The Means Whereby I Live By Liam O’Neill

May 24 2015

Of the recent recession I will not propose anything new, nor already written down. Only this: all the good jobs have been taken.

However, this has never stopped my wife, Buddleia, from forcing me to go on her lousy trips. Once a month she insists we pack and take a shuttle somewhere ‘new’. Presently, we were home from one such a trip. It took Buddleia no longer than a day to commence her infernal nagging. She came to me in my solar just as I sat down to sculpt. I was going to recreate a piece from the Ross Tobain Fall Collection, you know the one, the one with the pipe.

This is our monthly routine, like re-runs of over watched cartoons. Hand on hips, she whines about money, demands I go acquire her more credits. “For the family,” she insisted. “Our children will think their father is a bum.”

To be sure, it is alright that she is a stay-at-home. Gods forbid if I am.

Part of me believes she just likes to drag me to random planets at the ass-end of the galaxy. To gloat at all those poor sods trapped on their barren rocks. Show them how well-to-do we are.

“I’m a sculptor, damn it,” I told her. “I need time to create.” She was having none of it. ‘The arts don’t pay,’ after all.

“You’re wasting your life,” she said. “I would like to plan a trip to New Saturn next month.”

“We just came home from a trip.”

“We need another,” she said. “The Ebonwoods have been on two since we left. Do you want to fall behind?”

I sighed. “No.” I shoved my severed lion’s paw back into its drawer. The statue can wait, I guess. As I walked passed her she gave a triumphant smile. I tried not to let it bother me as I left for the clinic.

It’s not the idea of working I don’t like, it’s that damned clinic. Our People’s Clinic, it’s called. For those of you unfamiliar with the OPC it’s an educational examination facility. That’s their prissy way of saying they do legal trial runs of new age drugs and science equipment. My problem, however, is not that I am an amateur guinea pig. My problem is that I can never find the damn building before it closes.

Listen:

About a year ago the OPC allowed the testing of a new teleportation module created by Oba Corp. Ideally the contraption would encompass a single being within a two meter sphere and send them to any desired location within a one kilometer radius. Consequently what happened was the machine created a one kilometer sphere, which was enough to cover the whole facility and a local pizza parlour, lastly, the sphere teleports randomly every five and a half minutes. Luckily, it does so in a two kilometer radius around its original location. At least it’s narrowed down.

As you can imagine, this caused chaos for morning traffic. Hundreds of employees constantly flying in circles through the city trying to find the bloody thing. It’s a nightmare. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the OPC has a zero tolerance policy for being late. What was worse still was six months ago when the OPC began testing a new combat stimulant for the military, which the media dubbed ‘Berzerkoid’, fifty testies, as we like to call ourselves, broke loose while on Berzerkoid just as the sphere materialized in front of Dave’s Pet Emporium. Needless to say Dave went out of business that day. Bloody shame too, Dave was such a nice guy.

After three hours of flying and thanks to the social media page #whereistheOPC I found the clinic.

I sat down in my usual corner in the waiting room, on one of those hovering chairs. You know, the kind with no back and sort of teeters to the side when you lean. They are the same kind that did that mass recall about year ago because too many citizens were becoming seasick while sitting on them. Give me one of those antique legged chairs any day. Those are reliable.

The room itself was excessively cool, and everything in it was that awful white only colour scheme. It made me regret not bringing sunglasses. I think institutions such as these use that scheme to either make the room appear sterile and well maintained or to periodically blind patients to ensure repeat business.

Of the dozen or so occupants in the room only three were worth mentioning. The first: a yeti, by the looks of him, who blended too well against the white wall. On first glace I had mistaken him for one of those purple floating head creatures form the Gzestri galaxy. The second of note was a slug-being from the swamps of New Toronto. Its blubbery torso sagged off the sides of its chair. The natural sludge it produces formed a ringed puddle on the floor around it. The third being was Ukjit.

Ukjit and I share little in common save for the OPC. He’s an Ionian. Ionian as in ion, not Attica. Trust me, it matters. Like any third grade teaching slave will tell you, the Ionian’s rose to power in the early 80`s during the Jupiter wars. It was then that they began the art of augmentation. At birth the Ionians graft metals to their gelatinous worm babies in place of their organic parts. Originally this was to produce the galaxy’s most elite warriors. However, that was aeons ago and before their inevitable fall. Today they continue to augment themselves, but only to make their lives more viable.

For example, Ukjit had an iron rebreather in place of his mouth, to better breathe exotic atmospheres, a copper arm above the organic one on his left side to do the majority of tasks. Lastly, like all Ionians, he has no feet. In their place is a hover unit that uses three points of articulation to suspend him little more than a foot off the ground. Needless to say this made all Ionians quite plump. Picture, if you will, a marshmallow the size of a donkey, wrinkled and twice as chalky.

I have never actually spoken to Ukjit, nor any Ionian for that matter, but I have heard they sound like a wheezing dog in heat. I’m not sure what a dog is or why it’s so hot, but one can wonder.

I nodded to Ukjit, he nodded back.

To kill time, I picked up one of the many magazine chips that were massed on the coffee table before me, loaded it into the media slot in my arm. It turned out to be one of those ‘beauty’ magazines. I emphasize beauty because everything in it is far from glamorous. Take this spread on page nine. It’s by our good friends at Oba Corp. It reads: “No longer feeling intimate with your loved one? Sick of being the same old species and/or subspecies? Release your inner beauty. Try milk!” Then there is a picture of a like-potato with a sombrero and a pair of those ancient x-ray glasses. You know, the kind that are nothing like our x-ray glasses, ours work. At the bottom of the page is something about harvesting eternal souls. I dare not read on, I only have a limited time in this universe, after all. Besides, you get the picture.

At this juncture in time an Earthling female entered the room, introduced herself as the nurse. She wore the height of modern fashion; a pink dress with a thick purple brim, around her neck was an eggshell collar so large that the lip rested at her eye level. You know, the kind of collar that makes one’s neck look long and their shoulders thin. Her hair was held back by a small latex cap, a large red plus sign at its center.

I turned to Ukjit, rolled my eyes. He gave me what was either a smile or a scowl. I decided it was a smile.

The nurse cleared her throat, fed us the usual instructions off the data slate she held. She said: “Good day. You will each be prescribed an unknown dose of experimental medicinal by-product. Upon completing the testing phase you will learn what you were prescribed. This is to rule out the placebo effect. The testing phase will be completed after three pings are sounded. A single ping means food, two pings means food food.” She paused for a moment and wiped something out. “Sorry, about that. Two pings means something has gone awry and emergency personal have been dispatched. Emergency procedures can be found on page one-thirty-seven of your pamphlets. We thank you for your time and for choosing the OPC as your number one testing facility. Enjoy.”

The nurse bowed, walked to the back room, then wheeled around the Dotchfalo orb. This is what they used to decide which new age drug to prescribe us as well as which doctor.

Listen:

The orb itself was about the size of a mango, the pentahedrons that covered its surface were colour coded. The nurse touched a button on her data slate. A magnifying plate descended from the ceiling, hung in front of the orb. The lights went out and the sphere lit up. The nurse spun it on her palm and it flashed its brilliant colours over our faces.

All the testies cheered.

When the lights stopped flashing at random whoever cheered the loudest for that colour won that colour. You see, the colours corresponded with matching doors in the main hall. Behind said doors waited the doctors. However, this way takes an awful long time. You see, you are able to rebid on colours if you find one that better suits your aura. It also doesn’t help when two beings really want a certain colour. They always scream until one passes out. Thus allowing the one with the larger lung capacity to prevail.

I will keep this part short: No one cheered for blue. I got mauve.

Next we were herded en masse down a narrow hall, separated into offices to see which doctor we won. For the third time in a row I got Von-Spritzer. A curious fellow to be sure. You see, Von-Spritzer was a little Grey. Forgive my derogatory language, I know the A-word is taboo, but his people were aliens. You know, the kind that abducted Earthlings in those adorable flying disks of theirs. Only they did not abduct Earthlings for sport or experiments. As we all know today, they did it for the Earthling’s hair. The Greys cannot grow hair, so they must shave the heads, or bodies, of other species. Some species want enlarged reproductive organs, others want neon spandex, the Greys want a luscious head of hair. Von-Spritzer was very proud of his all natural Earthling hair. He told me once: “It’s passed down from father to son for many generations.”

As always, Von-Spritzer was strictly business. His hair bounced as he handed me a single yellow pill and a glass of chilled milk to wash it down. While I drank the smooth liquid, his immense opal eyes watched my hairy head, a thin pool of saliva flooded at the edges of his slit-like mouth. I decided it was time for a trim.

I swallowed the pill and was forced to hall once more with the other testies. The nurse herded us down it, via cattle prods and the like, until we reached the ‘Observation Lounge’. The room was roughly the size of a standard Earthling garage. Its contents were at the height of modern fashion. The walls were azure laminate, the floor was checkered noire and ivory. At the back, on a straw carpet, was an oval lemon teletube and two couches. Even the guard on the other side of the candy cane barrier rope was fitted with a pink latex suit and an opaque rounded helmet to match his dapper surroundings. He resembled, dare I say, an Earthling member.

Ukjit and I took our usual places on the tartan couch, the one situated directly in front of the teletube. The other testies, the new ones at least, began to mingle amongst themselves. On the second couch sat the slug-being, the one from New Toronto. It watched me very intently. Too intently. My eyes met its eyestalks. I smiled nervously. It farted back a hello.

“Hello,” I stammered. It began to speak in long sentences. You know, the way slugs-beings do, in that half fart half dying feline sound. The Earthling throat cannot pronounce slug-speak properly, but one can learn to understand it. The reverse is same for slugs-beings and Earthish. Try it for yourself. See, you sound foolish.

“I’m well, thank you, yourself?” I replied.

It farted and wheezed in response.

“Well it’s nice to meet you, Eggers. Is this your first time?… Yes, I’ve been there.. Oh you don’t say… You were the one with Ephrum… I see… Oh that, that was the old ball and chain… Haha, yes you did have quite the stellar moves… A what?… Mating ritual?… No, no I’m sorry, I didn’t know that’s what you were… I’m a what?… I am married, good sir… No, I don’t need ‘time’ to think about it… No, I’m not coming onto you… We’re not compatible… Says who? Says science… Your species asexually reproduces, you don’t even have the proper parts… That just makes me more worried… NO! I am not putting that there… A what? I don’t know that word… Oh, that’s just not right Eggers, not right at all… No, no, no don’t start…”

My newfound ‘friend’ began singing its rendition of Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor. It didn’t sound half bad, if truth be told, once you got past the gaseous noises and moldy foot smell. Having two vocal cavities truly works wonders.

Before it finished, however, the yeti stomped towards us. It towered over little Eggers, barked threats to stop singing. The next words exchanged, of which I dare not repeat, were like a sudden stamp of silence that ushered in a new era of malevolence. The whole room watched on, even the penis guard was curious now.

There was brief moment of silence. Eggers wriggled closer to the yeti. Comfortingly it placed an eyestalk on the yeti’s leg. Farted: “Are you coming onto me?”

The yeti howled an inconceivable racial slur, which only made Eggers all the more randy. Immediately two pings sounded over the PA, but they were lost in the chaotic uproar. Everyone in the room, save Ukjit and myself who resumed watching the teletube, tried to pry apart the yeti and little Eggers. The latter had made its way onto the former’s face and began thrusting, continuing its rendition of Bach’s masterpiece.

In the ensuing brouhaha a Floundorian lost its composure, reached for my arm. I immediately grabbed a discarded food tray, and with a thwack, I sent him reeling away, grasping his scaly head. Later, I would learn the poor fellow was concussed. Not that I’m proud or anything.

With a lack of carbon dioxide the yeti fell over, unconscious, and began to snow at the mouth. The scene had reached its climax, as did Eggers. Who then shuffled to the cigarette dispenser and acquired a pack of slims. From there, ittied up the wall and wormed into a corner. Triumphantly it had a smoke, then began to cocoon. Eggers would nest there until the self-impregnated egglings would hatch two months from now.

The fighting raged on for several minute until a squad phallic guards marched in, tasered several testies, then herded them out. Ukjit and I were amongst the few that remained.

We spent the rest of our time watching re-runs of Hanny of Barbaria cartoons and ads selected from Oba Corp. Product placement, after all, is predominant when the majority of your shares are owned by a corporation. Nothing else eventful happened after that ordeal, oh my dears. Well, maybe one. We had a fairly decent mutton for supper that night. There was even enough for seconds.

The OPC stayed on lockdown, as it normally does over the weekend, until the testing phase was finished. After we heard the three pings that signified it was safe to leave the Observation Lounge, we were herded out for our post-test phase. Poor little Eggers remained cocooned in his corner. The penis guard said it was best to leave its nest alone, that they would keep an eye on the cocoon until the egglings hatched and devoured little Eggers’s empty husk.

Von-Spritzer watched my unwashed hair as he filled me in on what happened. He told me Eggers was given a hormone stimulant, and the yeti a derivative of Berzerkoid. He asked me if I suffered any side effects from the trial. I told my chest felt tight. He deduced I may need a higher dosage, asked me to come back next week. I agreed.

What did they give me? Why milk of course. The pill was sugar and the milk, as stated before, was to release one’s inner beauty.

The following Thursday I awoke next to my Buddleia with three five inch long antlers growing out of my chest. I have no idea what that means. When I showed Von-Spritzer he became so excited that he hyperventilated into his hairpiece. He asked me to remain within the OPC for the next four weeks.

It’s been alright, so far. My wife wasn’t as distressed as I thought she’d be about postponing her trip. I think she’s just happy I’m getting steady work.

I am an apprentice electrician by day and a literary student by night. I live in Canada. My facebook page is: www.facebook.com/liamwritesthings.

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Doopli Cat and the Trials of Marriage by Andrew Nellis

May 17 2015

Mallory stared at the floor of the upstairs study where a carton of peach ice cream was melting, the fruity milk soaking into the carpet. Next to that sat a bottle of Beefeater gin and ten feet away stood Bob staring into a corner of the room, wearing his tired bathrobe and holding a fistful of kitchen knives.

“Bob?” Mallory said.

He waved his free hand to quiet her.

“Don’t move,” Bob said, “It wants something.”

Mallory looked around the room. There were three small dents in the corner wall but everything else seemed normal: the desk heaped with construction paper, the floor trashed with cuttings, a half-empty gin glass stashed behind the pencil sharpener. There was the smell of something sharp, bleach maybe? Or peppermint?

“Bob, what the hell are you doing?” Mallory said. “We’re supposed to meet with the financial advisor in 45 minutes.”

“Just go without me,” Bob said. “You shouldn’t be in here anyway; you know I need this space for my art.”

“It’s our meeting, Bob. We both have to be there.”

Mallory walked over to the gin bottle and picked it up. The label was nearly scrapped off so she could only make out the word ‘eater’. Bob’s eyes flickered to her then back to the corner.

“Don’t come in here!”

“Oh, calm down,” Mallory said. “I’m not gonna mess up your vibe or whatever.”

Bob had blocked off the study six months earlier, claiming it was his “new process”. Mallory knew it was just another way of hiding after the DUI. He hadn’t sold any art since getting off probation and every week since then he’d come up with some new fangled solution for his slump. Of course, none of them had to do with sobriety.

All his misguided attempts to bounce back reminded Mallory of the times before all this, back to the day they met: sixteen years ago in Upper Division Painting at the university. It was the first day of class and she watched him that entire hour, hardly getting any work done herself. He was so careful, each stroke planted in just the right spot, like he knew where they belonged as if someone was guiding him. After class she asked him out and two days later they had sex in the back of the paint supply closet and again every night for the following three months.

The baby came in the middle of that year. Bob volunteered to dropout but Mallory refused. You can’t waste your talent, she remembered saying.

Now she watched him glare at the empty corner and wondered if he still knew how to mix paint.

“Seriously, we need to go. I don’t care how much you’ve had to drink, you’re coming. I’m texting the advisor to let him know we’ll be late.” Mallory set the bottle down, wincing as she did; her stomach still ached from her shift at the hospital. The new alzheimer’s patient punched her in the gut as his a way of saying hello. Half a second later he threw another jab but Mallory caught his wrist, gritting her teeth into a smile.

Bob crept towards the corner. Mallory looked up.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“There,” he said. “It’s right there and if I look away I’ll lose it and if I lose it then… well, it won’t be good.” Bob flung a knife at the wall but it hit handle-first and fell to the floor.

“Ugh, Bob.” Mallory rolled her head back and sighed.

“It moved,” Bob whispered. “It’s quick.”

She marched over to Bob, standing straight, looming two inches above his eye level.

“Give me the knives,” she said, her palm out.

Bob’s gaze shifted to her then back to the wall.

“I-no. I can’t. Mal, it’s not safe.”

“Bob, I’m not playing around here. Give them to me or I’m leaving again.”

Bob’s shoulders tightened.

“Mallory, I know what this looks like but I’m telling you, it’s not safe.”

“Fine, then you can explain to your daughter why I’m not here in the morning because I am not dealing with this nonsense tonight.”

A familiar thumping came from the stairs behind them. Rebecca appeared, wearing a tattered black t-shirt that revealed half of her left bra cup. She wreaked of pot and cheap body spray. At least she quit wearing those pants with chains on them, Mallory thought.

Rebecca had been transitioning through the various dress codes of teen angst: hiding in long sweaters, then wearing pajamas 24 hours a day, then black everything, and now something between punk rock girl and stripper… renegade groupie?

“What the shit’s going on up in here? Dad, what are you doing?” Rebecca said.

“Watch your language, Becky,” Bob said, still facing the corner. “Honey, you’re mother and I need to talk. Why don’t you go out for the night, see a movie or something?”

“A movie? What is this the 50’s?” Rebecca said, looking around the study, frowning when she saw the gin bottle. “What’re you two talking about? Is dad drunk again?”

“Yeah,” Mallory said, walking back to the doorway and leaning against a bookshelf.

“No, I am not,” Bob said. “We just need to talk.”

“Becky.” Mallory sighed. “Your father’s right, this might be a while. Is there anyone who can pick you up?”

Rebecca rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, I guess Chad could.”

“Chad?” Bob said. “That kids a jerk. I don’t like you seeing him.”

“Why,” Rebecca said, “cause he can still drive?”

“Young lady!” Bob yelled, still without turning.

“Oh, Jesus. Becky, here’s sixty dollars. Just give us some time please.”

Rebecca took the money, thumped down the stairs and out the front door, letting it slam behind her. The sound gave Mallory a measure of comfort. She wrinkled her forehead, wondering why she couldn’t have found a nice quiet boy to settle down with, like an accountant or, hell, even a garbage man; his wife wouldn’t have to deal with this sort of crap. She turned back to the study.

“Get away!” Bob yelled at the corner and hurled another knife which dented the drywall and fell.

“Stop, Bob! You’re gonna fuck up the house. What the hell are you on?”

“I’m not on anything. Stop insinuating… whatever. I was working,” Bob said, “on something new: a children’s book.” He edged towards the desk, snatched up a stack of papers and held them out for Mallory. She took the stack and looked down at what appeared to be a drawing of a cat…thing.

“His name is Doopli Cat,” Bob said, gin fumes coating his words. “He’s the messenger of imagination. I mean, I think that’s who he is. Or maybe he’s the messenger of inspiration?” Bob’s fist tightened around the remaining knives. “I just—I can’t figure him out. I mean, I know what he looks like, I’ve known that for years… since I was a kid, but… His story just isn’t coming. Nothing I’ve made feels right, it’s just too big or something. I had to clear my head so I got the gin, and then…”

Mallory looked at the drawing. Doopli Cat looked more like a furry person than anything: standing on two legs, wearing a red cape, and smiling with big square teeth.

“God damnit, Bob. I mean, I get that you’re working on something, which is great but…” Mallory shook her head and dropped her hands. “What the hell does this cat have to do with throwing knives at the wall?”

Bob crept back to the corner, accidently stepping in the growing puddle of melted ice cream but ignored it, letting his sock soak up the peachy milk.

“I just know how big this could be, you know?” Bob said. “Finally, a break. Can you imagine? A whole series of Doopli Cat books? But then this,” Bob sneered, pointing his chin at the corner.

Mallory stared with him, narrowing her eyes, searching for any explanation, a bug maybe? Or dirt? Anything other than more stalling and nonsense. And why couldn’t there be a reasonable explanation for all this? Don’t I deserve that? Just a little speck of hope?

“There’s nothing there, Bob. Your daughter already can’t stand us and now she sees you like this; all strung out on whatever, yelling at nothing. Look, I don’t know what you’ve taken this time but it’s not okay.”

“I-” Bob sighed through his nose. “I did drink, yes, but I didn’t take anything else. Listen-”

“No, Bob. Drinking? In the middle of the day? Haven’t you learned anything in the past two years? All those classes we had to pay for, I had to pay for, the hospital bills, the attorney fees, the court fees?”

“Just listen-”

“No.”

“Rah!” Bob erupted, shouting at the corner. “Leave me alone!”

“Whatever.” Mallory turned and walked down the stairs and out the front door.

Outside the air was bitter, instantly freezing Mallory’s nostrils. She walked to the end of the driveway and got in her pickup truck, sealing herself inside while it warmed up.

She thought of all the other nights spent like this, leaving her home in the dark, fried from work but driving anywhere that allowed smoking indoors. She’d spend the night there, burning through one cigarette after another.

The third or fourth time she’d found a downtown hotel that was nicer than the other places, clean at least, and run by some Chinese businessmen who smoked everywhere. It was expensive but ever since the first night she’d been putting money away, a little each month into her own bank account. She’d even bought a small water-color set. She would smoke and paint in her room, making little landscapes in runny blues and reds. She smiled and thought of the warm bed, the hotel shower, the fresh towels.

The morning after she would come home in need of fresh clothes and her blood pressure medication. Bob would be there, curled up on the floor. Last time she found him asleep with one of her shirts clung to his chest. She couldn’t fight much more after that.

Mallory lit a cigarette and sat in the warming truck, looking into the window of the upstairs study. She could see Bob’s shadow cast against the corner. How long are we going to keep this up, she thought, pulling out her phone to call the hotel.

She dialed the number and was about to hit send when a noise came from the house that made her stop.

Breaking glass?

She looked up as something smashed into the windshield.

Mallory jumped, nearly dropping her phone. The truck’s glass spiderwebbed from the impact.

She flung open her door and looked at the damage: pieces of gin bottle were scattered across the windshield but the label was still intact, reading ‘eater’. The study window was broken, the curtains sucked through the opening and waving in the wind.

Mallory slammed the door and marched inside. Bob was still facing the corner, unmoved, his foot still soaking in the ice cream puddle. His body was shaking and the smell of bleachy peppermint was strong.

Mallory looked at the corner.

There, just above eye level, appeared to be the shapes of two white eyes, a triangle nose, and a furry feline smile. It was the same color and texture of the wall. A… Cat? She thought. So this is it huh? This is his move, some shitty statue.

“Bob,” Mallory said.

Bob turned, his jaw slack, his eyes full of white panic.

“Mal, leave. It’s not safe,” Bob said, his voice was a broken whisper. She’d never seen him so scared, not even when he crashed the car two years ago and turned in his seat to see Becky’s unconscious body in the back seat, both her arms broken.

His fear was real and it clawed at Mallory’s guts, trying to pry its way in but she ignored it and walked closer. I’m just overtired, she thought. This is stupid.

The face stared at them. Then it moved: its eyes scanning left, then right, then settling on Mallory. Slowly, its mouth curled into a smile; a smile with large square teeth. The eyes blinked.

Terror bit deep, sinking into Mallory’s stomach. She felt its eyes on her, wanting.

“H-He’s come,” Bob whispered. He tried to throw a knife but it slipped from his hand and fell a foot in front of him.

A cracking sound burst through the room, like glaciers breaking apart. Mallory looked up to see the ceiling rolling like ocean waves, as if the plaster and paint had turned into liquid. It moved down through the walls until the entire room was a pale roiling sea.

Mallory’s brain screamed for answers but there were none. Fear pulsated through her, threatening to take over. Bob hunched down, his body shaking so hard that his teeth chattered.

She was alone again, like always. Ever since she could remember life had dropped her into the dark places to fight barehanded: the girls locker room, behind the bar that late October night, the hospital emergency room on her first day. All those years spent pretending not to be scared, keeping what focus she could, learning to hold on no matter what. Mallory gritted her teeth. Hold on, she thought.

The cracking noise faded as the waves began to settle and shapes formed in their place: hundreds of matte white eyes, triangle noses, and thick smiling mouths. Every surface of the room was covered in grinning opaque faces.

Their mouths opened and together they howled.

The noise shook the room but Mallory held fast, her jaw clenched.

Papers shot through the air, books curled backwards over their spines, pens erupted into inky tendrils. Bob, broken, screamed into the floor but no noise could penetrate the howling. It grew until Mallory’s lung vibrated so badly she couldn’t breathe. She fell to her knees and tried to inhale, her eye shut. Hold on, HOLD ON, she thought.

Then it stopped.

A soft breeze moved past them, carrying the scent of peppermint and bleach. She looked up and before her stood Doopli Cat.

He towered; his head nearly touching the ceiling. His body was a singular white tint, the same as the walls, and in his hands he held out a flat, blue rectangle, offering it to Mallory. She stared at it and, reaching out with shaking hands, took the rectangle. Doopli Cat smiled and knelt down in front of her; the smell of bleach and peppermint pouring from his smiling mouth.

Bob whined but stopped when Doopli Cat turned and frowned. Bob vomited gin onto the floor. The Cat turned back to Mallory and smiled. He lowered his head and spoke but no words left his throat. He made no noises but his lips moved, mouthing unheard things. Mallory watched his thick tongue snap out silent letters as puffs of eye-stinging chemical breath hit her face. Doopli Cat lifted his massive hand and pressed one long furry finger against Mallory’s forehead. It was soft and a warmness flowed through Mallory; she felt calm. The warmth reminded her of playing on her grandparent’s tire swing in the July heat.

Her jaw relaxed and she smiled. Doopli Cat stood and backed away. He stretched his arms wide and his body began to hiss. His skin evaporated into puffs of putrid steam that filled the room. The sting of bleach and peppermint threatened to burn exposed skin, forcing Bob to curl away, clamping his eyes and mouth shut but Mallory sat peacefully, still smiling. A second later it was gone.

Mallory stood and looked around the room. The books were destroyed, the desk looked somehow age worn, and the ice cream still sat on the floor. Bob stood, staring down at the blue rectangle in Mallory’s hands.

She realized for the first time that it was a book and on the cover was a picture of Doopli Cat drawn in wispy ink. The title read: Doopli Cat and the New Friend. Written by Mallory Kline.

She opened it and on the first page was a picture of the study, this study, the one in her house. It was clean and someone was sitting at the desk, a woman.

She turned the page and the woman was smiling, staring down at the desk and behind her stood Doopli Cat, looking over her shoulder, admiring her work. Mallory could still feel the cat’s finger pressed against her forehead, his warmth still running through her.

The third page was blank but something inside Mallory yearned for it, longing to touch it, to fill it. She could hear the empty paper crying out—it needed her.

Mallory walked to the desk, grabbed a pencil and started to draw. Bob crept towards her, trying to look over her shoulder.

“You’re going to be late,” She said without turning.

“I-”

“The financial advisor. You’ll have to go without me.”

Bob cleared his throat.

“Uh, sure. Yeah,” he said and slunk out of the room. A moment later the front door slammed as he left.

Mallory smiled and reached past the pencil sharpener where the gin glass was still hidden, half-full of melted ice and liquor. She lifted it and drank.

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The Aker Device By Stephen Reynolds

May 10 2015

Richard collapses to the floor, his knees slamming hard onto the wood panels. The unwieldy device in his arms hovers a mere inch from collision as Richard’s stubby fingers tremble from the weight of the thing, turning white in the process. He ignores the radiating blasts of pain firing off in his lower limbs and delicately places the machine down. The two-story trek proved more difficult than his rotund body was prepared for, and he’s perspiring wildly as he removes his father David’s journal from his back pocket and cracks it open.

“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” Richard reads aloud. He rolls his eyes. “That’s a bit much.”

He begins combing through the tome, skipping past months of detailed entries about the conception of David’s invention and the implications of its’ potential, stopping only when he sees a schematic of the machine. The sketch fills the entire page, with illegible notes scribbled next to a series of arrows. Richard flips to the following page, finding an elaborate illustration of four puzzle pieces coalescing into a sound wave. An envelope slips from the pages and falls to Richard’s lap. He hurriedly tears it open and reads the line preceding an extended list of details instructions.

“To my son,” Richard wheezes. “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

He places the list next to the device and sets about completing the assembly of the machine, labelled only as “Aker” in the paperwork. He unfolds the large hose attached to the back housing, pointing the nozzle into the center of his father’s former home office. He turns Aker’s mechanical dial to the coordinates listed in David’s notes, unsure of what the compression and rarefaction rates refer to. He simply completes each step, as was instructed in David’s will. Finally, he takes a second, smaller hose from the side panel and attaches it to the two valves on top of the machine.

Once all of Aker’s pieces are connected, Richard compares the machine to the schematic and rereads all of the steps to ensure no detail was missed. Satisfied, he closes the journal and eyes the five switches lining the back panel of Aker. These five switches are the last step required before his task is complete. Before, if all goes according to plan, Richard sees his father again.

“Love you, Dad,” he whispers. He stares out into what now feels like the cavernous expanse of his father’s favorite room. The small cabinet of scotch bottles and packed bookcases lining the far wall seem a mile away. Richard sniffs softly and quickly flips the first switch.

Aker viciously belches out an awful sound from the hose, and Richard can feel the apparatus begin to vibrate through the floor panels. It’s a low rumble, but hearty. Steady and full, like a powerful engine. Richard’s confidence soars, and he flips the second switch.

Aker’s vibrations instantly increase in intensity, and the rumble’s pitch climbs to a higher frequency. Aker is now shaking more violently, and the bottom of the machine is slapping against the wood in a rhythmically off kilter pattern. In front of the machine, the hose slowly snakes back and forth like an agitated copperhead. Richard scrambles to his feet and searches the surrounding area for a restraint. Finding nothing, he scrambles to his father’s desk and rifles through the drawers. He grabs a roll of packing tape and hustles back to the hose, refocusing the nozzle into the center of the room and taping it down. Behind him, Aker’s vibrations settle into a less unnerving pattern.

“Just needed to warm up,” Richard tells himself as he places the roll’s final piece of tape across the hose. It wasn’t the most secure it could be, but Richard hoped it was strong enough to hold for now. He tosses the empty tape roll across the room and flips the third switch.

Aker screeches, and Richard crumbles to the ground in agony. A wave of piercing tones shoots from the hose in front of him. As he writhes, he sees the hose pushing upward with the cadence of the sound blasts, threatening to tear away from the floor and rise to the ceiling. He tries to remove his right hand and reach for the fourth switch, but the piercing sound and its residual echo are too painful to bear. He squirms around, maneuvering his foot to the fourth switch in between each piercing blast and each body wince, and closes his eyes as he flips it on with his heel.

The frequency changes again, this time dropping several octaves. The new frequency is constant, and Richard feels his core rumble. It’s unsettling, like an unending earthquake, but certainly not painful. Richard drops his hands from his ears in relief, and cautiously opens in eyes.

He stares in wonder at what appears to be millions of small specks, originating from the taped-down hose and expanding to the furthest points in the room. The hose is stationary again, and the guttural rumbling from the machine has decreased in intensity. He approaches the stream, and delicately stretches out an arm. It moves through the specks freely, as if they don’t exist.

Emboldened, he creeps into the stream entirely. It’s cold, and he shivers as pins and needles tickle his bare feet. He notices the specks intermittently bouncing all around him. It looks like unstructured dancing, in a way. He stares into the blackened entrance of the nozzle, slinking forward as he attempts to decipher exactly what he is standing in. And what he is looking at. But it’s simply darkness, until it spreads out into the room and isn’t anymore.

Richard steps out from the stream and returns to the back panel of Aker. He looks down at the final switch in anticipation, thinking about the implications of this device were it successful. And what those implications meant to what kind of man his father was. He exhales loudly.

“Here we go,” he whispers as he flips the final switch. The low rumblings of the machine immediately dissipate. In fact, all noise does. It terrifies Richard, this vacuum, and he attempts to fill it.

“Dad?” he asks quietly, but the moment the word escapes his lips it seems to evaporate. Richard calls out again, louder this time.

“Dad?”

Again, the word disintegrates, and Richard feels his heart race. He calls out again, this time a constant string of words, one connecting with the next until he runs out of breath.

“David, where are you? I need to talk to you right now or I will be forced to turn this machine off. Can you hear me? I’m going to keep talking until someone decides to show their f-“

He inhales.

“-ace around here. I went through all this trouble and the least you could do is hold up your end of the bargain, Dad. This wasn’t easy, lugging this thing up two flights of st-“

Inhale.

“-airs and you’ve got this detailed list of instructions. You know I don’t know science, I’m an art major, I don’t understand half the words in your journal-“

Richard stops when he sees the man materialize before him. Balding. Bearded. Same height and size. Same blue eyes. His father. Standing in the speck stream.

“Hello, Ricky,” David says flatly, before offering a devilish grin. “Good to see you again. I knew you could do it.”

“It worked,” Richard laughs in exhausted disbelief.

“It worked.”

Richard rushes to embrace David, disregarding the discomforting chill from David’s touch. The two quietly hold each other.

“Listen,” David says as he pulls away. Between them, the specks pop and dance away with each breath. “I don’t know how long I have before the machine will need to recharge, so I need you to do exactly as I say.”

“Of course,” Richard says, clearing his throat. “Whatever you need, Dad.”

“Go to my office at Loyola. Contact Jenny Steadman, my old research assistant. She won’t understand the totality of what I’ve accomplished until she reads my notes. She will help you find a bigger power source for Aker. Because we need more. Much more.”

“Power source?” Richard asks, confused.

“Yes, Aker is powered by a very specific combination of energies. My calculations must have been off, because I can already feel it draining. To keep it open and do the work we are going to do, it needs to be a much larger timeframe. In fact, we may have to rebuild the whole thing from scratch, and take everything up three scales.”

“Dad, I don’t understand. Work? I thought you just-“

“It’s more than removing the fabric between your living world and this one, son,” David exclaims, his solid form becoming increasingly translucent. He smiles softly and offers a gentle wave as Richard begins to sobs in confusion. “Find Jenny Steadman, and bring her to Aker. And hurry.”

“Dad!” Richard calls out a last time, as David’s body is close to disappearing completely. “Dad!”

“Ricky, this is only a beginning.”

Stephen Reynolds is a former Journalism student currently pursuing his love of fiction. His writing has appeared at What Culture, Just 100 Words, and in January will appear at Saturday Night Reader.

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Little Lies by Michael King

Mar 22 2015

As takeout chimichangas battled against his sensitive bowels, Dan White drove homeward. Three years ago, after his mother died of pancreatic cancer, he began spending each Monday evening with his father. Dinner and beer and conversation about a sitcom or an old western were customary, but tonight his father had surprised him. The still-sober old man had tried to tell him something. It had been about marriage and momentum and love being an uphill struggle, but then the old man’s eyes had narrowed and he had shaken his head and had said goodnight and had closed the front door on his only child.

In truth, Dan was glad his father hadn’t continued. Marriage advice was rarely helpful. And if the old man had intended to tarnish the gleaming silver-work his son held high as his parents’ marriage, Dan had no interest in that either. Maybe that was why he never stayed past 9 pm. He usually left before his father got drunk and started reminiscing and truth-telling. At a painful twisting sensation just below the little beer-gut he kept at bay with regular trips to the gym, Dan grimaced. A moment later the pain intensified and the inside of the 76′ Firebird he had restored himself reminded him of the salt marsh out near 50th Street. He knew he had to find a toilet soon.

The problem was that Dan lived on the south side of Eldon, Nebraska and he was on the north. Other than his father’s house, a strip mall centered around a Super Target about five minutes ahead and the house on Pin Oak Rd (which was one of several properties he owned and rented out) he didn’t know what was where. Considering the sweat beginning to bead on his forehead, he figured he could pull a U-turn and hightail it back to his Dad’s. He might make it. He glanced at the iPhone on the passenger seat but, not being device-savvy, quickly decided against using it to locate the nearest restroom. With his luck, he’d get to monkeying around and narrowly miss a jaywalker and swerve into a tree. They’d revive him a couple hours later and fuss over his bruised noggin, meanwhile being polite enough not to mention the smell of the load in his pants.

The house on Pin Oak Rd. Holy crap. It was nearby, and the tenant, Rebecca Woods, had left town yesterday; and she’d asked him to look at her bedroom window during her absence. Supposedly it wasn’t latching correctly and was rising gradually as she slept allowing the winter admittance. Until now, he’d forgotten all about it. He didn’t have his toolbox but he did have the keys. If anyone asked about the intrusion, he’d tell them about the window. Turning down the car’s heater, he stomped on the gas and concentrated on the healthy purr of the engine. He smiled, thankful it hadn’t snowed in days and that he wasn’t in his other car, putting along. When his headlights illuminated the dark green Pin Oak Rd sign, he slowed the beast as much as he dared and hit the blinker. His stomach clenched. A white-knuckled moment later, he pulled into the badly cracked driveway of 3037 Pin Oak Rd. He groaned, tightening his backside. He was 50-years-old for Christ’s sake: too old and too young to shit himself.

As soon as the internal pressure relented a notch, he pushed out of the car and, tinkering with the key-ring, stiffly jogged to the front door of a house in need of fresh paint. He crashed inside and flicked on the hallway light. Then, orienting himself, he shot down the wide, short hallway that lead to the bedroom and the bathroom and, hardly noticing a strange, metallic odor, barged through the correct doorway and slammed shut the door. He sat down just in time.

Relieved, Dan surveyed the small, windowless room, flexing his toes within his shoes. Rebecca kept the space clean, but he had never liked it. Too small. His right knee rested against the vanity. Great. The toilet paper holder was empty. The fake chrome tube lay on the floor beside his right shoe. He shifted his bulk so he could check behind him near the toilet brush receptacle. Nothing. With his left hand, he grabbed the yellow shower curtain and dragged it toward him, wincing at the scraping of the metal rings. The tub was empty. He scooted forward and awkwardly opened the vanity. Shit. A spray-bottle of Windex in an old wicker basket. No paper towels. When he realized the cabinet door was about to slam shut, he shot out a hand to quiet it. Then, feeling foolish over his predicament and at the unwarranted sense that he had company, he opened the door and banged it closed.

A shuffling outside the bathroom door. Then a man cleared his throat with gusto.

Dan gulped, his face warming with embarrassment. The room spun once around him. When it stopped, he noticed more of it. The streaks of gray in the mostly piss-colored linoleum, which curled up at both ends where the bathtub met the craggy, eggshell wall. The difference in color between that wall and the grimy outlet and light switch covers it was supposed to match. The light switch. The light. He hadn’t been the one to turn it on.

“You know why there ain’t any paper in there?” Dan sat dumbly.

“Cause I took it. Something in this joint has got my sinuses all out of whack. Probably her crotch. Yeah, her moldy, rotten crotch.”

A knot unraveled in Dan’s stomach. Heat rose from the v-neck of his shirt. The toilet seat felt warm and slick. His legs tensed, and he started to stand. An image of his iPhone in his sleek, black car outside passed through his mind. Then his wife’s sweet face made an appearance. She had been angry with him lately but he wasn’t sure why, and he’d got idea she wasn’t either.

He shook his head, trying to clear it. The guy outside was clearly bugshit. This wasn’t a joke. He knew the guy’s choice of words wasn’t merely a faux pas. He needed to think. He needed to get the guy to leave. The idea of a broken rib or a bloody nose or even a swollen pinkie-finger caused Dan to cower inwardly. But what about getting gut-stabbed and bleeding out on the cheap, stiff carpet. As he reminded himself to keep still and remain calm, his mutinous index finger jabbed the button on the doorknob. The lock engaged with a tinny click. Gritting his teeth, he looked at the ceiling.

The guy outside blew his nose. Then chuckled.

“You chicken shit,” he said, “I wanted in, I’d be in, Mr. Healthclub-Firebird. You’re not supposed to be here, but seeing how you are, I’m thinking you might help me out. Yeah, I got a use for you. Man. What did you do to deserve this? All you had to do was look in the garage. You’d have seen her car.”

Dan shivered. Slowly he stood, holding his belt-buckle to silence it. Eyes locked on the faintly gleaming, brass-tinged doorknob, he quietly put himself together. The man cleared his throat again, drawing out the action.

“Ever since I was little, this thing would talk to me through my bedroom window. It seemed to know what I was, what I was capable of, even before I did. I swear I didn’t really know till just a bit ago. Once I tried to tell Momma but she just said I was dreaming about human nature and put her cigarette out on the tip of my big toe. Squashed it in up under the nail. But I tell you what: it’s coming. It’s coming tonight. I can hear it in my mind. And I can feel it in my arms. The way a good song gives you gooseflesh. I want you to see it. I want to see your face when you see it. You’ll see it when it comes to feed on Rebecca. Stupid, fucking, bippy tart.”

He chuckled.

“I tell you how I got in? I came over late for a cup of milk, preferably skim. We were fine for a while. She even told me about the latch on her bedroom window. Yeah, until I touched her. Got all crazy and told me to get the fuck out. When I turned to go, the bitch must have thought she sensed weakness. She started in. Criticizing just like momma. Right then, I looked down at my tenting ding-a-ling, and I knew I’d be back. I waited a bit, took one of my bar stools and flung it over that pitiful excuse for a privacy fence. Then I followed. Shouldn’t have told me about the window. I killed her. I fucked her up. I—“

The guy rattled on. Dan tried hard to listen carefully, but the motor of his mind seemed to be stuttering and he was missing words. His throat felt constricted, as if he were wearing a high-collared shirt and the room seemed a size smaller than a moment ago. He pondered the old, hollow-cored door before him, wondering if the material breathed or if the air between the thin flats of wood was stagnate, dead. Likes his mother. A lie is a closed door between us. She’d said that often when Dan was a boy. He supposed he’d always been full of shit.

When the guy’s rant segued into a song, Dan tore his eyes away from the doorknob and began to search for a weapon. The towel rack was out. Too flimsy. Breaking the mirror wouldn’t do either. At the noise, the guy might rush him. He didn’t want to cause a panic. He removed the lid on the toilet and silently prayed thanks that it was old and heavy. He gripped it with both hands and tried to prepare for a dark future. But what the hell was the guy singing?

“…scrambled eggs between her legs-“

“Okay, okay. Please stop,” Dan said.

“I just knew you were in there. Why don’t you come out and get a look at me; we’ll talk.”

“No, I think I’ll stay. Sooner or later somebody’ll get nosy.”

“Shit, not here in the big city. Folks just want privacy. You saying you don’t want to see it?”

“Whatever.”

“You think I’m going to kill you, don’t you? But that isn’t in the plan at all. I just want you to see it.”

“Sure. You’ll try,” Dan said.

“Guess I got to play hard ball,” the guy said, and then Dan heard the sloshing of liquid in some sort of container.

“I’ll give you till the count of three,” the guys s “Then I’ll pour on the gasoline and strike a match. Here, let me help.”

The lock on the doorknob popped out.

Reflexively Dan stepped backward and his fingernails dug into the imperfect side of the heavy slab of china. The door slowly swung open. He could hear the killer giving ground.

“Man, that ain’t even gray hair, it’s silver. Wish I had such cool hair.”

The leggy, boot-wearing, 30-something Dan had envisioned was not present. The only similarities between the imagined and the real were the age and the smile of movie-white teeth. The guy was stripped down to boxer shorts. He was short and soft and small-boned with swirls of black hair on his chest and belly and no hair on his head. His small eyes were set too closely. His beard was pubic-looking. His lips were purple. He tossed the role of toilet paper at Dan and laughed when it bounced off his chest and stopped rolling at the bedroom door. Dark eyes moved up and down Dan’s body.

“I bet you recycle. You recycle?”

Dan didn’t even blink. His body was warm and ready, and he was oddly calm, open, as if even the pours in his skin had the task of detecting the slightest movement. His eyes took in everything–the dusty red, plastic gas-container sitting by the spearmint green wall, the flaking, white baseboards, the old gray carpet and the small blob of beef-pink caught in the thick hair on the top of the shark-eyed man’s left foot. He did not see matches or a lighter or whatever he’d used to pop the lock.

“C’mon, it’s okay. It’ll be here any minute.”

He showed Dan his arm.

“Pimply. It’s all pimply.”

Dan’s nose and upper lip twitched. The killer’s smile widened as he pointed to the closed bedroom door.

“I open that, and it’ll reek even worse. Reminds me of my childhood. Reminds me of two things actually. One I’m not gonna talk about. The other is a sweaty handful of pennies. Any metal probably. I bet your wedding ring stinks.”

Stepping over the threshold, Dan adjusted his grip again. His ears honed in on a tiny sound that it took a second to recognize as his wedding ring sliding along the china.

Then it just happened. The dark eyes squinted and then rolled to the door. The bald head began to follow the eyes. The whole body turned, revealing the little man’s back and the knife-handle nestled in a black patch of kinky hair above the band of the man’s boxer shorts.

“You hear that?” the little man asked.

But Dan was already in motion. His mind was blank. His entire upper body vibrated like a struck bell when the toilet lid connected with the glossy skull. The man went down. On his belly, one ear to the thin carpet, he appeared to be sleeping. Dan stared at the bald head, at the bruising, puffy spot. He wasn’t sure what had happened to it but the knife was no longer visible. When the brown eyes opened and the brow furrowed and the arms slid back toward the ribcage, Dan hit the little man again. As hard as he could. The end of the toilet lid snapped off and flakes of white appeared on the carpet and in the little man’s eyebrows and across his freckled nose. Though the head was dented and bleeding, Dan stared at a white spec on the black and empty eyeball nearest the floor. He was vaguely aware of the odd notion that his mother were in the room, watching, knowing the necessity of what he’d done. Then the pain in his big toe registered and he noticed the hairy arm reaching, the open hand, an the knife sticking out the top of his shoe. He stumbled backward, yelping when his butt hit the wall. Dazed, he stood there for a long moment, staring at the knife. Then he looked at the object in his hands and threw it down. He became aware of a nasty headache as he bent over, as if his head were half-filled with water. The knife slid out easily. He tossed it somewhere. He couldn’t be sure but the wound felt superficial. It was painful but he had no trouble moving. He’d done it. He’d survived. In 50 years, he’d never thought he’d make it if push came to shove. He thought of his son. His daughter hadn’t been hard to rear, but his son had needed a father who had had more faith in himself. No, his daughter could have used that other man too.

From behind Rebecca’s bedroom door something shifted or slid or creaked. He tried to look through the gap beneath it, but the space was dark. His heart started thumping away again and it seemed to radiate a slightly painful warmth that was edging its way down to his stomach and into his shoulders.

Mostly Dan wanted to run. But maybe he could help. Maybe Rebecca was still alive. And maybe the guy he’d just clouted was a nutcase but not a murderer. He lurched forward and reached out a trembling hand.

The bed beneath the window was a red mess. After a time, details emerged. A strand of hair, a pug nose, a split lip, a tooth. One young breast. He thought he could taste the thick stench in the air. He thought he could feel it coating his face. He gagged, put a fist to his mouth, bit hard on the knuckle.

Suddenly his eyes flicked upward and focused on the window. Something was there, dark and wriggling and filling the space, almost muting an emergency siren off in the distance. Even this close, Dan couldn’t see it clearly. It reminded him of being a child and the things his mind would draw in the dark. It was the reason he’d needed a night light. Dan thought if he saw too much of it now, he may never sleep again. His big toe throbbed. When a part of the mass dropped onto the bed, making a slurping noise reminiscent of lover’s lost in an open-mouthed kiss, Dan swallowed bile, pulled the door shut and staggered out into the cold night.

Eying the slipshod wooden fence, he got in his car and keyed the ignition and wondered why his headlights seemed so bright. He backed out, wincing in pain as he pressed the gas pedal. He hoped nothing horrible would appear in the windows of the little house or climbing over the rickety fence. A good distance from Pin Oak Rd, he parked under a no-parking sign and stared at his iPhone until he felt he could drive again.

He’d have to lie. A little. He had stop by to work on the window and had decided to use the bathroom. He’d forgotten his tools but figured he’d find some in the garage. He’d lie, but he’d do better later. He would. He would take his place. Husband. Father. Son. Landlord. He had wasted far too much of his life merely acting out his parts, because he had always figured on failure. So for now he would shoot for near the truth. Unexpectedly a stark image sparked in his mind.  He gagged, looked out the window, gulped. He couldn’t decide which was worse—the poor dead woman in the bloody bed or the dark thing he’d seen in the window?

The End

Michael King spends most of his time at home. He is grateful to his beautiful family for keeping him tethered to the earth. He writes only when the cats are sleeping, unless they are sleeping across the keyboard or atop the printer.

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Cold, Cold Heart by Mark Lewis

Mar 15 2015

It was the pain of good times that Ian remembered as he held his wife Caitlyn’s cold hand. Their love had been strong, however prosaic their meeting and their lives together. Her grasp was weak, her smile faint, but she still managed a smile.

“You don’t have to do it,” Caitlyn said. Her voice was thin.

“You know I do,” Ian said. “What would be the point without you?”

Ian and Caitlyn had met online, on a faith-based matchmaking website. Their profiles correlated perfectly: wants and needs, income, hobbies, attitude to children. The first hesitant meeting in a Bath tea house brought no fireworks, no earthquake. They were two shy, lonely people who slowly found each other, slowly their lives became entwined, like loose wires behind a television, until they were so inseparable they made it formal and in their God’s sight, in a small service in the village church, they became Mr and Mrs Price.

“It’ll be okay won’t it,” Caitlyn said. “If we have faith.”

“I’m going to talk to Human Capital Partners, Caitlyn. The adviser was very helpful.”

“What does it cost?” She said. “Can we afford it?”

Ian could not tell her the true cost. She would not let him pay it.

“2I can afford it, I’m going to meet the adviser at his office. I’ll take out a loan that I can afford,” this was not entirely a lie. He grasped her hand tighter.

“I don’t trust them,” she said. “I’ve heard terrible things in the press.” So had Ian, but Human Capital Partners were the only hope. The NHS doctors had given Caitlyn only days to live without a kidney transplant, and at the current capacity even if a suitable donor was found, they would not be able to schedule an operation in time. No, Human Capital Partners it had to be.

“I love you,” Ian said.

Caitlyn grasped his hand tighter, and for a moment, just one moment he saw her old fire.

“Don’t sacrifice yourself,” she said.

But he would, if that’s what it took. That was Ian’s definition of love.

So, Ian said his goodbyes without crying, because he wanted Caitlyn to think he was coping. He walked through the not-quite clinically clean corridors of the hospital and started to breathe deeply when he reached the air outside.

#

It was a bright day with airy white clouds, in the village the clinic was set in. Ian drove down a pathway between houses. Ian’s car crunched down the long cobbled driveway, while the clinic’s dog barked an irate welcome. The clinic was a converted farmhouse and stables with large patio windows set in elegant grounds, weeping willows, lakes, set off with a plastic heron. The dog, a black Labrador, leapt up as Ian tried to get out of the car. Ian looked out at an immaculately-dressed man who was smiling. Ian got out of the car, dog jumping up and licking his trousers.

“He‘s a soppy old thing,” said the man, extending a hand.

“I’m Julian. We spoke on the phone.” The dog sniffed Ian’s feet. “Keynes!” Julian shouted at the dog. “Stay.”

Julian led Ian into the clinic, grinning with salesman’s teeth. They sat in an office with a large patio window looking out into the garden. A money plant exhaled compost flies. The dog looked in, a deflated rugby ball grasped between its teeth.

The adviser, Julian, sat too close. He wore a navy blue suit, with a pale tie and pressed white shirt. His cufflinks had the company logo of a stylised heart, with the initials HCP. His face was a mask of slick confidence, he was clean shaven, no, his whole head was clean shaven. Maybe all of him was, Ian thought with a shiver.

“How is Caitlyn?” Julian asked, his smile now turned down a shade from greeting to ‘concern with sympathy‘.

Ian looked away, studied the picture on the wall of Julian with the England Fightball Captain.

“It’s not looking good right now,” Ian said, his voice low.

“We’ll see what we can do to help,” Julian put a paternal hand on his shoulder. “You said she needs a kidney. An operation. It’s urgent.”

“Yes. Have you found a donor?”

Julian leaned back and studied Ian’s face. Then a smile spread over Julian’s face, the full force of his salesman smile. He brought out a glossy colour brochure full of smiling people being operated on by well-groomed beautiful surgeons of both sexes. He stopped at a grid of smiling faces.

“These are our kidney donors. Our specialists have matched up a donor who would be perfect.”

“How soon?” Ian snapped, in his eagerness.

“Well, we’ll have to allocate surgeon resource and theatre time. Plus, we’ll have to get the business authorised by our Compliance office. Three weeks. Much sooner than the NHS could offer.”

“Three weeks. That’s too long. She needs it now.”

“I’m sorry. Compliance just wouldn’t sign anything off in less than three weeks.”

“You must have dealt with urgent cases before. There must be a way.”

Julian sat back, studying Ian’s face and tapping his fingers, before speaking: “There is. You see, the criteria are much more relaxed for swaps. The legislation is strict for financial transactions, but if you were to agree to a swap and sign a waiver, then we could bypass a lot of the bloody red tape.”

“A swap? How would that work? Would you take my kidney?”

Julian laughed.

“Certainly not! You would just need to agree to assign your heart to us in the event of your death.”

“Assign? What do you mean?”

“It’s just like having a donor card and agreeing to leave your body to the medical establishment on your death, only you agree to leave your heart to us.”

“When I die?”

“It’s not like you’ll need it.”

“Would there be any possibility the company would, let us say, hasten my death?”

Julian laughed.

“What’s the catch?”

“How quickly did you say you need us to operate on Caitlyn?”

“The doctors, well, they say to be sure, 48 hours.”

“That would be very difficult. I’ll do what I can.”
The adviser, Julian, gave a fantastic performance. He called his assistant, then went next door. Ian could hear the tone, the level of sound, but not the specific words. Julian shouted at bureaucrats on the telephone, a pantomime of pulling out all the stops for his client, while Ian waited, looked at the pictures in the brochure of happy patients in gowns and relieved loved ones, back at the dog, then the rubber plant, waving a fly away.

At the end, Julian thanked the administrator on the other end of the line politely and put the phone down. Grimly, he brought out the brochure again and stared at Ian. Then his salesman smile spread over his face.

“I won’t bore you with the deals I’ve had to make. We can do it.”

“Thank you,” Ian’s eyes were drawn from the smile to a fly that flew near his face. “Sorry,” Ian added.

“No, it’s what we’re here for. Just one thing I need from you.”

“What’s that?”

Julian held out the paperwork: “Sign here.”

“What am I signing?”

Julian waved the thick brochure at him.

“It’s all here if you have time to read it all. But I can’t give our chaps the go-ahead until you sign.”

Ian signed. What the hell. Whatever he was signing away, Caitlyn was more important.

#

The operation and recovery went smoothly. That wasn’t strictly true. Ian waited during the operation. He was in the operating theatre, holding Caitlyn’s hand. The room was all bright lights and his head swam in terror. The staff were cheerful and sympathetic. They got through it; that was as much as could be said.

#

The dust had settled, as much as it was going to, in Ian and Caitlyn’s lives, and one fine drizzly Sunday afternoon they sat down to cups of tea and Ian read the Guardian while Caitlyn read a D H Lawrence collection. Caitlyn fixed Ian with that look, the one that meant trouble. Her jaw was set.

“What did it cost?” Caitlyn asked.

“What cost?” Ian said, not looking up from the paper, although he knew very well that she was probing his face for a reaction.

“You know what. Saving my life.” Her tone was serious. Ian looked up from the newspaper, but didn’t quite meet her eyes.

“I just took out a loan.”

Caitlyn’s mouth turned down in anger.

“What did you promise them? I’ve read about how they work. Tell me.”

Ian folded the newspaper and looked Caitlyn in the eyes.

“I agreed to donate my heart, when I die. That’s all.”

“That’s all?” Caitlyn looked away, and said quietly, “You won’t say that when they come for you.”

Ian’s face went red. “They won’t come for me. They can’t do that. It’s only after I die of natural causes.”

He wished he could sound more convincing, but he didn’t. Caitlyn didn’t reply, but she went back to her book, her eyes red. They avoided talking about the subject again, and during the time they spent in the vicinity of each other, they didn’t talk about the future. They lived together in a small house, each alone. Neither giving each other the comfort and assurance they needed, the love they had for each other withered on the vine, denied its nutrient.

They went on with their lives, Ian busy with his work translating Egyptian texts to English and Spanish, Caitlyn busy recuperating and maintaining an immaculate house. For Caitlyn’s part, she researched, never telling Ian, the laws and ethics governing pre-death organ assignment, and the cases Human Capital Partners had been involved in. The minutiae of the paperwork. Any loopholes, precedents, get-out clauses. The average statistical lifespan of debtors who had agreed to give an organ in future payment (statistically well below average). She knew they would come for him. He’d signed his life away and perhaps he didn’t even know it. Was he that naïve? She couldn’t ask. Caitlyn had also found there was a way he could get out of the deal. But the cost. The cost of doing so would be high and she knew he would not hear of it, if she told him.

#

Although their modern redbrick home was small, it was filled with enough books and visitors to avoid spending time meaningfully with each other. Even their bed was big enough so they could both sleep in it, alone.

#

So they continued, neither could reach out to the other, there was too much unspoken, leaving their love brittle. At the last, there was so little left to lose.

One Autumn day, as dead leaves swirled around the path leading to Ian and Caitlyn‘s house, they came. Julian McGuire stood smiling at the door, accompanied by a man in a sharp suit with a sharp-featured face, carrying a leather folio. Caitlyn answered the door, Ian was out the back, weeding.

“Mrs Price,” said Julian. “I hope you are well.” The sharp-featured man looked right past Caitlyn into the house.

Caitlyn gave Julian The Look.

“Who are you? What do you want?” She said, her tone hostile.

“Julian McGuire-“ he held out his hand, but Caitlyn did not take it. “Human Capital Partners. HCP. This is Francis Wells; he’s an independent Compliance Consultant. Here to keep me in line.” Julian laughed as if he was just there on a pleasant social call.

“You can tell me why you are here,” Caitlyn said. “Or you can leave now.”

Francis shot Julian a look. Julian nodded.

“We’d just like a word with your husband.”

“No,” Caitlyn said. “He isn’t home. I don’t know where he is.”

The sound of the patio door opening, and Ian walking in from the garden gave this the lie.

“Mr Price!” Julian called out. Ian walked to the door, but Caitlyn stood between him and Julian.

“I’ll handle this,” she said. “For God’s sake don’t go with them. They can’t legally come into the house uninvited, but if you step outside they can take you.”

Julian looked at Francis, who nodded.

“It’s okay,” Ian said. “I’ll talk to them.”

Julian smiled and reached out a hand to Ian, past Caitlyn. To Caitlyn’s dismay, Ian accepted the handshake and moved to the door, within the threshold.

“Ian, you did the right thing,” Julian said. “Your wife is looking so well. This is partly a courtesy visit; are you happy with the service HCP gave you – providing a life-saving operation to Mrs Price?”

“Yes,” Ian said. “Yes, thank you.”

“I’m very glad,” Julian said and a reassuring smile spread over his face. God, his teeth were frighteningly white.

“Mr Price, this is Francis Wells, he’s a Compliance Consultant. He’s here to keep me honest.” He laughed. Francis’s sharp features were unmoved.

“Cut the crap,” Caitlyn said, putting an arm between Ian and the door. Ian looked at her, with an expression of confusion. “Mr McGuire, what do you want with my husband?”

Francis looked at Julian. “If directly asked,” he said with a deep calm voice, “you have to disclose your full purpose.”

“We’re here to make a collection,” Julian said, with a smile. “I can reassure you that we would only collect at this time because a Platinum-grade client requires life-saving treatment.”

“Collect?” Ian asked.

“For God’s sake!” Caitlyn said, and started to shut the door. Julian held it open, still smiling. He was deceptively strong for a Suit.

“We need you to come with us, Mr Price.” Francis said.

“No,” said Caitlyn.

“This can’t be right,” Ian said. “Julian – you said there would be no collection until I… passed away.”

“That‘s right,” said Julian. “The organ will only be removed once you have passed away.”

“You bastards.” Ian said.

“You did agree to this, Mr Price. You signed the waiver. Francis?”

Francis reached into his portfolio and brought out a sheaf of papers. At the top was the signed agreement. “You signed to show you understood all of the terms, including the Principal Platinum override clause.”

“What?”

“HCP reserves the right of early repayment, when the life of a platinum client is in danger. We never do this lightly, but our platinum clients are key members of society.”

“What is this?” Ian said.

“Leave now,” Caitlyn snapped to Julian and Francis. “Or I will call the police. You’re threatening my husband’s life.”

“I will call the police,” said Francis. “If you or Mr Price prevents us from recovering the property, the organ, that now belongs to Human Capital Partners. We have a court order.” He produced a stamped and signed piece of paper.

“I know this is distressing,” said Julian. “But this is the right thing to do. The client in question is a microsurgeon. That’s why the court agreed we could collect early. They weighed up his life and the impact his loss would have on society: lives would be lost. Possibly hundreds of lives within just a few years. Your translation work, though noble and intellectually fascinating… won’t save a single life. But the agreement you have made with us will. You’re a great man, Mr Price.”

“This is disgusting,” said Caitlyn. “We’ll fight this with everything at our disposal.”

“The decision has already been made,” Francis said.

“I’ll come with you,” Ian said. “Caitlyn- we’ll straighten this out.”

“No you won’t,” said Caitlyn, holding him back.

“I’m sorry,” Ian said. “You just make sure you’re okay. We could fight this in the courts and it would ruin us. They’ve sewn it all up. Get on with your life. Make yourself happy. Or this will have meant nothing.” Gently, but firmly he removed her hands from him, and went with the men, tears worrying at the corners of his eyes. Caitlyn raged, and shouted, but it changed nothing.

#

The police officer was apologetic, even sympathetic. He calmly explained to Caitlyn that although what Julian and Francis did was arguably unethical, it was legal. Their paperwork was in order. There was nothing she could do, she just had to accept that Julian was gone. She had the right to be present at the organ collection. She had the right to disposal of the remaining body, once the organ in question had been taken. There could be a full burial with any relevant religious rites.

It wouldn’t come to that, Caitlyn decided, despite the cost.

#

What hurt Ian most was that Caitlyn had not even come to see him one last time. She had declined her right to be with him during the collection. When they spoke on the telephone, she hadn’t explained. Neither had been able to talk articulately, through their hurt. Julian, smile now on a sympathetic setting had offered Ian the final meal of choice and a blessing from a minister of his choice. Ian had rejected both. He had no appetite, and his religious faith, once so strong had not survived this blow. Even so, he said a prayer to himself, as he faded away under anaesthetic, as darkness filled him.

#

Caitlyn phoned the ambulance, before applying the knife. She had already written the letter, using the precise wording required. The solicitor had checked and agreed it. The timing was crucial. If she survived, her instructions in the letter would be void. If she died too soon, the kidney would be useless, so again her instructions would be void. The painkillers weren’t enough. The pain was sharp and hot as the knife sliced into her skin. But this was right.

#

Julian was there when Ian came to under the bright lights, Julian was there. The salesman’s smile was gone. Francis stood at a distance. They were in the room with the money plant and compost flies. There were more of them now.

“You are free to go,” Julian said, his voice hollow.

“Free? How?”

“Mrs Price did the only thing that would render our deal null and void.”

“But what?”

“She returned the Capital. She died, leaving a letter expressly returning the kidney you purchased with the assignment of your heart to HCP.”

“What?”

“She killed herself and gave us the kidney back,” Francis called over. “Our technicians checked it and the condition was satisfactory. So the agreement is null and void.”

“You mean- Oh my God.” Ian buried his head in his hands. His face melted into tears.

“She sacrificed herself for you,” said Julian. “Bloody-minded woman.”

“That’s Julian’s personal opinion, not mine or that of HCP,” Francis said. “You’re free to go. Of course there are the operation costs you are liable for but Mrs Price took care of that too. HCP receive her life assurance payment. It’s enough. We have no claim on you. You’re free.”

“I can’t just sit here and listen to this. Ian, if you walk away, a better man dies,” Julian said. “A man who could save many lives. It’s not too late. You can still gift your heart to him.” Julian pointed at Ian. “It’s the right thing to do. Your life hasn’t amounted to much, let’s be brutally honest.”

“Save the life of a man who tried to buy someone else’s heart. Who decided his life was more important than that of a stranger and paid you to carry out a murder on his behalf. No, whatever job he does, he’s not worth saving. Caitlyn’s sacrifice won’t be in vain. I’ll live, Julian. I’ll make this life worthwhile.” A fly came right up in his face. Ian caught it and squashed it.

Ian left, the dog barking at him, jumping up until he got in his car, which even now seemed cold and empty, and he drove, to his house which would be empty, with Caitlyn gone.

#

Julian watched Ian Price go, then turned to Francis.

“Is there really nothing we can do?”
Francis shook his head. “The contract is void. We can’t touch him. Mrs Price’s sacrifice saved him. Would anyone do that for you?”

“They won’t need to,” Julian said and laughed. “I wouldn’t get caught in one of our shitty contracts.”

Francis brought out a sheaf of papers contained in a clear plastic wallet.

“Mr McGuire. Our client can’t be allowed to die. He is too important.”

“Then what do we do? Is there another match?”

It wasn’t really a smile; just a slight curl of the lip but it was the closest to a smile Julian had seen on Francis.

“All Human Capital Partners are tested, as you know.”

“A formality at point of employment.”

“You signed the agreement. Clawback. In the event of an adviser losing a candidate for transplantation, they agree to serve as a back up, if compatible.”

“My God,” Julian got to his feet. “You wouldn’t. You bastard.” He spat, pointing a finger at Francis.

“You are compatible,” Francis said.

Julian pushed past him and headed for the office door. His way was blocked by two orderlies in scrubs. Francis stood up, and led the way to the operating theatre. Julian followed, struggling, sandwiched between the orderlies.

END

Bio: Mark has previously had work published in The British Fantasy Society Journal, Another 100 Horrors, seinundwerden, A Touch of Saccharine, Full Fathom Forty, Escape Velocity, Scheherazade, Estronomicon, The Nail, and others. He has also written and performed in pantomimes. He is still working on two novels. Mark is a member of the Clockhouse London Writers. More of Mark’s writing can be found at http://syntheticscribe.wordpress.com/

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Soul by Doug Hawley

Mar 08 2015

All of the following news articles appeared in the Daily Northwest News.

February 10, 2043 Copenhagen, Denmark. Using new detection equipment built by Nobel Prize winner in physics Magnus Albreck, Frank Smelling and the staff at the National Physics Laboratory has discovered electromagnetic waves previously detected nowhere in the universe. The wavelength of these newly discovered waves are shorter than any previously observed.

The discovery excited physicists around the world. At this time, the source of the waves is unknown and there has been no independent verification of Albreck’s and Smelling’s results. The practical use of the results is unknown at this time.

February 27, 2043 Copenhagen, Denmark. In a follow up to an earlier discovery, Magnus Albreck and associates at the Denmark National Physics Lab have identified the source of previously unrecorded electromagnetic waves originally discovered in late 2042. The waves originated from lab technician Helga Stein. Stein was in close proximity to measuring device, Extended EMW, when the waves first registered. Whenever no one was close to the Extended EMW, no S (for Stein) waves were recorded. Subsequent experiments recorded S waves for other laboratory personnel with slightly differing wave lengths and amplitudes.

March 1, 2043 Nashville, TN. Chester Ogilvie, leader of Baptist USA claims that Danish scientists have discovered the human soul. After years of religious and spiritual claims to a distinctly human soul as an unmeasured driving force in all humans, he sees the S waves discovered at the Denmark National Physics Lab in late 2042 as proof of the soul’s existence. “They have not found S waves anywhere but in humans, so I think that it is obvious that the human soul has finally been quantified. Those who have never taken religion seriously now have scientific proof that we uniquely have souls and are not just more atoms in a materialistic universe.”

Neither Magnus Albreck nor Frank Smelling of the Denmark Lab were immediately available for comment. Bhati Nempali of the Halide Institute of Chicago responded that “A new form of electromagnetic wave may have been discovered. The Danish Lab work has not been peer reviewed at this time. Whatever they discovered is just another physical phenomenon, not the basis for superstitious claptrap.”

March 3, 2043 Chicago. Professor Bhati Nempali of the Halide Institute of Chicago, who two days ago questioned the nature of S waves, and indirectly cast aspersion on religious leader Chester Ogilvie of Baptist USA in Nashville, TN, apologized saying “In my earlier remarks I did not intend to offend anyone of any religious belief.” Mr. Nempali’s contract with the Halide is up later this year and congressional hearings are scheduled next month on Federal research funding.

March 5, 2043 Interactive Listing – Today at 5PM on Channel IA4322: Daytona Brown will moderate a chat with guest experts on the S waves. Are they real? Do only people have them? Are they a manifestation of the soul? Are there any commercial applications?

Daytona Brown – Let me introduce the participants. We are honored to have the discoverer of S waves, Magnus Albreck, imminent theologian Chester Ogilvie, Jeremy Atkins of PETA, abortions rights supporter Sue Feldman and biologist and well-known atheist Roger Sawkins. Do you have opening statements?

Albreck – First, let me spread the credit around. The waves were discovered coming from Helga Stein, a very important colleague. Many at the Danish National Lab have worked on the equipment that did the recording. I’m just the first among equals. Second, we have lots of work to do before we can draw hard conclusions.

Ogilvie – I say it is not too early to draw conclusions. Do S waves come from coffee cans? Do they come from lab rats? No, I don’t think so. Despite some of the negatives I have heard, we have evidence of the human soul. Now, I’m not saying my particular brand of religion has all the answers, but I think that Professor Albreck’s work has proven that there is a spiritual plane of existence beyond the physical.

Feldman – Before anyone suggests that this in anyway invalidates abortion rights, let me remind everyone that some abortions may still be best for society and for women who are not prepared to give birth.

Atkins – If we have a spiritual existence, I think that we will find that our animal brothers are on the same plane and deserve the same respect that humans deserve. We need to test chimps, dogs, cats and other animals to see if they have S waves.

Sawkins – Let’s go back to what Professor Albreck said. It is too early to draw conclusions. Can we all just keep an open mind and go by what is proven rather than conjectured.

Brown – Hypothetically, let us say that S waves are exclusive to humans. What does that mean?

Ogilvie – Why, clearly we will have scientific proof that man is God’s crowning achievement and is uniquely suited for a heavenly paradise after death.

Feldman – It doesn’t change anything for me.

Albreck – From the point of view of physics, I don’t think that we are prepared to conclude anything.

Sawkins – I agree that we will not know exactly why only humans have S waves, if that is in fact correct, but I could suggest that it relates to some unique human feature. There are subtle, but real differences between the human brain and those of other animals.

Atkins – Regardless of the presence or absence of S waves in non-human animals, I think that all animals deserve our respect. In fact, if indeed we are different from our animal brother, that implies that we should show them the treatment that our greater consciousness allows us.

Brown – How has the discovery of S waves changed any of your opinions?

Sawkins – I am now open to the belief that humans are a unique form of animal.

Albreck – I am just amazed at the progress we are making in understanding ourselves and our universe. I did not think that this big a discovery would be made in my lifetime.

Ogilvie – A lot of people, including myself, have thought that science and religion were at odds. We now have a case where science is now clearly supporting religion.

Atkins – I now accept the possibility that humans may be unique, but it does not change in any way my opinion about the treatment of animals.

Feldman – The existence of S waves convinces me more than ever that we need to do research on the physical and emotional aspects of abortions and find ways to make most of them unnecessary. Much as we eliminated smoking, we have the technology to avoid unwanted pregnancies. I would much rather stop unwanted pregnancies than debate abortion.

Brown – Closing statements?

Ogilvie – I hope all of those who have rejected religion in their lives are now open to the real possibility that they were mistaken.

Atkins – Whether we are the equals or stewards of non-human animals, they deserve our respect and humane treatment.

Albreck – I think that we have just scratched the surface of S wave research, and I look forward to continued research and new revelations.

Sawkins – I hope that the physics research from the Danish National Physics Lab is married with biological research to fully explore the implications of S waves.

Brown – I think that this discussion has just started, but we are out of time. Perhaps we can reconvene in a year and talk about progress in the study of S waves. For now, I’d like to thank
all of the participants for a respectful and insightful panel on the beginning of a new era.

Author Bio

Doug Hawley lives in Lake Oswego Oregon with his editor Sharon and cat Kitzhaber. He is a former actuary who now writes (Potluck, Insert, Short Humour, Oblong, Hash to appear), hikes, snowshoes, and volunteers at a local bookstore and a local park. He was inspired/depressed/impressed by Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

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The Cracks in Our Walls by Kyle Hemmings

Mar 01 2015

Asa served her sister, Aoi, a warm bowl of soba noodles, chopped green onions on top, and a cup of sake. Across from table, a pet lizard looked out from its glass case, its bulging eyes taking in the world, perhaps becoming too big for it. Inside, there was also a miniature replica of a foxglove tree. Only when Aoi finished, did Asa make a bowl for herself. She always ate alone.

The sisters lived in the same apartment they once shared with their mother before she went missing without a trace. Although the mother pointed to several men in succession as their real father, all DNA tests came back negative. Asa always suspected that the mother had poisoned the men with some form of foxglove after each one denied his fatherhood. Asa and Aoi were born joined at the hip. Each claimed they shared each other’s thoughts before they grew apart.

It took several surgeries to unhinge the sisters. In a family album, hidden in the back, there was still a photograph of the two as babies, joined together, one laughing, the other, crying. When asked who took the photo, the mother said it came out of her body along with the girls. She said that a nurse had fainted. The sisters couldn’t tell if she was joking or in one of her mysterious moods.

When the sisters reached their twenties, it was Asa who was beautiful and snobbish, dating handsome college students from Tokyo or Kyoto, and Aoi who grew disenchanted, increasingly prone to bizarre visions and twisted logic.

The sisters went to the same school but hated different teachers. Sometimes they fell in love with the same one. They would make paper mache portraits of their “crush” and fight over him. Aoi, being the less aggressive and the more insecure, usually lost. Then Asa would tear up the paper mache cut-out and throw it in the air. She would laugh all the way home. Aoi would keep her head down, sobbing. She’d study the contours of her shadow as she walked and wondered if she could ever catch anything, anyone.

Once the sisters went out to a nightclub and danced together. Two men, whose first names were the same, tried to pick them up. In a rare moment, Asa was protective of Aoi, and tried to get between Aoi and the stranger, a burly man with thick dark hair. She rebuffed the advances of the other man, who reminded her of one too many computer nerds, always memerizing pick-up lines from a self-help book. But Aoi insisted to go home with the other. There was a twinkle in her eyes.

When Aoi returned home the next morning, she told Asa that she had laughed so loud while she experienced her first orgasm that his tiny room shook, In fact, a ceramic bird might have fallen and shattered. She wasn’t sure. “And he was so scared that he ran naked into the street carrying just his shoes.”

Asa sat up in bed, her eyes following Aoi as she giddily sang the wrong words to a popular love song as she sashayed out of the room.

Aoi, who as a child, loved exploring the rooms of the apartment, later fell in love with a fisherman from one of the tiny islands to the east. She even had mother sew her a wedding dress from scratch. It fit her so well, was so perfect, that it almost had a life of its own. It seemed to breathe. It would make Aoi breathless.

But Asa, always envious and spiteful of everyone who might have more than her, stole Aoi’s fiancé. She said it wasn’t her doing; it was his. Men can’t fight their desires. They spend so much energy on denying them, that they become exhausted and helpless in these kinds of situations.
Aoi stood for a long time, staring at the wall behind the sofa her sister sat upon, browsing a women’s fashion magazine. Her lips parted, forming something between a scowl and a smile. All she could hear was the crinkling of pages and fisherman’s words that there was no one as special as her.
Aoi withdrew from everything, cried for days and weeks. Around this time, she revealed to both mother and sister that she had noticed “cracks in the walls big enough to fit through.” It was on the other side, she said, that she saw a whole world, perhaps derived from this one, or maybe the other way around. There, she had met her real father, a lizard king who sat on a throne, who granted favors to those kind to him, respectful of the desert, of the heat, of night or of sun, of water, and most importantly, the cracks in the ordinary world that everyone either ignored or denied.
Whenever Aoi spoke of this “other” world, there were noticeable gaps in her speech. It was if someone else was speaking through her.
To keep her grounded, Asa reminded Aoi to run errands for mother, that they needed buttermilk four and rice. Aoi obeyed and cooked, but everything came out bland, tasteless.

One day, Asa announced over dinner that she had sent the suitor away. He was really below her station anyway, she said, as if she lived on top of the world. Aoi looked up then continued to eat her mountain vegetables as if it didn’t matter at all. That night, she pressed her face into her pillow and imagined smothering herself. This life of hers, or the life she wanted, she concluded, was never meant to be. She had a dream that night of the fisherman drowning. She would not save him. After it was lifted by men on police boats, his body was bloated and blanched white, She did feel then, a stab of pain and remorse.

In the weeks that followed, Aoi spent more time alone, exploring undiscovered cracks and where they led to. She told Asa of the conversations she had with the lizard king and how he wanted her to be his wife. She said she needed that wedding dress back. Asa told her to watch the simmering herring and enough of this nonsense. What’s done is done, she said, as she whisked some eggs for a cake. Mother sat stone-faced, lifeless hands on her thighs, on a mat in another room.

The apartment became tense to live in. Mother and Aoi lived in their own separate worlds and often, didn’t answer Asa’s questions or requests, or said they couldn’t “hear her.” After many flare-ups and confrontations, the mother, at Asa’s promping, committed Aoi to a mental institution. While there, Aoi, glassy-eyed and constantly smiling, warned the mother that if she did not allow her to marry the lizard king, there would be dire consequences for her. She told her that she, the mother, might fall through the wrong crack and there will be no one to catch her.

Over the years, Aoi was in and out of institutions. She was given bouts of unsuccessful electro-shock treatments, subjected to hours of therapy sessions and group meetings. There were all kinds of different colored pills and pills to counteract the effects of the others. Often, she complained how Asa brought chocolate that was already melted, or was too hard to bite into, or that Asa brought her bitter strawberries that made her screw up her face. And when she bit into them, she could taste the hatred, hatred meant for her, the acidic juice running down her lips, ruining her skin. She thought of the lizard king and how they would both glow peacefully in the night.
When not visiting, Asa stayed home to care for the mother who was becoming progressively forgetful and despondent.

Aoi returned home with a promise that she would be a better daughter and sister. But she still couldn’t stop thinking about the cracks in the walls. She avoided herself in mirrors. They made her feel ugly.

One evening, after Aoi spat out her evening meds, she tried to convince Asa to follow her into one of the “cracks,” or as she like to call them, “the tears in our fabric.” Asa refused, but when she was asleep, Aoi whispered in her ear, and in a twilight state, she followed Aoi. Deep past the crack, Asa saw the wedding dress mother once made for Aoi. It was floating through air, over tree branches. At times, it eclipsed the sun. It had a life of its own. When Asa began to run, Aoi caught her and said “I’m marrying the lizard king. He wants me. He loves me for myself.”

After other trips beyond the crack, Aoi began to look younger. Her complexion became smoother, her breasts like large ripe fruit. Asa grew winkled with lines around her eyes and mouth. Her legs turned shriveled with broken networks of veins showing. She no longer whisked through every chore. She trudged and labored. She complained of all kinds of pain.

Aoi said to her, “You can give me away at the wedding since mother disappeared. The lizard king has appointed you my good sister, my protector beyond the crack that leads into the deluded world of failure and suffocation and constant ache.”

Aoi and Asa made regular trips to visit the lizard king and the world he ruled over. Soon the two grew comfortable in either world, since they knew which one they really belonged to. Both knew they were not meant for the world of bitter strawberries, chocolate that did not taste like chocolate.

The sisters found a kind of peace they had only known when they were joined at the hip. They sometimes took that old photograph of themselves at birth and smiled and giggled over it. Sometimes they cried when they confessed they had not done enough for mother, another victim of a world one could only pay homage to, but cannot live there. Earth could be colder than Mars said Aoi, as she offered her sister a golden apple. Aoi smiled as she looked into her sister’s eyes and said, “No, it doesn’t have a worm inside it. It’s perfect in itself.”

One night, Aoi slept and awoke from a dream where a voice was calling her from a distance. Aoi looked everywhere, in the fields, over the streams and ponds, over the jagged lines of colored rocks. She could see nothing.

She slipped out of bed to make herself some tea. Asa followed her into the kitchen.

“What’s wrong?” asked Asa, “couldn’t sleep?”

Aoi shrugged. Ask Asa if she wanted some tea.

“Why not. I’m up now.”

Aoi turned her head from wall to wall. She slowly stepped out of the kitchen. Asa followed her.
A shadow loomed on each wall. It slithered, or stood upright. It waved to the sisters. Its back was slightly hunched.

The sisters huddled. Asa said she was going to grab a knife, There must be a thief in the house.

Aoi grabbed her wrist and said No. It was no thief.

“How do you know?” asked Asa. “What else could it be? Do you want to be killed or beaten without a fight?”

Aoi stared into her sister’s eyes, then crouched low and followed the shadow into every room. Asa followed behind.

“Do you think it was that fisherman who I once sent away?’ said Asa.

Aoi turned around, looked up at her sister’s face.

“Why? Why would it be him after so long? He’s probably married, I’m sure.”

The shadow stood still, crouched down too, as if imitating the two women.

Aoi whispered in her sister’s ear.

“How is it that we can see this shadow so clearly with such dim lights or no lights at all?”

Asa’s eyes roved from her sister’s face to the shadow moving from wall to wall. At one point, it faced them and seemed it would walk out of the wall and directly towards them.

“Do you know who it is?” asked Asa.

“Look at how it waves to us. Look at the curve in its back.”

Asa studied the shadow. Her eyes widened. Her jaw dropped slightly.

“It’s mother,” said Aoi. “She’s not lost after all. She’s here in some way. She’s here with us.”

“Perhaps,” said Asa.

“I wonder if she can hear us.”

Aoi waved to the shadow. It waved back and walked from wall to wall, towards mother’s old bedroom. The women followed. In the bedroom, the shadow disappeared.

“We will see her again,” said Aoi.

“I hope so,” said Asa, “I miss her so.”

The women held hands and went to pour tea.

Later that afternoon, they sat in the dining area, facing each other.

“Would you like more udon?” asked Asa of her sister sitting at the table.

“Yes, and you must join me. It’s too much for one.”

Asa bit her lip, pondered it as if something ineffable. She finally agreed. Aoi doled out generous portions into her sister’s bowl.

The lizard behind its glass case blinked its enormous eyes. Once. Then twice. Then three times.

Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He has been published in Your Impossible Voice, Night Train, Toad, Matchbox and elsewhere. His latest ebook is Father Dunne’s School for Wayward Boys at amazon.com. He blogs at http://upatberggasse19.blogspot.com/

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Little Soldier by Teresa Richards

Feb 22 2015

I am running through a dense jungle, covered in several days’ worth of muck. Bullets fall like rain, and tree branches slap me in the face as I flee. I haven’t slept in oh, so long and the weight of exhaustion tugs at my legs, slowing me down. I dive into the hollowed out section of a fallen, decaying log and lie flat on my back, breathing heavily. The bullets cease and I fidget before checking my watch for the millionth time.

She should be here by now.

The jungle waits like a hungry beast, its silence daring me to make the first move. I check my watch again and exhale in frustration.

Where is she?

I decide to give her three minutes, hoping the enemy doesn’t find me in the meantime. I search the ground at my feet, finding a small stone, and lob it high in the air. It lands in a bush somewhere to my right, startling a flock of tropical birds that take flight in confusion. The bullets resume, now conveniently aimed away from me.

The enemy falls silent and the jungle is eerily still. I ease my head up and peer over the edge of the log, scanning the horizon. I can’t see far, of course, on account of the dense vegetation I’ve gradually come to regard as home. I would be content to wait here all day if it weren’t for her. Why did she have to come with me today?

I glance at my watch, seeing that she has just thirty-three seconds left. I give myself a pep talk, detailing all of the reasons why I shouldn’t wait for her and steel myself to run when her time is up. Yet I know, deep down, I would never leave without her.

Finally, ten minutes and twenty-six seconds later, I catch sight of her little head bobbing toward me through the trees. I rock back in shock as I realize she is crawling! Adrenaline shoots through me and, after throwing a smoke bomb to give us some cover, I rush from my hiding spot and hurry toward her. She smiles at me, but I know she’s been hit. Why else would she be crawling? I don’t wait to find out; rather, I scoop her up and run as fast as my little legs will carry me.

This is exactly why I didn’t want her to come along today, but she insisted. The rendezvous point is still several miles away and I would manage it much better without having to look after my little sister. Yet here she is, bright-eyed and smiling at me, as if I’m the greatest person on the planet. And crawling in the jungle, no less! Really, I thought we were past all that.

A loud crash to my left makes my heart lurch. My sister’s eyes widen and she clings to me tighter.

Fear zaps through my veins. I know what made the crash. I’ve only heard it on one other occasion—a time that did not end well, I might add.

I do the only thing I can. “Run for your life!” I scream to no one in particular. Sometimes it just feels so good to yell at the top of your lungs. Ruthie starts slightly at my outburst and then, turning to gaze at me, flashes me one of the cutest smiles I’ve ever seen. I simply can’t resist smiling back before tearing my eyes away from her adorable little face, forcing my mind back into the game.

I need to focus. We have a hungry dinosaur to outsmart.

I shift Ruthie abruptly to my back, where she clutches to my shoulders and waist just before I take off at top speed through the jungle. I’ve always been great at running away and I utilize my skills, weaving in and out, jumping over rocks and ducking under tree branches, all in an attempt to confuse and outmaneuver the giant lizard trailing us. This one is smart, though—he stays right with us, hot on our scent no matter what tricks I pull out of my impressive, time-tested arsenal. Soon I’m breathing heavily, not used to bolting through the jungle with a baby on my back. I begin to think that maybe this will be the last of my adventures.

That’s when I see it. Our salvation. Looming high over our heads, not far in the distance. I smile.

“Don’t worry Ruthie, I have a plan!” I inform her. She’s starting to get restless and I squeeze her legs tighter, preventing her from lowering herself off my back. She protests and squirms, trying to free her legs. I know that if she gets down she’ll be a goner, and I just love her too much to let that happen.

“I’m sorry, Ruthie. You can’t get down or the angry dinosaur will eat you up!” I inform her, changing course abruptly to accommodate my new plan. She squirms some more, but I’m holding her fast and there’s nothing she can do about it. I will not let her fall prey to that horrible monster.

It begins to rain, but I soldier on. I hear shots in the distance and wonder absently what my enemies are firing at. A massive scream of protest reaches me from the depths of the jungle and the dinosaur behind me roars in response, pausing briefly in his pursuit. I take advantage of his lapse and dart to my right, ducking behind a massive boulder and crouching out of sight.

At last, we’ve reached the tree! I know the dinosaur will be chasing us again soon so I don’t lose any time. I release Ruthie’s legs and help her slide to the ground, where she giggles and stretches up onto her toes, attempting to run away from me. Oh, of course now she wants to show off her new skills, when she would be running straight off a cliff and into a churning waterfall!

I reach out and pull her back, clapping my hand over her mouth and gritting my teeth as her ear-piercing shrieks ring out through the air. Well, if we had lost the dinosaur, he knows where we are now. I stretch up and grab the end of a massive vine hanging from the gnarled old tree and tie it quickly around Ruthie’s waist.

“Hold still,” I insist, knowing that if I don’t get it just right then she runs the risk of tumbling into the waterfall we’ll be swinging across in order to escape mister cranky-pants dinosaur. When she’s tied up nice and tight, I secure another vine around my own waist.

Ruthie is kicking and screaming now, red in the face and angry as a bear that she’s tied up. I’m trying to soothe her when I hear the dinosaur crash back to life behind us, joined now by a second set of rumbling footfalls. I know time is running out, but just as I move to push Ruthie off the rock, I hear the most dreaded sound in the entire world.

“Tristan! What on earth are you doing?”

The dinosaurs flee in fear, the jungle fades away, and I am left standing at the top of a staircase, the loose end of a rope in my five-year-old hand. The other end of the rope is wrapped around the waist of my livid one-year-old sister, who is outraged by the fact that she’s been tethered to me unwillingly.

“Tristan, I asked you a question! Answer me, please.”

I gaze sheepishly up at my mother and explain that we were trying to escape from two hungry dinosaurs by swinging over a waterfall on some tree vines. Really, what does it look like we’re doing? Does she think I want my baby sister to get eaten by dinosaurs? I don’t say that last bit out loud, of course.

Mother scolds me and unties Ruthie, picking her up and cooing softly in an attempt to soothe her.

So now I am sitting in Time Out. Again. I don’t understand what was so wrong with trying to save my sister from the jaws of death, but apparently, benevolence is frowned upon in this house. I will be sure to remember that the next time we are under attack.

I sigh and rest my chin on my knees.

Suddenly, I hear something. I straighten up and cock my head, listening. A faint buzzing noise, getting stronger, is headed this way. I know it immediately—the sounds of a fighter jet whirring to life. I lift my head and turn to face the horizon. A blue sky peppered with puffy white clouds looms over a lonely terrain.

I bounce anxiously in my seat, waiting for the moment when I am released from my prison sentence.

The sky is calling.

Bio:
Teresa Richards has been writing since eighth grade, when she co-wrote her first novel with her best friend. She earned her degree in Audiology-and-Speech-Language Pathology from Brigham Young University, took a break to get married and have a few kids, and then took up writing again with a vengeance. She writes novels and short stories, as well as children’s picture books. Teresa can often be found reading or writing in lieu of cleaning or exercising.

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Shadowlands by Cooper Smith

Feb 15 2015

I pull up and park my motorcycle outside a small townhouse, this is the address that was reported for a disturbance. I look around to see if the caller is still around but the street is abandoned. Good, I haven’t even walked up to the door and I can already feel the chill that runs up my spine. This isn’t a false alarm, we have a breech.

As I walk up to the door I take out my U.L.E.R., what we officers call our Ultra-Light Emitting Rays, it won’t kill whatever is in there but it will stun it, and I would rather not pull out my Shade till I need it. I move to push the door open and find it unlocked. Could be looters but it is more likely the place was abandoned and the previous owners didn’t care. That is the case in a lot of boroughs like these. I slowly push the door open with my right hand, crossed over my arm that is holding the U.L.E.R., just like they teach us at the Monastery. At 18 I am one of the oldest officers, been on patrol for 5 years, but I still take the time to think about each rule and practice they teach you as a Green. It calms me and I am sure it is one of the reasons I am one of the oldest officers. By the time I run through the list of rules in my head I have already closed the door behind me. It won’t do much good if we have a Breecher charging through it but it may slow it down just enough for me to catch it.

I walk through the bottom floor of the house, no sign of movement. I look around and see pictures, the only things the looters don’t lift. Most of them are of a nice young couple, attractive, dressed nicely, one of the pictures was even taken in front of a tree. Must have had money. While my eyes look over the pictures I receive some information on it from one of my implants. I feel a warmth from the back of my neck and in a fraction of a second I am given a condensed stream of information on the residence.

They lived here awhile with their newborn; after a couple of months some people broke in. Two looters, climbed in through a second story window, one of the perps heard a noise, reacted and shot into a dark corner of the room. The kid was killed instantly. After a few weeks the couple couldn’t stand living in the house and moved. Six months later and here I am. The stream ends and I’m back to the present, and that is when I hear the scurrying upstairs.

I know what I am dealing with here, that stream was all I needed. I make my way to the staircase. I hesitate at the bottom; I know what is waiting for me up there. I unsheathe my Shade and clench it tight while I feel the warmth leave me. The amount of times I have had to use this thing, I can’t imagine I have much time left, maybe a year if I’m lucky. They say every time you even hold it you have a few months shaved off your life; a few years if you actually get up the nerve to use it. Who knows, maybe this Breecher will kill me or maybe killing it will kill me. That is the worst part of being on the Blackguard, the only thing that can kill Breechers wants to kill you too. Either way it doesn’t matter, I have a job to do. I push the thought from my mind and work my way up the stairs.

About halfway up I feel another chill shoot through my spine, it hisses at me to turn around and leave, to get out of this house. I feel the pale-blue blade hum in my hand. It is excited, it wants blood, my blood. It is thinking the same thought I just was. But this is my job, this is why I was chosen, so I push myself. I get to the top of the stairs and stop, but not out of fear, I am winded. I wasn’t thinking, I should have waited till I got to the top of the stairs to draw the Shade, but, like always, I feel a pinch in my arm and my implant delivers me a heavy dose of adrenaline. With more strength I turn the corner and see it.

It is padding around in the corner where the baby died, looking pathetic; if this thing could cry I bet it would. It must be hard, remembering a life that it never lived, just a shadow. Just a shadow remembering what little it can from a child who lived a short life. Even without the info I received I can tell it how long it has been since the kid died just from looking at its Shadow. It still kind of looks like an infant, only difference is that its limbs are longer, like they have been stretched out of necessity, like a spider. That and its skin is an unnatural black. Though the skin is a quality all Shadows share.

This one is still developing clinging on to a shape that it can piece together, but soon it will lose those remnants and it will change as is necessary. Maybe it will grow wings or a snout, the good thing is that it hasn’t yet so this kill should be easy. Keeping an eye on the Shadow with my Shade out I holster my U.L.E.R. Then I move my hand up slowly to right under my ear. I feel for the round button and press it. For a moment my eyelids flutter, a reflex so I know that the Court House can see what I see right now. I reach again for my U.L.E.R., ready to aim and pull the trigger but I was too slow. The Shadow turned and looked at me dead on with its pale blue eyes and just like that it was heading for me.

I tried to aim and fire but I my Shade was draining me and I couldn’t focus. My gun was swatted away and I dropped to one knee. All I had to fight now was with this thin knife and it was already trying to kill me. I pulled the blade in close and rolled back before I took a stomp from the Shadow’s clubbed foot. I was back on my feet again before it had the chance to strike. I went back to the Monastery again, just like they taught us, dodge strafe slash stab. It was all muscle memory at this point but my knees quivered and I stalled allowing one of its hands to slash at my shoulder.

It had no claws to speak of, or talons or even sharp nails, but it cut into my flesh all the same. A normal human would have died there but I was raised as part of the Blackguard. I had gone through hell being given the best that science and the occult could offer. I am this world’s one line of defense from the Shadowlands and all of the messed up shit that breeches the wall. I am eighteen years old and I am dying way too soon to give up now. With what little strength I had in my legs I pushed myself forward and rolled over the Shade. When my back was pressed to the ground underneath the Shadow I used both hands and pushed the blade into the jaw and saw it come out through the top of its head. It just stared at me. It stared at me with those pale eyes the same color as my Shade and the same color as mine.

There was no more humming from the Shade, it fell silent as the shadowy infant dissolved from existence. I felt my wound burn as I sheathed the Shade and a huge breath of air fills my lungs. I could feel the warmth return to my body and looking at my hand I could see some of the life return to my skin. I force myself off the ground with another burst of adrenaline, just enough to get me to the Court House Med Center. I pick up my U.L.E.R. and take the stairs three at a time on the way down, I almost fall but I catch myself at the bottom. I don’t care, I just want to get out of here. I exit the house and hop on my motorcycle. I am ready to drive off to have the doctors patch me up and tell me how lucky I am just to be walking around.

Before I drive off I look around at the houses on the street. I was taken the day I was born. I never met my parents; maybe they lived in a house like this? Maybe I would be dead if it weren’t for the Blackguard? Maybe my memories would go on to live in one of these deranged echoes? I think on these questions for a bit and imagine what life would be like on the other side. Then I ride off and leave them behind with the abandoned house. This is New Boston, it’s best if we don’t question our lot in life here.

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Summer by Jane VanCantfort

Feb 08 2015

I remember when I couldn’t seem to find contentment. Contentment, now a distant luxury, a concept you couldn’t explain to children, though I haven’t seen a child in awhile, not since the baby passed.

Life was so easy then; with yoga classes and three square meals a day and a comfy bed and floral pillows. Lovely weekends, filled with cleaning and food shopping and laundry and gardening and cooking,; but even so I’d often be at loose ends, wandering from room to room. Maybe I’d cook some more, make homemade potato salad from my mom’s recipe, the one with the cider vinegar on the hot potatoes, with my addition of cilantro from the window box. Maybe I’d make my signature dark chocolate banana bread., Or I’d go for a long run on our country road and come back and do some weight lifting; and read the latest short fiction in a magazine; band yet I could still find myself staring into space with an inexplicable malaise. Now I see what I have lost; now that my fear is real.

And life was easy that last summer, so warm and sunny. The strawberries were a brilliant deep red, ripening early, and each bite had an explosion of flavor, of sweetness, of red juice flowing. The farmer’s market was always bustling; I can close my eyes and still see the piles of patty pan squash in brilliant speckled green and yellow, the mountains of lettuces and green beans, the brilliant shades of the gladioli. I took photos of the bounty and posted them and all my friends liked them; that is how we were back then. I googled canning and made strawberry preserves and felt so proud when they were lined up on the shelf in the new mason jars in my little storeroom in the barn.

One Saturday at the outdoor market there were no squash, just gourds. I had always loved gourds, I remember my mom buying them in September or October for her fall displays. I loved the unusual colors and the bulging warts, protruding oddly and different than I had ever seen.

“Why don’t you have any more patty pan?” I asked the young farmer, who, like many of the farmers affected the bearded overall style of the latter day hippie.
“I think the compost I used got degraded, its never happened before, and I think the gourds are early this year anyway…. you can’t eat them but they are sure pretty. We call then bi-racial because of all the colors!” He guffawed, a bit self-consciously; perhaps he had been using the line all morning. I smiled and bought a bag full. It was strange they were so early, and they had never been such n a brilliant red and burgundy. They looked pretty in my Mexican bowl in the entryway.
It was such fun for the young people, that summer, we’d see them headed out to the lake with their jet skis every day. They started having dances at the meadow that surrounded the old mine mansion, with solar Japanese lanterns; we could hear the music faintly as we waiting for the sun to leave us for another day. I imagined the girls were wearing tiny summer dresses, as I once would have done.

Our public pool was stuffed with people daily, and the city council voted to up the cost per swim. People worried about sicknesses from the pool, which was so jammed with people. It stayed hot until 10 or 11 pm, in fact it didn’t really ever totally cool off, not like it used to. And old folks had to be checked on, and there was a new program to get swamp coolers to the poor, and cell phone kept going out. Oh, we heard tales of twin tornados and the fires in the south were terrible and they had to ration the water, but we were on a well so we kept watering, and the tiger lilies had never looked better.

One of our shrubs, which had never bloomed before, suddenly had tiny white blossoms. It was pretty, but it became infested with tiny flies with shiny copper eyes, you couldn’t walk by the plant without being in a cloud of flies, and we started leaving the house by the other walkway to avoid them. The shrub is outside the window of the storeroom, I can see it, or what’s left of it, through the dust and cracks in the window. I can see it from the far corner where I wait for them. The storeroom is where I hide now. I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been here, could be three weeks, surely not three months.

Back then our chickens kept sitting on eggs, and we had more chicks then we knew what to do with, but they kept dying. Joe found one with its eyes bleeding, and then more of them were floating in the horse trough. We had a little plant of marijuana, since it was legal and we liked to smoke in the evening, and that formed giant buds way before the season usually ended, and the weed was so strong we just had one or two hits and were set for the evening. When we sat in our chaises and took in the sights, it was like we were looking through a iridescent floating bubble, and all the trees and flowers looked soft and inviting, and we heard the low buzz of the insects throughout the night.

Joe started to get extra tired daily, even though he loved to garden; the days were just so hot. Our old dog Parker was always miserable and panting, and could barely climb the stairs, and Joe usually left him in all day with a water bowl that he had to frequently refill.

We used to watch the news while I made dinner, we had the top floor of the barn converted to a loft and I could chop at the kitchen island and watch the giant flat screen TV, and the news and the weather just seemed more and more ominous each night. We were having power failures frequently, and sometimes the cable would go out.

“Why would terrorists shoot down a plane? What good would it do them?” Joe asked one evening, reacting to a war event, there was always something lurking in some part of the world.
“It shows the world the injustice of the powers that be, I guess.” I answered.
“Things have always been unjust, though, haven’t they?” Joe asked.
“I’m more worried that they shut down the borders of a whole country, because of Ebola!”
“Ebola will never get here, though.”

We switched to the local news; the mountain lion sightings, the city council elections, much more calming. After all, there had been a terrible world event in every year of our lives. I was always railing about injustice back then and taking the side of the underdog; our little debates, so silly now. How arrogant we were, to think that our opinions mattered.

The heat was unrelenting as summer wore on. Even at nine in the evening, as I sat in my chair under the heavy flower baskets we had hanging, I couldn’t believe how much I would sweat. There was often sweat pooled in the hollow of my throat and my scalp was damp, and there was always a film of sweat on my face. I had to slather myself with Buzz Away all the time, and the odor of it was always on my hands.

Joe and I were typical old folks, complaining of fatigue, and there were tales of other elderly fainting in public, or passing away alone in overheated apartments. There were even wholesome ads on TV , with the phrase: “Weather, we are all in it together. I saw it on billboards and grocery bags.

The cell phone coverage kept fluctuating, I didn’t understand the technology, why would heat affect satellites, but they said it was solar flares, or maybe solar storms. The price of water kept going up, but Joe and I were on a well with a windmill, so we kept watering, but Joe worried that eventually the ground water would run out if it didn’t rain. In town there was a reward if you saw people watering or spraying off the sidewalk, which used to be routine, and the penalties got harsher, jail on the second offense.

And then it got hotter than the records had ever shown, and it was almost September. It seemed like all the leaves were dying, not changing, We rented out a modular home on our property to a young couple, Jared and Renee. I didn’t talk to them much, I wanted them to have their privacy from a on-site landlady, so I was surprised to see Renee making her way over to our side with baby Avery. I hadn’t see either of them in weeks. They used to barbecue outside with friends, and throw a ball for the dog, but they had been staying in all day lately.

I could see the dust Renee’s flip flops made as she walked, and even from the second floor window the baby looked listless and pale. I cranked up the fan and poured us ice tea, and took the baby from her as we sat at the kitchen table. Avery looked dully at me and seemed so quiet.
“I can’t get her to nurse, do you think I should switch to rice cereal?” Renee asked.
“I think she is too young, you should hold off until five or six months.” I said, stroking the baby’s sweaty head. Renee looked sickly too, soaked with sweat and wearing the same stained denim shorts and tank top she had worn last time I saw her.
“Did your kids have diarrhea in the summer when they were little? Did they ever not want to eat at all?” she asked. “The pediatrician says she isn’t thriving.” Renee said, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Oh sure, kids are always losing their appetite in the summer, or having the runs, or getting prickly heat on the back of their necks.”
Renee nodded, gratefully, but I was frightened to see the baby so thin. It was odd to see gnats in Avery’s eyes, and she had no energy to brush them away.
“Maybe you could fill the baby pool and …” I started to say, but she was already shaking her head no, I guess they didn’t want to spare the water.
Before we knew it, it was Labor Day, and there was no sign of the heat passing on. They tried to say it was Indian summer, but I wasn’t sure.

Joe and I weren’t watering anymore, we were afraid the well would run dry, so we filled water bottles and stored them by the washer dryer. We tried to do as little laundry as possible, and wear the same shorts and tanks for as many days as we could stand.

They shut down the farmers market for the season because it was so dry and dusty by 9 am and the vegetables weren’t thriving anymore. The grocery stores cut their hours, too, not wanting to use the power to be open all night.

A lot of the kids in town got a stomach flu that wouldn’t leave them alone; and the talk returned that the dirty pool water caused it, or maybe it was the runoff from the manure, or maybe the river wasn’t clean anymore. The water looked different, and there was a smell; not chemical exactly but strange when you turned on the tap. The water stopped running in the local ditch and the fish were dying in the lake, no one knew why.

When they said we couldn’t use the air conditioner anymore, too many people were using power, we didn’t care, we had always thought it was bad for the environment, and we were used to lying on the bed at night, sweating, hearing the fan turn. Then electricity costs went up so we went for no fans as well and we started sleeping out on the porch. I wasn’t that much cooler. We moved the chaises upstairs and slept separately, it was just too hot to bump into another sweaty body at night. The store sold paper fans now, and I remember as a child the fans in church during services, I hadn’t thought of those in years. Maybe we were returning to a simpler time. How foolish a thought.

“Just think how the settlers had it, back in the 1800s. They didn’t have electricity or refrigeration at all, and only took a bath once a week.” Joe said from his lounge,
“I guess we can get used to this, huh? At least I don’t have to wear the dresses they wore back then….”
“I like the hats the men wore though, and the suspenders. And my feet have to be as dirty as theirs were!” Joe said. “ He wiggled his crusty brown toes. Joe could always get me to laugh, and I feel asleep watching the stars. They looked cool up in space, glowing like ice in the night sky.

We started thinking we had better save some food, the market was so picked over, so I got sacks of brown rice and dried pinto beans at the coop, and we decided to solar dry our veggies, but the veggies were so withered they looked dried before I even put them in the rack. I got a lot of canned food at Grocery Outlook, but I had to be so aggressive in grabbing things I was a little frightened; people used to be so much nicer, now it was all elbows and dirty looks. All the bottled water and batteries were out of there, and I had to get Vienna sausages even though we hated it. At least I could give it to the dog.
I still tried to keep up my old routines, I still went running, but now I went at first light to avoid as much heat as I could. I still went to the place I always went, but I started walking halfway there, it was just so hot.

One morning I heard a terrible rustling and grunting in the Manzanita growth. I stopped dead in my tracks, it was an awful noise that I still can hear when I concentrate, or maybe I am thinking of the sounds I hear in the next room as I wait here, its all mixed up now.

Then I saw it, about 30 yards away, a mountain lion pursuing a wounded deer, and I saw it pounce and the deer screamed and I smelled blood. I turned and ran for my life, imagining claws on my back, and I never went back. I can still see its muscular tawny body stretched all the way out to pounce on the scrambling, bleeding deer. She didn’t have a chance.

I switched to walking on the road and then it was too hot for that, and it didn’t seem safe. People from the city were coming up more and more, and I didn’t want anyone following me back to the house. There seemed to be strangers living in the woods.

Joe and I went to the city council meeting, just to see what the plans were, with the stores in town shuttering and the mail delivery down to twice a week and all the new people in town. Our town had always been divided with a conservative tilt, but now the Tea Party had a strong voice, as all their nay saying and fears seemed to be coming true.
I was shocked to see an old man carrying a picture of a coffin, saying the government was going to leave us to die.
Joe approached him with a smile.
“Aren’t you exaggerating a bit there friend?”
The old man turned and looked at him, taking in his long hair and farmer’s feet, and the anger was so fierce and sudden.
“You’re a fool if you think that, and you’ll deserve what happens to you.” The old man almost spit at Joe, spittle was on his lips, and I pulled Joe fiercely to get him away.

Joe had always been a pacifist, he was a conscientious objector in the war three wars back. I think he was shocked at the venom, but then it got so much worse.

They was a lot of talk about the guns for sale after the meeting, that did scare me. but for me the worst part was the open discussion.
“Back in Washington, they don’t care about us. They don’t care I went and fought in their war, and they don’t care if we run out of water and gas either.” A young veteran said, his voice rough and husky with emotion, and all the people around him patted him on the back.

We left the meeting early and I didn’t like the feeling of the eyes on our backs . I was relieved to get in the car, and locked my door the second I got in. Gas was up to $7.00 so we decided to come to town even less.

I sat on the deck to look at the moon that night, and I wondered what we would do if they came over from the highway to our place, we had big glass windows, perfect for the valley views but I felt vulnerable.

Then our son, Wade, living down in the city, lost his job. That was bad enough, but he was also worried about the sea level. He heard rumors that they might evacuate the coast and his place was one block from the beach. Wade said the fog was changing, it used to roll in daily in the summer, so there was just a few hours of sun each day; but now the fog was rare and had a yellow cast.

I had taken to turning my phone off, now I turned it on twice a week, I used to scroll through silly pictures constantly, but now I worried it wouldn’t be charged if the power went out. When I turned it on I saw a message from Wade. It was three days old.

“Hi Momma! Hey, it’s getting kinda hairy about here, and Stef and I want to come up and stay for a while. They are going to evacuate and I don’t want to be part of that mess. I’m gonna bring my guns, might be good to have some security up there. Might take us a couple of days to get there. ” He laughed, but the dread in my stomach felt like a punch.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll make it. Put a jar of jam aside for me, okay? And some eggs? Love you!”

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And then it was over, it got bad so fast. Now I know that the fabric of civilization is a fragile mesh. it seemed like it took three days for us to be on our own but I guess I am exaggerating. I remember reading what people went through in the Holocaust and the Reckoning but I never saw it happening to us. I just didn’t expect the lawlessness. I didn’t think the government would just go missing. I didn’t think neighbors would turn on each other. I didn’t think of the terrible violence. I didn’t think hungry people would binge on meth.

We became people who lived behind boarded up windows only venturing out when desperate for water or food. Then we lost even that, when they invaded the house.
We ended up in the little storeroom downstairs, along with some of the neighbors they had rounded up, and our tenants and their baby. That was rough, but Joe had it worse.

Joe had run out of medications he took for blood pressure for quite a while, and wasn’t himself; he had always wanted to be the husband and caretaker and he just couldn’t stop the way things got. He hated being powerless, they wouldn’t listen to him, they struck him more than once and I hated to see him old and helpless, and when they shot Parker Joe didn’t recover. Then the baby passed, and we helped them bury her at night in a dresser drawer wrapped in her favorite blanket.

Then Joe had another stroke, after they broke his nose with the rifle butt, and this one was bad, his face drooped and he couldn’t use his arm. The last stroke he had been in the hospital for a week with physical therapy and 24 hour nursing, this time he lay on a pile of old rags we had in the barn. He couldn’t speak either though he tried. I kept telling him I loved him and we would get through this, but his eyes were filled with fear, and he would work his mouth but only sounds would come out. Then one day he was just gone, and I didn’t tell them but when they brought the water but they saw and took him. They dragged him, and his head banged on the concrete floor. Mary covered her face with her hands but I kept looking.

I hated them so much. Once they had to be young people, probably at the dances, and I don’t know how they learned to be so cruel. They had to be the people who I used to see, selling tires, having families, but they had changed.

Then they took Jared and Nick away, and we women were alone. Renee had been catatonic since the baby, but Mary was always on the edge of hysteria. They took Renee first, she was the youngest and prettiest and when they took her she didn’t struggle. I don’t know what they did to her; I only know she didn’t scream. I could hear them laughing. They drank a lot, and I guess meth; they always seemed so wired and so cruel.

Mary was next, and she screamed and cried and struggled, and I sat numbly alone in the room. I was almost sixty and I guess they didn’t really want me. They forgot the water for a day and I hoped they would forget me. I could sit and remember, but the fear made the memories jumbled, and I guess not eating too. Nature used to always soothe me, but I didn’t ever hear birds chirping and the sky wasn’t blue very often.

I found a few tablespoons of jam in a jar hidden under a crate, that jam I made in early summer, and I ate a half of it. I felt sick but I kept it down. I held some under my tongue like I used to do with candy when I was young.

Then they came for me. I still had the taste of jam in my mouth when they grabbed me, and they pulled me out of the room into my barn. They dragged me to the stairs, and suddenly I thought of the deer in the woods months ago. I might as well run. I could run up the hill toward Mary’s old place. Maybe I could live back in the woods where I used to run. Maybe somewhere there will still good people.

I sagged and pretended to faint, and they loosened their grip. Then I burst into a run, still tasting the summer berries, and I started up the hill. I ran like the deer, I ran as fast as I had ever run. Maybe this time the deer will get away.

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