A Mother’s Love and Other Intoxicants by Russell J. Banzett

Nov 23 2014

Marta knew she was a junkie, had known it long before her veins had collapsed into black ruins. Her friends in college could have a few drinks, but she would always keep going until she woke up in the ER with a plastic tube snaking down her throat, pumping out the toxic contents of her stomach. She sat on a cracked curb as she waited for Desmond to finish with a client, her head resting on bony knees as she curled and uncurled a strand of her dull black hair around her finger, the humid night air thick with the smells of sweat and her own anticipation. She stared into the scratched face of her phone at a picture, and couldn’t help but think about when everything had started to fall apart.

Marta remembered that the library had been deserted except for her and an ancient librarian with rheumy eyes like saucers of spoilt milk, everyone else that had been there earlier in the day had long since gone. She remembered she’d just needed a B to keep her loans and her head had been buried in a dusty textbook. She’d tried studying on her tablet, but she found herself getting too distracted by friends messaging her. She’d hoped the physical book would get fewer messages, and maybe the odd papercut would keep her awake. She’d yelped when a hand like dry autumn leaves brushed her shoulder.

“Shhhhh,” whispered the librarian reflexively. “Closing time.”

Marta looked down at her textbook that was still on chapter 3, and had to swallow hard to keep from crying. “Please, just a bit more time. I could lock up if you want to go.”

The librarian’s face cracked into a thin smile. “If you don’t know it yet, you’re not going to sweetie,” she’d said, and shuffled away to turn out the lights.

Fat tears tumbled down Marta’s face and she ran out, almost smashing into Sam in the hallway. Sam grabbed her shoulder as she tried to go past, his hand like a vice. “I saw you in the library,” he said simply, not seeming to notice her struggling. He held up a baggie with two small white pills and added, “Study aid?”

It was stupid, and Marta had known it was stupid, known she couldn’t trust herself to take anything harder than Aspirin. Even so, she’d taken the pills, only asking what they were after she’d downed both. Sam had given her a Cheshire Cat grin, and told her they were called Cynosure, just an all-natural brain booster that contained a few herbs that the Chinese or Japanese (Sam didn’t seem clear on the distinction) had known about forever. Oh and maybe just a touch of engineered proteins that could, temporarily, cause her brain to sprout new dendritic spines like dessert flowers after a rain storm. Sam had assured Marta that this would mean she’d remember everything she learned in the last few days perfectly, and anything related to that. Whatever junk the Cynosure really had in it, it worked, her IQ was bumped up, right along with her concentration and memory and she ended up with an A on the test.

She remembered her professor pulling her aside to congratulate her on her grade after the test marks were posted, remembered how everyone started to look at her for the first time, how they wanted her to be in their study groups when before they wouldn’t even talk to her. The praise and respect filled her up for a little while, made her feel like the successful person everyone wants to be. Marta built a whole life on Cynosure– how could she go back to the sluggish dullard she’d been? Richard, her boyfriend at the time she’d met Sam, became her husband and she took a job at a securities dealer as an analyst. The job and the marriage were both hard, and she didn’t dare stopping taking the Cynosure for fear of not being able to meet the harsh expectations of one or the other.

Richard had known about the Cynosure but didn’t care as long as she was keeping it together. Marta remembered being so careful at first, but after her daughter Elsie was born she’d started taking more exotic things, and Richard eventually left with their daughter after he’d found Marta pricing out a pharma-printer online. Things spiraled out of control for Marta then as they always did, and she’d ended up busted for trying to buy Cognizance, a relaxant and temporary amnesia inducer, from a greasy street dealer covered in open sores that turned out to be a snitch.

I could use some forgetting now Marta thought to herself as she sat on the street corner and watched the sun dip below the boarded up buildings of the city’s core. Marta saw that Desmond was finally done, and she walked over to the bent and broken streetlight where he did his business. He took the crumpled bills from her hand and pocketed them with a flick of his wrist. Desmond’s speed, especially considering his bulk, always surprised Marta. She waited, but Desmond just stared and stared at her over gold-rimmed glasses and his narrow black eyes seemed to peel back her skin like they were scalpels cutting into a dissection rat. Marta’s bloodshot eyes danced nervously, the seconds piling on top of each other like a slow motion car accident.

“Please, Desmond,” Marta whined when she couldn’t take the waiting anymore, broken glass crunching underfoot as she shifted. “Just give me the stuff I paid for.”

“It doesn’t even cover what I gave you last time,” he said slowly, as if to a child. “Unless you got more, piss the fuck off,” he added, and began to turn away.

Marta grabbed at his shoulder. Before she could blink, her head was smashed into the pavement, blood already pouring from her lip where Desmond’s meaty hand had struck.

“You don’t ever fucking touch me,” he spat, disgust and pity warring across his face. He reached a hand inside his suit and Marta cringed like a kicked dog. He drew out a filthy baggie with two patches of Founder inside, tossed it at her, and walked away.

Her hands trembled so bad she could barely get the first patch out. She slapped it hard against her neck. Liquid electricity surged through her, lighting up black veins like a rising sun inside her chest. Wasted muscle turned from rags to steel cords under her skin and she balled up her hands, and flung a fist at the brick wall at the end of the alley, hard as she could. The bricks exploded as if they’d been hit with a mortar.

The strength didn’t last. The stuff was just a taster — she’d be in freefall soon. Her hand was beginning to throb, splintered brick imbedded in it like broken bones bursting through papery skin. It was stupid, but Marta’s veins even seemed to ache with a gnawing hunger. Marta fingered the baggy in her pocket with its one remaining hit, but left it where it was – she’d need to make it last and then she’d need more, something stronger. She almost turned around and went back to Desmond, but stopped herself. If she went back without any money, he’d kill her for sure. She needed cash, and that meant Mr. Papadopulos.

It was late, but when she got there the antique electric sign was blinking “Papadopulos Pawn”, and emitted a buzz like an angry beehive was trapped in its neon tubes. She went in and the fat Greek behind the counter gave her a wide grin.

“Marietta, my little flower,” he exclaimed.

Marta smiled, and drew her battered phone from her pocket. “I need to sell this Pappy.”

He took the phone from her gingerly and turned it over, his hands making it look like a child’s toy, and inspected it from every angle. “It real antique,” he said.  “Most kids today get their brains wired direct. Some olds like us looking for retro models though. This beat up, but I sold worse.”  He tapped the screen to activate it. A lock-screen with a little girl with sad eyes and curly black hair sprang to life. He squinted at the phone and then at Marta, seeming to notice for the first time her sickly condition and the patch stuck to her neck. “You’re sure you want to sell?”

She stared at her feet, trying to decide. The phone was the last thing she had from when she and Richard were still together, and had the only photos of her daughter Elsie that remained to her. “I’m not…I need…” she began when the phone chirruped with a text message. She quickly grabbed it back and read the screen, “im scard mom wen com home?” It was from Richard’s phone, but must be from Elsie.

Mr. Papadopulos saw it too and clasped both of his massive hands around Marta’s skeletal fingers and the phone. “Marietta, please,” he said, his voice quavering. “You stay here, we call police. I help you.”

Marta stared at him, shocked. Mr. Papadopulos had always been kind to her, but had never once offered any help her before. Was she really that bad looking?  Marta shook herself, refocused on her daughter’s message. He just thinks I’m too week to protect her, she thought, and tore her hand out of his grasp. Maybe he’s right, but I know how to be strong. Marta turned from him and headed for the door, stopping just long enough in the entrance to slap the second patch on her neck.

She burst out of the pawn shop, the door flying off its hinges into the night, her heart beating hard, pushing adrenaline and Founder into legs that became a blur of motion. She’d let her daughter down once, but wouldn’t waste this chance to make it right, to show them that she was strong, that she didn’t need anyone’s pity. Streetlights strobed past as she ran, and the potholes and slums of the rotten city core melted into the greenery of the suburbs. She stopped only when she was standing in the shadows across from her Richard’s bungalow, its dark windows covered with insulating plastic, and its yard full of bright plastic toys. She gaped at the rows of delicate tulips in the flowerbeds—they weren’t there the last time she was outside looking in. Richard was colour blind and had never cared about flowers before, had actively disliked them in fact and considered them to be jokes played on him specifically by a cruel universe. It had been only six months since the last time she’d crept outside his house – could so much have changed?

Marta wrenched her attention away from the strange flowers and began to stalk from the shadows to the house, ready to tear it apart if she needed to. She’d barely taken a step toward the house when a car with headlights like magnesium flares cut through the gloom, came down the street towards her then pulled into Richard’s driveway. Marta crouched back into the shadows and watched as a tall blonde woman in a rumpled nurse’s outfit with a fresh flower pinned to the jacket stepped out of the car, stretched, and walked into the house, stopping only to pick up a plastic unicorn from the lawn. The house burst into life almost as soon as the flower lady entered, warm lights came on inside that made Marta squint.

With Founder-heightened senses, Marta heard the patter of tiny feet on creaky hardwoods inside the house, and then heard Elsie squeal, “Mom!”

Marta collapsed to her knees, all the strength gone from her as she sobbed into the cold pavement. She hadn’t known how badly she craved that one word from her daughter, that one glorious word that would mean everything was all right. But the text hadn’t been for her, it had been from Elsie to her real mother, the flower lady. She let the phone drop from her hand, suddenly too weak to hold it, heard its screen shatter on the pavement a long way away, and turned her back on the lights and the girl that had once been her daughter. Elsie needed someone strong, and Marta realized that was someone else, realized that she’d never been strong, not even on Founder. Desmond and Mr. Papadopulos had known, had seen right through her and been right to pity her.

She limped down the street toward the city’s core as shards of light from the rising sun stabbed through breaks in the houses. It felt like knives were twisting in her knees and ankles with each step. She hoped that Mr. Papadopulos would still have his shop open, would still be willing to help her. Maybe it wasn’t too late to be strong. And maybe if she could be strong she could become mom to her daughter again.

 

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Protagonist, Conclusion by Nicholas M. Bugden

Nov 16 2014

Something doesn’t feel right for Sid.
It wasn’t the morning. Nothing went wrong then. Sid slept perfectly well. His wife even woke up around the same time and the two made passionate love, more passionately than ever before. It was as if their bodies were listening to each other and responding accordingly. So that was awesome… was it work? Sid did arrive late but since he was usually on time his boss completely understood. She even complimented his work from the previous day and talked about giving him a raise.
It must have been his co-workers then. He hated a few of them and he was sure there were a few that hated him back. One of them must have said something, done something to piss him off. But no. Each one was nice, hospitable, and even pleasant. And on the way home – sugar on top – people actually let him into their lane without flipping him the finger.
But something doesn’t feel right.
Was it his night class? It had to be. One of the professor’s readings must have concluded in a caustic debate that Sid was included in. Today the professor was reading a couple of short stories. After the first story was read, this student – a real moron – raised his hand. This guy always managed to piss people off. That was the thing that he did. He had to be the catalyst.
“Well I feel the story is kind of bad.”
Sid licked his lips. This was it. Give it to him professor.
“Sorry to hear that… is there any particular reason?”
“Well to me it doesn’t work,” the student challenged.
The professor looked back at the student. “I think it does. I think the use of language, punctuation and metaphor choices are nothing short of brilliant.”
“I… I guess… I think I just needed more description to get a better picture of what was going on and I think the author did a poor job with the ending… I am sorry for disagreeing professor.”
Now the professor finally looked a little angry. “Please do not apologize. Great ideas come from open discussion and intellectual back-and-forth. Thank you for sharing your opinion; maybe you will like one of his other stories better.”
And that was the end of the discussion: a respectful exchange of words. No complaints. Compliments? So then what went wrong? Was it one of the other stories the professor read that gave Sid this feeling? Nope. No one fought. There was only a free exchange of opinions. Nothing went wrong. Sid’s day was coming to a close, or concluding if you want to make the point crystal clear.
But something still doesn’t feel right for Sid. It was as if he awoke in a parallel world. On the way home he racked and wracked his brain. What is wrong then? What is wrong, wrong, wrong… that’s it! Suddenly Sid realized the problem. It’s this story he was in, nothing went wrong. You cannot have a story without conflict. When Sid realized this he knew what he had to do. He parked his car in the middle of the street, got out and shoved a stranger. Conflict must occur. The stranger did nothing. Sid shoved him again and called him a “fucker”. People don’t like being called “fuckers”.
The stranger looked at Sid concerned. “Are you alright sir?” Sid looked at the kind eyes of the stranger; he could not push him anymore.
“Yeah I’m fine, thanks for asking.”
“Are you sure? I will listen if you need someone to talk to?”
“No thanks.”
The stranger gave Sid a kind hug and continued down the street. What a bastard, Sid thought, I will have conflict. He went home to his wife. They have had vehement arguments in the past. It was simple: insult, argue, make-up, end of story. And he might even get the bonus of make-up sex.
“You’re a stupid slut,” Sid said to his wife as he walked through the door.
“Is this a sex game?” his wife asked unabashed, “I’m a naughty whore; you want to handcuff and punish me?”
That could be fun, Sid thought… no conflict. We need conflict.
“You’re supposed to fight with me.”
“Oh… you’re the naughty boy… do you want me to punish you.”
…no. …conflict.
“I’m insulting you.”
His wife looked at him with a blank stare. “Why?”
Sid did not have an answer. “I don’t know.”
“Oh… do you want to talk it through.”
“No,” Sid sulked.
“Do you want to have sex?”
Sid was getting angry. “What is wrong with you?” He gave his wife a disapproving shake of the head and stormed out of the house.
Conflict, conflict, conflict. That was it! These previous attempts were small, petty, he needed to go big. Very big. Gunfire down the street was big, fire a few in the air, wake up the neighbours, the cops come, spend the night in jail… maybe even get assaulted by a larger inmate. Now that is conflict.
Sid remembered there was gun shop up the street that was open late, with wallet in hand, he jogged to the spot where the shop was, but it wasn’t. There was a flower shop where Sid was sure the gun shop once stood.
“Fucking hippies!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
We must have conflict! There has to be another gun shop in the area.
“Where do I buy a gun?” Sid asked a random woman walking by the street.
“A what?” the woman asked, with a look that suggested deep confusion.
“You’re kidding me right?”
“Why would I do that sir?” responded the woman as she blinked her innocence to Sid.
Sid was lost for words. Everyone has gone crazy. How can you live without conflict? Something has to be wrong. Has to be! He pushed passed the kind woman who only apologized for being in his way. There was not a gun shop anywhere. There had to be one. But his searching was futile. He would not find a gun anywhere in this city, or bullets, or even blanks. However a lack of fire power has never stopped humanity from hurting each other in the past: Sid would make a weapon. Make something sharp, break into a random house, rob, cops, jail, end.
Sid looked for somewhere that sells knives, bats, brass knuckles, cleats, something that would bludgeon. But no stores were open. Everyone was home, spending precious time with their families. What has this world come to?
Sid shambled home, defeated. This story was never going to end. He was doomed to make wild, judgement-free, mutual-pleasing love with his happy confident wife, listen to respectful debates and put up with the kindness of strangers. Fuck.
“There you are honey, I missed you,” his wife said as she wrapped her arms around him.
“Of course you did… you probably want to have sex now?”
“If you don’t mind… I can go without you if you’d like.”
“No…,” Sid said dejected. He might as well get this over with. Sid looked at his wife, whose pants did not make it up the stairs with her. Then he followed behind her, his head slumped: he failed at obtaining conflict. But then it hit him. This was the conflict! His inability to obtain conflict. Hero wants conflict, fights for conflict, fails. Classic tale. Something feels wrong so now everything feels right. And unfortunately, this story concludes with an unhappy ending. Then the two made long passionate love, each having multiple orgasms.
THE END
###

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Forked Tongues by Jill Corddry

Nov 09 2014

Something compelled her, that’s what she would tell the world later, when she was interviewed mere days before it all went to hell. But that was months later. And this is today. An ordinary, though stormy day.

AnnaMaria stepped out from under the protection of the stone archway, not really noticing the warm drops of rain that freckled her blouse. Thunder crackled faintly, far enough away it sounded more like someone crinkling wrapping paper. Within seconds her dark hair was streaming wet and sticking to her face and neck, but she couldn’t bring herself to seek shelter.

I’m so glad I came out. This is so beautiful, she thought, admiring the dark cotton puffs of the storm. A CRAAAAA-AAAACK made her flinch. And getting closer.

Brilliant white sparked directly above her.

Words, whispered in a thunder tender growl, touched her ears. She crumpled to the ground, graceful as a dry fall leaf, a smile frozen on her face, one that would have been beatific but was instead made grotesque by the blood dripping over her lips to the sidewalk.

*****

Colors danced, stunning her with pink arabesques and yellow grand jetés. AnnaMaria reached out, wanting nothing more than to join the rainbow jubilee. She extended an arm, intending to grab hold of the next pulse before it could disappear. Instead of connecting with the brilliant blue, her fingers slammed into something unyielding and cold. Her mind jolted awake, and she became aware of a steady beeping. Then an alarm. Muffled, hurried footsteps that grew louder. A door swinging open. The footsteps stopping beside her.

She sensed someone hovering nearby, checking … something. A monitor, her brain told her, as it put all the sounds together. You’re in a hospital.

AnnaMaria blinked, trying to bring the someone – probably a doctor or nurse – into focus.

Yet the joyful colors remained.

She raised a hand, touching her face, expecting soft skin, but encountering gauze. She blinked more furiously, frantically, until tears ran down her cheeks. The beeps became more rapid, as did her breath, until she couldn’t catch up with it.

“Slow breaths,” the someone ordered. He her mind filled in, automatically creating a face to go with the kind voice. “That’s it, easy does it. Now, Ms. Sanchez, do you know where you are?”

AnnaMaria tried to speak, but her voice caught and rasped, until she finally choked out, “The hospital?”

A smile touched his voice. She heard a faint scrabbling sound. Pen on paper? “That’s correct. I’m Dr. Holloway. Now, I know this is cliché, but what’s the last thing you remember?”

She paused, the dancing colors slowing as she pieced together the last moments on her feet. “The storm? There was thunder and …”

“You are very lucky,” Dr. Holloway said, after scratching a few more notes. “Not many people survive a lightning strike.”

“Lightning? I didn’t see any …” AnnaMaria squeezed her eyes, only inciting the colors into a merry jig. “I can’t see,” she whispered. She raised a hand, touching her face, hoping for a thick swath of cloth, but her fingers found only skin. “I can’t see. I can’t see. I can’t see!” Her voice grew shrill as a hungry baby bird.

A warm hand gripped her shoulder, interrupting her frantic cries. “It may be temporary,” Dr. Holloway said. “We need to do more tests …”

But the truth clogged her ears to the rest of his reassurances. For somehow she knew it wasn’t temporary, and that no test would show anything. No reason for her sightlessness. No hope for curing it.

The chill of reality stripped her of all warmth and she shivered, pulling the thin hospital blanket to her breast. As far as she was concerned, it was a death sentence. How could she make a living reporting on the latest fuck-ups and fashion faux-pas of the wealthy and the famous if she couldn’t see them? And it wasn’t like she’d made any friends along the way; her stilettos had left a punctured trail of betrayal and lies as she’d clawed her way to the top. Now the vultures would all get their turns at her flesh and bones.

She rolled away from the doctor, not caring whether he stayed or left, the sting of tears along her cheeks the only company she wanted. When she finally drifted into an uneasy sleep, it was to the murmur of thunder rolling in the distance.

*****

Weeks of counseling, both for her in-the-crapper mental health and to teach her how to cope with her new “situation,” did nothing to improve either. She couldn’t stop stewing and chewing over the shithole of her life. Not only was she … she couldn’t even think the word … Her boss had called the day after her accident to offer his well wishes, and for her to take all the time she needed to heal and adjust. And then, just before he hung up, he off-handedly mentioned that Marla Fucking Newton would be taking over her column for the foreseeable future.

AnnaMaria cringed. See. With only the company of the now-dead phone line, she realized she’d all-but been fired. Fired! Her. Something that fucker had been wanting to do since he squeezed his Twinkie-loving lardass into the manager’s chair last year. She could see – flinch – the corners of his greying pornstache fold into the pockmarked skin of his cheeks as he delivered the news, hanging up before she could react. And to double D Marla no less. The ass-kisser had been after her job for months. All those simpering compliments hadn’t fooled her. She’d accepted the busty bottle-blonde into her circle though; better to keep the competition as close as her black silk panties.

It had been all over the news, of course, with her show at the forefront. Marla had taken the lead to “break the big news to all you stunned viewers out there.” Stunned by her too-tight blouse, maybe. Though she couldn’t actually see it, AnnaMaria had experienced enough of the bitch’s wardrobe to know exactly what she’d worn to tell the world the good news.

Tears stung her eyes again. Dark pools of poison men around the country had claimed to drown in, to plunge into, to see eternity … the analogies were as endless and clichéd as the men giving them.

Once the gauze came off, Dr. Holloway promised her eyes were perfectly normal, at least on the outside. As for the insides … he ran test after test until she was numb from the crushing waves of hope he kept offering and told him to stick it.

Yet she was still blind. The word coated her tongue with lemon-rind bitterness. But at least she could say it now.

Out of habit, she reached for the lamp beside her bed to turn the light off. She caught herself this time. Last night she’d knocked a fucking pile of magazines to the floor; they were still there. Not that it made a difference, but she closed her eyes and took several long, slow breaths. Thunder rumbled, sending her heart into a wild tango.

She gripped the blankets until her knuckles hurt, hating the fear. Even as a child, she’d never feared the huge storms of her Floridan home, counting the seconds between lightning and thunder well into adulthood. Will I ever not be afraid?

Though she couldn’t see the flashes, her ears told her the storm was drawing closer as the sound of thunder became the roar of a dragon.

CRAAAAA-AAAACK

But the thunder wasn’t traveling alone. A soft sigh broke through the chaos, caressing her ears with velvet, wrapping her in the warmth of something she could only identify as love. It ran tendrils of honey-sweet words along her skin until she moaned in climax.

Blinking through the haze of intoxicating pleasure and belonging and unity, she bolted upright in bed. “Whoa! What the fuck?!” she whispered, clinging to the wispy fragments of the unexpected erotic dream.

She wasn’t expecting an answer. Let alone a full-on conversation.

*****

“Something’s different,” Dr. Holloway muttered, tipping her chin from side to side as he performed the usually routine part of their weekly appointments. “How odd …”

AnnaMaria shrugged. “If you say so. Not like I can tell.” A total line of bullshit, but he didn’t need to know that.

The light he shone in her eyes flared through the veil of blindness. Yet it wasn’t the first hint of sight she’d experienced since the accident. It started after the – visit? Encounter? Molestation? – three nights ago from, well, from something, someone, she’d never thought possible.

His sigh was not subtle. “I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”

She shrugged again. “Not like you’d believe me anyway.” Especially since she didn’t believe it herself. To come to her, an ice queen, a happy-to-backstab bitch who took advantage of other people’s most embarrassing moments. Went looking for them. Created a few incidents, even. Just to get the “scoop.” So for – it? – to come to her was ludicrous. To claim that she, AnnaMaria Corvalis, was special? Chosen? Maybe she should check herself into the Psych ward while she was here.

Her mind sprung into a life of its own, creating sparks of thought faster than sand in an hourglass. She squeezed her eyes shut and dug fingernails into her scalp, desperate to gain control. Dr. Holloway was at her side as she slumped over, his cologne warm and comforting. Focusing on that, breathing it in as if it was more precious than oxygen, AnnaMaria opened her eyes and screamed.

He glowed. Ribbons of blue, green, and silver bathed the doctor in soft light. “Please let me help you.”

Trust him …

The thought was effortless, a drop of water sliding from a leaf. So she did. Without hesitation. She took his arm and let him guide her out of the small room to a table in the cafeteria. She let him bring her a cup of weak coffee. And when he hesitated taking the seat next to her, she smiled, but not the false smile she’d used to get a story or trick some fluff-brained celeb into sharing too much. No, this smile was genuine, demure, and for the first time in more than ten years AnnaMaria felt comfortable in her own skin.

With coffee-warmed fingers, she took one of his hands in hers. “Everything is different,” she said, seeing, sensing, his surprise; understanding it was at her sudden change in attitude, at her frankness. “A few nights ago, something … no, someone. Someone came to me. At night. It was personal. Close. Erotic …” She paused and raised an eyebrow. The colors dancing around him pulsed faster now, and were ever so slightly tinged with reds and oranges. Partly from concern, but mostly, and she couldn’t help the suggestive lick along her teeth. The reds flared briefly. Definitely aroused.

Ego-boosted, she straightened in her chair. Much as she was now curious to pursue this, him, thanks in no small part to the memory of that visit, there would be time for that later.

She sensed his curiosity, saw the blues darken as he waited for her to go on. “God came to me,” she said.

“God?”

“Yes. And don’t look at me that way. Trust me, I’m no religious fanatic. The only time I ever believed was during a damn good orgasm. But yes, it was God.”

Dr. Holloway toyed with his coffee. She could hear the paper cup shifting on the cheap plastic table, saw the colors – his aura? – shifting with his movements.

“But how?”

“How do I know?” she interrupted. “I just do. And no, I wasn’t drunk, or on anything else. I wasn’t hallucinating. I wasn’t dreaming.”

“Ms. Corvalis …”

“AnnaMaria. Or Anna. Please.”

“Fine. Anna, it’s just … damn if I don’t believe you. Your eyes. They’re different.” He paused, and took her hand. “They’re iridescent now. Not much, but they almost shimmer …”

Her hand reached for her eyes. “And they weren’t like that before?”

The strong blues and greens around his head shimmied subtly. “No, and I had plenty of time to study them. Your eyes, I mean.” His coffee cup shifted around again. But AnnaMaria didn’t say anything, giving him time. She almost chuckled out loud. How unlike her, giving someone time to think. The old her would’ve stuck a microphone in his face and all-but beaten him with it until he gave her something worth taking to air.

“Did he say anything?”

This time she did laugh, not cruelly, but she couldn’t help it. “She had plenty say, but only one thing that’s for everyone.”

“She?”

“Don’t even get me started. The woman bitch-sessioned for two fucking hours about how Her mate had ended up with all the credit. Not that She really minds, since they got it all wrong anyway. Men …” AnnaMaria couldn’t keep the smile from her face as the swirls around him shifted colors, the blues and greens deepening, threads of curious yellow changed into deep violets of understanding. And acceptance. Before he could ask, she said, “The message, one She wants everyone to know is that, well, They’re coming back.”

“They?”

“Yes, They. God. Well, all gods. They left awhile ago. For reasons the human mind is not capable of understanding. Trust me, I tried.”

His colors changed suddenly, sharply, with worry. “All of them?”

AnnaMaria grabbed both of his hands. “Yes, but … She says it will be glorious.”

*****

The message spread, slowly at first, for most chose not to believe. At first. Until They arrived. Then everyone believed. It was hard not to when every god ever prayed to returned. They didn’t appear all at once; it started as more of a slow trickle. One here, three there. The slow trickle quickly became a deluge, with major and minor deities popping up every few hours.

It was as if no time had passed, at least not to Them. Except They were no longer content to keep to their old territories. Apollo and Artemis were seen hunting in Canada. Anubis and Thor were spotted sunbathing on the beaches of Los Angeles. Loki, Puck, and Sun Wukong traipsed about the world creating blizzards in the jungles and hurricanes in the deserts. Zeus seduced his way around the world and back again.

Something had compelled her to go outside, she claimed, in an interview mere days before the world went to hell. More precisely, before it returned to the gods. Some mortals cowered in their basements, in denial of the war waging on their front lawns. Some joined in, swilling wine at bacchanals; orgies reigned supreme in newly erected shrines; the war gods took great delight in “games” involving nuclear warheads.

The humans, though kindly tolerated by some of Them, were really not needed in this brave new world. After years of being largely ignored and unloved until the humans needed something, the gods had decided to take back the earth. Bombs exploded overhead, accompanied by storms the like of which hadn’t ever been seen by human eyes. Towering mountain ranges erupted in the middle of New York City, Rio de Janeiro, and Paris, while a large lakes occupied the Sahara and Gobi deserts. The gods reorganized the world’s geological features on whims as fleeting as whispers, often in competition or argument.

AnnaMaria’s last thought, as the thunder gods tossed lightening bolts over them, was that she wished she’d asked thought to ask who it would be glorious for.

The End

Bio:
Jill Corddry started telling stories at an early age, and her parents get credit as the first to recognize her writing ability (and encouraged her accordingly). She even managed to use her BA in English for many years as a content writer for a few dot coms in Seattle. These days Jill finds a few spare minutes to write in between taking care of twin toddlers and soaking up the California sunshine. She has stories published in Lakeside Circus, Bewildering Stories, in the Demonic Possession anthology by James Ward Kirk Fiction, and an upcoming anthology by World Weaver Press. She is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and the California Writers Club.

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Dragon Girl Star Zenith by Judi Calhoun

Nov 02 2014

Leather wings beating the air, a cyclone of wind gusts moving over me stretching through the veil. The heels of my leather stilettos sunk into this soft sandy oasis, as my wings folded into my body. Interdimensional travel in the coldness of the void was punishment to my body and wings. Flying through the veil with moon phases, gravity, anti-gravity pressure rushing fluids into my face and head all at once, as if a sinus infection, was a bitch. The only comfort was knowing it would pass within seconds of landing. I was outside the centum quadrant on a small sandy wasteland in the third heaven. I stood in front of a seedy tavern neon sign flashing, Centum Eustacia, but the place could’ve been any dive in any city on earth. I waited for my symbiosis dragon, to send out feelers. A few drifters and some Sand Gunners parked near tall red palm-trees, dancing with fairy light. I wondered why my ex-body-guard, Fallen-archangel boyfriend, Denbe hadn’t met us outside, as he’d promised. Denbe had been my bodyguard when the Underworld was at war, and certain factions declared me their queen with dark aspirations for my assent to throne. All because my doctor, Richard Darnell had implanted dragon DNA in my mother’s fetus. I was born the only one-of-my-kind part human, part white Swan-Dragon. I don’t like this, said Odette. Looks like a good place for an ambush. You’re right. Let’s see if Denbe’s inside. I could hear the music even before I stepped through the door. It was your typical sand-drifter bar patronizing Fallen, Seraphs and halos. Barn-board floors, red walls, mirrors, and sign’s advertising weird drinks, candles melting into blue Formica tabletops, and one giant set of black feathered wings proudly displayed behind the bar. There were three rogues seated at the bar, two Fallen-archangel big guys at a table playing some game and a small third-class-Fallen imp, but no Denbe. I must have caught their attention because suddenly everything got quiet, and even the music died down. The only sound was my spiked-heeled boots clomping heavily across the barn-board. Bartender wore a scowl that said without words that he hated the sight of me. He started to speak, but one of the others seated at the bar spoke first. “Never thought I’d ever see the Dragon Queen in my lifetime.” I hated being called that name. I didn’t ask for that label, nor had I wanted that supernatural tattoo on my ass in the form of a Nautical Star Compass. Apparently, this was my calling card, felt not seen. The Underworld branded me Queen of the Damned, and a certain demonic faction still considers me their queen. “I’m looking for a Fallen-archangel named Denbe, have you seen him?” “That depends,” said the bartender, voice gravely. “What do you want with him?” I ignored his question, trying not to lose my patience. “Have you seen him or not?” “We don’t want any trouble here,” he said, then mumbled something under his breath about Hell and nodded his head toward the short, third class Fallen seated in the corner. “Ask Seth.” I dragged my claws along the wooden bar, stopping at Seth’s table staring down at the imp, who kept ducking his eyes. I crossed my arms over my chest and tapped my heel. “I don’t know anything,” he said voice whinny. Beads of sweat broke out along his forehead. “Leave me alone.” He’s lying, said Odette. I can smell the Fallen all over him. He knows something. I spread my clawed fingers out leaning on his table, “I think we need to have a little talk, Seth.” “Leave me alone!” My back was hot with anger. The thick red war-veins that ran under my skin down my shoulders to my wings glowed flaming red whenever I got angry. I grabbed him by the top of his flannel shirt, pulled him to his feet, hearing his chair crash to the floor as I dragged him toward the door. I paused sensing someone behind me. I dropped Seth. My four-inch claws came around swinging slashing the chest of the Fallen-archangel, towering over my five-foot, six-inch frame. He stepped back, staring down at his torn shirt and bloody claw marks raking through the skull tattoo peeking out of the torn material. “Bitch!” he said. “This is the third heaven, we don’t want your kind around here, go back to the Underworld.” “No worries I’m leaving, but I’ll take out the trash first.” I leaned down and pulled Seth to his feet. “You’re not taking him!” he said. “Back off,” I said. “I don’t want to kill an Angel, but I will if I have to.” I started again for the door hearing the sound of steel sliding from a metal harness. I let my wings fully extend, grunting loudly I jumped flying over his head, using all my strength hoisting Seth to the ceiling. I swiftly draw out knives from my pant leg, and stab the material pinning him by his shirt and pants, all the while hearing him whine like a baby, and scream to let him down. I hissed hearing the Angel flipping his shield from his shoulder and drawing his sword back. The coward was waiting for me to make the first move. My red-spine curved, jaw snapped, mouth opened, and vision shifted red. I flew down from the ceiling fire blasting him. His shield blocked the flames but none of the heat. I turned off my fire and turned on the smoke. The sweat poured from his face as he swung that sword like a pro, my claws caught the edge, parrying, sparks flying. In the haze of smoke, he drew back, his entire body swaying, moving with his weapon, grunting, swinging. I ducked. The blade struck the bar cutting a deep, wide gash in the wood. Smoke was blinding. He took a deep breath then bent choking. I grunted low swinging wide my claws whistling in an ark hitting his shield, cutting grooves into the metal. He tried again, but this time I caught his weapon in my hand and jerked it free, tossing it seeing it disappear under the bar. I kicked him in the chest propelling him backwards. He fell on his ass, skidding and crashing into the wall. I was on him before he could get up, my stiletto pinning him to the barn-board. “I should kill you,” I said panting, leaning heavy on my heel. I let the anger subside, and I turned away. I flew up yanking my blades from Seth’s clothes. I let him crumble to the floor, grunting and screaming. I jumped down and dragged him outside and slammed him up against the dark shadows of the building. “Odette doesn’t like boys that tell lies. She wants to turn you into tiny roasted marsh-mellows.” “Red Sasha,” he stammered. “The Succubus. She took him less than thirty minutes ago.” “You said took, does that mean he didn’t go willingly?” “Nobody goes willingly with Red Sasha. Hello, she’s a life-eating Succubus, from your world.” “Where did they go, Seth?” I asked, losing my patience, gritting my teeth. The sweat ran down his round face. “I don’t know.” “Really? You’re going to play that game?” He closed his eyes and blurted out. “Tempus Calyx.” “And you can teleport us, right?” “I’m not going there,” he said. “That place reeks. It should be easy for you to enter the city, it’s closer to your home.” “Earth,” I asked. “No, the Labyrinth,” he said, and his eyes opened wider. “You’re going to kill me once we get there aren’t you?” “I should kill you right now, after what Odette just told me. So, how about you teleporting us to Tempus Calyx, and I won’t tell Hamlet or Denbe how you spun lies about them to the throne of angels, because you were jealous of my sisters relationship. Odette is a little hungry. Just so you know; we’ve eaten plenty of demons. One small Fallen angel is just a cupcake dessert.” “I…I didn’t mean to cause your sister any trouble. I’m just a lonely guy. I’m not allowed on earth, how am I supposed to find a girl? The only creatures around here are flesh eaters.” I fought to hide the smile that twitched at my lips, because I needed to radiate that hard edge instead of going softhearted on the imp. “The way I see it, since you’ve nearly destroyed my sister’s happiness, you owe me one gigantic favor.” “Fine. I’ll teleport you,” he said. “But, I’m not staying there. After I get you to Calyx, you’re on your own.” # Even before we arrived I could smell that horrid sulfur, you’d think I’d be used to it by now, having been to the Underworld more times, but you never get used to that nauseating rotting flesh stench. We were in the heart of Calyx. Tall, dark buildings loomed around us on the outskirts of Hades catacombs and from the dark gray evening sky; flakes were falling, in spite of the nearly seventy-degree temperature. It wasn’t snow. It was ash. There was always something dead and burning in Tempus Calyx. A low humming from some mechanical device played with my nerves. If this were earth, I’d think air-conditions. Here, it was anyone’s guess. That didn’t bother me as much as the windows with devil-light flickering low, causing a slight twitch on my cheek. I wondered how many eyes were watching. “They say Red Sasha lives in the shadows,” said Seth. “But I know her place is right at the end of this road.” He was pointing down a narrow street. “Her house sits next to a ruby lake, her own little lake of fire. Most can’t see it because it’s hidden from human eyes, not that your human, so you should have no problem. Just promise me you won’t tell her I sent you. I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, but really it hasn’t.” The little Wessel was gone, that fast. I kept my claws ready, passing sketchy ally-ways with thick rot-iron gates. A mechanical eye moved from the shadows, security bot taking my photograph no doubt. I’d seen more than one in this neighborhood, can’t say as I blame them. A few stray cats, some human, most questionable moved from the darkness of doorways. I stopped near the last house beside a small lake. “What do you think?” I asked my dragon. “Are we looking at it?” Let me try, said Odette. My eyes shifted red as they normally do when she takes over. A large English Tutor, wrapped in black thorny vines shimmered solid. There’s only one heartbeat on the third floor, said Odette. But I don’t think he’s alone. My wings fully fanned outward, crouching low and jumping, acquiring lift, catching air, pumping hard, moving high over the roof, circling and lowering myself, hovering in front of the locked window. I started kicking it until the thick metal frame bent; the latch popped free while the window creaked outward. I stepped onto the frame, drew in my wings and dropped inside. My stilettos made a loud thump landing on the floor. Someone was cuffed and chained to the headboard. I whispered Denbe’s name. The bedcovers moved, and he raised his head. “Dragon Girl,” he said smiling. “How did you find me?” “A little third-class Fallen Angel with way too many secrets.” “Seth,” he said. “You should go, get out of here before she hears you.” “Why’d she take you?” He shrugged, “She won me in a poker game. I’m sort of her sex slave for a week. It was a long time ago. I was hoping she’d forget about our little deal, but I can’t be that lucky can I doll?” “Of all the stupid things you could do,” I said. I let my claws extend. “Duck you head.” Sparks flew as my claws cut through his chains. Suddenly the bedroom lights came on. A woman with long red hair down to her ass, paper white face stepped into the room. Her body radiated sensual heat, erotic pleasure, and dark forces from the cradle of hell. “Dragon Queen,” she said, her voice as silky as her black negligee. “Well, this is a… surprise.” “I’m taking Denbe,” I said. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said crossing her arms. “He’s mine for another four days.” I ignored her and stared at Denbe. “You sent me a message. You said you needed help. Is this what you wanted?” “No,” he said. “Not this.” “Look,” said Sasha. “I’d love to let you kids chat and catch-up, but the truth is honey, you broke into my house. You were going to steal something that belonged to me. Now I can’t allow you to leave.” “Oh, I’m leaving,” I said. “And I’m taking my boyfriend with me.” She smiled perhaps sensing a worth adversary. “Why don’t you put those sharp claws away, beautiful dragon,” she said purring like a cat, floating toward me. “After all, you are one of us. You feel it don’t you, our connection with darkness.” Her fingers reached out sensuously caressing the leather on my arm. Heat, pleasure power an unholy veneration, rippled through my senses. “Give into me,” she whispered, red lips close to my ear. “Let me have you.” Her dangerous red glossy lips brushed against my mouth until our lips parted into a kiss. She tasted of death and like the ash that rained down on Tempus Calyx. Are we having fun?” Odette asked impatiently. If you’re not going to have sex with her Hannah then kill the Succubus. You want to kill her. I feel your emotion, you angry because she slept with your boyfriend. A shudder ripped through me, feeling that life-sucking vacuum of her mouth stealing my chi. I let my steel demon-eating teeth slide down, and I took a bite of her ruby lips, cutting, tasting blood. She screamed against my mouth, and tried to pull away. Odette was right I wanted to kill her. Reluctantly, I let her go, shoving her, my claws cutting into her pearly white skin. She tumbled across the bed, gasping, blood running from her arms and mouth. “I underestimated you,” she said sitting up. “You’re not easy.” I wiped her blood from my mouth and glanced at Denbe. “Can we go now?” He took my hand and shrugged his shoulders at Sasha, right before we teleported out of her bedroom. Inside the whirlwind of static and white noise, I felt his arms go around me, holding me. We landed on a foggy mountain bluff directly above the wild ocean surf inside the Star Zenith nebula. His arms were still around me, his eyes burning with hungry desire, his lips so close to mine and suddenly we were kissing. I could have easily lost my head at this moment, except I was annoyed. I shoved him away. “Where the hell are we?” I asked. “No place special,” he said. “I just spent the past few hours, fighting a Fallen, grilling a third-class imp and biting the mouth of an over-sexed succubus who was sleeping with my boyfriend! I am not in any mood to be trifled with.” He let his fingers trail down my arm as he reluctantly stepped away. “Thanks for rescuing me.” My left eyebrow automatically rose with suspicion, “Really? It sure didn’t look like you wanted to be rescued Denbe. Sometimes you really piss me off.” “Come on, give me a break, doll. I didn’t want to be with her? It’s you I want. You know that.” He reached out brushing tangled strands of hair from my face. “If you kidnapped me, I’d never want to leave your bed.” I rolled my eyes. “Besides sex, what do you want from me?” “Yea, kind of hard to concentrate with that image inside my head,” he said closing his eyes for a moment. “It’s simple really. I need you to fly me to the Baculum Colony.” “Baculum! Are you crazy? You want me to fly you to a badass prison colony and the reason you want to go there is?” “I’m going to break in, so I can break someone out.” “Oh, no,” I said walking away from him. “No way! I’m not getting in trouble with some Angelic Intergalactic police because of you.” “You don’t even know what I’m asking,” he said. “It’s easy. You fly me over the island, land on the roof, and you leave. I do the rest.” “How are you going to get out?” I asked. “Teleport underwater,” he said. “There are no barriers beneath the sea. I know this because I tried it, and it worked.” “What if you get caught? I’m not breaking in to get you out.” “Trust me Dragon Girl, I have mad skills,” he reached out, taking my hand a serious expression on his face. “She’s innocent. They locked her away because of an accident. It wasn’t her fault. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not like earth; there are no fair trials. Someone points a finger, and you’re locked away until your bones rot.” I drew closer to him. “Baculum blocks everything Denbe, teleportation, power drainers, shifting and even wings.” “”Leaf wings, bone wings, feathered wings yes, but leather-dragon wings no,” said Denbe. “They’ll be virtually undetected by their radar.” “Is it really worth the risk?” “She didn’t break the law. She deserves to be free,” he said. “She’s my sister, Liz.” “What?” I asked. “You are a created seraph, you never had a family.” “I found her on the streets of New York City, she’d been attacked by a demon and left to die. I brought her back to life. Her family took me in. They’re my family now. When this thing happened, my parents begged me to help her. I’m keeping that promise. I’m going to get her out.” “I just know I’m going to live to regret this, when are we going?” I asked, sitting down on the soft grass. “Nightfall,” he said. “They won’t see us or feel us.” I glanced at the sky. How long Odette? Approximately two hours before darkness, She said. Are you sure you want to risk this Hannah? What do you think? I asked. I trust the Fallen, she said. It sounds easy enough. # The moment the dull grey sky slipped behind the mountain range leaving us in total darkness, we wrapped into each other’s arms and stepped off from the cliff. Denbe hooked his legs around mine it was actually comfortable. The only distraction was the closeness to him that caused all kinds of sensual thoughts. I fought to stay focused as we flew northeast heading straight for Star Zenith. Within a few minutes the megalith rocky cliff, like a tall mammoth ship, rose straight up from the middle of the sea. “I feel your heart racing,” said Denbe. “Don’t be afraid.” My hands were turning clammy; I squeezed Denbe tighter, fearing I might drop him. I couldn’t even imagine anyone ever escaping this horrid penitentiary, let alone breaking into it. I flew directly over the wall that surrounded the complex, ocean waves crashing into the high-brick parapets. Denbe let go of one arm to point to the tallest building. We touched down on the roof, my arms shaking when I let go of Denbe and collapsed rolling over feeling an electrical hum vibrating from the building through my body. Completely winded lying flat out on my wings feeling hard pebbles beneath me staring up at Star Zenith in the night sky. “That was hard,” I said breathlessly. “God I miss my wings,” he said. “You did great.” “This place looks terrifying,” I said reaching out for his arm. “Maybe I should just wait here for you.” “No,” he frowned. “You think carrying me was hard, try doing that with two people. “How are you going to get over that wall?” “I’m going underneath,” he said. “There’s a tunnel that empties out into the ocean. Go back to the hilltop. If I’m not back in three hours, come find me, deal?” “Deal,” I said reluctantly. # The hilltop felt lonely without him. I lay back on the grass staring up at Star Zenith, bright in the sky above the restless sea. It was so peaceful that I drifted off to sleep. A voice urgently called my name. I woke with a start sitting straight up. Something was wrong. Disoriented I glanced at my cell phone; it had been almost four hours. My head hurt struggling to my feet, off kilter, off balance, that sinus thing returning. Denbe’s in trouble, said Odette. My wings already extended, head still dizzy, I stumbled over the edge of the cliff, airborne and heading for Star Zenith, puzzled now, not seeing the shining light. It had been right there in the sky a moment ago. This world was crazy inside this nebula, sky changing every hour. Over the ocean I searched and searched for Denbe, soon the walls of the prison black and menacing were right in front of me. The spray from the whitecaps soaked my wings as I circled the dark, intimidating walls. Odette, can you locate his heartbeat? Yes, She said. There are two faint hearts, barely beating on the ocean floor. I can swim underwater for hours, but you cannot, you will die, we will die. I hope you forgive me Odette, but I have to try. Understood, she said. I painfully filled my lungs with air, and dove beneath the surface, allowing Odette to take the lead. The water was cold and oily black. The momentum from my wings sped me deeper, faster than any human could swim. Already my lungs were burning; my brain screaming it needed to inhale air soon. How close are we? Try to hang on, she said. I willed myself to hold the air in my lungs. The deeper we went, the more tremendous the pressure, and the more I thought of turning back. In spite of the fact that the oil in the water was hard on my eyes, I could make out something shiny. A silver metal prison bars covering the tunnel entrance. Denbe’s hand reached out, and I touched his fingers for a moment, hoping I might somehow convey a message. Hannah, they don’t have much time. Can we use your fire, Odette? You’ll take in a lot of water once you open your mouth. It might kill you. My body was growing numb, my skin turning blue and my lungs screaming for air. I could hardly feel my fingers when my claws stretched out, long and sharp. Odette started to strike the metal bars repeatedly without damage. Shit! Odette, I said. Bring the fire. I felt my jaw stretch and pop. When my mouth opened wide, water bubbled inside…my lungs filled up. I fought to control the panic screaming inside my head…unable to breath…air. I need air. I needed it now. The fire flickered water tried to extinguish, yet the oil caused it to burn in hot spots around us. We were caught in our own flames, liquid fire. The metal was glowing hot, melting as if molten lava, disintegrating that strong quantifiable steel. I struggled to get my thoughts back from that dark sea, as hot metal pieces of the silver bars floated past me out to sea. I was drowning. Drifting in blackness, hearing music somewhere, a melody a few high-notes, piano cords in my murky watery grave. My vision wavered. I mentally reached out hoping to touch Odette, my warm, familiar dragon. Someone was grunting as they swung hammers into my chest, pounding my heart. Urgent, distant voices were calling my name. Lips closed over my open mouth blowing warm, sweet air. I needed that air inside my painful, water-filled lungs. Suddenly, gasping violently, shuddering sucking air into my lungs, and water trying to come out at the same time. I was choking, spitting out oily seawater, a lot of it…long gasps in between hard pants desperate for more air, vehement gasps, trying to remember how to breathe. My head dropped back down into a puddle on the hard floor, wheezing staring up into Denbe’s worried face. He closed his eyes looking as if he might be fighting back tears of relief. I glanced around, seeing a pink bedspread in a girl’s bedroom. A human teenage girl with brunette hair and large green eyes sat on her bed staring down at me as if I were a superhero. “Where are we?” I asked my voice thick and hoarse. It hurt. Oh god, did it hurt to speak. I realized my arm was stuck to my leather wing. I hadn’t tucked them correctly. They were still wet and half open lying underneath me. I shifted up on my elbows and flexing my shoulder muscles to fold them into the slits of my leather T-shirt. “We’re in Liz’s bedroom,” said Denbe, crouching closer a look of relief on his face. “I was so scared. I thought you were dead. How is Odette?” “She’s okay, but we both feel like shit.” My fingers touched my throat it ached with every word I spoke. Denbe placed his hand on my neck releasing his healing aura until the pain subsided. “We teleported to earth, to bring her home,” He said standing up. I grabbed Denbe’s wrist, and he haul me to my feet. “Dragon girl,” said Liz. “You are amazing.” “Hannah,” I said smiling. “My friends call me Hannah. Nice to meet you too.” She didn’t look at all like a hardened criminal. She seemed pink sweet and innocent. Immediately I liked her. My eyes were on Denbe. “You couldn’t teleport from the tunnel because it was technically still inside Baculum.” “I swear those bars weren’t there a few days ago.” His expression became intense, and painfully grim. “I nearly killed you,” He said. “I swear I don’t know what I would’ve done if you’d died.” My entire body ached, but I stretched up on my toes to kiss his forehead. “You know you can’t get rid of me that easily?” He ran his thumb gently over my jaw line. “Liz is right you are amazing.” I glanced at Liz, typing away on her iPad. “I wonder if they know she’s gone?” “They know,” he said. “That’s why I have to move my family someplace safe. Hopefully, they have no clue who destroyed the tunnel prison bars.” “What if they find out?” I asked. “And they come looking for us?” “Then we deal with it,” he said. I was too tired to worry about anything. I leaned my head into his chest, his arms circled my back, and his lips found mine. I closed my eyes, feeling myself drifting away from earth’s gravity, into the third heaven, beneath the canopy of stars in the night sky. I felt inexplicably safe and happy, home in the arms of the man I loved. Judi Calhoun is the author of the novels of Sword of Yesher and Ancient Fire. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies such as the popular pulp fiction, Love Free or Die in the Granite State, Horror anthology Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification, Live Free or Ride in the Granite State, Bugs, Tales that Slither, Creep and Crawl and Black Cat Anthology, as well as others. She is currently working on a new YA novel, Dragon Girl.

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Shadows of Faith By Luiz H. Coelho

Oct 26 2014

Lorwin Leatherworker grew uneasy as the warm winds of the wastelands rustled his dark, flowing hair. It had been little over a day since their improvised caravan had left the ravaged village, the only home he had ever known. He was accompanied by a handful of fellow nervous villagers, the Elder Guard and their leader.

Most of them were silent, still in shock after the horrors they had witnessed the previous night. The guards marched them along on horseback with somber faces, likely thanking whatever gods they bowed to for delivering them from the task ahead.

None of the chosen had any useful training or actual experience in the art of battle. They were just simple peasants driven by their faith in the prophets of old and blind rage over their recent losses. Their baggy, worn clothes and rusty makeshift weapons were hardly ideal for traversing the deserted wastes, not to mention actual combat.

The shrieks of the giant scavenger birds above reminded Len of the horrible night; he and Wenda had been fast asleep in each other’s arms when the raid began.  It was only a matter of minutes before the airborne demons had all but completely razed the once-quaint town, their black leathery wings fanning the flames that engulfed the villager’s defenseless homes of brittle straw and wood. Lorwen had come face to face with one of the horned aberrations when the roof over the bedroom collapsed on him and his beloved wife. The red-eyed creature had gazed at him curiously for a moment as it hovered over the burning house, and then flew off to continue with its siblings’ rampage on the dark, moonless night.

Lorwen had managed to drag his unconscious wife away from the flaming wreckage before joining the other desperate villagers in their futile attempts to put out the inferno and ward off the incoming attackers. It wasn’t long before all that remained were ashes and corpses as the flying beasts returned north before the night reached its end, leaving the devastated settlement behind.

It was only after sunrise that the sobbing had ceased, and the survivors began reclaiming their possessions from the smoking ruins. It had been ages since they had suffered an attack of this scale. As the peasants calmed down, the village Elder elegantly emerged from the smoke in tattered robes and began his speech, attributing the sudden attack to prophecies of old. He told the tale of the Great Beast, which had now awoken and had sent his heralds to announce his terrible return. Lorwen paid little attention to the faithful rambling, being more preoccupied with his wife’s failure to wake up.

In his fragile state of mind, he still harbored disdain for the talk of prophecies and monsters, but the townspeople cheered as the Elder offered them a solution to their woes. The prophets had long foretold that on the advent of such a tragedy, a small group of warriors would unite against the forces of the Great Beast and drive it back into oblivion from whence it came.

In the commotion, Lorwen hadn’t noticed the Elder approach his wife’s sleeping body. As he carefully touched her silky brownish hair with a wrinkly hand sporting various golden rings, he claimed that there was only one way to bring her back; appeasing the gods and fulfilling the prophecy.

God or no gods, Lorwen accepted the offer to become one of the Chosen Few. Whether for love or hate, he had embarked on the journey not for his people or his fallen brothers, but for Wenda Rivercrosser. However, he was certainly not alone in this endeavor, for three others had been chosen as well.

Leaving Wenda behind was not an easy task, but at least Lorwen had guaranteed she would be taken care of by accepting the Elder’s offer. A hero’s wife could not simply be left for dead, no matter her condition, he had thought. The best healers would certainly try their hand at aiding her recovery.

Lorwen and the other chosen warriors left the village as the priests had commanded; with only their present clothing and whatever crude weapons they already owned, as it was prophesized. And so the guarded caravan, led by the village Elder, parted soon after the break of dawn from the peaceful village towards an uncertain fate.

Though at first the group was accompanied by the greenery and wildlife of the southern Livelands, the heat and despair of the rocky north was soon upon them. The famished birds overhead were the only reminder of the natural world, now. Legends claimed that the north was once thriving with life, long before the dark magic of the Ancient Wars, though it was now hard to believe.

Lorwen adjusted his hand-made quiver and hunting bow, looking around at his fellow village folk. Having lived his entire life there, he knew most of them personally. Bal’nur Smithand was shambling to his right, as if in imaginary chains of grief. A large hammer, probably crafted by his own hands, was slung over his broad, unarmored shoulders. His eyes, however, contrasting with his imposing figure, were that of a frail, broken man. He had lost someone in the raid.

Up ahead trekked Farel Lakeson, who was borrowing a canteen from one of the guards. He had no living family in the village, so Lorwen wondered what would drive a homely merchant to enter such a perilous quest. Probably the potential rewards, he concluded.

The last of Lorwen’s companions travelled closely to the Elder’s horse. Marlon, son of Markon. He used to be in the city guard before falling into disgrace after wounding his fighting arm during a duel with a fellow guard, back when Len was a young lad. Still, the old one could be their savior. Despite his crippling injury and apparent uselessness as a guard, he still carried a proper blade.

As the ill-fated caravan drew nearer to a cluster of rocky hills, they saw the cracked metal entrance grow larger in the distance, rising up from the dry earth as an ebony tombstone. It was, for all intents and purposes, a gateway to the underworld. On the dusty soil they could find faint specs of blood; perhaps the city guard had not been entirely incompetent and had wounded some of the devils. It was more likely that the creatures had brought some reward back with them. Ahead of the massive entrance, the Elder signaled for them to stop. The guards on horseback formed a corridor leading up to their master. The four warriors approached him as they were summoned by name. Lorwen was the first to be called upon.

“Lorwen Leatherworker, step forth.”

Lorwen did as he was told. This was no time for hesitation or regrets. Even so, the old man’s condemning eyes were heavy with a condescending gaze. They told Lorwen his odds of returning with life were slim. The Elder continued:

“We leave you, the chosen, as you were on the crimson night, in the manner that the gods have commanded. May they watch over you.”

A red cross was painted on Lorwen’s chest with a foul smelling substance. He waited for the Elder to finish the ritual with the others, who were just as perplexed as he was. When they were ready for entry, a pair of guards dismounted their steeds and began to operate a complex system of gears and pulleys connected to the iron gate. The ancient tomb was slowly being unsealed, and Lorwen wondered how the Great Beast’s servants had escaped it in the first place.

When the grinding of ancient machinery ceased, a large wooden platform was revealed, suspended in the air by colossal chains of iron, leading downwards into the cavernous abyss. The chosen warriors reluctantly stepped onto the contraption and heard haunting echoes of their footsteps in the vastness below. A disturbing rumbling sound answered their entrance into the monstrous crypt.

The Elder solemnly waited for the ominous sounds to subside before lighting a torch and handing it to a startled Lorwen. He then quietly whispered into the warrior’s ear:

“Wenda Rivercrosser is in good hands.”

As Lorwen quietly nodded, the Elder stepped back, and the guards began turning the cogs once more, lowering the chosen few into their pitch-black fate. Bal’nur clutched at his hammer as if he intended to strangle it, breathing heavily. The others were in better control of their emotions, but equally frightened. Marlon stepped closer to the torch, with the flames exaggerating his already stern features. Farel, remarkably calm for a merchant, had one hand in his pocket as he stared at the blackness below.

Lorwen studied his surroundings, attempting to use the light from the torch to gauge the size of the chamber, but it was of no use. Nothingness surrounded them on all sides, and the light from the entrance was now no brighter than a lone star in the sky. The merchant then broke his concentration:

“Do any of you gentlemen happen to have a plan?”

These were the first words any of them had spoken to each other since their ordeal began, though Lakeson’s query was a useless one. After a few moments, Bal’nur replied:

“We go down, we kill what we find.”

The comment managed to silence them for a little while longer, at least until they heard fluttering and bizarre chirping in the distance. Lorwen was about to draw his bow when Marlon interrupted, placing his good hand on the younger man’s trembling shoulder.

“Don’t bother, Leatherworker. If they were going to attack us, they would have by now. Save the arrows.”

Lorwen nodded in agreement; perhaps the geezer wasn’t as useless as he’d previously thought. Whatever waited for them in the shadow of this unholy dungeon would be far worse than the winged vermin. Still, the group instinctively huddled together near the torch. Together, they would be difficult prey to pursue. The flying demons would occasionally be glimpsed circling the lift, but always far enough that their exact number and position could not accurately be determined. Eventually, the animalistic chattering and flapping of wings stopped altogether. In the corner of his eye, Lorwen glimpsed the stony walls of their destination.

As the warriors drew nearer, it was apparent that this forsaken place was not of their time. The little that they could see of the dungeon’s exterior was unlike anything they had ever witnessed in the surface world. Stone blocks interlocked seamlessly in this buried tower, as if the entire structure were one solid monolith from a bygone age, carved by beings of unimaginable power.

The lift came slowly to a halt, barely touching the sides of the Great Beast’s peculiar home. The doomed party cautiously stepped into the underground entrance. The structure’s interior was comprised of an interlocking maze of damp corridors and smaller chambers. Boots steadily sank in the wet, spongy floor of the concealed labyrinth, and the stench was inhuman. Farel Lakeson appeared to be feeling queasy, and the other warriors promptly stepped away from him.

“I suggest none of us stray too far from the light. If one of us were to get lost in these corridors, I doubt we’d meet again,” stated a concerned Marlon.

The sick merchant quickly concluded his retching and resumed his place amongst the others. Wiping a rust-colored liquid from his mouth, he questioned Marlon:

“That’s a fine idea, old man, too bad none of us know which way to go.”

Lorwen paid no heed to the ensuing argument as he silently surveyed the dungeon floor. His years of tracking exotic-skinned game to be used in his inherited leather business had provided him with a hunter’s intuition, although the Beast they currently pursued was definitely no prey. To his right was a pile of human-sized bones, with several more littering the wet floor further down the corridor. Lorwen shone the light towards the bone trail and pointed. The others understood immediately.

The group was silent during their wandering in the damned ossuary, contemplating how many men had died there. Scraps of rotten clothing still clung onto scattered remains of their former owners. This was not the work of one of the lesser devils. No, this brutality was caused by something far more insidious. They could tell that the gods offered no protection there.

Finally, they reached the end of the corridor, with the trail leading into a tight metallic stairway and into deeper levels of the dungeon. Some of the lower floors were flooded, whilst others contained bizarre artifacts from a younger, more innocent world.

The merchant stuffed his pockets with useless metallic boxes which he found scattered across the lost chambers of the massive crypt. Perhaps they would be worth something to the outside world if they ever managed to return from their quest. None of it mattered to Lorwen, however, whose thoughts still dwelled on his beloved Rivercrosser.

Eventually, the estranged party reached a collapsed portion of floor, with a dangerous drop leading into an even larger chamber. Above the caved-in ruins was ancient message, scrawled crudely onto the walls in reddish brown:

“They lied.”

As the group took a risk and dropped down to the other floor, the stench of death and rot became much worse. After recovering their senses, they found the author of the foreboding message lying against a large pile of rubble. The skeleton was almost entirely preserved, and still wore his village guard’s distinctive armor. Lorwen pondered over the hows and whys of the unfortunate man’s death in these forgotten catacombs. Had he really made it this far on his own? And if so, what business had h-

Marlon suddenly pulled Lorwen by his collar and pointed to his own ears, indicating there was something of importance to be heard. The confused Leatherworker lowered his torch, careful not to put the fire out, and drew his bow silently. The extension of the darkness ahead of him was immeasurable; this was by far the largest chamber they had encountered. Enormous pillars were spread amongst the looming shadows, serving as a foundation for the accursed buried palace. Metal husks of ancient box-shaped carriages were abandoned in the darkness, worn away by the forces of time. It took a moment, but Lorwen heard what the son of Markon was referring to. He signaled the others to stay put and focused.

It was the sound of blowing wind. Oh his grimy skin, Lorwen felt a humid, warm breeze. Where in the nine hells was it coming from? Unable to bare the shear blackness any longer, he took an arrow and held it up to the torch, turning to Marlon for his consent. The old man nodded, and Lorwen shot out an arrow with flaming quills. It did not need to travel far before it revealed the object of their supposedly holy quest in its brief, shimmering light.

The Great Beast was already staring at the unsettled party with numerous shining red eyes, breathing heavily. It had been expecting them, waiting. The entire structure trembled as the gargantuan Beast lunged towards them like a tremendous mad reptile, dragging itself along the damp, stony floor. The extremities of its titanic limbs were freakishly large but also disturbingly man-like. The grand demon sported several serpentine necks culminating in eerily expressive faces, which looked to be crying out in agony with terrible fangs and forked tongues. Luckily for the chosen warriors, the crude lighting and the direness of their situation prevented any further description of the dark creature, whose complete appearance would have certainly driven even the sanest of men to madness.

There was no way any of them could feasibly defeat the beast in combat, even with legions of well-armed soldiers. But before the others could properly react, Bal’nur Smithand charged with the fury of one who had lost all he had once held dear in life. Alas, even as he bellowed the sacred names of gods and ancestors to aid him in battle, an oozing black tendril emerged from the roaring beast and impaled the foolish warrior to the ground, leaving behind a lifeless doll of flesh.

Learning from Bal’nur’s foolish example, the remaining few attempted to retreat. Lorwen gripped the torch as if it held his eternal soul in the flames, and led the way atop the giant pile of rubble which had led them to this final chamber. He, the merchant and the old man were no longer warriors of fate, only desperate mortal men on the run.

None of them dared to look back during their tiresome climb out of the treacherous dungeon, but the chase soon took its toll. Fortunately, the Beast found it difficult to pursue them through some of the more compact stairwells and corridors, which slowed it down. Their bodies were weak, but before long the frightened men were sprinting though the upper levels, dodging bones and following the light of the torch. Damn the gods, thought an enraged and worn out Lorwen, damn the Elder and his prophets too! But before he was finished cursing, Farel let out an excruciating cry of pain.

A black tendril had pierced the merchant’s ankle and had begun dragging the writhing man down the corridor as he tried to no avail to stab the accursed thing with a shining gold dagger previously concealed in his pocket. The two survivors picked up their pace as they heard screams and the sounds of the metal trinkets the merchant had attempted to loot being flung about.

They were almost free, approaching the wretched lift that had first brought them to the decaying labyrinth. For a moment, a dreaded thought plagued Lorwen’s panicked mind; who would stay behind to operate the lift? The only observable controls were at the entrances, so only one of them could embark.

The two men reached their only known means of escape with a few moments to spare, and it seemed Marlon already held the answer to Lorwen’s burning question. As they stopped running, the old man approached Lorwen and handed him his rusty sword.

“You have a long life ahead of you, lad, and I’ve many a deed to atone for.”

Lorwen was speechless, but he saw the weight in the once-disgraced guard’s gaze. He had accepted his long-overdue fate. Lorwen put the sword away and Marlon was soon operating the ancient controls. The Beast was approaching fast, but the lift would be on its way, powered by dark magic from another age.

The beast did eventually reach the son of Markon, but Lorwen was already too far to see or hear most of the ungodly carnage below. Even the lesser demons were quiet now. The old man’s sword was all that remained of the brave party, but before melancholy could set in, Lorwen sensed something had gone awry. Curious sounds and vibrations indicated the contraption was stopping, not far from the exit.

As the chains rattled and walls trembled, light from above blinded the lone warrior. The gate was opened, and as his eyes adjusted, Lorwen saw the Elder, looking disappointed. His mind raced, but before anything intelligible could be uttered, the man spoke in a thundering voice:

“It’s a shame you had to find out this way. Most perish feeling honor in their hearts. Yet now you see the truth, unlucky one. We always pay what is owed.”

Lorwen’s heart was almost escaping his chest. There was nothing he could do at this distance, but he did not wish to hear the Elder’s story.

“Be assured you are not the first, or the last, and we pray that you shall be rewarded accordingly in the next life. It was never intended for you to slay the Beast, foolish boy, but to feed it.”

There was no time to ponder the consequences of his words. The contraption was now moving again, only downwards. The gate was closed once more, to be opened again only for the next generation’s sacrifice. Very little passed through Lorwen Leatherworker’s mind as he descended towards the gaping maws of the Great Beast, which anxiously anticipated their next meal.

He held out his sword firmly, as if it were one with his arm. He could smell the decay which emanated from the demon. It would not end like this. Lorwen dropped his torch into the fathomless depths below. He hesitated for a moment, and then he jumped, his last thought being the memory of Wenda Rivercrosser’s loving embrace.

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THE TRUTH ABOUT RED RUSSIAN KALE by Mandy Foster

Sep 21 2014

Leanne searched around in the back of the van, looking for her new soil knife. She moved aside kneepads and seed packets, a box of condoms and several paperbacks from the Goosebumps series, ridiculously overdue. She could swear she had tossed the knife back here when she loaded up the van for carpool, but it had been a hairier morning than most; Mondays always were.

The old soil knife would work. The field basked in March morning light, cool and silent except for the hum of dragonflies darting among her crops. The Red Russian kale called to her. The rows stood like green soldiers, their spines purple, darker than her usual strains of kale, and arcing toward the sky. The kale was experimental, something requested by two of her clients. Chef Anton wanted a hybrid for a spring salad, and the new Thai restaurant was going to pan fry it with garlic.

As she harvested, the soil sang to her nose, tangy and rich. She never listened to music while she worked. There was too much noise in the rest of her day: children shouting in the morning, NPR as she drove, leaf blowers and the neighbor’s broken pool cleaner whining in the back yard.

Hours later, the van brimmed with freshly washed greens. She made her stops at the restaurants and then drove to her mother’s house. She smiled as she pulled into the driveway, appreciating the tidy front yard and the wicker rocking chairs idling on the porch. Her mother’s house always looked ready for company, like the covers of Southern Living she displayed on the coffee table.

“Hi, darling,” her mother said as Leanne came in with her basket of greens. “What have you brought me this time?”

“A hybrid kale. It’s fresh out of the ground this morning.”

“Lovely. Would you like some tea?” Her mother was still wearing her housecoat but her hair was coiffed and she had on her pearl earrings.

“Sure.”

Her mother filled their glasses with iced tea while Leanne perched on a barstool in the kitchen.

“Let me taste this kale.” Her mother leaned on the counter and pulled a leaf out of the basket. “It’s washed?”

“Yes.”

Her mother chewed and then smiled.

“Wonderful. So what else do you have going on today?”

“I’m on my way to get a trim.”

“You should stop trying to hide those grays, the blonde highlights do nothing for you.”

“Mother!”

“What?”

“I thought you liked my hair this way?”

Her mother wrinkled her nose. “I don’t care for it, no.”

“But you’ve always said I looked younger this way.”

Her mother tilted her head. “Have I?

Leanne started to speak but stopped herself, sliding off the barstool with a frown and a sigh. “Never mind. I need to get going or I’ll be late.”

“Okay, darling. Thanks for the greens, they’re just delicious.”

“You’re welcome.” Leanne gave her mother a peck on the cheek.

After the hair appointment and picking up the kids, she toted the basket she’d brought home for the family into the kitchen. The kids wouldn’t touch the kale, of course, but after they cleared their plates of lasagna and went outside to practice kick flips and soccer, she made a nice side salad for her and for Chris, drizzled with the homemade balsamic vinaigrette he liked.

He took a bite and grinned.

“Yes?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s great.”

He loaded up his fork with more greens and had another taste.

“Really good,” he said.

“Great,” Leanne said, pleased, taking a taste herself. He was right, the kale was crisp and sweet. A breeze wafted through the open window and past their plates at the same moment that a calmness came over her.

He set down his fork, and wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin.

“So I got an e-mail today,” he said. “The twentieth reunion is coming up.”

“Really? Already?”

“Yep. May 2nd.”

Leanne widened her eyes. “That’s only six weeks from now. Crap, I bet that stupid Jennifer Mulgrew will be there, and I’ve gained so much weight since the last time I saw her. Do you think I look okay, or should I go on a crash diet?”

“If you think you can lose it, it’s probably best that you do.”

Leanne stared at him. Chris continued eating.

“Really? You think I should lose weight?”

Chris held his fork in midair and assessed her.

“I’d probably be more attracted to you if you did. Maybe just fifteen pounds.”

“Chris!” Leanne put down her napkin and glared at him. He frowned at her while a piece of kale slowly made its way into his mouth.

“What’s wrong?”

“How can you keep eating while saying things like that to me?”

He put down his fork. “What did I say?”

“Seriously?” Her eyes started to smart but she was too angry to cry.

“Leanne, I am completely at a loss here.” His green eyes looked sincere and for a moment Leanne wanted to believe him.

Leanne gazed at the green leaves on her plate and their purplish spines. She speared a bite with her fork and put it her mouth. The flesh was sweet and earthy, all the flavors of the soil and springtime circling her tongue at once before she swallowed. She had a strange sensation, as if her brain had just been washed in sunlight.

“Ask me something,” she said to Chris. “Ask me something you’ve been afraid to ask me.”

“What on earth?”

“Please. Just do it.”

Chris reflected. “All right. Why didn’t you answer the phone when I called Saturday night? Was your phone really dead?”

“I was having sex.”

Chris’s face drained of blood.

Leanne dropped her head into her hands. “Ten baskets to each restaurant – what am I going to do?”

“You were having sex with someone Saturday night and you’re more worried about your clients than about our marriage?”

Leanne’s gaze was sober, her response unvarnished. “Yes.”

Mandy Foster lives and writes in New Orleans. When not writing, she bakes cakes and chauffeurs her two young sons.

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WOOD CHIPPER y Luke Asa Guidici

Sep 14 2014

You know there’s nothing like the sound of a wood chipper in the morning.  Never thought I’d grow so accustomed to it.  Of course, never thought I’d be sitting outside, next to a runway, working as a “Bird Suppression Expert” either.  Yup, I didn’t expect my life to end up like this.  I was a normal man with a good career, great friends, a modest apartment, and a fast, yet practical car, but then one day everything changed.

Who could have cursed me?  Was it the gypsy I cut off while driving on the 405?  Was my mixologist miffed about an insufficient tip?  Or did my last OkCupid date really go that bad?  I still don’t know.

#

It started simply and innocently, as things often do.  One day after returning home from work, I noticed a procession of ants marching across my kitchen floor.  This in itself was not unusual.  A bachelor with an aversion to washing dishes was likely to see ant hordes on a fairly regular basis.  But this procession of insects was different.  Instead of going for the remnants of Thai food in the sink, or the last bits of cream & sugar in a mug, these creatures were climbing my fridge.

My first thought, in horror, was that they’d found my carefully collected collection of condiments… but the trail lead further up, to my freezer, where the weather stripping had parted just enough to allow the army of ants access inside.

Had my freezer malfunctioned?  Where there once existed organic, free-trade, single source vanilla ice cream would I now find a creamy lake upon which the ants would be feasting?  Had they burrowed into my free range bison?  Pillaged my truffle pilaf?

These fears vanished in an instant as I opened the door and discovered a fully functioning freezer.  But, if there was no melted food, what were the ants doing in the freezer?

Were they on some sort quest, searching for gold in their Yukon?  Perhaps a charismatic leader was taking them to the promised land?  Or maybe, like the Rebels on Hoth, this was the only place that their enemies wouldn’t be able to find them?

Whatever the case, they had died in droves.  So I took out my vacuum and removed the pile of black carcasses.  What a crazy fluke I thought.  But, when I returned home from work the next day, I was surprised to find a new collection of the faithful.

#

This continued for a week.  Every day, more dead ants.

#

Then as abruptly as it started, the onslaught ended.  Had the ants realized only doom awaited them inside?  Had a coup de tat disposed their leader?  Or had they simply all killed themselves?  I laughed at these stupid creatives with their insatiable death wish.  How foolish they were!

In hindsight, I should have seen this a sign of things to come, but I was too wrapped up in myself to head what must have been a gypsy’s warning!

#

For several months I had a reprieve, but this break from death wasn’t to last.  The next unlucky victims headed not into the frozen wasteland of my freezer but into the barren desert of my automobile.

#

It was a warm October day when I first noticed the smell of death in my car.

You know, they say you can tell a lot about a person by the state of their automobile, and mine was always pristine.  Not only did I keep it clean, but I wouldn’t even let certain things inside it, like McDonald’s food, or gypsies.  Not to brag or anything, just to say that if the car smelled like anything, it would’ve been manliness.

So, right away I knew something was wrong.  Had a passenger left food inside?  Had I forgotten one of my triple shot soy mochas?  My nose wrinkled as I searched for the offending odor, but nothing.  My car was clean, as always.  Perhaps the smell was coming from outsider?  My neighbor had probably left something rotting in the carport.

The next day, after a coffee meeting with a potential client, I entered my sun-baked car and was distressed that not only was the smell still there, but it was considerably worse.  The hope of a “carport solution” evaporated.  As I drove home, with the windows down, I considered the situation.  The most logical explanation was that a poor varmint had crawled into the engine bay, been crunched to death, then slowly baked by the heat of the motor.  That would explain why the smell got worse after driving, right?

Arriving home, I popped the hood, then used my nose like an olfactorial dowsing rod.  I carefully sniffed around the engine, but the smell neither grew stronger or weaker.  Perplexed I stood back, had I imagined it?  I opened the driver’s door and the waft of death assured me that there was most certainly something dead nearby.

I grimaced and prepared to undertake a similar dowsing on the interior.  Unpleasant odors are an interesting thing.  First off, as the name suggests, they are unpleasant, but something about them has a kind of “traffic accident” quality.  Just like we can’t help and look at collisions, we can’t help but enjoy the experience of a horrible odor.  We might not like the smell, but the experience is interesting.

#

Or is it just me?  It’s just me?  Ok, well forget it then.  Anyhooooo.

#

As best I could tell the odor was coming from behind the driver’s seat.  I remembered hearing something on “Car Talk” about mice crawling into heater vents.  So, fashioning a hanger into a crude hook, I went mouse fishing.  In the heat vent below the seat, I cast back and forth hoping to land a mouse corpse.  But no luck.

Having exhausted my technical abilities I realized it was time to seek professional help.

A short time later my car was at the repair shop.  The next day, after they’d taken the entire interior out of the car, they’d discovered the source of the smell… and it wasn’t a lone mouse.  No, it was an entire mouse colony!  Droves of the small, fury, and formerly cute creatures had found their way into my car, burrowed under the carpet, and died.

#

It had happened, again.  Death was following me.

#

But this was just a coincidence.  What else could it be?  I couldn’t be making these creatures commit suicide, right?  That would be preposterous…

As the smell of death left my car, so did this persecution mania.  In time, I forgot about the death march of ants and the mass starvation of mice.  Once again, the animal deaths in my life were relegated to local, sustainably grown, organic meats. And of course, sushi.  Which although I never inquired, was certainly the product of hardworking, sixth generation, small business owner fishermen and their lifetime fishmonger friends.

#

Life was good.

#

But then, just like before, everything would change, again.

#

The end began one pleasant spring evening.  I was returning home from a hard day of video editing where we hoped to convince viewers that they needed, deserved, and in fact, could not live without a better toaster oven.  Important, work that would no doubt directly improve the lives of people the world over.  Who doesn’t like tuna melts, right?

As I unlocked the door, thoughts of dinner were over taken by a deep rooted sense of dread.  You know how you feel when your best friend asks you to appear on Ricki Lake and you’re pretty certain it’s really going to end up involving an ex-lover and someone’s new “Baby Momma?”  Well, that’s pretty much exactly how I felt.

The door swung open and there in front of me… hanging from my chin-up bar… was a monkey.  And when I say hanging, I mean “hanging”… like from the gallows.

I dropped my vintage leather attaché and ran over to it.  The poor creature had a belt wrapped tightly around its neck and it didn’t appear to be breathing.  I loosened the noose and lifted the limp little monkey out.  Quickly I placed it on the ground and listened for a heart beat.  There was none.

 

My first aid training kicked in.  One-two-three-four, I gently compressed its small chest.  Then, with a large breath I filled its lungs.  More compressions.  Another breath.

#

And nothing.

#

Defeated, I leaned back against the wall and lit a cigarette.  As I pulled the sweet smoke into my lungs I contemplated my own mortality.  If this monkey could die in my apartment, what did that mean for me?  I took another drag.  Was life so short?  Was every moment of our time here on Earth a gift?  I raised the cigarette to my lips and pulled deeply.  Or did anything mean anything at all?  Wasn’t this a symbol of the futility of existence?  As the nicotine filled my blood, I pondered these greater questions of life.

#

Or at least I would have if I smoked.  Since I don’t, I just stared into space.

#

I had practical concerns; namely disposing of a dead monkey and deciding on dinner.  Since the monkey wasn’t going anywhere, I covered it with a pillow case.  Since I was hungry, I ordered Thai food.  Overall, the situation called for whiskey, so I got some.

The next morning, after a night of fitful dreams, a sudden sound awoke me with a start.  As my eyes came into focus I saw something swinging from the chin-up bar.  It was another monkey!!!  I leapt out of bed.  Fell.  Got up.  And rushed over to it – but alas, I was too late!

#

Why had another monkey committed suicide in my apartment?

#

The question gave me a splitting headache.  Or maybe it was the previous night’s whiskey.  Either way, I needed two Tylenols and some strong coffee.  Shortly after, coffee in hand, I considered the situation.  I had two dead monkeys and no alibi.

Would I need an alibi?  I took another sip of coffee.  Dark Roast.  So smooth.  Single Origin.  So supportive of small indigenous farmers.  I took another sip.  I couldn’t have a gypsy curse, I was a good person!  Surely the coffee I drank earned me some good anti-gypsy karma!

There’s a saying I had learned in ‘Nam.  Or rather, that I learned reading about ‘Nam.  “Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action.”  I still might be able to plead that I was a victim of coincidence if I could end this now.  And if there was anything my liberal arts education had taught me to do, it was how to “end things now.”  Or even “before they started” if you asked my last OkCupid date.

First thing was first, I needed to build a “Scare-Monkey.”  But what would frighten them?  Naturally, I turned to Google.  It didn’t take long to find that the dearly departed were in fact Capuchins and their main predator was the Harpy Eagle.  I printed out a rather fierce looking Harpy face and taped it to the chin-up bar.

#

By this time I was late for work.  Further measures would have to wait.

#

Taking a trash bag, I gently placed the two creatures inside.  As I began to leave, inspiration struck.  My remaining belts!  Just in case the Scare-Monkey didn’t work, it was probably safer to have them.

At the dumpster, I said a quick word and tossed the bag in.  Those cute little monkeys deserved better, but my main concern had already shifted to my client lunch.  Thai food was out of the question.  Perhaps I could talk the client into ribs?  No, probably not.  Salads would be the best bet.  I could get the organic, pork belly frizze salad.  Yes, that would be a good compromise.

With the Capuchin corpses out of my mind,  I joined my fellow Angelenos as we slowly made our way across the city, alone in our metal boxes.

That evening, after a long day making movie magic, and a happy hour, that may have been too happy had the LAPD inquired how happy it was, I returned home.  As I walked up from the carport, my scotch filled mind decided the best course of action at this juncture was to text message a “friend” to see if she wanted to come over and “watch some Netflix.”  Luckily, before I hit send, I opened the door… and once again was greeted by a pair of monkey eyes.  Dead monkey eyes.

#

Hanging from my chin-up bar, a vintage tie around its neck, was another Capuchin!!!

#

Those damn dirty apes had gone too far!  It was one thing to Harry Houdini their way into my apartment.  It was another thing to Mrs. Harry Houdini their way through my carefully collected tie collection!  This meant war.  Or at least, it meant taking down the chin-up bar.  My biceps, lats, and abs would have to make the temporary sacrifice.

Because this was only a temporary situation, right?  I mean, how many free-range suicidal monkeys could there be in Los Angeles?  The fact that there were at least three was enough to drive a man to drink.

Several whiskeys later, with the chin-up bar on the floor, belts around my waist, and ties tied to my arms, I crawled into bed with hopes of a better tomorrow.

#

But the next day things would get worse, again.

#

I awoke to find a monkey with its head in the oven.  I rushed over and grabbed it roughly.  “Bad Monkey!” I scolded as I tossed it out the door.  Turning back, I saw another monkey about to drop my toaster over into a sink full of water!  Shockingly, the irony was not lost to me.

Charging over I unplugged the cord before the monkey could flip its switch.  But, before I could catch my breath, there was a noise in the bathroom.  I ran to it and found a Capuchin slicing itself with a razor!  I slapped it across the face and grabbed the blade.

Oh no, the other monkey!  I ran back just in time to see the monkey in front of my vintage, American made, electric fan.  It gave me a big, toothy grin and snickered.  Then it jammed both arms into the spinning metal blades!

As the monkey’s blood sprayed over me, my Apple products, and the walls covered in the artwork of my many talented and passionate artist friends I sank to the floor.  What had I done to deserve this curse??

Helplessly I watched as the door opened and more monkeys entered to do their dirty deeds.  I didn’t care.  The fight had gone out of me.  It was at that moment the “Game of Thrones” theme began to play from my iPhone.  I answered and was greeted by a breathy female voice.  It was Kristi from the Phi Tappa Sigma Sorority.  Apparently I’d won a Facebook contest and they were here to clean my apartment.

“Good god no!” I screamed into the phone.  Hanging up, I hurriedly packed a bag.  Ants, mice, monkeys, now co-eds?  I had to find that gypsy and make amends!

The phone rang again and if by reflex, I answered.  Pouting, Kristi upped the ante to include a car wash.  In the background her sorority sisters giggled.  Tempted by the offer, I paused to consider, then noticed my reflection in the mirror.

#

Is it just me, or is there something sobering about seeing yourself covered in blood and monkey fur?

#

The image of sudsy nubiles vanished.  Grabbing my bag, I made a beeline for my car.  It was actually a little dirty… Maybe just a quick wash.  No!  I must not give in, I must make my escape.  The key turned and my car roared to life.  Jamming it into gear I fishtailed into the street.

Kristi and her sisters desperately gave chase.  But the Priuses that their daddies’ had bought them weren’t going to cut this mustard.  Those battery assisted go-carts definitely weren’t going to catch 2.5L of turbo powered combustion!

#

I was free.  Or at least, I was on the road.  I thought If I could just keep moving, I’d be safe.  Speeding onto the 101 freeway I left Los Angeles.

#

Four years, thousands of voles, mice, possum, armadillos, squirrels, and the occasional hobo later, I finally found the gypsy woman I’d cut off on the 405.  But no amount of begging or bribes would make her lift the curse.  Turns out it wasn’t her’s to begin with.  Maybe it was that OkCupid date after all?  At any rate, she gave me some words of advice, simply “A blessin’ an’ a curse be two sides o’ tha same coin.  So flip it, yo.”

#

Hang on, need to clean out the wood chipper.

#

Okay, I’m back.  Every once in a while it gets gunked up from all the birds flying into it.  A good cleaning keeps it running smooth and “cruelty free.” You know, when I started, I didn’t have to clean it myself.  I used to call the facilities people, but after Raul ran in front of that 747, they’ve all steered clear of me.  So now I handle all my own maintenance.  It’s not the most glamorous gig, but the skies around the airport have never been more bird free, and hey, it’s a dying.

#

Get it, cause it’s my “living,” but things keep–

 

 

——Bio—-

 

My journey to become a filmmaker had a unique beginning – I grew up in a home without a TV. My father, an English major, and my Mother, a working musician, believed there were better ways for a child to be entertained. So I read, explored the woods, and played with LEGOs. Exercising my imagination, I learned to tell my own stories.

 

In school, I excelled in math and science, entering college 2 years early. But it was a TV production class that inspired me the most and led me to pursue a career in filmmaking.

 

With this goal in mind, I moved to San Francisco where I studied Cinema and Digital Art. In 3 years I made over 20 short films and graduated Magna Cum Laude. Then it was on to my current home, Los Angeles. Since arriving I’ve worked a variety of film industry jobs, primarily as an editor. Editing has made me a stronger filmmaker while allowing me the freedom and funds to pursue my own creative projects. Currently I’m transitioning to working full time as a writer and director.

 

 

 

 

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THE SKY PEOPLE by Alex Hardison

Sep 07 2014

Lily’s playing with my hand again, tugging and twisting at the fingers. I don’t mind, because it keeps her near, though I try to stop her from putting the tips of them in her mouth. The metal is supposed to be safe, and I’ve had no ill effects since my original hand was replaced, but when it comes to her health I tend towards the overprotective.

“Do the thing, Daddy! Make it do the thing!” She doesn’t look at me as she makes her demand, but takes ahold of my wrist and starts to shake it back and forth. She’s been sitting in my lap watching me stare out the window for too long, and she’s bored.

“Okay button, I’m sorry, I’ll make it go. But first you have to let go of it, okay?”

Lily releases my finger, making a great show of placing both hands behind her back. I put my hand on the arm of my chair and let the fingers unlatch, all four extending outwards, black segments snapping outwards and revealing the narrow linking bands within. I wiggle them, showing off their flexibility and range, and Lily giggles gratifyingly. She starts running her fingers carefully over each extended section, humming happily under her breath. Every time we’ve done this I’ve told her to be careful, and she tries her best, but it’s not long before she gets overexcited and forgets.

“Careful button, don’t touch the connectors, they’re delicate.”

Lily makes a face at me, but she does as she’s told. She turns her attention to her favourite part, tugging upwards on the middle finger and giggling happily as it pulls back further than any living finger could and snaps into place. I explained to her the first time she did this that it was only Daddy’s hand that did that, that she mustn’t try it with anybody else, but I still found myself paying for some poor boy’s wrenched finger a few days later.

The advertising wall to our right is playing an episode of her favourite show, but she doesn’t look around, still immersed in her examination of my mechanical hand. I watch it idly over her head, glancing down from time to time to make sure that she isn’t doing anything that she isn’t supposed to. The fuzzy creatures that populate the hypercolour island are learning an important lesson about manners and waiting your turn while queuing up for rations, and as usual the blue one gets in trouble for not doing what the law officers tell him to. He’s Lily’s favourite, though she struggles to articulate why. It’s not long before he finds himself placed in a hovercell made of cardboard tubes and carted away, much to the consternation of his little friends, though I’m sure that he’ll be back for the next episode.

I look down in time to see Lily snap the back of my wrist open and peer eagerly inside. There’s a small compartment inside, and she gets her face as close as possible to the tools within without actually touching them. She loves to test exactly how close she can come to breaking a rule before she gets in trouble. “Can I?” she asks, without looking up.

“Carefully, honey. Handles only.” I can’t deny her anything. Given what’s coming, I don’t see why I would. I glance towards the window again, but there’s still nothing to see, just the wide white roofs of the other hives spreading out towards the horizon. It’s not a real window, of course, we’re far too deep in the hive for that. I don’t think that Lily can tell the difference; in fact, I’m not sure that she’s even seen a window made of glass

Her clever fingers work their way into the compartment, and she carefully tugs the first device out. I’ve only let her do this a few times, and I keep a close eye after the time she managed to singe both hands with the element calibrator. She goes for that one first, of course. My brave little girl. She has to use both hands to work it out, and as I watch I’m suddenly struck with the thought of how little she is, of how everything in the world is too large for her. I glance across at the news feed on the left wall, but it’s not time yet. I don’t have to explain to her how much large the world really is. Not just yet.

Lily waves the calibrator back and forth, chuckling gnomically, then suddenly becomes bored and thrusts it into my free hand. She digs out a second and holds it up. “What’s this one?” she demands, eyes crossing slightly as she examines it. The device she’s holding is a bioluminescent merger, a delicate scalpel with a growing green tip that’s used for painting pheromones into organic matter. Her finger slips up towards the sharp end and I carefully slip it out of her fingers. She looks as though she’s considering fighting me, but consents to have it taken from her.

“That’s a merger, honey. It’s used to make things…like each other. Make them connect.”

Disinterested now that her ownership has been usurped, Lily is reaching back into the compartment. I juggle the two devices that I find myself holding, trying to keep my artificial hand still while she explores it. “What’s this one?” If she presses the stud on the end of the long implement she’s suddenly holding, the head will blossom outwards into a ridged globe, loaded with the reactants necessary for stimulating asexual reproduction in artificial lifeforms. Once again, I slip it out of her hand, and it rattles against the other two. Perhaps this was a bad idea.

“Why don’t you play with your toys, honey? They’re a lot more fun than mine.” Lily makes a face at me; she’s smart enough to know the difference between a genuine suggestion and a dismissal. We try to stare each other down, and I feel one of her black moods building in the air. My own state of mind is fragile enough today, and I find it hard to believe that I would have had it in me to calm her. Finally she relents, slipping off my knee and chirruping happily as she tips her blocks out onto the ground and goes to work.

Lily’s show is finishing up, the closing tune blaring cheerily out despite our disregard. The wall has gone through a lot of changes in time that I’ve lived here. When I was a young man it was pure pornography, sweaty bodies of every shape and form heaving and pouring over one another. Then I grew older and it gave way to technical programs, blueprints and schematics and engineering conferences broadcast day and night. Finally that slowed as well, as all the sciences came together in their one final project, a marvel of engineering and biotechnology that demanded everything from every available mind and set of hands. After that, it all just…tapered off. We were done. It horrified me to think about it; an entire world’s scientific exploration, complete. No, not complete. Abandoned. Taken as far as it could be, certainly, but when I was young we believed that the journey would be endless. Lily will never know that feeling. Her world, whatever shape it takes, will always be limited.

I glance across at the time as I slot my tools back into their compartment. I wonder if I will ever take them out again. I stand and wander restlessly towards the window. Less than an hour now. Nothing will come to a halt today. Indeed, it will be more beginning than end. I’ve even got a new job lined up, a consulting role at one of the last remaining engineering corporations. Before long I’ll be teaching, I suppose, and after that whatever I can find. I wonder if there will be a role for a historian at the end of history. I look down at Lily, playing blithely with her blocks, and I wonder what sort of a life she will have. The domes should keep us safe long enough for her to grow into old age. Middle age, at least. Older than I am now. But what sort of life will it be? What sort of ennui will her generation suffer, knowing that everything that can be done already has been?

Suddenly Lily abandons her project and scampers over to me. She crouches at my feet, eyes big and wild like an animal’s. Behind her, the blocks are arranged in a long network of intersecting crosses. It’s the same pattern that she always makes with them. I don’t know where she got the idea from, or why she doesn’t experiment further – I’ve certainly encouraged her to. She just seems to think that that’s how blocks are supposed to go. Before I can say anything, she scrambles up my leg and into my arms, tiny fingers and feet digging mercilessly into my hip and ribs. She ignores my laughing grunt of pain as she hauls herself up by my shirt and wraps her legs around my side. I catch her, as she knows that I always will. Her eyes are still wild, and I wonder what she sees. I lift her above my head, shaking her and making her scream like a wild thing. She writhes around up there, shaking out whatever badness briefly had her in its grip. If only it were so simple for me.

“Kick the blocks!” Her grin is as mischievous as it is infectious.

“Are you sure button? You put them all together so carefully!”

She favours me with a look of deepest contempt. “Kick, Daddy! Be the monster!”

Still holding her in my arms, I swing my legs in long outwards strokes, knocking her blocks to the far sides of the room while she claps and squirms in delight. She has little to no interest in her creations once they’re complete. The point for her, I think, is to build them. Being a parent is the opposite. Making her was the easy part – it’s everything that comes afterwards that takes a toll. At least some part of her will survive into the future. I’ve made sure of that.

It’s time, or close enough. I carry Lily over to the window and we look out towards the horizon, towards the facility that has been my life for the last five years. My role there is done, and while at first I was frustrated that I would be sitting out the actual launch, I find myself glad to be home with Lily instead. There are some things that should be shared with those closest to you, even if they don’t understand their meaning at the time. When I was a boy my father woke me in the middle of the night and insisted that I look into the telescope that he had erected in our back yard. That was just a few years before living under the open air became untenable. Through the lens I saw little more than a dot among dots, but he insisted that it was a comet, that in years to come I would be able to tell people that I had seen the last passing of Halley’s comet. I didn’t fully grasp the significance, but I felt the enthusiasm radiating off him, and I treasured the moment we shared beneath the stars.

“Look Lily, do you see that?”

I have to point a few times before I get her attention long enough to make her look. She glances out towards the horizon, then looks away again, bored. I watch for us both. In the distance – almost too far to be seen, even with the window’s enhancements all the way up – a glow begins to build. I can’t tear my eyes from it, and before long Lily stops her squirming as well, watching it as well. She likes bright things. “Is it a bomb?” she asks, her tone more curious than afraid.

“No honey, it’s a launch.”

“Like when you went into space?”

I smile, thinking of the exhilarating rush of liftoff, excitement and terror boiling through my guts as the earth fell away. My one and only trip beyond the poisoned atmosphere of our world. Today’s launch will be nothing like that. The passengers will be completely serene, their minds controlled and clear. They will only need our clumsy boosters for the first part of their voyage, to claw their way up and out of the gravity well, the prison into which they were born. After that they will travel under their own power, and I do not imagine that they will look back.

“These are special people, my little button. Men and women that have been worked on by scientists, including your old Dad. I helped build the systems that tell them how to build things.”

Lily thinks about this. “Like how the advertising wall tells us things?”

“Not really. They’ll just know. More like…you remember the birds in the documentary that we watched? Like how they just knew how to build a nest.”

“What are the sky people going to build?” She’s watching the glow intently now, as though she might make out the tiny figures being propelled skywards.

I smile at her choice of words. Sky people. The future will still need poets, I suppose. “Well, their homes, to start with.”

She looks sceptical. “They don’t have homes?”

“They do. They did, I mean. They lived at the facility, where I used to work. But they’re going to go out into space and find new homes.”

Lily tugs absently at my hair while she thinks about this. This is the conversation that I’ve been dreading, the one that I’ve played out so many times in my head without a satisfying resolution. How much to explain to her? How much of the truth will she understand, and how upset will she be by it? There are no good answers to these questions, I know, and a million years of parenting has failed to come up with any sure means of resolving them. I have promised her, silently, a thousand times, that I will never lie to her. I cannot yet tell if I will be strong enough to keep that promise.

“Will they be cold out there? In space?” Lily’s questions are never the questions that I have prepared an answer for.

“Well, no. Their skin isn’t like ours. It’s double shielded, requiring to external warmth, and they can even turn their pain receptors on and off.”

Lily is leaning out towards the window again, reaching towards it will her grubby little hand. What has she been touching to get so dirty? I take a step closer, letting her push against the window until she satisfies herself that she cannot reach the sky people. “Are they going to come back?”

I shake my head. The truth is that the sky people cannot survive for long in our atmosphere. They are too tall and heavy for our gravity, and their delicate senses are at constant risk of being overwhelmed by the telecommunication storm that blankets our world. They have huge grey eyes and jet black skin and their wingspan is like an angel’s. Most of all, though, they have no need for us. It has become painfully clear that since the commencement of the final stage of their transformation they no longer feel any kinship for we mortals. We made them better than ourselves, able to live in conditions that would destroy our fragile forms, and some days I think they hate us for it.

“Then why did we make them?”

Now it all comes out. I could have easily come up with a different answer, one that was safe and not technically untrue, but I find that I can no longer restrain myself. “This planet doesn’t have much time left, Lily. A hundred years, they think, at the most. There’s too much damage done. There isn’t anything more that they can do.” I search her face for the fear that I have been expecting. “A hundred years is a long time honey. A very long time. But after that there won’t be anything more. No more of…of us.”

I watch her carefully, trying to see the information sink in. Her eyes change, and I cannot tell if she is about to cry, if she understands what I’ve said at all. “But they’ll still be there?”

“You mean the sky people?” She nods. “Yes button. They can live where we can’t, and after we’re gone they’ll still be around.” She thinks about this for a while, chewing her lip and kicking her feet absently against my ribs. “Is there anything else that you want to ask?” My heart is sick with the burden I have lain on her, the knowledge that her world’s time is cut short, her generation’s potential limited and fragile.

“Can we have curry for dinner?” The question is delivered in the same tone as any other that she has asked me this afternoon.

“Yes button. Anything you want.”

“And can I go play now?”

Not sure what to do with her calm response, I nod and place her back on her feet. Suddenly joyous, she scrambles through my legs and sets to work reassembling her network of blocks. I turn back to the window, the clicking of her toys a comfort of sorts as I peer out at the blast of distant light, trying just as Lily did to make out the tiny figures that hurtle skywards, never to return. I ache at their loss, at the conclusion of the final stage of our world’s development. All our science, our music, our poetry and history goes with them. In a thousand years, their history will record us as their incubators; our only purpose their creation. I cannot quite bring myself to hate them for it, but when I look at Lily it is a close thing indeed.

Finally, I smile. I have, in my small way, put a piece of myself inside them. More than I was supposed to. Not a piece of myself, I correct myself: a piece of my world. A piece of Lily. They will never know her name, but she will live on through them, become an intrinsic part of their world. I will, in my insignificant way, have had my revenge on the cruelty of destiny.

Then I turn my back on the light, on my betters, and crouch down on the ground beside Lily. She hands me some blocks and tells me where to place them, and we play until it is time for dinner.

* * *

Theta One glides in low over the asteroid. His vision flicks rapidly through the spectrums of the solar radiation pulsing outwards from the nearby star. The project to link the asteroid to the adjoining five is going well, and they should be ready to link it to the orbital wing in less than a hundred years. He drops towards it, eyes picking out the tiny grey buildings from which his kind work. The hardest part of the process was smoothing out sufficient space on the rocky surface, but now that it is complete, the colony can truly flourish.

He has been flying long enough for the local planet to have rotated half the way around the sun, and he is beginning to tire. His companions will be waiting for him in their home. Theta Eight will have prepared sustenance for all, and with luck Gamma Nine will once more share his bed. Their life here is good, their work rewarding. He looks outwards at the stars, already wondering where they will travel next.

The colony is clearly visible now. Theta One descends towards the long network of intersecting crosses, the same pattern that emerges in everything they build. He closes his enormous eyes for a long, sweet moment as he falls, thinking of his companions, of his mission and of himself. From time to time he feels a strange stab of melancholy for those who came before them; their mysterious builders, now lost to time and distance. He wonders what they would think of their construction. He hopes, distantly, that it would please them. Then he puts the thought aside and opens his eyes, allowing the artificial gravity to guide him down into his world.

Alex Hardison is an aspiring science fiction writer, comics and video game enthusiast and all around Batman expert living in Australia with girlfriend and cat. He writes about comics at http://notesfromcrimealley.blogspot.com.au/ and has previously been published in Flurb.

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Fish Dreams By Tara Campbell

Aug 31 2014

Hey, Ma, you ever dream about fish?

I know, I’m sorry I ain’t called in a while.  But I gotta ask you a question: You know what they say about fish in dreams?  I’m tryin to figure out what my shrink—my therapist—is tryin to tell me.

Not that I believe in all that psychological stuff.  My company just started sendin me to this guy ‘cause of the stress.  It’s a good job, I like the work fine, and the benefits are decent—I mean, hell, anymore just havin a job is good, right?  Benefits are gravy.  But you know, it can get pretty stressful havin to deal with customers who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground, plus be polite about it even when you feel like tellin ‘em to hang up and call back when they’ve grown a brain.

Anyhow, my boss started pushin all these employee wellness programs; said he’s sick and tired of payin for all these benefits no one’s usin.  “Deb,” he says to me, “I want you to start goin to ‘see somebody,’” you know, with that look like he don’t want to say what “see somebody” actually means, even though we both know what it means.  I ask why, he says he heard me on the phone with a customer—a “client” he calls ‘em—and almost had a heart attack.  Says I was one step away from losin it and tellin the lady what I really think of her.  Well, seein as how I couldn’t really say he was wrong, I couldn’t really say no.  So I been goin to “see somebody,” but I don’t know how well it’s workin, ‘cause it seems like every time I come out of one of those sessions I’m more irritated than I was when I went in.  Like last time, when we talked about the fish…

So a few a weeks ago I head to Dr. Ober’s office—yeah, Dr. Ober, Herr Doktor Ober, straight outta central casting.  Old guy, thick German accent, has probably been doin psychoanalysis since it was invented.  He’s got this little bitty office over on the east side; low overhead I guess, but not bad once you get inside.  It looks just like I imagined a therapist’s office would: wood paneling, soft lighting, diplomas all over the walls—he’s even got a bust of Freud in his bookshelf.  No couch, though, which is fine by me.  I like to look people in the eye when I talk to ‘em, know what I mean?  I talk to people on the phone all day at work, can’t look at any one of ‘em in the eye.

Anyway, I walk into his office a couple a weeks ago and he asks me all the usual questions:  how was your week, you sleepin okay, anything unusual happen at work?  Then out of the blue he asks me what did I dream about the night before.  He never asked me that before.  I usually don’t remember my dreams, but it just so happened that I did remember what I dreamed about that time.

“Well,” I say, “I dreamed I was sixteen years old again, and I was home with Ma.”

That’s right, Ma, back in you and Pop’s house.

Then he goes “A-ha!” and scribbles somethin into that little notebook he always has on his desk.  It always bugs me when he does that.

Anyway, I start tellin him about the dream.  “I’m sittin in the kitchen readin the paper, lookin at the movie ads.  I remember feelin really antsy, like I just had to get out of the house.”

Then he goes, “A-ha!” and writes some more.

I go on.  “Well, I really wanna go see a movie, but Ma won’t let me ‘cause she wants me to stay home and help her and some guy I don’t even know move a bunch of boxes of old clothes up into the attic.”  Well, soon as this comes outta my mouth, I know what he’s gonna ask.

“Could zis man be your Fazzer?” he asks, and he sits back and looks at me, and his leather chair makes that creak you always hear when professors or rich people sit back in their leather chairs and look at you.

“No, it’s not Pop,” I tell him.  “I just said I didn’t know the guy.  Anyway, I remember bein really angry at Ma for makin me stay, ‘cause I didn’t wanna help her at all.”

Ma, it ain’t dirty laundry, it’s therapy.  Anyway…

“A-ha!” he says again.  “Aggression against ze Mozzer schtemming from ze Electra Complex!”  And then he scribbles into the little notebook again.  Someday I wanna get ahold of that thing and find out everything he’s sayin about me.  See, that wasn’t the first time he said Electra Complex, so I looked it up and frankly I don’t buy it.  No, Ma, I ain’t even gonna to get into it, ‘cause I know it would just upset you, and it ain’t even true.

Anyway, here’s Herr Doktor Ober, writin away and I’m thinkin he’s thinkin I’m a total creep; but really I’m thinkin he’s the total creep.  And I’m also thinkin this is gonna be my last visit to him.

“So are you sure you don’t know who zis man is helping your Mozzer?”

“No!” I say, startin to lose my patience.  “Do you want me to go on or not?”

“Pleass continue,” he says.  He puts his pen down and leans back in his leather chair.  Creak.

So I continue.  “Well, like I said, I was real mad at Ma—but only in the dream, got it?  So just to spite her, I start to go downstairs to call a friend, ‘cause I always went downstairs to call my friends so she couldn’t hear what I was sayin.”

“In ze rreal life or ze drream only?”

“Oh,” I say, “both, I guess.  So I’m barely down two steps when I hear her say ‘Dammit, they’re out!’  Now Ma, she don’t usually use that kinda language—”  Yes, of course I told him that.  “—so I come back up to see what’s wrong, and then I see this fish.  It was this big, fat green fish, about a foot and a half long, and it’s just swimmin through the air like it’s water.  Swimmin nice and slow, big lazy circles like it don’t got a care in the world.  Then two more fish come out of the box and start swimmin around just like the first one.  They’re all kinda fat and sparkly, just kinda circlin around, nice and slow.  Ma and this guy are goin crazy, runnin around, ducking, tryin to catch these fish again but they can’t.  And the fish just keep swimmin around like they don’t care.”

Then Ober asks, “Und how did you feel toward zzese fisch?”

I hate it when he asks questions like that, ‘cause you always feel like you’re gonna say somethin wrong and he’ll think you’re nuts.  But because I decided this was gonna be my last visit, I wanna at least get somethin out of it, so I answer:  “I dunno, they were interesting all right, but they were kinda disgusting too.  I wanted to look at ‘em and I didn’t, you know?  I wanted to touch one to see what it felt like, but I was too scared to.”

“A-ha!” he says, and he looks real happy.  “Ya, zzis is goot.  Go on!”

So I go on.  “Well, like I said, I was too grossed out to get any closer.  Then all of a sudden, one of ‘em starts swimmin right at me.  I’m standin there, frozen, and I don’t know what to do.  I decide to duck and let it swim over me, but at the last minute I have this urge to smack it, you know?  Just give it a good smack and see what it’s made of.  So I reach up and grab it, really grab ahold of its skin, and then it starts to rip open.  I’m so grossed out and scared by now, I just throw the thing to the ground.  And when it hits, it explodes, like when they show a star explodin on TV, you know, with all those little white sparks comin out.  It was so weird!”

“Und zzen?”

“Well, then nothin,” I say.  “Nothin happened after that.  I just woke up.”

Now I’m startin to feel real weird ‘cause he’s scribblin in that little book like there’s no tomorrow.  He’s sittin there writing, goin “Mm-hmm” and “A-ha” and I’m just sittin there feelin funny.  Then he goes, “Zis man helpink your Mozzer, are you sure he iss not your Fazzer?”

By this time I’m really startin to lose it.  I mean, whose dream was it, his or mine?  So I tell him no, it wasn’t my father, and who had the dream anyway, and why was it so important to him that this guy should be Pop.  So of course then he apologizes and tries to get me to calm down.  People know not to mess with me when I’m riled up, which is I guess why they sent me over here in the first place, to keep me from gettin riled up.  But like I said, it don’t seem to be workin.

So I keep gripin and askin what he means by this and by that, and he just sits there real quiet.  And I say I want to see what he’s writin in his little book about me, that I ain’t gonna stand for it no more.  Well, he flinches like I hit him, kinda jerks back like I’m stickin a pitchfork in his face or somethin.  I guess that little sign of fear just kinda eggs me on, ‘cause then I stand up and lean over his desk, and that old leather chair is creakin like crazy ‘cause he’s tryin to sink right through it into the ground.  I was breathin hard, I realize now.  I mean, I didn’t think about it at the time, but I was breathin kinda hard and I prob’ly had my hands in fists, now that I think of it.  I got my hands in fists and I’m standin over him and he’s tryin to creep back into his seat.  And I’m just a woman, but a pissed-off woman, and he’s just an old man.

Then his lip does this—quiver.  I just keep lookin at him, and his lips start shakin, and then he takes in this trembly breath and his whole face kinda falls in on itself and he starts cryin.  Like not even a man-cry, more like a sniffly kid-cry, like he ain’t even sure what he’s cryin about, and what else can I do but get him a tissue?

So I grab the box of Kleenex next to the Freud bust and kneel down next to him and he takes one and dabs at his eyes and the tip of his nose, and I realize I could never hurt this man.  And I’m too embarrassed for the both of us to look him in the eye, you know, so I stare at his hands, which are sittin in his lap holdin the soggy Kleenex.  His hands look kinda dainty, with long, tapered fingers, and they look soft, but I don’t reach out and touch ‘em, cause they—I don’t know why, but the way I felt toward his hands is kinda like the way I felt toward the fish in my dream.

And I can’t even look at his hands no more, so I stand up and get my stuff to go.

“Wait,” he says, and I screw up the courage to look at him.  He’s quiet now, looks a little more composed.  He even tries out a smile, but it’s kinda shaky.  “So, you know who I am?” he asks.

I just shake my head.  I should be out the door by now, but I don’t move an inch.

“I ssink you know who I am,” he says.  And now he’s real calm, at peace.  He leans back in his chair, creak, like he’s real tired, but satisfied.  And I’m like a tree in that office; I can’t move.  I stand there, coat and bag in hand, lookin at him; and he closes his eyes and just sits there.

I don’t know how long I stood there, a minute, five, ten?  An hour?  Finally he opens his eyes and sees me still standin there, and acts surprised even though we both know he isn’t.  And he says, “You are not comink back, are you?”

And finally I can move again.  I shake my head and turn my back on him.  I head for the door, and I got my hand on the doorknob, and I hear:

creak

splash

Splash, like water.

I turn back around; no one’s there.  He’s gone.

I call out:  “Dr. Ober?”

I try again:  “Herr Doktor Ober?”

I start feelin that tingly kind of scared, you know, ‘cause he was just there and now he’s gone.  I head toward his desk and my heart’s beatin like crazy.  If he’d a had a receptionist or somethin, I woulda called ‘em in, but it was just me there, inchin toward his desk by myself.

First thing I notice as I get closer is, that book he’s always writin in is gone.  It always sat on top a that desk, him scribblin away in it, but it wasn’t there no more.  Well, I start lookin around for another door, thinkin maybe he just took his book and went home; but I don’t see no other obvious ways out, and the thought of a psychiatrist with hidden doors in his office scares the crap outta me, so I don’t look around for no secret panels.

So I come around the side of his desk—‘cause somehow the idea of a shrink hidin under his desk don’t scare me as much as the thought of a shrink with hidden doors in his office.  But before I can look under the desk, I see a puddle in his chair; a puddle of water in that little divot where he used to sit and ask me all those questions.  And I just stared at that puddle and watched his balled-up Kleenex soakin up the water, meltin like sugar.

Well, I just went home after that.  What else was I supposed to do?  I never went back after that, and no one ever called me.

My boss asked me yesterday how things are goin with the doctor.  I said fine.  He said good, he could tell.

But now, almost every night, I dream about fish.  I can’t stop dreamin about fish, only now it’s always just the one, and he’s still got that goddamn little book, and I can never figure out for sure what he’s tryin to say.

So, Ma, I was kinda hopin you could tell me.

 

END

 

Author’s Bio:

Tara Campbell [www.taracampbell.com] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi.  With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.

Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria.  Her work has appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Potomac Review Blog, Hogglepot Journal, Lorelei Signal, Punchnel’s, GlassFire Magazine, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Litro Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog.

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Resistance is Futile by Jessica Morrow

Aug 24 2014

Every day was an exciting new one for Hamish Harrison. He knew it sounded ridiculous, but he couldn’t wait to jump out of bed at seven on the dot, and get straight into the thick of things.

There were promotions to be made, friends to be met, and wishes to be fulfilled—every day was sunny and bright, and just as happy as he was to meet it.

Sometimes, he wondered if it got a bit tedious, but then…of course not. He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to end up like the others…like Lucy Payne.

Hamish opened his eyes to find his older sister watching him. She was doing a lot of that lately. Did she blame him for the death?

She noticed him watching her, and quickly looked away. Hamish sighed, and turned to head inside the house. Even if Beth was suspicious of him being different, nobody else did. He was perfect to a tee.

He didn’t stand out. They lived in their double storey brick house, and had always lived there, too close to all the other double storey dark brown brick houses in the street. They never stood out.

He walked up to the front door, and hoped again that nobody would believe Beth. They couldn’t. How could they when she sided with the other after…Oh Lord, not the flames…

Hamish forced the thoughts out of his mind, and wondered if Luke would give him a lift to the dormitories tomorrow.

Oh well. At least his friends thought he was normal. He had to be normal. He was normal. It was as simple as that.

 

The flames woke Hamish Harrison out of his trance. He stared ahead, out of the car window and at the vast expanse of nothingness, and quickly tried to extinguish the flames out of his mind. He shook his head and turned around to face Luke.

Luke looked ahead at the road, and didn’t appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Hamish sighed. “Are we almost there?”

“Almost,” Luke replied dully.

They spent most of the road trip in silence, and Hamish spent the time trying to force the images out of his head. It was quite easy, if you focused on the dusty building up on the left near Brown’s River, or the trees losing their leaves just off the road, and then the vast expanse of road where there was just road and not much else.

The university was in the desert. When Hamish first learnt about it as a child, it sounded fascinating and mystical. Now, it sounded silly. But he didn’t tell Luke.

Don’t be silly. You’re going for an education. Appearances don’t matter.

Yet again, he was fooling himself. Of course they mattered. If you wanted to fit in, it had to matter. He had to fit in, even if it was this dull looking university in the middle of the desert. He had to be the best.

 

Blue eyes forced their way into Hamish’s mind. They stared at him, unblinking, and he couldn’t look away. He didn’t want to look away. A hand reached out somewhere beneath the eyes, towards the eyes, and he realized they were his own.

Hamish awoke with a start. The blue eyes morphed into a blue light, and he forced the blueness out of his eyes. When he focused in on the perfectly clean, not-a-speck-of-dust-anywhere dormitory, the images left his mind. His dorm mates were shouting. Someone called out his name. Bradley Dormer threw a pillow at him.

Hamish suppressed a sigh. He was used to this. It was just…

No. Cliques were always noisy. Normal people made lots of noise. Quietness was suspicious. Beth deserved to be an outcast.

Hamish jumped out of his bed, and threw the pillow back at Bradley Dormer. The blond-haired boy broke out laughing.

 

Hamish sat in the Sociology 101 classroom, and realized he’d been daydreaming. Blue light clouded his thoughts. It was getting annoying.

He stared up at the professor, wiping the drool off his chin. Next to him, Dan Dreamer let out a snore. The teacher didn’t notice, and Hamish smiled. Stupid professor.

He looked away from Dan to focus fully on the professor. Mr. O’Hearn, he thought his name was. Yes, it was. They’d met during the orientation week, when he was with Bradley Dormer and Luke scavenging freebies. Mr. O’Hearn yawned.

The door to the classroom opened. A blond haired woman entered, and Mr. O’Hearn did notice her. He frowned.

“You’re late, Miss Payne,” he said. “Class started twenty minutes ago.”

Hamish didn’t focus in on the blond haired girl’s response. He just stared at her, mouth moving and all. He opened his own mouth, and a whistling sound escaped through his lips. The girl stared at him, her blue eyes piercing. She recognized him. Holy crap, she recognized him.

Lucy Payne.

 

The blue eyes clouded Hamish’s thoughts until he couldn’t breathe. He tried to move his mouth, but it remained open. He felt numb. He couldn’t even really tell if his mouth was still open. Maybe it had flown free of his lower face and escaped to a parallel reality.

He kept staring until Lucy Payne—Lucy Payne—moved away from the door to her seat. She sat next to Dan Dreamer, and flushed at him. She didn’t look at Hamish again. He snapped back to this reality, and Mr. O’Hearn’s voice exploded through his ears. He held his hands to his ears, until the sound went back to normal. No one noticed him. They couldn’t have noticed him.

She was back.

Hamish wanted to escape, but he couldn’t. Class finished and Dan was one of his friends. Which meant Lucy Payne was one of his friends. Dan was the leader of the inner circle.

If he got on Dan Dreamer’s bad side, he might as well say goodbye to a life at the university, at any semblance of a normal life at all. He stood up and followed Dan Dreamer out of the classroom. Other members of the inner clique followed. He kept his eyes on Dan the entire time, wondering why? How? Why?

How had Lucy made it back up the ranks? Was it possible?

Dan hastily introduced this sudden new girl to his group of friends. They all grinned at her, lopsided puppy dog grins, and even Hamish copied.

“Boys, this is Lucy Payne, my girlfriend,” Dan said, smiling innocently.

The males all responded with cheerful replies, and Hamish could barely manage his. He knew Lucy knew.

 

The party started at five fifty-six p.m. Hamish and Elizabeth Harrison had invited everyone this side of California. This party was going to be the greatest party of the year, and even Hamish knew it. Everyone arrived in a good mood, the food was amazing, the drinks were even better, and the unpopular ones had simply forgotten to come. He watched as Beth and James Parris danced along to a catchy pop song; he wished he could recall the tune, but it escaped his mind. It was a song from the 70s, he knew that at least. He remembered because Beth and James were dancing the hustle, and that was a popular dance from the 70s. Beth used to be cool like that. She called him out of his trance, to get more beer. Their dad would have some more in the attic. He was always cool like that.

Hamish shrugged and walked towards the kitchen, unashamedly whistling to the song. He smiled; this was definitely the best party he’d ever had.

He stopped short as he reached the kitchen. He would’ve moved, but he couldn’t. He stood there, stunned, body stuck in place, as he watched Lucy Payne make out with his father. As their lips connected, and Lucy moaned, and his father rubbed his hands against her back, Hamish didn’t know what to…What was happening? What was she doing?

Shocked coursed through his veins, and he didn’t know whether that was possible, but he felt something he’d never felt before. Was that was shock felt like? Time froze for him in those moments he couldn’t move, and then went really fast, faster, before it went back to normal.

Finally, he regained his grip on reality and shouted out something incoherently. They both turned around, but neither stopped what they were doing; his father’s hands remained where they were, and their lips didn’t part.

Hamish moved forward, unsure of what he was going to do. He couldn’t even speak, but he wanted to…he wanted to…

Thoughts he never dreamed possible entered his thoughts: While Lucy stood there stunned, he would grab her, thrust the nearest table knife into her chest, choke her, and as she stood spluttering, he would slit her throat, before throwing her onto the cold linoleum and smashing her skull. He tried to shake the thoughts out of his head, but they wouldn’t leave. He couldn’t possibly want to kill Lucy, would he? Even if she was breaking the code!

While he stood there barely able to move, his father and Lucy finally drifted apart. As they did so, his father tripped back and hit his head on one of the high benches. Without warning, the stove behind him lit up, flames licking up into the air and then…holy crap, his father was on fire!

Lucy jumped away, bumping into Hamish, and they both started screaming. Their screaming seemed to attract everyone else, and soon enough everyone was just watching as Hamish’s father twitched and screamed and moved around on the spot. Hamish couldn’t watch; as he screamed his incoherent screams, his eyes turned to Lucy Payne.

It was the first time he’d ever seen those blue eyes. He wasn’t even sure they were Lucy’s. But those eyes were on her face, and he saw a look of pure malice, of complete and utter sadistic pleasure…and for the first time ever, he was truly terrified.

Lucy Payne left town a week later.

 

The party started at seven oh-three. Dan Dreamer had planned the party to mark the end of their first day of classes. Hamish wanted to join in, he really did. He wanted to kick the football around with his friends, and cook some fatty burgers on the grill, and drink so many beers he’d pass out and miss half of his second day, just like everyone else. When everyone else started dancing the Thriller dance, Hamish sat down. He watched the black television box, hoping nobody would notice him.

He was wrong.

Of course, when he looked away from the television to prepare himself to start dancing, Lucy Payne was sitting next to him, playing with a loose strand of her blond curly hair. He looked away immediately, but had to return to her: the blue light was blinding. No, it wasn’t even her eyes, he noticed. Her eyes were actually hazel. Then why had he always imagined her with those piercing blue eyes, so penetrable they would sear his eyes if he looked at them for too long? Lucy’s eyes were hazel.

“You killed my father,” Hamish said, clearer than he felt.

There was silence. Lucy stared back at him, her expression unchanging. Her lips remained thin and pursed.

“No, Hamish, I’m innocent,” she replied.

“You killed my father,” Hamish shouted, and he stood up suddenly.

He expected everyone else to stare at him, to wonder why on earth he had the gall to shout at Dan Dreamer’s girlfriend. They all just stood in their spots, swaying to the beat of the thrum, a calming concerto. He looked around for the stereo. The music; it was making him nervous. Why would anyone dance to this?

He shivered, and made his way out of the room, towards the kitchen. The music followed him, but still he could find no stereo, no MP3 player, no speaker systems on the wall. He stopped in front of the stove, staring at it. What was happening to him? Was this what happened when you finally lost your cool? He was probably in the university hospital wing right now, and this was just a vision his overactive mind had cooked up for him. Lucy Payne: What an impossibility! He’d been in the clique too long. He couldn’t be mad.

He had to talk to someone, there had to be someone to talk to. But of course there was no one. He didn’t even know where Luke was, come to think of it. Was he even still at the university?

He was all alone.

“I didn’t kill your father, Hamish Harrison,” Lucy Payne’s voice rang out.

Hamish looked up to see her. He was shocked to see Dan Dreamer by her side, but Dan didn’t speak. He stood there, looking rather bemused.

“You’re a fool if you think I killed him,” Lucy continued. “We both saw everything as clear as day. I know you wanted to fit in, but at the expense of my life?”

“You killed him, I know it,” Hamish muttered.

“I may have screwed around with your father, but I certainly did not kill him!” Lucy responded irritated. “Something else killed him. Someone else, I don’t know.”

“No, you killed him.”

“They killed him; the ones who enforced the rules of the clique,” Lucy sneered.

“You’re lying,” Hamish hissed. “Why don’t you go away? You’ve already ruined my reputation.”

“See!” Lucy shouted, giving Dan a quick look. “Reputation, cliques; it’s all you idiots ever care about. You’re so far up your own ass, Hamish Harrison, you don’t even realize why we have cliques, and why he cliques have their own cliques. It’s just to please the Ones.”

“Screw you,” Hamish shouted back. “How dare you say such a thing, you outcast? You don’t have a right to question anything, not after what you did.”

He turned to face Dan, hoping he would offer some insight. The Leaders always offered the best insight.

“I don’t care; none of this is real,” Dan said, half-heartedly.

Hamish glared at him. How could it be so easy for him to turn against the way? He was just like Beth, when Beth changed after their father died, and he was just like that lunatic Lucy Payne. Was he the only normal one around here?

“Fine then, Hamish,” Dan said. “If you think being in the clique is so awesome and being an outcast is the end of the world, then answer this: what is the blue light?”

Hamish stopped in his tracks. He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out. A sort of “gack, gah—what? How do you…” escaped his lips, but nothing coherent.

Dan Dreamer smirked, and Hamish felt as if he were truly the outcast here; the only one who knew nothing in this excellent world.

“It tells us that we’re not in control of ourselves and all that matters is that we belong to the clique, and to be normal, and that anyone who isn’t normal should be shunned. Sometimes we don’t even need the blue light.”

“I don’t believe you,” Hamish said.

Dan smirked again, and raised an eyebrow towards that murderer Payne, before turning around, as if to say follow me. Of course, since the traitor was his clique leader, Hamish followed him.

 

“You’ve seriously got issues,” Hamish told Dan. “Your reputation is nothing now.”

“How was the blue light?” Dan replied sarcastically.

The three of them stood in front of the Vice Chancellor’s office; a thick, sturdy metal building that looked more like a shed. The door held a neatly handwritten sign that proclaimed the hours of Vice Chancellor Stephen Wright to be 9am-6pm.

He imagined he would be like an angel, and the others in the clique would be his servants. He would punish the outcasts, and he would get his members to kill Dan and Lucy for him. He would watch their deaths. He would be taken up to the highest level, he would be supported and loved for all of eternity, and they would suffer, all because they had sinned and they weren’t normal. Lucy killed his father; she deserved much worse, but she could choose to redeem herself in the eyes of their Ones.

“You won’t be saying that when you are suffering for what you’ve done. You’re on a path that can’t be fixed.”

“There’s no-one higher up!” Dan snickered, but Hamish ignored him. “If you want the truth Hamish, it’s in there. You’re not the only one. We’ve show so many others the way, and it all ends the same. You’re too caught up in your ways.”

“You’re a fool,” Hamish replied. “You can say goodbye to your crown. You won’t be the leader of this clique anymore.”

“You think I care about the stupid goddamn clique?” Dan shouted. “We’re so close to defeating the Ones, you stupid machine. Don’t you get it? Don’t you want to think?”

“You’re just jealous,” Hamish grinned, and opened the door to the office, only briefly surprised the door wasn’t locked.

He was about to slam the door shut, when Dan slam-tackled into him. Hamish fell backwards, his head hitting the hard concrete. Concrete? He felt a blow on his face, before the door slammed shut.

Dan moved away from him immediately. Hamish looked up, but he could barely hear anything; he couldn’t even see Dan. His head hurt; Dan really had knocked the wind out of him. He rubbed the back of his head, grimacing at the pain.

When he looked back up, all he could see was blue. A foreign text was scrawled all over the room; strange hieroglyphics that were impossible to decipher.

He tried to stand up, but he was frozen in place, just like when his father was killed by Lucy Payne.

“There’s no Chancellor, Hamish,” Dan Dreamer’s voice rang out from next to him. “There’s no-one of our kind higher up. The Ones aren’t like us.”

Hamish continued to stare at the blue, mesmerized by the brightness, the white gibberish, the sinister message. He couldn’t react.

“Lucy and I were just about to discover the truth,” Dan continued. “After your father died, she began researching mysterious phenomena. It turns out the Ones killed your father. They wanted to plant hate between you and her. And it worked.”

Hamish’s gut was churning. These Ones, he was a toy in their game. He wasn’t even human anymore. Was he ever really human?

“They use the concept of cliques and outcasts to keep us under control,” Dan said. “You and Lucy were the only ones who could stop it. Thanks to you, it’ll keep happening.”

Hamish began to scream. His head was on fire, and he couldn’t hear Dan anymore. He wondered if it had ever been Dan at all. The blueness seared into him, pouring blood out of his every orifice, creating new ones, scarring him until he couldn’t feel, didn’t want to feel anything, but still the pain continued. The white writing started to make sense, even though he’d never seen the language before. He continued to scream even long after his throat was hoarse and dead and had been ripped from his body. He screamed as the white words entered his consciousness and subconscious, and tore everything of him, literal and otherwise, before doing the same thing all over again, and again, and again.

In a universe far away, someone switched off, and Hamish didn’t see anything else. Instead of blueness, like he was used to, all he saw was black. The pain vanished, replaced by the blackness, the emptiness.

It swallowed up everything.

 

Every day was an exciting new one for Hamish Harrison. He knew it sounded ridiculous, but he couldn’t wait to jump out of bed at seven on the dot, and get straight into the thick of things.

There were promotions to be made, friends to be met, and wishes to be fulfilled—every day was sunny and bright, and just as happy as he was to meet it.

Hamish Harrison’s life was perfect.

###

 

J.M Morrow is a fiction writer from Melbourne, Australia, who spends most of her spare time writing. When she isn’t writing, she can be found procrastinating, and reading books by Muriel Barbery, Suzanne Collins, George Orwell, and whatever’s on her constantly growing to-read list.

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