Dichotomy Ground by S.L. Dixon

Feb 26 2017

Two died on impact. Strong and healthy roots from separate and yet entangled family trees gone in an instant.

A third involved in the incident died while the screaming sirens and the bright lights did little beyond clearing a path and offering the sidewalk gawkers a reason for speculation. The rolling white cube carted nothing more than a still warm body. However, if his life’s work meant much, he was in a better place. Being a man of the cloth suggested no less than Heaven.

Two survived, and to add to the chaos of the scene, there was the sixth body.

A body long cold and days dead. It almost seemed as if the corpse dropped from the sky, smack in the middle of the wreckage.

It was young woman with a familiar face. That face had been on the news all week. Her parents were worried sick. There was a fight and Little Miss Thing had an attitude and yet, according to the teary-faced mother, Carrie was a good girl, acting out that’s all. Those words and the accompanying tears were all over the news every day following Carrie’s stroll on Highway 66. It was hours before anyone recognized an issue.

Carrie’s mother discovered something didn’t fit when Sandi, Carrie’s friend from up the highway, called to check on Carrie, said Carrie wasn’t answering texts and said Carrie was to be by… when was that exactly?

A question people ask when the hot ball of worry drops into their bellies, something’s wrong and it’s been that way for hours now, but… how many? When was it, exactly? Oh God.

Mama told the cameras pointed at her front door about what Carrie wore out of the house. It was embarrassing. Mama let Carrie out in a short skirt and a fishnet top that showed off a fluorescent pink halter. On her feet, pink heels completed the look. It was definitely not Grace of God Baptist Church approved.

After acknowledging an issue, neighbours searching the side of the highway found a pink heel that booted that worry like a soccer ball, booted it into all-out panic.

Everybody guessed the likely answer, but nobody said. Girls on the highway had a way of showing up used and abused, final heartbeats drummed and no way to paint a suspect. There were already four that year and the police did not have a clue where to look as thousands took that highway, daily.

When Carrie’s body showed up in the middle of a car accident in the ditch, they thought perhaps that luck had finally swung in their direction. Thank God.

It was a three-car collision. A pack of elk decided it was a good time to cross the highway and a rusty Ford truck plowed into a little Nissan and a mid-size Chevy. It appeared most of those riding in the vehicles had a lazy attitude toward safety belts.

The two survivors shared a wide hospital room with two empty beds, left so, for the sake of the families. All expected an early checkout time, despite whatever hope rattled around minds.

A detective waited outside the door, he had some questions to ask the one woman, but the doctor said no and the nurse told him he’d best skedaddle if he didn’t want a size seven square in his ass. Frustrated, he waited and watched as people came in and out, deathbed exceptions to the rules for family members only.

One clinging to life was just thirty-three, no husband, no kids, a ghost of her former self. She rested, unconscious, her name Eliza Goodman, or Lizzy to her friends. Eliza was on the brink, her lungs needing regular drainage even after the first surgery. It didn’t look good. She was pretty well dead to the world long before anything was official, but that didn’t keep her parents from rushing the two hours along rough highway and into her hospital room.

“Look at her, I mean just look at her,” Maria Goodman said to her husband, she gripped her Bible begging for a red zone defence from the Man Upstairs. Keep that score the way it was, please!

Bryan Goodman put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and pulled her to his chest, knowing exactly what went through her head looking down at that puffy white face. Hell, that was it and he knew it too. They’d discussed it and thought they’d have time to reconcile, let it slide for a few years until she came to her senses, but she’d never get a chance at redemption if she never awoke.

It was the failing of her last relationship and the loss of the baby growing in her oven that turned Eliza sour on the Lord. Neither Bryan nor Maria could say much, not right away. They did their best to give space at such a troubling time, although it was the duty of every good Christian to lead stray sheep back to the flock.

“We should’ve tried harder,” said Maria, tears danced down her face. “She’s doomed if she doesn’t wake up and beg the Lord, beg His forgiveness for what she’d said, doomed.”

Bryan wanted to say something reassuring about the Lord’s way and the His work, but none of it sounded right for that moment. Their daughter was on her way and not to a better place. Good person or not, she didn’t get right with the Lord and that meant she was right with Satan.

A machine attached to the woman in the bed next to Eliza beeped frantically and the woman leaned forward. Her eyes scanned and her arms flailed with frantic swipes, looking for something, needing help.

“Oh Bryan, get the nurse,” said Maria and she ran to the panicked woman.

Bryan raced out of the room, his sneakers squeaking on the shiny, waxed floor.

“What’s going on?” the detective demanded.

Bryan ignored him and got to the nurses’ station. It wasn’t far, but it doesn’t say anything about cardio in the Good Book, not directly anyway. He huffed and gasped, mouthing words. The nurse got the just of it and ran past him.

The detective demanded information from the nurse as she rushed. She ignored him. He stopped Bryan from trailing the nurse all the way in, “What’s happening, is there trouble?” asked the detective. He’d had time to think and it seemed very unlikely that the accident happened on a fortunate spot. He deduced that more likely a serial killer was on her way to a dumpsite. The perp liked rivers and there was a wooded area featuring a secluded canoe launch not ten minutes up the highway. Let the body float and bob, let that evidence wash away with nature.

It was possible that the body had been dumped in the vicinity and that the killer had long gone. It was possible.

It seemed a hell of a lot more likely that the woman in the room was in on it, maybe not the main show, but in the mix. Right there with that same raping and murdering sonofabitch they’d sought for almost a year and who they’d linked to past crimes as far back as 1995. Sonofabitch was a PG term for this guy. At the station they had an entire rainbow of colorful titles for him to hear if they ever caught him. They never thought there’d be a her involved or even considered the possibility that it was just a her.

“You can take a boot,” the detective muttered to himself and then chased into the room to gawk at the questionable woman struggling for life.

The nurse busied herself with a needle over the washroom’s sink. Eliza was asleep and her father cried, nodding with along to the rambling Biblical chanting performed by her harried mother.

The suspect repeated over and over that she was sorry for what she’d done. Her greasy blonde hair crawling over the bandage on her head, falling into her eyes as she struggled against the pain. Life was hard and death was no different.

“Forgive me, Jesus, please, take me! Jesus, forgive me, I’m sorry!” the woman begged, wailing.

The beeping became frantic. The nurse raced back and tripped on a loose shoelace, spilling her forward, the needle skittered under the heat register, she yelled a chorus of near-obscenities and crawled across the room seeking the needle.

The detective decided to question the woman trying for peace with Jesus, “Ursula Donaldson,” the detective pushed aside the short-range missionaries and leaned down to look into the woman’s panicked eyes, “did you kill Carrie Howe?”

There was recognition there, it was there all right, but before the detective could ask another question, the nurse stuck the needle into Ursula and she fluttered off to sleep.

The Goodman’s returned to their spot next to their daughter, feeling better as they’d saved a soul, although wishing it were Eliza’s soul they’d saved. And… what was it that the detective asked about anyway? Did that poor woman kill a girl named Carrie? Nonsense…, but if she had, she repented and, made good with the Lord. It’s the only real law of the land anyway. She might not get the star treatment, but the Lord would love her for the devotion and repentance, sure He would.

Ursula Donaldson made it three more hours, but never regained consciousness, dying at exactly seven that evening. It was sad, but there was still a chance for Eliza. She’d gone in for another surgery at six and the doctors said it went well. It felt like one of those things only God knows for sure.

First thing the next morning, Eliza had another surgery. Maria read aloud from the Bible, hoping something might stick and allow their daughter consciousness for a second, just a second, long enough to let God know she’d changed her way.

#

Eliza opened her eyes. She was warm and comfortable and yet, she didn’t feel herself. Her skin was tight, comfy and clear. It reminded her of high school but without all the acne. She sat in a field, her mind in a fog, the memory of how she got there was gone. She recalled being in Kate’s car. Malcolm was behind her and Kate and he had sunburn on his back so he couldn’t sit against the seat. They sang, all of them sang, loudly.

Some damn song. Catchy as hell… but then what?

Eliza got to her feet and looked around the peculiar landscape. The grass with luscious green and full, without weeds. She brushed at her short dress, curious about how she’d come to fit into a dress she had in the ninth grade. It was not as if she’d packed on much weight, but over the years her body shifted in shape, giving her a more womanly quality than that of a young boy. Nonetheless, she liked the dress and was happy that it fit again. A ways ahead she saw a road. It was warm and the grass felt nice on her bare feet.

“What was that song?” she asked herself, stopping as the sound of her voice registered fully. “Hello, hello. My name is Lizzy. Mo, mo, me, me,” she said, her voice was light and high, higher than it was when she and Kate and Malcolm sang along to that damn song.

She skipped toward the road, humming the tune of the song she couldn’t remember. It was pretty much the catchiest tune of all time and somehow it escaped her.

“Who cares about the name of a song? How did you get here? Where’s here?”

Just before the road there was a patch of butterflies resting atop a bed of wild flowers. She crept slowly, they fluttered into a breezy cloud and then dispersed, all but one. One beautiful creature with black circles over large blue and yellow wings landed on the tip of her nose. She smiled and wrinkled her face. A sneeze rocked her head forward and the butterfly followed its friends.

She bent to pick an orange wild flower and put it in her hair, it matched her puffy little dress perfectly. It seemed such a strange thing to do. Yet, it felt right just then. A gentle breeze put the scent of pine in the air from the forest on the other side of the road. Walking in the gravel didn’t appeal, but the grassy edge dipped down into the ditch for much of the trip.

“Screw it,” she said and took a timid step expecting a great discomfort and found a wonderful surprise. Each stone worked like magic fingertips, scratching spots she hadn’t realized itched, never tickling, just scratching and massaging. “I could walk here forever,” she whispered and continued down the road.

The sun began to lower behind her and she thought she pointed east.

Maybe over to… “Where in the hell am I?”

Eliza glanced up to the evening sky and as if her luck needed any luck, a truck rolled along the road. It was bright and shiny, but older, from the nineties. Eliza lifted her hand to block out the sun and watched the truck approach her. Part of her wanted to walk more, barefoot, loving the gravel, but another part didn’t like spending nights on the side of the road.

The truck slowed. It was a big Ford, it had a double-sized cab and a blonde haired woman with a wide smile sat behind the wheel. She reached over to turn down the radio and swung open the passenger’s side door, it was a Nelly Furtado song, I’m like a bird.

Eliza stepped closer. The driver pulled a denim jacket into the small strip of vinyl on the fabric bench, a center spot fit for only tiny bottoms. She waved Eliza in, seeming all right. Still, Eliza remained cautious. The corners of the driver’s mouth lowered into a thoughtful frown.

“Hey girl, did ya need a lift?” the driver asked.

“Maybe, where you going?”

“Don’t know. I’m lost. I’ve been driving since last night and can’t put my finger on where in the world I am, but it sure is pretty ‘round here.”

Eliza couldn’t disagree. The lack of knowledge this driver held didn’t sit well, maybe the next car might have a driver better acclimated.

“If you want, I’m heading west, I think. That way nonetheless,” the driver pointed through the window and squinted, one eye closed.

“You see anybody else around?”

The driver dropped her hand to the gear shifter. It had a blue and yellow butterfly inside its glass knob.

“You know what, I haven’t seen a soul, just you. So ya coming?”

“I don’t know, I don’t usually accept rides from strangers,” said Eliza, she sounded especially childish.

“Oh I don’t blame you there. While you’re waiting for your pops to come along and pick you up, someone bad might come. It makes you think, don’t it?” the driver nodded.

Eliza thought, it’s not as if it’s some rough old man.

“I took a couple bad rides in my life. I know how it can feel. Best get in. I’d feel better for you.”

“Hmm, all right,” Eliza said and scooted sideways. The seat was springy and pleasant on her back and butt.

She caught her reflection in the door mirror. It was her and at the same time, it wasn’t, not anymore. It was the Eliza that owned the orange dress, a young girl with tiny hips and pebble breasts. The face in the mirror was Eliza’s junior grades self… but without all the acne.

Eliza forced her eyes forward to the road, it got darker by the minute and she was starting to feel very fortunate to be in the truck.

The driver brushed her long blonde hair behind her ear. Eliza stared at the woman’s strange earrings. Real butterflies stopped dead and hung stiff for fashion.

“You like them?” the driver asked, noticing the interest. The butterflies dangled on slim gold chains.

“Sure seems like you like butterflies,” said Eliza.

“Don’t you like butterflies? I love them. Most girls love butterflies. Are you suggesting that you don’t just love them? I ain’t met a girl that don’t love them,” the driver turned toward Eliza with a heinous, toothy grin.

Eliza thought she was probably one poor soul in school. A rough trailer park girl that never caught a break, probably a poor luckless soul her entire life. Eliza also wondered why she looked, felt and thought about things along the lines of school.

Why do I look like this again?

An old All-4-One song came on the radio and Eliza recalled a school dance, one from right around the time of her dress and her boyish shape. The time she let Robbie Dion feel her up. The memory made her laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“I just remembered something,” said Eliza. She looked out and the sky had gone from dusk to full night in the minutes of All-4-One’s I Swear.

“Look at that,” said the driver, pointing and squinting as she had earlier.

Hills rolled a little ways ahead and a bright neon sign promising fuel and motel beds stuck way up into the sky, a beacon for weary-eyed travelers looking to hide in the darkness offered by the backs of their eyelids.

“I think we should stop. I’m getting,” the driver yawned, it seemed forced, “tired. What do you say?”

“You think I should sleep in a room with you?”

Eliza’s safety warnings sounded the alarm in her mind. The woman was a stranger and a weird one at that. Eliza wondered what choices she had, she didn’t have a purse, didn’t have a credit card, she didn’t even have her cell. She wished she’d never gotten out of Kate’s Nissan.

Why did you? Damn it, what was that song?

The driver sniggered at Eliza’s question, “A room? Uh, no darlin’. It’s been fun and all, but we don’t need a room. What’s going to happen is, I’m going to reach over, you’re going to struggle some, I’ll hit you once or twice, you’ll calm down a bit, but really I’ll wish you wouldn’t. My hubby always liked the struggle too. Then he’d do his thing, but he’s not here, so we’ll skip the sticky bit.

“Ya see how this goes is, I’ll throw the seat flat and start my business. See girls like you, I know what you all think. You all think I’m dirt, well guess what! I am and dirt like me, well, we love to take it out on little girlies like you! Oh, you’ll fight some more and I’ll smack you around a bit more, I’ll be about ready to finish you, then I’ll force myself to wait. It’s better to wait, draw it out for the long haul.

“You might even give up for a while. Cry and moan for your mama and your pop. Once you’re still, you’ll feel a little something.”

The driver wheeled into the deserted truck stop as she spoke. Eliza looked around for a weapon and found none.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle in the end. I know how to treat a lady. I’m awfully ladylike myself. Ha! You girls should’a been nicer to me in school, this would never had’a happen if you was just nicer.”

Eliza shook her head although she didn’t quite comprehend, recognizing only that things were about to become much worse for her and that the Mariana’s Trench song Malcolm tried to push on her for the last month was on the radio. The driver ran her hand behind the front bench and it folded back, a smooth bed front seat to back seat.

“That’s better, now, where was I?” the driver grabbed onto Eliza by the shoulders and made to toss her down onto the folded seat.

Eliza considered playing dead. The woman said she liked the fight, playing dead might make the woman lose interest. At the woman’s touch, that idea became so obviously ridiculous. Eliza made for the door handle. The driver’s fist thumped into her head twice and she grew sluggish. The driver pulled flat her prey. Eliza’s eyes rolling back in her head and she considered the exact nature of the situation around her.

How am I young again?

Where am I?

And why can’t I remember things?

Energy surged, if only at a minimal level, and Eliza grabbed at the door handle on the back door. It did nothing. She pulled the handle three times to be certain.

“Back doors only work once the front door is open,” the driver laughed, “You little ritzy bitches are all the same. Stupid.”

The track on the radio faded into a new song, “I threw a wish…,” said the voice and Eliza forgot all about the insane woman in front of her. It was that catchy Carly Rae Jepson song, the one that if you heard it one day it would be in your head for a week. It was the song on the radio, they all sang, Kate took off her seatbelt to dance while she drove. It was funny.

The hook between the first and second verse was as far as they all got. Elk, an entire pack, ran out into the road. Kate thumped into one and pulled hard on the wheel, two other vehicles did the same thing at the same time, coming together and stopping dead in a sea of metal and elk bits.

It was black after that. Now and then she blinked, saw paramedics, saw a nurse, the inside of a hospital room, a bandaged woman in another bed. She blinked again and saw her mother. Her mother didn’t notice the second she opened her eyes because her mother was nose deep into the Bible. That was it. There were no more blinks until she awoke in the strange place.

The driver had wild eyes and a fat knife ready for the main event.

“Don’t worry, I like to take my time with little girlies like you.”

Eliza thought, this is crazy and booted twice. The woman fell back and Eliza dove to the driver’s door handle, one that would certainly work. The door opened and she spilled out.

“You bitch!” Ursula Donaldson screamed as Eliza crawled on the gravel toward the neon sign next to the motel.

“Leave me alone!” Eliza shouted back in a shrill childish squeal.

Eliza felt two hands come down on her and lift her skinny frame into the air. She kicked as if pedalling and invisible bicycle.

“God wants me to have you! Sure as shit He does!”

“I don’t think so,” said a firm, mannish voice.

Eliza opened her eyes and stopped kicking. There was another person in that place, a hero, a perfect, wonderful hero.

“This is none of your business,” said Ursula.

The grasp let some and Eliza slid to the ground. The hands kept the small girl from moving, but both knew it was just a matter of time.

“Oh yes it is,” the man said to Ursula and then crouched with open arms.

Eliza recognized the man’s Catholic collar and despite her sourness toward the church, she jerked completely free of the driver and raced to the new embrace.

“There you are, my child,” the man held Eliza.

Eliza glanced back over her shoulder at the evil truck-driving woman. Ursula sneered. The father collected Eliza and squeezed. The driver’s door of an F-150 slammed and wheels dug into the gravel and peeled away.

“Are you hungry?” the father asked as he rose.

Feeling even smaller and as helpless as a young child, Eliza nodded emphatically and sobbed.

“Come, the Lord hates to see a child hungry,” the father said and pulled a key from his pocket.

They strode hand-in-hand across the parking lot to the door marked Office. Inside wasn’t like a motel room. It was drab and small. There was a single bed and a kitchenette. A worn wardrobe stood in a corner next to a ratty padded chair under a reading lamp. There was a child’s desk and three images of Jesus above the desk, hanging with loving warning. On the desk was a Bible.

“Sit, my child,” said the father, giving Eliza a small shove toward the bed.

She sat and gazed further around the dim room. A light switched. There was a row of cupboards and a small refrigerator. The father busied himself with a tray and what sounded like crackers. “How about some music?” the father asked and without waiting for an answer switched on the radio. Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe had started over. “This must be your song,” the father added, there was a smile on his voice, “My song is a Tom Petty song. I don’t recall it from before…, well, before, you know. It was on the radio.”

Before what? Eliza wondered and suddenly took on an uneasy feeling again, “Can we call my dad?” she asked and her voice was strange, more childish.

The father stepped back into the room carrying the tray of crackers, “In time, my son.”

Eliza wanted to shout. Everything was wrong. The father was strange. That woman before was terrifying. She wasn’t a boy and she wanted her dad! Instead, she sat in a respectable silence.

The father placed the tray over their laps as he sat. Eliza looked down at the silver tray. Around the crackers she saw the reflection of the father and a small boyish face with sad eyes, rosy nutcracker cheeks and a short brown bowl cut. Eliza shook her head gently, so did the boy in the reflection.

I’m not a boy! I’m a woman! she ached to wail, fear sapped her ability.

The father took a cracker and crunched.

He took another, crunched.

On the third, he crunched and spoke with a breath of spat crumbs, “The Lord works in mysterious ways. You want to make the Lord happy, don’t you, my son?”

Eliza stiffened.

“Of course you do, the Lord wants those that follow him happy. So you just do as I say.”

Eliza felt a hand on her boy-thigh and it struck her as Carly Rae Jepsen howled playfully.

I’m dead. There was an accident and I died. I died and, “I’m in Hell,” she gasped.

The father touched a sweaty palm on the cotton trouser thigh of a small boy, avoiding the boy’s eyes. Licked his dry, soda cracker lips. “How could this possibly be anything but Heaven?” the father asked as his hand rose up the thigh.

#

Third-Person Bio:

Former homeless hitchhiker and high school dropout, S.L. Dixon’s fiction has appeared in grew up in dozens of publications from around the world. He’s married, has a cat and currently resides in a small coastal community in British Columbia, Canada.

www.sldixon.ca
@SLDixonWriter

Publication History:

38 short stories published in the last 3 years (June 2014-June 2016) (Starburst Magazine, Dark Moon Digest, SQ Mag, Perpetual Motion Machine, The Wicked Library, etc) and a handful more are due for release in the coming months.

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Glass-Walled Cabin by K. Marvin Bruce

Feb 19 2017

Flames jetting high overhead force screams from the tall pines and the animals trapped in them.  Old Johnny’ll kill me.  If I survive this.

Old Johnny said to stop by the fire tower anytime.  I love nature.  Have to get out of the valley of money.  Back to nature.

Shift the rucksack to release some of the steam broiling my back.  I hope his offer’s still good.  It’s a long hike.

Our families go way back.  Used to share an honest-to-God log cabin down on the lake.  Unpretentious, open-plan log shack with inadequate lighting, gaps around the windows, and an outhouse without ventilation.  The aged timbers had cracks running their lengths and calking merely a suggestion.  A cabin from which you could watch the world.

Old Johnny and I each owned half.  Back in our bachelor days we’d share the cabin during the summer.  Fishing, snoozing, paddling a leaky old 12-foot aluminum lazily across the tranquil water watched by sentinel mountains.  Nights we’d light a fire down by the lake.  A can of beans and a half-dozen hotdogs any honest man’s meal.  In the morning coffee was strong.  Grounds collected at the bottom of your chipped mug.  If a few made their way into your mouth you spit like a man.

Marriage changes old habits.  Eventually the women-folk wanted newer accommodations.  Using a privy in the middle of the night in grizzly country was declared dangerous.  We sold the cabin and each built ourselves newer quarters with electricity and running water.  Hot and cold.  We remained close.  Johnny and I’d sit around the fire telling bullshit stories until all hours.  I never believed him later when he told of strange things he saw up in that lookout tower.

Johnny joined the US Forestry service as a ranger and volunteered summers on fire tower duty.  The missus stays in town.  He says odd things happen when you’re truly alone.

It takes a special kind of guy to be a fire-watcher.  Got to be comfortable in your own head.  It’s a lonely job.  Lonely as hell.  Worse than a lighthouse.  Fire-watchers climb into their observation towers by their lonesomes and remain alone for four solid months.  120 days of solitude.  That’s why I’m walking up this rocky path in the tall bear grass.

Lightning strikes can occur out of the blue.  Literally.  Campers don’t always obey old Smokey.  A hundred miles away a careless driver might flick a still-burning butt out a window, heedless of the prime tinder all around.  Forest fires explode into instantaneous monsters.  Fire-spotters are the first line of defense with their powerful binoculars.  Radio in the coordinates.  Save hundreds of thousands of acres.  Alone.

Nothing Johnny hates worse than a fire bug.

Kaniksu National Forest.  These mountains in eastern Washington are remote.  I never see any other cars once I creep onto these dusty logging roads.  The washboard surface on the gravel track kicks up impenetrable powder and shakes your deepest fears.  Tall pines crowd the very edges of the unpaved course.  Sun beams down from a crystalline sky heating the air like a kiln.  It hits triple digits down in the valleys.

Cool relief on the mountaintops.  Highest summits hoard their snow even in July.

Johnny and I were best friends as kids, but our commitments as adults wedged us apart.  He stays in the hills, while I sweat out the heat of the valley.  My valley is far from here, closer to the money.  The gold’s here, Johnny says.  Maybe money isn’t all it promises to be.  Nature marks a man.

At the deserted forest ranger station, Smokey the Bear said fire danger is “Extreme.”  Hasn’t rained here since May.

Puffing up this trail, I feel my desk job.  Endless swaths of bear grass encompass me.  You’d have to be pretty damn tall to see over it—grows over seven foot high.  A lake of it.  Lime-green stalks shoot straight up and explode in puff-balls of tiny, white flowers over your head.  Swaying across the path.  Blocking every view.  I walk slow.  Altitude and gradient pull me down.  I’m struck by the silence.  Other than the whisper of the giant stalks, no sound.  When I say I enjoy the quiet of the mountains, I mean the quiet of non-human noise.  The raucous bawl of the stellar jay.  The scolding chatter of the red squirrel.  The squeal of pikas.  Complete silence is unnerving.

I pull out my map, trying to convince myself there’s no danger.  Up here in the remote Rockies some animals have no fear of humans and their rifles.  I’m unarmed anyway.  Granola bars, water, matches, and a pocket knife all all a man needs.  Nature takes care of you.  Map shows the fire tower, impressively close gradient lines, and dashed scores representing the path.  “3 mi.”  I try not to think of grizzly bears.  Three miles.  How far have I walked over this rocky trail so far?  Distances are difficult to gauge.  I must be closer to the tower than to the car by now.

Rustling deep within the swaying grass.  I feel eyes on me.  Hairs on the back of my neck salute.  Mountain lions, the ghosts of the Rockies.  I quietly fold the map and shove it into the pocket of my cargo-shorts.

Up ahead the path curves along the contours of the ridge.  Like swimming through a blond sea of heavy grains.  I follow the gentle bend in the trail.  At first my brain won’t register what my eyes see in the powdery dirt.  A footprint.  Looks human, but not.  My heart bumps audibly in my throat.  Bigfoot pranksters all the way up here with their plywood cut-out feet?  The track looks detailed, not flat, although it’s hard to tell in this anemic, dry soil.  Should I return to the car?  How far have I come?  What’s up ahead?  The fire tower, my old friend Johnny, should be visible any moment now.

Taking a deep breath, I press onward, up the slope.  Just ahead, a break in the grass.  The green sea opens into an Alpine spruce grove.  There, above the thinning trees, on naked rock, stands Johnny’s lonely tower.  I step forward with renewed determination, feeling eyes on my back the entire way.

“Johnny!” I call out when I’m close enough.  Human voices strike fear in animals.  “Johnny! You there?”  Fire tower, standard R-6 model.  Not as tall as the stations in lower hilly regions.  Nature’s vista from the top here is sufficient with the thirty-foot advantage over the five-thousand feet of this rounded peak.  A set of wooden stairs winds around the outside of the thick timber supports, offering access to the glass-walled cabin at the top.  Creosote aroma lingers faintly.  A wrap-around porch offers clear 360-degree viewing above.  Flat roof overhang gives a little shade in the intense summer heat.  “Johnny!” I call again, making for the stairs.

I feel, more than hear, something pursuing me.  I try to jog, but the rocks are treacherous.  Panting, I reach the stairs.  With a sudden adrenalin rush, race to the top.

Porch is chained off.  Forestry Service sign reads, “Tower Closed.”  The chain is merely a psychological deterrent.  It’s Old Johnny’s place.  Damn backpack gets snarled in the chain as I try to duck under.  Not as lithe as I used to be.  A stabbing pain jolts through my back as I try to coax another inch out of my creaking knees.  What’s behind me?  Frantic, I force myself further.  The chain relinquishes the canvas sack.

I catch my breath.  Secure up here.  This is an artificial structure—human territory.  Even though the tower is unprotected, it’s a cabin in the woods.  I stretch out my back.  Walk the course of the wrap-around porch.  Strange stillness.  Nature is afraid.  Where’s Johnny?

If there’s something hiding out there, I don’t have a friend to watch my back.  The car is three miles of broken rock from here.  Long shadows creep up the mountainside.  Beyond the shading eaves of the flat roof, the sun is well past its zenith.

That footprint in the dust.  All I have is a glass-walled cabin.

Door’s locked.  Not that there’s anything to steal.

I painfully slip off my backpack.  Fish out my pocket knife.  Starting above the stolid latch, I slip the blade into the crevice and gently jimmy it on down, sliding it behind the curved surface of the brass until the handle pops free.  I’m no thief.  Just desperate.

I slip inside and pull the door shut.  Latch engages with a satisfying thunk.  There’s nothing here.  The place smells like an abandoned pantry.  A cot with no bedding.  Well-worn decks of cards.  A notepad or two.  Bears don’t climb towers, but the dry goods and cans are all gone anyway.  Dusty cobwebs dangle in the breeze I create.  The walls—everything from the waist up—are glass.

I glance around for the radio.  Fire lookouts are useless without communication.  I remember seeing Johnny use the big, old government-issue transmitter.  Like in black-and-white war movies.  Radio’s nowhere to be found.  Johnny’s super-sized binoculars are gone.  The sun ominously beams in.

Should I make an attempt on the car?  Three miles.  Trail broken and rocky.  Knees feel like they’ve been run over by a truck.  I might make it back before dark.  Not likely.  Surveying the vista, my utterly exposed situation settles home.  Anything on the porch can see in.  Visibility is a two-way street.

No bathroom.  99.94 percent of the time, the fire-watcher is completely alone.  The call of nature.  Suddenly all that metallic water I’ve been slugging down makes itself urgently felt.

As a young man I could hold it for hours.  Age has a way of making bodily functions less negotiable.  Who’s going to see?  I unlock the half-glass door and step out onto the porch.  Just in case another hiker is coming along the trail, I walk to the back of the tower—is there a back?— pull down my zipper.  Instant relief of my emptying bladder.  I hear the stream spatter on the dry, thirsty ground thirty feet below, achingly loud in this seclusion.

I zip up and ponder.  I’ll start out at first light.  Plenty of time to reach my car.  In the meanwhile I’ll work with the bits and pieces of government cast-offs.  Everything in this sparse tower seems to have a single, fixed function, and any other use feels unnatural.  Sun balefully dips to the frozen rock waves of my horizon.

Looking down over the bear grass meadow, there’s a beaten path in the grass from this vantage point.  Without binoculars, I to strain to see.  No movement visible.  The bear grass gives way to larches and cedars down at the tree-line, and the shadow of late afternoon has already reached them.

Bears are crepuscular, foraging in the twilight hours.  Would they climb all these steps and break the glass to get at me?  Cougars are even less likely to break in.  What else is out here?  What did Johnny see?

Will there be any light once the sun sets?  Johnny used a Coleman lantern.  Gone.  The shelves have been thoroughly emptied.  No electricity.  Johnny had a generator for the radio and mini-fridge.  Gone.

I scoop up Johnny’s abandoned cards and lay out a hand of Klondike on the floor.  Each card slap announces I’m here.

Full moon is already in the sky.   I’m glad for the illumination in the spooky stillness of this mountaintop.  I drop the cards.  Walk around the inside walls of the cabin.   Gerbil in a terrarium.  Nervously I glance toward the darkened bear grass.  Watch for any movement down there.

The gray light of the moon hovers over the mountain top.  Mountain peaks refract the cold, unforgiving light.   Down at the cabin I spent countless nights out after dark.  Entire moonless nights on the dock watching the stars and wondering.  Up here darkness menaces.  Nature wants me.

The distinct sound of rustling outside.

An inhuman scream pierces the night.  My heart flies, a cannonball in my chest.  The scream’s so loud.  Animal must be close.  A mountain lion screams like a woman.  But this is more primal.  Wild.  Angry.  I’m frozen.  What am I up against?

Haltingly, silently, I step toward the windows.  Peer down into the leaden light of the moonlit bear grass.  My fluttering heart stops.  Movement.  Indistinct in the swaying grass.  Something large is approaching.  I pray it’s only a grizzly bear.

An answering scream rips the night.  Shudder violently racks my shoulders.  Whatever’s down there isn’t alone.  I don’t want to look, but terror compels me.  As still as possible, I glance around the clearing on this rugged mountain peak.  There!  From the bear grass!  Something covered in fur emerges.  My mind automatically says “bear,” framing this creature with a recognized category.  But it’s no bear.  It’s something that doesn’t exist.

The huge creature lumbers out on two feet.  Not four.  It tips back its head.  Its scream forces my hands to my ears in panic.  Swaying cobweb glances my neck.  I stifle my own scream.

Three.  Four seconds.  Answering call from behind.  My shaking uncontrollable, I believe the impossible.  The creature lumbers toward my tower.  The abandoned structure serves as a kind of landmark for animals as well as for humans.  Its monstrous shape and faded creosote smell.  The only thing like this for miles around.

In the feeble light of the moon, I see the long shadow cast by this lumbering giant.  By the height of the bear grass it just exited, eight feet tall.  Long, matted fir, dark in the night.  Man-like body, only it’s much heavier than even the fattest man I’ve ever seen.  And I live in Spokane.  Long arms sway beneath its knees.  It walks with purpose.  It’s close to the tower now, hopefully unaware I’m here.  Another ear-splitting scream.  I melt into a quivering heap below the glass.  Menaced by the impossible.

The answering cry is much quicker.  Two night stalkers just below me.  Silently as I can, I creep to the far side.  Glance at the companion.  Slowly, slowly, I push myself up on popping, crackling knees.  Emerging from the larches and firs is another.  The massive, furred beast makes its way toward its companion.  Suddenly it stops.  Close enough now to see a hairy, almost human face.  Sniffing the air.  It drops down.  I remember where I peed earlier.  Left my scent.

Grunts and snorts emerge from below me.  Discovered.  A coat of pins pricks my back and shoulders.  What will they do?  A ranger in a fire tower can’t see directly below.

Seeing even one of them is surreal.  Bigfoot’s a myth.  Although right next to one another, they begin a frantic screaming.  I cower down, pressing palms to my head.  The pitch and timbre now a shrill call of discovery.  Similar cries emanate from the valley below.  Others making their way here.  Is this what Johnny saw?  Is this why his post is abandoned?

The howling increases as more join the couple below.  Communal sounds like the gorilla grunts at the zoo.  I’m now the beast in a glass cage.

The timber frame shakes.  Thick, lodgepole pine supports, hasped together with heavy steel plates and immoveable bolts.  Silence.  Another sudden jolt.  They’re testing my cage.  Assessing its strength.  What can I use as a weapon?  Another heavy shudder.  They can’t topple this tower, but I am terrified that they even try.  Non-human intelligence is unnatural.  Just go away!

After the terrible din and violent jerking, sudden silence rages.  I can’t look.  Maybe they’ve made their point and will go away.  My ears strain against the silent night.

Unmistakable creak of a heavy foot on the stairs.  One of them is climbing up.  I glance around my glass-walled cabin for shelter.  Any cover.  Only solid thing here is this canvas cot.  At least it’s a visual shield.  Any kind of barrier is better than none.

I scramble behind the cot as the unsteady, weighty steps continue their ascent.  It’s not accustomed to stairs.  I will need to maneuver the cot to keep it between my assailant and me.  Must keep out of direct view.

Each faltering footfall kickstarts my already hammering heart.  Stomp.  Silence.  Stomp.  Silence.  Silence.  Stomp.  The wait is interminable.

This flimsy cot’s shaking.  Did I latch the door?  Surely they don’t use handles.  Even with the glass, an unlatched door is no protection.  How near the top of the stairs?  Do I have time to scurry to the door, slip the bolt?  Panic decides for me.  I stand.  Swiftly step across the small room.  My fingers sweating as I try to shove the inadequate slide bolt across.  The climbing stops.  The moon disappears behind a cloud.

It’s not a cloud.

I feel the red eyes boring into me from above.  The glass door filled with a dark, furred shape.  I cower below the level of its massive thighs.  The colossal barrel chest.  Thick arms sway just inches away.  High above, a hideous face peers down at me.  Lips parted in a snarl.  My breath hitches, all hair erect before this nightmare.  A clumsy, crippled insect, I scramble back behind the cot on all fours.  Only now I hear more feet.   Fumbling up the stairs.  Wrap-around porch.  Glass-walled cabin.  Full visibility.

The angry beast is joined by a second.  A gigantic hand suddenly raps the glass.   Testing it.  Solidity deters it for a moment.  My heart pounds fast.  Can’t distinguish individual beats any more.

The creatures swagger around my glass cage.  Stooping as their heads rasp the overhanging roof.  I shuffle around, holding the cot in front of me.  Try to create confusion for them.  Their eyes are hostile.  Grunting a guttural exchange.  A shattering screech fills the air.  I drop the cot to cover my ears.  Glass shatters.  I grasp my backpack.  Steel water bottle my only weapon.  The matches fall out.

Everything in this cabin is old and dry.  This cot will go up instantly.  Shaking fingers grasp for a single matchstick.  Another deafening scream.  I drop the match.  Scramble for another one.  They’re in the room.  Violently trembling fingers snatch another match.

I try to strike it.  Shaking throws coordination off.  Large beasts surround me.  Finally sulfur and sandpaper meet, rasping a single spark into a light.  Penetrates the darkness.  The lit match drops from my fingers onto the desiccated cot.  The flare is instantaneous.

Huge, hairy creatures scream in another key.  Ape-like, they climb over the protective banister with surprising speed.  The raging heat behind me.  I linger to watch their dark figures scatter into the forest.

How will I stop the conflagration I started?  Eyes wide with fear, tears of relief and terror leaking from the corners.  I search for an extinguisher.  A blanket even.  Nothing here.  I snatch my knapsack.  Hastily unscrew my steel water bottle and dump it ineffectually on the blaze.  I have to get out of here.

Stepping through the glass, I see the chain blocking the stairs has been ripped from its anchor-point.  Splintered wood now exposed to the air looks strangely fresh.  And very dry.  I trip down the stairs.  Hellish flame jetting out the cabin.  Is there a fire-watcher?

Backpack constantly slipping from my shoulder, I run.  Persistent pain in my knees, I lurch to the trailhead.  Sinister tower aflame.  I stumble into the bear grass.  If the monsters have any sense, they’re far ahead of me.

Descent is more difficult than ascent.  Avoiding a fall on sharp rocks takes time.  Nature’s at my back.  I slip and tumble into the rocky dust.  Panic prevents me from assessing the damage.  I drag myself upright and glance back.  The whole mountain-top dancing with fiendish, orange light.  Walpurgisnacht in July.  My entire left side thrums with pain.  I hope I haven’t broken anything.  The night breeze feeds the famished fire.

“3 mi.”  The trail’s longer.  Unfamiliar in flickering light.  Crackling flames now scream.  Another stumble.  I can’t distinguish sweat from blood.  If I survive this fire, Johnny’ll kill me.

If he ever made it out alive.

#

Bio: K. Marvin Bruce has lived in six states and two countries but calls no place home.  His fiction has been published in Calliope, Dali’s LoveChild, Danse Macabre, Deep Water Literary Journal, Defenestration, Exterminating Angel Press: The Magazine, The Fable Online, and Jersey Devil Press.  His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He works in New York City.

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Autotext by Tom Miller

Feb 12 2017

As he pulled up to a customer’s mailbox and began fingering letters for another delivery, Darryl heard the chime that signaled a new text message.  It was the thirteenth message he had received since his last package stop.  Without checking the sender, Darryl was still ninety-nine percent certain all thirteen were from his mother.

Darryl had created a monster.  At first, he thought that texting had saved his job, if not his life.  Mom used to call him several times a day to drone on about problems with her knees, back, bowels, toenails, house, car, friends, neighbors and any other object or being that may have crossed her path.  While it was forbidden for letter carriers to talk on cell phones while they drove, it seemed to Darryl like this was his only option.  If he stopped every time Mom called, he would never finish his route.  If he ignored the phone during the day, Mom’s complaints would shift to him—why he never answered her calls, why he failed to visit more often, or why he had no marital prospects.

One ninety-degree afternoon, Darryl drove from box to box to box in a mesmerizing rhythm while his mother narrated the fascinating saga of how somebody from her church had changed all her air filters.  Lulled into a hypnotic trance, he had failed to check his mirror before pulling away from a mailbox and almost collided with a speeding Hummer.  Had the Hummer’s driver not demonstrated some nifty reflexes, postal inspectors would have pulled Darryl’s phone records, seen that he was on a call during the accident, and fired him.

After the close call, Darryl had stopped the truck, interrupted his mother and told her of the near calamity.  He would not answer her calls anymore while he worked, but that he did have an alternative.  On his next day off, Darryl bought a phone with the largest keyboard that he could find, signed his mother up for cell service, and made the four-hour drive to her house.  Mom resisted the new technology at first, but when Darryl held firm on his new policy, Mom gave texting a try and began typing one sentence messages a few times a day.  When Darryl stopped the truck to deliver a package, he would read his mother’s text and send a quick reply.  Everybody was happy.  Mom could communicate freely with her only child, and Darryl could focus on driving and delivering mail.

Now, though, Mom could text almost as fast as she could speak.  The sentences became paragraphs, and the paragraphs became chapters, until once again, Darryl’s delivery times began to lag.  It did not help that Darryl had inherited his father’s fat sausage-link fingers instead of his mother’s long, tapered digits that were like organic styluses.

Darryl received three more texts before he had to get out for a large parcel.  After he had carried the box to the customer’s porch, he scanned the sixteen texts that Mom had sent him.  According to the gist, the niece of Mom’s bridge partner Ethel was still willing to go out with Darryl, and she had a great personality.

Darryl punched in his typical response: “No thanks, but I appreciate the thought.”  Before he had discovered the predictive text feature on his messaging app, it would take Darryl two full minutes, after correcting all of his errors, to peck out this insubstantial message.  The phrase, though, had become such a staple of their dialogue that the phone anticipated its use.  The word “No” immediately appeared as one of the three options at the top of the text box whenever he responded to his mother.  After he tapped the word “No,” the word “thanks” popped up as an option.  The pattern continued, and Darryl could now complete the sentence, punctuation and all, in only nine taps.

As Darryl started the truck and continued his rounds, his phone resumed its incessant chiming.  Twenty minutes later, after Darryl had delivered the next large parcel, Mom had written a serial novella that required ninety seconds to skim but could be summarized in two words: “Why not?”  By the time Darryl had sent off his explanation, even with the use of the handy predictive text function, he was running fifteen minutes behind schedule.  He would have to skip half his lunch to avoid management ire when he returned to the post office.

At home that evening, exhausted from hustling between parcel stops, Darryl collapsed onto his leather recliner and pulled out his phone.  He went to his favorite search engine and typed in “more extensive predictive text.”  He needed an application that did not just predict words, but sentences, maybe even whole paragraphs.  While Mom would have loved to see originality and thoughtfulness in his texts, what she craved more than anything was bulk.  She wanted visual evidence that Darryl was putting forth the effort that a mother deserved from her son.  His father had died when Darryl was six, leaving mother and son a paltry life insurance policy along with thousands in credit card debt.  For many years, Mom had worked two full time jobs and still somehow managed to be home for him after school.  The least he could do for her now was to send her multi-sentence texts.

Darryl scanned the search results.  A couple of links promised faster and more accurate predictive text, though not for smart phone messaging applications.  The rest of the results were merely related to predictive text—what it is, how to turn it on and off, and humorous text predictions.

As Darryl began to despair of finding a solution, an ad popped up on his phone screen.  His index finger was about to close out the ad when the words caught his attention.  “IS PREDICTIVE TEXT TOO SLOW FOR YOU?  TRY AUTOTEXT!” Darryl smiled.  Smart phones never ceased to amaze him.  It was as if the whole world was watching his every keystroke so it could reply with a sales pitch.  This disturbed some people, but for Darryl, this technology was often helpful and in the present case, entirely apt.

When Darryl proceeded to the corresponding website, he read a more extensive description of the application’s features:

Do you have fat fingers and little time?  Then try Autotext!  Autotext uses a revolutionary algorithm to analyze an entire history of texts with an individual to predict sentences, entries, and even entire conversations!  The application allows for easy editing of the suggested responses, and even has a fully automatic mode.  And it’s absolutely free!  Try it today!

It sounded too good to be true, but as long as he did not have to provide any personal information or credit card numbers, Darryl figured he had nothing to lose.  He clicked the button to download the program, and then he installed the application on his phone.  When the process was complete, a capital “A” had joined the clock, wi-fi, and battery icons at the top of his phone screen.

Darryl swiped down on the icons and tapped the “Autotext” option in the drop down box.  A splash screen appeared featuring an attractive middle-aged woman who was delighted by what she was reading on her phone.  Underneath the image was the program’s name with a smiling emoji in place of the “o.”

Once the application loaded, two options appeared on the screen.  Darryl touched “Autotext Contacts,” and his contact list appeared.  Just to the left of each name was a small checkbox.  Darryl scrolled through the alphabet until he reached “Mom,” tapped the box to the left of her name, and touched the “Save” option at the top of the screen.  Back at the original menu, Darryl selected “Edit Contact Settings.”  When he selected this option, the only contact that now came up was his mother.  Darryl tapped on her name, and two options appeared: “Review texts before sending” and “Fully automated replies.”  He selected the first option and again hit the “Save” button at the top of the screen.

When Darryl returned to the main menu, he searched for more information about the program.  Surely its creators had devised an “About” page so they could introduce themselves and their brilliant application to the world.  Where was the “Contact Us” or “Help” option?  How could he purchase the deluxe version when he became annoyed with the limitations of this freeware?  Darryl, however, could find none of these staples anywhere on the site.  The selfless inventors apparently wanted no credit or payment for their masterpiece and felt that the application’s operation was self-explanatory.

Darryl got up from the recliner, walked into his narrow galley kitchen, and placed his phone on the dark green laminate countertop.  He had just started the noodles for macaroni and cheese when his phone chimed.  Eager to test his new application, Darryl hoped it was his mother.

After he had cut off a sizable chunk of Velveeta, he put it in a saucepan, and turned the heat on low.  As the cheese food slowly melted, Darryl picked up the phone and read the text from his mother:

I’m sure that there’s a skunk living under my deck.  I smell it twice a day.  Once in the early morning, right before the sun comes up, and then again in the evening.  At night, they go out to find food and get together with other skunks to do skunk things.  Then, after gallivanting around all night long, it crawls back under my deck to sleep it off.  I’m sure it’s down there right now, snoring away.  On your next day off, you’ve got to come down here and do something about it.  I think I may be allergic.  My sinuses are acting up.  My medicine is not working.  I just want to breathe, Darryl, I just want to BREATHE!  If this doesn’t get better soon, I’m going to have to go to the drug store and get those pills that they keep behind the counter because some people use them to make speed.  At least that’s what Ed told me.  And Dr. Carpenter said those pills were not good for my blood pressure, but I don’t care! If I can’t breathe, what difference will high blood pressure make?

Darryl set his phone down on the counter.  While he waited for Autotext to respond, he alternated between stirring the Velveeta and the noodles—with separate spoons, of course—to keep his ingredients from sticking to the bottom of the pans.

As the minutes passed, Darryl began to wonder if his new app was a dud.  He saw no indication whatsoever that the program was formulating a response.  His phone seemed to be at rest.  Just as Darryl was about to give up and start his own handcrafted replay, his phone sung to him: “Autoteeeeext!”

Darryl bobbled his phone and barely controlled the device before it landed in the boiling water with his noodles.  Autotext’s announcement was a three-syllable mellifluous harmony that could have been excerpted from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Darryl looked at his phone screen. Below his mother’s gargantuan text, he saw a new entry highlighted in a blue box.  At the top of the screen were three buttons: “Send,” “Try Again,” and “Exit.”  Darryl read the words that Autotext had crafted:

I’m sorry to hear about the skunk, Mom.  I’m sure that must be very unpleasant for you.  I won’t be able to make it over there on my day off, but I do have a solution for you.  They sell skunk repellent at the home improvement store.  Just call up Jimmy from across the street, give him some money, and I’m sure he would be happy to buy it and spread it for you.  I know how tough it is when your sinuses are clogged, Mom, but please just stick with the sinus medication you’ve got.  I know you want to breathe, but I want to keep you healthy and around as long as possible.  Love you!

Darryl read the text again, and then a third time.  It was amazing.  The response firmly stated that he was not going to make the eight-hour round trip, yet it was still caring and sympathetic.  And the idea about Jimmy was pure brilliance!  Darryl tried to remember the last time he had referred to Jimmy in a text.  It was months ago, and he had erased his messages several times since then.  The app must have recovered those deleted texts and synthesized that information into its response.

Since Darryl could not imagine a better reply to Mom’s rant, he touched the “Send” button and sent the text on its way.

As he was pouring the noodles into a colander his phone chimed again.  Darryl left the colander in the sink and looked at Mom’s next communication:

Why can’t you come?  Are they forcing you to work your next day off?  I know how that is, because after your dad died, there would be some days when I had to work sixteen hours a day for all seven days of the week.  I would not have had the time to drive eight hours to take care of a very important problem for my mother.  It would be nice not to have to call Jimmy, though.  He’s got to go to school and football practice, and then his parents make him do his homework before he can do what I need him to.  Sometimes it’s a couple of days or more before he can get to me.  And Jimmy’s a good boy and does a good job, but I do feel like I have to pay him a little something for his time.  You know, when you’re on Social Security, ten dollars matter.  If you were able to come, you would save me that money, and I will also make a couple of those thick cheese sandwiches that you like.

Darryl winced as he finished reading this not-so-subtle tale of his mother’s sacrifice.  When she really wanted something, Mom never failed to slide this razor-sharp stiletto between his ribs and into his heart.  Now on his next day off, when he wanted to relax and read on his patio, waves of guilt would intrude on his serenity.

Darryl poured the drained noodles into the Velveeta and stirred until he had a gooey delight.  Not bothering with a plate, he was scooping out his first bite when he again heard Queen’s imitators: “Autoteeeeext!”  The reply had arrived much faster this time.  The program must keep all of its previous analysis in a cache.

Darryl tapped his screen to read the entry.  If Autotext could pull off this response, Darryl was going to make a call to Stockholm and nominate its author for a Nobel Prize.

I don’t have to work, Mom, but I do have a dentist appointment.  I could cancel, but then I would have to wait three months for another appointment, and that’s a risk to my dental health.  You’ve always taught me how important it is to take care of my teeth, and I thank you for that.  As for the ten dollars, let me remind you that you have a considerable portfolio of stocks and bonds from the money you saved after working sixteen hour days.  I admire you for that, and I encourage you to reward work ethic is our young people, which these days is lacking.  I do love your cheese sandwiches, and I’ll take you up on your offer when I see you soon.

Darryl again stared at the screen in wonder.  He had forgotten about that dentist appointment.  Furthermore, the text was loving yet refused to cave into Mom’s emotional manipulation.  And such bulk!  He was about to send the perfect message on its way when he noticed the “Try Again” button and tapped it out of curiosity.  This time, the app had another possible reply ready within three seconds.

I would come if I could, Mom, but I have a dentist appointment.  If I have to reschedule, I won’t be in for a couple of months, and I’m concerned about gingivitis.  As for the ten dollars, I will make it up to you the next time I come.  I’ll take you out to that seafood restaurant you like, and then maybe we can go out for ice cream afterwards.

Darryl nodded when he finished reading this option.  The message still had substance, but it was shorter and less likely to arouse suspicions.  The text also played on Mom’s gingivitis phobia.  Darryl had never sent or received the word “gingivitis” in a text, but the program must have inferred his mother’s fears from the fact that she flossed her teeth five times a day.

Darryl hit the “Send” button and looked at his macaroni and cheese.  If he did not start eating it soon, the cheese would begin to cool and congeal.  Its utter creaminess would be forever lost.  He needed no further evidence that the wonder app could handle his mother.  Darryl opened the Autotext app, selected “Edit Contact Settings,” and changed his mother to receive “Fully automated replies.”  After muting his phone, Darryl put the phone in his pocket.

As he carried his macaroni and cheese to the table in his small dining nook and set the pan on an oven mitt, Darryl felt the vibration on his upper thigh.  Darryl opened up the latest issue of a sports magazine and began to read.  As the phone buzzed again, Darryl resisted the urge to check the conversation.  Autotext had proven itself, and now he should enjoy his well-deserved peace.  The heartfelt dialogue between mother and son would be there for him to peruse after he finished his dinner.

Seventeen days after Autotext had entered his life, Darryl sat across from his mother as she ate shrimp scampi.  He had the whole weekend off so he could make the trip without burning up all of his free time.  His mother’s constant groans of pleasure were distracting him from the enjoyment of his fried seafood platter.

“I get it, Mom,” said Darryl.  “The food is good.  I’m glad you like it, but is it necessary to moan with every bite?”

Darryl’s mother swallowed what was in her mouth.  “What?  Am I not allowed to enjoy a good meal?  When do I even eat real food anymore?  I heat up soup, I make cheese sandwiches.  If I eat anything after five o’clock, I wake up the next morning with terrible heartburn.”

“Yes, Mom, I’m aware of that.”

“And this is not just any meal,” continued Darryl’s mother.  “I’m sitting here with my only son, who I rarely see, and who even more rarely takes me out for a nice lunch.”

Darryl wondered why he had said anything at all.  He knew his mother better than he knew anyone else in the world, including himself.  Any request to stop a certain behavior only exacerbated the problem.  “You’re right, Mom,” Darryl said, too late.  “I’m sorry.”

“And, you know,” said Mom, “I wouldn’t be so focused on the food if you talked to me more.  I feel that we’ve been communicating better in the past two weeks than we ever have.  I was really looking forward to talking to you like that in person today.  Now, it’s like you’ve gone back to your old self.”

Darryl could not hold back a smile. All day while he was out on the route delivering mail, it seemed like his phone never stopped vibrating.  Mom never once questioned how he was able to send such frequent and lengthy texts and still perform his job.  For the first couple days of his new Autotext life, Darryl would skim the conversations during his breaks and after work, but as his trust in the program grew, his interest in the dialogue waned.  Mom continued to spew words about life’s annoyances while Autotext responded with voluminous declarations of sympathy and love.  After one long day, Darryl postponed the evening review until the following day.  The next morning, when the number of texts had grown exponentially, Darryl decided that he could skip every other entry and still get the gist.  By the end of the week, Darryl was ignoring the conversations completely.

“What is that grin about?” asked Darryl’s mother.

Darryl’s mind hurried to find a suitable explanation.  “Just thinking about those text conversations, Mom,” he said.  “They have been pretty great.”

Darryl’s mother reached across the table and grabbed his hand.  “They’ve been better than great, Darryl.  I’ll admit that for a while now, I’ve been feeling like you didn’t really want to talk to me, that you would just come to see me out of obligation.”

“Mom— ” Darryl tried to object, but his mother lifted up her other hand to silence him.   “I’m not saying that’s what you meant.  I’m saying that’s how I felt.  But these last two weeks, everything has changed.  I feel like I’ve got my son back.”  She shook her head.  “No, it’s more than that.  It’s like now I’ve got the son that I never had.”

Darryl felt mixed emotions welling inside of him after hearing his mother’s declaration.  He almost revealed that she had not been communicating with him but with unfeeling, analytical computer code.  Maybe she loved an inanimate machine more than her actual flesh and blood.  Then he saw tears welling in his mother’s eyes.  She may annoy him, but she was still his mother and had always been there for him.

“You’re right, Mom,” he said.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t sleep well last night, and I guess that’s made me a little cranky.”

“Have your sinuses been acting up?” asked his mother, blotting her eyes with a napkin.

“No, it’s not that.  I just had a lot on my mind, that’s all.”

The comment appeared to brighten his mother’s mood.  “Is it this new woman you’ve got your eye on?”

Momentarily shocked, Darryl popped half a hushpuppy in his mouth so he could think while he chewed.  What woman?  There was no woman, and there had not been a woman for a while.  He swallowed his food.  “You mean the one I texted about?”

“Of course I mean the one you texted about,” said Mom.  “How else am I going to learn about what’s going on in my only son’s personal life?”

Darryl took a bite of fried flounder and touched the outline of the phone in his pocket.  Autotext was now writing total fiction.  It was one thing to make up excuses based on real data such as a dental appointment.  It was a totally different thing to invent aspects of his life out of thin air.

As Darryl fumbled his way through a conversation about his “new woman,” he ate the rest of his fried seafood in small bites that gave him frequent opportunity to pause.  He tried to keep his comments and description as vague as possible.  He told his mother that things were just starting out and he did not want to boost hopes of an enduring relationship.

Darryl did not have a clue what this crazy Autotext app had said to Mom.  The program was stealing the affections of his mother and making up lies about Darryl’s life.  The once nifty piece of software would have to go.

After saying goodbye to his mother, Darryl had turned off his phone and driven the four hours back home.  Now he walked in the front door, sat on his recliner and took his device out of his pocket.  He had considered his situation more thoroughly during his drive and again resolved to delete Autotext from his life.

When his phone powered up, Darryl received fourteen new texts from his mother.  If he did not act soon, Autotext would spout more lies and worm its way further into Mom’s heart.  He opened his phone’s settings, from there went to the applications manager, and touched the Autotext logo with its sinister, smirking emoji.  He tapped the “UNINSTALL” button.  An option box popped up:  “Are you sure you want to uninstall Autotext?”  Darryl had never been more certain of anything in his life.

As his thumb was about to make contact with the button, Darryl’s phone rang.   The caller ID said “Sexy Sandra,” and images of her curvaceous body came to him in an instant.  Sandra was a real estate secretary at one of the offices on his mail route, and when he was first posted to his current assignment, she would flirt with Darryl when he walked inside for the daily exchange of letters.  He had gotten her phone number, asked her for a drink, and she had accepted.  The date, though, required more extensive interaction than some quick delivery banter, and they had each suffered through some long, awkward pauses.  Sandra had given Darryl no further encouragement, and their conversation was now succinct and business-like when he dropped off the mail.

Darryl answered the call.  “Hello?”

“Hi, Darryl, this is Sandra.  “I’ve been waiting for you to call, but I got impatient.”

“You’ve been waiting for my call?” asked Darryl, confused.

“Well, yeah,” said Sandra.  “You’ve been sending me all these interesting texts and I thought it’d be easier if we just talked.”

Darryl was about to ask about these mysterious texts when he stopped himself.  He had figured it out.  Autotext was telling his mother lies about a “new woman,” and now it was sending automated replies to a contact without approval.  The app was hijackacking his life.

Darryl tried to play it cool and fake his way through the conversation.  He deflected comments about the unknown texts and asked Sandra about her life in the six months since their drinks date.

As the dialogue began to wind down, Darryl, sensing a good vibe, took a chance and asked Sandra out to dinner.  She accepted with an enthusiasm and suggested that she might also be open to an after-dinner nightcap.

“And keep those texts coming,” said Sandra, just before she hung up.  “They really brighten my day.”

Darryl promised to do so, and they said goodbye.  When his calling screen disappeared, he once again saw the text box with the question inside it:  “Are you sure you want to uninstall Autotext?”  Darryl felt like this was not just an automatic message generated whenever he wanted to delete a program.  Now there seemed to be a living, breathing organism inside his phone that was talking directly to him.  “So maybe I’m taking some unauthorized liberties,” Autotext seemed to say, “but do you really think you can do this without me?  Do you really think someone like Sandra would date someone like you if it weren’t for my enhancements?”

Darryl’s thumb hovered above the “Yes” response to the text box’s question.  Autotext may be able to woo Sandra with witty messages, but in person, Darryl would still have to do the heavy lifting.  If he wanted to have a genuine relationship with Sandra, he would have to learn to communicate more effectively on his own.

A short film ran in Darryl’s mind, as if Autotext were playing its last card.  He was setting mail on the countertop while Sandra sat behind her desk and talked on the phone.  She wore an attractive but business-appropriate navy blue dress.  From behind the deep “V” neck line of the dress peeked the top of a white camisole which covered all but the barest hint of Sandra’s cleavage.  Darryl tried not to stare at the enticing area, but the almost imperceptible crevice screamed for his gaze.

Maybe he should not be so fast to cut ties with Autotext.  Darryl canceled the delete for the moment.   If nothing else, maybe he could learn something from how Autotext had reconnected him with Sandra.  Darryl opened his recent message thread with Sandra and scrolled—and scrolled, and scrolled—until he reached Autotext’s initial offering: “Hi Sandra, this is Darryl.  I’ve missed our talks in the office.”  Sandra’s replies were terse at first, and Autotext moved slowly.  It shared humorous stories of fictional events that Darryl had supposedly experienced while delivering mail.  It invented juicy gossip about the secret lives of real estate agents.  It discovered a shared love of reality television and debated the merits of various contestants competing for fame and fortune.

When Darryl finished reading the impressive exchange, he swiped on the Autotext icon.  He selected “Edit Contact Settings” and gasped at the results.  Where his mother had once stood alone, now Darryl could choose from anybody on his regular contact list.  He tapped on a few of the names and found they were all set to let Autotext ride solo.

Darryl felt a sudden surge of anger at the program’s audacity, but there was also a twinge of curiosity.  From his messages, he selected a thread with one of his co-workers, Neal.  He only texted Neal for work-related reasons, but Autotext had begun a dialogue that involved Neal’s passion, cars.  The application had also reached out to a cousin that Darryl had not talked to in years.  It was even setting up a time to go bowling with an old high school buddy this weekend.

Darryl weighed the pros and cons.  Yes, Autotext was taking on a life of his own, but it was also helping him get back into life.  Darryl had always had problems connecting with people, and the application was facilitating that.   Wasn’t that the reason for technology’s existence—to help its human owners achieve goals more easily than they could do on their own?

Darryl made his decision.  He closed the messaging app and put the phone back in his pocket.  He stood up and headed toward his bedroom, where he would select the perfect outfit for his date with Sexy Sandra.

#

Bio: I have previously published a story in the magazine Red Fez, and I continue to write stories that seek to entertain the reader and engage with issues in contemporary society.

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Miller’s Forest by D.A.Cairns

Feb 05 2017

A gusting westerly tossed and bustled the willows as they struggled to form a guard of honour along a two hundred metre stretch of Raymond Terrace Rd. The sun scorched the earth in anger, melting the bitumen road and causing recently filled potholes to become sticky black puddles. Heat waves danced above the road distorting as they obscured, while the needle rocketed into the red zone taking his temper along for the ride.

‘Damn it. Fuck!’

If you are not inside an air-conditioned room, then I suggest you hurry up and get yourself there. Thirty nine degrees and rising, folks and its only ten thirty. The Bureau forecasting storms for this evening but that’s a long way off so stay cool and stay tuned. You’re on ninety nine seven RhemaFM, Newcastle and the Central Coast. Good morning.

The middle of nowhere. The end of the line. Millers Forest. Blake Steele and a clapped out nineteen eighty five Falcon on the verge of a fiery death. The first week in March; a very bad week and it was getting worse for Blake. Lost his job, lost his girl, and losing hope. All he could think to say was, ‘Damn it’ and ‘Fuck!’

As there was nowhere for him to stop and cool off, Blake chose to keep going. The air-conditioning roared in frustration as it blew hot air hard into the cabin so Blake switched it off, thinking to himself bitterly that he wished he could switch his life off.

What a disaster it was. What a total shambles. He liked his job but his boss was a complete tool, and Blake could not tolerate the biting sarcasm which that self promoter used to cover his own stupidity and dump on his employees. Blake seemed to be a particularly fond target of his. Maybe it was because Blake refused to kowtow to such an asshole. Maybe it was because he was sick of being the butt of his boss’ stinging barbs. Humour he called it, and those who slobbered at his feet laughed along like mindless hyenas. Whatever the reason, his sacking was inevitable. You don’t humiliate a man like that by decking him in front of his employees, without suffering some pretty direct and severe consequences. Good-bye job.

Sam was the sweetest girl he had ever known, good natured and devoted, naturally beautiful and intelligent. How the hell he ever snagged her as his girlfriend he would probably never know, but there she was; patient, kind and even tempered. Blake had a tempestuous nature and a short fuse and without Sam to mollify his rage, he often ripped headlong into trouble. So many transgressions, followed by so many sincere apologies followed by more sins. She seemed like a god to him sometimes but finally proved she was not by leaving him. Her final words? ‘Why don’t you grow up and be a man! You’re killing yourself Blake.’

Blake had thought at the time and still did that her words were a bit over the top, unless she wasn’t talking about physical death. That was a favourite topic of hers; spiritual life and death. Blake didn’t know what she meant, and he didn’t care. All he knew was that he felt terribly sorry and he missed her, and he knew he was a better person when she was around. Who would control him now?

Bang! Ssssshhhhh! A long harsh hiss.

‘Damn it! Fuck!’

The Falcon angrily breathed its last and rolled to a stop, as Blake steered it off the road and onto the shoulder. In the stillness of Millers Forest, the sound of steam rushing from underneath the bonnet was like a hurricane. Blake sat there and stared through the torrent of steam down the long straight road and pondered his immediate future. Rage, although volcanic at the moment, seemed futile, but he was powerless to stop it. He flung the door open and almost fell out in the rush, then began frenetically kicking the side of the car with the underside of his heel. Soon he was exhausted so he lumped his body behind the steering wheel and waited for the last of the storm to subside.

Drenched in sweat and disturbed by the smell of himself, Blake climbed out of the car again and began to walk towards a house which sat quietly on the left three or four hundred metres down the road. It was the only island in a sea of flat grassy meadows and it should have had a huge banner flying over it, proclaiming ‘Last Hope’. His car was stuffed, it was hotter than hell and he didn’t have any water. At the very least he desperately needed a drink, so he dragged his feet through the almost liquid bitumen and dreamed of salvation in Millers Forest.

As he approached the house Blake noted the windows were all shut but there was no sign of an air conditioning unit outside. There were two cars in the driveway; a dirty 78 Toyota Landcruiser, and a little red Hyundai. There was also a motorbike and although Blake was not a huge fan of motorbikes, courtesy of the shocking injuries a friend of his had suffered after crashing one into a fence, he could see beauty in their styling and appreciated the passionate feelings they aroused in some. It was all white, even the leather seat and had no badges to identify the make or model. He had never seen one like it.

Gravel crunched under his heavy feet as he walked down the driveway, past the vehicles towards the front door. He waved his hand over the bonnet of both cars but could not tell if the engines had been running recently or not. It was too damn hot.

The front door was closed. Blake listened closely but could hear no sound at all and that bothered him, and the bother turned into concern, and the concern suddenly became anxiety. He heard whispers in the hot wind and smelled something strange, something off, a rancid stench. Dizziness almost overwhelmed him as he reached out his left fist to knock on the door.

‘Hello,’ he said, as he knocked, without knowing how loudly he spoke.  ‘Hello! Is anyone home?’

Blake fell towards the door and might have heard a voice as it swung open and he crashed in on to the floor. The voice might have been asking for help but that voice might have been his own.

When he opened his eyes he saw a horizontal Christmas tree. A long tree with presents jam packed at one end and a pair of runners standing on their toes. Blake sat up slowly and the room righted itself. He looked again at the shoes; pink and small. A little girl’s shoes. Christmas tree? Presents? March?

‘Hello?’ said Blake weakly. ‘Hello? Is anyone home?’

A heavy silence filled the room and Blake was afraid to disturb it by moving but when he spotted the opening to the kitchen, he carefully rose from the floor and walked in to get some water. The kitchen was so clean it literally sparkled as fingers of sunlight poked through the Venetian blinds and stabbed the faux marble benchtops and stainless steel sink. Not a single glass, plate or utensil could be seen and there was a faint odour of lemon in the air. Blake turned the tap on and cupped his hands underneath the cool flow, before greedily shovelling the precious liquid into his mouth. Slowly life returned to his parched body.

‘Hello?’ he called again, having recovered his voice, ‘Is anyone home?’

Nothing.

Blake tried to leave the kitchen but jumped back in fright as a woman stood in his way with outstretched arms and no hands.

‘Help me!’ she shrieked. ‘Help me!’

Losing his footing, Blake slid against a cupboard and stared in disbelief at the horror of this woman. Handless, bleeding from the stumps and from cuts to her face and chest and arms and legs, she came no closer and spoke no further. A young woman with a lithe figure and firm breasts, her long brown hair was tangled and lank. She wore a long pink nightdress with no sleeves. Her eyes opened wide were crystal blue islands floating in bloody oceans and her mouth twisted in terror.

The smell of death was overpowering and Blake was frozen by an artic chill which ran down his spine. What could he do? What should he do?

‘Phone? I’ll call an ambulance,’ he said and with each word came more confidence. ‘Where’s your phone? He stood quickly and searched the kitchen but could not locate it.

‘It’s too late,’ she said.

He spun around to the sound of her voice but she was gone. Darting out of the kitchen, he quickly scanned the living room but found everything was as it had been when he first came in. The woman was gone. Running for the stairs, Blake was again stopped dead in his tracks but this time by a physical blow to his chest. A punch or a shove, he could not decide but it knocked the wind from his lungs and he crumpled to the floor gasping and clutching his chest. When he looked up, a man was standing at the foot of the stairs. He wore a pair of navy blue shorts and no shirt. Blood flowed from a long deep gash ripped across his hairy chest and there were smaller cuts on his arms and face; scratches like fingernail marks. He looked enormous but when Blake scrambled to his feet he realised the man was actually shorter then himself although considerably wider. He resembled a wrestler.

‘Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?’

Blake noticed that like the woman, the man did not seem able to move from the spot where he appeared. He also felt the stench invading his nostrils once more and it was cold.

‘The woman,’ said Blake, ‘she was badly hurt and asking for help. What happened here?’

The woman’s voice said, ‘It’s too late.’

Blake turned quickly but the room was empty and in the seconds it took for him to realise it, the wrestler also disappeared.

Two and three at a time, Blake bounded up the stairs and began rapidly turning handles and opening doors. Bedroom one. Nothing. Bedroom two. Nothing. Master bedroom. Nothing. All tidy and clean, beds made. Moving into the ensuite bathroom cautiously, Blake sniffed the air and was surprised to detect nothing but a slight mustiness that you would expect if the house was shut up for any length of time. The bathroom off the master bedroom was also clean although not as clean as the kitchen. Blake left that room and back on the landing he stared at the last remaining door.

As he approached a child appeared in front of it. A little girl. She looked sad but there were no obvious signs of injury until Blake noticed her feet.

The girl followed Blake’s gaze down to the stumps at the ends of her legs, and said in a shaky whisper, ‘Daddy’s very angry. I’ve been a naughty girl.’

A whirlpool in Blake’s stomach reached up his throat and pulled his tongue down making him gag. He turned away from the girl and vomited on the carpet. Dry retching mostly as he had not eaten for hours.

‘How could a man be that angry? To cut off your feet? What could you have possibly done to deserve that punishment?’ Blake was speaking to the carpet because his head felt too heavy to lift and he was afraid to look again at the child. When she failed to answer, he knew she had gone without even looking. Needing more water, Blake dragged himself up off the floor again and entered through the last remaining door. The bathroom. The wrestler was sitting on the toilet.

‘Hey, don’t you fucking knock first,’ he boomed, standing and shaking his clenched fist at Blake. ‘Where’s my fucking axe?’

Had Blake been watching a horror movie he might have laughed at someone being threatened with an axe by a naked man simply for interrupting him on the toilet, but given the circumstances he was mortified. Was that all it took to make this man blow his stack? Was a forgetting of manners enough to turn him into a mindless beast of violence?

Despite his heart trying to tear a hole of escape through his chest, Blake somehow calmed himself sufficiently to ignore the man, and casually wandered over to the sink with and washed his face and hands, before cupping some much needed water into his mouth. Glancing in the mirror, he noticed the man had disappeared. With refreshment came clarity so Blake returned downstairs to look for the telephone. On the sofa sat on man dressed in white who did not seem to notice Blake as he entered the room.

His plan was not to engage the newcomer but unfortunately the telephone was sitting on a small coffee table right beside the man in white who sat still and remained apparently uninterested in Blake’s activities.

Blake reached down for the phone but as he did his arm was grabbed in a vice like grip by the man in white.

‘What?’ cried Blake. ‘Let go!’

As hard as he shook his arm he could not break free and the pressure was excruciating.

‘Aren’t you going to say excuse me before you reach across?’

Suddenly the man released his hold of Blake’s arm at the exact time he had been pulling with all of his might to get free. This caused Blake to tumble backwards and he might have fallen on the floor yet gain had it not been for the three people standing behind him into whom he cannoned.

Sunlight caught the edge of the axe blade and momentarily blinded Blake as backed away to a neutral corner of the room. That corner was where the dusty Christmas tree stood guardian over unopened presents and a pair of runners which Blake could now see, as he stood directly over them, were not empty.

‘Okay, man in white,’ said Blake pointing at him. ‘What the hell is going on here?’

‘Anger management. Is this your future?’

‘Are you real?’ answered Blake without answering the question.

Screaming. Chaos. Frantic movement. The voices of the man, his wife and their child all mixed in a frightening cacophony of anger and fear. Blake covered his ears and closed his eyes, praying for the noise to stop but on it went. The sounds of footsteps followed by more screaming, then crying, then sobbing and all else faded away to leave just the little girl’s quiet voice, barely above a whisper, saying, ‘Sorry, Daddy, sorry.’ Then silence.

Blake was alone.

The image of the little girl haunted him. Everywhere he looked, eyes open, eyes squeezed shut, still he could see her. Sitting on the floor emotionally exhausted he began to think about Sam. The only goodness in his life and even she was past tense for him now. Marriage and children. Of course she had raised the topic, and naturally he, not wanting to have children but definitely wanting her, had rebuffed her by laughing the subject off as being premature; something they could talk about later. Blake had run out of laters. He wondered if the man with the axe had wanted children or had his once beautiful young wife pushed him into fatherhood. Was his temper a symptom of the frustration he felt at losing control of his life and having to share too much of himself, his time and energy with others? Was he a time bomb waiting for someone to press the right combination of buttons to detonate him? Was Blake such a bomb? Would he have been, or could he be, the same sort violently abusive father? These questions were painful and frightening.

The smell of death returned to the living room, sneakily like a thief trying not to disturb wake anyone, and the chill squeezed his bones like an anaconda. Blake shook his head to break free of the melancholy which smothered him like a hot blanket and searched the room for signs of the restless dead.

In the silence he heard whispers, echoes of voices, screaming and crying. Soft and faint like the pulse of one on the brink of eternity. There was pain and misery in these whispers, and it was written all over the faces of the woman and her daughter as they appeared in front of Blake seated on the couch.

Blake was wondering what to say or if he should say anything at all when the door burst open and in rushed the man in white.

‘Where is he?’

He looked at Blake, then at the other two. ‘Where is he? If you know tell me. It’s very important. Tell me,’ he said as he slowly came closer to the three of them, ‘so I can help you. You are in danger.’ He was staring at Blake.

‘I’m in danger?’ said Blake. ‘From what? Losing my mind? These ghosts can’t hurt me.’

The man noted the way in which Blake waved at the two ghosts dismissively and shook his head. ‘You do not know what you are dealing with,’ he said. ‘They can hurt you but they don’t want to. He, on the other hand, does. He’s been very patient with you but you’re still in his house. Uninvited.’

Blake stood up and demanded, ‘Who are you?’

His answer was swallowed by a crash as the door slammed shut and the wrestler swung his axe into the back of it. Splinters flew in all directions. Some hit Blake in the chest, others passed through the woman and child on the sofa who sat passively embracing one another. The girl looked frightened but what, Blake wondered, did the dead have to fear?

‘Judgement!’ bellowed the man with the axe as he swung it around his head and into the door once more. ‘Judgement!’

Blake noticed he still had not moved and was relieved to see his theory about the limited mobility of these ghosts was holding.

The man in white was the next to speak. ‘The dead are afraid of judgement,’ he said. ‘Even more than the living fear the judgement seat.’

Focused on the man who answered his unspoken question, Blake missed the first step the wrestler took towards them, and the second and third steps. He noticed the girl press in tighter to her mother’s breast and in the split second it took him to figure out why, the axe found a home in the man in white’s ribcage via a forced entry through his back. Blake could just see the tip of the axe poking through under the man’s shirt before a river of blood engulfed it, and he dropped to the floor.

Blake was confused and terrified. The killer had vanished again and so had the other two. He ran for the door but it was shattered too badly to open, so he turned and ran for the biggest window behind the Christmas tree. Knocking the tree over, he ripped the curtains apart and flung the venetian blinds up and over his head. The window was locked and the wrestler was standing outside staring in. An exploding shower of glass rained over Blake as the axe came through the window, hooked around the blinds and reefed them back out with it. For a moment Blake was caught, tangled in the blinds as they were pulled out of the house but he struggled free and scrambled backwards. Shards of glass stabbed into his hands mercilessly as he battled to regain his standing.

The man in white was no longer on the floor. Blake pushed the tree aside and desperately searched for something with which to defend himself. Kitchen. He darted for it but his arrival was greeted with the whistle of a blade through the air and into the door frame where it wedged. He froze as the madman wrestled with the axe trying to wrench it free, and the instant he succeeded, Blake fled for the broken window in the living room. As he ran for it he saw the glass had been repaired but he had no time to stop and he knew he was going to die if he could not leave this cursed house. The rush of adrenalin through his system masked the pain long enough for Blake to crash through the window and stagger to the ground and up on his feet again. Running. Running. Around to the front of the house. To the cars in the driveway. Any keys? Could he be so lucky? Not with the Hyundai but the Landcruiser’s keys were in the ignition.

Blake jumped up into the driver’s seat and looked instinctively in the rear view mirror. The woman was there.

‘Please don’t leave. Help us.’

Blake yelled at her, ‘I can’t fucking help you. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing. Do you understand? You’re already dead. You’re dead! You’re dead!’

Blake raved on like a madman until she disappeared then he turned the key but the battery was flat. He slammed his hands into the steering wheel and swore continuously as the blood from his cuts flicked all over the inside of the car. Stopping at the sound of a loud crack, he studied his hand closely and realised he had broken his finger. Physically spent, he sat there behind the wheel and stared at his finger, fascinated by the bone sticking out at a weird angle through his bloody skin.

In the midst of a fury of pain and anger and frustration, Blake tried to think, tried to latch on to some logic, some sanity. He could not drive away and he was sure as hell not going back inside the house so he decided to walk. There was a flicker of an idea to run but his strength was gone and he didn’t know where he was going anyway.

He trudged up the driveway and out onto the road. Walking very slowly down the centre of the fiery bitumen, Blake’s mind flooded with turbulent chaotic thoughts, and he lost track of time and direction. His eyes half closed only saw blurred shapes which his mind could not decipher and finally he dived to the hot hard ground unconscious.

*****

‘He’s coming to.’

‘No, don’t move him yet. Let’s get some fluids into him.’

‘Is he talking? Did he say anything?’

At the sound of strange voices, Blake slowly opened his eyes but could not see anything. Panicking he tried to sit up while clutching for his eyes.

‘It’s okay, lay back. You’re all right, just lay back now. Take it easy. I’ll take these patches off for a second.’

Suddenly he could see and he relaxed but only until his eyes began to focus and he saw who it was that was talking to him. A man in white and he freaked out again. Jumping up off the ground, he saw a solid man with an axe and he ran, ignoring the yelling from behind him, and tried to figure out where he was. When he realised, when he saw the house, burning like a rampant inferno, it was as though a massive vacuum had sucked all the breath from his lungs and he collapsed again.

No salvation. No answers. The middle of nowhere. The end of the line. Millers Forest.

Bio

Heavy metal lover and cricket tragic, D.A. Cairns lives on the south coast of New South Wales where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had over 50 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) He blogs at Square pegs http://dacairns.blogspot.com.au and has authored four novels, Devolution, Loathe Your Neighbor, Ashmore Grief, and A Muddy Red River which is available now from Rogue Phoenix Press.

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Wedding Plans by C. E. Stokes

Jan 29 2017

The kitchen looked like a bomb had gone off.  Bridal magazines lay scattered on every available space, pages marked with colorful sticky notes and scrawled with his fiancee’s neat script.  John hesitated in the doorway and wondered if he could escape before his bride-to-be noticed him.

Too late.  Julie lifted her head to glare at him.

“This would be a lot easier if your mother weren’t the devil!”  She huffed and flopped back against the wooden chair. She hadn’t bothered to change out of her scrubs.

He shouldn’t smile.  It would set her off.  With some effort, he suppressed his grin.

“Remember, she’ll be your mother-in-law after the wedding.”  This comment earned him a scowl in addition to the glare.

He pulled her out of the chair and into a hug.  The tension bled out of her as his hands moved up and down her back.  He wondered how much longer he’d have to hold her until she calmed down.

“She’s making me reconsider going through with the wedding.  Couldn’t we live in sin instead?” She groaned and buried her face in his shirt.

“You’re under a lot of stress.  You might just be overreacting.” He muttered into her ear.  Wisps of her blonde hair tickled his nose.

Julie tensed against him.  Probably not the best response.  John stroked her some more to make up for it.

He tried again.  “What’d she do this time?”

She pulled away to pace the kitchen.  “Every day– no, every hour!– she sends me long, detailed messages about how the wedding should be.” Her hands fluttered around her face as she marched back and forth, “and I mean everything; what music the DJ should play, pictures of what cakes she likes and a different menu selection everyday!  And get this, today she sent me a picture of what dress I should wear.  Some frumpy, frilly thing that makes me look like a walking cupcake!”

John flinched as her voice hit octaves reserved for shattering glass.

Oblivious to his wince, Julie dragged the laptop toward her and pecked at the keys.  Brushing her hair out of her face, she gestured to the screen

He leaned over and took in the photo.  “It’s definitely cupcake-like.  You’d look delicious.” He resisted the urge to lick his lips.

“Seriously?  That’s not helpful.” Her lips pressed into a thin line.  She crossed her arms and scowled at him.

He stepped behind her to rub her shoulders.  Usually the caressing calmed her down.  Today, it didn’t have the desired effect.

“Mother wants to be part of our special day.” His voice was low and, he hoped, soothing.

“Yeah, right. She can’t be bothered to meet me or talk to me, yet is trying to dictate my wedding.  Oh, I mean, our wedding.”

“Let’s go to dinner.  I made reservations at The Happy Tuna.  You’re not too upset to enjoy sushi, are you?”  He grinned as a small smile appeared on her lips. “After I drop you off, I’ll go home and call Mother, okay?”

“I’d prefer to talk to her myself.  Why won’t she even talk to me on the phone?” The smile faded and John worried he’d have to keep rubbing her.  She brushed his hands away and headed toward the hallway. “Dinner sounds great.  Give me a minute to change.”

After a meal that included no mention of his mother, John drove Julie home.  He opened her door with a gallant air that made her giggle and walked her to the door.  Julie rose up on tiptoes to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him.

He’d forgotten that ‘goodnight’ meant more petting.

“I know I insisted on waiting, but I was thinking…with the wedding so close…” She glanced up through her lashes.

His arms tightened around her.  It took a deep breath before he trusted himself to speak.  “You’ve saved yourself this long, Julie, and I respect that.  We’ll wait until the wedding night.  It’ll make the whole thing sweeter.” He touched her cheek with one finger, tracing a path toward her lips.  Her breath caught and he bent his head to kiss her one more time before turning to leave.

“I love you!  Don’t forget to call your mother!” Julie’s voice followed him down the sidewalk.  Gritting his teeth, he waved over his shoulder.  Once in the privacy of his car, he expelled a sigh of relief before heading to his house.

 

 

#

 

 

In a secluded neighborhood, not more than a five-minute drive from Julie’s home sat the little ranch house where John stayed.  He strolled through the front door and dropped his keys on the table next to the door.  He didn’t bother to turn on the lights as he made his way toward the kitchen.  The meager furnishings offered no obstacle to his destination.  He didn’t care about acquiring more, however, they were necessary to the charade.

Once he reached the kitchen, he clicked on the lights.  Brightness reflected off the pristine granite counter tops.  He filled a glass at the sink and took a long drink to get the taste of raw fish out of his mouth.  The water tasted crisp and pure.  Much like he imagined Julie would taste.

The thought of his fiancee reminded him of what he needed to do.  He couldn’t put it off anymore.  It was time to talk to Mother.

The glass clinked on the counter when he set it down.  John headed toward the basement door.

The steps leading to the unfinished basement were simple pine.  His footsteps echoed off the cinder block wall.  At the bottom of the steps, he kicked off his shoes.  Barefoot, he padded toward the little room in the back of the basement.

Between one step and the next, a black smoke rose up from under his feet.  It grew thicker, swirling around him until it completely enveloped him.  It danced across his skin and erased the illusion he’d adopted years ago.  In the blink of an eye, it vanished.

Free of the confining disguise, he paused to scratch under his arm.  That itch had been driving him crazy for hours.  It was a relief to finally get it.

His clawed fingers tapped across the cement blocks until he found the loose one.  Dust rained down with each slight shift of the block.  The key nestled in the back.  He unlocked the dark wood door and stepped inside.

With a careless wave of his hand, he lit the candles in the room with a ripple of his power.  The flickering light reflected off the pentagram etched in the floor.

The cement was cool against his knees.  He chanted, the harsh sounding words bouncing off the walls of the cramped room.  Thick smoke, identical to his own, rose up and rolled around the confines of the circle.  It swelled only to collapse back on itself to form a figure.

Inside the circle, yellow eyes met and held his.  He’d always been told he had his mother’s eyes.  Guttural words hissed out of the trapped creature’s mouth.

He held up his hand to cut off the tirade, “Mother, you need to leave Julie alone.  It’s not fair to torment her before the wedding.  It’s hard enough to find a virgin in today’s world, I won’t have you scaring her off.”

The demon in the circle snarled.  Her lips twisted away from sharp fangs.

The creature known as John sneered back, “I mean it.  Weren’t you the one who taught me not to play with my food?”

#

C. E. Stokes is a freelance writer living near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She has Bachelor of Fine Arts from Bloomsburg University. Being too much of a foodie to accept the role of starving artist, she turned to writing. Her short stories have appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Quantum Fairy Tales, multiple issues of Dark Gothic Resurrected and the “Tales from the Grave” and “The Key” anthology.

 

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TAXIDERMY by ANDREW DARLINGTON

Jan 22 2017

He walks in shoving the wheelie-bin. The door-chime pings. Dead eyes watch him. Amber bead eyes set into stilled faces. A fox in a glass case. A cluster of parrots on a perch. A ferret poised on the curl of tree-bark. He feels itchy. There must be bugs here, ticks tunneling away through all that dead fur. A silt of dry mustiness that hangs in the air, catching at the back of his throat.

‘What you got in there?’ says the taxidermist, crooking forward over the counter.

‘Bitch’ he says. Shoves it to a halt against the counter. ‘But just ‘cos she was a bitch doesn’t mean I don’t miss having her around.’

The elderly taxidermist laughs nervously. ‘So what service do you require, sir?’

He flips the lid. Her hair spills out. ‘She was messing around, you know what I mean? But this way I get to keep her. She can sit there in front of the TV, just like always, I can talk to her, in the absolute certainty she’ll never cheat on me ever again.’

‘Yeah, yes, of course, whatever you say.’ He reaches for the alert fixed beneath the desktop.

‘We do this based on trust.’ The client’s holding the shotgun that was cradled inside the wheelie-bin alongside the blasted corpse. ‘I trust you, you trust me.’

The old man licks his thin purple lips, squints through his optician’s arrangement of thick lenses. An amber sweat-bead crawls like a glistening bug down his stooped spine.

‘There’s a problem?’

‘No problem at all. Follow me.’ He’s an old man, his joints are stiff, there’s a bone-cracking sound when he move. He leads the way, behind the storefront there’s what resembles a mash-up of surgery and craft workshop. Racks of operating instruments. Shelves with plastic box-containers of feathers, kapok, differently hued eyeballs, fangs, molars, wire coils, staples and pins. Vitrines and bell-jars with indistinct fluid contents. A refrigerated cabinet.

‘You understand, I usually do nothing bigger than dearly-beloved dogs, and cute pet cats, the deceased animal companions of bereaved owners. Nothing quite like this.’

‘But you can do it, right? What’s been your biggest commission so far?’

‘I suppose, yes. There was a grizzly bear I did for the museum exhibition, that received much commendation. Tell you what, leave the… er, subject with me, come back in three days, I’ll fix an appointment…’

‘No. It doesn’t work that way. I’m here to watch you work. We don’t want you tempted to alert anyone or inform the authorities about the unusual nature of this project, do we?’

He hitches his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Glances at the shotgun cradled casually in the curve of his arm. ‘No, I suppose not. Help me get the subject on the slab. I’ll do what I can.’

Prepping her is a long detailed procedure. The table has runnels and drains, for fluids. She’s sprawled on her back, already naked, the fatal wound exploding her stomach. She’s older than she seems, her blonde hair doesn’t match her pubes. He frames her carefully, takes photos, measurements. Skull radius, ocular orbits. Anoints her body with preserving fluids, cleaning the wound. Mixes plaster for the manikin. Takes a death-mask cast of her face and hands. Glances over his shoulder nervously, coughing.

He makes tea in an electric kettle, using two teabags. Presses Preset One on the radio, a phone-in about benefit cheats fades in. ‘How do you want her posing?’ says the taxidermist.

‘Seated. It was good, in general, what we had. She just had a weakness, a wandering eye. This way I get to keep her, you understand?’

‘Of course. Eyes are difficult. Human eyes that is. I have other species…’ He spills a selection across the table. They run them between their fingers… this one? or this one? Not quite right. Not a good match. He holds them against her dead white face questioningly. Yes, they’ll have to do.

‘Now… you sure you want to watch? We call this the ‘caping’?’ Pulling on latex gloves, flipping through the lenses in his optician’s array, into the correct focus. The incisions begin along her spine. Peeling the skin back. His breathing is quiet, his mind concentrated, half on the radio voice, half on the scalpel…

The taxidermist works methodically, long into the night. The client watches every movement, the shotgun never wavering. She reassembles before his eyes. Taking shape almost supernaturally. The familiar curves accentuated, the shape filling out. Only the eyes are different.

Finally the taxidermist straightens up, unsheathing the messy latex gloves. There’s a moment of confused silence, before the client pulls the trigger and his shotgun roars…

Several hours later he walks out shoving the wheelie-bin. The door-chime pings. The elderly taxidermist is crooked forward over the counter. He’s totally immobile, awaiting the next customer. His eyes are mismatch amber beads.

#

Check out my website ‘EIGHT MILES HIGHER’ – ‘The Blogspot for People Who Don’t Like Blogspots’ – latest postings include ‘Robyn Hitchcock: The Man Who Invented Himself’ interview, ‘Alfred Bester: The SF Probable Man’, ‘Brenda Lee: The Real Miss Dynamite’, ABC & Vice Versa music interviews, Kurt Vonnegut 1983 interview, Philip E High UK SF-pioneer interview & full history with rare archive art, ‘The Lost Worlds Of Arthur Conan Doyle: His SF, Fantasy & Horror’, Captain Beefheart Live 1980, Elvis: My Visit To Graceland & Sun Studios with photos, ‘The Lovin’ Spoonful Story’, and more… monthly updates at andrewdarlington.blogspot.com

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Passing It On by Annie Percik

Jan 15 2017

“It’s not fair!” Jason yelled. “When do I get to be a superhero?”

Frankie winced in anticipation of the slammed door that followed his thumping footsteps up the stairs. The answer to his question would likely be never, if that kind of attitude carried on much longer. She glanced down to see that lightning was crackling between her fingers and she clenched her fists down on it viciously until it went out. Unconscious power flaunting like that wasn’t going to help the situation in any way. She had always known having a teenager in the house wasn’t going to be easy, but adding powers to the mix made it infinitely more complicated. Where were the parenting books for that?

She briefly contemplated following Jason up the stairs and trying to talk to him about the situation, rationally and calmly, but she quickly dismissed that idea as a bad one. Neither of them were in the right frame of mind for sensible discussion at the moment, so it would be much better just to let him – and herself – cool down, and address the issue later. Maybe if she went out and got pizza for dinner, he might be prepared to listen to what she had to say.

Frankie slipped her gloves over the livid scars on her hands, grabbed her bag and left the house. She walked briskly to the store at the end of the road and was soon perusing the pizza options in front of the freezer near the back. A commotion over at the counter caught her attention, and she spun to glimpse an agitated youth brandishing a handgun. The guy behind the counter had his hands up and was visibly trembling in the face of the weapon.

Frankie glanced up at the security camera that was currently recording all the events in the store. Anyone viewing it afterwards would clearly be able to see her face, as well as that of the robber, but it was understood that such footage would never be used to compromise superhero identities, and that rule was rarely broken. Shrugging off her apprehension, Frankie reached into her bag and pulled out a light blue face mask with yellow lightning bolts embroidered along the sides. She pulled off her gloves, fastened the mask over her dark hair, and strode out from behind the shelves of chips and guacamole.

At the sound of her approach, the youth with the gun spun around and aimed his weapon right at her.

“Stop!” he cried, his voice cracking with barely restrained panic. “I’ll shoot you!”

“Not if I shoot you first,” Frankie quipped, and let rip with some lightning from her left hand.

The bolt of yellow light shot out from her fingers and enveloped the robber almost instantaneously. He convulsed, the gun falling harmlessly from his grip, then collapsed in a heap on the floor. Frankie closed the distance between them in two quick strides and knelt beside him, checking for a pulse. The beat was strong, letting her know she hadn’t been over-zealous with the use of her powers. She rolled the unconscious youth over onto his stomach, retrieved a zip tie from her jacket pocket, and secured his hands behind his back.

Then, finally, she looked up at the shop assistant, who had emerged from behind the counter and was staring down at her in awe.

“Thanks, uh…?” he stammered.

“Bolt,” Frankie replied with a grin. She had never been one for the over-the-top fancy names that some heroes operated under. “And it’s no problem. Can I leave you to call the police and get this cleaned up?”

“Uh, sure,” he said, his eyes never leaving her as she stood and strode out of the shop.

It was only when she reached the front door of the house, mask surreptitiously removed and stuffed back in her bag along the way, that Frankie realised she had forgotten the pizza.

#

Over a dinner of fish fingers and chips from the freezer, which seemed to mollify Jason to a certain extent, Frankie raised the subject tentatively.

“Can we talk about this superhero business, please?” she asked, raising an eyebrow in a plea to avoid further teenage tantrums.

Jason sighed. “I guess,” he shrugged.

Frankie decided this was as good an opportunity as she was going to get, and forged ahead.

“Do you really think it would be a good idea for me to pass my powers on to you now?” she asked, fixing him with a stern gaze.

Jason stared back at her defiantly for a few moments, then deflated and dropped his eyes to his plate. He moved a few of his chips around a bit, before eventually answering her.

“There’s a girl at school, whose sister got their dad’s powers as a graduation present,” he said, sullenly.

“High school or college?” Frankie probed.

Jason crossed his arms over his chest and slumped down further in his chair.

“College,” he muttered.

“Well, there you go, then,” Frankie said.

Jason looked up eagerly. “Does that mean you’ll give me yours when I graduate college?”

Frankie briefly considered saying yes, since this might be a major incentive to her less than academic son, to do well in school and actually get into college in the first place. She decided, though, that making that promise now would be a dangerous thing to do, since she knew she would have no intention of keeping it.

“Um, no,” she said, then backpedalled slightly as she saw a glower start to form on Jason’s face. “Well, maybe. I don’t know, okay? It’s not a decision to be made lightly, and I don’t want you to base all your life decisions on when you’re going to get my powers. You need to build a life outside being a superhero first, and then maybe I’ll let you add the extra layer.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “That’s not what you did.”

Frankie sighed. She had known this was coming.

“And that’s one of the main reasons I don’t want to burden you with powers too early,” she said. “You know that. They came to me way too young, and I had an awful time coming to terms with what I could do, and what I should do.”

She held her scarred hands up in front of her, forcing Jason to look at them. “This is what happens when you don’t know what you’re doing with powers.” It wasn’t a new argument, but it was the strongest one she had at her disposal.

“But that was because you didn’t have anyone to help you!” Jason protested. “The sooner you pass your powers on to me, the longer you’ll have to train me up and help me with them. What if something happens to you, like it did to Grandma? I’d be in exactly the same position as you – or, worse, you won’t get the chance to pass them on at all, and they’ll be lost forever.”

Frankie thought back to her early teenage years. It had been hard enough dealing with the regular trials and tribulations of puberty and high school. She had been a quiet, bookish girl, with few friends and practically no social life. Losing her mother and suddenly gaining the ability to shoot lightning from her fingers, on the same day, had made everything infinitely more complicated. Trying to gain control of her powers, which responded badly to unexpected bursts of emotion, had caused some rather awkward, not to mention dangerous, situations, and there had been no-one to help her, as Jason said.

The last thing she wanted was for Jason to have to go through anything like that. If she was honest, Frankie thought it wouldn’t be too bad a thing if her powers were to be lost without being passed on, but she wasn’t going to say that.

“What’s your rush?” she asked, a little plaintively. “Why would you want to jump into the extra responsibility, when you’ve already got homework and chores and a part-time job to worry about? You should count yourself lucky you don’t have to deal with being a superhero on top of all that!”

She winced inwardly at how stereotypically parental she sounded. Telling a teenager they should be grateful for their lot was never going to be a successful route to persuasion. Sure enough, Jason snorted.

“If it’s such a lousy gig, how come you’re so keen to hold onto it?” he asked.

“Because it came to me, and I will do my duty by it until the time comes for me to pass it on,” Frankie said, painfully aware of how self-righteous she sounded.

Jason sighed and the topic subsided again, the argument ultimately unresolved, as usual.

#

Frankie might have spouted the line about duty to her son, but it wasn’t as if she was out pounding the streets every night, looking for crime to fight. Some superheroes managed to make an actual career out of using their powers, through sponsors and clever marketing, and spent all their time doing good in the community and making a big splash thwarting criminals.

Frankie had her mask, and a full costume for the rare occasions when she wanted to blow off steam with a crime-fighting session. But, usually, she only stepped in when it was really necessary, like the incident in the corner shop. And, even then, she preferred to slip out unnoticed before the police arrived. Sometimes, they would identify her from security camera footage or witness statements and call to follow-up, but mostly the police were happy to let her involvement go unrecorded.

She sometimes wondered if she ought to do more with the gifts she had inherited.. But then she thought of how she had grown up without a mother, and she knew she couldn’t deliberately put herself in danger and risk that happening to Jason. If anything ever happened to her, he would have no-one to turn to, since his father had left when he was just a baby.

When she thought about passing her powers on to Jason, Frankie most often felt it would be better if she didn’t, but she knew she would probably have to, sooner or later, or he would never forgive her. She pictured handing over the mantle to him in ten years’ time, and wondered how it would feel to train him. It hadn’t been something she had really thought about when she’d decided to have a baby. As there were so few people with powers in the world, it was generally considered a superhero’s duty to procreate in order to pass their powers on, but Frankie had wanted a family for more traditional reasons. Raising a son alone, on top of holding down a full-time job and dealing with having powers, hadn’t been part of her plan.

The thought of getting rid of her powers was quite tempting, but she knew she couldn’t pass them on to Jason until he had established himself in the world without them. She also thought his school wouldn’t appreciate a teenage boy with the ability to shoot lightning from his fingers. Jason wasn’t violent as a rule, but he did lose his temper sometimes, and Frankie knew from experience that controlling powers on top of teenage emotions was not an easy task.

#

Frankie might not go out in search of situations where she could use her powers, but there was one scenario where she never failed to do her duty. Every powered person was given an identification code, which the local emergency services could use to call upon them in certain situations. If an alert came through using her code, Frankie was expected to go to help, and she didn’t regard this as an unacceptable burden. She had plenty of community spirit, and was more than willing to help people if she was able. She just didn’t see it as her particular duty to put herself in the path of danger unnecessarily, when it was likely she would end up in a position where her specific powers were of little use. But each police precinct had a register of the powers of those who lived in their area – unless the person in question was actively hiding their abilities – and could use that to call upon people with appropriate powers for any given situation. The ability to shoot lightning from her fingers wasn’t specific to many emergencies, so Frankie was only very rarely called, and that was how she liked it.

It was 2am when the call came in. Frankie fought her way out of sleep, the insistent buzzing of her phone dragging her upwards and into awareness. She reached blindly for the phone and peered blearily at the message on its screen. It contained only her emergency identification code and a location about ten blocks from the house. Snapping into alertness, she jumped out of bed and stepped over to the wardrobe. Generally, she just carried her mask, in case she really needed it, but she did have an entire superhero suit in her closet, for occasions just such as this.

It was sleek and striking – a one-piece of blue and white with her lightning bolt motif at wrists, ankles and collar. It accentuated her slender frame but covered her entire body; practical, yet stylish. She didn’t hold with those superheroes who wore ridiculous outfits that revealed unnecessary amounts of flesh, or indulged in fancy capes. It just seemed to be asking for trouble on so many different levels. Besides, she wasn’t looking for media attention; she preferred a life of virtual anonymity, with only occasional and quickly forgotten bursts of excitement.

Frankie scrawled a hasty note to Jason and left it on the kitchen table. He was old enough to get himself to school, if the emergency situation ran long. Then, she slipped her house keys and her driving licence into a concealed pocket and headed out into the night. She was in pretty good shape, all told, but she was still pretty out of breath by the time she had jogged all the way to the site of the emergency. A disturbing orange glow in the sky as she drew close told her it was a fire long before she actually got there. Then, she turned a corner to see an entire apartment block ablaze.

There were several fire engines already on the scene, along with ambulances and police vehicles. It was clear that the firemen were struggling to control the blaze, while the police were busy setting up a barrier to prevent the inevitable eager onlookers from getting too close. Frankie was confused as to why she had been called, but jogged up to the nearest policeman and identified herself as Bolt.

“Great, you’re here!” he exclaimed. He was young, and looked harried. “Go speak to the Fire Chief, and he’ll tell you what we need. He’s over there.” He gestured towards one of the fire engines.

Frankie ducked under the tape and made her way in that direction. A big, burly man in a bulky jacket was shouting instructions, so she approached him and waved to catch his attention.

He turned and looked her up and down.

“You’re the superhero?” he asked, rather unnecessarily, then threw his hand out to encompass the burning building. “Well, you can see what we’re up against. Get to it.”

Frankie was still confused. “Get to what? What exactly is it that you want me to do?”

He scowled at her. “You can control fire, right? Well, go control it!”

“What? No, I can use lightning,” Frankie said, bringing up one of her hands and letting the yellow light play between her fingers as a demonstration.

The Fire Chief looked at her, aghast. “Shit!” he exclaimed. “There must have been a screw-up at Dispatch. You’re the only one that’s turned up. I’ll get onto them and see if they can get in touch with the right hero and send them over here pronto.” He looked about in desperation. “Is there anything you can help with, since you’re here?”

Frankie regarded him helplessly for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”

She made her way towards the building, weaving between the vehicles and the various men and women running frantically about. As she got close, one of the firemen spotted her and waved her over.

“Hey!” he called out. “We can’t get access to the west side of the block. What can you do to help us?”

Frankie took in the situation. She could see the problem immediately, and her spirits rose when she realised it was actually something her powers were suited for..

Somehow, a power line had come down across an alleyway that ran down the side of the building. It was snaking around on the ground, sparking magnificently, and effectively blocking access to the side door of the apartment block. The fireman looked at Frankie expectantly.

“Stay there,” she said, “but be ready to go through as soon as it’s safe.”

He nodded, wide-eyed.

Wishing she had thought to ask the Fire Chief for a protective jacket and hard hat before coming over here, Frankie approached the jumping power line slowly. She could generate lightning bolts from the electricity contained in her own body, and direct them as energy from her fingers. As a result, it was also possible for her to absorb electricity from outside sources and channel it through her body without it harming her. Or, at least, she had done so before, but not with this much raw power.

She automatically flinched away when the sparks sprang in her direction, then steeled herself against those protective instincts and strode forwards until she was only a foot away from the cable. She reached down and grabbed hold of it, feeling the physical tug of its movement before the rush of electrical power into her body took over all her senses. It flowed through every part of her, until she felt entirely filled by its delicious energy. There was more of it than she could hold, however, and it just kept coming. Frankie glanced around frantically for somewhere safe she could direct it, but there were people, vehicles or flames in every direction. So, she chose straight up.

Keeping the cable under control and turned towards her body with one arm, Frankie extended the other one to the sky, tilted her head back, and released the pent-up energy. It streamed out of her fingers and up into the darkness, illuminating the sky above her. The clouds rumbled loudly in a reverse reaction, and she could see the energy crackling through their stored water vapour. A few moments later, it started to rain, gradually getting heavier as the stream of energy kept firing upwards.

Frankie felt the raindrops on her face, a welcome relief from the heat of the electricity, but it was a tiny amount of wetness in comparison to the intensity of the wild energy coursing through her. That wasn’t slowing down, either. The flow was relentless, and she quickly became aware that she had taken on more than she could handle. She was committed now, though, and would have to see it through, or risk compounding the disaster by losing control and letting the electricity free again to rampage unchecked.

So, she stood her ground, even when the exhilaration of the electricity turned to searing pain. Even when she felt the skin on the outside of her hands blister and the flesh on the inside start to melt. She took every bit of the power the cable threw out, and redirected it safely into the sky. At last, after what felt like an eternity, the flow suddenly cut off, and Frankie dropped like a stone into blackness.

#

Frankie’s entire world was pain. It snaked in and out of her breathing, it enveloped her mind and encompassed her very being. There was nothing but pain – until she felt pressure on her fingers and heard hitching sobs at her sides. She fought through the haze towards the surface of the world and somehow managed to open her eyes.

Jason sat beside her, gingerly holding her hand and crying unashamedly.

Frankie summoned what little energy she could muster and opened cracked lips.

“I’m dying, aren’t I?” she croaked, the words barely comprehensible, even to her own ears.

Jason’s gaze met hers and she didn’t need his anguished nod to tell her it was so.

A different kind of pain flowed through her, then; the pain of history inevitably repeating itself, in spite of everything she tried to do to prevent it.

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” she whispered, a void opening in her heart at the thought of leaving her son alone in the world.

He shook his head slowly. “I won’t say it’s okay, because it’s not,” he said, his words soft as a pillow against her cheek. “But they got another fifteen people out of that building because of you, and that’s worth something.”

None of those people mattered to Frankie at all, not with Jason sitting beside her, his bravery and his grief battling on his face.

“You have to pass it on,” he said next. “Now, before it’s too late.”

Frankie was stunned. After everything that had happened, to her and now to him, how could he still want to take on the powers that had caused so much suffering to their family? He must have seen the confusion in her eyes, because he squeezed her fingers slightly and his expression turned determined.

“I still believe in the importance of what heroes do,” he said, “and I want to carry on your legacy. Please.”

Even in the midst of her pain, pain that was caused by the very powers her son was now asking for, Frankie could not deny him. The sense of responsibility was too strong, and she knew that, ultimately, he would use those powers wisely, and do good with them. She felt herself slipping away, but focused just long enough to let the essence of the lightning flow out of her body and into his, before finally letting go.

And thus a new superhero was born, in the wake of an older superhero’s death, as it had happened for hundreds of years. Created out of loss and grief, Jason’s resolve to do justice to his mother’s memory was forged like steel, and the mantle of Bolt was passed on to the next generation.

THE END

Bio:

Annie Percik lives in London with her husband, Dave, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She writes a blog about writing and posts short fiction on her website (www.alobear.co.uk). She also publishes a photo-story blog, recording the adventures of her teddy bear (aloysius-bear.livejournal.com). He is much more popular online than she is. She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time.

Annie has won the weekly Hour of Writes competition four times, and been runner-up on several more occasions. Her entries are due to be published in two anthologies next year. She won second place in the writing competition in author Michael Brookes’ Cult of Me competition in February 2016, and was shortlisted by Writing Magazine for both their New Subscriber Short Story and New Subscriber Poetry competitions. Her writing will appear in two short story anthologies by Centum Press also coming out next year. Her story ‘Safeguarding the Future’ appeared in the October 2016 issue of the Lorelei Signal, and ‘Falling Sand’ is due to be published on eternalremedy.com before the end of the year.

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The Centaur’s Revenge By Nancy Cole Silverman

Jan 08 2017

After the accident, the doctor said there might be some effects from the medication: headache, sleepiness, dry mouth and some nausea. The doctor rolled off a litany of maladies, none of which I focused on as he checked them off on a clipboard.  My only thought was to get out of the hospital, away from the sterile, white environment where I’d been hooked up to alien-looking machines that did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.  I didn’t recall the doctor saying anything about disorientation or unusual dreams, so when it first happened I just chalked it up to one of the side effects I hadn’t listened to, but when it happened again, I knew I had to do something, so I’ll tell you.

The first dream came to me when I was still in the hospital.  I was reliving the accident and my body reacted viscerally, my muscles twitched involuntarily as I watched my car skid into the semi, avoiding the rider-less horse, the side mirror attaching itself to its reins.  I woke in sweat, remembered the horse’s terrorized eyes and the steel hooves as he reared in an attempt to free himself.  I called out and I vaguely remember the nurse giving me something. I fell back to sleep, this time into a much deeper sleep; a sleep that took me far beyond this world and into the next.

I was riding a blue horse–flying really–through the star fields. Below us was a lake, a waterfront surrounded by green hills. We landed in pasture land and I watched as a herd of horses grazed peacefully until a white mare lifted her head and whinnied, announcing the arrival of their leader. I looked up at the hill and saw nothing, but around me, fierce winds began to howl and then a funnel cloud appeared.  It lifted the lake up into the heavens taking with it horses of every shape, color, and size. Swirling madly like a carousel in a cloud, their bodies evaporating before my eyes until there was nothing left.

I looked back at the top of the hill, hoping to find some explanation, but found none.  Instead, what emerged through the vapor was a huge, dark warhorse with his rider and they were galloping towards me.  Only I was wrong, and the closer he came to me the more I could see the rider I had mistaken to be on his back, was merged with the horse’s body. This wasn’t a horse and rider at all, but a centaur. The man’s head with the chiseled features of a warrior and his torso, bare-chested, lean and muscular, were merged with the body of the horse. I panicked and wanted to run, but could not.  My feet sunk in the mud. And the closer he came to me, I could see his glassy eyes pinned to mine. In his hand, he held a spear high above his head, the arrow aimed directly at my heart.

Then coming to a stop, he said, “My name is Chiron, I am the leader of the centaurs and I have called you here for a reason.”

I was numb. My heart beating so fast I feared I couldn’t breathe. The creature I thought to be only mythical, certainly not anything possibly related to the modern world, was speaking to me and as he did, he lowered his spear.

“Yours was not an accident,” the Centaur said. “I needed to get your attention. To test you. And I am pleased. I sent the horse onto the freeway and you did precisely as I would have wanted you to do. Saving the horse at great peril to yourself.”

Again I tried to move, but my feet refused me, frozen in mud while my heart raced. I was paralyzed with fear, the type of fear that blurs fact and fiction, and transcends the subconscious. So powerful, that when I awoke the only words I could remember were, “Cynthia, we need your help.”

In college,  I studied Greek Mythology. I found it a basis for all story telling and played with it casually, writing short stories here and there while pursuing a career in journalism.  I didn’t give it much credence, good cocktail conversation, that type of thing, nothing more.  I’d entertain friends with stories about Greek Gods and their desires. Most like Zeus, whose lust for mortals and his ability to transcend himself both for seduction and revenge, were always popular. Topics for late night parties and what not, but I never took them seriously. I certainly thought my casual interest in their history might be because I was possessed, or even targeted. It wasn’t until after the dreams began that I realized just how powerful that connection was and how wrong I’d been.

Ironic, isn’t it?  That’s how people in the modern world like to refer to it. We use terms like serendipitous and coincidence, but I’m here to tell you, it’s more than that.  Allow me to explain.

A month after the accident, I was assigned by a magazine to do some freelance work for a story concerning horse slaughter and the reopening of some slaughterhouses for the first time in this country in nearly four years.  On the site of a proposed plant, standing atop the kill shoot, stood a Texas state Congresswomen, a Ms. Barbara Bloodworthy,  also known by those of us in the press as BB, or ‘Bad Babs,’ for her ability to twist a phrase and manipulate facts in her favor.  Ms. Bloodworthy was leading the charge to reopen a slaughterhouse, riding a bill she believed would provide jobs and rally voters to her cause, ensuring her fledgling career.  I stood there, with a group of journalist as she waxed on, an obviously canned speech, about the beauty of America’s horses and the unfortunate times which had befallen them and the need for us as concerned citizens to step forward, and ‘do the right thing.’

Only thing was, in Ms. Bloodworthy’s estimation, the ‘right thing,’ amounted to murder. That’s when the first flashback happened.  I started to feel lightheaded and the blurred vision of Chiron, came to me, his voice was clear as a bell.

“You need to stop this, for every horse that is killed a part of man dies with it.  You have to make them understand.  I’ll do my part, you do yours.”

I watched as Ms. Bloodworthy continued to speak, reporters gathered around her, cameras running, microphones extended into her face as she pointed to a pen of desolate looking horses, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, their heads hung low, their coats matted, their manes and tails mangy-looking.  With her hair neatly piled upon her small, pointed head, and dressed in an ill-fitting pantsuit that did little to hide her pare-shaped behind – despite her three-inch red high heels – she continued to define their sorry state.

“They’re ill and left to die on the range for lack of food and water, and many,” she said smiling into the cameras, “because of the tough economic times, continue to be turned out by their owners who can no longer afford to stable and feed them. On the open range, they breed, doubling their herd size every four years.”  I wondered from where she pulled those numbers. If that were so, our lands would have been overrun years ago. Then she added, wiping a tear from her eye for effect’s sake, “They’re starving, thirsty and it’s up to us, to humanely find a solution…”

She turned on her stiletto heels and gestured to the plant behind her.  As she did, a crow flew from out of nowhere above our heads. Dive-bombed us all. Ms. Bloodworthy began to bob and weave as the bird appeared to target in on her. As she did, she lost her balance, falling perilously to the bloodstained cement floor below.

Thud!  There was an eerie silence. We all looked at one another, shocked, then peered over the edge of the shoot at her motionless body, lying twisted and broken on the floor beneath us. The following day, news of Ms. Bloodworthy’s  accident trumped the slaughter story, the papers giving more attention to ‘the unfortunate incident,’ and little attention to the proposed reopening of the slaughter house.

Paralyzed, that’s what the doctors said, but not one could account for the even stranger phenomena that Ms. Bloodworthy had lost her ability to speak.  Instead, all that remained of Ms. Bloodworthy’s voice was a meek bray, like that of a donkey, braying for its herd.

As I’ve said before, the Greek Gods imposed their will upon mortals and so did their centaurs, of which there were two groups.  Both were followers of the wine god Dionysus, and subject to the dangers of drink. The larger and more wild herd were flesh-eating creatures, known for carrying off young maidens.  I often think that is why so many young girls love horses; unbeknownst to them, their hearts are being stolen by the centaur.  But the smaller group, those led by Chiron, they were scholars, physicians, and prophets, who understood the future and warned their brethren of its dangers.

The dark horse came to me in another dream after Ms. Bloodworthy was paralyzed.  He flew me through the star fields and back to the lake where he left me to wait for Chiron, alone, next to the lake in the silence of the lapping waters. Then he appeared, out of the mist, his skin hot and sweaty, his breathing hard, as though he had been running.

“Now that you’ve seen what did to Ms. Bloodworthy, you understand what it is I can do.” His eyes were like deep pools penetrating mine, searching for my understanding. I could smell alcohol on his breath.

“You’ve been drinking,” I said.

“And it is only the beginning.  There is so much more.”

I knew he was right and I watched as he morphed before me from horse to man. His powerful horse body shrinking from that an equine creature into that of a barefoot man with but a loin cloth. I couldn’t help but feel stirred by the change. I was captivated.

isH Now if you think this strange, you must remember, Greek mythology is full of stories of vengeance and transformation. Zeus had not only transformed himself into a bull to attract Europa, a Phoenician princess but again into a swan to attract Leda, the wife of the king of Sparta. Poseidon transformed himself into a stallion and impregnated the Gorgon Medusa with Pegasus, the flying horse, and again with Euryale, the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, to father Orion.  Why wouldn’t the centaur do the same to save his earthly herd?

“We need more stories in the press,” he whispered in my ear. I was aroused, uncontrollably, completely under his power. Then putting his hand behind my neck, and pulled my head close to his and stared into my eyes. “More people need to understand what is about take place.”

With my forehead pressed close to his, I could see the vision. The horses, thousands of them, wild horses, race horses, workhorses, those that had grown too old, or simply no longer useful to their owners prodded with cattle prods. Up through the shoot. Mercilessly. The sound of their screams – yes, horses do scream. Their cries still wake me at night.  But it’s smell, the smell of blood and death in the air that excites them. Aware something is not right, they kick at the sides of the shoot until a steel door drops before them and they are shot. A deadbolt through the brain or knifed, their throats slit. If they are lucky, they die then.  But some, still semi-conscious feel a cold chain slipped beneath their hooves before a gaffer’s hook suspends them above the kill floor. It is there they are left to bleed out.

“I don’t control the press,” I said, “I can only cover the stories…”

“Then I will give you better stories,” he said.

Again, I smelled the alcohol on his breath.  “Better?”  My voice shook, as I pulled away, freeing my head from his grasp.

“Do you really think Ms. Bloodworthy is human?” A slow smile crossed his face, his thin lips pulling wide across his large white teeth. I thought I caught a look of satisfaction in his eye.  “Because if you do, you underestimate me, and what I’m prepared to do to stop the slaughter.”

That’s when I understood, just like all the stories I had read in college when the Greek Gods wanted revenge there was no accounting for how they might go about it.

“You’ve transferred her body into that of a horse,” I said.

“Not just any horse, but the small burro, the first in line for slaughter.  Sad isn’t it? How she won’t be able to appreciate her win when the plant opens. But then again,” he said, pausing with a sinister smile, “perhaps she will, first hand.”

I gasped, then realized the centaur was surprised by my reaction.

“You think we don’t feel?  You think because we are animals, beasts of burden, as people like to say, we don’t feel?  Just like you? Don’t mourn the loss of a member of our herd, don’t bond with those whom we let climb upon our backs, those whom we’ve carried into battle, over fences, into races, competitions, stood soulfully with and watched as the sun set, or cherished the wind against our bodies?  We feel all this, and more.  Yet still we are treated like we are a disposable commodity.  You need to stop that.”

“Stop that?  Just how do you propose I do that?  I’ve tried to write the stories, I’ve tried to tell those who would listen.”

“It’s not enough. But I promise you, for every horse, for every member of my herd that is slaughtered, another member of your herd will take their place.  Write that!  That’s what you need to write. Tell them when the plant opens that for every horse’s death there will be the death of another human spirit. Then tell me your people cannot close the plants.”

With that he stepped away, morphed back into the body of a centaur, then turned and galloped into the darkness.  The white horse came to me, and we flew back through the star fields and when I woke, I knew I had a new story to tell.

A week later, there was a press conference.  Ms. Bloodworthy’s people gathered outside the proposed site for the re-opening of the slaughter plant, while a group of protestors, with signs displaying the bloody execution of horses, stood a hundred yards away, chanting their discontent.  A spokesman for Ms. Bloodworthy’s team stood up and greeted us as a white van pulled slowly to the front of the building. We all watched as the driver jumped out, then lowered a ramp and out came Ms. Bloodworthy, seated in a wheelchair, her head strapped to a headboard, her hands and legs immobile.  The look in her eye was dull as they wheeled her to the top of the stage.  Beneath her was a corral of horses, a sampling for the press of the proposed first offering; specially selected for their weakened condition. My eyes went to the small burro pressed against the fence, as far away from the ramp as possible, his dark eyes pleading.  I wondered if anyone noticed as Ms. Bloodworthy was presented with a scroll honoring her work, or that her eyes, all that she could move, rolled to the corral and focused on the small burro. As the audience applauded, Ms. Bloodworthy brayed.

So this is my story.  I’ve told it to you, like the ancients told their stories, handed down generation by generation.  And I’ll repeat what the centaur told me, ‘for every horse we kill, we kill a part of ourselves.’  I like to think the storytelling will make a difference, after all, the Greeks taught us we are mere mortals, and they are always watching.

#

About the Author

Nancy Cole Silverman credits her twenty-five years in news and talk radio for helping her to develop an ear for storytelling. But it wasn’t until after she retired that she was able to write fiction full-time. Much of what Silverman writes about is pulled from events that were reported on from inside some of Los Angeles’ busiest newsrooms where she spent the bulk of her career. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Bruce, and two standard poodles.

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Rescue Service by David Scholes

Jan 01 2017

 

From the slightly elevated highway above it we looked out across the vastness of the sand ocean.   Close to the horizon we saw another elevated highway angled slightly to ours.  An Over the Horizon (OTH) scan showed the two highways intersecting at a nexus point in the great sand ocean. A nexus point containing a peculiar building. Then each highway went on its separate direction across the vastness.

“Teeming with life,” said Janelle looking down at the sand ocean.  Like an Earth ocean but sand instead of water.”

“Let’s do a preliminary scan of this world, and get a reliable fix on our objective,” I said.

“Miniature low orbit probe as well Michael?” asked Janelle.

I nodded “everything we can reasonably do.”

Before moving off in our specially designed land wagon we wanted at least a partial picture of this world we had crossed to via the temporary gateway.

Imagery from the mini satellite indicated the sand oceans were extensive. Also that much of the non sand ocean surface consisted of rocky terrain.   Terrain that gradually rose, eventually to mountains, the further one got away from the sand oceans.

“Our land sonar equipment has categorised at least 100 distinctly different species in a small part of the sand ocean,” responded Janelle. “None of them even vaguely resembling anything we’ve ever seen before.”

I nodded thinking also of the strange anomalies we had detected.  By a combination of OTH scans and the mini-satellite imagery still coming in.  They looked like areas for us to avoid. If we could.

“We are only here for one purpose,” I said “we don’t need to unlock this world’s secrets. Just rescue our good lady and return home to Earth.”

“If the gateway is still open,” offered Janelle.

“Or we find another gateway,” I countered.

“I’ve been saving the best news till last,” smiled Janelle “take a look at this.”

“Wow!” I replied viewing the 3D representation ‘it looks like an old Drorne station. If it is that’s the next best thing to finding a gateway.  I’d take a guess that the Drorne built the highways traversing the sand oceans,” I added more as an afterthought.

“Have you got a fix on our objective?” I asked.

“She is 1500 clicks from here, in a semi-mountainous location. On the far side of this current sand ocean we are traversing,” replied Janelle.  “She does not appear to be moving at present.”  Janelle brought up a 3D real time map illustrating our objective’s general location. Though the images were very fuzzy. Of course that could mean she is dead I thought.

“Her life energies are detected,” said Janelle as if reading my thoughts.

“Where she is located,” I said “she is not so far from the Drorne station.”

“That could be convenient,” came the reply.

We set out at a sedate speed of 150 clicks per hour and soon revised that  downwards as a thick dark elastic entity emerged from the sand ocean and spread itself across the full modest width of the highway.  We came to a screeching halt but not before running into it slightly. It gave, in an elastic way, but did not yield and covered us with secretions that were slightly acidic according to our equipment.

We reversed right out of there and putting our automatic laser cannon on manual hit it repeatedly with heavy duty laser fire.  Which seemed not to do a whole lot until with Janelle on the laser I added in some ordinary heavy duty machine gun fire from another turret of the powerful land wagon.  Begrudgingly the unusual entity slowly withdrew back into the sand ocean.

It was to be the first of a number of encounters with the denizens of the sand ocean.  Encounters that, without exception, I prefer to forget. Each entity quite different from the last.  One that particularly shook me was a shape shifting mass that formed a huge semi-elastic vaguely human form. At least it had two apparent legs and two apparent arms.  It rose out of the sand ocean and towered above us.  We had the distinct impression it had taken the shape after observing us and drawing something from our minds.  None of our weaponry bothered it at all until we teleshunted a mixture of aggressive biological viruses into it. Never the preferred option but they seemed to give the thing pause. Having gotten past it during the virus attack and upping our speed to 200 clicks per hour we were able to easily outdistance it.

Some might have questioned the release of such viruses into the alien sand ocean eco-system but they were in fact very short lived viruses, lives measured in minutes.  In any case our survival was always paramount against that of an aggressive alien eco-system.

Thankfully almost 1,000 clicks later the sand ocean finally ended and oddly the highway ended just about a half a click beyond it.

I was about to pull over as the highway ended when Janelle using our land sonar suggested I drive on a little further.  “The ground near the sand ocean is still somewhat fluid. It looks like some of the sand ocean denizens can travel through it at least for a small distance. Until it hardens and becomes rockier up ahead.”

We drove on and up for a while quite slowly through increasingly rocky outcrops. Stopping only when the land sonar showed no trace of burrowing “nasties” and we were pretty confident that nothing was going to attack us from below.

We tried to get a better fix on the individual we sought to rescue.  She who had inadvertently crossed through the temporary gateway.

For several years now such gateways had appeared on Earth and from time to time unknowing people accidentally entered them and arrived on other worlds even other realities.  The major powers had combined to set up a rescue service for just this. Our little rescue station had been the closest to the temporary gateway when the lady inadvertently went through it.

“Unless we want to go the long way around,” said Janelle “we are going to have to skirt one of those major anomalies we noticed earlier.”

“How so?” I asked “I thought we had plenty of room for manoeuvre.”

“They move,” explained Janelle “not fast but since we last looked at them this one’s definitely moved a lot closer to our projected path.”

“Knowingly?” I asked.

Janelle didn’t reply.  Perhaps she thought I was sounding a bit paranoid.

”I’m getting a much better reading on the anomaly now,” she said eventually. “It seems even weirder, even more out of place than when we viewed it earlier. A slow moving small city sized area totally different to its surroundings. As if it was wrenched from another world or reality and just dumped here.”

“From what we can see from the satellite and OTH scans all of these anomalies appear to be just that. Alien to this sandy, rocky world and at the same time quite different from each other.”

“None of the others were anywhere near our projected path,” I heard myself say “even allowing for some movement.

“Yes.” nodded Janelle “no worries on that score unless we have to go vastly out of our way.”

Up close and personal the anomaly was eerily confronting.  It looked like what was once an advanced alien city now fallen into ruin and partially overrun by vegetation quite alien to the surrounding environment. There was a slight shimmer about it that suggested some form of barrier around it. Whether it was to keep things in or keep things out we had no idea. Nothing registered on our instruments. There was just the sense that it may even have been mystical in nature..

We kept as far away from it as we could without hitting the side of a nearby mountain. Also we were travelling quite fast for the terrain.  Several times we thought something came out of the anomaly towards us. Each time it appeared to be some form of mirage/hallucination. Almost too late we realised that the last hallucination wasn’t a hallucination.  Two apparently android soldiers were coming our way. At a speed fast enough to catch us.  We couldn’t begin to guess what their intent might be.

“They look positively fearsome,” shuddered Janelle.  Yet even so we held our fire at least until their intent was clear.  Eventually we outdistanced them. They seemed more tenuous the further they got away from the anomaly. Ultimately something drew them back to it.  As if they had a limited range away from the anomaly.

“Unnerving, something unnerving about that,” said Janelle “let’s get plenty of distance away from here.”

The shimmer surrounding the anomaly obscured our vision into it. Yet we had seen many other android soldiers moving among the ruins.  Possibly fighting each other.

“We are still not getting any communication back from our objective,” I said “it must be that she has no communication devices of any kind.”

“That and maybe some peculiarities about this world,” offered Janelle “something limiting communications.”

We were now close enough and had a good enough fix to launch a beacon.  A returnable just over the horizon holographic message advising her of our rescue attempt. Thankfully she had enough technology to respond to the hologram.  “I am well. SUV not working. Hostile terrain. Please extract digit and come get me.”  Both Janelle and I smiled at the last comment.

“What took you so long?” was her first greeting.  Though there were smiles of relief behind the cheekiness.

She was a tall, attractive woman possibly in her late 40’s.  An eminent surgeon that happened to be the wife of the United States Attorney General. Not that her eminence had anything to do with the speed of our response.

“My SUV broke down soon after I arrived in this place,” offered Susan.

“I realised I was in a gateway even as I drove into it but by then it was too late.

Thankfully Susan had known not to stray from where she arrived. It was inhospitable here but she had not been menaced. Or even seen much of anything.  As she had plenty of food and water her main problem had been boredom.

Janelle and I looked over the SUV. It was very expensive but really not up to the terrain hereabouts. No good at all to us now except for a few electronic parts that we stripped from it as spares.

Susan came aboard the land wagon and we gave her a suit of ultra lightweight exo-skeleton boosted armour. Of the same type as we were wearing. Standard issue for rescuers and the rescued in our circumstances.

We showed her the main features of the land wagon and I could sense her starting to relax a little. The well equipped wagon always had that affect on the rescued.  We also told her what we knew about this world. Which was not a lot.

Then we started to roll.

We headed off in another direction to that we had come.  The temporary gateway that had admitted Susan and ultimately Janelle and I was now gone. With not even so much as a trace of its residual energies.  Sometimes with a very quick rescue it was possible to go back out on the same gateway.  Not this time though.

We needed to locate either another temporary gateway or a permanent gateway. This was our only ticket home. Well the only one we knew about.

The truth was there were no signs of either – for the moment.

“So if that’s the case, where exactly are we headed?” asked Susan. A quite legitimate question in the circumstances.

We had told her about the slow moving anomalies we had discovered and our desire not to go anywhere near any unless we had to. Also we had no particular desire to end up near the sand ocean again.

“We detected an old Drorne station not so far from here,” I told Susan. “The Drorne are the people who created these gateways you know. For reasons we’ve never been able to divine.   There’s a good chance we can locate a gateway from there. Failing that the Drorne station, old though it is, may contain superior equipment to help us in this alien environment.

The Drorne station was about 100 clicks from us. Though slow going over the increasingly rocky terrain.

About half way through our trip the land wagon emergency alarm went off and its protective shields came up to maximum.

“The only thing I can detect,” said Janelle “is a large silver grey cloud almost on the horizon.”

The cloud wasn’t moving at all but then it broke up into vast numbers of metallic slivers that sped at frightening speed across the horizon before reforming.

We took it all in. Grateful that whatever it was, it hadn’t come our way. Susan being on board meant one more maned weapons system but we were still under strength.  The weapons systems that we could man or place on automatic were trained on the cloud as it disappeared over the horizon in an alarming burst of speed.

Even before we’d had time to discuss the nature of the cloud the land wagon alarm went off again.  Moving towards us from the horizon and at some considerable speed were the most formidable looking creatures. They looked a bit like an alien version of a velociraptor. Larger, faster, almost certainly stronger, and with a distasteful hint of something slightly insectoid about them.

Our laser canon started firing on automatic   Sometimes missing it took two or more laser hits to stop any of these strange creatures.

Then as I backed the land wagon away from their advance and others took up manned weapons systems the creatures started to slow.

“As if they were being held back by a huge elastic band” volunteered Janelle.

“They’re starting to look less substantial too,” I added as they were almost upon us.

“They must be from that second closest anomaly,” offered Janelle. “The one that looked like something out of Earth’s dinosaur period.”

“That anomaly was way to far away,” I said.

“It has moved a little closer to us,” responded Janelle “and these velociraptor imitations may have a whole lot more range than the android soldiers we encountered earlier.” 

The principal appeared to be the same though I thought anything leaving the anomalies could only move so far away from them before being drawn back. As if they represented a sample of a different reality or at least a different world.

“Could the Drorne have made these anomalies,” asked Janelle.

“I don’t think so,” I replied “just not their style plus the anomalies seem to be much newer than anything we’ve ever seen that was made by the Drorne. No some other major player appears to be at work here.”

“If that’s a velociraptor imitation then I’d hate to see a T Rex imitation,” shuddered Susan.

“Let’s get on to the Drorne station,” I urged. “We’re nearly there now.”

I didn’t want to admit it to anyone but my confidence had been shaken slightly by recent events. Something about the cloud entity had unnerved me and the velociraptor imitations hadn’t helped.  Quietly I was hoping their might be some techno0logy at the Drorne station to give us an edge.

The Drorne station was set into the side of a small mountain looking over a relatively flat area among the otherwise very rocky terrain.  With a vaguely concrete looking exterior it was at first glance far from impressive. Yet first impressions can be misleading. It didn’t look like any other Drorne station I’d seen. Still I was beginning to realise that they were all different. Each built in a form suitable to the world they were located on.

As with the several other Drorne stations I’d come across in my travels – you couldn’t just walk into it.   All five of us stood around at the entrance waiting for an incredibly ancient but still operating scanning process to judge us worthy to enter. Or perhaps unworthy.

Then an area at ground level about the size of a set of aircraft hanger doors opened up instantly and closed just as quickly after we moved into it. “I hope we can get out again,” said Susan not entirely joking.

We walked in to an area that was vaguely reminiscent of a small aircraft hanger. Too large it seemed for the modest few vehicles and assorted equipment lying about. There was the suggestion that this area might once have housed much more equipment than it now did.

A crude but working teleshunt lift was our only means of accessing other levels in the Drorne complex. I wondered what would happen if the teleshunt failed.

The second level was still large but no longer aircraft hanger size. It was a crude living area catering for aliens of various shapes and sizes.

“Let’s move on up again,” I said as we used the teleshunt lift for a second time.

“Offices?” suggested Susan apologetically as we entered an area smaller than the level below.

“A command centre more likely,” I decided before being interrupted.

“Welcome to this Drorne facility, it has been a long time since anything has been inside here,” the voice came from a hologram. “How may I assist you?”

We had a long, long conversation with the hologram.  All the while looking for its not at all obvious source.   On the downside it could not advise us on the current existence of any gateways. Temporary or permanent. On the upside it knew a great deal more about this world than we did.

For completeness sake we went up to the fourth and final level of the Drorne complex. The hologram described the small area as a recreation/observation area.

“Take me with you, please,” said the hologram. Was it just my imagination or had the voice taken on a slightly pleading tone.

“Where is your program?” Janelle asked, as it pointed to a metal object the size of a large tool box that hadn’t seemed to be there a few minutes ago.

“I’m lonely,” it continued “my job here is long past done and I don’t care to wait another thousand years for intelligent company.”

“Who are we to look a gift horse in the mouth,” Janelle looked at me. I nodded.

On the way out the hologram advised us on all of the vehicles and equipment. We opted for what the hologram described as a medium sized various energy source flyer.

Then we all departed the Drorne facility feeling quite optimistic.

I put the flyer in electro-magnetic mode and we started off flying level at a modest speed and low altitude.  According to the hologram there was equipment on board that should be able to detect a gateway. We assembled it and operated it as we were instructed.  The intent being to fly across much of the planetary surface.

“You know,” said Susan “you guys could use something like this flyer in your rescue service.”

A thought both Janelle and I had already entertained.

Beyond sight of the Drorne complex the sentient cloud entity appeared again. This time much closer to us.

“Best not to provoke it,” offered the hologram enigmatically.  We didn’t.

Again the entity broke into vast numbers of tiny metallic slivers that moved menacingly towards us before rejoining to form the cloud.  Then it let go of something that crashed to the ground. It was our mini satellite that had stopped transmitting some time back. A very menacing, very provocative act.  Also leaving us in no doubt as to its sentience. Indeed malevolent sentience.

I increased the flyer’s speed several times in an effort to lose the cloud and each time it matched our increased speed.  Then, as if bored, it left us.

During this confrontation we had over flown part of one of the sand oceans and were coming up on yet another anomaly.

I altered course sharply.

“Is that why the cloud left us,” asked Janelle astutely “on account of proximity to the anomaly?”

“Yes,” responded the hologram.

“The clouds, yes there’s more than one of them,” Susan shuddered as the hologram said this. “The clouds tend to avoid flying near the anomalies.”

Thankfully the anomaly did not respond to our proximity.   Like the other two anomalies we had seen close up it was about small city size, it moved slowly, and appeared to shimmer with the suggestion of a mystical barrier about it. Whether that was to keep things out or keep things in was still hard to say.  Probably both. This anomaly was a place on a constant war footing. A forever war between hybrid repto-insectoids and boosted high technology humanoids.  A roughly even fight so the hologram said.

“Let’s get about our business,” I said and we increased altitude and at formidable speed “mapped” the planetary surface looking for any sign of gateway energies.

It was both exhilarating and frustrating at the same time.  The sometimes breathtaking views tempered by not even the slightest energy trace of a gateway.

As to the hologram.  We had decided it was male and started to call it Fred. We kept the metallic toolbox shape source of its program close at all times. Somehow it seemed very honoured by this humble recognition. “I’ve never seen a holographic program anywhere near as sophisticated as this one,” whispered Janelle.

“You will find a gateway,” offered the hologram “if one disappears another appears to compensate.  The Drorne built things that way. It is possible that the existence of the principal gateway is being suppressed.”

It was on our second “mapping” of the planetary surface that we got our much needed break.  “Something,” said Janelle “something so faint that even this flyer’s sophisticated Drorne instruments cannot detect it.  Here’s the coordinates.

The gateway appears to be inside one of the anomalies. That’s why it was so faint.”

“Which one?” I enquired.

“The first one we saw, the dilapidated city with the android soldiers,” replied Janelle.

We took the flyer down well outside the anomaly. It was no longer moving, as if somehow it was waiting for us to give it our best shot.

Fred told us what was contained in his program about this particular anomaly and we supplemented that with some analysis from the magnificent Drorne technology on the flyer. “Something you need to know about all of these anomalies,” said Fred ”if you can thrust through the mystical barrier that surrounds them you can be pretty sure that everything and everyone inside the anomaly will turn against you.  Even if they are presently fighting each other.”

“Thanks1” I said “Very re-assuring!”  Of course sarcasm was totally lost on an alien holographic computer program.

We waited for a while. Discussing tactics.

“We’ll have to go in the flyer.” I said “without it I think we would be toast very quickly. Even with our exo-skeleton assisted light armour. We can put the laser canon on auto, but I think these weapons we acquired from the Drorne facility will be better at blasting through any mystical barriers than anything else we have. We know exactly, more or less exactly where the gateway is inside the anomaly and we’ll make straight for it. Take the flyer right through into.” If I sounded confident to Susan and Janelle, well I wasn’t.

“Me too?” enquired Fred almost plaintively.

“You bet,” said Janelle “we’ve got nothing quite like you where we come from.”

“You know,” I sadi “not to change the subject but we are actually not that far from the edge of one of the sand oceans. Our land sonar (we had taken it from the land wagon) suggests the ground below is slightly fluid.”

Our land sonar showed a range of creatures headed not towards us but towards the anomaly. I recognised some of them or their ilk as past protagonists from our journey across the sand ocean.

Then the clouds appeared and I did say clouds. Six of the huge entities. Uncharacteristically they headed towards rather than away from the anomaly. Breaking up into their millions upon millions of sliver components. They raced to the anomaly and in what appeared to be super heated form.

“What’s going on here Fred,” I asked somewhat bewildered by the turn of events.

“There have basically been three influences on this world. The indigenous powers, the ancient Drorne intrusion and the anomalies.  Now with the Drorne long gone the two remaining influences have decided to have it out for dominance of this world.”

“OTH radars indicate another indigenous attack on the next nearest anomaly.  The dinosaur anomaly”, yelled Janelle.

We watched on transfixed as the super heated slivers smashed time and again against the mystical barriers of the anomaly gradually wearing them down. Following them were dozens of the towering vaguely humanoid shape sand creatures we had encountered while other creatures sought to burrow under the anomaly.  From inside it a multitude of android soldiers came forth to meet the threat. . Like angry bees reacting to an invasion of their hive.

It seemed like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Or perhaps the Norse Gods Ragnorak.

We held back for a while before realising that this was our opportunity.

“They are doing our work for us,” I said “too busy with each other we might be able to burst through to the gateway unopposed.”

We hurtled forward in the flyer trying to avoid the densest of the fighting.  Hoping our shields and speed would brush all aside.  The slivers and the sand ocean creatures largely ignored us though not so the android soldiers.  We took heavy fire that rocked even the Drorne flyer.  With the android soldiers were some sort of animals. Much like Earth police or soldiers might use dogs. Yet these vicious reptilians bore no resemblance to Earth dogs or anything else of Earth.

Somehow the android soldiers succeeded in bringing the flyer to the ground and to a halt. By sheer weight of firepower. They and their reptilian “pets” surrounded the flyer.  Looking for a way in.

“Can we make it out on foot,” asked Susan.

“I don’t see how we can,” I responded “those reptilian things would probably tear us apart if the soldiers don’t fry us first.”

“We have the Drorne energy weapons,” said Janelle ‘they have to be superior.”

“One on one certainly but we don’t have corresponding protection,” I replied.

“What choice to we have?” asked Susan.

“None,” I agreed.

We got ready to bust out of the flyer.

For the first time since we had entered the anomaly I looked backward. Perhaps searching for ideas.  I took in the view of the outside world looking out from the anomaly.  It seemed to be different. Not quite what we knew to actually be there. Colored, tinted, distorted somewhat.

Then suddenly it looked very different indeed.  As two rather large shapes were very visible outside the anomaly.  One appeared to be in low orbit while the other had landed at some distance from the anomaly.  It was difficult to assess their relative sizes but the two star ships appeared as different as chalk and cheeses. I had no idea whose ships they might be.

Fred came to our aid. In the heat of the moment I had completely forgotten about our favourite hologram.

“The star ship in orbit is of Drorne origin,” he said “and that on the ground is of the Fleme, the creators and transporters of the anomalies. Neither of these mighty races needs star ships any more so I’ve no idea why they would use such a crude form of transportation.”

“I thought the Drorne were long gone,” I said.

“I never said that,” replied Fred “you assumed it because of the age of their facility.”

The new arrivals had a clear impact on the fighting in the anomaly. It ceased abruptly.

“This is it now, our only opportunity,” I yelled “there’s the gateway lit up like a Christmas tree.  Run for it.”

We did with me carrying the metallic toolbox that housed Fred’s program.

I was the only one who looked back while the others ran straight through the gateway. I probably shouldn’t have.  In the anomaly the fighting had started up again and several android soldiers and there “pets” were advancing in my direction.  Outside of the anomaly conflict of some kind was developing between the Drorne and the Fleme   I had the impression of the Drorne attempting to annihilate the anomaly and the Fleme trying to prevent it.  I wanted to stay even for just a few more second to get a clearer picture of what was happening but I didn’t dare. Especially if the Drorne destroyed the anomaly and me with it.

As I transited through the gateway I started dreaming. You know those dreams that seem to last an eternity and actually only involve a couple of seconds. The horrible thought crossed my mind that the gateway might lead elsewhere then I remembered Fred told me the Drorne gateways only ever existed between two worlds. It had to be Earth I would arrive at.

Then I tumbled head first onto the ground and Janelle and Susan helped me up.

“We’re definitely home,” they both said simultaneously.

All three of us looked down at the metallic toolbox shaped object I had brought with me.  It seemed a little the worse for wear.

“It’s damaged,” said Janelle .

“Looks like it got a glancing shot from one of those android soldier’s energy weapons,” I replied.

We all looked down on it for just a moment until Fred materialised.

“I think I’m going to like this world,” he said.

“Ohh – the Einstein/Newton Institute is going to have some fun with you Fred,” I laughed.

End

Bio

I have published seven collections of short stories and two novellas in the 8 years I have been writing speculative fiction. All of these are on Amazon.

I have been a regular contributor to the Antipodean SF, Beam Me Up Pod Cast, and Farther Stars Than These sites.  Also I have been published on Bewildering Stories, 365 Tomorrows, the WiFiles, and the former Golden Visions magazine.

I have written three sci-fi series: the 12 part “Alien Hunter” series for then Golden Visions Magazine in 2011/12, the “Trathh” series for the Beam Me Up Pod Cast site in 2012/13, and the “Human Hunter” series also for the Beam Me Up site in 2014/15.

Currently I am working on a new collection of science fiction short stories as yet unnamed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Resistance is Futile by Jessica Morrow

Dec 25 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Hamish sighed. “Are we almost there?”

“Almost,” Luke replied dully.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy Payne.

 

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

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

She was back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy Payne left town a week later.

 

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

He was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was all alone.

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

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

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

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

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

“No, you killed him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t believe you,” Hamish said.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It swallowed up everything.

 

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

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

Hamish Harrison’s life was perfect.

###

 

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

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