Archive for: February, 2014

First in, Last Out By Matt West

Feb 23 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

Joe Carpenter heard a ringing in his ears as he sat in the doctor’s office. He had come back for the news about the cancer he and his wife suspected. In the hospital they called it nuclear medicine, not a very comforting name, but it would be able to tell what was wrong with him and what the doctors could do about it. He hadn’t slept very well for a week, being too worried to let his mind drift off into sleep.
Joe felt the squeeze of his wife’s hand on his arm, and then realized what the ringing was all about. The doctor told him that he had cancer, stage four. It was inoperable and he had five months to live. That was enough to cause a distinct ringing, and forced his brain to reconstruct the doctor’s words backwards.
“I’m sorry Mr. Carpenter, even if we had caught it sooner, there probably wasn’t much we could do about it. It has already spread to your lymph nodes and major organs. As far as options go, we can make the time you have more comfortable, but you should probably get your affairs in order, and spend time with your family.”
A house, a career, two dogs, three cars, four children, five months to live and six trillion cancer cells. “Only a year until I was going to retire, how about that?” He laughed a little at the thought, the absurdity of it all. His wife broke into tears, and pleaded with the doctor. There must be something he could do, anything. They would fight it, chemo, radiation, surgery—they had built up a sizable nest egg but she was willing to spend it all if they could only save his life.
“I know it’s hard ma’am, but we can’t operate, so the treatments will only make his time more miserable. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can’t refuse you treatment though, I’m just letting you know that it won’t do much good, might only prolong his life by a week or two at most.”

The car ride home was a slow solemn journey. Joe had to drive himself, since his wife was prone to bouts of hysteria and sobbing every few minutes. He was numb, and really did experience a feeling not unlike getting Novocain at the dentist, except that this time it was an injection straight into his brain.
He wasn’t a smoker, he thought to himself. Didn’t drink too much except at social gatherings, didn’t work at a chemical plant, and his house wasn’t under high-tension wires either. He didn’t really believe in everything the Catholic Church taught, but he believed in God. He wouldn’t hold it against him would He? Maybe it was the premarital sex, but most likely it was just dumb luck—fate as it were.
Joe pulled the minivan up the freshly coated driveway to his house—the house that was almost paid off, so that he could live comfortably on his retirement and social security. He was sixty-two, and didn’t plan on having trouble like this for many years to come. It was even worse considering his own parents were still alive, in their late eighties. Why would God do something like this to him? Didn’t he live his life to the best of his ability?
The kids were in college, two in graduate school, and one doing her undergraduate. The youngest joined the marines a few years ago, and was doing a tour in Iraq. Joe honestly believed that he would be at his son’s funeral, not the other way around. But it was suppose to happen like this he thought, he just wanted to make sure that his son was alright once he left the military. Guess he won’t know, unless he meets his son up in heaven before he meets his parents and wife.
He and his wife discussed about how best to break the news to their children. The summer was getting on soon and they would all be home except for their son in the military. Joe couldn’t wait for him to come back on leave, since there wasn’t much time left. He had to tell them soon, within the next two weeks. In the meantime, he would wallow in self pity, making his way through all the stages of grief. He thought he went straight to acceptance, but did feel a tinge of anger.
Joe’s wife Tammy was trying to comfort him all she could, promising to make his favorite dinner, and set him down on the couch so he was comfortable, and to do whatever it was he wanted, anything to make his life easier. But right now he just wanted to be alone, and told her that she should just run out to the store and do all those other errands they had been neglecting. Tammy was respectful of her husband’s tasteful hint and she left the house to get groceries for tonight.
Nothing was on TV so Joe went to the computer to check his email, look at some pictures of his daughters in college, his son in Iraq, and he and his wife when they first got married. He let out a loud sigh, and a few tears started to well up in his eyes. It was hard to take, very hard. He finally let it all out once he knew his wife was really gone, his pride wouldn’t let him cry in front of her. He was always the one that had to be strong for the family, not her. This was not a weight he wanted to put on his family, but it was bound to happen someday, why not now?
About an hour later Joe was searching through Google, trying to find anything that could help him. Some doctor somewhere must have patients that survived. Maybe he would leave the country and go get treatment that the FDA banned in America. He was smarter than all that though, all that stuff was a sham set up to bleed suckers dry in their final months of life. He understood why, he was willing to throw away every penny he had for just a few more years.
And then an ad popped up next to the search engine. The caption read: Dying? Maybe you don’t have to. Underneath there was a symbol and then the name Alcor. He clicked it—nothing could hurt at this point. A video popped up and told a fanciful story about old cryogenic experiments, vitrification, the possibility of life after death, reanimation, all things that Joe had never heard of. It told about huge vats full of frozen brains and tubs with corpses dunked in liquid nitrogen, stored for years and years. It sounded like something he saw in a horror movie as a kid, a mad scientist’s laboratory, a freak show.
He was intrigued nonetheless, and read up on how the whole process worked. They would wait by your deathbed, and once you were pronounced dead, they would go to work, preserving and storing your brain to be revived at a later period. The website admitted it was a long shot, but even if it was just one in a million, what’s the use in not taking the chance? The fee was reasonable, way less than what he had already spent in medical bills. This was something he had to think about. He wondered what chance they had of ever resurrecting anybody, or if it was just another one of these shams like so many other cures or religions or delusions. If you pray here you will live forever, if you take this pill or eat that plant you will be cured… if you freeze your brain then we will revive you. Maybe it was all the same. He closed the window and shut the computer off.

A week later and Joe and his wife were going over what they would tell the kids when they got home, and whether they should keep it a secret until all of them were home from school or just approach the issue one at a time. They thought it best to just tell everyone at once, and then maybe have his son on the phone, but he probably had other things to worry about. The last thing Joe wanted was his death messing up the effectiveness of his son over in Iraq, that might get the both of them killed sooner than either of them had to.
His progression towards death hastened, and he could barely get out of bed after another week. He didn’t remember the doctor saying if this was normal or not, but guessed you don’t just feel fine for five months and then drop dead the next morning. He did remember them all agreeing that treatment would be a worse ordeal, but Joe was starting to seriously doubt that.
The kids didn’t take it all too well. The girls would still be heard crying late at night, not wanting to part ways with their father this soon in their lives. They weren’t married yet, didn’t have any children of their own, and wanted him to be there for all those moments—walking them down the aisle, recording the birth of their first children, all those things that he knew for sure he wouldn’t be able to do.
But as time went on, the more he thought about that advertisement he saw on the computer the other day. Alcor… why not do it? That wasn’t their slogan, but it might as well have been. His wife and children almost never left the house now that he could barely get out of bed, and certainly not at the same time. He asked them to bring his computer into the room, leaving out the real reason why. In secret he wanted to find out more about Alcor, maybe even call them and ask some questions. He did.
They came to his deathbed four months later, amidst the anger and sadness that his family was going through. Whether or not it was caused by the response team from Alcor, his impending death, or a mixture of both, he didn’t know. What he did know was that they didn’t want him to do it, that his family wanted to just have him buried next to the plots that his parents had already picked out and bought for themselves.
“Honey, I’m still going to be buried there next to my parents, it’s just my brain that won’t be, but I’ll still be there, what does it matter?”
Tammy said through a glaze of tears, “I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel right… something about it just feels wrong,” she sobbed a little. “I just… I just don’t know…”
Joe’s decision was made however, and his condition was bad enough that Alcor put him under a 24 hour watch, so that as soon as his heart stopped beating, they would begin their morbid work. He didn’t really want to think about everything involved in extracting a human brain from a recently deceased corpse, but that’s what they were there to do. His family was getting hysterical about their presence, but honestly, he was going to die anyway, and this was his last wish. They granted it to him, and he joked about how they would still get a lot of money from his life insurance and estate, just in case the cost was what the trouble was. Of course they said it wasn’t, but one can never know for sure about these things.
And then it happened, at 1:32 AM, Wednesday. Joe wasn’t able to sleep. He sat up, pointed to his neck and said, “I have a pain right here,” while looking at one of the surgeons, then dropped dead. A ruptured blood vessel, not the cancer. It was a little ironic, but it worked out for the morticians that posed as surgeons—they didn’t want the cancer that was spreading around Joe’s body to reach his brain, it would only make resuscitation more difficult in the future.
They carried out their work quickly, without waking the rest of the family. That was fine as long as they documented it on camera. The law was becoming more welcoming to the practice—they used to have to get the spouse to release the body, get the state to furnish a death certificate, wait for an autopsy if one was required, all the time the precious brain cells were turning to mush, and would never be able to regenerate into anything. Soon they hoped they would be able to perform euthanasia on terminal clients, perform the operation before death. But that was in the future, like everything else that this company did, always in the future.
They hooked Joe up to a machine that drained his blood, replacing it with preserving fluids. One tube sprung a leak and splattered red drops all over the tan carpet. No time for clean up, they had to work fast. Get his brain out and freeze it, then thunder down the highway back to the storage center. A noise startled the team, it was the shriek of Joe’s wife as she opened the door to the bedroom. Dr. Osborn had just lifted the vitrified brain out of the skull, and they locked eyes while he was holding it in his hands, crimson blood dripping on the dead corpse that used to be Joe. Drip, drip, drip.

A blinding flash of light, and Joe gasped for breath as if he had been underwater, a half second away from drowning. He was in a purple velvet bed, with his head resting on a pillow filled with something that was poking him. He was surprised that he could sit up so quickly, since he remembered not being able to the day before, being bedridden. On the table next to him was an old oil lamp that smelled like kerosene, and a few other candles yet to be lit.
There was also a table with a wooden radio, and a small lower table with an old school black and white TV. He knew that because it was on and playing old episodes of I Love Lucy with the volume turned off. It was all very strange, and the floral wallpaper didn’t help either—his own parents didn’t even have wallpaper in their house.
The door to the room was metallic in color and had some knobs and dials on it, seemingly pasted on for decoration. It slid open and a man with a brown three piece suit walked into the room. He shuffled over to one side, looked at Joe, bowed, and then took out the pocket watch that was clasped to his vest, checking the time.
“Top of the evening to you gentleman, good sir. May I offer you a smoke or a shave? Best be presentable, there is a long carriage ride to the country, good fellow.”
Joe didn’t say anything, just stared at the strange man.
“So, I heard you were a New York man by birth, you ever take the steam express to the gold mining town out west?” the man said with a nervous smile, taking out a pipe. He lit it with a butane lighter.
There was an AR-15 rifle on the wall, with an attached laser sight and scope, not unlike the one his son bought on leave last year. Joe had about enough of the strangeness to be able to speak again. “So, there is a gas lamp, black and white TV, an AR-15, a weird sliding door, and then you. This has got to be a practical joke or something, just tell me where I am, I want to see my family, I don’t have much time left on this earth and would like to spend the days I have left with them.”
“Yeah… I told them this was a stupid idea. Honestly, you are the oldest one that we had, and we narrowed it down to something like the hundred years around the 21st century, but honestly we couldn’t pinpoint it. We just replicated a bunch of junk from the museum and put it in here, hoping to wing it. You guys are a lot sharper than they say.”
“Wait.…” The color ran from Joe’s face.
“Yup, welcome to the 134th century, everyone you ever knew is dead, and there is no planet earth anymore. Try not to cut yourself on anything sharp when they let you outta here, most of you don’t last.”
Joe didn’t say anything after that. Once the strange man left, he got up to check if they had put bullets into the AR-15.

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Monsters Notwithstanding by Michelle Marr

Feb 16 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

Friday
Mason walked up the stairs, looking through the mail. Bills, bills, junk mail, bills. He cut one brown finger on an envelope corner. Groaning, he slumped against the wall right beside his apartment door. It opened, and his Dad looked out. Judging by his hard hat and the neon orange vest, he was getting ready to go to work.

He looked the lanky, dark-skinned teenager up and down. “Still no acceptance letter?”

“Nope. What’s taking so long? I thought Atomic Five wanted recruits.”

“Most likely the background check,” his Dad replied. “Plus they’ve probably got plenty of applicants to sort through.”

“I guess. How much longer is this going to take?” Mason complained.

“Be patient. The training camp doesn’t even open until summer. Try to focus on your schoolwork; your grades are going to be important,” his Dad said.

“Right,” Mason muttered.

His Dad checked his watch. “I have to run—do me a favor and don’t pick on Layla tonight, okay?”

“Me? Pick on her?”

His Dad spoke in a warning tone. “Mason.”

“All right, all right.” Mason went inside, and his father headed down the stairs.

Crossing to his room, Mason slammed his bedroom door, dropped his backpack in the corner, and flopped on his bed. The springs groaned. Lying there, Mason looked upside-down through the outside window. In the distance, the Atomic Five skyscraper dove towards the sky. Mason’s neighbor Vivian had gone to their training camp: she’d become Atomic Blue, and now she fought monsters almost every week. Her family had moved out of the apartment complex into a real house in a neighborhood where people had probably never even seen graffiti.

Mason glanced over at some of the Atomic Force posters on his wall. Technically he’d stolen them, but there were so many scattered around the city he didn’t see the harm. A lot of them featured Vivian in Atomic Blue guise. He didn’t blame them; Vivian looked good on anything.

Well, if he got into the training camp, he’d be able to see her, maybe work up the courage to finally say something—Mason stopped himself. She might already have a boyfriend; judging by the tabloids, several. No, he was going to get into this training camp, join Atomic Five, and then see where things went. With mad scientists like Doctor Circe sending giant monsters to the city every couple of weeks, they couldn’t turn a guy like him down. He was finally old enough to apply, no criminal record—not counting some ding-dong dashes, but those had never been proven—and he knew everything about the team. He’d already passed the written tests.

At that point, he heard the outer door thump, and knew Layla was home. He figured he should probably tell her Dad was at work. Getting up, he opened the door, looked out, and froze.

“Layla?”

Mason’s nine-year-old sister sat on the couch, cuddling a puppy-ish, green . . . thing. It was shaped like a Maltese puppy, round-faced and snub-nosed. A shock of white hair fluffed on top of its head, and a matching puff ended its whiplike tail.

“He followed me home from school.”

“That’s a monster,” Mason protested. “A scaly, green, three-eyed monster.”

“He’s a nice monster.”

“Wrong! Layla, there are no nice monsters, just big, scary ones, like that T-Rex in the docks, or the giant falcon that almost blew up Dad at work last week!”

“He’s not trying to destroy the city. He’ll be nice to us if we’re nice to him, even if he does grow giant-sized.” Layla gave Mason a pleading look. “Pleeeease, can I keep him? I’ll take care of him. Pleasepleasepleaseplease—”

Mason cut her off. “No is no!”

Layla’s face crumpled with tears. The monster whimpered. Sighing in exasperation, Mason ran a hand over his dark hair, braided tightly against his scalp. Why did she have to be such a baby? Or such a crazy animal lover—if it wasn’t the ducks in the park, it was the pigeons, if it wasn’t the pigeons it was the neighbor’s cat. Well, two could play at that game.

“It’s probably one of Doctor Circe’s monsters. If Atomic Five finds out we’ve got it, they’ll probably arrest us and dissect it. Is that what you want?”

Eyes widening, Layla hugged the monster, making it squeak. Mason glimpsed a flash of needle-like fangs. His sister ran out of the room, swinging open the rusty door to the fire escape. It slammed shut behind her as the phone rang.

Mason ran to the living room and picked up. “Hello?”

“Is this the Farida house?” It was an unfamiliar woman’s voice.

Suddenly hopeful, Mason cleared his throat. “Yeah, Mason Farida speaking.” Please be about the training camp, please be about the training camp…

“Could your family come to Batson Hospital right away? There was another monster attack in the warehouse district, and your father’s been injured.”

Mason stared at the phone as if he’d never seen it before. The woman kept babbling, but Mason couldn’t make out any of it. Hospital?

Friday Night

Walking into the hospital room, Layla jerked Mason to a halt. His stomach clenched. Their father was so covered in bandages he looked like a mummy—or a puppet, fastened to all those bars. His face was swollen and purple-black with bruises. Feeling queasy, Mason flashed back to Mom in the morgue years ago. No, no, he could see Dad breathing, it wasn’t that bad—yet.

“He’s not fully conscious,” a nurse put in from behind the two. She walked around the bed checked over the medical equipment. “He’s broken a lot of bones and suffered some internal trauma, but he’s stable now. With time and therapy, he should make a full recovery. Your father’s a lucky man.”

“Th-thanks.” Mason could barely get even that word out.

The nurse’s pager blipped, and she left. Dragging two chairs up to the bed, Mason sat in one and Layla took the other. Sniffling, she put both brown hands on her father’s cast. One bloodshot eye cracked open, and he made a raspy little noise.

Mason couldn’t sit still. Rising, he paced around the cramped room. Sirens wailed outside. Looking out the window, Mason could see a haze of smoke over the city.

Now what? On top of everything else, they had this hospital bill to pay, plus whatever therapy Dad needed before he could work. With a mixture of relief and disappointment, Mason realized they had money to cover the bill—what he’d been saving to pay for training camp.

Mason couldn’t see the Atomic Five skyscraper from where they sat, but he looked around for it anyway. Silently he glanced back at the hospital bed, then out towards the city. Involuntarily, he clenched his fists until his knuckles turned white. It wasn’t fair. His father let out a croak. Turning his back on the window, Mason returned to the bed.

Monday

After Layla went to school that morning, Mason left the apartment. It only took him a few minutes to find a repair crew, in the warehouse district. Right after any monster attack or superhero brawl, they scattered all over the city, picking up the leftovers. Mason guessed they were the most likely to hire him without caring about a diploma, plus they probably knew his Dad. The air still tasted of smoke and dust. Spotting a man in a hard hat and neon orange vest, Mason crossed the street to him.

“Hello?”

“Whaddya want?” The husky man barely glanced at Mason.

“To help. I need a job,” Mason clarified, drawing himself up and trying to look older than seventeen.

The man chuckled, shaking his head. “Look, kid, you want a job, leave your resume with the office—and get some working papers from your school while you’re at it. Maybe we can get you a desk job. How old are you, anyway?”

“Nineteen. I don’t need working papers, I graduated.” The dust in the air made Mason’s eyes water and his nose itch, and he blinked rapidly.

The man eyed him. “Sure you did. Like I said, send a resume to the office.”

Nodding, Mason walked away. Why hadn’t he ever talked to Dad about how getting a job worked? Oh, yeah, it was mind-numbingly boring. Great. What could he put on a resume? How did a resume even work? Internet, don’t fail me now, he thought, turning towards the library.

Tuesday

Layla hopped off her bus, just as Mason reached their street, and shouted his name. Too tired to outrun her today, Mason stifled a groan. Darting over, she caught his hand and looked him up and down, frowning in confusion. Her older brother wore dress clothes and even a clumsily-knotted tie.

“Why are you dressed up?”

“Hit-and-run haberdasher.” Mason said. He’d been trying the work ads in the paper—and failing—but there was no way he was telling Layla that. She’d blab everything to Dad.

“Don’t you hate ties?”

“A mean haberdasher.”

She frowned, puzzling over the word ‘haberdasher.’ “How did you get home before me?”

“I teleported,” Mason snapped, and caught himself. He pulled off the tie, shoving it into his pocket. It crinkled against a wad of dollar bills. He’d sold his good textbooks that morning. “Go upstairs. I’m tired.”

“Oh. Do you want me to make dinner?”

“Sure.” Maybe that would use up some of her boundless energy.

Slowly, Mason followed Layla up the stairs. How could she be so bouncy and happy at a time like this? Soon she was so far ahead he could only hear her skipping, and the grunt and thump of her pushing the door open.

“Mason! There’s a letter for you!”

Curious, Mason sped up. As he walked in, Layla pointed to a fat envelope on the counter, which Mason picked up. It was from Atomic Five. His breath caught in his throat. With shaky hands, he tore it open and unfolded the letter. His mind raced; he only caught a few words like “acceptance” and “prize” and “hope to see you in the coming summer.” Finally!

His hands clenched, crinkling the paper. He couldn’t leave Layla or Dad. Not now. The camp didn’t pay for itself, and he wouldn’t start actually earning money until after he graduated—which could take months. And that was assuming he passed at all.

He had to be responsible now. Mason crumpled the letter.

“What’s wrong?” Layla asked.

“Nothing.” Mason hurled it into the trash. He managed a bitter little laugh. “Just stupid junk mail.” Noticing the two TV dinners on the counter, he added, “Don’t worry about me, I’m not hungry.”

His stomach was still empty, but he didn’t think he could eat. Pushing the fire escape door open, Mason ran down the rickety steps until he reached the alley. There, where Layla couldn’t overhear (one of Dad’s rules), he swore himself hoarse. Finding the unsellable textbooks he’d dumped earlier, he shredded them one by one. By the time he stopped, red paper cuts covered his hands, and bits of paper littered the alley like dirty snowflakes.

Hours later, Mason got the letter out of the trash, smoothed it out, and hid it in his dresser drawer. At least they’d accepted him. He was good enough even if he couldn’t go. As he went to bed, he thought he heard Layla whispering in her room, but didn’t pay any attention to her.

Thursday

Mason leaned against the doorpost as he fiddled with his keys. His stomach growled: he’d forgotten to pack his lunch today. Still no luck—too many people with experience and credentials were looking for work. Adding injury to insult, he’d banged his shin, and it still throbbed.

Layla’s bus had passed him on the way home. Hopefully she wouldn’t ask questions; he didn’t think he had any more excuses. How was she so happy all the time? Even when they visited Dad, she just colored on his casts and chattered like nothing was wrong. She wasn’t nearly old or smart enough to be putting on a brave face.

Unlocking the door, Mason looked into the living room and saw Layla sitting on the floor with the puppy monster, feeding it a sandwich. It didn’t look any different from before; a little plumper, maybe. Crooning, Layla petted the tuft of white fur on its head and it wagged its tail.

Hearing the door, Layla froze mid-pet, and looked up at Mason. Springing to her feet, she blocked his view of the monster, as if that would help. Mason stared at her in disbelief. The monster stuck its head around her legs, and she nudged it back with a foot.

“…You didn’t,” Mason said at last. He walked inside, slamming the door with a boom. Layla jumped. “You didn’t!”

“H-he came back,” Layla began, “He was scratching on the window and whimpering, and I knew he was hungry—”

“When?”

“. . . A week ago?” Layla shrank under his gaze.

Mason took another step, and felt something crinkle under his foot. Looking down, he saw an empty plastic bag, with his name written in black marker.

His lunch.

The monster had tuna on its nose.

Mason saw red.

“You little brat! I’ve given up everything to make sure we don’t starve, and you steal from us to feed this freak? What the hell is wrong with you? Are you retarded, or do you just hate me and Dad?” Sobbing, Layla covered her ears, but Mason jerked her hands away. “I’m talking to you!”

A growl rose from the floor. As Mason looked down the monster lunged, digging its fangs into his shin. With a yell he tried to shake it off, but it clung to him.

“Charlie, no!” Layla screamed, darting forward and catching the monster. It snarled at Mason as she snatched it up. A splotch of blood stained his pants. The bite stung.

Mason pointed a shaking finger at the monster. He spoke again, in an unsteady but quieter voice. “Get rid of that thing right now and go to your room. You are grounded for the rest of the week. If I ever see that thing again—”

Sobbing, Layla ran out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Still trembling, Mason stormed into the bathroom, and stuck the largest band-aid he could find on the bite. That done he turned to the kitchen, throwing the fridge open and grabbing whatever leftovers he could find. He’d show her what being hungry was like. Mason retreated to his own room, kicking the door shut. Even through the walls, he could hear Layla crying. He pretended he couldn’t.

Friday

Mason woke up with a jolt. He lay sideways on his bed, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. Sunlight poured in the window. A few empty tupperware containers were scattered around the room. Remembering what had happened the night before, Mason buried his face in his hands and groaned. No work, no money, no chance of joining Atomic Five, and he’d taken it all out on his little sister.

Getting up, Mason gathered the plastic containers, but paused. His leg didn’t hurt anymore. He rolled up his pants leg to check the monster bite and, to his surprise, he couldn’t find so much as a mark. In fact, his whole shin looked fine; the bruise, which had been blue-black the night before, had faded completely. That couldn’t be normal.

As Mason collected the tupperware containers, planning out his apology, he happened to glance at the clock. 9:30. He almost had a heart attack.

“Layla!”

Dropping the tupperwares, he ran to his sister’s room. Empty. Skidding to a halt, he scratched his head in confusion. Had she gotten herself ready for school? A piece of folded paper lay on the bed, with Mason’s name written in sparkly pink ink. Picking it up, he unfolded it.

Dear Mason,
I’m runing away with Charlie. Don’t look for me becus I never want to come back. Ever.
—Layla
And I hate you and I’m glad Charlie bit you.

Mason stared at the paper, a sick feeling growing inside him. He threw the note back on the bed and paced, trying to think. Where would Layla go? When did she leave? She could already be in serious trouble, and it was all his fault.

Layla’s favorite place was the park a few blocks away. He could start there. He darted out the door and down the stairs. Zigzagging across the road Mason heard tires screech, but didn’t look or hesitate. Soon, he found himself pushing through a panicky crowd all going the other way. He felt grass replace concrete under his feet and a stabbing pain in his side, under his ribs. Why had he skipped gym so many times? A shrill scream rang out somewhere in front of him, and Mason forgot about how tired he felt.

“Layla!”

At the foot of a nearby statue crouched Layla, clutching Charlie. A black monster which looked like a cross between a wolf and a unicorn loomed over her, and reared up on its hind legs. Its hooves flashed in the sunlight.

Mason skidded to a halt between Layla and the new monster. It snarled, yellow eyes narrowing, and Layla hiccuped. She’d been crying. Charlie struggled in her arms, but she had a death grip on him.

“Leave . . . alone,” Mason panted, and raised his fists. He had no idea what he was doing, but he had to do something. In the distance, he could hear sirens wailing, and guessed Atomic Five was on its way. Hopefully they’d get here soon.

The creature’s hackles rose, and it bared a mouthful of fangs. Mason ducked, but its horn stabbed into his shoulder. It happened so fast he almost didn’t feel it, but he definitely felt the monster swing him around and throw him into the grass. He screamed, hearing Layla do the same.

Sick and dizzy, lying on his side with blood soaking into his shirt, Mason watched helplessly as the monster faced Layla. She finally lost her grip on the wriggling Charlie, which sprang out of her arms. He started to change.

His features grew more feline, and his tuft of fur sprouted into a white mane. Claws slid out of his paws, and his tail lashed like a whip. Suddenly an enormous, scaly lion, Charlie slammed into the wolf-unicorn, throwing it back.

Sweat stung Mason’s eyes, but he didn’t even blink. Charlie tore at the wolf-unicorn, drawing spurts of blue-green blood with each strike. The other monster fought back, digging its teeth into Charlie’s shoulder. The two rolled, a blur of fur and scales, into the bushes. Just looking at them made Mason dizzy.

With a mechanical whoosh, a gleaming white figure swooped out of the sky, snatching Layla away from the fight. The superhero landed beside him and began trying to stop the bleeding. Mason could barely feel anything through the crushing pain in his chest which came with each breath.

Charlie had the monster by the throat, and shook it viciously. With a final crack, the wolf-unicorn went limp. Charlie dropped its body and roared, and Layla screamed. At the sound, the living monster stopped abruptly, and looked back at her. The eight-year-old quaked in terror. Charlie’s three red eyes softened, and it looked strangely puppyish again.

“ . . . Charlie?” Layla stammered.

The monster purred, and limped over to her, but she recoiled. The superhero drew a white pistol, cocking it with a click. Charlie looked confused, as if it expected praise. Backing up, it picked up the dead monster in its mouth, dragged it closer, and looked at Layla expectantly.

After a moment, the man lowered his weapon. Layla turned to Mason, and Charlie followed her gaze, nosing the superhero aside. They all looked blurry to Mason now, as he heard wailing sirens in the distance.

“Thanks,” Mason whispered, giving it as much of a smile as he could manage. He reached up to stroke its blue-stained mane with a shaky hand. The pain flared, and he shuddered.

Bending its head, Charlie started licking Mason’s shoulder. Its tongue was hot and leathery, stinging Mason at first, but he was too tired to do anything about it. However as it worked, the pain faded. When Mason looked, he saw the hole in his shoulder close. Finishing, Charlie stepped back and shrank back down to puppy size. With a hysterical little giggle Layla reached for it, and it sprang into her arms wagging its tail.

Friday Afternoon

“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” Mason said. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that. I just . . . I got frustrated, I guess. It wasn’t just you.”

Layla hugged her knees to her chest. “I’m sorry too.”

The Farida siblings sat in a hospital room though, unlike their last visit, Mason occupied the bed, and was hooked up to an IV or two. Even though Charlie had healed the stab wound, he’d lost a lot of blood.

The door opened, and Mason looked up to see a girl in a blue-striped Atomic Five uniform enter. His jaw dropped, and he snapped it shut quickly. Oh God, it was her. She looked just like the posters.

Vivian De Silva bit her lip. “Am I interrupting you guys? I thought your Dad was in here with you.”

“No, you can come in,” Layla said, as Mason tried to remember how words worked. “Dad’s asleep, but they said they’d bring him up once Charlie was done with him.”

Smiling, Vivian glided into the room. “Okay. I was hoping I could talk to you guys anyway. Atomic Five wants to observe your family, see how you tamed Charlie so we can use him to treat the wounded.”

“We’ll have to see what Dad thinks,” Mason said.

“Of course.”

“You aren’t going to dissect him, are you?” Layla asked anxiously.

Vivian shook her head. “No dissections, I promise.” She looked to Mason. “I’ve also come to ask if you’ve decided about coming to training camp.”

Mason glanced down, and picked at the sheets. “I was, but between Dad’s hospital bill and this one—”

“I knew I forgot something!” Vivian interrupted. “We’re going to pay for whatever help Charlie can give, and I’m pretty sure we can work in at least a discount.”

Mason could hardly believe it. He’d have pinched himself if the IV wasn’t doing that already.

“Really?” He squeaked, and cleared his throat. Layla giggled, and he shot her a glare. “In that case I’d love to go, thanks.”

“Glad to hear it. See you there,” she said, starting to get up.

“You’ve got to go?” Mason asked.

She smiled apologetically at him. “I’m needed back at base. I’ll stop by to catch up after I go off-duty—if that’s okay with you guys.”

“No problem whatsoever,” Mason said.

Vivian smiled again, waved, and left the room. No sooner did her footsteps fade down the hall than Mason let out a whoop. It came out much louder than he’d intended, and he clapped both hands over his mouth.

“You like her,” Layla teased.

“Shut up,” Mason muttered amiably, lying down. He felt ready to start jumping up and down but, at the same time, bone-tired. He guessed the doctors would prefer the second option.

Bio:  Michelle Marr is a college student living in southeastern Connecticut, who spends what’s probably an unhealthy amount of time closeted away in her room, writing superhero, fantasy, sci-fi and occasionally horror stories.

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Broken Dreams by Dave Fragments

Feb 09 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

A boy short, scrappy kid–sixteen I guessed–stood on the far side of the ring, landing punches on a speed bag. His timing didn’t vary: wappity-wap, wap-wap, wappity-wap, wap-wap. His hands moving so fast they blurred.

“Is he as good as he looks?”

“Better than you.” Coach Sacconides let his fists shadow the kid’s movements. ”Best I ever coached but he’s too small. Even fighters his age out-weight him. The boxing commissioners take one look at him and say call me when he grows up and puts on twenty-five pounds. They won’t even give him an amateur bout with some plodder or trial-horse.”

“Uncle Charlie died, left me RobotWorks. Think he’d fight a robot?” My question snapped Coach’s head around.

“Robots ain’t boxing.”

“It will be when I’m done. Introduce me.”

“Hell no. You ain’t no promoter.”

“Not now, but with his ability I can create robots that beat all contenders. They always have a human in the exosuit-controller.”

“Then climb in the ring and fight him. If you win, ask him. If you lose, we both know you know how to walk away.” His words stung. A dozen years ago, Coach picked me off the street drugged up and hustling johns. Dad was in jail for laundering drug money. Mom was living with a drug lord. I was thirteen and an evil, self-destructive kid. Coach Sacconides put me in a ring and gave me purpose. I was good, real good but I sabotaged my career by walking away.

“You still hold that against me.”

“Damn right.” Coach frowned and folded his arms. “If you could teach those robots on your own you wouldn’t be here.” He was right. When I tried to program the robots, they turned into worthless brawlers. I needed a puncher, an out-boxer, a stylist to provide the finesse to my muscle.

“I’ll need trunks,” I said. Coach pointed a thumb toward me and yelled at a weightlifter.

“Hey Mickey, get him ready. Be his second.” Mickey Muscles scowled and motioned to follow him to the locker room. I’m pretty buff for a businessman. Not buff enough to Mickey. He had muscles everywhere and wanted more. We called them Sausage Boys back in the day. He opened a locker to show me a collection of old trunks and shoes.

“Pretty Boy going to fight Kieran?” He struck poses, mocking me.

“Coach said fight and I fight, sausage boy.

“Got insurance cards?” Mickey snorted.

It was a long time since I taped my hands and pulled on gloves. Memories of my abandoned career filled my mind: some good, some bad. Mickey tied my gloves and laughed. I tried to wiggle my t-shirt over my head, looked real stupid like.

“Give my t-shirt a yank,” I asked. He ripped it off my body and tucked it into his belt.

“It’ll make a nice white flag for me to throw when you’re getting the shit beat out of you.” He picked up a small bottle. “You going to need the smelling salts.”

“You’re one helluva second?” I said, pissed.

“I don’t see no one else. No worry. This here sausage boy knows what to do.”

Coach waited in the middle of the ring with Kieran, the kid I saw earlier.

“I’m fighting that pudge?” the kid didn’t even attempt to lower his voice. He shifted his sweatshirt and stretched his neck. “He’s a blimp, a piece of meat on a butcher’s hook,” he said.

“I’m two-twenty and all muscle,” I said, flexing to intimidate.

“Meat.” The Kid folded his arms, rested an elbow on the opposite fist and rubbed the side of his face with a glove like he was philosophizing.

“I got a couple trophies in the case over there.”

“And a palooka come back to brag.”

“Tweety-bird.”

We raised our gloved hands. Coach gave us the stink eye and stepped between us.

“Stow it. I know you both know the rules. I taught them to you. This is going to be a gateway match, understand? Now shake and go to your corners.”

Back in my corner, Mickey Muscles opened a clean mouthpiece and shoved it in my mouth. Coach introduced us and the gymrats oohed once and made me feel old with their roundabout praises.

The bell rang fast and the kid was at me, dancing, a feint with the right and a quick left-right combo to my face that left me blinking stars. Nobody told me the kid was a fucking southpaw. Damn was I rusty.

I danced back, adjusted my stance, blocked the kid’s next flurry of punches. When my right slipped too high, he slipped his head under my fists and pummeled my gut. I clinched so Coach would break us. I danced back letting my longer reach do the talking while I played “stick and move” for the rest of the match. Size wasn’t an advantage against this kid’s speed. One good roundhouse and I could launch his skinny ass over the ropes but he knew that and he kept slipping away if I pulled back my arm to send him into oblivion. What his punches didn’t have in power was made up by accuracy. I hurt when I sat down.

Mickey Muscles smirked as he toweled the sweat dripping off my body and rubbed the soreness from my shoulders and torso.

“You look like a plodder out there. I warned ya the kid’s got whisker’s. If you got speed, use it. If not jam him into a post and batter him,” he said.

Round two and I let my reflexes take over. I brought back my old form. The kid might be good but I knew the boxing styles of old times. The fight became a flurry of jabs and hits, an outside game of strategy. I battered the kid, forcing him to bob and weave, keep away from facing me toe-to-toe. I felt the victory in my grasp, hot and arrogant. I pushed him around the ring with jabs and hooks, cementing my victory with time rather than a single roundhouse punch that would lay him on the mat. As the bell rang he stared at my fist inches from his face. He gasped for air–weak, unable to dodge or duck and we both knew that punch was the punch that never landed, deliberately.

I wiped the floor with their favorite and swaggered back to my corner. The gym patrons muttered to themselves.

I swaggered into the ring for Round Three, cocksure, taunting and full of myself. There are many forms of victory. A knockout is one. A dive is the other. I fought flamboyantly, prancing around, daring the kid to hit me. A minute into the round, the kid blocked my jab, I let a hand fall, and the kid landed his best to my jaw. Birds sang. I ducked mechanically, neglecting his lack of height. A right cross turned my head and knocked the mouthpiece from my teeth. A left hook snapped my head back. The room spun. A good uppercut and I slipped to one knee. Coach immediately stepped between us.

I spit blood and bile, waited for a shameful eight count and put my hands up to fight the last two minutes. Blood drooled from my clenched teeth and I played rope a dope. He battered at my upraised fists with no effect.

When the bell rang, Mickey Musclehead had some vile bite plate that stopped the bleeding. He put a towel around my neck and gave me a pat on the shoulder as he pulled off my gloves.

The gym-rats and muscle-heads cheered when Coach raised the kid’s hand. Mercifully, it ended quickly and I could climb out of the ring and crawl back to the locker room. My eyes were blackening and red bruises covered my torso. Work tomorrow would involve interesting explanations. I stood at the locker rubbing my bruises and Coach brought a muscle-T with the gym logo on it.

“It’s nice you support this joint with big bucks but you can do more. What you did in that second round was good stuff. These kids need an older fighter who has the moves. Come back and spar sometime.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Want I get ice for your face.”

“It’s not the face that hurts. It’s the ego.” I unlaced my shoes, pulled off my socks.

“His name is Kieran Kenar. I’ll tell him you want to talk. Be gentle, he’s a ward of the State and he’s still not got it together. I’ll make sure you’re alone.” He blushed, set the muscle-T on my clothes, and left.

I texted his name to Uncle Charlie’s lawyers. Nice guys Uncle Charlie’s lawyers. Uncle Charlie owned them. He kept their manhood in a safe deposit box. I inherited the key and the box. Death doesn’t obviate a debt like that. They promised a dossier in 30 minutes. I stepped out of my trunks and protector, and walked into the communal shower.

When the kid came into the showers, I was covered in soap. My soapy hands were doing clean things to my privates and I blushed. He started the shower across from mine. The kid was a twig. Hard to believe that much ability lived in that scrawny five foot two body. He’d never be a sturdy oak like Mickey Muscles. Worse, his body bore the scars of a rough life.

“Coach said I should talk.” He hung his towel on a hook and turned on the shower two away from mine.

“You even break a hundred pounds?” I asked. He turned and flexed his chest and arms.

“Hundred fifteen pounds soaking wet and fifteen of those pounds is hanging where it counts.” He made sure I saw his goods. Wicked, wicked boy. I was impressed but not tempted. I let the hot water run over my head.

“You know how robot-fighters are programmed?”

“Never thought about it. A dozen nerds hacking away?” That’s what most people thought but it wasn’t the way things were done.

“We rig a man with sensors and record his movements. The computers and mechanicals in the robot’s body mimic human movements.”

“You want me to train your robots? Shadow boxing isn’t the same as a fight and I won’t be a sparring partner for hunk of metal weighing a thousand pounds.”

“Of course not. You’d be my sparing partner,” I said. He stared at me with water pouring over his body.

“You?”

“A robot fighter takes a team. I got two brilliant engineers working on new metal shells. One built Mars Dome, the other created the alloys for Sargasso City in the Atlantic. My computer nerd can do amazing things for a virgin without a social life. You can fight small and compact. I fight big. Together, we might make a champion.”

He still wasn’t convinced. I turned the water off, brushed the excess from my body, and went to dry and dress.

“What’s your offer?”

“We both know, no regulator’s going to give you a match. You’re too short, too small, and too young. A brute like me lands a punch and you’re dead.” I said as I sat to put on my socks. The kid stomped out of the shower, anger written on his face.

“I put you on your knees, old man.” He yanked the towel off its hook and held it in front of his body.

“I put myself on my knees. Think about that second round. You didn’t land a punch worth crap. How many punches did you take in the last thirty seconds? Did I look tired? Why didn’t I connect with that one mighty punch when you were tired? You saw it. You saw the knockout punch and you ignored it. But we both know the truth.” I pulled my jeans over my hips and buttoned the fly without taking my eyes off of his eyes. I could see his mind replaying the round punch for punch. His pupils dilated when he saw the truth. Three rounds and his career gone, three rounds and unwanted tears filled his eyes. He never even suspected that I took a dive in the last round.

“Damn you! Damn you,” he said and slumped on the bench, naked in the new knowledge, alone with the understanding of how he’d been defeated. Every fighter knows when he’s done but he fights one last fight with himself because he knows that he’s got the will. The will isn’t enough. The ultimate truth of the ring; there is always someone stronger, harder, better, coming up the ranks. Even the best fighter won’t be enough to hold or regain the title. His time has passed.

That’s why I left boxing. Coach knew. I knew. The kid didn’t know what washed-up meant. I wasn’t an upstart but a trial-horse. I saw the man who was my better and rather than step in the ring with him, rather than take a shot at the title and lose, I turned my back and walked out of the gym.

I sat next to the kid and tried to put my arm around his shoulder. He pushed away.

“Look kid,” I started to say. He landed a fist across my chin. I grabbed both his hands, pulled them behind his back, held him tight against my chest. I could hear the panicked quickness of his breaths; his heart beat too hard, the hurt and pain filled his eyes. I knew that despair from when I left the ring. “Don’t punch me again. I’ll hurt you back. Understand?” He stopped squirming. I released him.

“Bastards.”

“No just facing reality. No promoter’s going to put you in a ring with an opponent even twenty pounds heavier. ‘Roids and growth hormones won’t make you tall enough or anywhere near the size you need to be. My robot won’t care about your size. It’s an empty vessel waiting for championship moves, hot-shot mojo, brutal punches, and skills worthy of a champion.”

“You want me to give up and die,” he said, getting dressed in ragged jeans and worn hoodie.

“I’m not here to pick up a boy with adolescent dreams. I want the best fighter in the world. You’re hungry. You got ambition and best of all the talent and ability. Coach said you’re the best he ever trained. It doesn’t have to end. It just has to change. I want you to be remembered as the best exosuit-controller there ever was and ever will be.”

I felt his heart slow and his breathing become regular. He eyes still showed a broken heart and a lost dream.

“We all come to this end,” I said.

“I’m not ready.”

“It’s your time. My offer is fair. It comes with all my good intentions. I’ll give you a signing bonus, a no release contract, and a home.”

“I never even had my own place to live.”

“About time you made a home for yourself,” I said. Kieran nodded and stood, drying himself, dressing. I pulled on the muscle-shirt from Coach. Kieran looked at me and smiled, gave me a thumbs-up. We left the gym. There was much to do.

Biographical statement: Dave Fragments retired to the countryside of Western Pennsylvania amid the deer and squirrels to write short stories and an occasional poem. He has published over 40 short stories in online publications and print anthologies plus poetry. For many years he did research into coal liquefaction and heterogeneous catalysis.

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What Does the Dead Man Say? by JH Mae

Feb 02 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

Samuel looked at me like he wanted to hurt me.

He stood in the living room of our apartment and it was early in the evening, just after he got home from class. I remember a shaft of light from the setting sun cast a band of gold across his chest, and by the time I finally spoke it had dipped to cut across his belly.
“You’re a cold bitch, Dahlia,” he said. Those were his parting words after three years of what I believed was love. And I knew I would never do any better than him.

Brigitt was incredulous when I said as much to her to the following Monday at work. And in the months that followed. She is always there for me, my surrogate mother. And she’s there for me again tonight, but this is absurd.

“Trust me sweetie,” she says as we walk up to a drab split level, crouched in the shadow of pine trees whose needles rattle in the wind like bones. Brigitt smiles with a certain hope. “You’ll discover things about yourself you never imagined and everything will make so much sense. ”

I’m not so sure. Compared to the luminous Brigitt, I am even more broken and lost and long for the happiness I see in her eyes. I am ashamed of my desperation and afraid she can sense it, like a dog senses fear.

We walk inside and Brigitt leads me through the foyer, into a hallway and past a kitchen. Everything is dark and smells unfamiliar and I lose my bearings. The hallway soon opens onto a living room, lambent with golden light.

Immediately I notice the others, six expectant faces with smiles spreading across their lips, staring at me. Brigitt told me there would be other people here but I was hoping they wouldn’t show up and I could experience this weirdness alone.

The others are seated on three mismatched sofas. I see four different, overlapping oriental rugs and tall pillar candles lit and glowing. I see a Buddha and some odd, geometric paintings. Strong incense burns somewhere. I walk through the room, eyes down, and seat myself next to Brigitt, my stomach sour with nerves.
“Is there anyone in the room who hasn’t had a past-life regression before?” The practitioner’s name is Paul, and his silky voice is lulling. It’s soft like his light gray hair and powder blue sweater.

Brigitt raises my hand. Paul turns to me with his grandfather eyes and smiles.

Let me be, please let me be.

“You look a little nervous,” he says. I turn away to look at his feet instead; I notice his neon green sneakers with tie-dye shoelaces. Unfortunately, I haven’t lured him away. “I assure you, you are safe here – there is nothing to fear. ”
Without looking up, I smile. That’s nice, I’m glad he thinks there’s nothing to fear.
He continues his introductions, inquiring after everyone’s well being. I try my best to be amiable, as I should, but I find the forced exercise difficult. These kind faces look at me like I’m in a cage – observed but separate; present but detached, always.

I smile back. This has to work.

“A brief foreword is in order, then,” Paul continues. “Past-life regression is based on the idea that we are all beautiful, eternal souls, and that the body you now occupy is just one of many bodies you have inhabited through the ages,” Paul says, turning about the room so he can address each of us. “These lifetimes make up one cumulative soul experience. This means that in this life, we may be learning lessons from another. We choose each life to be challenged, to have an experience we must have in order to grow and learn. ”

Across the living room, Brigitt’s three friends – whose names I can’t recall – nod with peaceful expressions. They and Brigitt claim to have uncovered past lives. They have regular sessions with Paul, followed by long spiritual discussions over wine. One of them claims she was an indentured servant in Colonial America who had an affair with her master. Somehow that helped her find herself, but I can’t understand how.

They look happy, though. Maybe I can be, too.

“But you don’t need to have a past-life experience to learn something about yourself,” Paul says. “Regardless, this exercise can be used to understand yourself and your problems more clearly. Does anyone have any questions?”

Paul looks at me.

Should I be scared?

I look away and catch the eye of one of Brigitt’s friends – the one with the blonde bob and cheap costume jewelry. I’ve no doubt Brigitt told these women about my problems, because the blonde’s smile is warm and maternal. Pitying.

“Cold bitch. . . ”

Samuel’s voice was so full of hate. I didn’t tell Brigitt it was my fault I lost him.

He had decided that morning before I even woke up, he thought about it all day and planned every word, every gesture. Each one expressing his hate for me. When I met him in the living room, he threw his dissertation on the coffee table, its sharp thwack echoing in the stillness. I flinched. The room, the very air, felt wrong.

“You didn’t even read it,” he said.

I had neglected and disappointed him so many times. I would never do it again.

Paul’s voice snaps me back. My heart is racing.

“If no one has any questions, then, we will get started. ”

Brigitt massages my arm. “Are you ready, sweetie?”

No, not really.

“Sure – I guess so. This is a little weird,” I whisper. “Are you sure this will help?”

“Of course, Dahlia. Open your mind,” she says, her words accompanied by a flourish of her hand in the air, as if indicating the universe.

Paul hits a switch on the wall that dims the lights, then turns on some music – a string quartet. Vivaldi, I think. Everyone shifts to find a more comfortable position. I do the same, sinking deeper into the love seat’s soft cushions.

“Everyone close your eyes,” Paul says, and I let the shade fall, pretending I am alone. “Breathe deeply, in and out. With the out breath, let out all your tensions. With the in breath, breathe in all the beautiful energy around you. ”

That’s easy – in and out, energy in, tension, out. The deep breaths make me slightly dizzy.

“Let your mind wander naturally. Don’t analyze or judge your thoughts, just let them be – just experience them. ”

With every breath, Paul’s white noise voice seems farther away; I imagine his face diminishing into a sea of black. As I breathe in and out, in and out, Samuel’s face appears, but he won’t look me in the eye.

“Relax all your muscles, one by one – your neck, shoulders; your arms, your legs; every finger, every toe; everything. Continue to breathe, in and out. ”

I let everything go slack like I’m playing dead. My limbs feel heavy and foreign. The music echoes around me, embraces every cell of my brain and carries me away…to where, I don’t know. This is easier than I thought it would be.

“Let my voice carry you into deeper relaxation, let the distractions around you fade,” he says. “Go to a state of total peace and calm. ”
My body could float away, off these soft cushions and above this tiny room and the unorthodox folks I’m sharing it with. Away…away…Again, Samuel’s face passes through my mind. He is very angry with me but there is so much hurt in his eyes, his beautiful hazel eyes. Was he ever that sad or is that my imagination?

Don’t judge, don’t analyze…

“Now imagine a bright, healing light, a spiritual light, just above your head. Let this light – and it can be any color you want it to be – come through the top of your head. ”
I pick yellow because it seems like the friendliest color; it’s pale, like the morning sun in winter.

“Let this light enter your brain and go down your spine and into your body. This light heals you from within, every cell and every molecule. ”

I imagine this light glowing behind my eyes and it inches along my arms and legs, flowing downwards like ocean waves. My chest and stomach are warm, like they’re being filled with molten liquid. My fingers tingle. I can barely feel the tips.

“Imagine the light is even stronger now and let it envelop you, let it embrace you. Continue to deepen your relaxation. ” Brigitt shifts just a little next to me and a haunting cello begins to play a Bach suite. “Now I’m going to count from ten to one, and as I get closer to one, relax even deeper, so deep that you can transcend space and time. ”

I don’t know what that means…

“Deepen your relaxation so that you can go beyond this life and into your past lives. And as I count from ten to one, experience all of these levels, and realize that you are always loved, that you are never alone. ”

Always loved, never alone. It seems like a nice thing people say, a false comfort. I hope it’s true.

“Ten…nine…eight…”

I breathe deeply, try to separate from my body and escape inside my mind.

“Five…four…three…”

There is Samuel’s face again. Roundish and soft, rosy cheeks, pinprick dimples. He’s smiling, and I sense his love for me. It’s real and vibrant and trusting. I want it back so badly everything inside me hurts.
“One. ” Paul says. “You’re in a perfect state of calm and you come upon a garden. It’s filled with the most beautiful flowers and plants. Imagine your garden however you want it to be. ”

Mine is small and surrounded by a tall pewter fence. I walk over smooth, even stones between emerald green bushes thick with flowers the size of grapefruit. Ferns arch over narrow pathways and I pass exotic flowers of fiery orange, blue violet and soft pink.

I turn to face the sky and feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Nothing can hurt me here, not even myself. I sit on a stone bench between two fragrant lilac bushes. In front of me, Chickadees chirp hop from post to post on a blown-glass bird feeder that looks remarkably like one my mother had when I was a child. Maybe it’s the same one…

“You are now in a deep state of relaxation and in this state, we will begin to go back in time,” comes Paul’s voice. “I’m going to count backwards again, and when I reach one, you will be in a memory of your childhood, a memory that is happy, or significant to you in some way.

“Five, four, three…”

The colors of the garden combine and then reform, and in slow motion, a figure appears out of the haze and begins to focus like an image in the lens of a camera.

“One…You are there…”

The figure is Jared, my best friend from childhood. He smiles broadly, dimples denting the skin around his mouth. I’ve always loved dimples…

“Be in the memory – if you want to go deeper, take a deep breath. If you are scared, just float above the scene. If you are very anxious, just open your eyes. ”

Jared is holding my hand and I recognize where we are. Its summer and we’re behind the barn at his grandfather’s farm, alone and shielded from view by tall oak trees. A warm wind jostles their leaves and whips long hair into my face. My heart is sick with longing for my friend, whose face I haven’t seen in 15 years.

What a kind boy he was…Why couldn’t I keep him?

Jared swallows his nerves and leans in to kiss me. I smell earth and his warm skin, taste root beer on his lips and tongue. The memory is vivid and tears tighten my throat.

“Let your mind wander to other moments in your past…”

Jared’s face blurs and the uncaring wind carries it away.
No…come back!

The colors form cold solid walls and the sound of a hundred voices attack my ears. The bell is ringing and my heart fills with dread. Kids, laden with backpacks, shuffle to their next classes, but I’m not looking at them. I keep my head down but chance a glance upwards to see if I’ve been noticed. I haven’t. I feel so lonely, so lost, so forgotten.

Look at me! I don’t want to come back here…I want to leave!

“Let yourself realize why this memory is important. ” Paul’s voice seems to come from the intercom and I look up to listen to his voice as my classmates file around me, unseeing. “What lessons can this memory offer?”

I’m sorry, Paul, there can’t be any purpose to being so helpless and sad.

And now Jared is walking down the hall towards me. He is four years older and six inches taller and so handsome. I glance at him for a second, my heart light with hope, and he glances back. But his eyes are cold – he has abandoned and forgotten me because I didn’t grow up to be beautiful.

Don’t you miss me? Why won’t you talk to me Jared? You were my only friend…

“Now we are going to go even farther back, to the womb. Just let yourself experience it. Don’t worry if it’s real. Five, four, three…”

The scene, and with it my pain, disappears and is replaced by a benevolent darkness. A rhythmic noise fills my ears; it sounds like the inside of a seashell.

“What are you aware of? What sensations do you feel?”

Love and newness and calm. I feel like something is about to begin.

“Ask yourself – why are you choosing these parents? And this life?”

Because you need to learn how to be human.

That thought is not mine. Who said that…? Be human, what’s that mean? Wait, stop, he said don’t analyze, just experience. Paul is talking again. “How do you feel? Are there people around you?” I think I have missed something.

“Now float above the scene, and we’re going to go further back now, into a past life, or maybe another dimension. Let yourself just go there. ” The darkness around me changes. “Imagine a beautiful door, and that this door will lead you to the light. ”

I see it! It’s a sleek, shimmering black but there’s no doorknob.

“On the other side of this door is a scene, a scene from your past life. I’m going to count backwards from five to one, and when I get to one, you will be there. Five…four…three…two…one…

“Open the door. ”

I reach out my hand but the door swings open without my help. A radiant white light pours out, growing from a sliver to a shaft that never fills the darkness. The light urges me to join it. I walk through the door and on the other side a canvas of muddled colors– browns, blues, pinks, oranges – encases me. There are voices, too, mumbling behind the curtain of all that color.

The colors grow brighter, their edges sharpen, and the chorus of conversation grows louder as I walk farther inside. The words aren’t English – Italian, maybe?

“You’re nearly there,” Paul says. He said I can open my eyes if I’m scared. “One. You’re there. Are you in your body? Look at your feet. Look around you. What do you see?”

Details fill in – the lines of windows, cobblestones and buildings painted in earthy shades of brown and orange. I’m in a court yard sitting on a hard stone bench and to my left a small fountain tinkles with glistening water. There is a small crowd of people around me in old-fashioned clothes – long dresses, high collared coats. I watch them, study them, but the women seem to capture my interest.

So I’m a man! I look at my legs and hands. I’m in brown pants and wear leather shoes dull with scuffs. My hands are large with hairy knuckles. Yes, I’m a man!

“Is anyone familiar? Are they people you know?”

No, I don’t know them, but I want to. I note where the women are going, their style of dress – does it look expensive or hint that she’s poor? – and I try to catch their eyes. I think I’ve seen one before – she’s petite, her hair slightly mussed and she wears a weary, searching expression.

Someone needs a friend…

I’ve done this before, whatever this is. I know her name – Matlida. And I know where she lives – in a boarding house on the Via Santa Caterina. Across the courtyard she leans against a building underneath a hand-painted sign and looks at me with pitiful eyes. There is no recognition in them – but in that second, I feel an orgasmic rush of hunger. Something very enjoyable is about to happen but I know I must keep calm.
“You can go backwards and forwards in this life to learn more,” a voice says, and the scene fades again into black. The color doesn’t return right away. Instead I feel enormous space around me and the air is wet and cold, the ground under my feet gritty. I smell decay and metal and smoke.

It is silent. Then she whimpers, telling me she is awake and that the show is about to begin. In my right hand is a lantern and I strike a match to light the wick; in the orb of light I see little but her, crumpled on her side with arms violently shoved and tied behind her back. Her dress is ripped and dirty – it’s the same one she wore in the courtyard.

I kneel and place the lantern on the floor, its tinny scrape echoing off of the ceiling. I hum Rossini as I place it close to her face so I can see her fear. My movements are mechanical as if repeating a ritual.

I look into her shimmering eyes and sing, delighting in the echo of my voice off the distant ceiling.

“Ecco, ridente in cielo. . . ” The girl whimpers again but her words are muffled by a piece of cloth I have tied through her mouth. “. . spunta la bella aurora. ”

“Shhh, il mio tesoro…” I say. She is interrupting my cavatina. I reach forward with a steady hand and stroke the soft flesh of her face, wet with tears. Matilda winces and whimpers again, her sharp soprano echoing in the vast stillness. Fresh tears pool in her eyes and fall down the side of her face to drip on the dirt floor.

Excitement rushes through me like a shiver. I almost can’t wait to get started, but I shouldn’t be hasty, I am always too hasty and don’t enjoy myself as I much as I hope. I can play with her until I’m done and then she’ll go in the Po like the others. I have all night with dear Matilda.

“. . . E tu non sorgi ancora. . . ”

My honeyed tenor has always been my greatest pride and I let the notes hang in the air, pleased with their ring in my ears. My audience writhes on the floor beneath me and stare into her eyes, enjoying the terror I find there.

“E puoi dormir cosi’?” I sing.

Her eyes are wide like a crazed animal, carnal and bloodshot. I love that look. In those eyes I see the desire for life, so primal and fierce. Matilda didn’t realize until this night how much she loved to live. Now she is appreciative, now she is truly living. That energy is intoxicating and soon it is too much; I can’t wait anymore.

I shove her flat on the floor and she grunts, and then screams because she knows what’s happening. I straddle her, my knees crushing the curve of her wide hips. A rush of pleasure as she squeals in agony, like a pig. I smell her sour sweat, a tinge of lavender perfume.

“Sorgi, mia dolce speme…” My voice is quieter now and there is no echo. The music is just for her.

I ease myself down onto her soft body, and let my hands explore her, the small breasts, the gentle rise of her belly. She is mine, after all. I may do whatever stirs my fancy, whatever I please. And what I fancy is to drain this body of its warm blood and watch as the light fades from her eyes and the flesh becomes cold.

“Vieni, bell’idol mio…”

Matlida cries harder, and her face is now crimson and shining with tears. I push the lantern closer to her face and the glass almost touches her cheek. She recoils at the heat and underneath me her body writhes and jerks, but I’m too strong for her.
The more she cries and the harder she struggles, the better it is for me. They never seem to get that.

I pull up to stretch my back, take a steadying breath, focus my thoughts, soak in everything, memorize it – her smell, her cries, the color of her hair– and then I’m ready.

“Rendi men crudo, oh Dio…”

My hands reach out, inching closer to her neck. She throws her head back and forth to resist me.

Yes, yes…

Her neck is narrow and delicate, the skin hot. My large hands wrap themselves around it and I squeeze. Matilda’s eyes burn with a fresh horror and I am blissful.

I open my eyes and fill the room with my screams.

Bio: JH Mae is a lifelong writer and former reporter, rediscovering the world of short fiction.

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