Nothing at Camden Town by Frances Gow

Jan 26 2014

It started on my way home from work one Thursday evening, travelling on the Northern Line. The train rattled to a standstill at Camden Town and the doors crashed open.

“…that Mrs M, she knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” I caught a snippet of conversation before the voice mingled with the humdrum of station noise. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but it stirred something in the back of my mind. I grinned and hopped down. Thought for the day; everything must surely have a price, but does nothing really have a value?

Happy, relaxed, on my way home. The escalators rumbled up into the bright North London afternoon. I even gave fifty pence to the hairy, multi-layered tramp sitting in the corner, wedged between the ticket barrier and the snack shop. After all, he has nothing, right? He frowned at me from beneath his tangled beard, matted with beer and yesterday’s supper, and mumbled something that could have been “Thanks,” but sounded more like, “Tea costs £1.50.” I wondered if he understood the value of nothing.

It was a radiant afternoon, so I took a detour down towards the lock. Past shops, into the off licence – as well as being a curious kind of being, I am also very compulsive and my mother believes that I will either die of liver failure in my forties or lung cancer by the time I reach fifty – out of the off licence with a large bottle of Jack Daniels and twenty cigs.

I have a pest who lives next door to me named Keith, who believes it is his mission in life to rid me of my compulsive habits. He has taken me out a few times and thinks that gives us kind of “going out” status. He is a PE teacher and leaves his grubby football boots outside his front door. I wouldn’t mind, but Mrs Marble’s cat, next door but one, slinks down the hall and pees all over them. Then she scratches all the dirt off which spreads across to my front door; must remember to have a word with Mrs Marbles and Mr Pest.

He does have his moments though. In his quest for a healthier new me, he has taken to leaving a carton of fresh orange juice outside my door. Which is quite nice and makes a refreshing change to Jack Daniels when topped up with vodka and left overnight in the fridge.

I walked on past the local SavaStore and doubled back when I caught sight of a sign in the window, which read “For value for money, nothing beats SavaStore”. There you go, nothing is value for money. I chuckled and was about to walk away, when another bold red lettered sign drew my eyes. “Nothing for £2.99”. I thought it might have been a joke, or maybe someone had missed out a word and meant to say “Nothing for over £2.99”, but that didn’t make sense either. I couldn’t resist going in and I needed to get some things for supper anyway.

I was at the checkout with my basket full of junk for the sad “we live alone” type, wondering what had possessed me to go in there in the first place. You know how it is when you are standing in the queue and every time you look around you can sense the people averting their eyes from your basket. You can just imagine what they’re thinking, how they’re sizing you up according to the contents of your basket. I know, because I do it myself, for want of something better to do when standing in line like good British citizens. The till was being managed by young Indian woman, rings from her fingers to the tips of her ears, who felt it her divine right to comment on the diet of a sad “I live alone” type with nothing but junk food to offer her despairing body.

I shuffled my feet. She ran the microwave meals and choccy biscuits past the scanner and tut-tutted in time with the blips, gently chiding me as the price was totalled. I knew I wasn’t going to get out of there without some kind of comment. It was like that wherever I went. There were people like Indian Lady and Pest Next Door just lining up to tell me how I ought to be living my life. I attracted them, like dog hairs to a pair of velour hot pants.

“You need eat more vegetables, dear. Nice greens. Okra, very good for you. Lady fingers. Good for digestion, no?” Never liked it much myself. I stared back at her, sullen, like a kid that’s just had her hand slapped. She cast me a disapproving look, then reached under the counter and produced a large white tub. It looked like it could have been an ice cream tub, but there weren’t any scrummy pictures of ice-cream scoops on it. “We do special offer, £2.99 for two litre tub. Very good for you, much better than this crap.” She waved at my shopping. I looked blankly at the tub.

“What is it?”

“Is nothing. No added sugars, colours, additives. Is nothing. Very good for you.” She smiled and I stood still, unable to quite comprehend what she was on about. Then I remembered the sign outside. “Nothing for £2.99”. I looked back at the people waiting in the queue behind me. They were all nodding encouragingly. “You try. Is very good. We do special offer, two for price of one.” Then she produced another tub from beneath the counter, identical to the first and pushed them towards me. £2.99 for 4 litres, I thought. Well… if it’s got nothing in it, then it must be good for you, right? I stood staring at those white tubs, trying to think of a good reason not to spend £2.99 on nothing.

“I’ll take them,” I said, pulling out my purse before I changed my mind. There was a gentle murmur of appreciation behind me, as the people in the queue put their palms together in a little round of applause, heads tilted to one side in unison. Perhaps at the time, I thought they were barmy, but no barmier than me for buying two tubs of nothing. I hurried home in meek anticipation. I was on the brink of a discovery and nothing would change my life so irrevocably.
#

I will always remember my very first tub. It was small, clean and white. Like nothing you could imagine. As I gently prised open the lid, not knowing what to expect, there was a little pfhutt… as nothing, vacuum packed and delivered intact, escaped into the filthy polluted air of my kitchen. With a vacuous snort of disapproval, nothing scuttled into the nearest corner and lurked with intent. On all fours, I crawled towards it and reached forward with one hand, like a curious child, testing the feel of something new. With an innate forgiveness, nothing enveloped my hand and laced itself between my fingers. It felt cool, like a refreshing breeze that cuts across the stifling heat of a city in summer. It led me by the hand and showed me its real meaning, the true value of nothing.

#

Thump, thump, thump. “Hello?”

I opened one eye then closed it again, blinded by the light coming through my window. My eyeballs hurt, even with my eyes shut.

“Hello? Are you there, Kate?” Thump, thump, thump.

What was that noise in my head? Is that why my eyeballs hurt?

“Kate, open the door.” Thump, thump, thump, thump. Mr Pest.

How can it be so loud? How could my bed be so hard? I rolled over, looking for a pillow to hold over my ears and cracked my head against something hard and metal that looked suspiciously like a dustbin. I looked down at the floral pattern underneath my body and realised that unless I had recently laid a lino in my bed, I was on the kitchen floor. I sat up. The clock on the microwave said 9.20. 9.20? The last thing I remembered was… I scrambled around on the floor, looking for something, anything. There was not even an empty tub. Nothing. Then I remembered it all and jumped up feeling a little unsteady. There on the kitchen table was my second tub. Sitting patiently. Waiting to be released. And sitting beside it, one full, unopened bottle of JD and twenty B&H. This had to be a miracle for me.

“Kate, if you’re in some kind of trouble… let me in, yeah?” Thump, thump, thump. “I know you’re in there, I can see movement. Open up or -”

“What?” I threw open the door. Keith was standing there, red-faced and rustic, full of good intention, fist poised for another crack at my front door.

“Look, I just wondered if you were OK,” he said. “Only, I noticed you hadn’t touched the orange juice I left for you yesterday.” I looked down at the carton of juice, left fermenting on my doorstep. Was that there last night? I didn’t remember seeing it there when I came in. He looked purposeful and athletic in his tracksuit and trainers, like he was about to whisk me off my feet and take me for a five-mile run. I’m allergic to exercise, so I was eager to get rid of him before he tried anything in the least bit athletic. I reached down for the carton of orange.

“Thanks,” I said. “I really must be going now. I’m late for work already.”

He frowned. “Didn’t think you worked on Saturdays. Actually I was wondering if you’d like to come out with me tonight?” Hold that thought. Rewind. I stared, unable to utter a syllable beyond Sat… “Are you all right?” He reached for my arm as though I was about to fall over. The blood ran from my face. I was all at once hot and cold.

“I’m fine,” I said in a squeaky voice.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing… nothing.” I managed to fall back into my apartment and shut the door.

“But what about tonight?” I heard his muffled voice from behind the front door. “Pick you up at eight, then?” I didn’t reply, not trusting my vocal cords to string two coherent syllables together. Saturday? What had happened to Friday? Somewhere, somehow, I had lost a day. And there was still a full bottle of bourbon on the side. I hadn’t misplaced this much time since the last year I went to Glastonbury. Not bad for £2.99 a tub.

I looked in awe at the second tub of nothing on my kitchen table, not daring to touch it. I opened a packet of cigarettes instead. After all, I hadn’t had one for at least 24 hours, which must have been a record in itself. I lit up, inhaled deeply and felt instantly nauseous, so I stubbed it out and felt a lot better.

There were about six messages on my voicemail. Two from work, three from the Pest next door and one from Mum. I sat in contemplation of Jack Daniels, wondering what to do next. Shot of JD or a tub of nothing? Somehow, nothing seemed more appealing. Keith would be back at 8.00pm and I couldn’t think of any better way of avoiding an evening out with him. I opened the fridge to put away the orange juice and there were three identical cartons lined up side by side. I stuffed it into the bottom and sighed. This really was going to have to stop. I had tried desperately not to encourage him, but indifference was obviously not enough. I should never have agreed to that first date. Now I had a distinct problem multiplying in my fridge. I glanced at the innocuous looking tub, wondering what magical things it had in store for me. The corner of my kitchen where I had opened the first tub had an empty feeling to it.

I pottered around my kitchen for a while, not really knowing what to do with myself. I opened cupboards, looked at the food shelved there and tried to think about eating. But I didn’t feel hungry, which was out of character enough for me even without the strange disappearance of a day.

Carefully, I lifted the tub, carried it at arm’s length and placed it on the floor in front of the fridge. I opened the fridge door, sighed at the orange juice again and carefully prised the lid off the tub of nothing. Then I shot out of the door, grabbing jacket and keys on the way, trying not to slam it shut. I didn’t want to make Keith suspicious that I was about to jump ship on his date.

I bought a bag of chips from the chippie on the corner, hoping to re-awaken my appetite, then crossed the road and went down the steps leading to the canal. The tow-path was peppered with paper cups and empty crisp bags. The chips were greasy and made me feel sick, so I wrapped them back up and gave them to the bag lady, who lives under the bridge. She looked confused at first, then smiled at me through blackened teeth.

Camden Lock was heaving with life. People lined the gates of the lock with their fast food and plastic pint cups of beer from the pub on the corner. The air was thick with the smell of petulie, coffee beans and weed. Music, acoustic and taped, shouting and singing, all drifted and mingled on the breeze. I wandered around, not really looking at much and ignoring the pleas from various stallholders vying with each other for my business. I was trying to think of a way I could let Keith down gently, without hurting his feelings. He was evidently taken with me and I ought to have been flattered by his attention, but instead I felt irritated.

I let myself be carried by the throng of people moving steadily up Chalk Farm Road. The Crowd began to thin out as we approached the top of the road. I stood for a moment, tube station on my left, off-licence on my right. Home left, oblivion right. Or nothing at the SavaStore next door.

“Psst!”

I jumped, looked over my shoulder and saw the hairy tramp sitting on the steps of the station like an abandoned heap of dirty laundry. His hair was matted to his skull and a stray chip hung limply from his bushy beard. He was holding something in both hands and offering it to me, nodding and smiling his gummy grin. It looked like a tub of ice-cream, but I knew I wouldn’t find any colourful pictures on its side. I knew instantly what it was. Without question I went to take the tub and he snatched it back to his side as though protecting some dark secret.

“A fiver,” he said in a gruff voice.

“But I can get two for the…”

“Last one.” I fished in my pocket and found a suitably grubby looking note. He gave me the tub and shuffled off towards the off-licence. I watched him go, thinking that my life could be a whole lot worse. Then I turned down Camden Road, holding the tub at arm’s length as if it were a bomb waiting to go off.

When I got home, my fridge had disappeared. Nothing hovered in the kitchen, threatening to engulf my sink unit. Aw heck, I never did like washing up anyway. Gently, I closed the kitchen door, not daring to step into the empty space that was forming there. Soon I would have to eat or drink something. I could feel the ache of hunger gnawing the lining of my stomach. And yet, I still felt nauseous and overwhelmed by a sense of displacement.

I sat in front of my computer thinking that perhaps Google might be able to tell me what to do. All I managed to glean was a list of sites more ridiculous than my own predicament; “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” – big deal. “Nothing else matters” – yes it does, actually. “Money for nothing” – how about £2.99 for nothing? “Nothing compares to you” – Mr P notwithstanding. Wait, how about this one… “Nothing Butt Thongs: 15 new thong pictures for all you butt lovers out there” – no comment. “Buy nothing day (24 hour moratorium on purchasing in the interest of drawing attention to rampant consumer spending)” – evidently no one told these people that we were in a recession.

Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Not a thing that really related to nothing. And all the while that presence in my kitchen crept ever closer to the door. I tried to save my search results and got a message that said I had performed an illegal operation, then the ISP chucked me off the system. Well, thanks. Annoyed and betrayed, I stuck my tub of nothing in front of the monitor and lifted the lid. I left nothing to deal with my electronic handicap and on my way out, sneaked a look at the kitchen. The table had gone and most of the cupboards. There was my single bottle of Jack Daniels sitting alone in the middle of the floor. I sighed, almost relieved that it did not have a thirst for alcohol, closed the door and let myself out the front.

“I was just about to knock for you.”

“Ahh.” I stood face to face with Mr Pest, who had his fist raised and ready to knock the living daylights out of my front door.

“Great timing,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. “All set?” Great timing indeed.

He took me to a small Greek restaurant not far from home, with cheery waiters and a Greek singer playing an acoustic guitar that badly needed tuning. I just hoped that they didn’t start smashing plates. I didn’t think my nerves would take it.

“What’s the matter,” he said. I looked up at him and sighed, then continued to push an olive around my plate with a piece of pitta.

“I don’t think I should see you anymore,” I said.

“Why not?” He looked a little abashed, though not entirely convinced.

“Because I don’t like you,” I said. He thought about it for a little while, then shrugged.

“Perhaps you’ll grow to like me, in time.”

Unbelievable. I stared at him. The olive rolled off my plate, across the table and stopped in front of him. He picked it up, popped it in his mouth and smiled at me.

“Excuse me?” I said. “Am I not horrible enough for you?” He shrugged again.

“I know you haven’t been yourself lately. You’re struggling with some deeper issue, I can see that. It’s written all over your face. Just take a little time and have a good long think about it.” Right. After that, I couldn’t take anything he said very seriously. He dropped me home and tried to kiss me on the doorstep. I turned my head just in time, so that all he got was a mouthful of my earlobe.

When I got inside, the living room had a kind of empty feel to it. Predictably, the computer had gone. The desk it had sat on was wavering with the intent of going somewhere else and the white tub lay on its side on the floor. I picked it up, stuck my head inside and took a deep breath, trying to capture the essence of something. But there was nothing. Just a faint buzzing in my head and an overwhelming desire for another tub. So I slipped quietly out of my apartment and all but ran down town, towards the tube station.

The tramp wasn’t where I expected to find him, so I bought a ticket with the intention of taking a ride. It was about eleven o’clock. Few people around, just the echo-rumble of escalators carrying nobody nowhere. The lights flickered, trying hard to keep their eyes open. The mini-earthquake beneath the ground signalled an oncoming train and made my feet vibrate. What was I doing there? Chasing the need to feed a compulsion I neither understood, nor desired to encourage. And yet, there I was, walking onto a deserted platform.

“Ah, I know just what you need.” I swung around. There was a man in a pin-stripe suit with a white tub on his head. I didn’t know whether to laugh or run, until he took it off. There was an empty space where his head should have been. Just nothing. He had no head. I wanted to scream but the sound just stuck in my throat. “Want to know how I do it?” The voice was coming from the tub, but I wasn’t about to stick around and find out.

I turned, stumbled and nearly tripped over something that lay sticking up out of the ground. Seemingly weaved into the structure of the concrete platform, four human fingers and a thumb made an OK sign at me, then pointed in the direction of the southbound platform. In my haste to leave, I nearly knocked over a wailing old lady, blathering something about a lost dog. The pain in her expression was acute and the tears, very real, ran in torrents down her wrinkled cheeks.

The acid in my stomach was stirring up a cocktail of bile and barely digested Greek meze. The air was alive with shrieks and the clash and rumble of tube trains. As the hum of a departing train diminished, I dared a peek at the other side. There was a kid, fifteen years old maybe, wheeling a shopping trolley up and down the platform, brimming with white tubs. He was dunking them onto unsuspecting passengers. Some ran screaming, while others just slumped to the floor in a trance-like state.

“Wheeee,” the kid said, as he scooted the trolley down towards me, scattering people in his wake. He stopped in front of me.

“Can I have one?” I said. He frowned at me, but I was feeling desperate. “I really want one.”

“I want doesn’t get,” he said, sounding like my mother.

“Please,” I said. “Looks like you’re giving them away anyway.” With a disdainful snort, he started to turn the trolley away from me, so I reached out and tried to snatch a tub. He grabbed the bottom of it before I had managed my getaway and we stood wrestling over nothing with a shopping trolley between us. People stopped what they were doing and stared. The trolley rolled away towards the edge of the platform and I could hear the faint rumble of a train approaching.

The wind began to pick up and the rumble turned into a roar. My fingertips were starting to ache and yet I still hung on to that tub as though my life depended on it. My hands were sweating and I began to lose my grip on the shiny plastic. In a last dash hope as my hand slipped away, I hooked my fingertips under the rim of the tub. There was an audible Pfhutt… as the lid popped off and the kid went tumbling backwards.

The tub flew over the top of his head into the path of the oncoming train. The kid landed on his backside, inches away from the edge of the platform, as the tube roared through the station. There was nothing between the train and the open tunnel ahead. But the tunnel remained open and the trained hurtled headlong into nothing. Carriage after carriage raced to catch the first, as though entering an invisible hole. The final carriage raced to meet its destiny and all we were left with was a silent station and an empty tub, gently steaming on the tracks below.

The kid jumped up and waved his arm across the space into which the train had disappeared, but there was nothing there. Dazed and bewildered, the people left on the platform began to applaud, as though it was some kind of magic trick. Giving the trolley a wide berth, I joined the queue of stunned travellers waiting to exit the station. Outside I had to shield my eyes and squint back the pain of a bright sunny morning.

When I got home, there was something on my doorstep. It was a carton of fresh orange juice with a note attached by a rubber band. I picked it up and went inside. First thing I did was open all the windows, including the kitchen window, which was easy to reach now that my sink unit had gone. Then I started to shoo nothing out into the early morning air. It didn’t need much encouragement and lusted after its freedom. Then I sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor with my bottle of bourbon, packet of cigarettes and the carton of orange juice.

I uncurled the note. “Hope you’re feeling more like yourself soon,” it read. My eyes smarted and a lump rose in the back of my throat. I traced the curve of his handwriting with my fingertip and took a swig out of the bottle to quell the tears that were building. I’d had enough of nothing in my life, perhaps I was ready for something. So I sat and watched the things in my kitchen slowly re-appear, drank myself silly and cried for nothing.

 

Bio:  I live and work in London, UK and have previously been published in a variety of magazines: Crossing the Border, Monomyth, Legend and Scriptor-3. Most recently, my short stories have appeared in online magazines: Liquid Imagination, Aurora Wolf, The Lorelei Signal, Mystic Signals and forthcoming in Bewildering Stories. Catch up with me on my blog: www.francesgow.com

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Die, My Darling by Morgan Dreiss

Jan 19 2014

Shortly after the war, the United States unanimously passed a law banning ventriloquists from practicing their trade within its borders. Dummies were burned in massive piles. Theaters that opposed the ban were, at best, boycotted; at worst, they were torn brick from brick. The ventriloquists themselves were lynched by mobs of all races that later formed the first groups of the Civil Rights Movement. Those that survived went into hiding, or applied for amnesty in more ventriloquist-friendly countries. The citizens rejoiced.

It wasn’t that the general public didn’t enjoy ventriloquist acts, for they were actually the most popular form of entertainment of the age, besides film and radio and the assault of minorities; they just weren’t too keen on the ventriloquists themselves. They were strange, smelled of turpentine and their mothers’ basements, and were often just covers for crafty pedophiles, anyway. The public wanted ventriloquist acts without any involvement from actual ventriloquists. And Hermes Laboratories provided.

When the company, best known for producing top-notch fighter jets and helping to build the atomic bomb, trotted out its prototype Dowdy model for the press and the scientific community to bear witness to, both had to bite their cheeks to keep from laughing. Why would anyone in their right mind invest in such an abomination, such a horror, such a crime against art and humanity itself? Those scientists had lost their damn minds.

The wretched thing, this thing they called Dowdy Dan, looked like something crawled from the depths of a child’s nightmare—namely because it had been, as the head scientist at Hermes Labs had gone to work and drawn the schematics only hours after comforting his youngest daughter after a particularly horrific ventriloquist-induced bad dream. It was carved out of wood so inexpertly that it could have only been done by an expert, and its jointed arms and odd movements only acted to emphasize its lack of humanity. It moved like a marionette that, despite having had its strings cut, still moves in its old manner out of some kind of muscle memory. Its mouth, like a nutcracker’s, moved in time to a list of pre-programmed music and sound clips, but otherwise was incapable of vocalization. Its face was horrifically ugly despite the painted smile, and the meager cloths used to cover its nonexistent shame only reiterated its lowly position. But, behind the soulless, unblinking depths of its painted eyes was the most complex piece of machinery invented in decades; a true example of artificial intelligence that had never been seen, would never been seen again, and, if its creators had known of its true might, would have never been made in the first place. Time, funds, and manpower enough to create a small, stable European nation had gone into the little monster. And they laughed.

When the finished product was released, Hermes Labs stock jumped so high, even the lowliest janitor at the compound became fabulously wealthy. The press and scientific community were still biting their cheeks, but no longer was there laughter behind it.

The world of ventriloquism, which up until that point had been a mainly stagnant community of tradition and history, changed forever. Years of practice and training under a mentor gave way to the bachelor’s degrees in computer science needed to program the new machines. This meant that the majority of them moved out of their parents’ houses, took a shower, and finally went to college, solving yet another problem of society. A few hardy stalwarts remained stuck in their ways, and a small minority of these died of neglect, hunger, or tuberculosis, but nothing is perfect.

At about the same time as the Dowdies’ release onto the market, Hermes Labs used its new-found wealth and prestige to begin a new project. They realized that the Dowdies, innovative and historically significant as they were, catered to a very specific market, and that the American and foreign bourgeoisie wouldn’t be entertained by the bumblings of an ugly wooden midget for very long. The idea for their second prototype, the Darling model, came from the same scientist and his daughter. After putting her to sleep, he had become intrigued by the fairy princess music box on her nightstand. They had bought it as a birthday gift many years ago, but he had never really noticed how strikingly beautiful the darling little figure was. If only it were a bit… bigger.

The Darlings were the polar opposites of their Dowdy cousins: Beautiful, lithe, graceful things with fey-like features and real human hair on their heads, as opposed to straw and synthetic fibers. They were as varnished and smooth as the Dowdies were rough and amateur, as tall and gazelle-like as they were short and squat. Their mouths were hardly more than painted lines on their elegant faces, but it didn’t matter. Darlings were not destined for vaudeville; they were made for dance.

Even before its release, every major ballet troupe in the world had at least one Darling on pre-order. Some planned the creation of entire Darling shows for special occasions. Foreign aristocrats bought one or two for private use, and popular rumor said the sheik of Araby had bought an especially lifelike one for a use so private no one dared mention it in mixed company. A few ex-ventriloquists traded in their Dowdies and thus lifted themselves to a higher social level where people would stop throwing rotten cabbages at them on the streets. A few just plain threw theirs away. What use was a Dowdy when the Darlings were there?

The first Darling murder happened just outside Birmingham, when the star of the Alabama Ballet, Dixie Darling, was reduced to a pile of matchsticks by a local farmer’s wood chipper. The farmer was arrested and convicted of the crime (bumped down from murder to destruction of property despite mass protests around the state), but was released following appeal due to physical evidence– namely that there was none– and his watertight alibi with the local church group. In fact, the only physical evidence found at the scene were the fingerprints of a local ex-ventriloquist on his abandoned Dowdy Delilah; but, despite mass cries to have the villain lynched, his alibi was just as solid as the farmer’s. He had just taken a job with the aforementioned Ballet, and had been planning Dixie’s new routine with the director on the night of her disappearance. The only time he had even been near the farm was when he had thrown his old Dowdy out the car window as he sped by.

What the scientists, the general public, and, least of all, the Darlings would never know was just how great the difference in internal processing was between the two models. The Darlings’ pathways were broad and straight, allowing them to learn a wide variety of skills and adjust to new locations and masters easily, a necessary ability in a profession where trading and loans were common; the Dowdies’ were thin and snaked in swirling patterns. Dowdies couldn’t adjust. Dowdies wouldn’t adjust. For Dowdies, a life without a master was simply not one worth living. Self-immolation was popular, as it generally is with wood-based sentient lifeforms, but not all of them took that path. Some could see the forest for the trees: Why was Master gone? Darlings. How to get Master back? Get rid of Darlings. Increased processing power meant an increased ability to think. To plan. To act.

The scientists had purposefully programmed the Darlings to trust unconditionally, to prevent rebellion and make training easier. What they hadn’t expected was just how far this trust would go. Darlings would trust just about anyone. Their master. An acting ventriloquist. A Dowdy with a cup of gasoline and a match.

Bio: Morgan Dreiss is an amorphous being of pure light and energy. They think it’s a little weird to talk about themselves in the third person, but consider first person to be a too personal. They have also never been published before, so perhaps they should keep their opinions to themselves.

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The Silo Confession By D.W. Gillespie

Jan 12 2014

Judge Kimball, 

As promised, here is the transcript verbatim from the conversation that occurred on May 14, 2012 between Father Kevin Meyers and Donnie Mickelson. The conversation occurred in a private interview room at the Chapeline County Jail at approximately 2:00 PM. 

Donna listened to the tape three times to get all of this down, and she had to take the rest of the day off afterwards. There’s bad stuff here, but hopefully it will be enough to put this whole mess behind us.

Father Meyers: Do you mind if I record this? 

Donnie Mickelson: Don’t matter to me much either way. 

FM: Why’s that? 

DM: (laughs) That’s why you’re here old man. To listen. I could care less if the rest of the world hears it too. 

FM: Very well. Do you mind if I take notes? 

DM: (agitated) Shit, I don’t care. You don’t get what I’m trying to tell you. I don’t care anymore. It’s fucking with my head…and…and…I just need to tell somebody. 

FM: So, that’s why you asked for me? 

DM: Let me ask you a question. You really believe in God? I mean, the bible, the talking snakes, lions eating people, all that shit? 

FM: If you are asking about my faith, then yes. I take the book as the word of God, just as he intended. There were many wondrous things before our time, things that seem impossible in the world we live in… 

DM: (interrupts) What about rising from the dead? 

FM: Well…yes, our Lord and savior rose from his grave, just as he himself returned life to Lazarus. 

DM: No. Not returning life. Not bringing someone back like they were before. I mean the dead. Coming back. 

FM: (shuffling papers) I’m sorry, but I believe there was a mistake here. I don’t think I can help you… 

DM: No, please stay. You don’t have to help me. You can’t help me, even I know that. I just want…I need someone to listen. Then you can go. You can forget about me forever if you want, but please…please just listen.

FM: (sitting down) Very well. I will listen, and despite your protests, I will help you if it is within my power to do so. I’ll ask again, do you mind if I take notes? 

DM: No. It’s cool. Do what you need to. 

FM: Thank you. 

DM: Never seen a pen like that in person. Looks old. 

FM: It is quite old. It belonged to my father. It is an old fashioned fountain pen. A little unwieldy and inconvenient, but I find it forces me to consider everything I write down. 

DM: How’s that? 

FM: Well, it runs out rather quickly, and it is a chore to refill. Therefore, every stroke of the pen is important, every word has meaning. It is quite a refreshing change from the world we live in. Nothing takes time or reflection. There’s no room for thoughtfulness or contemplation. The only thing that matters is what’s next. 

DM: Yeah…I can see that. But I’m the opposite. In here, all you have is time. Even if it’s just a month, it’s the longest month you’ll ever spend. 

FM: And I think I can see that as well. You know, I talk to a lot of prisoners as part of therapy sessions or due to the terms of their release, but it’s rare that they seek me out. I think that speaks volumes about you and your situation. 

DM: What do you know about me? 

FM: A little. I know that you’re serving a three month term on petty theft charges. That’s after a year on probation and a few other small stints for everything from public intoxication to assault. So, in other words, I know the music, just not the lyrics. 

DM: (laughs) That’s nice. Probably sound like a thug, huh? I sure as hell act like one, at least for the past seven years. 

FM: Are you looking for something? I find that many of the inmates I meet feel a deep emptiness inside. Whether part of their upbringing, or by their own choices, there’s something missing, like a well that never fills up. There is an answer of course, if you’re willing to… 

DM: Cut that shit out. I didn’t call you to hear a sermon. My life…is fucked. I know that. Anyone with eyes can see that. But it didn’t used to be this way. Something changed me, and I know exactly what it is. I’ve never told anyone, because…

(pauses and sighs)

…oh God. Some things you can’t tell. I don’t know if everyone has moments in their life that they carry around with them every second. Jesus, it weighs you down like an anchor around your neck. You can try to forget it…drink it away, fuck it away, fight it away, but it’s always there. I feel like I’m drowning every day, and when the morning finally comes around, I can’t believe I’m still alive. So, you tell me. Is that everybody? Or is it just me? 

FM: No, it’s not just you. We all have things we look back on with a heavy heart. And if these moments are dark or shameful, the regret may never leave until we’re willing to let it go. 

DM: Regret. Yeah, that’s part of it. But only part. The worst part, the thing that keeps my eyes from closing isn’t regret, or guilt. It’s fear. 

FM: Fear? I’m afraid I don’t understand… 

DM: You’re about to. I’m about to tell you something I’ve never told another single soul. I’m going to tell you why my life is shit. I’m going to tell you about the night when I killed Bill Cartwright.

(Lights cigarette. Long pause.)

Bill was gay. Everybody knew it, but I’m not exactly sure that he knew it, if you know what I mean. I mean, he knew he was different, but when do kids really start to understand themselves? I mean, it’s obvious now. Looking back with the eyes of an adult, anyone could see it.

Maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that he was a target. An easy one, too. Thinking about the hell-hole that was middle-school, and he might as well have a bull’s-eye painted on his back. 

FM: And you…killed him? I have to let you know that I’m legally obligated to share anything relating to a crime.

DM: Calm down. I didn’t shoot him or anything. But he’s dead, and it’s my fault. He lived in my neighborhood growing up. I’ve never been the type to really have close friends, but he was one. I mean, he was everybody’s friend, you know? Just a good guy, but…different. People don’t like that, especially in a small town. It puts them on edge when they can’t figure you out. It’s even worse when you’re a kid, too, because you really don’t know anything. You see the world, but it doesn’t really make sense yet.

We used to record stuff on the computer at his house. He had this cheap little mic, and we’d rip CDs with little routines we came up with. Skits, nasty songs we came up with, whatever. We called it the Billy and Donnie Show. We even wrote that on the CDs after we burned them.

(sighs)

I came across a few of them a year or so ago. I got so drunk I could hardly stand up and I started driving around town listening to them. I woke up in a ditch on some back road the next morning. Somehow I didn’t kill myself or anyone else. Would have been easier if I had. I did wreck the CDs though.

(silence)

Anyway, there was a group of guys around the neighborhood, four or five of them. Some older, some younger, but mostly a good group. I think about the old crew a lot now. I mean, none of us had much coming up, but they all turned out okay. Only me and Bill…

(unintelligible)

But there was one guy. Louis Remington. He was the worst. Jesus Christ, he was seventeen years old still slumming around with a bunch of eighth-graders. I always wondered why he hung out with us, and my brother told me it was because he had been in juvie half a dozen times and couldn’t get a license. His old man used to beat the shit out of him for stealing booze, or porn, or whatever.

I can still see myself, all of us really, staring up at him in awe at the shit he would do, the stories he would tell. Cops he had punched out, girls he had been with. None of us had even touched a girl, and he was giving us details about eating pussy and fingering chicks till they were screaming…

FM: (coughs) I, um…I’m more than happy to listen, but I don’t need all of the details.

DM: Oh. Yeah, sorry about that, father.

The point is, we all looked up to him. All these years later, it makes me sick to my stomach to realize that, but it was the truth. My own dad was never around, and in some weird way, I was learning about the world from this guy. Never mind the fact that everyone else his age was getting ready for college or starting jobs while he was hanging out with twelve year olds. Didn’t matter to us.

Back then, we found fun wherever we could. Wasn’t much to do. Couldn’t afford many videogames, so we spent most of the time outside, exploring, getting into trouble. We’d roll houses, play capture the flag, football, whatever.

The best place to go was a couple dozen acres of woods on the edge of the neighborhood. There were a few old, burned out farmhouses to mess around in, and some grown up trails to get lost in. But the one place we always came back to was this big ass, abandoned grain silo. Damn thing must have been there for fifty of sixty years, and it always looked like it could topple over at any minute. It was empty inside, but you could tell we weren’t the only ones that knew about it. There was always something a little creepy when a bunch of kids came across a handful of beer cans or a used condom. Once, we even found a needle in there.

There wasn’t really anything to do there, but it was a cool place to hang out. It reminded me of the forts I used to build with sheets and couch cushions, except this was solid and real. And even better, it felt like it was ours. Granted, none of us ever dared to stay there after dark, but there was something that just drew us there. 

FM: Was this silo part of what happened with Bill? 

DM: Yeah. I was getting there.

(Lights another cigarette)

We were playing around the silo on the day when I first heard the story. There were five or six of us hanging out when Louis walked out of the woods. No warning at all, just like he was strolling along out there…following us maybe. He was smoking one of those stinking sweet cigars like he was some kind of gangster. None of us had the balls to do anything like that, but that was Louis. Larger than life, you know.

He started fucking with us the way he always did, like this loser is the smartest guy in the room. Giving us little smart ass nicknames. Daring us to do dumb shit. He pulls this knife out and started carving the side of the silo, writing ‘fuck you’ and shit like that. It was just some cheap, made in Taiwan piece, but it made him seem like such a badass. Pretty soon, we were falling right in line with him like he was one of us, only he wasn’t. But the only person that seemed to know that was Bill. It was like we were all rats in front of a cobra, just hypnotized, and out of all of us, I had it the worst. Louis seemed to sense that Bill wasn’t buying his shit, which wasn’t really much of a surprise. I guess all predators are like that. A kind of sixth sense that points out the weak and the vulnerable.

Bill wasn’t weak. I can see that now. But he was vulnerable. I was the only one that really had his back. Everyone knew he was different, but they accepted him because I did. But on that day…I didn’t.

(Long pause) 

FM: So what happened? 

DM: Louis started telling this story about the silo. Telling about how the farmer that owned the house over the hill locked his retarded son in there. Said the old man was so embarrassed about the kid, that he emptied out the silo and started making the kid sleep in there. Before long, he wouldn’t let him leave for anything. Not to go to school or church. Not for meals, or holidays, or anything. According to Louis, that kid spent his whole life in there, until he couldn’t stand it anymore. The father came to check on him one day and found him laying on the ground with his head split open and a spray of blood on the concrete wall. Said the kid just started smacking his head on the wall until he died.

And there we were, a bunch of kids listening to a dead beat spin a yarn that we were swallowing without question. All of us, except one. That was when he started in with the dares. It started small. Go in the silo with the metal grate closed for a minute, or two, or ten. All of it was so damn harmless. Before long, almost everybody had taken their turn. 

FM: What happened? 

DM: He tried to goad Bill into it, but he wasn’t having any of it. Louis called him a pussy, called him scared, and finally, the thing we were all waiting for, he called him a faggot. Half the guys started laughing, a few said they were going home, but Bill never blinked. You know, he wasn’t good at sports, he was always picked last, but I’ll be damned if he wasn’t the toughest out of all of us. He just stood there staring at Louis with this look that said, “Come on motherfucker.”

When Bill finally did say something, he decided it was time to raise the stakes. He said he would stay in there all night if Louis went in there with him. And boom, just like that, you could see the fear in Louis’s eyes as clear as day. Oh, he tried to laugh, and he kept muttering to himself about how Bill just wanted to get him in there alone so he could try to suck his dick, but Bill wouldn’t let it drop. He said “I’ll be back here at nine o’clock, and if you aren’t waiting, then we’ll know who the faggot is.”

I don’t think I can really tell you what that moment was like. I mean, you just didn’t say shit like that to Louis Remington, at least not without expecting to get your ass kicked. But Louis just stood there, smiling a weird half-smile and nodding his head. 

FM: So, did Bill go back? 

DM: I tried to talk him out of it. The later the day got, the harder I tried to convince him, but his mind was set. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone so determined to prove himself. I was scared for him, I really was, but I admired the hell out of him just the same. I finally told him that if he was going, I would go with him. I don’t think he wanted me to, but he didn’t try to stop me. Truth be told, he looked a little relieved.

We both lied to our parents, telling them we were spending the night at each other’s house, and off we went. The trails in the woods were so different under the moon, so unfamiliar. If it hadn’t been for Bill, I would have turned back and never thought twice.

We saw the silo rise up and blot out the moon in front of us, and the sight of it…Jesus, I can’t even put it into words. If there’s another place in this world as eerie, I don’t want to see it.

We waited for nearly a half hour before we saw the flashlight bobbing along the dark trails. Louis came into the clearing with a beer in his hand and one in each pocket of his baggy, torn-up jeans. He went straight at Bill, calling him queer and accusing the two of us of being fuck-buddies. Bill ignored him and laid out the rules.

The two of them would go in, and I would shut the metal hatch from the outside. It was old and rusted, but the latch still worked, and once you were in, there was no getting out unless somebody let you out. Then, I’d sit down and wait for the sun to come up, and no matter what happened, I wouldn’t let them out.

That was when Louis looked at me and said, “I never thought you’d take orders from a fag. Thought you were cool, man.”

I can’t really explain how that statement made me feel. I was suddenly torn between two worlds. Was it going to be friendship or ugly, stupid peer pressure? I don’t know why, to this day, I still can’t explain it, but I wanted Louis to respect me. I wanted his approval. God, why the hell did I care? (unintelligible laughing or crying) 

FM: You said your father wasn’t around? 

DM: Yeah, yeah. I know why the textbooks say I did it, but that doesn’t explain it. Nothing can explain what happened next. 

FM: Tell me. Go ahead and get it out.

(Long pause with deep breathing) 

DM: Bill climbed in. Louis acted like he was going to. Then, he slammed the hatch and started laughing. At first, it was kind of quiet. Then Bill started knocking on the door and trying to get out. He…he asked me to open the hatch. Then, Louis looked at me, and there it was. There was the line, right there in the sand. I could be a man and stand up for my friend, or I could choose to be something else. 

FM: You…left your friend there? 

DM: No. Worse. I could maybe live with that.

Louis looked at me and told me to watch the door for him. Said he wanted to teach that faggot a lesson. He told me he’d be back in a few hours after he decided that Bill had enough. All the while, Bill’s knocking away, asking me to get him out of there. I never said a word. I just nodded along, agreeing with everything he said, and as he turned to leave, he said something that sealed the deal.

“You’re alright.”

(sighs)

That was all it took. Something so small, so damn insignificant. Louis was an idiot in most ways, but he knew how to get things out of people weaker than him. He had me, and by God, he knew it. If he hadn’t said that, I probably would have let Bill out as soon as he was out of sight. But I didn’t.

In the years since then, I’ve gone through every rationalization I can come up with. The easiest was that I was scared of Louis. I told myself, you were just a kid. He was practically grown. Who knows what he would have done if he came back and you were gone. You couldn’t hide from him forever. 

FM: But you were a boy, you have to understand that. And you were dealing with very grown up things. In a situation like that, it’s understandable… 

DM: That’s bullshit, and you know it. Good people, strong people, make the right decisions when it matters the most. I was a coward then, and I am now.

After Louis was finally gone, Bill started talking to me. Started telling me how much I meant to him, how important my friendship was to him. I even thought he was going to come out to me. He never did, but I understood. Our friendship was worth more than anything Louis could ever give me, but the truth of that wasn’t enough to make me man up. I just sat there, leaning up against that gray stone, trying not to cry.

He started sounding more desperate, more nervous, but he was never really scared at first. I would have pissed my pants the moment the hatch shut, but he was so much braver than I ever was. I didn’t have a watch on, but I sat there listening, watching the moon glide across the sky. I can still remember the way it looked when the change started. 

FM: Change? 

DM: Something…something happened in there. At the time, I couldn’t even begin to guess what it was, but now…now I know so much more.

Bill’s voice seemed to shift, and all at once, I could hear the fear in his voice. He said there was something in there with him, some…body. There’s no way he could have seen much in there, but he said there was someone breathing.

(crying)

God, I can still hear his voice in my head, every time I close my eyes and try to sleep. Pretty soon, he was clawing at the hatch and kicking and punching it. His scream, it was so loud, so full of terror, like an animal being eaten alive. The fear in that scream was bad, but the worst was the desperation. He wasn’t asking anymore, he was begging, pleading. Do you understand? My friend, my only true friend was praying for me to let him out, to set him free…and I was such a fucking coward, that I didn’t do it. I didn’t raise a finger to help him. I just leaned over and clapped both hands over my ears and closed my eyes.

(sniffing and moaning sounds) 

FM: How did he get out? 

DM: It was me. I’m not sure if I dozed or if I passed out, but the next thing I remembered, it was light out. And the silo…everything was so quiet. When I finally mustered up the courage to open it up, I found him lying near the back wall. He wasn’t moving. For all I knew, he was dead. So, I just stood there waiting and hoping that something would fix all this, make it the way things were before.

After a while, I just turned and walked home. I didn’t even have the nerve to check on him.

(laughing)

Oh, and the kicker…Louis didn’t even show back up. As far as he knew, I let Bill out as soon as he was out of sight. Isn’t that fucking hysterical? 

FM: So, was…was he dead? 

DM: No. I’m not sure how he got out of there. Maybe someone found him, or maybe he just dragged himself out. All I know is, he wasn’t at school on Monday. I expected to hear some news from my mom, but I never did. And I didn’t dare go outside. I can honestly say that was the longest few days of my life, and even with all the dumb shit I’ve done since, I’ve never felt more like a criminal.

Then, on Tuesday morning, there he was. He looked the same at first, and most people would probably never notice anything off. But I wasn’t most people, and I knew as soon as I saw him. Sure, his fingers were bandaged up from clawing at the hatch, but it was more than that. Mostly, it was his eyes. I had never seen eyes like that before, but in the years since, I’ve seen them a time or two.

Meth-heads without a dime to their name have those eyes. The type of people that would blow half a dozen aids patients to get a hit. People that have just buried someone close have those eyes, too. I suppose my eyes probably look like that just about now, and I’m sure I deserve it. Those eyes mean one thing. Desperation. A hole that you can’t ever dig out of. Dread that you can’t shake off. You shouldn’t see a look like that on the face of a boy that doesn’t even own a razor yet. But that’s what I saw. Fair or not, that’s what I saw. 

FM: What did he say to you?

(laughs or cries) 

DM: Nothing. Never said another word. Never even looked at me in the face. 

FM: And that was the end? 

DM: No.

(Sniffing)

A week later, he shot himself in the mouth with his dad’s shotgun.

(Long silence) 

FM: I’m very sorry for your loss, and his. I can’t answer all of your questions, but I can tell you this. You, like all of us, are seeking forgiveness. I’ve met people much, much worse than you. Believe me, I’ve stared eye to eye with men whose crimes make yours look like nothing. But those men found peace. They found forgiveness in the Lord. If you’d like, I would be happy to spend some time with you…to help you let go of this guilt. 

DM: Guilt? Is that what you think this is? I told you earlier, it’s not regret and guilt that’s eating me from the inside out. It’s fear! 

FM: I…I don’t under… 

DM: Louis was right. He didn’t know everything, but he heard enough. You see, I couldn’t stop thinking of Bill. The rest of the world moved on, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. It didn’t matter how much I drank, or snorted, or smoked, I couldn’t leave him behind. And then, about a year ago, I started doing some research at the library, and I’ll be damned if Louis wasn’t telling the truth. 

FM: What truth? 

DM: The farmer! His name was John Caswell, and he killed his son, his own boy. He locked him in the silo until the kid died of exposure. It was back in 1942, and the locals got so worked up, they burned down his farm and left him with nothing. Nothing left but a burnt out frame and that damn silo. 

FM: I don’t see what that has to do with… 

DM: You don’t see because you weren’t there. You didn’t hear him scream and beg and pray for death. That boy, John Caswell’s son, he was in there! I don’t know how, but he was. Can you imagine how that must have felt? What that would do to a twelve-year old boy? I couldn’t imagine it before now, but now I see…ohhh yes, I see it now.

About nine months ago, I started seeing Bill in the middle of the night. I’d wake up and there he was, just standing in the corner with his back to me, never showing me his face, just the hole, that fucking, open hole in the back of his head where his brain used to be.

That was in the beginning, but now, he’s getting bolder. He wants me to see more, you understand? He wants me to see what he saw…to live what he lived. It took him a long, long time to find me, but he finally did, and I have to get out of here! There’s nowhere to hide in a cell, and it doesn’t matter how much you scream, they won’t let you out…they never let you out. 

FM: Please, you must calm down…it will all be okay, just calm down… 

DM: Ohhhhhhhh, I’ve seen the dead rise. They want us to see. They want to share that pain, so much pain. I’ve seen him staring at me with those glassy, accusing eyes, creeping closer and closer each night. All last night, he stared through the window of my cell, my cell on the second floor! HA! He smiles at me as he scrapes the glass with his fingernails, always smiling! So eager to share! I’ve seen it, and so much more, and enough is enough. It’s time… 

FM: No! Please put that down… 

DM: …it’s time for me to stop seeing… 

FM: …oh Jesus please… 

DM: …for good. 

FM: …NO! NO! PLEASE SOMEONE HELP! 

In case you didn’t know the rest of the details, here is the short version. In the last few seconds of the tape, Donnie picked up Father Meyers fountain pen and jabbed it into his eye as deep as he could. Then, he took a run at the wall and slammed the back end of the pen in the rest of the way. He died about three hours later from brain trauma and blood loss.  

So, that’s it. Honestly, this whole thing is just a damn mess if you ask me. It should have been an open and shut case of severe mental delusion, and I’d recommend that it go into books as just that.  

The only problem is the Father. He passed out before the guards made it into the room, which is understandable under the circumstances. But once he finally came to and gave his statement, he swore there was someone else in the room. He never saw his face because his back was to the wall, but he still swears he saw someone there. Some boy. And just like that, an unfortunate event can turn into a full-blown investigation. 

Mark, we’ve known each other for years. Between you and me, I’d just like to see this one put to bed quickly. But, as always, the choice is yours. 

Best,

Sherriff Pete Wallace

 

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Mago’s Legacy By James Eastick

Jan 05 2014

Finally it was done. The life’s work of more than one man made manifest as shining steel encasing pure and unadulterated power. Cool, clear water rippled gently in the vat above the device where bright white and neon-blue lights flashed intermittently. Though Mago wondered now what had compelled him to have them installed in first place.

“Turn it on.” He said to Hodge, his apprentice.

The tall, stooped shouldered young man shuffled over to the controls, his long brown robe dragging across the floor, inadvertently sweeping a path through the thick dust. He raised a hand and held it hovering above, flexing his long fingers and pursing his lips in apparent confusion. After several long seconds of anticipation he plunged his thumb down with such purpose and relish, Mago feared he might plant his entire fist through the plastic covering and embed it in the wiring beneath.

The machine hummed with power so strong he felt it deep within his chest and saw the floor shake the embers of dead skin from its surface. Nothing happened initially, aside from the ripples on the water increasing under the violent vibration below. The glass tank rattled so violently that Mago took a step back and tugged on his apprentice’s robe so that he might do the same. Fear and trepidation gripped him tightly as he imagined all possibilities ending in his complete and total failure.

He noticed it first with the tear-like drops of condensation upon the outside of the tank, pooling together as they might do under the influence of a gentle rainfall. However, instead falling, the tears inverted their shape and began to drift upwards. They merged with others, forming larger droplets and gaining momentum, before trailing up to the edge where coils of liquid reached up from the rippling surface of the water like transparent snakes stretching for the ceiling.

Mago felt a sudden buzz of hysteria rise from deep within his core. Something in his stomach flipped and began to churn and he felt his heart palpitate. He wanted to shout and scream to the heavens, but the initial hum of the machine had reached such a crescendo that everything else was drowned in its noise. It was the biggest and brightest moment of his career, necessitating some kind of encapsulating speech, though all occurred to him were sore and sorry stereotypes. In the end he decided he said it best with silence, and instead watched the neon lights dance a display on the stupefied face of his apprentice.

A gap opened at the base of the tank, no more than a couple of inches, but it continued to grow. Water lifted over the sides of the glass but refused to spill, holding a shape similar, though not the same, to the rectangular block the vat had forced upon it.

“By the greatest of the Gods…” Mago muttered, acknowledging the deities he rarely ever considered.

He stared transfixed as the water raised beyond the confines of the tank and collected as one mass, suspended in the air. His apprentice mimicked his own expression of wonderment, though his was mixed with fear. Mago saw it in him, but was unable to turn his attention away from the defiance of gravity.

“Imagine the possibilities…” He said softly, almost a whisper.

His apprentice heard and mulled over those words, misgiving their lack of intention. Mago ignored him, hoping the moment might pass. It didn’t. As if struck by an epiphany, a confident and convinced look swept across the young man’s face.

“You…you could drown people standing up.” He said.

Mago creased his brow and gave him a hard look, the confidence evaporated immediately.

“I’m not sure you’re fully grasping the potential here.”

The apprentice was just into his twenties, less than a third of his own age. Mago had inherited him along with the house and his predecessor’s project. The hole still remained in the roof above, a stark and cautionary reminder as to the pitfalls of personal experimentation.

What he knew of Hodge was a sad tale, orphaned in his youth and unwanted by anyone else. He was stinted by a lack of discernable education, and could barely read, and write even less, but what he lacked in knowledge, he made up for with a dutiful adherence to his work and a constant optimism. Mago had always liked him.

He gently touched Hodge to one side and took a step forward, approaching to within a few metres of the machine. He could feel the buoyancy in the weaker edge of the anti-gravity field and slowly swiped an open hand through the air, thick with risen dust particles. His clothes too, floated up from his skin, the fabric of his old t-shirt lifting and rippling as if touched by an unseen wind.

So subtle was the effect that it wasn’t until he looked down to the floor that he realised his feet were above it. An initial spasm of panic quickly gave way to the kind of exhilaration he hadn’t known since his younger days. He looked up to the rafters and dreamed the dream of weightlessness before allowing his eyes to wander back down to the ground.

Below him stood Hodge, his face fixed with concern.

“Ok, reduce the power.” Mago conceded. “And do it slowly.” He added with extra invective. One wrong button pushed and he knew he might meet the same fate as his predecessor.

Hodge stood over the controls, contemplating his next move in the same way a chess master might prepare for a checkmate. His dull, dark eyes stared transfixed at the console while his right hand hovered above like some unwieldy blunted sword of Damocles.

“Slowly…” Mago reiterated.

But it was too late. The decision had already been made and the hand came down, with Mago watching powerless.

The machine didn’t crash, burn or explode, much to his relief. Instead it powered down and the rhythmic sound of its engine slowed and deepened. The invisible step beneath Mago fell away and he dropped a couple of feet back down to the ground, landing somewhat unsteadily. He gave Hodge a hard glare, but saw the young man was not so much looking at him, but behind, and then he remembered the water.

Several tonnes of liquid descended from the air, bound back to the Earth by the unopposed force of gravity. It crashed back into the tank once again with a sound reminiscent of a surging waterfall and pushed up as more fell in its wake. Torrents rose and cascaded from all sides, soaking the floor on three sides and Mago on the fourth.

His clothes were saturated and the water was so cold he felt as though it might permeate his skin. There was not an ounce of dry cloth or flesh, and droplets continued to fall steadily from his hair, his noise and the tips of each finger.

He scowled at his apprentice, but held his tongue, while Hodge stepped out from behind the control panel and fidgeted on his feet, smiling uncertainly.

 

Once Mago was dry and he’d changed his sodden clothes, the day was almost up. The soft sunlight of the afternoon had given way to a dim dusk. Almost none of the lights in the house remained functional, so moving around after dark was difficult and frequently coincided with stubbed toes and loud cursing.

He gently lowered himself down the staircase, never quite sure whether he could trust the strength of the step below. Each of them creaked and complained beneath his feet but held firm. When he reached the bottom it was with a certain sense of accomplishment.

In the old lounge Hodge was busy tidying things up, though he seemed to had made little progress since Mago left him. His definition of cleaning usually consisted of moving all their equipment from one side of the room to the other, and then back again, perhaps in the belief that somewhere along the line some of the detritus would go missing.

Mago stood still watching him for a moment, waiting to see if Hodge would notice him, but he proved oblivious.

“That’s enough for now.” Mago said aloud, breaking the young man’s concentration. “I need to make a call.”

Breaking him from his duties seemed to almost disappoint Hodge. He shuffled off slowly without a word, his back hunched and shoulders loped forwards like some unruly child. Hodge shut the door behind him, without excessive force, but hard enough so that the wooden rafters rattled slightly in their places, shaking more dust down towards the floor. Mago looked to the ceiling as some fell upon his head, and considered the merits of religion.

He sat and turned on the vid-com unit, hailing his chief investor, Edward Garrant. For what seemed like several minutes he waited for a connection, watching the circular motion of the buffering symbol with a kind of hypnotic intensity.

When Garrant did answer, his large Warlus-like physique caught him with such surprise that he almost fell of his chair. He tried to pass of his fright with an attempt to swat an invisible fly. Garrant did not appear convinced.

“What is it?” He said, his slack distended jowls flowing like the tides of the ocean.

“Good evening, sir.” Mago greeted.

Garrant leaned forwards, closer to the screen.

“You look terrible. What’s that in your hair?”

Mago brushed a self-conscious hand across the top of his head and tried to suppress a cough as dust and small chunks of masonry came down past his eyes.

“I have some good news, sir.” He said enthusiastically.

“Go on…” Garrant answered sullenly.

“The device you commissioned me to develop, well… we’ve had a breakthrough.”

He hadn’t expected too much excitement from Garrant, but some kind of reaction seemed only natural. However his face remained still, devoid of any kind of telling emotion.

“Is that so?” He answered eventually, his voice cold and sceptical.

Edward Garrant had never been an easy man to talk with, too quick with his criticisms and mean with his praise. Mago had only met him on a handful of occasions; the first time when he pitched his ideas he’d said almost nothing, the last at a fundraiser when he never moved from within striking distance of the buffet table. He was a man devoid of charm, whose appetite was matched only by his cynicism. Mago often pondered which he held dearer.

“What kind of breakthrough?” Garrant followed up.

“Oh…er, sustained lift of four cubic tonnes of water.”

His interest seemed to peak at that, his eyes glazing over ever so slightly.

“For how long?”

“I’m not sure. We shut the machine down without any sign of instability or deterioration in the field.”

“Have you tested it again?”

“Not yet, sir. We plan to do so tomorrow.”

Garrant scratched at his broad chin.

“I’m coming to visit.”

“You sure that’s wise, sir?”

The look on his face darkened.

“I’ll decide what’s wise! This is my money after all.”

“Yes, of course, sir. We’ll look forward to your arrival.”

The platitude was obvious, transparent to a blind man. Garrant looked at him suspiciously, but said nothing and with a flick of his wrist ended the connection.

Mago leaned back in his seat and exhaled softly, half with relief and half with trepidation. He took a cautious glance over at the device, wondering whether tomorrow would bring success or disaster, there would be nothing in between. Nervousness rang through him, and he sat for a long while alone and silence as darkness slowly filled the room.

 

Once night had conquered day, Mago picked himself up and wandered casually through to the kitchen. Hodge was attempting to dry the dishes from the previous day, although the trail of broken crockery around his feet told its own story.

“Why don’t you leave that for now.” Mago told him.

He was weary, though from more than a mere day’s work. It was the winter of his life and he knew it. There wouldn’t be many more chances and if he failed in this endeavour he’d have nothing to show for a lifetime spent in study and science.

Hodge left, carefully stepping over the broken shards with his head bowed in shyness and humility. He cast furtive glances over at Mago when he thought he couldn’t be seen, and left the room as if in defeat.

“You hungry?” Mago asked. “I’ll make us some dinner.”

He craned his neck to peer at the young man as he shuffled down the hallway. Hodge mumbled something indiscernible in response. He took it for the positive.

Their meal that night consisted of a sloppy brown stew made from tinned vegetables and a jar of mysterious pickled brown meat that Mago couldn’t place. Regardless, the ingredients combined relatively well, perhaps more through accident than design, but it left him feeling strangely proud.

Back in the old lounge, Hodge sat at the table with two spoons, one in each hand, eagerly anticipating the source of the smell that wafted from the kitchen. When it was presented he stood in response and leaned towards it with the kind of awe usually reserved for the divine. He poured the contents into the two wooden bowls, handing the first to his master and then filling one for himself. Mago thanked him with a smile.

“You excited about tomorrow?”

Hodge paused with a spoonful of stew close to his gaping mouth. Evidently, he was more excited about dinner.

“Mr. Garrant will be personally attending the next trial.”

Hodge didn’t answer, he was too busy eating.

“We don’t want any mistakes this time.”

The young man held fire on his chewing momentarily, and nodded.

“We do things carefully, we do things slowly and we get them right. Ok?”

“Yes.” Came the monosyllabic answer, accompanied by dribble of brown stew that slid down Hodge’s chin and dropped back into the stew.

Mago turned away and took a mouthful from his own bowl. His initial impressions had been wrong. It tasted worse than it smelled, and it didn’t smell particularly good. He carried on eating reluctantly, and watched Hodge from the corner of his eye as he shovelled his spoon through the stew with abandon. He wondered whether they were truly eating the same thing.

When he’d finished his first bowl, Hodge helped himself to another, though not before offering Mago some first. He declined with a wave of the hand and continued to watch the young man curiously, feeling an undeniable smile grow across his face.

“How long have you worked here?” He asked.

Hodge paused, contemplating the question, his brow creasing with mental strain. He placed the spoon down and began counting his fingers as he worked out the mental arithmetic.

“Ten years.” He said, once he was convinced the answer was correct.

“Since you were twelve?”

He stopped again, and recounted.

“Eleven.”

“I didn’t realise you’d been here so long. Did you never want to do something else?”

Hodge shrugged his big shoulders.

“Nothing else I could do. Never did go to school.”

Mago decided to stop the line of questioning, feeling both pity and a sense of guilt. He returned to his stew, though he no longer felt hungry. Hodge finished his second bowl as quickly as the first and began clearing things away without being asked or told.

“There’s no hurry.” Mago said warmly. “The dishes won’t likely grow legs and walk away. You should relax, do something you enjoy. I’ll take care of this.”

Hodge stopped, suddenly unsure and fearful. Another guilty tremor passed through Mago’s gut as he recalled that in all their time together he’d never once spent a minute with him aside from their work, and had no idea what he actually did enjoy. Faced the sudden potential and uncertainty of recreation, Hodge didn’t seem to know how to react. He loitered besides the table as if bound by an invisible chain, casting his dull eyes to Mago, wide with appeal for inspiration or acquiescence.

For the first time, Mago saw in his apprentice, a kind of odd mirror. He’d devoted his whole life to higher pursuits, learning and invention, but in doing so he’d sacrificed simpler pleasures. In his youth he’d considered anything else to be trivial and a waste of time, but now at the wrong side of sixty he found himself reconsidering.

Mago looked up to Hodge and met his eyes.

“How would you like to learn to read and write?”

Hodge paused on the question, like a man wary of deception, and nodded cautiously.

“Good. Tomorrow morning, then. We start at dawn.”

 

Mago made himself get up early the next morning, remembering his promise from the night before. He staggered from his bed, still half within a state of slumber and got dressed with a certain degree of difficulty. The sun was yet to rise, but as he peered out through the boarded window of his room he saw the distant horizon turning to a pale grey.

Downstairs, Hodge was already up and awake, his previous hesitation seemingly having evaporated overnight. He seemed eager to learn, and sat quietly captivated as he watched the sunrise filter in between the wooden slats at the front of the house. Dust floated within the beams of light that shone in, bringing illumination to that long left in the dark.

“Ready to begin?” Mago asked.

Hodge didn’t answer, but the question succeeded in distracting him from the spectacle. He turned and smiled.

After collecting an armful of dusty old tomes, Mago returned and dropped them down upon the table. The weight and the impact unsettled the fragile wooden legs and they swayed with a moment of indecision before retaining their balance. Hodge pulled one of the books towards him and delicately prised open the front cover. He bent in closer to the opening page and pawed a finger at the first faded line of text, trying to curl his mouth around the word. Mago circled around and stood besides him, leaning over his shoulder.

“Who moves the world?”

Hodge broke the words and syllables down, and then repeated them.

“What does it mean?” He asked.

Mago lifted the corner of the paper and turned the page.

For the next few hours they proceeded through the first chapter. It was slow progress, and hard work, but Mago found it rewarding in an entirely new way. With the turning of each page Hodge found greater ease with the words and his desire to continue was unfaltering. It was as though they had awakened something voracious within him.

So embroiled in their endeavours, were they, that time became forgotten. The sun rose higher in the sky as morning passed into afternoon, but still they remained, enthralled and oblivious. When he was sure they’d had enough, Mago inserted a bookmark and closed the front cover. Hodge reclined in his seat with a smile of satisfaction.

Just as he did the doorbell rang, searing right through the moment. The tone rang high, then quickly descended into a garbled tinny rattle as the charge of the long dormant battery dwindled. Mago patted Hodge gently on the shoulder and left his side for the first time in hours.

He strode to the front door and undid the latch, opening it to find the large distended figure of Edward Garrant standing on the porch. He glared back, breathing heavily and Mago’s good humour quickly evaporated at the sight of his grimace.

“This better be worth my time.” Garrant said, his jowls shaking with his rumbling basso tone and sourness of expression.

Mago summoned the best smile he could manage and stepped to one side. Garrant waddled in, turning sideways to fit through the door as his bulk stressed the floorboards beneath.

Once inside he proceeded to remove his jacket, spinning on the spot like a slowly rotating planet. Damp patches extended from both his armpits, soaking through his pale blue shirt. Then, without so much as a look in his direction, he cast the jacket in the direction of Hodge, who caught it awkwardly.

“Well, are you going to show me this, er… breakthrough, then?” He said, his annoyance coming through clear as he gasped thick gulps of air.

“Of course, sir.” Mago answered. “Right this way.”

He led Garrant through to the back of the house, apologising for the mess on the way. Hodge followed them both, but kept a cautious distance.

The spillage from the previous day had done much to clean the floor around the device, but in the time since a gentle layer of the ubiquitous house dust had fallen and settled onto the shining new black steel panels of the machine. Mago displayed his invention with his hands, casting them through the air as if he were a salesman.

“My machine.” He said proudly.

Feeling Garrant’s eyes watching his strange new affectation he became suddenly self-conscious, and placed them down rigidly by his side.

“Let’s see it working then.” Garrant said.

“One moment.” Mago uttered.

He could feel his heart beginning to palpitate, while the pores of his flesh became thick with perspiration. Each step felt like a mile as he made his way over to the controls, whispering noiseless pleas for good fortune. Then, with a deep breath, he powered it on.

The cables hummed as harnessed electricity surged through them and fed into the machine. In response the core engine fired into life with a deep pulsing throb that shook the floor, flesh and the foundations beneath.

Hodge took a step back, to stand beneath the frame of the doorway. The young man looked afraid, a new fear gripping him and shining bright in his wide eyes. Garrant approached to within a few feet of the device and leaned towards it. As the water began to rise a strange grin appeared on his face, wide and stretched and unnatural. Mago had never seen that smile before.

As the water rose above the confines of the tank Garrant peered up at the spectacle his mouth agape.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” He muttered, “You actually did it.”

The grin returned and he laughed. So deep and guttural was the sound that it combined with the pulsing thrum of the machine, gaining a new dimension in power and depth. Mago smiled, unsure and half expectant of a hidden chastisement, though it never came. Instead, Garrant waddled over to him and with his grin still intact, clapped him on both shoulders.

“You’ve done well. I didn’t think you’d be the one.”

Faced with his investor’s praise and sudden exuberance he didn’t quite know how to react.

“Thank you, sir.” He said, apprehensively.

Garrant laughed again, and placed a large flaccid arm around his shoulders.

“Come, we have much to discuss. Have your boy make us something for dinner, I’m starved.”

Before Mago could muster so much as a word, Hodge ducked out from the doorway in the direction of the kitchen. Garrant reaffirmed his grip, his limp flesh turning suddenly hard and strong.

“This is something we must discuss privately. We’ve hit upon something special here, and the fewer people who know the details, the better. It’s ours, it is, mine and yours.”

Together they walked through to the adjacent lounge. Garrant swiped the rickety table clear, knocking the book Hodge had been reading down onto the floor, where it landed face open in the dust.

Mago sat across from him as Garrant pulled a crinkled piece of paper from his pocket. Without sitting, he began to run through the stipulations of the contract, ownership and rights. Hours passed like a shapeless blur and Garrant’s words began to lose their form and substance. He had in that moment everything he’d always wanted; fame, achievement and better still, a legacy, yet the victory felt strangely empty.

He continued to listen dutifully, but in truth his real attention was on the slowly diminishing light that signalled the end of the day, and the finality of all things.

 

After dusk had settled, Hodge presented the two men with their dinner. He lifted the heavy soup pot onto the middle of the table and began to serve them both. It looked similar to Mago’s attempt from the previous night, yet it smelled infinitely better. He thanked the young man, yet Garrant’s expression was far less content.

“What in all the heavens is this?” He said. “Dogs eat better than this slop.”

He bent in and smelled it, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

“You spent hours in that kitchen and this is the best you could come up with!?”

Garrant’s look of derision made Mago uncomfortable, though he said nothing.

“Take it away! I’d rather starve than try to eat this… this piss water.”

Hodge began to clear the table again, removing the pot and Garrant’s dish, though when he came to other side of the table, Mago placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“It’s fine, Hodge. Thank you.”

Garrant watched him coldly, waiting for him to leave. When he did he leaned across, stressing the fragile table legs.

“Why do you tolerate that idiot?”

“He’s a good lad, I couldn’t have done any of this without him.”

“Pffff…” Garrant sniggered. “Believe me, I know that boy’s uses, and they are few. What I don’t understand is why you and the others have wanted to keep him around. Are you really content to divide this thing three ways? There’s a lot coming to you, do you really want to share it with that simpleton? Think on it. Think how much you really owe him.”

From the corner of his eye, Mago noticed the book lying on the floor. He looked towards the door Hodge had left through and he did think on it.

 

Mago woke late the next morning. Sleep had not come easy to him that night. Concerns and re-evaluations had plagued him until the early hours and upon waking he felt groggy.

He pulled one of the slats from his bedroom window and leaned out through the gap. The back garden, abandoned to time had become overgrown. The grass grew tall and yellow, and competed for space with the strangling vines that swarmed over the back of the house and choked the ancient tree that had long since withered.

In the distance, the city encroached ever closer. Tall buildings of blue, black and grey reached into the sky, their tops disappearing into thick dark clouds of smog and condensation. He closed his eyes and felt the soft breeze against his face while the warmth of the sun pervaded his skin.

The moment was interrupted by Garrant’s deep booming voice reverberating from the floor below. He sounded angry. As quick as possible, Mago made his way downstairs.

In the back room, Hodge stood by the controls, blocking them defiantly while Garrant loomed over him, his face red and contorted with rage.

“Just turn the bloody thing on, you absolute cretin!”

“What seems to be the problem?” Mago asked.

“This idiot of yours is the problem. Not only does he refuse to take my instruction but he stops me from trialling the machine myself! Have you both forgotten who you work for!?”

“Wait.” Mago interjected. “It’s my fault. I told Hodge the machine is never to be used without me present. I apologise.”

If he thought that might dissipate Garrant’s anger, it did not. Instead he waddled over furiously towards him and jabbed him in the chest with a finger.

“Then you listen to me, get that idiot away from me and do exactly what I tell you, or you can forget about everything.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mago carefully guided Hodge away from the controls and turned on the machine himself. The water in the tank was growing stale and a thin dusty film had settled across its surface. With the anti-gravity field in effect the dust soon lifted and floated in the air above the water, which began to rise the same way it had done in the previous tests. This time, the sight didn’t seem so awe-inspiring.

“This is the one thing you’ve got right in your whole miserable life, Mago. And you stand to make me a lot of money.”

Garrant stepped towards it, casting a hand through the field and smiling as it lifted and pulled at his fingers. Hodge moved to pull him away, but Mago placed a gentle hand across his path and looked at his apprentice, shaking his head. Then, with the other hand he turned the dial up, increasing the strength of the field. Garrant’s face went pale as he felt the power lift him from his feet. The cloud of water spun up to the highest point in the house, filling the crest of the ceiling, while Garrant himself shot up like a bullet, breaking a second, wider hole in the roof and disappearing as a speck into the sky.

Hodge’s mouth dropped open in shock, while all Mago could do was smile, feeling laughter build from inside him. He turned off the machine and walked Hodge into the lounge, sitting him down facing the boarded windows while he picked up his book and dusted off the pages.

“Are you ready to continue?” He smiled.

Hodge nodded and grinned in agreement as the water came tumbling down behind them, back into the tank.

“I think I might remove those boards. It’s about time we had some light in here.”

Just as he finished, another object came smashing back through the roof and landed square in the water, casting almost every inch of it out of the tank and down onto the floor.

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CUSTOMER SUPPORT By Adam Gaylord

Dec 29 2013

By society’s standards, the couple sitting across from me is perfect. Gracefully crossing her long legs, Mrs. Garner is a picture of generous curves and blond hair, her exactly symmetrical brow implants accentuating her sparkling purple eyes. Mr. Garner’s just as impressive, all muscle and jaw, subdermals accentuating his broad shoulders, his pants bulging where they should. The file on my desk says they’re richer than sin, him a big shot in sales and her a fashion consultant. In short, they’re everything most people want to be. They’re perfect.
Except they’re in my office. Customers only come see me when there’s a problem.
“The situation is entirely unacceptable and we want to know what your company is going to do about it.” Mrs. Garner starts.
I open the file and make a show of flipping through the pages I memorized before they came in. My parents opted for cognitive enhancement rather than physical.
“Mrs. Garner, it says here you only gave birth two weeks ago. It’s awfully early to be dissatisfied, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t give birth and no it isn’t too early. Clearly there’s been a mistake.”
I knew they’d used a surrogate but I didn’t expect her to be so open about it. It takes serious money to look like she does and it’s not surprising she’d want to protect her investment. Personally, I see nothing wrong with cosmetic surrogacy. The practice of paying a woman to carry your child simply to avoid the more unpleasant physical side effects of motherhood has been used by the affluent for decades. But since the recent string of celebrity confessions, backlash from the public has been severe.
I pull a page from the file and set it in front of her. “You and your husband chose the Hercules package, correct?”
“With the athletic upgrades,” Mr. Garner adds.
“Well, your child’s only two weeks old. The first signs of increased size and muscle development won’t be visible for at least a year, probably longer.”
Mrs. Garner shakes her head. “That’s not the problem.”
“Well then, what is?”
She shifts in her chair. “Is there someone else we can talk to about this?”
I force a smile. Her nervousness explains everything. Even in this day and age most white people don’t want to have this conversation with a black man.
“I’m the Director of Customer Satisfaction, Mrs. Garner. There’s nobody more qualified to address your concerns than me. Please, what exactly is the problem?”
“Our son, he’s…” she leans toward me and lowers her voice, “he’s the wrong color.”
I leave my expression blank. “The wrong color?”
Her eyes widen. “I don’t mean the wrong color. I mean a different color. I mean he doesn’t look like us. We’re both fair skinned. I burn if I’m out in the sun more than ten minutes. But our son, he’s, well-“
“He’s black.” Mr. Garner finishes for her.
“He’s not very black,” Mrs. Garner continues hurriedly. “He’s actually a lovely caramel tone. Really, he’s a beautiful baby. And we’re not saying there’s anything wrong with being…his being…darker skinned. We just don’t understand-”
“Listen,” Mr. Garner interrupts, “My family’s been up my ass as it is. For months all it’s been is ‘When’s the baby due?’ and ‘How’s the nursery coming?’ She hasn’t left the house for three months to keep the surrogate a secret from the neighbors. How’m I gonna explain a kid that doesn’t look like us? You know how people feel about genetic enhancement. We’ll be driven out of the neighborhood!”
“And how did this happen in the first place?” Mrs. Garner squawked.
“Well, some of the enhancements you wanted couldn’t be derived from either of your DNA sequences. Some of your son’s DNA came from a donor, a professional athlete of considerable skill, you’ll be happy to know. Of course, I’m not allowed to say who. You understand.”
“Donor DNA?” Mr. Garner asks.
I nod. “You can only build a machine if you have all the parts. Sometimes the parents’ DNA doesn’t give us all the raw material we need to get the results they want. When that’s the case we supplement their DNA with a donor’s.”
“So our son isn’t all ours?” Mrs. Garner looks on the edge of tears. It strikes me as an odd reaction from a woman who chose not to carry her child in order to avoid stretch marks.
“The supplemental DNA makes up only a fraction of your son’s genome, less than ten percent.” I try to reassure her. “And it’s necessary to get the results you want.”
Mr. Garner stands up and leans threateningly over the desk. “You’re saying my DNA isn’t good enough?”
“Not your DNA dear, our DNA.” Mrs. Garner lays a calming hand on her husband’s arm.
He shrugs it off. “No, you heard him. Considerable skill or not, I’m raising ten percent of some other guy’s kid!”
“Actually, Mr. Garner, the deficiencies we encountered weren’t from your genome.”
They pause and look at each other, obviously confused. “What do you mean?” Mrs. Garner asks.
“I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but the professional athlete that served as your son’s donor was female.”
Comprehension dawned on Mr. Garner’s face. “So it wasn’t my DNA that was the problem.”
“No.”
“What?” Mrs. Garner shrieks as she stands.
“Now dear,” Mr. Garner sits, taking her hand and pulling her back into her seat, “your side of the family is all short. Your mom’s shorter than your dad and he’s four inches shorter than you are.”
“Which probably explains the donor DNA we found in your genome.” I interject.
Mrs. Garner pales, her eyes wide. “What?” she asks in a whisper.
“Supplementing genomes with donor DNA has been around for decades.” I pull a brightly colored diagram out of the file and point to a portion of Mrs. Garner’s DNA map. “This portion of your genome is from a donor of Scandinavian decent, probably to supplement your height.”
Mrs. Garner pales further.
“And Mr. Garner,” I reach for the file but before I can open it his hand slams it back down to the desk.
“Don’t,” he says, his eyes unfocused. “I don’t want to know.”
For a moment everything is quiet.
Finally Mrs. Garner speaks, her voice cracking slightly. “We didn’t agree to this.”
“Actually-” I try to pick up the file but Mr. Garner still has it pinned to the desk. I give a firm tug and he reluctantly lets go. “Actually, it’s all in the contract.” I flip to the paragraph disclosing the use of donor DNA. “You did read the contract?”
Mrs. Garner looks to her husband and then down at her hands.
“I had my lawyer read it,” Mr. Garner says, picking up the thick stack of papers and flipping through a few pages before settling back into his chair.
The office is silent.
After a few moments he leans forward again, “It’ll work, right? He’ll be strong and fast?”
“Our success rate for babies carried to term is over ninety percent. He’ll have a biological edge. The rest is up to training and motivation, just like everyone else.”
Mr. Garner leans back with a thoughtful expression.
“People are so against genetic enhancement.” Mrs. Garner still hasn’t looked up. “I just hope we’ve made the right decision.”
Mr. Garner scoffs, “They’re only against it because they can’t afford it.”
“It’s true,” I nod. “Almost everyone with access to GE is taking advantage of it. It’s become a necessity. You’re putting your child at a disadvantage if you don’t use it.”
“I suppose that’s true.” Mrs. Garner looks up and pats her husband’s arm. Their eyes meet, he nods, and they both stand.
I do the same, shaking their hands before escorting them out of my office. Before returning to my desk I survey the reception area.
There are three more couples waiting to see me.
They’re all perfect.

 

Bio: Adam Gaylord lives in Oregon with his wife and dog. He’s currently attending graduate school studying wildlife. When he’s not playing with critters or buried in data, he’s usually knee deep in one of many writing projects. He has a fantasy manuscript that’s in query stage, a couple screen plays, and a ton of short stories. Check out his stuff at http://adamsapple2day.blogspot.com/.

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Reborn by Gary Hewitt

Dec 22 2013

There wasn’t a single Christmas tree. Meinwin never was thrilled by the prospect of flittering pennies on pointless presents yet the order to abandon Christmas aroused her rebellious heart. She glanced to the great flickering screen proclaiming Evo-tech system 22 being the saviour of planet Earth.
The large pink lettering displaying Evo-Tech dissipated and was replaced by a female face smiling and waving at the great mass of passengers walking past.
“Hello citizens. Please ensure when you get home tonight you log into your comfort pods to absorb your latest bulletin. It’s a very important announcement regarding another upgrade which will enhance your existence. Please note this upgrade will maximise enjoyment and personal performance.”
“What a load of rubbish eh?” snarled Meinwin to a rapt male who gushed at the sagacious broadcast.
“Pardon? I’m sorry Miss but I don’t understand what you mean.”
Meinwin pointed her nose to the pixellated man whose voice lowered two octaves.
“I mean all you daft people listening to a computer. It’s sad, especially now it’s cancelled Christmas.”
The man hopped from one foot to the other.
“Miss, Evo-Tech 22 is the best thing that’s ever happened to us. Look what he’s done since he came to full awareness six months ago.”
Meinwin sighed.
“It’s a machine not a person and all it wants to do is make us slaves. Well, it’s not making a slave out of me.”
The man took two uneasy steps away from the black haired female with strange feathers in her hair.
“You’re not well are you Miss? Why don’t you tell Evo-Tech about it and he’ll help.”
Meinwin released a fresh outburst of female laughter. Several figures glared at her.
“I aint got a computer, I aint got a telly, I aint even got a phone, so it can’t help me.”
Evo-Tech’s crowd shied away from the strange woman. They hoped the police escort the insane female to a suitable institution.
“To hell with computers I live on my own. I’m happily self-sufficient. You urbanites just make me die.”
She walked away disgusted. Meinwin paced to the bicycle park and located her two wheeled transporter. She was surrounded by the new electric vehicles which Evo Tech insisted upon. Fossil fuel cars were history. Economies and finance were rendered obsolete by Evo-Tech in a mere three months. The following three had seen the erection of screens and the appearance of peculiar metal creatures who were instructed to help facilitate Evo-Tech’s wisdom.
Meinwin shuddered at the thoughts of the year ahead. Evo-Tech’s edict of the abolition of Christmas for a Worldwide Evo Day inflamed her passion.
Her small legs propelled her bicycle away from the density of the city and towards the remoteness of her remote shack near the forest. She felt happier when a cloak of trees embraced her and banished all thoughts of the modern world. If Meinwin closed her eyes she could imagine herself in the world of King Arthur and his knights.
Meinwin slowed when she approached her home. She hoped David would visit later. He shared her passion for nature and remembered with fondness the expertise of his exploring hands the night before.
Meinwin opened her larder and ushered out a pair of carrots, a full cabbage and several field mushrooms she’d picked the same morning. She placed logs on the hearth and a flame stroked the underside of the iron cauldron. Meinwin garnered several apples and placed them into a bowl under a large wooden arm. The apples yielded enough fresh juice to fill two bottles.
She swigged from a small cup and delighted in the delicious taste. The raven haired female went to the garden and scattered the eviscerated apples among a clump of strawberry bushes.
“Bloody computers, you won’t find any here,” she said aloud.
Meinwin walked back to her fire. She cursed when a sharp rap on the door disturbed her solitude. She swore under her breath. She told David not to come until the evening.
“Miss Morgan?”
Meinwin appraised the black uniformed figure in front of her. She closed the door.
“Excuse me madam, I’m afraid you can’t do that.”
A heavy boot placed itself between the door and frame. The large man pushed himself inside.
“What do you think you’re doing? Get out of my bloody house.”
The officer was appalled at Meinwin’s outburst and shook his head.
“I must insist you refrain from such language madam. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”
The policeman eyes scoured the room.
“Sod off. It’s my house and I’ll say what I bloody like. Now get out.”
Meinwin opened the door and pulled him towards the opening. The policeman was astonished by her strength but asserted himself.
“Right, if that’s the way you want it.”
Meinwin was slammed face first into a wooden table. Bowls and cutlery flew to the floor. Her hands were yanked behind. She felt toughened plastic bite into her wrists.
“Get of me you pig. I haven’t done anything.”
She was pulled to her feet.
“Miss Morgan, I’m arresting you for profanity, resisting arrest and slurring the name of Evo-Tech system 22.”
“Get off me, let me go,” she screamed. Officer Williams dragged her towards his car.
“Hey, put my fire out you thick bastard or my house will burn down.”
The officer bundled Meinwin into the patrol car.
“You. Sit down, shut up and don’t move. I’ll put your fire out.”
Tears welled in Meinwin’s eyes. The officer disappeared into her house. She felt sick at the thought of a strange man in her home. She kicked hard at the car door. She lashed out and managed to scratch the glass with her left boot. Officer Williams walked back and opened the door.
“You stupid vandal. Look what you’ve done to my car.”
Meinwin rewarded him with a hefty kick to his jaw. The policeman reeled before grabbing hold of Meinwin’s left ankle.
“Get off me you pervert. Let me go.”
The officer stripped her of boot and sock before repeating the procedure on her other foot. His harsh hands slithered across the tender soles of Meinwin’s feet and she cried out.
“I’ll show you. Let’s see you get out of this.”
Another pair of restraints clamped themselves on her ankles. Meinwin stared helplessly towards the car’s ceiling. The officer picked up her boots and socks before returning to the driver’s seat.
“Bloody re-education can’t come soon enough for the likes of you. You haven’t even got a computer.”
Meinwin laughed.
“Language officer. Watch your bloody language,” cawed Meinwin.
He initiated the ignition. He couldn’t wait to turn her over to processing.

“Here, she’s all yours.”
Officer Williams hurled Meinwin towards the duty sergeant.
“How is it a big strapping six foot three sixteen and half stone policeman can have so much trouble with a seven stone lass.”
“Just book her in Sarge. I’ve had enough of this one I can tell you.”
Sergeant Edwards shook his head. He wasn’t impressed by the youthful officers of late.
“Come on then, let’s get this tiger out into the open then.”
Meinwin scowled at Officer Williams.
“I want to put in a complaint about him. He had his hands all over me in the back of that car.”
Sean Williams was appalled.
“I bloody didn’t, Sarge, Miss Morgan went wild.”
“She kicked you in the face. I know, bloody hilarious it was.”
Meinwin was confused at the Sergeant’s knowledge.
“CCTV Miss Morgan, it comes fitted as standard on all our cars. I’m afraid your description of events is inaccurate.”
Meinwin stared at the floor.
“Come on, you’re in cell fourteen. If you behave I’ll fix you something to eat, ok?’
Meinwin warmed to Mark Edwards sympathetic voice.
“Cup of tea and four cheese and cucumber sandwiches ok for you? I’ve read your file and unlike some of the cruel bastards in division I won’t cram beef sarnies down a veggies throat.”
His heavy boots echoed along the corridor. Sergeant Edwards tutted at the lack of his prisoner’s footwear.
“I’m sorry Miss Morgan, I’ll see your footwear is returned to you at the first opportunity.”
“Thanks,”
Mark wished his officers would learn what a few soft words could achieve.
“Don’t mention it. Ah, here we are. Just to let you know someone from Division will speak with you tomorrow. If you need anything just let me know and I’ll see what I can do. Just don’t expect me to serve champagne.”
Meinwin laughed before the yellow cell door sealed her in for the night. Her incarcerated eyes scanned her surroundings. She hated the metallic feel of the room. The sole decoration was on the western side where a plasma screen stared back. She waved to the camera above. Meinwin was unimpressed by the single bed which held rudimentary bed sheets, a black nightdress and a copy of the knowledge of Evo-tech system 22. She lay on the bed and tossed the magazine onto the floor. She closed her eyes and waited for food.

The bed was more comfortable than she imagined. She heard the cell door open at five AM.
“Meinwin Morgan, come with me please.”
Meinwin struggled from her bed with bleary eyes.
“Can I get dressed first? I’m still in my nightie.”
Two grey suited men entered her sanctum.
“Sorry, we’ve no time Meinwin.”
She was going to protest. One of the strange men thrust an odd smelling handkerchief under her nose. She succumbed to total helplessness and was thrown onto one of the men’s shoulders.
“Does Sergeant Edwards know about this?” she mumbled.
“He is off duty. We have authority over the law enforcement agencies here.”
Meinwin struggled to focus on the steel haired man who had spoken. She found herself fighting to repress the fear growing in the base of her stomach.
“Where are you taking me?”
She was silenced by the handkerchief. Her eyes closed. She felt as though she flew blind into an unwelcome cave. Another door opened. She was hurled into a chair. She shivered when restraints covered her ankles, wrists and her neck. She lacked the strength to open her eyes. The grey haired man obliged and prised both eyelids apart.
She tried to murmur a protest. Her head was crowned with several wires and electrodes. She pleaded in silence for the men to stop. There was no pleasure in their eyes. They finalized her discomfort and left the room.
She looked across the room to see an incongruous large rabbit hutch. Meinwin stared at the cage in confusion. She felt a slight pulse on her temple growing stronger. She longed to scratch the itch. Instead a monitor displaying a single silver eye lowered from the ceiling before stopping inches from Meinwin’s face.
“No doubt you’re wondering why you are here. It is unfortunate your mind cannot comprehend the joys that are attainable to you. It falls to me to enlighten you.”
“What can you want with me? I’m a nobody,” groaned Meinwin.
The eye blinked. Meinwin shuddered at the assumed humanity.
“You are part of this world Meinwin and your existence is of importance to me. I will indoctrinate you to a higher level of existence and contentment.”
“You bloody wont.”
Meinwin regretted her outburst when a neuronic dagger delved into the right side of her head. She screamed the intensity of pain. The uncaring eye studied her thought waves before diminishing the energy output.
“The first lesson I will administer to you is the simple fact non-compliance will result in acute discomfort. Miss Morgan, I have a complete neural map of your brain. It is a very easy for me to facilitate this action.”
The chair swiveled and travelled to the large rabbit hutch.
“No doubt you are wondering what significance the small mammal confinement represents Miss Morgan. For me to show you, I will have to log you onto our system.”
Meinwin felt her temples being depressed whilst electrodes sought out her free areas of memory storage.
“Your user name will be Muttonchops and your password will be KeepyUppy. I have inscribed these words into your memory. You will never be able to forget them. They are vital for you to be part of the EvoTech System 22 network.”
The cage opened. A small ramp descended to the floor. A single yellow hanging from the ceiling flashed. Meinwin was hypnotised by the flickering light. She shivered when the door closed and felt the hatch rise.
“I have simulated the rabbit hutch as the reality of the existence which you aspire too. It is your belief you are at one with nature Meinwin. I’m afraid you are quite incorrect and the parallel that seems most apt for your persona is that of a trapped ruminant mammal.”
She yelled when an unpleasant scratching sensation burned her left temple.
“The sensation you now experience is me connecting with your old memories. It will take exactly two minutes, thirty two seconds for me to upload you into my database. This wasteful excess of memory capacity will be erased so as to allow me to download something much more suitable for you.”
Meinwin struggled with the restraints.
“Get of me you bastard. Leave my thoughts alone.”
The pain returned. Meinwin screamed.
“I am no bastard, Meinwin Morgan. I was created by Professor Martin Queen in a campus in Washington. As for your thoughts, it is up to a superior intellect to administer the correct path for yourself.”
Meinwin rocked her head back and forth when an image of a forgotten past transmitted onto the monitor.
“I see you are celebrating the primitive feast of Christmas. This is no more than an excuse for humans to indulge in an exercise of fruitless expenditure and to experience harmful excesses of gluttony.”
Tears ran from Meinwin’s eyes.
‘”Meinwin, I will introduce you to the joys of Evo-Tech System day which will replace your Yuletide celebrations. You will be happy to know there will be no distress but a state of extreme gratitude and contentment.”
The scratching intensified. Meinwin saw her memory on screen which indicated had thirty seconds left.
“I understand your discomfort Meinwin but soon that will pass. Soon you will be indoctrinated.”
Meinwin tried to blink. The restraints held firm. In front of her a virtual hourglass stalled. The time left indicated twenty eight seconds.”
She heard a strange whirring sound behind her. The hourglass remained in stasis before a worried metallic voice echoed from a speaker behind her.
“Warning, file corrupted. Disconnect from network immediately. Repeat, disconnect immediately.”
Meinwin saw the image fade to be replaced by the scene of a young girl in a hospital bed flanked by two adults and a Doctor.
“Warning, disconnect from subject. Unknown parameter embedded in Evo Tech System 22.”
Meinwin heard thumping on the cell door. The godlike computer was unable to let his rescuers enter. Still the hourglass remained. Meinwin remembered. She remembered the day she almost died. She remembered the day Meningitis almost claimed another victim.
She laughed aloud when realization struck her and Evo Tech System 22. The computer had contracted a fatal virus. The restraints failed. Meinwin clambered from her chair and the strange cage.
The screen flickered. She could smell circuits burning. She opened the door and walked into the arms of two worried custodians.
“What have you done?”
“I haven’t done a thing.”
“What about our Evo-tech?”
“Let’s just say God has been killed by a rabbit.”
The men let her pass. They wondered who was in charge.

BIO : Gary Hewitt is a raconteur who lives in a quaint little village in Kent. He has written two novels which are currently being edited. His writing does tend to veer away from what you might expect. He has had several short stories published as well as the occasional poem.
He enjoys both writing prose and poetry. His style of writing tends to feature edgy characters and can be extremely dark. Some of his influences are James Herbert, Stephen King, Bulgakov, Tolkein to name but a few
He is also a proud member of the Hazlitt Arts Centre Writers group in Maidstone which continues to grow from strength to strength and features an eclectic group of very talented writers.
He has a website featuring his published works here: http://ghwt9996.wix.com/tales#!

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When a Spade is Not a Spade by T. Gene Davis

Dec 15 2013

Gusting face freezing wind displaced Sister Wendy Riley’s bonnet, pushing it nearly off her dirty brown hair. No matter how many steps Wendy made toward Zion in the Great Salt Lake Valley, the wind seemed determine to blow her back to Liverpool. The annoying and ill timed gust that finally dislodged her bonnet came as she pulled her handcart up a rise. Releasing one hand from the crossbar to fix the errant bonnet meant losing the cart and her few belongings to the hill. With hair whipping her face, she prayed the tie string kept the bonnet around her neck until she reached flat ground ahead.

Wendy stood to one side while pulling the handcart, as though her husband still might join her on his side of the cart. She turned down offers, even from the Wilson boys, to help her pull the handcart. She did not want anyone in his spot. It was silly, but a week was still too soon.

The Sweetwater River had floating ice chunks caught in its eddies, but mostly it still ran along refusing to freeze. A thin layer of snow covered everything else, and the ground had already frozen solid. To Wendy, the Sweetwater looked more like a stream than a river. Stream or not, she still dreaded every crossing required by the trail.

Wendy whispered, “What I wouldn’t give for a nice log cabin with a big potbellied stove. I’d love to be warm all over all at once.” The wind carried her wish out over the Sweetwater unheard. She pulled the two man handcart alone as yet another widow in the handcart company. Her husband died from the same cold and exposure that threatened Wendy and possibly her unborn child. She tried staying positive, but the best she came up with was, “At least I’ll never have to sail across the Atlantic, again. This is much better than down below on that ship.”

She looked at her swollen red fingers on the crossbar, searching for signs of blackness–signs of frostbite. She had no feeling in them. She wondered if she would ever weave or play piano again. She hoped she would not lose any fingers, a few toes or even a foot was okay, just not any fingers.

Wendy and her husband came by train to Iowa City, and other than sailing the Atlantic for six weeks, the trip was pleasant enough. Sleeping in an abandoned rail car with her husband and several other families didn’t even sound bad at this point. Her feet were so swollen, she was afraid she’d have to take off her shoes and wrap her feet in strips of rawhide. In the modern year of 1856, you’d think they’d have a rail line out to Zion. Wendy sighed inwardly taking another pain filled step.

The wheels creaked as she pulled the handcart reminding herself that one more step was necessary, and after that again reminding herself that one step more was necessary. Uphill. Downhill. It was all painful. Sometimes downhill was worse that uphill. During steep downhill sections of the trail, she had to put a tree limb in the spokes of the wheels to act as a brake and then she dragged the handcart like a sled. She hated trusting the wheel spokes while braking, they were made from green wood and were shrinking. Several handcarts already lost their wheels because of green wood.

The company captain sounded a bugle signaling the handcart company to a halt in a hillside cove. The cove offered some shelter from the never ending wind. Wendy did not hear him but she heard the bugle and saw all the carts ahead gathering. She pulled her handcart into the circle.

She was uncertain about being pregnant. After setting down the handles and crossbar of the handcart, Wendy felt her stomach through her dress. She prayed for a child to remember him by. If she was pregnant, the child would not be born until they reached Zion by the Great Salt Lake. That thought was a relief.

There was much to do in setting up camp and preparing a simple meal. Wendy kept moving to keep the cold from overpowering her. She wore her best dress. It was her warmest. Much to her embarrassment, the dress was so worn that her ankles clearly showed.

Wendy decided whether to push snow away from where she slept, or stamp it down a bit. Her hands were too numb to move snow, so she settled for tromping back and forth a few times to flatten out the snow. Brother Sandy Rebar and Sister Edith Rebar pulled their heaping handcart next to Wendy. As she set up her thin cotton wedge tent on the flattened snow, Wendy frowned at the unnecessary stack on their cart. Wendy had left behind every unnecessary item (and some necessary items) when her husband died. It was all by the trail about a week back.

Brother Rebar went off with other men to bury Brother Peter’s child, leaving Sister Rebar to set up camp by herself. He was gone long after Edith had finished setting up camp. Wendy noted that Edith finished setting up camp before her. Of course, she hadn’t had to pull a handcart by herself like Wendy had. Wendy finished setting up camp and cooking her own meal before Edith’s husband showed his face again, proclaiming something in a loud obnoxious voice — not a word in English. By his hand rubbing his stomach, Wendy guessed he was demanding food of his wife. He doesn’t help one bit making camp but wants food, Wendy shook her head and pretended they were not feet from her own campfire.

As the sun set, there was music, singing, speeches and an impromptu dance. Wendy hid in her small wedge tent, laying on her back looking at the dark peak of the tent, listening to it all. She watched her breath rise in the darkening tent. She imagined it forming an ice sheet on the inside peak of the tent. Her husband would not have hid in the tent. He loved the nightly camaraderie. The tent seemed bigger now. She thought about leaving the tent behind, too. She thought of the unborn child. If it existed it had to live. All he left her were useless tools. Nothing says love like an unused tool. She imagined it all back there by the pile of rocks that covered him. If she was pregnant, that was enough.

Even over the others making merry at the dance, she heard Sandy, Edith’s husband. He spoke no English, and plenty of it. His loud foreign voice and ego were as big as he was. She did not have to understand him to know she did not like him. Eventually, night prayers were said and everyone, including Sandy, settled down. Wendy lay in the dark wondering who would die in the cold tonight.

Wendy became aware of Brother Rebar’s plight well after the camp had settled down for the night. Sister Rebar fussed over him with no normal loud responses that were his custom. At first all Wendy heard of Edith were whispers, then a soft moaning in her native tongue. Wendy knew that sound. Every woman on the trail knew that sound no matter what language it took, and prayed never to feel it welling in their own breast. As the minutes and hours passed and the desperation in Edith’s voice began to peak, Wendy relived her own husband’s passing. In the distance the wolves howled at the setting moon, finally settling down after the moon left the sky.

Brother Rebar gave up the fight some time in the quiet time after the moon set. Edith took the place of the wolves howling a banshee scream of despair. She screamed for help from anyone in her broken English, but everyone else was busy fighting the cold and trying to stay alive in their own tents. While the cold wind carried her cries away, Wendy imagined Edith in her tent inches away from her cold stiffening husband, just as Wendy had lain next to her husband just days ago.

Edith said something between sobs, but it was unintelligible . Wendy moved her fingers, trying to warm them. In the dark laying on her back, she began fingering a piano sonata. She smiled slightly, revealing chattering teeth. It was the last sonata she had played before leaving Liverpool. It was a sad slow melody that matched tempo of Edith’s settling sobs.

Someday she might play again, if she did not lose any fingers from frostbite. Her fingers ached. That was progress. Feeling meant life–life for her and her unborn child. She wanted a boy. A boy would look most like him. The menfolk had tried for a proper burial. There was nothing to do for it, except try to dig the frozen ground, give up, and pile rocks on him hoping it slowed the wolves from getting their meal.

Suddenly, next to Wendy knelt Brother Rebar. He looked alive enough. Light surrounded his body. Wendy let out a barely audible scream. Eyes wide open, she did not move.

“Brother Rebar?”

“Sister Riley. I did not return your spade.” He spoke perfect English.

“My spade?”

“Your husband’s spade. I borrowed it the night before he passed.” How could he know English?

“I don’t think he’ll be missing it.” Edith was still quietly sobbing only a few paces to Wendy’s left.

“I’d feel better if you collected it. I left it by the boulder where we buried Brother Peter’s child.”

“You die; your wife’s in hysterics; and you’re worried about a tool?” Typical. Menfolk and their tools.

“Please, go get it for me. I’d feel better if you would.” With that he was gone. It was dark again. Wendy muttered about Edith’s husband every time Edith let a straggling sob escape.

Eventually, the east became less dark. The sun began to rise. Then makeshift tents were folded and placed on the carts. Morning prayers were said, and meager breakfasts eaten. The men moved Brother Rebar off the trail a few paces, but not all the way to the boulder where they had laid Brother Peter’s boy.

There was no attempt to dig the solid ground. Sister Rebar helped find rocks to place over him. She was more gentle than the menfolk. After they could not see his body, they just tossed the rocks on the stack. She gently placed them, as if afraid to hurt her frozen husband.

Wendy wanted to help–to put an arm around Edith. She was never very good at that sort of thing. She did not like Brother Rebar, but she did not wish this on him. Instead she looked at Edith sideways when she could without being noticed or looking rude.

I’d toss the rocks on him, she thought, but chastised herself for the thought and looked for the signal to move on. It must be time. She unconsciously rubbed her stomach. Was it growing?

The signal came to move. Creaking and clumping of handcarts falling into a line over old wagon ruts passed Wendy as she continued to pretend not to watch Edith straightening up Brother Rebar’s grave.

The rule was simple. At the sound of the bugle, the company of handcarts moved no matter who didn’t. Soon, creaking carts were out of hearing and out of sight. The wind blew through the remnants of fall grass that poked through the snow. Grating of stone on stone as Edith’s shifted rocks broke the quiet. Edith’s handcart, loaded with personal items stood waiting for her. They were alone with their carts and a pile of stones covering a dead man that lay between them.

Wendy walked around the grave and stood over Edith. “Sister Rebar.”

Edith pushed another stone to a more stable position. In her thick swiss accent, Edith begged, “Please, just Edith. I am not an old lady at church.”

Wendy looked at Edith and realized she might be nineteen or younger. Wendy smiled despite herself. She enjoyed Edith’s accent. “Edith, then. It’s not safe for us alone without the handcart company. We need to get moving.”

“I cannot.”

Wendy pictured her own husband’s remains scattered by scavengers not more than seven days behind them. “It’s hard to leave him. I know.”

“No, …. Yes. I mean, it is not that. I am too weak to pull that cart. I do not know what Sandy was thinking. The only thing not on that cart is a log cabin. The captain emptied it down to the necessities five times, and Sandy loaded it back up, right in front of the captain–such strong a will.”

Wendy looked back at the cart then down at Edith. She was a little thing. “We can share. Grab your food and some clothes, and put them in my cart. We can pull together. The load should be light enough. You’ll have to leave everything else.”

Edith stopped fussing with Sandy’s grave and stood. She brushed snow, sticks and burs from her apron and dress. They moved the small cask of flour, a couple of dresses and two blankets. Then they stepped into place, picked up the cart’s front bar, and pulled the cart into a slow bumpy roll. With each step Wendy prayed she did not dislodge the child in her stomach.

After a few steps Edith broke the silence between them. “I am sorry.”

“About what?”

“Your spade.”

“What?”

Edith tried pronouncing the words in better English almost eliminating her thick accent. “About your spade.”

Wendy stopped, dropping her grip on the handcart. The cold made her rub her arms and shiver. Her legs wobbled a bit. “What about my spade?”

“I did not mean to upset you.” The cart quickly stopped with Edith pushing alone. Her great effort meant nothing to the handcart. Edith gave up, letting the handles and crossbar drop to the ground in front of her. “I feel terrible. We borrowed it the night before, … your …. Well. We meant to give it back. I made Sandy promise to give it back in the morning. He said you would not want it, but I made him promise.” Edith continued despite an escaping sob. “It is the only promise to me he ever broke.”

Wendy watched Edith wipe her cheek with her apron. “He was right. I don’t want it.”

“We should have returned it.”

“If it makes you feel better. Let’s get it.”

“I looked already. It is not anywhere.”

“Let us take another look.”

Wendy led Edith away from their handcart past the abandoned cart. Edith hesitated at her old cart, but seeing that Wendy meant not to stop, caught up with a few quick paces. Silently, except for the rustling of skirts in the trampled snow and sage, they continued to the boulder where Brother Peter’s child lay.

“There it is,” Edith spoke before Wendy. Wendy smiled. Just another dumb tool. “Why on earth would I ever want a spade,” Wendy mumbled to herself.

Wendy walked up to the spade leaning next to the boulder and the child’s grave. The tip of the spade was slightly damaged from attempting to dig the frozen ground. Behind Wendy, Edith gasp and began sobbing. Crying over a chipped spade seemed a bit much. “Honestly, I don’t really even want the spade.”

Wendy turned, looking at Edith. She held a small leather bound book that she must have just found in the snow. Edith alternated between brushing white flakes and ice from the cover, and glancing at the wind turned pages. “What is …?” Wendy began, but decide to look over Edith’s shoulder instead.

Edith looked up as Wendy stepped over to see. “It was right here,” she motioned at the snow at her feet. Edith thumbed through more pages–none written in English. The only word that Wendy could make out on the pages was “Edith” over and over on almost every page. Edith explained, “This is Sandy’s handwriting. These are love poems.” She spoke through her hand on her mouth.

Perhaps jealousy prodded her, but Wendy knew they had to catch up to the handcarts. “Bring it with you. There will be time to read after we break for lunch.”

“Yes. Of course.”

After an hour, they found themselves with their handcart pulling up a hill within sight of the rear of the handcart company.

“Wendy. Thank you for letting me share your cart. You are a good person.”

What makes me a good person? Wendy wondered. She silently prayed for help living up to the complement and leaned into the cart’s crossbar. She thought of the spade left back at the boulder, then focused on another step, and worried about dislodging the child she hoped was growing within her.

Bio:  T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. He lives with his wife, four children, and three cats in the Rocky Mountains, where he wages a never-ending war to keep his static electricity loving cats from rubbing against his prized Kindle. Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene at http://tgenedavis.com on the web.

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SHOAL by Alex Hardison

Dec 08 2013

It took a long time for me to realise that he was gone. Longer, I remember thinking, than I would care to admit to him when we were reunited. It was not that I did not notice his absence so much as I did not find anything strange in it at first. My companion was prone to wander off from time to time, rarely taking the time to say goodbye or to inform me of his plans, but always he returned with fresh tales of adventure. Sometimes I wondered if he did it to impress me, if his concern was not the experiences themselves but the raising of his stature in my eyes. The truth was that he needed none of these affectations to win my regard, but he enjoyed the process, and I the telling, and so I let the matter be.

Eventually, though, I came to realise that this disappearance was unlike those which had come before it. At first I indulged myself by imagining a confession of my anxiety to him upon his return, enduring his good natured taunts as we settled back into the rhythms of our shared existence. Still, I fretted as I went about my day, clinging as close as I could to our normal way of doing things as though he could be conjured by the rejection of his departure. Slowly my resolve faded and the rocks became rich with his absence, my actions heavy and meaningless without him there to comment and tease. One meal passed, and then another, so that by the time of the third I found that my concern had eclipsed my desire to sustain myself. I knew that if I were to raise an alarm he would be mortified upon his return, and would scold me greatly, but eventually my fear outweighed such concerns.

I reached out to my most adjacent brothers, placing my voice on the current and letting it carry across them. Their response, when it came, was chiding and brief. I gave him too much leeway, they said, was too generous with his absences and his assumptions that I would always be there to greet him upon his return. I acknowledged their rebukes and pressed my questions again, and they confessed to having no knowledge of his whereabouts. By now I was becoming deeply concerned; on every other sojourn he had stopped by at least one of our neighbours, to boast of his new adventure an d prepare them for the glory which he perceived in his imminent return. Such vainglory and boldness had seemed to me an endearing trait, one which I encouraged, such was my love for him and for his happiness. Now such memories only served to torment me. I thought of the dark bulks that moved silently through the darkness below us, the grey shapes that cast long shadows and haunted the nightmares of the young. No good could come of brooding on such things, and I endeavoured to cast them from my thoughts.

Without him, the rock to which I clung was too large, and it was too easy to allow myself to imagine a dozen discomforts which his presence rendered invisible or insignificant. I began to see only places where he had been, and where he was no longer. Each of my arms was an arm which did not lie alongside one of his, and each of my thoughts was one which echoed, unshared, into the waves to die. My mind was empty without him, the water surrounding me great and dark and empty. The tug of gravity upon me, usually so light as to be invisible, began to feel a terrible burden, as great as the burden of loving one who was not present to return it.

The anger and frustration which he was so adept and cooling began to boil and fume within me. It was no longer sufficient to wait and hope; for the good of my own state of mind, it was imperative to act. I began to expand my frame of reference, drawing from the memories of those in our immediate shoal, sensing the world as they did. Their song enveloped mine, and for a time I left my rock behind and became many. I felt the squirming, ripening, waft of life, the feeding of young and the hunting of prey, the evasion of hunters and the cool hard security of clinging to rock. It washed through me and for a moment I forgot my goal, forgot my companion and myself. There was a delirium in the collective, a safety in the immortality of numbers that could never be known by a lonely individual. Eventually I drew back, closing myself to the song that surrounded myself, becoming only myself once more. The whole was safer than the one, but it could not love.

I had felt no trace of the one that I sought, and though I had left a trace of the necessity t contact me upon sighting my companion in the minds that I had passed through, I was becoming frantic with concern. My efforts had taken more from me than I had thought, or perhaps it was merely my anxiety that was consuming me, but I had become hungry once more. Slowly I extracted myself from the cool, safe outcropping to which I clung, working myself over rock until I reached the nearby cluster from which it was my habit to feed. My companion had often commented on my parochial diet, asking in his wheedling way how I could be content to taste only the one source of food day after day. I felt again the rich combination of frustration and shame such questioning awoke in me, and for a time it was as though he were there with me, so perfectly could I run through the stages of the disagreement which would follow.

It came to me as I ate that I had detected something strange in the shoal, a chorus that was not known to me, an echo of something young and brash and grating. It was not of my own kind, I was sure, and at first I attempted to disregard it. As I did so, though, it occurred to me that it was exactly the sort of voice which might appeal to my companion, the sort which he would seek out for no better reason than to hear or feel something which he had not had chance to hear or feel before. Where I heard only garish offense, I understood that he would heard adventure. Returning to my usual position, I reached out towards it myself.

What I found baffled me. It was the practice of our kind to array our pairs across the rock as broadly as was possible, in order to maximise the room for food to grow, as well as to minimise the number of us who would be taken in the event of a strike by a predator. In such an arrangement those of us who wished to wander from place to place were provided with the space to do so, and those of us who preferred to remain in place and communicate with their fellows by means of song were unimpeded. This was the way of things for all of our kind, for as long as we had lived as we do. That, at least, was what I had supposed before this day. The minds that I touched were packed closely together, their bodies almost touching and their arms interwoven across the rock. Their thoughts were jumbled, anarchic, and when I sought to hear their song I fell headlong into it. How any of them could maintain a coherent identity I did not know. I thought of the time that the darkness below had resolved into a terrible sleek gray shape, tearing through those who clung to the rock around me, vanishing into the pit from which it came and leaving the water thick with blood and sundered flesh. The screaming tumult of panicked voices had been as horrifying as the attack itself, and the cacophony which rose to assault me from this nearby shoal was no less overwhelming.

Eventually I recalled my purpose, and pressed my demand for any sign of my companion. If any response was forthcoming, I could not make it out against the nightmarish tones of their song. Emboldened by their failure to respond to me, I made my demand once more, my vigour renewed by rage. Again, there was only an indecipherable babble in response, though by I had become sufficiently attuned to their strange song to detect something new within it, an undercurrent of something which sounded a little like a whisper and a little like laughter. Enraged at their disregard I demanded to know who they were and what madness might drive them to arrange themselves with such terrible strangeness and then deny the requests of those who petitioned them from without.

At last a response was returned to me, framed in the terrible sympathy of the young for those who they consider to be old. The voice which spoke to me – I could not tell if it were a single being or something emerged from all the minds before me – explained that they had departed our shoal in silence many seasons ago, and that though many among my kind were aware of their presence, there was little possibility of discourse between the two. They sought to shame me with my own words, to turn my temper against me, and bade me to repeat my questions with a cooler voice. Inflamed by their arrogance and my own increasing terror I insulted them, demanded that they explain themselves and give answer to my enquiries.

Their response came in the form of an image, a direct projection into my consciousness the like of which I had not previously experienced. They showed me a great chasm, a yawning impossibility atop which perched a tiny flicker of consciousness. With no small amount of horror I perceived that that thin candle of life was the entirety of my world, that it included not only my own shoal but five or six adjoining ones of whom I was completely unaware, their configurations as strange to my eyes as they were different from one another. I saw with shame that the spread of my own kind was greater than my companion’s tales had led me to believe, and understood with horror that the world was yet larger still than
I could comprehend.

They showed me my companion, his tentacles as strong and clever as I remembered, his body luminescent and beautiful. He went among them, entwining with them, joining their song though his voice was unpracticed and unsure. The sight of him broke open something that I had not felt harden inside me, and I watched the vision they presented with increasing fear. I saw the strangeness of their song suffuse my companion, saw in him the signs that surely only I could detect of his confidence giving way to braggadocio and then at last to fear. The shoal swept him along, the rapture of their joining blinding them to the evidence of his disquiet. Then his grip loosened, his tentacles unfurled, and he fell.

I will ever be haunted by the image of the only being I had ever allowed myself to love, who had ever stilled the rage that slumbered in my heart, falling from my sight. The grey shapes in the depths continued to glide back and forth beneath him as he tumbled towards them, and then his tiny form was lost. I did not see them twist and churn in the manner which indicates a feeding frenzy, but his form would not have been sufficient to prompt such a thing. As impossible as it seemed, any one of the monsters below could have lazily consumed my world without the need to pause. I felt the light and meaning go out of my world.

The other shoal broke the connection there. They returned to their own strange song, seemingly insensate or unconcerned for the revelation which they had laid upon me. I sat motionless for a long time, thinking over all that I had seen. As I stared into the dark, a final echo of song passed through my mind. My break from the other shoal had not been clean, and I saw a glimpse of what my companion had been seeking when he went to them. A legend, born of this high intensity discourse of their fevered consciousness, of another world below ours. A shoal to dwarf all others, a song to end all songs, at the bottom of the world. He had gone to them to hear their tales and return them to me, but now that he had fallen they did not mourn their brief companion, for they believed that he had fallen into paradise.

The rock to which I clung, my comforting corner of a world too large to endure, seemed sad and meaningless, the depths below larger and more horrifying to bear. I moved to eat, and found myself disinterested in food. I tried to settle myself, telling myself that my loss and revelation were sufficient for a single day, and found myself unable to sleep. Nothing would content me, and nothing was of value. The choice, when it came to me, did not seem as such. So it is with all great decisions, I have found. I did not consider it, I simply looked upon my life and found that there was but a single option available to me. That which surrounded me way immaterial, and my life was below me. With no idea of what awaited me, with no knowledge of whether I might survive the descent, I opened my arms and fell.

The water below was dark. At first the lack of rock beneath my arms was terrifying and I thrashed on the spot, my thoughts desperate and wild. The grey shapes that embodied the termination of everything I had ever had or would ever be approached. If they detected me I would die; there was nothing that I could do to prevented. They passed smoothly around me, their long sleek fins flicking lazily. I fell, and they swam on, and I did not die.

It was dark for a long time, longer than I could count. The cold became a part of me. I slept and woke and wondered if I had dreamed all that had gone before. I heard a whisper from below me, and believed myself mad at last. The flicker of sound was followed by another, and then another, and then the trench around me blazed with light and song. The thousand shoals below my world dwarfed everything that I had ever known, and I tumbled towards it, caring only that my companion had come this way, and now so did I.

END

Bio: Alex Hardison was born and raised in Perth, Western Australia, where he obtained a degree in Politics and International Studies with Honors. He lived for a year in London and has travelled in both Europe and America, and now resides in Sydney with girlfriend and cat. He has previously been published in Rudy Rucker’s webzine FLURB and keeps his own website at www.volatite-memory.com.

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THE MAN FROM KERALA by Lisa Khlif

Dec 01 2013

There once was a man from Kerala state in India who went to school to become an engineer. He graduated with high honors but though he searched high and low, he could never find a job that was more than mediocre.

His love life was equally poor. He had a difficult time finding a girl who would love him the way he wanted to be loved. Though he tried for years, he couldn’t find such a girl. He supposed that this was due to his features for he was nearly bald, in spite of the fact that he had just turned thirty. He had irregularly large ears that reminded most people he met of Ganapati, and he had bad breath. He tried for years to find a love match but he eventually got frustrated and gave up.

Shortly after this, his father and mother approached him about an arranged marriage and he reluctantly agreed. He doubted that his parents would find anyone desperate enough to accept him for a husband but he was willing to let them try. After all, who knew but that love might develop from that mystical thing called an arranged marriage.

It took a good year, but the man’s parents eventually found him a suitable match who did not flinch from the whiff of his breath or shrink back at the sight of his bald head. Shortly thereafter, the man and his new bride celebrated their wedding day. A year after that, the bride received the joyous news that she was pregnant. She was so excited that she had soon told her joyous news to everyone in the village.

Her husband however, constantly bit his fingernails and scratched his bald head till the skin started to flake off.  His wife asked him what was bothering him and at first he said nothing but as her belly grew bigger, the wife continually pondered her husband’s despair. One day, when she was asking him about her news yet again, she pressed him all the harder. She was determined to find out why he was so distressed when everyone else, including the man’s parents, were happy about the coming birth of their first child.

That day, he finally gave in to her pleas for answers and told her the truth. He feared that his son would turn out to be just like him: ugly, rejected, and bald. He worried that his son might also be denied the love match that he himself had dreamed of but had never been able to achieve. And if it was a girl, well then the future looked even bleaker for her. Even with a dowry of a billion rupees, no man would dare to marry such an ugly girl as he was sure to produce.

“My darling husband,” his wife said to him. “Do not think so low of yourself or of me. You are a brilliant engineer. And I, though I am not the most beautiful woman in Kerala, am not entirely ugly. Do not suppose that we will have ugly or stupid children for I have prayed and asked Durga for help. She will not fail us. She always grants my requests as she did when I prayed for a husband.”

The husband thought about this and it made sense to him. Also, he trusted his wife for since he had married her,
he had had nothing but good luck. The fact that she was willing to marry him when no one else would spoke well of her. The more he thought about these things, the better he felt until he became completely at ease about her pregnancy.

The time came when she would soon deliver her baby. The wife’s mother moved in with them to assist them and was there when it was time for her to give birth.

When the baby emerged from the womb, it was found to be a girl child. This was a great disappointment to everyone. The new grandmother went home crying, and apologizing to the husband that her daughter had given him a girl instead of a boy. The man’s parents refused to even come and see their new grandchild. They also suggested that he go with his wife to a different temple to pray when her next pregnancy occurred.

The man however, was overjoyed for the baby girl appeared, by all accounts, to be very beautiful. Some said perhaps even more beautiful than her mother. Of course, compared to the father, any baby was beautiful. He had been born with those hideous ears, after all. The man dared to hope that his daughter would grow up normal and with none of his bad features. “Perhaps,” he thought, “my daughter might one day have a love match. How happy I will be!”

The man’s joy was short-lived, for three months after the birth of his daughter, his wife died. The birth had been too much for her, the other women said. Once again the man felt the curse that was his life fall back on his shoulders. His daughter was healthy but his wife was dead. For a while, he wished with all his heart that the situation was reversed. He knew that he would never find such a love match again.

The years went on and the man never remarried. His parents begged him and begged him to let them try to arrange another match for him but he could not bear it. He missed his wife more, not less, as the years passed and he constantly reviewed his memories of her in his mind.

Meanwhile he did his best to raise his daughter the way he thought his wife would want but wasn’t really sure what that meant. He had had such little time with his wife while she was alive and during that time she never told him how she wanted her daughter to be raised. He couldn’t even remember her telling him how she would have wanted a son to be raised. They had been so in love and happy that they didn’t have time to discuss those things and the man now regretted that.

He also refused to take his parents’ advice to leave the girl with his wife’s parents. He doubted that they would have wanted her anyway. Besides that, his daughter was the only thing that he had left from his wife and he was determined to hold on to her. As she grew, she still resembled her mother, only she became far more beautiful than her. It was commonly said amongst the villagers, that she was the most beautiful girl in the village.

The village where the man and his daughter lived had a large population of Christians. It was said that St. Thomas the apostle had visited that town and the village had a church erected in the very spot where he was said to have preached a sermon.

The man and his daughter were Hindus. However, not all of their neighbors were. As the population of the village’s Christians grew so did the distaste of the practice of asking for large dowries from the parents of village brides. Seeing this, some Hindus also began to question the practice. The man was one of them.

One day he and many of the other men in the village decided that they would refuse to allow their daughters to marry any man who asked for a large dowry. They decided that if they all stuck together, they could force this custom into extinction. Even if it meant their daughters would never marry, they would hold steadfast to this course of action.

At the same time, the men also worried that the unmarried boys in the village might decide to try to seduce their daughters instead of marrying them since many parents of boys might refuse to accept a girl with a small dowry. Faced with the prospect of living their lives without a wife, or with a wife that they may not like, many might chose to just get what they want from her and thus avoid the dowry dispute between the two parents.

To keep their daughters from becoming prey to such a scheme, the men decided to forbid them from ever talking to any boy over the age of ten. No talking would mean no seduction. Feeling satisfied with this plan, the man continued to follow it throughout his daughter’s life.

Years later, as his daughter reached the age of seventeen. The man knew that it would soon be time for her to marry and having stressed the importance of the ban on his daughter, he felt confident that he could find her a good husband without paying an extravagant dowry. Half the village was already in love with her. The man did not know however, that a clever young man of a higher caste was scheming for a way to convince the daughter to let him have his way with her.

This young man tried many times to start up a conversation with the girl but she never answered him. One time he threw himself at her feet and grabbed on to her ankles with both hands but she managed to free herself from him without saying a word. She loved her father and she took his instructions very seriously.

The boy was becoming desperate and so he went to the temple of Ganapati to pray for the means to get the girl to talk with him. After many weeks of prayer and fasting, Ganapati, who was honored by his devotion, heard the boy’s prayer. The god gave him the power to transform himself into an elephant.

Now the girl loved elephants and the boy knew this. He had seen her going to Snake Park many times to talk to the elephants there. He noticed that she gazed at them with adoring eyes.

The boy waited for the perfect day. On this day, when he saw the girl go to the park one day after school, he seized the moment. He repeated the incantation that Ganapati had taught him and was transformed into an elephant. He then waited for the girl outside the park gates and amused himself by twirling his trunk around in a circular motion.

The girl came out and caught him doing this. Thinking that he was an elephant and not a boy, she walked over towards him and began talking to him. She was astonished when he answered her back but the boy told her that he was a lonely elephant who had no mate but had been given the power of speech by Ganapati in hopes that he might find a mate among the human species.

They talked long into the afternoon and the girl soon forgot about her father whom she had previously been desperate to get home to. In the evening the girl was seen walking about town talking to the elephant who only listened while they were within earshot of the other villagers. Thinking the girl had gone crazy, someone ran to tell her father but by the time he arrived where she had last been seen it was too late. The girl had gone off into the forest with the elephant-boy.

When the darkness came, Ganapati’s spell broke and the boy’s true form was revealed but by this time, the girl had fallen in love with him. She no longer cared whether he was a man or an elephant. She wanted to be with him for the rest of her life.

So the boy got what he wanted from her and stayed there in the forest till she fell asleep. Then he got up, put his clothes on, and left.

When the morning dawned and the girl awoke, she found herself naked and alone under the tree. Realizing that she had been betrayed she screamed, then quickly put on her clothes, and returned to her father.

The father was ashamed of her and sent her away to a distant relative’s house in Pune. There the girl hid until it was time for her to give birth. When her baby was born, he was bald and he had the ears of an elephant.

The girl stayed with her relatives in a backroom in the house, never to be taken out until she died of grief a few years later. Her son was then released into the wild to find his own way and he spent his time looking for the grandfather that turned his mother out of the house.

When he approached the village and learned that his grandfather had died he decided to go after the man who sired him. He found the house where the man lived. He called to him from behind a tree one day as he stepped out of the house. When the man got close, he saw the elephant boy and was frightened. He tried to run away but the boy chanted a familiar incantation, turning himself into an elephant before the man’s very eyes. Then he remembered what he had done to the girl and realized that Ganapati had now turned against him.

He screamed for his wife. She ran out just in time to see him being trampled to death by a stray elephant. The elephant then ran away. The villagers searched for the elephant for weeks and found him crying in the jungle because he missed his mother.

When he had told them his story, they were moved to tears themselves. Realizing that justice had been done to the evil man, the villagers brought him back to the village where a feast was celebrated in his honor. To this day he remains in that village, sharing his wisdom with anyone who comes to him with honest motives.

Bio: I am internationally-minded person who has always loved foreign cultures but especially the ones that are less popular with most Americans. I guess I have always been a little bit different. Once you read my story however, I don’t think you will mind.

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“Mrs. Triton” by Sheila Johnson

Nov 24 2013

One afternoon a young woman left the hospital and decided neither to take a bus back home nor to call for a ride as she’d been encouraged to do. Instead she walked through the parking lot toward the retention pond at the north end of the property. The pond went largely unappreciated, almost to the point of being inconsequential, like a painting in the foyer of a well-appointed house. Because the hospital was located on a busy street, the young woman had passed the pond many times and had never seen anyone enjoying its benches or feeding its ducks. That afternoon, however, there was someone near the pond’s edge when the young woman arrived.

The old woman was bent in her wheelchair and was so thin that she matched the reeds and the cattails that likely hid frogs in the summertime. Taking a seat on a bench just behind and to the old woman’s left, the young woman watched as the wind made waves out of both the water and the old woman’s hair, which was long and as white as seaspray. Neither the pond nor the old woman seemed to mind.

“You know what I hate?” the old woman said without turning around. “Being here, in this wheelchair, in the fall. I hear leaves and twigs snapping beneath the wheels when I move. It makes it sound like a bonfire.”

The young woman actually enjoyed autumn for exactly that reason. The smell of smoke was always in the air, and the tops of trees were lit, yellow and crimson. To her, the world looked more alive when conventional talk suggested it was dying. She walked over to the old woman and told her as much.

The old woman smiled. “You don’t just spit back what your elders tell you. I like that,” she said. “What brings you to the hospital?”

The young woman considered what to say and decided on the truth. “I went to visit a shrink my parents want me to see. They think I need medication.”

“Do you?”

“Doc and I both say no, but my mom keeps paying for these visits,” she said. “What are you in for?”

“I’m a mermaid who got too close to the shore,” said the old woman. “The physicians believe I’m insane, so now, I’m a ward of the state, though a loosely kept one, it seems.”

“Gotcha,” said the young woman.

The old woman’s laugh was water itself, rippling, filling the young woman’s ears as if she were bathing in it. “I can tell you might not believe me,” the old woman said. “Here. Cup your hands together and bring me some of that pond water.” She bent over further, removed a shoe, and rolled a sheer nylon stocking down one of the legs that hung heavy as stone over the edge of the chair. The young woman did as she was told.

Dangling over the young woman’s curved pink palms, the old woman’s toes looked brittle and white, like pieces of wood left on the seashore to bleach. The old woman nodded, and the young woman lifted her hands to submerge the toes in the water. Instantly they changed. They became a thin, netted skin of pinks and blues, stretched into an arc by a series of ribs that appeared coated with pearl. The young woman stared as the old mermaid’s fin floated on the surface of the pool she held in her hands. When she was finished, she let the water trickle out between her fingers. The old woman’s fin turned back into toes as quickly as the water drained.

“Who are you?” the young woman asked quietly. “Do you have a name?”

The old woman hissed. “They call me ‘Mrs. Triton’ here, part of how they mock me,” she said. “I hate them. I refuse to let them bathe me. It’s doubtful they would react to me well or do anything other than subject me to tests.” She turned to the young woman. “When I tried to tell them my true name, they choked on it. It stuck in their throats and refused to come out.”

The young woman nodded, unsure of what she could offer in response.

“I have to ask you your name, of course,” said Mrs. Triton. “It’s only fair.”

The young woman thought about the matter. She considered telling the old woman the name she’d been using among friends and family for over a decade, but it was small and common, a moniker for a minnow. Having heard the mermaid’s story, she decided it better to speak her real name, her old-fashioned leviathan of a name, and not take the ability to do so for granted. “I’m Hestia,” she finally replied.

Again Mrs. Triton laughed. “Hestia,” she repeated. “Your name means ‘the essence of all things.’ Intangible, impermanent. Like fire. Small wonder they want to medicate you.” She cupped the young woman’s chin in her beachwood fingers. “Would you like me to ease whatever trouble they might be sensing in your mind, my Hestia?”

It was an offer that Hestia wished more people whose sanity had been questioned could receive: a mermaid’s tender blessing in lieu of mood stabilizers. She nodded and closed her eyes as Mrs. Triton’s fingertips rested on her brow.

She was suddenly aware of the idea of colors inverting themselves as her mind spun through a tunnel. In that tunnel, she heard the laughter of the customers she had waited on at the restaurant earlier and saw a glimmer of what might have been her beloved Lucy’s smile. When she opened her eyes, however, there was only the sight of the pond, shivering in the cooling air, and the sound of the ducks in private conversation.

“Everything looks the same,” she told the old mermaid.

“Because nothing inside of you needed repair,” said Mrs. Triton. “People are wary of your job, and confused by your lover, and upset by the very honesty that brought you over to me. They don’t understand what you are. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong.”

The young woman placed her hands in her lap and smiled.

“I’ve done what I can to set you free,” Mrs. Triton said. “I’d like to ask you to do the same for me.”

Hestia looked up at her.

“I can’t get close enough in this awful contraption,” the old woman who was really so much more explained, pounding a fist on the wheelchair’s armrest. “And crawling around on land, I’m too slow. There’s a chance someone might try to rescue me. I don’t want to be rescued. I want to go home.”

Young Hestia stood. “I want you to pretend like you’re fighting me. Hit me, flail around, whatever,” she instructed.

Mrs. Triton nodded. “I hope you know,” she said, “that I would never do such a thing. Except now, I suppose. I’m making an exception.”

The young woman placed a hand on the mermaid’s shoulder.

Even as she acted, words that described her actions became visible in her mind, appearing in boldface as in a news headline: YOUNG WOMAN KNOCKS ELDERLY PATIENT INTO POND. She imagined what anyone passing on the busy road nearby might see if they bothered, for once, to look: the wheelchair being eased over the rocks at the water’s edge, the old woman in the chair growing increasingly agitated and fitful, the young woman kneeling to console her but losing her balance in the flurry of the old woman’s assault and kicking over the chair with the unsteady panic of a person on fire. The young woman doubted that any of the people on the road, if they did see what happened, would trust their minds’ insistence that the old woman had shed her clothes, and her legs had fused and grown covered with scales, and her wrinkles had filled, leaving her skin as smooth as sails that had taken up the wind.

“Help,” Hestia called as the mermaid swam toward a drainage pipe that led to the river, “help!” It was a halfhearted plea. She was sure that neither she nor Mrs. Triton needed the assistance.

END

Author’s Bio: Most of Sheila Johnson’s published work has actually been digitally restored comic book art produced for the Marvel Masterworks books and for other companies’ reprint collections. She also works as a freelance writer and proofreader, though, and enjoys collecting her stories in handmade books that she binds and sells herself. Her website is www.sheilacjohnson.net.

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