the grass, celebrating the first fat plops of rain.
I’m pulling dead flowers from in the garden when I get the text from Billy. Whistle Rock. Let’s go look. I text back: On my way. Bring water and food–just in case.
And then I text Manny to let him know.
I’m up near Whistle Rock. My legs are cramping from the long bike ride. I can see the poster clearly now. Same as the ones plastered all over town, taped to all the glass storefronts, even curled around the streetlights and so many tree trunks. It was a really clever way to get the word out, too: people stopped to read every word.
This one is taped to a tall pine. I can see it now in full laser mega-pixel. I remember I even have another one folded up in my jeans pocket. It’s printed on a bright silver-colored paper, shaped like a flying saucer. A fluffy white dog’s face pokes out from the escape hatch of the craft.
LOST DOG: JASPER
(Possible Alien Abduction)
Lost while hiking August 7th
North Bend at trail near junction at Route 11.
Jasper’s only 8 pounds and afraid of only two things:
Thunderstorms and Flying Saucers. If seen, please text Manny Fuentes 603-555-2252
We’ve been searching for Jasper every day for a week now. He’s Manny’s whole world; Manny even camped out a few nights hoping to lure Jasper back to him. We’ve been leaving water bowls in different spots on the trail, tucked into the brush. And a full bowl of dog food in the stone chamber. We told Manny to leave his backpack in there, because scent is everything to a dog, and we thought Jasper might pick up the scent and find his way to it.
I’m almost at Whistle Rock when the sky tears open. It had been holding back for so long; it just lets it all go, all at once. The rain comes down so hard and so black, hammering at the earth, washing away the dirt, the rocks. Racing down the culverts. It feels like needles blasting my skin with a million pinpricks.
I run to the chamber to get out of the rain. The food bowl is empty! My eyes fall across Manny’s backpack gleaming like sunlight against the black earth. And it’s moving! I hear a whimper. “Jasper!”
There’s a frantic thumping. Jasper’s tail. I think he got himself caught in the straps. I take a step forward and reach out, but Billy pushes me roughly aside and lifts the backpack. Jasper’s little white head pokes out and licks Billy’s face.
“Jasper! I got you!”
We’re over the moon excited. Billy keeps hugging Jasper, you’re safe, you’re safe, who squirms in the backpack, trying to wriggle out.
I pick up my phone, but Billy slaps it away. It makes a loud cracking sound against the stones. Billy backs away from me, his eyes full of fear.
“Maybe it didn’t happen the way you think.”
“What are you talking about?” I’ve never seen him like this. He’s jumpy, nervous. Scared. Jasper begins to whimper. Billy’s eyes are puddling with tears.
“Hey, hey, let’s get him on this leash first so we can get him to settle down.”
“I’m keeping him, Ethan. He’s my dog.”
“He’s Manny’s. You can’t possibly think you have some kind of right to him just because you found him.”
“We need to save him.”
“We just did.”
“No, you don’t understand! It wasn’t like that. Manny never wanted us to find him. Manny’s the one who tossed him out the truck window to begin with!” Billy bends over suddenly, clutching the backpack against his belly, and projectile vomits against the wall. I duck, but some of it still splatters on me.
My friend Billy. I feel bad for him. He’s so mixed up. I think he’s lost it. Dr. Karo would say, he’s in a bad place. As we stand in this hollow space inside the chamber, he’s been telling me these horrible stories, about alien abduction. He says he remembers things; they keep coming at him like knives thrown from bad dreams. He thinks Manny has been seeded by the aliens, and he’s now using Jasper as bait.
Honestly, he’s kind of scaring me. Billy rubs at his eyes, then he whips his own phone against the wall, and crushes it under his heel.
“So that’s why he threw Jasper out the truck window?”
“That was before. He knew the aliens were coming for him, so he wanted to save him.”
It sounds pretty messed up. And maybe even crazy. But…he’s my best friend.
“There’s…something you should know.”
“What?” Billy looks at me, his eyes huge.
“I already texted Manny.”
We scramble into action. Billy tucks Jasper securely into the backpack and zips it shut, leaving Jasper plenty of room for air. We rush from the chamber. Beneath the rattle of the rain, there’s a deeper sound now, it’s guttural, like a growl. We grab our bikes and start pushing down the trail. Water is pouring over us; I can barely keep my eyes open, it’s so hard to see. The trail is so slippery I have to go slow to stay upright.
Billy’s getting farther ahead of me; he’s just a dark smudge against the gray. I can see him take a sharp right. He’s taking the short cut. That’s the old logging road; there are fewer trees, but the road is wider and a lot steeper.
I take the turn, too wide and wobbly, trying to avoid the right side of the road that is now a raging river. I almost go down, but am able to correct at the last minute. I start to accelerate down the hill, and then I see Billy, right in front of me! I brake, but it’s too late. I crash into him and we both fall, a silver roar of rain and stones and steel. My right leg crunches beneath my bike and I hear a loud crack when my shoulder hits the ground.
For a few moments, everything is silent, except for the rain, which is starting to slow. Billy is quiet, as if he’s holding his breath. Adrenaline kicks in and I wrench myself up, and pull both bikes off him. He’s squinting to keep the rain out of his eyes, but it’s not working.
“You okay?” By sheer luck, the backpack ended up in his lap, and Jasper is whining, wrestling to get out. Billy nods, let’s out a breath. “I think Jasper’s okay too.”
“Great. Make sure he’s got enough air.”
I think my shoulder is dislocated. But I can put some weight on my right leg. Good. It’s not broken. I drag the bikes off the road with my left arm.
And that’s when two halogen eyes blink above the crest of the hill.
An old blue truck. Manny’s. But…it’s all rusted, the bumper is dented, and the windshield is spider-webbed with cracks. Billy shrinks back, clutching Jasper.
The truck coughs and sputters. Manny pushes open the door; there’s a squeak of rusted hinges. He shakes the rain out of his face and ambles over to us. He cracks a smile, but it’s not the dazzling smile I remember. It’s gray and greasy and specked with tiny black dots. And the dots are crawling like hungry ants all over his slimy teeth.
There’s an awful smell on his breath, like something decomposing. It smells like rotting fish, but worse. Way worse. I have to hold my breath to keep from gagging.
Manny says, “Get in the truck, now, or you’re all dead.”
We’re in the truck, Billy’s in the middle holding onto the backpack. He’s shaking so hard. I feel bad for him. We should have put up a fight, we should have run, but I couldn’t run. The truck jostles and pops down the steep road, parts of it have washed away, so Manny is trying to steer carefully.
We hit a huge bump and the truck lurches forward. I hit my head on the windshield.
We’re on the steepest part of the road now, and Manny starts braking. But nothing happens. He pumps the brakes but the truck keeps accelerating down the hill. We’re heading right for Route 11, there’s no way to stop!
Manny yells. “Fuck!”
Billy bolts that very moment, sliding open the cab window and heaving himself out, pulling the backpack behind him.
Manny turns his head around to look back at Billy, No no no!
And out of the corner of my left eye, I see a white tail fly past before my vision is stolen by something bright and silver and so high-pitched in frequency! So loud! It’s like an electric bolt to my body.
I’m so dizzy. The ground doesn’t feel solid. My tongue feels like a piece of torn sandpaper. I look down, and I’m covered in glass. And blood. There’s so much blood! I’m outside of the truck, sitting in a puddle of it. Where’s Billy?
I blink my unfocused eyes. Ahead of me, a car crushed like a tin can. There’s woman on the ground, her legs shattered into pulp, her hands still holding onto a steering wheel. It’s my neighbor, Mrs. Rosa, and she’s dead as stone.
The pain hits like lightning, flashing red and blue, blasting into my skull.
I hear a voice, somewhere above me. Weak pulse. Thready. This one needs immediate transport.
There’s a soft pressure on my chest. I feel something licking my face. The tickle of soft whiskers. I know it’s Jasper, and I know he’s alive. Liquid joy fills my veins, but I still can’t lift my arms to hold him.
Beneath the hum, I can hear my dad speaking in somber tones, “Doctor, what should we expect?” There’s a pause and then another male voice says, “The accident caused a traumatic brain event. We’ve been slowly bringing him out of the medically induced coma, and he’s already showing some promising signs of awareness. But–we need to keep monitoring his vital signs and brain activity before we’ll know the full extent of any permanent damage.”
Mom’s here again! I hear her say: Omygod…Omygod…Omygod. Her voice is so muffled, I can tell she has her hands pressed over her mouth.Then: “Ethan! Oh my God! You’re awake!”
I open my eyes – really open them this time.
And everything is silver.
Kate Bergquist has an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier University in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fictionwriter by night, her short fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine and other periodicals. She finds inspiration along the Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.
Something has given the horses a startle. Their shrieks carry from the stables to the great room. Perhaps it was the young rider, whom I have just sent off with the last of the commissions. Lord willing he can navigate the dark and muddy streets at this late hour. No less than the future of our Federalist system hangs in the balance.
The full moon’s glow has vanished, blanketed by an angry squall approaching from the East. A damp, cold chill slices through the air. The servants are outside doing battle with the elements, calming the horses, making preparations for tomorrow’s damned inauguration.
And here I find myself alone. An old, defeated man, scribing with trembling hands, squinting with watery eyes, flinching with aching teeth. Alone, yes.
All I have for company is a meek fire and a thimble’s worth of Madeira. The flames do little to warm this room, nor the other twelve fireplaces across this empty sarcophagus they call a Palace. Some Palace, indeed, with its barren walls and stacks of dusty crates. If not for the clothesline you left behind, there would be no trace of civilization whatsoever in our Nation’s illustrious new capital. Oh! Curse the day I agreed to leave Philadelphia for this place. The 4 o’clock stage cannot come soon enough.
I believe it is time for rum.
One bottle remains in the kitchen. I intend to finish it. Better to drink myself into a reunion with our poor Charles than live to see Thomas Jefferson enjoy a single drop of spirit left behind.
Oh Abigail, curse me for thinking such things. I do not know what has become of me, or why I write to you now. Surely, I will arrive home long before its delivery.
Perhaps a moment to vent is all I need, to scribble my thoughts on paper lest I go to sleep with a crowded mind. I already feel better, as is always the case when I think of you. But I fear sleep is not in store for me tonight. There is so much work to be done. I have packing to attend to and am running out of time to waste.
The sky has come to life with rolling thunder and harsh lightning. There is something else, too. A queer noise, one of a peculiar cadence. Distant, yet close. Disagreeable, yet enchanting. Foreign, yet familiar. I cannot place it. Some type of animal, no doubt. Lord only knows what creatures lurk in the vast, foul swamp.
No matter. My procrastination must come to an end. I cannot wait to be home, for good, forever more. Losing this election may well have been for the best. I shall see you soon, but not soon enough.
Most affectionately yours,
March 3 1801. Tuesday. 10 O’clock.
The rum suits me well. Each sip gets smoother, more refreshing. It will serve as the fuel I need to make it through the evening. Most importantly, it will keep my thoughts from Charles.
I cannot recall the last time I recorded a journal entry, but tonight seems a fitting return. In years past, I could fill pages and pages with the day’s accomplishments. But alas, on my final night as President, I have nothing but the mundane to report.
Writing and packing. Packing and writing. That is what remains for me.
Walking, too. Less a vigorous walk of exercise and more an aimless wander, stalking the halls of this empty palace like a spirit, candelabra in hand, the flames clinging to life through every whistle of wind. I am less a President and more an echo of the past, a footprint left in muddy sand, waiting for time to erase me from existence.
Judging by the rumbling walls and blinding white flashes, the worst of the storm will be here soon. The brightest strike occurred mere moments ago, as I wandered into the great room. It brought forth the cobwebs on the ceiling, the soot along the walls, the garments hanging across the clothesline.
And it brought forth Him.
His portrait, fixed atop the fireplace, perfectly centered, with its regal gold frame and glossed finish. There he stands, the conquering hero, the father of the nation, in his finest blue-and-buff uniform, watching over me. Always watching.
Of all the things this blasted palace exists without – proper plumbing, furnishings, ventilation, finished windows – they made damn sure not to forget Him. Will there be a portrait of me, someday, I wonder? Doubtful. And if one should ever exist, it will be half the size and tucked away in a powder room.
Ay, President Washington, I see you now. I stoked the fire so we can sit face to face, like our days in the continental congress, two young revolutionaries with grand ambition and little sense.
Tell me, do you remember who convinced you to lead our newly formed army? Do you remember who provided you the men, the muskets, the powder, the blankets, the linen, the bandages? Do you remember who spoke on your behalf when your stoic face could not be bothered to move but an inch? Where are the songs about me, then? Where is my grand portrait? Nay, sir, you are the hero and I am but the man who followed the hero.
Of all the challenges of my Presidency, there were none greater than living under your shadow. And here you are, still, on my last night, to see me away. Here you–
That strange noise again. A scream? No, more of a wail. A howl. One of the servants, perhaps? They should all come inside. The storm is upon us. I shall call for them at once. The company would be most welcome anyhow.
The servants have gone! Lost to the wilderness, to the twisted trees and moss-covered ground, the knee-high brush and icy marsh. I remained outside as long as I could bear it. There were footprints in the muck, leading into the swamp, scattered like an aimless stampede. I followed them as deep as I dared go, until the trees swallowed me whole and the grime caked my boots.
That is when I saw it.
A set of men’s clothes. A very tall man, by the looks of them. Wide in the shoulder and long in the leg. A suit of brown Hartford broadcloth with metal buttons in the shape of Eagles. Shoes with silver buckles and mud-stained stockings. But, what is most striking is the sword. Not a typical dress sword, no. Long and sharp, made from the finest steel I have ever felt. It left a cut on my right index finger with a simple touch.
Who would leave such an impressive uniform behind? Am I to believe a naked man is frolicking about in this weather? Braving the unknown swamp? Might that have been the source of the mysterious noise? Does a man lay dying at the footsteps of the Presidential Palace?
I have brought the clothes inside and locked the doors. The sky has unleashed a fierce tempest. I pity anyone outside in this weather. They are in for a wicked evening, without the comfort of rum.
I am beginning to suspect something frightened the servants away. What could cause twenty able-bodied souls to run off in such a manner, I do not know, but I shall not venture outside again to find out.
As the skies have opened, so too, have the noises. Oh! These damnable noises! For every clap of thunder, every strike of lightning, every rush of rainfall, there is a scream, a wail, a guttural snarl, sounding less human with every passing minute.
The noises are all around me, echoing in this dark labyrinth of plaster and smoke. I swear, too, that I have seen a pair of eyes, orange and glowing, burning bright, roaming from window to window. As if they are watching me. As if something circles its prey.
Alas, there is a good chance this is only the rum speaking. I find myself a quarter into the bottle not one hour since opening it.
As I think more on the matter, I am reminded of a story, one I heard aboard the Boston during my first voyage to France.
I recorded the tale in one of my prior entries. I shall go search for it now. The details could be of great assistance. Oh! The loudest crack of lightning yet. I must hurry. This night grows harsher.
My hands are thick with dust. Cobwebs cover my fingers. I have inhaled enough indoor contaminants to make Benjamin Franklin wheeze in his grave. But I have found it. The journal entry from all those years ago. It is more striking than I remember and fills me with grave concern. Could this be what lurks beyond the walls?
I have included the entry below:
February 19 1778. Thursday.
The Heavens blessed us with strong winds today. Captain Tucker advises that we are back on course after that minor squabble with our British adversaries. But the seas remain rough, unforgiving. I do not know which is worse, the constant rocking or the stench of stagnant water. My stomach remains in a fragile state.
I write under a dripping wooden ceiling. It creaks and groans in slow, measured breaths. John Quincy is fast asleep beside me. I must admit, the boy’s bravery has surprised everyone onboard, his father most of all. I am so happy I brought him.
I am not certain how Charles would fare out here. He is younger, to be sure, but I do not think he has the disposition, nor the fortitude, to withstand a journey like this. I pray he is behaving himself while I am away.
Despite the perils that lie ahead, I must admit to fearing very little. There is a peculiar French seaman on board who keeps us entertained, distracted. He will not share his full birth name and insists we refer to him only as “Henri.” His hair remains drenched with seawater, always, and what few teeth he has left are black and rotting.
But the man has a penchant for storytelling. He gathers the passengers below deck every evening and regales us with tales from his homeland. Tonight, he told the most fascinating tale yet, and though I had to cover John Quincey’s ears at parts, I will be damned if I should lose such a story to time and old age…
There once was a great French knight, handsome and noble, save for one curious flaw. Whenever the moon was full, he would vanish into the woods, never telling a soul of his whereabouts, or what kept drawing him in. He would return home days later, naked as Adam, soiled clothes at his side.
As the years pass, his wife grows incensed by his behavior. One night, she confronts him upon his return. The knight tells her:
My lady, I turn Bisclavret;
I plunge into that great forest.
In thick woods I like it best.
I live on what prey I can get.
The knight hides his clothes near an old chapel, for if they should disappear, he will become Bisclavret for eternity. Horrified by what she hears, his wife devises a plan to escape his wicked curse. She enlists the help of another knight, one with a keen eye for her, and steals her husband’s clothes during the next full moon, damning him to live out his days as the monster Bisclavret.
One year later, while the King is hunting in the woods, he comes across Bisclavret. The King is alarmed at first, but calms when Bisclavret drops to a knee and kisses his feet. The King spares his life and takes Bisclavret in his court.
All does not end well, however. Soon after, the King hosts a grand feast, and Bisclavret’s devious wife and new husband attend. Blinded by a feral rage, Bisclavret attacks, sinking his teeth into the knight’s throat, tearing his wife’s nose from her face.
The King sentences Bisclavret to death, but his wife confesses her misdeeds and returns his clothes. Horrified, Bisclavret refuses to dress in public. He waits until he is alone, ashamed now of his true form, damned to a life from public view, in absolute solitude…
When I inquired with Henri as to how Bisclavret translates to English, he paused, thought for many moments, touched a finger to his rugged chin. Finally, his lips pursed and curled, as if forcing the words from his mouth.
Werewolf. Bisclavret means Werewolf.
Washington March 3, 1801
Dear “Mr. President”
I must admit, good sir (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense), that you have taken me for a ride. Here you have me, at thirty minutes to midnight, locked in my study, scouring through old journal entries, jumping like a small child at the slightest bit of noise, drinking rum at a torrid pace, and working myself into a frenzied state.
Bravo, Thomas. Bravo.
It all makes perfect sense. How did I not arrive at this conclusion earlier? This is all your doing. Yet another Republican scheme to drive me to madness. You think you have me fooled, but you do not. It has always been you behind the scenes, has it not? The ultimate puppet master, twirling the strings of your Southern cronies while they do your putrid bidding. You might have fooled the Nation, but you will never fool John Adams!
It was your idea to have the capital moved to this godforsaken swamp. You insisted I move in before the end of my term, before the damned thing was even finished. Why? So you could torment me. How many of you are outside right now? How many Republicans dance around this house? Risking all manner of illness on this wet and frozen night, just so they can run back to you like dogs and get a pat on the head.
I remember the names, my old friend, every last one of them. I do not recall any protest from you when your Southern colleagues dubbed me, “His Rotundity.” I am all but certain you snickered under your breath.
And what about the others? Did you snicker at them, too? John Adams the warmonger, the monarchist, the repulsive pendant, the gross hypocrite, the egregious fool. And, my personal favorite, the hideous hermaphrodite. If my Harvard education is of any value, I do believe that a hermaphrodite possesses the sex organs of both male and female. And if that be the case, then I cannot think of a more apt description of you, good sir, as your flaccid demeanor and aversion to public opinion make it impossible to determine which side of any issue you stand!
Some Vice President, you have been. You spent the last four years so effectively separating yourself from my administration, and the duties of governing, that you could not be held accountable for anything that has disappointed, displeased, or infuriated anyone. Leave me to take all the arrows. Perhaps my memory fails me again, but I do not recall your private objection to the taxes, the standing army, the Alien act, the Sedition act, or anything else for that matter.
But perhaps the greatest ruse of your career was to convince a majority of delegates, and the citizens at large, that you are a champion of the people. Nay, a man of the people. Ha! I dare say there will never be another pied piper as effective as you, fooling the poor and working class that a wealthy land baron has their best interests at heart.
This is the same Thomas Jefferson who hails from a southern mansion, is it not? The same Thomas Jefferson who wears blue frock coats, abhors city life, and prefers to spend his days reading literature in his robust library while an army of slaves tends to his every want and need? No need left unfulfilled, right Thomas?
Perhaps that is where the servants have run off to. Did you round them up and herd them straight to Monticello to build yet another wing? Could you stand the sight of servants doing the bidding of anyone but yourself?
I shall leave you with this lovely poem from your dear southern friend, John Page, another insult I committed to memory that I have no doubt you endorsed:
I’ll tell in a trice–
‘Tis old Daddy Vice
Who carries of pride an ass-load;
Who turns up his nose,
Wherever he goes
With vanity swelled like a toad.
Well I, good sir, much prefer to be a toad than a swine.
P.S. – Oh! And one more thing, with reg–
I am shaken to my very soul. How do I describe what has transpired? Best to lay out the facts, only the facts, state my case and let the jury decide – as I have done (quite well, I might add) throughout my career.
As I was finishing my formal welcome letter to our Nation’s new President, the great and admirable Thomas Jefferson of Montezillo Monticello, there was a loud, sudden noise. A grand thud, striking over and over, as if the Royal Army had landed again on our shores and taken a battering ram to the entrance.
I dropped my quill and, on unsteady legs, hurried over to investigate, forgetting for a moment about the creature that may or may not be roaming the grounds. I propelled my feet forward, one in front of the other, down the dark hallways of this unfinished monstrosity, the flickering light of the candelabra proving a questionable guide. The rain fell all around me, cascading from the roof, like a giant wave was preparing to sweep me away.
As I approached the great doors, the thudding continued, but weaker in strength. I paused for a moment, took a quick breath through my nostrils and out my aching mouth. Bang! One final blow sent the doors rattling.
That is when I heard it.
A scream. Not the same scream as before, no, this one more… human. Yes, I thought to myself, that scream belongs to a man. An ailing man.
I broached a timid step toward the great doors. A lightning strike charged the sky, its glow bathing through the windows. Time ceased to move.
“Who goes there?” I asked, perhaps louder than I needed. There may have been a crack in my voice, so I asked again. “Who goes there?”
Another scream. This one, worse than before. I leapt forward and reached for the handle, but another burst of lightning sent me stumbling backwards. The windows glowed in unison, a widening set of tarantula eyes.
And there he was.
The young rider from earlier, his bloody cheek pressed against the glass. He tried to speak, tried so hard, but nothing sensible came out.
“Good heavens!” I said, or something to that effect. With a rush of bravery, I gripped the door handles with all my might, pulled the blasted things open. A blast of wind, of cold air, of stabbing rain overtook me and almost knocked me off my feet. A lesser man (like Thomas Jefferson, for example) would have fallen, but I held my ground.
“Hurry,” I yelled. “Come inside at once!”
I do not know if the rider heard me, the storm was so loud, but he staggered forward and fell inside all the same. I tried to bring him to his feet, but at my advanced age, my strength is not what it used to be.
The poor boy, I thought. For that’s what he was, a boy. Fresh-faced. Clean shaven. Curly, brown hair. For a moment, with the glow of the candles at my side, I dare say the rider resembled Charles. My dear, departed Charles.
But I could not dwell on that thought. I bent over and dragged the ailing rider across the parlor and into the great room, the large fireplace roaring. The rider’s body left a crimson trail in its wake.
“Stay with me, son,” I kept saying, “stay with me!”
This next part, I admit, is difficult to write.
His throat was torn from chin to chest, the muscles visible when he tried to speak, pulling and tightening like splintered rope. I held my finger to his lips, tried to keep him quiet, so that he did not strain himself. I tried to reassure him. I tried to tell him everything would be fine.
My dear Charles. My sweet boy.
His clothes clung to him in ribbons. I moved him close to the fireplace, propped him up against the wall, told him to wait for a moment, to try and breathe. Surely, I could have repurposed some of the hanging garments to stop the bleeding. I had enough rum left to dull his pain. There were other things I could have done, too. If he could just hold out until the morning, when the stage arrived, when the storm had passed, I could get him to the nearest town, get him proper medical care.
But it was all for naught.
He died in my arms.
I was too late. If only I had come to the door sooner, perhaps I could have saved him. If only my Presidential duties had not interfered. Why had I sent the rider out with such weather approaching? I saw the warning signs, but chose to ignore them.
Charles was dead. Killed by a horrible beast, a horrible beast that still roamed the Presidential Palace. I held him against my chest, his blood soaking my clothes There was nothing more to be done.
A rumble of thunder gave the roof a shake. The rain lightened, stopped, started all over again. I do not know what came over me, but I reared back my head and screamed. I cursed the beast, this palace, God himself, Thomas Jefferson, Republicans, Federalists, the lot of them. And myself. Myself, most of all. I screamed and screamed until I could scream no longer. Until my lungs set ablaze.
Then the clock struck midnight, and I wept.
I still do.
I never stopped.
Washington March 4, 1801
My son, I am so sorry. I have failed you again. I have wasted so much of my life fathering an ungrateful nation that I neglected my duties as a real father. And look what it did to you.
I learned of your death the morning of December 3, the day the electors convened. It is not as if the news did not strike me, but I admit to feeling a certain numbness. I took those feelings and buried them deep in my stomach, somewhere unseen, unfeeling, and carried on about my day. Channeling all that sorrow into the election. Channeling all that rage.
The rage that comes when a father knows he is to blame, for everything. For I knew the drink had grabbed hold of you, squeezing your life with every drop. I remember the last time I saw you, your constitution was so shaken, every movement a dreadful, painful chore. Your mind seemed so deranged. The vibrant, young boy I once knew was gone. A lost, pained man now stood in his place.
The pressures of being the son of John Adams, the younger brother of John Quincey, the heir apparent to the political throne, must have weighed on you so. And yet, I said nothing. You were a boy of many interests, a child so tender and amiable, yet I forced you to follow in my footsteps – to farm, to practice law, to be a statesman. It was all so natural for John Quincey, but not so for you. Rather than embrace your unique spirit, I ignored it, forced you down a path you did not wish to travel. And for that, I am ashamed.
What is worse, I saw the toll this life took on you, yet I demanded you get on with it, toughen up, as if I am one to speak on such things. There is too much of my own father, Deacon John, in me. God rest his soul.
When I learned that you had disappeared, gone bankrupt, lost your faith, and turned to the drink, I said such horrible things, thought such horrible things. I would do anything to take them back. I would do anything to see you again.
And now, as darkness settles over this horrid land, and the fireplace dampens in this horrid room, and the beast continues its horrid dance around this horrid palace, waiting for the moment to burst through the walls and finish what it started, I shall wait.
I shall wait for it to put me out of my misery. I shall wait for it to reunite us in eternity, where I will be in your debt, begging for forgiveness.
Your tender father
March 4 1801. Wednesday. 12:30.
I have retreated to one of the guestrooms for the remainder of the night. I feel safer here. The fireplace provides good warmth in close quarters. I am writing on the floor, tucked away in the corner, with a small candle to my left and the rum to my right.
I fixed the bed against the door and pushed the wooden dresser in front of the window. My clothes have been stripped and tossed into the fire. If I should die, be ripped limb from limb, I would rather it be in my natural state than in clothes stained with the blood of my dead son.
Outside, the rain has calmed, but the lightning and thunder continue, trading blows like two towering knights in and endless joust. The beast is circling the grounds. Always circling. Always howling. Whatever pleasure it got from killing Charles has not quenched its bloodlust.
I shall see what happens first. Daybreak, or the beast gaining access to the palace. I fear the latter is far more possible.
The great grandfather clock ticks away, echoing down the mighty halls. That is how I am keeping time. An exact science, it is not. But it is helping to keep me sane. That and the rum, this sweet sweet rum that has numbed me to the point of total indifference. If the beast is to come inside, let it. I am ready.
My mind has begun a tournament of cruel tricks. Across the room, a pulpit rose from the ground. Deacon John emerged, dressed in his finest cloth, arms raised to the sky. From under the bed came the pained tears of an infant. I would swear on my mother’s life that Susanna, our poor little girl, was suffering through her fatal illness all over again. Abigail appeared, too, weeping tears of blood, pointing at me, her arm a quivering arrow.
On and on these visions have come. I cannot stand this much longer.
Oh! The sound of shattering glass, somewhere in the house. The beast is inside. It has come for me.
Footsteps, marching along the floorboards. Two long shadows appeared beneath the door, moved away. Perhaps it has not heard me. Perhaps it is confused. Perhaps I am safe after all.
Something has angered the beast. It is ripping open doors, one after the other, clawing at the walls, frothing at the mouth, howling its terrible howl. It is only a matter of time before it arrives again at my door. God be with me.
It is here. God have mercy, it is here! Outside the door, the shadowed feet have returned.
I cannot believe it.The beast laughed. In place of its animalistic howl, a deep belly laugh rang through the halls. Then, the beast continued on, resuming its destruction in the next room, tearing through the Presidential Palace like some kind of manic storm.
If only Thomas Jefferson could see me now. He and all his Republican cohorts. Alexander Hamilton, too, that damnable villain with the devil’s eyes, and all the Federalist minions he bamboozled. If all of my enemies could see me, they would undoubtedly join with laughter of their own. Perhaps louder than the beast!
Here sits President John Adams, cowering in fear, a naked old fool of a man, counting down the minutes until his inevitable demise. A mere boil on the hindquarters of George Washington. Just like they all suspected. I have become the myth they made me out to be.
But no longer.
While I still remain in the Presidential Palace, I intend to act like the President. I will not sit idly by while some abominable beast runs amuck, destroying the People’s property, waiting to be killed like some ailing pig!
I shall avenge Charles’s death. Or I shall die trying.
Washington March 4, 1801
My Fellow Americans
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one person to dissolve a ruthless monster from its own head, so it must be done. For we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights (Benjamin Franklin’s idea, it should be noted), that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Anything that stands in the way of these rights, be it of earthly or supernatural origin, shall be dealt with in the most absolute manner, using the full power of the Presidency. And until Thomas Jefferson rides up from his sprawling estate at Montezillo Monticello, I am still the President, and I will do my duty.
Yes, I, John Adams, having never fought in battle, having never donned a uniform of war, having never fired a musket at the enemy nor manned a cannon, will lead the charge. For even though I lack the experience (and youth) of a soldier, I have served this nation with something far greater. My mind.
Though I was not granted a second term, I am filled with Pride. I am prideful of the new navy of more than 50 ships and 5,000 officers, prideful of our peace with France, prideful of an administration without a hint of scandal or corruption (my eyes to you, Mr. Hamilton), prideful to have staved off the warmongers who would lead us to ruin, prideful to have secured the backing of powerful allies during the Revolutionary War, prideful of the part I played in the first Continental Congress, the second Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the founding of this very nation.
I accept the decision of the electors, of the American people, and will take my defeat with grace. The American people do not deserve a broken and bitter President, incessantly airing their grievances and blaming others for their misgivings. For that is the ultimate sign of weakness. And I am done being weak.
As I write this, a beast runs rampant through the Presidential Palace. It wishes to destroy me and wreak untold havoc across our lands. But I shall not stand for it. I will march out of this room with my shoulders back and my chin high. I will take up arms against it. I will defend this land, as I have done throughout my life. I will defend my people.
I, therefore, President John Adams of the United States of America, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of my intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these United States, solemnly publish and declare, that I will kill the beast.
My body is covered in all manner of blood, viscera, brains, the messy coating of a man who has been reborn. I will describe what has transpired in real time, exactly as it happened:
Rum splashes across my lips, the last drops trickling from an empty bottle. I toss it on the floor but the glass does not break. I will need to show more strength than that in my duel with the beast.
I clear my throat, swallowing back a lump, another lump, my body protesting what is about to transpire. On wobbly knees and aching feet, I march forward. The fireplace crackles behind me, washing the walls in shadowed flame, breathing against my naked back. I inch forward, closing and opening my fists, knuckles cracking with the flames.
The bed is easy to move, easier than I thought, for it was not as secure against the door as I intended. The beast could have breached it, gained access to the room, and killed me in an instant. But that was before, when courage evaded me. Now, it is firmly in my grasp.
I crack the door ajar and peer into the hallway. Darkness shrouds my view, but the Palace is alive with noise. Howls, heavy footsteps, scratching along the walls, froth and drool swirling inside a cauldron-like mouth. The beast is close, yes, somewhere in the black abyss. I have a small window to act. And act, I shall.
The floor is cold against my feet. I walk with a measured pace, careful not to slip and fall, which would all but seal my fate. My skin comes alive with gooseflesh.
Deep scratches run along the walls. The floor is rife with holes. Sharp gusts of wind whip down the hallway from every direction. The windows have been shattered.
The weather worsens, but it is not unwelcome. The lightning guides me forward. The thunder steadies my heart. Raindrops run down my back, keeping me alert.
The bedroom door seems so far away now. I think of turning back, of locking myself away again. This was a horrible mistake, the ludicrous idea of an old, drunken fool. Yes, I must turn back.
But something emerges in the distance. Two glowing orbs at the end of the hall, close together, narrowing. A flash of lightning reveals the lupine creature, crouching on four legs, thick with black fur, baring talons for teeth.
I have reached the point of no return. My mission shall proceed.
I turn back towards the great room and press forward, my pace quickening. A gallop starts behind me, gaining in speed. But this is the Presidential Palace, and I know it as well as the farms of Braintree. I can throw the beast off my tail.
I bank hard to the right, through the kitchen, past the servants’ quarters, feeling my way through a blackened fog. My sudden movements have confused the beast, taken it by surprise, just as intended. It crashes from wall to wall, its large body struggling through unfamiliar terrain. The woods are its natural element. But it is in my element now.
With the time I have afforded myself, I hurry into the great room, the fireplace still alive, the portrait of George Washington watching over me. The clothes are right where I left them, the only thing in the house the beast has not disturbed. It howls, somewhere in a nearby room. I must be quick.
The sword is awash with red flame, glistening near the fire. I raise it from the ground, the handle hot to the touch. I hold it high in the air, studying the blade, attempting to stab at the electric sky.
I think of Abigail, the children, the grandchildren. I think of plunging my hands into fresh tilled soil. I think of the mosquito-filled days of Summer in Philadelphia, spending countless hours in cramped quarters with wig-clad statesmen, forming this nation which we are fortunate to now reside. I smile. Perhaps my first of the night. Perhaps my first in ages. I close my eyes tight, imagining it all.
Then I hear it.
The approaching footsteps, fast at first, but slowing. Slowing until they come to a full stop. There is a deep breathing, a few inches from my face, pouring out of wicked nostrils. A foul odor fills the room.
I open my eyes to the beast, so close we stand nose-to-snout. It sits back on its hind legs, straightening its back, until it towers over me, blotting out the room. The fireplace, the clothes, George Washington, all of it gone.
We stare at each other, our unspoken game, neither backing down. No clap of thunder, no strike of lightning, no whisk of wind, nothing will break our concentration. Not even the tick of the grandfather clock. The hour turns to three.
The beast stands tall, proudly, blood coating its mouth. It has the body of a bloated wolf, stretched to unimaginable limits, the physique of a fierce Hessian mercenary. Its face, a terrible face, with burning eyes and a serpentine tongue, curling its mouth into a demented smile, no doubt waiting for me to attempt the first blow.
“You do not scare me,” I say, as if it speaks American English. “I have faced worse enemies than you.” I tighten my grip on the sword. “In fact, one will be here tomorrow. And he is much uglier.”
The beast cocks its head, trying to understand. It drops its claws for a moment.
That is when I strike.
Sparks erupt, the sword’s blade colliding with raised claws. The beast blocks my first swing, but I do not give in. I strike again, harder, but the beast follows the blade with its paw. Strike and block, strike and block, two great fencing partners engaged in a delicate dance. The beast roars after another block, lowering its face towards mine. I roar back, not giving an inch.
We go back and forth like this for an eternity, working our way around the room. I am fatigued, but I try to push through it. My form is looser now, sloppy, as the strength in my arm recedes. My shoulder wails in pain with each strike. I stab at the beast, straight ahead, wildly, but it jumps backwards, causing me to stumble.
This is my fatal error, for the beast strikes a crushing blow, cutting me from wrist to elbow. The sword falls to the ground. I reach for it, but the beast digs its claws into my chest and, with a swift, upward motion, sends me hurling across the room.
I hit the floor knees first, wrapped in a painful cocoon. I tumble against the wall. The portrait of George Washington rattles above me.
My thoughts again turn to Abigail as the beast approaches, its long shadow working across the floor, climbing up the wall. Oh Abigail, how I wish to have seen you one last time. How I regret to leave you in such a manner. Perhaps you will rest easy knowing your husband fought until the bitter end. That he died defending his country.
The beast plants its monstrous feet in front of me, claws plunging into the floor. It crouches back again on its hind legs, mouth wide open. The laughter returns, rattling the walls. The portrait swings back and forth, bringing George Washington to life, like he is ready to burst through the brushstrokes and charge into battle. An idea strikes me.
As the beast rears back its foul head one last time, I summon whatever strength I have left and spring to my feet. I bring my fists back against the wall as hard as I can. The portrait falls, loosened by a night of commotion. I catch it on its way to the ground, the great frame heavier than I anticipated, but I cannot let that stop me. I raise the portrait in the air, leap off the balls of my feet, and smash it on top of the creature’s head.
By the sounds that come from its mouth, the beast does not appreciate the warm embrace from General Washington. I sympathize. Its arms are fixed at its sides, struggling to break free from the golden frame. I do not have much time. I must make my move.
The sword glistens in the distance, showing me the way, leading me to it. I maneuver around the beast and pick it off the ground. I return, weapon in tow.
The beast howls, shrieks. Dare I say, a look of panic crosses its face. I have it now.
I lose count of the strikes to its neck. More than ten. Less than fifty. Blood splatters along the walls, coats the floor, covers my face, dampens the fire, but I do not stop. I think of all my enemies, standing in front of me, with one collective neck. I strike and strike and strike until a severed head hits my feet and the monstrous body follows suit.
My shoulders slump. I take in measured gulps of cool, night air until the flames on my lungs are extinguished. I holster the sword in an invisible sheath.
I lean forward, hands fixed to my knees, and wretch. It all comes out of me, the Madeira, the rum, this morning’s hard cider, all of it. With the contents of my stomach empty, I catch my breath.
The severed head has the size and girth of a young bull. It begins to shrink, to change form. The black fur peels off, the eyes expand, the snout disintegrates. The face of a beast washes away. The face of a human emerges.
My face. By God, it is my own face! It stares back at me with dead, lifeless eyes. The head of John Adams. Bidding one final adieu to the Presidential Palace.
And then it melts away, until it is nothing more than a festering puddle of muck. The night is over. The beast is dead.
Washington March 4, 1801
My Dearest Friend
Though it is still too early for sunrise, I feel the day beginning anew. I am writing as a man ready to embrace the next chapter of my life, ready to leave the past where it belongs, and to let historians be my judge. Most of all, I am ready to be the husband, father, and grandfather that my family deserves. It is what Charles would want.
The crates are packed, but please do not be disappointed if I have forgotten a thing or two. I am an aging man, after all. So much so, that I had a minor fall in the wilderness which left me with many cuts and bruises. Do not be alarmed, I shall recover. And as for my loose-fitting clothing, well, that is a long affair to recount.
I bid farewell to the Presidential Palace with a smile across my face. This is a residence more suited for a man like Thomas Jefferson anyway. I made sure to leave behind a letter congratulating him on a hard-earned victory. I also left him a special gift in the main bedroom. It is sure to give him a frightful surprise.
The stage is approaching now, emerging from the rain-soaked swamp, clearing the fog as it goes. Despite tonight’s turbulent weather, it appears I shall be leaving on time. I cannot wait to be with you again. I cannot wait to tend the land, to read, to be amongst my countrymen as a citizen of this great Nation. Oh Abigail, I am ready to be home.
Most affectionately yours,
Kevin Johnson is a Product Manager by day and a writer of creepy tales by night. He grew up in the horror aisles of Blockbuster Video and lives by the creed, “what if you added a monster?” You can find him on Twitter @KevinDGJohnson.
“A moving shadow means more to us than a body at rest. We are no longer taken in by a fixed grin. We know only death has a rictus.” –Joseph Roth
“God made time; he made a dreadful lot of it.” –Patrick O’Keefe
Five o’clock in the morning, watching the storm leaving a slick jacket of ice on Western Avenue. Nothing moving at all, except the sagging phone lines, the overburdened barren tree limbs, icicles forming as I watched. I wasn’t going anywhere. Not for a long time.
When I was in college, a hundred million years ago, my friends and I used to fantasize about being snowed in for the duration at our favorite bar, drinking, and carrying on, until we were beyond comatose. What we were planning to use for money all that time, why we thought the owner and staff would abide our presence for a long siege, in a bar, for an Upstate winter, escapes me now. As did, what we planned to do once we reached the gibbering stage, once we reached the point of severe alcohol poisoning, and the end of consciousness. I suppose, we felt that if something abstract, like actual death happened, our passage into that other place would be a happy one; we’d be drunk and presumably that would be a good thing, in that world, as it was in this one.
Presuming there was another world. Presuming we woke up in it, and it would be a better place than where we currently were. And that this better place would have endless Happy Hours and theme Beer Blasts for us to while away eternity drinking, telling raunchy jokes, and reciting obscene limericks, making up new ones when the old supply had been exhausted, pausing in our revelry occasionally to get laid, or, stoned, as the occasion arose.
We’d always be twenty-one in those days, and there would be no threat of being drafted into a foreign war no one in their right mind agreed with. The company would always be agreeable, and there would be no finals, at least, not the kind we couldn’t handle. The weather might be awful, but with time, this too would pass, and there would be variations on a theme to enliven the routine. Variations involving outdoor recreations, loosely organized sporting events, and an endless supply of beer, hard whiskey, and drugs.
Best of all there, would be no killer hangovers, or nothing that some hair-of-the-dog-that-bit me, couldn’t cure. Perpetually wasted, or working on becoming so, seemed like nirvana. In real life, basically being drunk and stoned, perpetually, for twenty years or more, had its downside that got worse with age. Some of us had never completely given up on the idea that this was the ultimate desirable state of being.
Even after we were hooked, and, had no other choice, and a million excuses for why we were not hooked, and how being hooked and able to feed the beast, was a strange comfort offered by profession. That the profession chose us, instead of the other way around, was not readily apparent. Especially not at an unseemly hour in the morning, marooned after hours in a bar, with no way out, and home an impossible distance away from where you were.
The only sensible thing to do seemed to be, settle in and wait it out, beer in one hand, a large, very large, scotch on ice, with a splash of water nearby for creature comfort. Especially, once the power lines snapped under the burden of the storm’s leavings, and the supply of palatable stuff for drinks, would eventually be exhausted. The last weather advisory suggested a stalled front, untold inches of ice, followed by extreme cold and then. Then the darkness.
Ice on the phone lines. Just a matter of time before they went as well. Who would you call anyway? No one was going anywhere until the weather allowed them to. Just my luck: first a freak snowstorm in October that crippled the region, and now a February ice storm. Only on my shift. The shift of doom. Fate’s three ring circus, the freak parade, as the stoners used to call it, as they’d settle onto stools in the far corner of the bar, where the best view would be. For the inevitable show that would take place, where they could clearly observe whatever weirdness I had brought with me. No one else did that as well as I did. I was the best. Everyone said so. I had a strange kind of glow, a weirdness magnet that drew stuff to me the way no one else could.
“How does it feel to that weirdness magnet? Isn’t it like completely fucked up?” Stoners asked, not really expecting an answer.
“Hang around and find out.”
Oh, they hung around all right. All the time. Though the fuckers never offered me a stick of anything worthwhile. Not once. But they tipped well, which was something. I guess it was a kind of sympathy thing. Sort of like the most beautiful girl in your high school class fucking an awkward, harmless, loner kid, who couldn’t buy a date, out of the goodness of her heart; a mercy fuck. There are limits to kindness, whereas evil is boundless.
Or, so it seemed to me as I worked through the endless panels of a Bosch surreality that was my life in bars, that was working at my unchosen profession. Working, while keeping myself well lubricated, so that I would blend in with the rest of the demons, devils, and plagued semi-human forms, romping through a world of untold pestilence, pain and deprivation. Living in this manner, was like giving a guided tour of Dante in your own head, sort of a “Fantastic Voyage” gone wrong, where the base pay was insultingly bad, but the tips were decent, and you got to see stuff no one else did outside of a locked-in ward, or a state prison for the criminally insane. The more you drank though, the more that journey through the body became, a Voyage in the Dark and then, one day, without you knowing, instead of being the person giving the tour, you become one of the freaks.
I can’t say when I had become aware of what my life had become untenable. And what was I doing about it? Drinking. Drinking as if my life depended upon it. Drinking as if there were no tomorrow.
It was already tomorrow, and I was exhausted. Every minute spent working in a bar, tensed and at a heightened state of awareness, is time spent multiplied by ten. It would be difficult to say what is more tiring: the physical workout of hours spent relentlessly busting tail, without a break, working a full house of screaming banshees, or enduring ten hours of abject boredom, watching reruns of dreadful movies, cop dramas or classic sports reruns, carefully managing your alcohol intake so as not to become totally inebriated and non-functioning, before the eleven o’clock news. Both a challenge to be sure.
The ice. Melting. In the sink wells and in the machines. Water dripping, taps leaking, the spray of the ice on the picture window and on the glaze of blacktop outside. Ice in my mind. Melting.
And how many miles to go before I sleep?
Now. As I sit, think, maybe if I just close my eyes for a while. Lie back in the plush booth far away from the prying eyes of the picture windows. The eyes.
Ice on the windows like fingernails on glass. Fingernails tapping lightly on glass. Trying to get inside.
And the distant sound of low voices. A chatter of conversation in the dark. And the sound of the jukebox cycling tunes. Choosing most played, random numbers, leftover tunes on someone’s dollars from the night before. Sometimes the jukebox plays itself for hours when no one can hear. When no one is listening. Like now.
The voices more distinct. Not arguing, not imparting news, not conveying messages from the world beyond. The world beyond the glass. Or, the world inside.
As my senses sharpen, as the realization becomes clearer: discovering that I am locked inside the bar, after hours, presumably alone, the idea of voices, any voicing, becomes a frightening one. Who belongs to these voices? Where do they come from? How did they get inside? In here?
Cautiously, I ease my way from the booth I had been resting in, careful not to upend the glasses on the table. I can see no one reflected, sitting or standing, in the side mirrors along the walls opposite the bar. The mirrors are situated in such a way that all the space in the front room may be seen from the back without being observed. That is depending upon where you are standing.
Where I am, there is a dark space by the front picture windows where the room juts out toward the street, and two eight top tables are arranged with their chairs resting legs facing up toward the fake tin ceiling. Vinyl over wood, painted to look like tin and stained by a million cigarettes, to give that lived-in, authentic look. Stained, as the wall is stained, by chicken wing sauce, dried ketchup, thousands of spilled beers, and left-overs from disgusting shots. Atmosphere shaded by darkness; a black hole in the sight line.
And, I think, as I inch forward toward the bar, am I visible among the upturned chairs on tables in the back room? Visible to those people by the bar. Of course, I am. What can be observed from the back, can be observed from the front. That’s the whole point of the mirrors, isn’t it? That is, if anyone cares to observe. Have a need to look.
By the jukebox glare, I pause, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and, prepare to face the unknown. What I see, when my eyes reopen, is not shocking, no longer surprising. Still, I wonder how stools had been turned down without my hearing, or noticing. Or, how the all-the-way-down dimmed lights, have been brightened. Or, how these people at the bar seemed not only not surprised to see me, but kind of glad. At least, that’s how I interpret the warmth in their eyes, the mostly, hidden mirth; anticipation, somehow, realized by my being here, behind the bar, as I was meant to be, was the last piece missing from the puzzle.
I am wondering not so much about their being here, they seem to have always been here, are as regular, and as natural as the furniture they sit on, but how they had been served.
The small bald guy in the corner bar seat, bending his sipper straw in folds, answers the unstated question for them all, “The day guy is in the shitter. Once he gets in there forget it. Could be hours. Days. Weeks. That boy’s insides are bad. I wouldn’t go in there if I were you. Not for a good while anyway. “
“You know, you guys really ought to put an outside, overhead, circulating fan in there. Clear the air but good. I can get you one through my contacts at the school. Just say the word.”
“We served ourselves. Not to worry, though, I’m keeping track. We pay at the end.
We always do. All of us.”
“So, what numbers do you want?”
I watched the old guy holding a pencil in one shaking hand, and, a pocket pad with numbers written on the top sheet, in the other.
“Daily numbers. What’s wrong with you? You just wake up or something? When the day guy said a new man was coming on, I thought he meant one who could speak English.”
I looked closer at the old man. He looked like some kind of unwell, test crash dummy, who had been in one hit too many walls for his own good. There was something about his complexion, the sallow skin that sagged, where it should have been firm, the too obvious bones in his face and hands, the sunken pits of his eyes, the few remaining teeth that suggested unwell, not long for this world.
“Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s just an old crank. I’ve been giving him money for numbers for twenty years and I haven’t won a dime. I haven’t even seen a ticket from him.”
The dissenting voice came from another old man, one stool over. He was wearing a baseball style adjustable cap that said GOLF NUT on it.
The first old man replied, testily. “You have to play every day. You want to see the tickets, fine, come over the house. I have them all filed, by day, per year, all the way back as far as the daily numbers go. You should have seen those guys at State Tax when they tried to call me on the gambling thing the year, we hit for twenty-one grand. Handed him twelve boxes of losing tickets, indexed by month, and day, and told him to go to town, if he didn’t believe me. They owed me money.”
“Good, then you can buy me a beer.” Golf Nut said.
“You see what the hat says. Don’t believe it. He’s just plan Nut for short. Because he can’t play golf worth shit, and, he’s only got one ball.”
“I’d like to see you play golf. You probably never set foot on a golf course in your life.”
“You’re right. I never have. Stupidest fucking game ever invented. One thing you have to remember if you’re going to work here is, Mr. Nut will do anything to get a free beer.”
“Even talk to you. That’s about as desperate and as low as a person could go. I should go over to Hall and drink for half of what it costs here.”
“Except they wouldn’t let you in. You can’t go anywhere else, and that’s all there is to it. So, get used to it, and quit whining. Give the pain-in-the-ass a beer. I hate to listen to a grown man whine.”
I reach into the cooler for a frosty Molson’s Golden and pop the twist off. I don’t even think twice about what I am doing. Somehow, I know this is why I am here.
“Don’t let that old fart fool you, “Golf Nut says, “his name is pain-in-the-ass. Everyone who comes here knows that.”
“I see it says Senior Night happy hour. I’m a senior, are you giving me the special senior discount?”
“That’s for college seniors only. Graduation is coming up. There’s a whole week of specials for the graduating seniors.”
“I never went to college. But I graduated from high school. Does that count?”
“Not really. Now if you had a college ID that says you were a graduating senior, I could help you with happy hour prices.”
“I have an AARP card. Says I’ve been a senior for fifteen years.”
“That’s how long it took him to graduate from high school too.” Pain-in-the-ass says.
“And fuck you very much too. He should talk, he never got past the third grade.”
“Did to, and you know it. We were in the same class. Last one before the War.”
“And then you got drafted.”
“So did you.”
“The hell, I did. I enlisted.”
“So, did I. Or did you forget? We were in the same unit.”
“He’s so full of shit. I was in the Marines, and he was in the Army. Same unit, my ass. If you don’t feel like calling him pain-in-the-ass, shit-for-brains will do. He’ll answer to either one. Most people call me Boomer. Or Mister Lynch.”
Shaking his hand, I ask, “Which do you prefer?”
I don’t know what to think as old Baldy chimes in,” Don’t let him kid you, son. He’s actually older than I am.”
“Older than him, right. What, by three weeks?”
“Almost four. My name is Willy.” Baldy says, holding his shaking hand out to me.
“Yeah, Willy. Like Dick. Limp Dick. Why don’t you and your pain in the ass go get laid?”
“I can’t. Not since they started me on that new treatment program, I can’t get it up anymore.”
“Didn’t you ever hear about Viagra?”
“Heard about it. But they don’t advise it for someone with my condition.”
“I’ll bet all the old ladies over at the Anne Lee Home were glad to hear that.”
“They were. So was your wife. You should really stay home more and take care of business. A woman gets lonely.”
“What do you mean by a ‘woman gets lonely’?”
“For male companionship. You know, a little kindness, lovey dovey stuff. Intimacy they call it now.”
“She’s 76 years old.”
“Never too late to start.”
“Let me ask you this, were you drinking before you came out today? I want to know because you sure are acting drunk.”
“Of course, I was. I can’t eat anymore. Can’t screw around. Can’t do much of anything I used to be able to do, so I might as well drink.”
“Might as well. That’s what you’re good at.”
“Damn straight. So, what’s your numbers. I’ll bet you thought I forgot.”
I looked at Baldy. Now that I knew something about him, could see the gleam in his eyes, and the wretched attempt at a smile through all the pain he must have been feeling. I saw a sort of elf in decline, a man trying to salvage a few laughs at the end of the road he was on.
“I had thought you might have forgotten.”
“Don’t think that. I never forget.”
“He’s like an elephant that way. If you get down wind of him, you’ll notice another way he’s like an elephant. You should really bathe once in a while, Willy.”
“Fuck you, Lynch. And the golf cart you rode into town on. Did you got to mass today?”
“Of course, I went to mass. I go to mass every day.”
“Did you confess?”
“Maybe. What’s it to you?”
“Nothing. I hate to think of you as not having gone to confession. Your mortal soul is in danger. Drinking and swearing and carrying on the way that you do.”
“And you’re a saint, I suppose?”
“Saint Willy of the Divine. Has a kind of ring to it.”
“Yeah, like Peter Piper Pecker Eater.”
“Was that a joke, Mr. Lynch? If it was that was pretty clever. Almost like a riddle. Can you say that fast five times? While he’s busy screwing that up, why don’t you give me a couple of numbers. Buck each. If you win, I’ll bring in the ticket tomorrow. Otherwise, I keep the losers.”
“For the box.”
“Yep, that’s how it works.”
And so it goes.
On and on and on
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.
‘Nice got an iPhone. Got enough for my weed.’ Jess polishes a cracked iPhone screen in her hands.
‘Great, you rob phones now?’ I try grabbing the phone, but she shoves it into her blazer pocket. Why does she put me through this? My heart palpitates, dreading one of her park victims confronting us. ‘Why are you trying to get us in trouble?’ I hope she notices the frustration in my tone.
‘Oh, shut it, will you? If you won’t pay for my blunts, I’ve got to get money somewhere.’ She goes back to admiring her steal of the day. Why does she still do this? We are back to square one with two weeks of peace and no bitter weed coming off her clothes. To think Mum thought she was responsible. Wasting money on death sticks isn’t what I’d call responsible.
I glance at the blue lapis lazuli around her neck. The gold spots gleam in the spring sunlight like they did around Mum’s neck. I can tell by how she rubs the stone she still misses her. She thinks I don’t understand, but how couldn’t I? I lost her too.
I doubt Mum would approve of what she’s doing now. Luckily, I am not Jess. The foul bleach taste of alcohol and head throbbing numbness that comes from weed makes my stomach churn. What’s the point? You have to face reality the next day. Still, I wish Mum looked at me like she did with Jess. I swallow the brimming envy in my throat, noticing some dried cuts peeking out of her sleeve. I can’t remember the last time she smiled, not since before Mum’s mammogram. I miss who she used to be when her giggles and silly dances brightened up the house. Now she is an aimless moth, a shell of herself, longing for a light that has long died.
‘Can’t believe my luck, Rose,’ she jingles the coins around her palms. ‘Got a five and a tenner.’ Her pockets are a clinking orchestra for school kids’ loose change. I pray the police don’t catch onto what she’s done. But how couldn’t they? I don’t know one school kid who doesn’t keep their distance from her in lunch lines.
I realise what’s left of our sisterly bond is a withered shoelace. Thin and ready to snap. But I am pulled back before taking the first step, knowing we both share the gaping holes eating at our hearts. Glancing out our windows at the silent stars, wondering if Mum is out there. I imagine Mum’s soft bony hand rubbing my fingers. ‘Please, Rose, she needs you.’ Her words haunt my dreams and daily thoughts. But she was right. Jess is all I have, and time is running out.
‘I know you miss Mum, but stealing isn’t going to solve anything.’ Jess pauses on the path. I feel her left-hand clench around my jumper.
‘I don’t give one,’ she lets go, excessively scratching at her neck. ‘Mum’s not here anymore.’ I feel queasy seeing the moist rashes and fingernail marks across her flesh. I’m sick of giving her reality checks, but mentioning Mum is the only thing that gets through to her. I slide my arm into hers.
‘Sorry Jess, I’m just worried about you,’ she raises an eyebrow at me. ‘Mum wanted me to take care of you.’ Her face turns sour.
‘Worry about yourself. I can look after myself.’ Her comment sticks with me for a bit. How can she enjoy something so toxic?
We reach the end of our path, surrounded by sweet smelly yellow daffodils near an old park bench. I feel Jess’ elbow nudge into me as a sunbeam illuminates a woman in a purple dress. She doesn’t notice us, but she’s wearing a long indigo veil with a violet niqab around her face. My heart sinks, realising what Jess has in mind. She wouldn’t steal from an old woman, right?
‘Come on, she might have something for us,’ of course. Before I can protest, I already feel Jess’s grip around my sleeve. We sit down on the damp bench, hearing the coo of Pigeons flocking around us. The woman is tossing bits of breadcrumbs to the birds pecking at the pavement. She glances at us, her eyes almost hypnotic.
‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’ She says in a sweet elderly tone. I give her a brief smile trying to conceal my shame.
‘Yeah, it is. How are you doing?’ Says Jess, cupping her hands together like an innocent toddler. My teeth grind as she puts on a sweet, oblivious accent whenever she butters up her victims.
‘I’m good young lady, just feeding the birdies,’ she tosses more crumbs to the scattering Pigeons.
‘Aw, that’s nice. I love your sunglasses.’ Jess points at the folded red sunglasses on her lap.
‘Thank you, love, but they’re not mine. They’re not for wearing.’ Jess’s eyes shoot open from her comment. Damnit, old woman, she’ll want them more now.
‘Oh, why is that?’ The woman looks over both her shoulders, lowering the indigo cloth so that we can see her glittering lips.
‘I shouldn’t say anything. Why don’t you girls go play and have fun?’ Jess clasps her hands.
‘Please, Miss, I’d love it if you told me.’
‘Well, if you’re sure,’ she unfolds the sunglasses, sliding her index across strange, dotted symbols across the temples. ‘You might think I’m nuts, but they have mystical energy. I can’t say more than that, I’m afraid.’ She twiddles the frames between her crystal ringed fingers. Something about the curved plastic horns on either side of the lenses makes my heart race. Why are my hands shaking?
‘Jess, Maccie’s will close soon—’ I feel her shoe sharply kick into my shin.
‘It doesn’t close, stupid,’ she looks back at the woman. ‘So, you like spiritual stuff then?’ Jess quickly tries to slide her hand into the woman’s pocket, failing as she looks up.
‘Well, spirituality is a hobby of mine, you see. I like to collect all magical things, good or bad.’ She folds the glasses, putting them into her long robe. ‘Oh, you must think I’m a right old fool. Talking about this silly nonsense.’ Jess interrupts her, putting her hand over her shoulder.
‘Of course not. I think it’s cool you do that,’ Jess glances at the old oak tree near us. ‘So, is everything magic?’
‘Well, some things more than others.’ The woman pats the glasses in her robe.
‘Do you think that tree behind you is magic?’ The moment the woman cranes her neck, Jess swipes the sunglasses from her robe. I restrain the urge to stop her as I don’t want to be guilty by association. God, what would Mum think?
‘Well, all things have souls, dear—’ Jess yanks my hand.
‘Aw, thanks for all of that, bye,’ we are already halfway down the path when we’re far enough from the woman. ‘My God, what a moron. Falling for the oldest trick in the book.’ She laughs, yanking the glasses out of her pocket. I can’t refrain from smacking her shoulder.
‘That was well low.’ She ignores me, staring at the shiny red texture reflecting the evening sun. She stares at them. Of course, she’d love something with Devil horns and blackout shades. ‘Put them tacky things down. I’m not getting bad karma because of you.’ I try to reach for them, but she suddenly smacks my hand away.
‘Leave them!’ She clutches them to Mum’s necklace. I hold back, laughing as her arms fold over them like Gollum with his precious. But I keep it down, not wanting another smack. ‘Well, come on, swat, let’s go.’ She walks me back through the park but doesn’t say anything.
We are already out the gates when amber sunset ripples stretch across our faces. My scalp starts sweating, wishing I didn’t have to see her fondling a pair of sunglasses. She slides her deviant stumps across the lenses and pushes the bridge over her flushed nose. The edges of her lips widen so much that I can see her inner gums. I don’t know if I should be happy or creeped out. I can’t remember the last time she’s grinned. I try to ignore her until she exhales out of nowhere.
‘Rose, you’re gonna think I’m mad, but I think I’m high,’ I can’t help looking at her weirdly. ‘I don’t know, but I feel great since I put these on. I feel like I’m flying.’ She exhales in pleasure again. A silver gleam shines across her scalp. I pick at it. ‘Ouch, the hell did you do that for?’ I dangle three white hairs in front of her.
‘You always had these?’ She yanks them out of my hand.
‘Don’t know. Probably stress from last year.’ I gnaw my gums for the next twenty minutes, forced to listen about how much time she wasted inhaling weed when she could have felt this ‘natural high’ from a pair of sunglasses. I think back to what that woman said on the bench. From what she’s saying, she must be higher than a kite. But since when has she had grey hairs? Magical energy? Na, surely not. But my stomach starts knotting at how silent she is. I expected her to keep rambling about the glasses until she suddenly yanks Mum’s necklace off. She pulls the stone off and throws it onto the pavement.
‘Why did you do that for?’ I pick the stone up.
‘What? Me’ glasses need the string,’
‘But Mum gave it to you.’ I swallow the ball of emotions in my throat, wondering how she could casually throw this away.
She glares down a dark alley next to us. A robust herbal stench penetrates the street air. A far away streetlamp reveals a figure leaning on a fence. Please, God, don’t let it be weed.
‘Hey, you!’ A bright flashlight of a phone illuminates the shadows. A small Indian boy with a tied black bun looks over at us. ‘Give us’ the cig.’ Jess holds out her palm out, those ridiculous glasses covering her eyes. Before he can walk away, Jess rushes him, grabbing the front of his school shirt.
‘You mad? Get off.’ He tries to push her back, but his light hand smacks do little to her.
‘What are you doing? Stop!’ I try yanking her arm back, but she effortlessly pushes me back. The power in her shove winds me slightly. Since when is she this strong? She tugs the boy’s collar.
‘The fucking cigarette….’ Before I can do anything, she pulls out something from her pocket. The nearby lamp reflects a sharp sliver gleam in her hand. I want to do something, but what? I yank her arm back, wrestling the blade out of her hand. The red glasses fall off her face as the boy crawls away, a bitter urine stench filling the area.
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ She stands up, her face blank, rubbing her eyelids.
‘I don’t know,’ she scratches at her bloodshot cheeks. ‘I’ve never been that desperate for a cig.’
‘You, feeling all right?’
‘Wait, where are they?’ She pats all over her blazer pockets, picking the glasses off the pavement. I don’t dare go near her, though. Why did she attack that boy? What happens if another innocent person passes us with something she wants? These thoughts spread goosebumps across me.
We near a bright McDonald’s sign in the distance, but I can’t keep ignoring the knot in my naval. I don’t know if I’m crazy, but a weird heat is coming off her arm.
‘Jess, you’re scaring me,’
‘What you on about?’
‘You’re freaking me out! You attacked a lad.’ her still expression does little to soothe me.
‘So? I wanted a smoke. He had one, and I got one.’ A brunette teenage girl passes us. I immediately know what will happen when Jess sees a triple camera iPhone 13 Pro in her hand.
‘Jess, no!’ I feel a sharp prick as I try to grab her. Her fingernails are pointed and curved, lemon-yellow claws protruding out of her fingers. She wraps her hand around the girl’s neck as the McDonald’s light reveals the whites of Jess’s eyes completely engulfed in inky blackness.
‘What are you doing?’ The brunette girl shrieks, piercing my eardrums, but Jess shakes her like a bobblehead.
‘Give it to me, you little—’ I gasp as she lifts the girl up with one arm.
‘Put her down!’ I wrap my left arm around her slimy neck, hoping the chokeholds she taught me work. But her strength is suddenly greater, her beefy shoulders flinging me off. The back of my skull slams against the pavement.
‘I swear I’ll kill you.’ Jess growls, her ginger hair turning ghostly white, her square teeth crumbling away into Pennywise fangs. She deepens her claws into the girl’s neck, judging by how much she is thrashing.
‘For God’s sake, stop.’ The girl gasps for breath as I yank Mum’s gem necklace out of my pocket. Hot tears flood my cheeks as I wrap my arms tightly around Jess’s bony chest. I take the chance to shove the stone into her palm. ‘Look at yourself. What you’re doing,’ I stumble as my throat swells up again. ‘Would Mum want this?’
Only now do I see her state. The rims around her eyes are dark, the outlines of her skull appearing through her leathery skin and ball joints like an elderly woman. No, a hag. ‘Jess, please come back. Please?’ I sob on her back, feeling her withered ribcage in my arms. ‘I need you.’ I feel her tremble, her black tears dripping down her strawberry skin.
Those glasses… Those damned evil glasses. They’ve done this. ‘Take them off.’ I cautiously reach for the sunglasses, feeling Jess’ scolding body temperature lowering. She lets me slide them off her long nose, dropping the blue-faced girl to her knees.
‘What, me, done?’ She claws at her elongated cheekbones as the brunette gags and splutters.
‘Jess?’ I caress her scaly skin. She looks up at me.
‘Yes?’ Before I answer, I slam the glasses onto the road.
‘This is for your own good.’ I stomp my body weight into the frames, my heel barely grazing it.
‘Thief!’ I feel my spine knock against the curb as she digs her hot claws into my wrists. ‘Give me,’ she yanks the glasses off the road, sliding them back over her pointy ears.
She sighs in a pitiful pleasure.
‘I need them.’ Her lips tremble. My heart sinks at the sight of her. They’re clearly doing more harm than good. I snatch the glasses off her, remembering the fun times with Mum, and with all my arm strength, the bridge snaps in half. She howls out, scrounging for the broken pieces. Have I failed her? Should I have done more to help? But no matter what I tell myself, her pitiful whimpers are still unbearable to hear. ‘You hurt me too? Like Mama.’ She buries her crooked red nose into my chest. I place my hand around the lazuli stone still tightly clutched in her right claw. I stroke her white straw hair.
‘No. I promised Mum I’d look after you, and I will.’ A year’s worth of bottled grief gushes from her as I delicately stroke circles onto her cheeks like Mum used to.
I look up into the cloudy night sky, looking for a brief twinkle of a star in the thick darkness. I feel Mum’s love emanating from my fingers as I place a delicate kiss on her sickly head. This isn’t the end. Maybe it’s a new beginning for both of us.
Callum McGee is a passionate, creative writing student at Edge Hill University. His short horror story was published in the EHU magazine/newspaper, the Quack’s blog. Callum is a neurodivergent writer who writes poetry tackling societal issues such as pollution, class discrimination, bullying, and inequality toward neurodiverse people. He believes poetry is an expression of one’s feelings and should be used to help people who are discriminated against in overall society.
“I can prove it to you, if you like,” I told Sandford that night. “I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”
# # #
John Sandford was the closest thing I had to a neighbor, and I sensed that I owed him something for what he’d done for me over the years. I’d been less than candid, quite a bit less, but I felt it was safe enough to tell him now.
Not that, in Sandford’s opinion, he’d done much. Despite being blind, he’d steered away the occasional stranger who came to his door asking too many questions about the area. I’m not sociable, and living in the woods suits me fine, but it’s been useful to have someone like Sandford living fairly close—half an hour’s walk, in this case—to provide just the right amount of misdirection when necessary. He understood how I felt, or thought he did, and I owed him something, especially at this point. His sight had faded away years ago, before I arrived here, and I could tell that the rest of his body was fading away too. He knew it, of course, and had told me that his children were making arrangements to move him to a “home”—a word he spat out angrily and a little sadly. He’d gotten along quite a while with having frozen meals delivered every week, but I knew from an occasional remark that he’d been having some sort of trouble with them lately.
We both had phones, but I never bothered to call. He always heard me on the path, long before I reached his door, and always seemed glad to have the company—and someone to share a drink or two with, although I declined as gracefully as I could every time.
As usual, I took a careful look around before I sat down, and as usual, everything was in its place. There was a bottle and a squat glass, half-full, on a table on one side of his chair and a radio on a rolling cart on the other. Through the kitchen door I could see a sleek K-cup brewer on a counter. He didn’t need eyes to pour a drink or make coffee. Beyond those few things, there was nothing else of note aside from a wall full of books. I wondered whether he sometimes ran his fingers over the spines, recognizing them from their width or the texture of the binding.
Over the years, Sandford and I had talked about dozens of different things, or rather he’d told me—history (he’d been a professor at a nearby community college), politics, even sasquatch and the like. He’d once been fascinated by the creatures, he’d told me—this was the Pacific Northwest, after all—but had given up hopes of anyone’s ever finding one. “You can’t find what’s not there,” he’d concluded. But UFOs were something else, and naturally I paid attention to what he had to say. He’d mentioned early on that his parents had known Kenneth Arnold, and that’s what had led to his interest. He couldn’t read any more, of course, but he kept up on the subject thanks to what he heard on the radio. He knew that most of what he heard was nonsense, he assured me—”crazy stuff”— but he could filter that out, leaving what he was pretty sure was the truth.
It was a very odd coincidence. I could tell him things about UFOs myself, although I’d been careful not to. But now it was time to make good on my debt. And there was no longer any danger. As he’d pointed out more than once, he’d gone from being an old fool to being a blind old fool. I was in a position to tell him things that I knew he’d find meaningful, but no one would ever believe him if he were to repeat them.
# # #
“Years ago,” I explained, after we’d chatted a few minutes, “I was involved unofficially with some scientists who were looking at the things pretty carefully. And what they were doing was unofficial too. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of the study group called the Invisible College—Hynek, Vallée, those people—but this was even more invisible.”
At the mention of the names, Sandford smiled and nodded vigorously.
“Over time, and after looking at quite a bit of material, this group I’m talking about—they never gave themselves a name—became convinced that UFOs were real. UFOs or UAPs, or whatever they’ll be called tomorrow. Like you’ve pointed out once, most reports were nonsense, or so fragmentary as to be useless. Or outright hoaxes, like those early airship sightings. But “most” is a relative term, and the remainder added up to a large number, given the resources these people could draw on. And that remainder formed a kind of pattern. Or patterns, really.”
I told Sandford that he’d be disappointed to hear that the scientists couldn’t make up their minds about the “flying saucers” Arnold had seen in Washington State in”47, although I was pretty sure they were alien craft. “But the odd thing is that ten days later—July 4—the crew of a United Airlines plane flying over a little town in Idaho sighted what the group felt sure were real. The crew and the passengers watched them, five of them, for several minutes.
“Then Roswell came along a few days after that. This group I’m talking about decided that the Roswell event was real, too, that a UFO really had crashed, and I’m sure they were right. If the ship’s trajectory had been a little flatter, it would have ended up in the Pacific. Given the fact that 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, it was their guess that over the centuries quite a few had disappeared like that. Of course, the government covered things up, and by the time the truth started coming out, the facts were hopelessly muddled.”
We both knew that “muddled” was just fine, from the government’s point of view.
I explained that the group started looking back farther, a lot farther, and the patterns became clearer. There was the “Wheel of Ezekiel” in the Bible, for instance, and tantalizing reports by Plutarch and Pliny. And so on and so on, for more than an hour, until the light had faded from the windows and Sandford’s attention had begun to flag.
I cleared my throat.
“Anyway, this group came to the conclusion that the earth had been visited regularly, that maybe the planet had been “seeded” with life in the first place, although of course there’s no way to be sure. And they thought the visits were of all kinds. Some were military surveillance, some simply seemed to be visits by the curious, some seemed to be hunters, some were scientists, and some were damaged craft that had flown wildly off-course and crashed. Quite a few were engaged in things beyond the group’s comprehension, bizarre things. They were all kinds, and they came from all over. And they were common. Are common.
“Now, I’ve talked a lot tonight, John. But— I can prove it to you, if you like. I owe you that. I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”
He nodded, but started to remind me that there was no way he could see whatever I was going to show him.
I told him it didn’t matter, so he sat there, waiting expectantly, alert, his sightless eyes wide. But as I began pulling off the mask, he flinched. He was dismayed by the sound, I could tell. In any case, Sandford suddenly looked like a frightened old man.
“I’m going to pull my chair up closer now,” I told him, and I did, the wicker creaking and groaning as I got up and moved the chair and then sat down again.
“Now hold your hand out.” He hesitated again before he finally did so.
“It’s all right,” I assured him. “I’m just going to take your hand in mine.”
I did, and then I leaned forward and guided his hand to my face. He flinched at the first touch and pulled away, his face even paler in the pale light, his sightless eyes wide, his mouth stretched open. But then he raised the hand back toward my face, tentatively, and I let him touch me again, feel my face, one side to the other.
“John,” I said, “It’s been a long evening. Take care.”
I got up, moved the chair back, and walked out the door. There was no moon that night, and the sky was overcast, so it was dark beneath the pines. But “dark” is a relative term, of course, and I could see perfectly well.
Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure, Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal, and former Assistant Editor ofArt Patron.
He’d been waiting in line like everyone else, and next thing he knew he was the center of attention for a ring of bystanders, a pair of old ladies were rubbing his arms, and the bank manager was asking if he needed an ambulance.
The worst part, initially, was the embarrassment.
But on the drive home an icy fear crimped the back of his neck, made his shoulders lock and his elbows seize, made his hands sweat all over the wheel. What if it happened again? What if it happened while driving? He could be barreling along nicely, completely absorbed in the intricacies of lane surfing, and—BAM: dead man. Or find he’d unconsciously plowed through a crosswalk full of horrified lunchtime toddlers. Splattered innocence, crippled joy.
That image was so appalling Devon had a phantom episode, imagining, in one missed heartbeat, that he’d blacked out again, and was surfacing anew.
He pulled over with extreme caution; using only the rear-view mirror lest, in looking back for even a moment, some inexplicable mini-seizure should send him hurtling into a compound bloody fireball. Devon was marinated in his own sweat. He’d always been the healthiest of men; didn’t drink, didn’t touch drugs, didn’t over-exert. The tremors passed gradually, but not so the terror; it had become a vital shadow in the center of his skull. Devon called a cab and a tow truck. He sat slumped in the back of the cab, steadying his breathing. The driver was a talker; Devon let him roll on. All he could see was the cab’s windshield, streaked and spotted, a broken mosaic of shocked baby faces that never had a chance to grow.
* * *
“Your scans are clean,” Dr. Goodman beamed.
The big clipboard was tucked against his chest, hiding its secrets. “I think we can cheerfully write this off as one of those little anomalies that pop into our lives, shake us up a bit to give our egos some perspective, and then pop right back out as though nothing occurred. And who knows? Maybe nothing did. Sometimes nature just drops the ball for no apparent reason. I like to compare the body to a complex harp with one or more strings always out of tune, and hard work and healthful living as the elements that re-tune those—Mr. Devon?”
Devon blinked at him. A low hum had just passed through his brain like a train through a tunnel. There were things in there, moving around, clattering without sound. It was as if his thoughts were loose shingles on a roof, responding to a sudden high wind. Devon blew over.
He opened his eyes to another perspective. It was not his own; this was a skewed view of three vulnerable specimens frozen in a brightly lit box. The action resumed: staring receptionist slipping out of room, frowning doctor standing squarely before seated patient.
Goodman’s entire demeanor had changed. He tapped his pencil on the clipboard—thuda-thuda-thud—little alien heartbeats in rubber on pressed cork. “You’ve heard of narcolepsy, Mr. Devon? Once we’ve ruled out the obvious—epilepsy, tumor, arrhythmia—we have to rely on conjecture, which, in a modern, mature practice, always comes down to empiricism rather than guesswork.
“What I’m attempting to impart is this: symptoms are templates. Narcolepsy is a known condition, but it’s not a common one—though I’m reasonably sure there’re plenty of cases going misdiagnosed. I won’t beat around the bush here. In narcolepsy, the brain’s steady-state waking electrical activity is abruptly interrupted—the subject goes to sleep on the spot, rather than drifting away naturally. Why? The current’s been cut off, the lights shut down. Why? We don’t know yet; and there’s that dreadful non-answer which of course seems, to the anxious layperson, an evasion rather than a helpful response. But it’s all we’ve got. That, and a medication I’m prescribing. Although still in its trial stages, it shows tremendous promise in the short term. However, there’s a caveat: you must be prudent in your approach to everyday activities whenever a recurrence might prove injurious to yourself or to others, and you must curtail these activities any time you experience symptoms that are in any way out of the ordin—”
* * *
“Mr. Devon?” Goodman’s smile was frayed around the edges. “Are you feeling all right now? We were discussing your prescription when you appear to have relapsed momentarily. I’ve checked your vitals and you’re good as gold. The episode was quite brief, yet it absolutely confirms my immediate diagnosis of narcolepsy.”
He drummed his fingers on the clipboard. “Miss Aines is going to administer a single dose of your prescription, and you are thereafter not to approach the medication without my approval over the phone. Then I want you to go home and take a load off your mind as well as your feet. I’d prefer you walk rather than take a cab or bus. Moderate exercise is always a precursor to healthful recovery.”
He pulled open the door, hesitating halfway. “If you experience a recurrence, or become morbidly anxious, or entertain any weird, traumatic sense of alienation, I want you to give me a call right away. Miss Aines will produce my home and cell numbers as soon as you’ve received your medication and taken that single dose.”
He smiled genially while ushering Devon out. “You’re going to be just fine.”
* * *
How can a man know what’s going on around him, behind him, within him—when he can’t see or feel a thing?
Devon was unconscious. The vague electrical discharges were unlike anything he’d ever experienced, so he had no point of reference, but he absolutely knew his brainwaves were being scanned…somehow. His ideas, his dreams, his very identity were being manipulated by somebody or something. Devon was being violated, from somewhere bleak and far away—for reasons of cold research, for inhuman experiment, for purposes that made no sense whatever in regular terms. Only hatred and frustration crossed the ether connecting whoever he was with whatever they were…and he knew that if he let go for even a second they’d—
* * *
A thumb peeled back Devon’s eyelid.
Sensible impressions were returning. The sounds of traffic. The interior of a paramedics’ van. A man’s face; a face like any other. “Sir, can you feel the pressure of my hand on your arm?” A pinching above the elbow. “How about now?” The full-screen thumb splintered into five fingers on a rocking hand. “Follow my hand with your eyes, sir.” The face turned. “He’s receptive.” The face turned back. “You’re in an ambulance, sir. We’re bringing you to the emergency room at Mother Of Mercy Hospital. But we’ve determined this is no emergency; that’s why we’re not using the siren. So just relax; what’s going on is purely procedural. You appear to have blacked out while sitting on the bus bench at White and Lincoln, yet no one observed any evidence of seizure or foul play. There’s no indication of brain trauma, no signs of physical injury, and all your responses to outside stimuli are well within the normal range. Do you feel okay now?”
Devon’s voice phased in and out. “Yes, yes, I’m fine. I just need to—”
Two strong hands gripped his biceps.
It was the second paramedic, leaning over the first.
“You’ll have to remain quiet, sir. Until you’ve been thoroughly examined you’re under our supervision. It won’t be long. There’s the hospital now. We’re pulling up to emergency. Try to stay calm.”
“I can’t be strapped down. I…that’s what they want.” Devon’s mouth was too dry for more.
The paramedics exchanged looks. The first rattled a prescription bottle. “The label reads fifty. The count is forty-nine.” He looked back down at Devon. “I’d call yours a pretty extreme reaction. Now just relax.”
The van stopped with the gentlest jolt. A moment later the rear doors swung open. The second paramedic climbed out, and the first, hesitating, said loudly, “Sir, you’re under restraint only for your own safety, okay? We can’t have you blacking out and rolling off the gurney now, can we?”
The driver poked in his head. “What’s the hangup?”
“We’re fine back here. One of the straps is tangled. Just give me a second.”
The driver’s head disappeared. The paramedic brought his voice down to a patter. “Look, fighting only makes it worse. They’ll get in sooner or later, so unless you enjoy being flattened out of the blue, over and over and over, you’re just gonna have to play it cool. The more you resist, the worse it gets. And don’t listen to anybody telling you it’s all on account of medication, or that you have a condition, or that you’re losing your mind, or anything like that. Let them get what they want and they’ll go pick on somebody else. Take it from a guy who’s been there. Read my lips.” He strapped a small oxygen mask over Devon’s nose and mouth and said noiselessly, with exaggerated movements of the lips, “Stay down.”
A hydraulic whine, a rocking and settling. A voice came out of the floodlights: “Okay to roll.”
The bright assault of antiseptic fluorescence made Devon’s eyes burn.
Faces looked on curiously as he was wheeled by; faces just as indifferent as the paramedics, as indifferent as Dr. Goodman’s, as indifferent as that burned-out receptionist behind the glass, as—
* * *
The electrical activity, Devon realized, functioned incidentally as a conduit. They were getting into his head, and they were learning what it means to be human, but it was tough work. Through this connection he’d become electrically empathic—able to glean their drive and exasperation, to know that, through their resolution, they were going to learn what they needed, if they didn’t kill him in the process, or if he was unable to kill himself first. He was experiencing their excitement as well as their frustration, their urgency and their demand. He was losing hold, losing self-control. He knew it. He could feel it.
* * *
“Well, I’m taking him off the medication, at least for the present, and I don’t give a good holy crap what you or Lancet have to say on the matter, is that clear enough for you? As of right now he’s under our care. Your prescription arguably precipitated this patient’s arrival, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe it’s mitigating his condition in the least. Fine. Feel free to talk to the coordinator in the morning. I’m presently handling Mr. Devon, and this conversation is officially concluded. Now go back to sleep!”
Devon embraced the room’s hard white light like a lover. He kept his eyes fixed wide, afraid even to blink, as Dr. Grant replaced the receiver and turned, hands clasped behind his back.
“Mr. Devon, you’re doing great. You’ve been through a bit of a scare, but there’s no reason to worry. Your provider has authorized any necessary procedures, though I’m confident we’ve no cause for alarm.” He raised Devon’s prescription bottle like a dead lizard. “As of this moment you’re off these—and that bastard Goodman should be sued for malpractice. Don’t think he’s heard the last of me.”
“No,” Devon managed. “Not the medicine. Like I told you, this started before I was given the prescription.”
Grant leaned in grimly. “And, like you told me, you’ve been riding a roller coaster ever since. Okay? Voices in your head; that kind of nonsense. A misdiagnosis of narcolepsy from some predatory quack who will have his license suspended, mark my words. Delusions of channeling aliens or whatever—you’re a victim of too many horror movies, Mr. Devon, plain and simple. Now I want you to stop fighting it. Please. You’re only making things worse.”
“Not my imagination,” Devon stressed.
“Would you listen to yourself?”
Grant leaned back.
“Narcoleptic episodes, my friend, aren’t just muggings out of nowhere. Reports suggest transitory events that are only occasionally violent; analogous to, but not equivalent to, minor epileptic seizures.”
“Not narcolepsy,” Devon tried. “They’re knocking us out. They can only read us when we’re unconscious, the deeper the better.”
“And how,” Mr. Devon, “have you managed to divine all this?”
“We’re wide open to them once they’re in. I can tell what they’re thinking when I’m out. It’s like some kind of open line, but through…space, I guess.”
Grant could barely contain his disdain. “They think, or speak, inEnglish?”
“No, no, doctor. It’s a different kind of communication. Both sides are transmitters and receivers. And it’s not just me. It’s a whole lot of people.”
The room froze up. Dr. Grant leaned in.
“And you’re ready to point out these people? You’re prepared to corroborate your claims?”
Devon shrank into himself. “I think I’ve said all I want to say.” He clammed right up.
“You never should have been allowed on the street in the first place; not without a guardian, not without a complete examination. I’m going to give you a little injection here—it’s just something to help you relax—and then we’ll let the specialists have a go at you.”
Devon instinctively scooted in reverse. “I feel better now. I just want to go home.”
Grant again zoomed himself in. “I give you my word of honor it’ll be painless. These are some of the best men in their field, and they need to get a real good look at you right away. Now, I’d like you to just stretch out on the recliner, close your eyes, and make a fist. You’ll feel the tiniest pinprick.”
“No, please…give me something that’ll help me stay awake. They’re getting closer. If I fall asleep they’ll be right back in.”
Dr. Grant stepped to a wall intercom, his expression sour. His hand moved up to the call button. “Who’s getting closer?”
* * *
Facets of his identity were being shed like flakes of dandruff. Memories were being stripped, copied, filed—Devon’s humanness was being assaulted, weakness by weakness. The excitement was palpable—he was naked, he was down, he was road kill. His flaws were being recognized and categorized, in some universal way only a natural predator could understand. The meeker humans were easy; they were fait accompli. Devon could struggle all he wanted, but he was pinned and purpling, a pretty bruised butterfly. He thrashed, but didn’t budge, called, but didn’t peep, screamed, but didn’t—
* * *
“The harder you fight me,” the security guard snarled, “the harder I fight back. You got that?” He shoved Devon into a plastic chair, one of many lined against the wall.
“Listen to me!” Devon begged. “I can’t hold on any longer. Please. Something.”
The guard sneered over his shoulder. “I’ll give you something. Now for the last time: Do. Not. Fight it!” He pressed the intercom’s call button. “Security on floor one, east wing. I have a disturbed patient who somehow got out into the hall. Not a biggie, but Riley and Forbes, I’d like you to assist. Wills, call in a van and get straight back to me.”
* * *
The feelers were in. He was going. A great company was in his skull; a kind of delirious clamor and buzzing crescendo. Devon was a transparent display, every nerve-ending under intense scrutiny.
Ecstasy, comprehension, anticipation: his mind was being peeled open; his nightmares, his mistrust, his mortal horror.
* * *
Devon leaped from his chair, tore the guard’s gun from its holster, crammed the barrel in his mouth.
A bear hug and shattering of teeth. The gun went spinning across the floor.
A hard stomping down the hall, a flurry of shouts, the pulsing buzz of an alarm.
Devon hit the plate glass window like a bug smacking into a windshield. He blew out into the night, a mass of porcupine shards, blood spraying in his wake. He heard Dr. Grant puffing behind. “Mr. Devon! For the love of God! Don’t fight it! Somebody call the gate. Devon!”
* * *
His arms were shaking wildly, his eyes bursting in his skull—he was seizing—they had him by the cortex. Devon’s very consciousness was being eviscerated: through that real-time conduit, his thoughts were being pasted to an empathic helix, synapse by misfiring synapse. And they’d grown exasperated. Devon was about to learn the hard way that, no matter how grounded a body might be in reality, a mind is wide open to compromise:
Liquid fire tore through his frame, spewed from his mouth and nostrils, set his fraying hair ablaze. His head snapped back and his mouth ripped open at the corners, peeled off his face and blew away in shreds. Devon’s rib cage shattered from the sternum down. He was being zipped open, torn apart, dug into. With a shriek of bone his spine snapped free, his pelvis collapsed, his skull halved to expose the hysterical animal writhing within.
* * *
A number of men hit him in a compound flying tackle.
An orderly snarled in his face, “Stay down, damn you!”
Now Dr. Grant’s pulsing round head broke into a crazy wheel of arms and nightsticks. “Sedate him, for Christ’s sake! I don’t care if you have to use chloroform. Drag him over to the shack.”
* * *
Night sucked him up like a giant straw. Consciousness was a black wiggly thing, all-pervading, all—and a flashlight’s beam hit him right in the eyes. For a long hazy second he was dazzled by the badge on the gate guard’s cap. Devon was logy and going fast, his limbs uncooperative, his toes and fingers numb.
“I’ll tell you one more time, and then I’ll brain you if I have to—stop fighting it!”
The guard’s eyes became compassionate. Mentoring. “They’ll get what they want and be done with you. Then you can go back to whatever you’ve always been doing.”
He tried to mask his shame with a pretense of fellowship. “Look, friend, they’ve been at it forever—knocking us out and picking our brains, trying to figure out what makes us tick. But we’re tough nuts to crack. So now you’re finding out what’s it’s like to be psychologically raped—to be mentally dissected—in real time, just like the rest of us. And simultaneously you’re reading them back as they work, just like the rest of us. And pretty soon your identity will be appropriated, and you’ll be eating right out of their hands. Just like the rest of us.”
The guard gripped Devon’s shoulder.
“Listen, man, it can get really really bad, okay? And nobody, but nobody’ll ever take you seriously. So you gotta learn to kind of switch off when they get busy, and play it off as humbly as you can. But there’s no disgrace in obeying; not when you have to survive. I mean, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” He looked around uneasily. “We’re just human beings, right? We’re not supermen.”
From outside came Dr. Grant’s familiar voice barking orders, followed by the gentle rumble of an approaching vehicle. The sound of doors swinging on their hinges. A new voice called out: “Okay to roll.”
The guard looked back. “Anyway, there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. So stop fighting—just let go and relax.”
He passed a hand back and forth over Devon’s eyes. “Is any of this getting through?”
“Yes,” Devon said thickly. “Hear you.”
The guard patted him on the shoulder. “It’s not the end of the world. Just another boss.”
Daybreak is dry. There’s no drip from brewed coffee or slurp from cereal bowl, those luxuries long ago evaporated. It’s my business to sniff out every drop. My ears attuned from years of training to follow any trail of moisture to the sated end.
Despite the droughts, dawn is a Puddler’s favorite time of day. Moisture gathers overnight even in an arid climate, and in the dawn, goldmines, precious drops perched on blades of grass.
It is for this reason that I have spent the night on a peeling park bench, surrounded by the incessant creaking of parched insects. One alights on my chest, and although his hind legs are faltering, I can’t bring myself to end his suffering. When the sun appears from behind the high rise, the chirping quiets, I resume my search.
The battery on my vac pack says 70 percent. Perfect. Means I have the juice to bring in a haul, should I find one. The tank is heavy when I slide it on, but with any luck, it will be heavier when I trudge it in at the end of my shift.
“Morning, sir, care for a coffee patch?” A thin-skinned lady in black and white loafers works a stand near the edge of the park. She’s to remind us of happier times, but I can only think of how her lips are dried around the edges and her voice rasps when she speaks.
“Perk me right up, thank you, kindly.” I extend my arm and she rolls up the sleeve to apply the patch on the optimum ingestion site. Then, she salutes–thumb, index, and middle finger, the wave given to heroes.
“Happy hunting, Puddler.”
“Many thanks, and a damp day to you as well!” I force my face to smile. So much rests on keeping up appearances. I imagine the pour of a steaming cup of coffee, the caffeine enters my system, clears my mind so I can focus on finding some real liquid.
It all comes down to H2O. That knowledge and perhaps the coffee patch give me the boost I need to begin my search and find the water that my moisture meter tracked to this location the day before.
“Dried pumpkin bites, sir?” A man in a bowling shirt scoops from a cart.
“Why yes, don’t mind if I do. And when the man refuses my bills, I give him a doubly wide grin.
He raises the salute. “Hauls us in some, sir.”
“Will do, my good man. Got a drip lead going right now.” I am blessed in my line of work with an abundance of gratitude. It is, after all, my kind that keeps the rest of the world alive. But with each passing season, the water is scarcer, the sweetness of the mission evaporates. Dehydrated pumpkin tastes more stale than sweet, and I walk away with a full belly, but the guilt of an empty pack.
Of course, the rivalry doesn’t help.
When Aquaprima and Dezani announced they’d be sending out separate Puddlers, it forced everyone to pick sides. Both companies usually keep to their own territories, but you never know when a rival might be slurping at the same puddle.
Dezani loyalists use the three-finger salute seen here in the park, and their workers carry blue packs, a stripe added for each year of service. Mine looks zebra-like from my time chasing liquid.
Aquaprimians carry red packs, salute with their last three fingers. Usually, both companies keep to their own neighborhoods, but you never know when a rival might be slurping in your same puddle. I scan the lawn but don’t spot any red flags. Means I’ve still got time to take in my load.
The geese in park are waddling this way and that as if dizzy. When I see them head for a place off the path, I take a hunch and follow their lead. These natives may know something we don’t, and I stop to vacuum up a few precious drops dotting the grass along the way.
As if sensing a tail, the waddlers pick up their pace, making their way down a steep ravine. I scoot downwards on my bottom, the pack too heavy for steep inclines, and I would likely topple if I lost my footing.
Midway down, I find a small treasure: a plastic water bottle, a relic from the before, but this one has a small sacred puddle trapped inside. I pause to vacuum the tiny pool, thinking of my sweet granddaughter, Ella Mae. Her freckled face. I imagine her swimming, submerged in liquid, like we all did, in the olden days. I can picture her running over to me dripping wet in her lavender swimsuit.
“Don’t you dare,” I’d hold up my hand, but Ella Mae would squish down on my lap and plant a drippy kiss on my cheek. Wetness would expand on my shirt. Dampness will never feel that good again.
There is wetness along my brow and back. I use a small nozzle to capture the drops on my forehead. Nothing can be wasted now. Stabbing pain ascends from my sciatic nerve as I slide almost vertical, gripping tree branches and terrain to make it the last few feet of the descent.
At the bottom of the ditch, there is moisture. It hits you square on the face, the way a sauna used to do, and even though the weeds down here are almost as tall as me, I stoop down and press my hand into the ground.
It sinks. Incredible. It’s muddy. My fingers drip as they rise, cool and coated.
Above my dirty fingertips, square in the middle, the most glorious thing: my own reflection in a six, no eight-foot puddle. Small snags are visible in my uniform from the descent, but what I notice most is the branching red lines of dry eyes.
I reach down and touch the surface, sensing the motion of a ripple. It’s the first ripple I’ve seen in years and it’s harmonious, a suite of instruments playing in the same key. Part of me wants to wade in, submerge. Paddle, float on my back, even. But I pause, thinking of Ella Mae. This one’s for you, baby girl.
Readying the hose with my widest nozzle, I spot it. A rebellious red, out of place at the bottom of the ravine. I hear a familiar sound. A vacuum starts.
“Hey, Puddler! Stop, this instant. This one’s mine!”
The vacuum stops. “What’s that, old man?” The Puddler shouts. Maybe because his earbuds are still in. The Aquaprimian’s half my age; his loud metal music drifts over the puddle. Moving toward him with long strides, I reach out a hand, smack a bud free from his ear.
“YOU tracked me here. This is my guzzle, young chap!”
“All’s fair in wet and war, Benjamin. Oh, and by way of thanks,” the boy winks, “I’ll let you take a slurp.” His bud back in, he restarts the vacuum before I have a chance to respond.
Carl? Could it be? All these years playing cat and mouse, he’s been my shadow. I trained him a decade ago, let him date my daughter, only to watch him jump ship taking Aquaprima’s sign-on gallon and stealing my sweet girl’s heart in the process.
The raging red vac sweeps left to right.
“No so fast, Carl.” I smack his earbud lose again; it dangles from his uniform. “This is my puddle, you bastard.” I push him, but he barely budges. “This…this is outrageous.”
Carl turns his vac off to speak to me again, but not without swallowing a huge gulp of air.
“Smart following those geese, Benjamin. You know, if you sniff an old dog long enough, you can still learn some new tricks.” He lifts his nozzle. “Tell Ella Mae daddy says ‘hi.’ And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got clearing to do.”
Over my dried-out body!” I yell, and without thinking, I grab my legs and jump, straight into the puddle, water droplets fly around me like geese taking to the air. It’s enough of a mess to upset Carl, and soon he is stepping into the pool to try and stop me from ruining the haul.
“That’s what we call a cannonball, son. Doubt you’ve ever done one. Now, a final lesson. I’m gonna teach you how to swim, either that or how to sink.”
From this angle, it’s easy to drag Carl down into the water beside me. “First,” I whisper in his earbud-less ear, “you gotta get on your belly.”
I sweep his legs and watch as he falls face first. I hit the eject button on his pack releasing his stash.
“Next, you gotta spread your arms and legs. But oh, I forgot the most important part. You gotta put your face underwater.” I hold the back of his head underwater, watch as his legs and arms start to flail.
“That’s it. You’re getting it.”
I hold firm. Think of his arrogance, of my daughter heartbroken, left to raise Ella Mae alone. Maybe with this haul, we can finally afford to give Ella Mae her first swim.
“There, now that wasn’t too bad, was it? You’re floating fine now, young chap.” And I let go of Carl’s collar, his corpse floats freely across the surface.
There isn’t time to say any words. No, simply no time for pleasantries. I start the vacuum and get to work. When my vac pack fills, I use the Aquaprima pack to capture the rest, including the special hose for corpse extraction. The geese stand around the edges as I extract their watering hole, occasionally honking a weak protest.
With both packs full, I claw my way out of the ravine. Lifting one pack, moving slowly, going back for the other, but it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Water is more valuable than gold.
I’m saving humanity, I tell myself. Besides, one should always respect one’s elders, even in times of crisis.
K.Hartless is a free spirited fiction writer, educator and word trapeze artist. She’s been recently published in 365tomorrows, Luna Station Quarterly, and Last Girl’s Club. Check out her Yardsale of Thoughts at khartless.com or follow her healthy haiku habit on Twitter @hartless_k.
The archway stood firm under the shroud of night, its heart spelled in dripping letters: Hallowed Cliff Cemetery. He could still discern the entrance atop the sodden hill despite the starless sky, through the rain and sweeping winds. The image had been blistered into his unconscious. He marched on through the marshy soil as if he could rid himself of it by way of physical exertion; or perhaps cleanse his spirit with heaven’s baptismal waters. He dared not stop for fear of sinking through the earth and residing himself to an unceremonious yet eternal tomb. Though the world would not make it easy. Several times he lost his footing and slid upon the mud before slamming the shovel head into the ground and forcing himself up, carrying on with stubborn consternation.
He wiped the muck on his pants as he passed under the arch and trudged forward among the aisles. Over the fresh and dying roses, the pink and purple larkspurs. Past endless processions of graves. Stones of granite. Stones of marble. Sandstone and slate. Some brandishing themselves to the eye, almost arrogant in their novelty. Others having been neglected for centuries, their texts gone as if washed away by Mother Nature for some unutterable slight against her. He eyed the years as he went, capricious, interchangeable; like philosophical tauntings from beyond, calling to him, demanding he decipher their unanswerable ponderings.
The shovel struck into the ground as he removed a pewter flask from the inside of his shirt, then took a swig and stepped to the grave before him. He looked upon the head with bloodshot eyes, compelled to take in the marking over and over again by light of Zeus and Selene; inconstant; uncertain.
Eva Meridian Mara
February 21st, 1981 — July 8th, 2021
Rest in Peace
Could’ve thought of better.
He drank, then replaced the flask and stepped to the grave opposite. He unbuckled his belt and pissed into the sloshy soil.
“Apologies, miss — errr — mister.”
He flicked his member clean and redid the front of his jeans, then took the shovel in hand and returned to the opposite grave. With a last look at the stone, he stabbed the shovelhead into the mud and lifted a mound of green and black muck from the earth, tossing it to the side and splattering little balls on the opposing marker. Shovelful after shovelful. Foot after foot. He spent an hour laboring deeper and deeper into the earth, stopping at several points to pour water from his shoes. Finally he was done, breath unsteady, a salty sweat amongst the rain on his brow.
A great hole sat before him, four by eight in dimension with a depth of six feet, the lid of a dark red casket peeking out the bottom. He lowered himself in and dug along the side until he found the latch. A light hiss escaped as he undid it, like a snake warning him from its burrow. It drew his thoughts toward the darkness within. Toward the all-knowing nothing entrapping the poor soul inside. It struck him with what he felt was an unnatural reverence. A connection and understanding unique to him and him alone.
He’d always found an allure to such things. A morbid, yet uncompromising curiousness for the shadows — of both sight and mind. For the implications they presented. The universal and contradictory lessons that fed him without frame left him frozen in place, unable to comprehend what lay before him, regardless what his conscious mind would admit. The horror. The humor. The eternal void just below the surface of all.
He lifted the lid by a foot and shined his phone inside. He saw an arm veiled by a wispy white dress, stiff and pale like a cheap manikin. Spitting onto the earth wall opposite, he slid his phone in and let the lid drop, removing the flask and downing what remained. He washed what mud he could from his hands, limbs, and torso, then rubbed his hands across his face and put his head back to run them through his hair. With a final breath, he gave a glance toward the waning moon in the east and crawled inside.
He set the still shining phone on the cadaver’s stomach and burrowed his way next to it, snuggling close with his arm under the neck. His hands grasped the rigor, the penetrating cold. His eyes traced up and down the ghostly vessel. He imagined her origins, physical and ethereal. Tried to unweave the mysteries and intricacies of her being as well as those who’ve come before and will come long after. The marks of his existence and what it all amounted to. The incalculable sum rendered indistinguishable from its antecedents.
Rubbing his fingers across her cheek, he stared at the unflinching eyelids, decorated with red and black eyeshadow. At the plush raven hair, the light reflecting off it like stars in the vacuum of space, ever expanding, shifting further and further away. His body began to shake. He smashed his eyes shut and swallowed the snot creeping down the back of his throat. Tears of regret leaked onto his cheeks. A great breath entered his lungs and returned as if unsure of the vitality of its own purpose.
He reopened his gaze to the eyelids. He reached with trembling hands and placed them directly under. He moved to lift the lids from their perch, but shot back upon touch, reeling as if scorched by some invisible spark. His head hung, he cried harder than he’d ever done. His eyes, half drowned in tears, stared past the light into the darkness and beyond. It stared back. He clutched the body close, burying his head into the bosom as his weeps filled the tomb, echoing back into his shattered sense of self.
They Did It for their Freedom
The sun rose as they moved the slaves young and old through the gates of Cathartra. Off the hardened pozzolana and onto the crude, unkempt path towards the Anglo River. The slaves in their thin, ebony rags amongst the Cathartrans in their flowing, ivory robes. Two days prior, the former had taken captive three of the most powerful families in the land, raiding their property and moving them to the valerian fields in the dead of night. Just before dawn, they allowed one of the captives to flee, instructing him to inform the Council of Six of what had occurred.
The child dashed through the streets in his soil stained garments until he came to the council building, a band of warriors stationed at the front. Flamed with righteous indignation, the Council rushed to conduct an emergency session. Noon came and the slaves approached with the three families in their grasp. They did it for their freedom, they said. They wished to speak with the council and negotiate a peaceful resolution between their people. To raise the land as equals under Cathartran law.
The eldest seven were invited to discuss terms. For hours the soldiers stayed planted outside, watching the slaves with distrustful stares that were readily reciprocated. The tension pranced amongst them like a phantomed, temptress mare, urging them toward bloodshed until the negotiators reemerged.
The slaves were promised full rights under the courts as well as a mule per person and land at the outskirts of town; roughly forty acres per family. Men were granted entrance within the military and the group as a whole would no longer remain responsible for the trades previously forced upon them. Rather, tasks would be split evenly between them and the Cathartrans and training was to begin immediately so that all could become educated on such matters. Upon graduating from this instructional period, the two groups would come together as a single labor force.
The last promise was, to symbolize their status as true citizens, each slave would be taken to engage in the Rite of Till at the Temple of Kings. In two days time, a party of Cathartrans would lead half the slaves to conduct the ritual while the rest would attend the morning after. This latter group would remain in Cathartra to commence preparations as they awaited the others’ return. Once these terms were announced, the slaves released the families and took camp in the valerian fields while the Council called the soldiers in for the night.
It was noon when the first party marched onto the boats. Cries from the infants had been audible since they left, resounding through the ranks and vexing the Cathartrans’ ears the further they traveled. They docked on the opposite shore and continued on through the Fifteen Fields. Soon the slaves began to sing songs of torment and sorrow. At first, but a single child recited the tunes, though, within the hour, the entire party had joined, rousing a powerful chorus that resounded through the land. Though they spoke in tongues foreign to the Cathartrans, the emotions touched deep within their marrow.
The vocals continued as they entered Brown’s Forest at evening’s dawn, sentiments still rocking like great, granite swings from the gods. From there, the Temple would not be far. As they trudged forward, the grass and trees grew thick and tangled, blocking sunlight from their struggling forms. It didn’t take long for the singing to diminish and eventually die within the darkness, giving once more to cries of infants.
The Temple was dilapidated, overrun with vines and other forms of wildlife. A screech sounded in the distance as an unrelenting stench sauntered about. The Cathartrans looked to the building with a familiar air while the slaves gaped with mixed emotions. Even the children fell silent upon arrival. The Cathartrans led them inside, the lone source of light now the torches in hand. Hordes of cobwebs were scattered about the place, all coated in a clean sheet of dust, including the aged, yet dominant obelisk at the center. It reached near the very top of the Temple, inscribed with pre-Cathartran text.
The Cathartrans rested their torches upon bronze sconces as the slaves gathered around the obelisk, vying for proper views. The eldest of the negotiators shuffled to the front and roamed once around the pillar, sliding his fingers across the text in a slow, gentle stroke, pondering as if caught in a profound, yet forgotten memory. He crouched to examine the base, then rose and whispered in a vernacular unrecognizable to anyone. It was as he did this the Cathartrans unsheathed their swords.
Evidence was taken of their deed as a warning for those left in Cathartra; menial objects such as clothing, necklaces, and bracelets. Some then graduated to thieving sections of the slaves themselves. Eyes, scalps, tongues — even severed legs of the children. The survivors gathered their torches and trudged out of the Temple. The return journey through the Forest was cruel and arduous on account of their labor and the blood-soaked robes holding them down.
When they maneuvered their way into the Fields, there was but a single ray of sunshine glistening over the horizon. The last image one could see as it disappeared and gave way to night was that of their demented figures, united in a call to slaughter. Crimson shapes in the dark. Hellish protectors of their way of life. They stepped forward and left the Forest behind them, marching backward through the night. On toward Cathartra, the glorious polis they loved without condition.
Dylan Thomas Lewis is a writer and musician from Kirksville, Missouri. He graduated from Central Methodist University in May of 2019 after serving as co-editor of the college’s literary magazine for two years. He writes screenplays, short stories, and music, playing guitar for Electronic Rock band Secular Era. His favorite writer is Cormac McCarthy. His favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick.
His first submission “Hallowed Cliff”* can be classified as Southern Gothic. The second submission “They Did It For Their Freedom” is an experimental piece loosely based on a story from ancient Sparta, mixing elements of Horror, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction.
Mary was proud of her garden: it was lush, green, and magnificent. Mary had more than just a green thumb; she had an almost magical power to grow anything she planted and this power would be put to the test in a most unusual way.
She lived with her husband Elliot and they were both retired. Mary spent most of her time in the garden while Elliot liked to watch her from the front porch. They lived in the town as far back as people could remember and they kept to themselves. Their only regular visitor was their doctor, Mark Thompson, who came to treat Elliot for cancer. His condition was getting worse and worse.
Mary and Elliot went on daily walks through the town, usually in the evening. Mary liked finding plants that other people threw away. She had a knack for bringing plants back to life, and she could even just break off a stem or leaf from a plant and grow a whole new one in her garden.
Mary’s neighbors told others that they could hear Elliot groaning in pain at night while Mary tried to comfort him. They wouldn’t talk about it but the rumor was that Elliot didn’t have long to live.
One day, Mary went to the hardware store and bought a large chainsaw. When the manager asked her what she planned to do with it, she told him to mind his own business. People speculated that she would probably cut trees on her property, but they couldn’t see how a woman her age could do that on her own.
Sometime later, there was a terrible commotion of noise in Mary’s garage at night. Her neighbor heard that she was using the chainsaw, and Elliot was screaming. He called the police, but Mary would not let them on her property. She told them that she was cutting up fish heads to fertilize her garden and it was none of their business. After she agreed to keep the noise down, the police left.
Doctor Thompson came to check on Elliot the following day, but Mary stopped him at the gate. She told him that Elliot wouldn’t need him anymore. He pleaded with her to let him inside, but Mary assured him that Elliot was resting and comfortable. The doctor left with the promise that he would return in a few days.
Curiosity grew about what was really happening at Mary’s house. People saw her digging in her garden in the middle of the night, planting something. It was not unusual for Mary to be working in her garden, but why do work at night? And where was Elliot? Usually, he watched her from the front porch but he hadn’t been seen for days.
Doctor Thompson became increasingly concerned that he needed to see Elliot in person to check on his condition and he even threatened to take the police with him if Mary would not let him into their house. Rumors spread that Mary had done something to Elliot or that Elliot had died and Mary buried his body in their garden.
When Doctor Thompson arrived at Mary’s gate, a crowd of people had already gathered to see whether Elliot was alive or not. Mary came to the gate, and even though she was upset by the group of onlookers, she let them enter anyway, explaining that Elliot was resting comfortably in the garden. She led them across her front lawn and through the side gate of her backyard.
In the middle of the garden, there sat Elliot on a wooden bench seemingly alive and well, although a bit pale and dirty. Doctor Thompson was astonished to find him in good health, the cancer had gone away. The neighbors and people from the town were surprised as well. Some even felt embarrassed about their own thoughts about Mary and what she might have done.
As the small crowd huddled over Elliot, Mary quietly raked the last remaining piles of dirt into the hole she buried Elliot’s arm in just a few nights ago, happy for her green thumb, her new husband, and her garden of magic.
Tom is a freelance writer from Southern California. His most recent work appeared in ’50-Word Stories’, ‘Half Hour to Kill’ and ‘Three Line Poetry’. He can be reached at email@example.com
Their hands kept slipping while they lashed the bodies to the stakes driven into the iron-grey silt. The ocean- an even deeper shade of grey but subtly alive, foaming and bubbling- held back its fury and waited. One of the men, stuffing his hand between a captive’s black teeth to put an end to her godforsaken screeching, felt as if the sea was observing them through the prism of many melancholy eyes and lamenting what would come of their work.
Cnut stood overlooking the tenuous plot of half-land, this gloomy island that existed only in certain stretches of the blighted day, with his closest men. It was a supposedly wise one, foolishly emboldened by his position, who whispered to him.
“It’s the third tide here already at Hamtun today. Begging your pardon, my Lord, but what other reason could there be to explain this?”
Cnut said nothing at first, but mounted his horse to gain a better aspect and rest his wearied legs. When he eventually spoke he was neither imperious nor definitive but slow, quiet, contemplative. He, like the sea, was already in mourning.
“If you still, after all, refuse to accept that there is but one true power, and not many middling and earthbound ones, then look and see now.”
The captors, their work done, came slouching up to the road dropping stinking clods of mud and leaking saltwater. They were as dark and unknowable now as they often were in battle and just as displeased with their lot. In this dreary landscape drained of colour, where the sea could not be made separate from the sky, where people were shadows and day was perpetual twilight, there was no nobility amongst any, and Cnut would have tied himself to one of the stakes below if the last solitary glint of light shining in his heart at that moment had been any feebler.
“Curse this land. Curse what they make us do to them.”
He adjusted his crown and turned his head away. His men were shivering; the rope-bearers were smearing the dirt from their clothes in the long grass. Little puddles were drying on the cracked brown earth where they had wrung out all they could wring out.
Time crawled by as Cnut preoccupied himself with thoughts of Wareham. He saw the piles of bodies, inkless and bloodless, their throats slashed by the heathens. Only the scale, only the numbers moved him. Individual bodies, dead and defiled: he had seen enough of those, and seen what his men did to them. There always arrives a time, he thought, when a King becomes blind to individuality in either living or dead subjects; when a person becomes but a vague thing, and the kingdom- once even vaguer than that- clear and defined and strong. The latter vision, he knew however, was usually a false one: a dream to pass on, to lull one to sleep, to turn scarlet in sacred premonitions that demanded the swiftest action. The people on the stakes before him, his men succumbing to their native beliefs, their distance from him now on this bank- that was proof enough that nothing is ever really united, everything is blurred and all is always on the point of collapse.
The sea was flowing in and was almost up to the knees of the savages below.
“Do you see them commanding their ranks of white horses?”
Cnut turned to his men, but they shrunk back, refusing his gaze. He had tried to force fire through his weariness; tried to put black in his eyes, a sharp edge on his words, unlike the last time he had spoken.
He returned to watching. The bound figures were absolutely still and silent now. If he were not afraid to admit it, Cnut would almost have thought them holy in their pose and manner. They had bowed their heads to watch the water rise upon them, to see white salt marks climbing up their clothes, filling their wounds with stinging. They did not scream, protest or squirm any longer. They seemed to accept their dual fate as martyrs to disproof and unwitting confirmers of beliefs that were not theirs.
When the sea finally came and filled their lungs and buried them, without treasure or comfort for the afterlife, in its great grey tomb, they continued to stay as motionless as they had for almost the whole period of waiting once the men had left them and ascended the path. They did not thrash about in whatever pathetic way their binds would allow them; they offered no reproach or remonstrance. The unfortunates on their primitive crucifixes were swept out of existence so utterly and so brutally that it was as if they had never existed at all. Neither the ancient and near barren fields of their recent workaday pasts or this stark and frigid harbour appeared prepared to remember them.
Cnut’s men were almost as silent as the drowned at the end. There was no call of triumph, no jubilations, no apologies to God or King. If Cnut had not present perhaps there would have been weeping. His words were brief. There was no need for anything more.
“They control no tide. They have no powers. Sack the rest of them. No fear. Take them for all they have. Our truth is the only truth. Those who accept it, follow to Wintanceaster.”
Cnut led his horse off. The men followed, not looking over the bank at the water where the silt and coarse bunches of seagrass had been. The wind whistled a ballad, no heroic poetry, no sword-bearing parody. Seabirds filled the dark cavern of the sky, waiting for the third tide to subside and the carcasses to become uncovered. What was known- really known, truly known, but hidden until the end- was carried away on the white horses. No more would have it, as they shouldn’t, and it would dissolve to nothing as it was spread around the great expanse of the world.
Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com