Spinning Jenny Smith Apple Sauce Pan Handle Bar by Brady Lund

Sep 15 2013

Yesterday I found a handkerchief as I walked through the towering forests. What an obscure device from a foreign time! I stashed in my pocket and continued on my way. Late in the evening, when I finally settled for the night, I retrieved the worn piece of cloth. Upon my further inspection I spotted a faint mark. ‘Dinah, blow your…’ What does this mean? I have no idea, but it made me think of a really good idea: mucus-powered trains. It’s renewable.

I have now gotten to where this sad humor is my greatest hope at feeling human. Hope, in this case, may be improper, as typically it signifies will. In fact, I rather enjoy my present state. I feel as though I were Socrates among the common people, superior. Although, in this case, I’m rather an old man with a scraggly beard who has spent so long among the trees he has given them names. If you think that’s off-putting, Peter is starting to lose his bark. Now, I don’t mean to get all ‘radical doomsayer!’ up on you, but…

Unfortunately, the troubles of our world fail to stop at our expansive waist. It must continue to further force bile into our gallbladder until it bursts into a bloody soup. Corruption, at all levels of government, jumps to an unforeseen high. Crime, plots managed by wealthy masterminds, occurs in hundreds each day. Put one and two together and you get, well, me, and a story of how I, and thousands in my present situation, suffer a perpetual hell, as crooks take a literal bath in their fortunes.

I remember the time well, as though it flittered in my head only but a second past, yet it has been nearly two score (the uneducated man, which you very well might be in this society, should know two score to be a period of forty years, or approximately as long as the penalty for verbal slander of government functions).The School I called home, District Building 345-6, a disgusting box comprised of white plastic, held well over 22000 kids, as at this time it had at least that many in attendance at its various centers. I remember a kindergarten class. The government thought kindergarten unnecessary, they provided little funding for the poor teachers, who often lived in shoeboxes (my name for a 1 by 1.5 metre apartment). Only four classes were allotted for this purpose. My mother led me to class the first day and unleashed me into a 100 foot room with three times that number of students. How did we survive? Well, after the first day, less than one percent of the students returned for another teaching. So we lose a valuable education and take another step to illiteracy and feeblemindedness.

They built the school on a great lot where the majestic forests of Yellowstone once stood. I never got the opportunity to venture that land before it was ripped apart for construction, but I can imagine the beauty: the soft winds, the coo of the birds in high trees, the scent of flowers. How I yearned to taste that dew on the grass blades, to feel the rush of a wild winter’s blizzard, but was refined to the world of the real. During recess they released the little children on the fields where Old Faithful once stood. My, how spectacular a sight that must have been, to sit at a spout and wait for the moment when a rush of water would spring forth from the earth, beauty like the birth of a child, renewal of the old. We can’t and couldn’t afford nature anymore. It’s either us or a ‘dumb tree’ as they put it. Nowadays one square foot of land is more valuable than an ounce of gold in some areas. Back in Kansas and Nebraska even, an acre of land can cost upwards of 10 million. In this world, only those with a great abundance of money, the quote ‘Megatraneurs’, could afford some nature. They never bought in this area, so I’ve never seen it, but I hear that up in the north and along the water there are some beautiful properties, wild animals even, maybe a deer. I’ve never seen a deer, though I hear they’re graceful creatures. No, around here there is none of that, only barren white. But at least no one starves.

The school property takes up nearly three miles square and at the highest point stands 8 stories. It’s basically a city, with restaurants, shopping centers and even movie theatres. School became a lax term around the time of great expansion. Now School includes any government run entity, except the police, which are barely controlled by the government at all. In order to raise sufficient funds for construction the builders of the school included housing units, now a common feature, which could be rented or bought at extravagant prices. Even an entire hospital was built in the center square. Its hallways were as wide as streets. Nearly any cart could drive down the alley, though most couldn’t afford the luxury. The school was too large for the government to manage altogether. Over the first few years, many parts were sold off to private investors. Our lunch service, for instance, was managed by a national food chain that had its headquarters in Wyoming. Not always was the government certain of the quality of the food, but at least it was no cost to them, and they were made certain that each child received it. We were lucky if ten percent of our meal was made of real food, a majority consisted of artificially flavored starches.

President Clinton Memorial Schools was the affectionate name given to the construct (named after the second Clinton president). It split into ten sections off the central hub, each of these headed by a general principal. Each of those sections was dissected into two halves, led by assistant principals. I attended the third section, second half. The assistant principal that managed my section was Mrs. Jonez. She’s the daughter of a former head principal. Students knew Jonez as the lady with four husbands. It showed her incredible wealth, most people could afford only one spouse. That’s how it usually works here. There are so many people in this world that only the ones with connections have any shot at a good career. I hardly ever saw Mr. Jonez. She had to manage 2400 other children, and she hated kids, not as I do, because of their addition to our population, but because of her own selfish motivations. Most adults just didn’t mind the time to kids. They didn’t understand society. They were creative and could dream of things beyond the white. To her, I appeared one of the many. She had no time for me, my emotions or issues.

We worked, lived, on an 8 hour blocked schedule. Each day we had classes, all seven of the week, and the courses alternated. Math, Science and History were one day. English and liberal arts electives (though not too liberal, we expressed ourselves through harsh realism) were the next day.  After school most kids go out to the sand fields and do whatever they please. The Sand fields were a depressing place, as they still are, where the trees once flourished the government dropped mounds of sand, stunting growth. Occasionally I’d go home and read in the quiet, though it was greatly encouraged by all of society. I liked reading old fiction from back in a time when there was actually room to breathe. I can imagine the time of great science fiction, where they not only thought of expansion in this world, but of others. There was so much room back then, billions of miles to expand. We can’t expand, we’ve tried, and we’ve faced the harsh consequences of life on another planet. Our failures did further more to damage our dreams and hopes and put us in our current position. We lived in a confinement. Children had little to do but suffer through a miserable years. We could not even buy our freedom. In order to drop the unemployment rate, no one under 18 was allowed to hold a job.

I lived directly above my math class, on the second floor of the school. Often I would go down early in the morning and sit in the doorway of the school. From there I could watch the sun rise over what remained of the forest, an oval of trees around a small pond. And I longed to visit this place my whole life. My parents guaranteed a visit on my eighteenth birthday, but I knew it would never materialize. That particular day four other boys joined me at the door, one of which was my good friend Hayden. The other three were just faces that I had seen in passing, many were like that in a wide school. They had all brought along breakfast, I brought a book. The doorway was one of the few places in the school that the government paid to have constantly lit (the others were public bathrooms and the hallways of the principals’ apartment wing). Every other location in the building would only be lit upon payment, a rate which was high during the day and absolutely impossible to afford at night.

So I sat and enjoyed the free lighting and watched the sun rise in the east. The other boys finished their meal and decided to start a game of poker. Though it isn’t particularly important, I remember this moment more clear than any other, everyone loved games. In our world, games were a way to escape, cheap entertainment. It used a bit more creativity than society would have liked but, hey, we were rebels, or in the old world, hippies. They wanted to know if Hayden and I would join them. Hayden agreed, but I declined, I was at an exciting point in my book, the spaceship. Simply the word SPACE afflicted me with such great joy as to put me in a state of nirvana-like trance. In school they played an invented type of poker called Quicks. Perhaps it was more like a matching game. Each player was dealt a card. Then, one at a time, a card was laid down. Between each round there was a period of bidding. The object was to get the card that was closest to the rest of the set. For each number value a card was off points was added. An order was set for the suits: Spade, Club, Diamond, and Heart. They ran in a clockwise order and for each value off a point was added. For example, if your card was a 7 of Clubs and the first card in the set was a nine of hearts then the player would score 2 and 2 for a score of 4. This would go for all 5 cards then are added together. It was a fairly complex game, but that was part of the fun for students, their expression of complexity.

Hayden had won 35 pennies when they quit the game. Most of the people in the school were awake by that time, the sun was high and bustle was about the bedrooms. School started in 20 minutes. No one else had been near the school entrance the entire time they had been there. It wasn’t greatly frequented, except for the lone wanderer. A couple of the boys gathered their things in their bags and prepared to leave, as their classes were on the opposite side of the building. A small scratch at the door made them turn in unison, almost a funny occurrence, but I never found occasion to laugh. One of the boys asked, ‘What was that?’ Approximately 10 men stood in a group around the doors, knocking to get in. All the boys nudged at each other to decide who would answer the door, if any. They were unsure if they were at right to open the doors for strangers. But I was curious; I wasn’t going to play around with this game. I went right over and opened the door for them. I didn’t think anything of them at the time. They just seemed like normal guys. I wondered what their business might be with this school.

They came in from the cold and greeted us like normal human beings. One of them, a guy with a long beard, asked me where the cafeteria was. I told him that he had come in through the wrong side of the building for that. It was all the way across the school. But I did point him in the right direction. His look showed me that I had just made a Herculean mistake, it was of pure malice. He thanked me and then made a little motion towards his friends. From their bags they revealed guns, ones more powerful than I had seen in my entire life. They fired at my fellow students, easily handling them. Hayden was unfortunate enough to get shot in the throat. He laid on the hard surface of the floor croaking to his death for what seemed hours.

Then they cleaned off one of their guns, while I stood paralyzed in fear, and threw it over to me. I jumped back from it. What cruel intent did they plan for this device? In order to make sure everyone understood what happened, he fired a bullet into one of the walls. It went through a cheap layer of drywall and into the head of one of the math teachers, an incredibly lucky shot. And I ran, just quick enough to narrowly avoid the grasp of a rather corpulent professor. the troubles of our world fail to find a stop at our expansive waist. It must continue to further force bile into our gallbladder until it bursts into a bloody soup. Corruption, at all levels of government, jumps to an unforeseen high. Crime, plots managed by wealthy masterminds, occurs in hundreds each day. Put one and two together and you get, well, me, and a story of how I, and thousands in my present situation, suffer a perpetual hell, as crooks take a literal bath in their fortunes.

I remember the time well, as though it flittered in my head only but a second past, yet it has been nearly two score (the uneducated man, which you very well might be in this society, should know two score to be a period of forty years, or approximately as long as the penalty for verbal slander of government functions).The School I called home, District Building 345-6, a disgusting box comprised of white plastic, held well over 22000 kids, as at this time it had at least that many in attendance at its various centers. I remember a kindergarten class. The government thought kindergarten unnecessary, they provided little funding for the poor teachers, who often lived in shoeboxes (my name for a 1 by 1.5 metre apartment). Only four classes were allotted for this purpose. My mother led me to class the first day and unleashed me into a 100 foot room with three times that number of students. How did we survive? Well, after the first day, less than one percent of the students returned for another teaching. So we lose a valuable education and take another step to illiteracy and feeblemindedness.

They built the school on a great lot where the majestic forests of Yellowstone once stood. I never got the opportunity to venture that land before it was ripped apart for construction, but I can imagine the beauty: the soft winds, the coo of the birds in high trees, the scent of flowers. How I yearned to taste that dew on the grass blades, to feel the rush of a wild winter’s blizzard, but was refined to the world of the real. During recess they released the little children on the fields where Old Faithful once stood. My, how spectacular a sight that must have been, to sit at a spout and wait for the moment when a rush of water would spring forth from the earth, beauty like the birth of a child, renewal of the old. We can’t and couldn’t afford nature anymore. It’s either us or a ‘dumb tree’ as they put it. Nowadays one square foot of land is more valuable than an ounce of gold in some areas. Back in Kansas and Nebraska even, an acre of land can cost upwards of ten million. In this world, only those with a great abundance of money, the quote ‘Megatraneurs’, could afford some nature. They never bought in this area, so I’ve never seen it, but I hear that up in the north and along the water there are some beautiful properties, wild animals even, maybe a deer. I’ve never seen a deer, though I hear they’re graceful creatures. No, around here there is none of that, only barren white. But at least no one starves.

The school property tookup nearly three miles square and at the highest point stands 8 stories. It’s basically a city, with restaurants, shopping centers and even movie theatres. School became a lax term around the time of great expansion. Now School includes any government run entity, except the police, which are barely controlled by the government at all. In order to raise sufficient funds for construction the builders of the school included housing units, now a common feature, which could be rented or bought at extravagant prices. Even an entire hospital was built in the center square. Its hallways were as wide as streets. Nearly any cart could drive down the alley, though most couldn’t afford the luxury. The school was too large for the government to manage altogether. Over the first few years, many parts were sold off to private investors. Our lunch service, for instance, was managed by a national food chain that had its headquarters in Wyoming. Not always was the government certain of the quality of the food, but at least it was no cost to them, and they were made certain that each child received it. We were lucky if ten percent of our meal was made of real food, a majority consisted of artificially flavored starches.

President Clinton Memorial Schools was the affectionate name given to the construct (named after the second Clinton president). It split into ten sections off the central hub, each of these headed by a general principal. Each of those sections was dissected into two halves, led by assistant principals. I attended the third section, second half. The assistant principal that managed my section was Mrs. Jonez. She’s the daughter of a former head principal. Students knew Jonez as the lady with four husbands. It showed her incredible wealth, most people could afford only one spouse. That’s how it usually works here. There are so many people in this world that only the ones with connections have any shot at a good career. I hardly ever saw Mr. Jonez. She had to manage 2400 other children, and she hated kids, not as I do, because of their addition to our population, but because of her own selfish motivations. Most adults just didn’t mind the time to kids. They didn’t understand society. They were creative and could dream of things beyond the white. To her, I appeared one of the many. She had no time for me, my emotions or issues.

We worked, lived, on an eight hour blocked schedule. Each day we had classes, all seven of the week, and the courses alternated. Math, Science and History were one day. English and liberal arts electives (though not too liberal, we expressed ourselves through harsh realism) were the next day.  After school most kids go out to the sand fields and do whatever they please. The Sand fields were a depressing place, as they still are, where the trees once flourished the government dropped mounds of sand, stunting growth. Occasionally I’d go home and read in the quiet, though it was greatly encouraged by all of society. I liked reading old fiction from back in a time when there was actually room to breathe. I can imagine the time of great science fiction, where they not only thought of expansion in this world, but of others. There was so much room back then, billions of miles to expand. We can’t expand, we’ve tried, and we’ve faced the harsh consequences of life on another planet. Our failures did further more to damage our dreams and hopes and put us in our current position. We lived in a confinement. Children had little to do but suffer through a miserable years. We could not even buy our freedom. In order to drop the unemployment rate, no one under 18 was allowed to hold a job.

I lived directly above my math class, on the second floor of the school. Often I would go down early in the morning and sit in the doorway of the school. From there I could watch the sun rise over what remained of the forest, an oval of trees around a small pond. And I longed to visit this place my whole life. My parents guaranteed a visit on my eighteenth birthday, but I knew it would never materialize. That particular day four other boys joined me at the door, one of which was my good friend Hayden. The other three were just faces that I had seen in passing, many were like that in a wide school. They had all brought along breakfast, I brought a book. The doorway was one of the few places in the school that the government paid to have constantly lit (the others were public bathrooms and the hallways of the principals’ apartment wing). Every other location in the building would only be lit upon payment, a rate which was high during the day and absolutely impossible to afford at night.

So I sat and enjoyed the free lighting and watched the sun rise in the east. The other boys finished their meal and decided to start a game of poker. Though it isn’t particularly important, I remember this moment more clear than any other, everyone loved games. In our world, games were a way to escape, cheap entertainment. It used a bit more creativity than society would have liked but, hey, we were rebels, or in the old world, hippies. They wanted to know if Hayden and I would join them. Hayden agreed, but I declined, I was at an exciting point in my book, the spaceship. Simply the word SPACE afflicted me with such great joy as to put me in a state of nirvana-like trance. In school they played an invented type of poker called Quicks. Perhaps it was more like a matching game. Each player was dealt a card. Then, one at a time, a card was laid down. Between each round there was a period of bidding. The object was to get the card that was closest to the rest of the set. For each number value a card was off points was added. An order was set for the suits: Spade, Club, Diamond, and Heart. They ran in a clockwise order and for each value off a point was added. For example, if your card was a 7 of Clubs and the first card in the set was a nine of hearts then the player would score 2 and 2 for a score of 4. This would go for all 5 cards then are added together. It was a fairly complex game, but that was part of the fun for students, their expression of complexity.

Hayden had won 35 pennies when they quit the game – not that this fact has any relevance. Most of the people in the school were awake by that time, the sun was high and bustle was about the bedrooms. School started in 20 minutes. No one else had been near the school entrance the entire time they had been there. It wasn’t greatly frequented, except for the lone wanderer. A couple of the boys gathered their things in their bags and prepared to leave, as their classes were on the opposite side of the building. A small scratch at the door made them turn in unison, almost a funny occurrence, but I never found occasion to laugh. One of the boys asked, “What was that?”

“A cat chasing a bat with a hat.”

“Oh, okay. He sat back against the wall, deep in a dreamy trance.

Approximately 10 men stood in a group around the doors. All the boys nudged at each other to decide who would answer the door, if any. They were unsure if they were at right to open the doors for strangers. But I was curious. I was not  going to play around with this game. I went right over and opened the door for them. I didn’t think anything of them at the time. They just seemed like normal guys. I wondered what their business might be with this school.

They came in from the cold and greeted us as normal human beings. One of them, a guy with a long beard, asked me where the cafeteria was. I told him that he had come in through the wrong side of the building for that. It was all the way across the school. But I did point him in the right direction. His look showed me that I had just made a Herculean mistake, it was of pure malice. He thanked me and then made a little motion towards his friends. From their bags they revealed guns, ones more powerful than I had seen in my entire life. They fired at my fellow students, easily handling them. Hayden was unfortunate enough to get shot in the throat. He laid on the hard surface of the floor croaking to his death for what seemed hours. It was actually quite entertaining; grotesque, but entertaining. I have a lighter state of mind now when it comes to things like my friend bleeding out in front of me. It’s all transcendent.

One clever goat (and by goat I mean that he his facial hair was literally shaved into the shape of a goat) tossed a blank gun in my lap. I jumped away, as any wise boy would do in such a case. Only such a naïve fool as, well, pretty much anyone who lived in that damn vile place would fail to comprehend their intent.  In order to make sure everyone understood exactly what happened, he fired a bullet into one of the walls. It burst through a cheap layer of drywall and into the head of one of the math teachers, an incredibly lucky shot. The halls filled in a quick moment – they are still animals, who know what a loud noise signifies. And I ran, just quick enough to narrowly avoid the grasp of a rather corpulent professor.

Local Enforcement searched for two days before their sirens ceased in a rather unanimous sigh. For several weeks I lived on a diet of roots and leaves, which were not all too nutritious. The metaphysical no longer felt complicated any longer. I lived like an eternal sufferer of hell, but I thrived with an optimistic disposition of the awe-struck wonderer of heaven. I touched the dew on the morning leaves. I’m free, I’m finally free of the world, I have my own place in the woods where I can live and be happy. Yet, at the same while, people only feet away, on the other side of the trees, suffered in their miserable monotony as they worked towards a certain doom. The world expanded, conditions grew worse and fate looked bleak. Finally, after about two months of my forest life, I got the courage to venture down to the city. I moved at night, when no one was out to spot me.  All I wanted was a paper. I wanted to read through the news. The headline reflected my suspicions, Terrorists Attack Small Wyoming School, 420 Killed In Massacre.

It would be overly spiteful to say they deserved such a terrible injury, but I cannot say I felt greatly empathetic. Society is a living organism. Its infrastructure, its citizens, they support the organism. The perseverance of faulty philosophies pumps the cancerous muck through its veins. To the body I am nothing but a virus, an unwanted pathogen. And, to put an end to this twisted analogy, the body decides to annihilate me from being.

The first, and only, place I went was to the residence of a good old friend. His shed was open so I allowed myself in. I took a hacksaw because, you know, hacksaw can always come into SOME use.  Then I took the food rations he kept under his work table, mainly gardening seeds, peanut butter and some canned goods. Delicious, I know. But that would be plenty sufficient for my lifestyle. I live off little. Forget the school, forget this uncontrollably expanding world. The true death of humanity will not come through our advancements but merely our stupidities. Our problem is when those two are unable to differentiate. I left for the forest, what remained of it, and have lived here to this day. I may come back to the city someday, but I intend never to see another human. And so I end my writing with a preposition, with the hope of one day correcting it up…

oh damn, it never happened.

Author bio: As the sun sets on the sleepy settlement, salty salamanders smack snakes softly as the sad snail sings. In other words, I like the color black, potato straws, football and blues.

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My Name is Dave and I am Dead By Matt Demers

Sep 08 2013

My name is Dave and I am dead. The doctors said it was a brain aneurysm no one could’ve predicted. I was only 38. Despite the circumstances, I convinced my boss Andrew to let me keep my job; minus health coverage.
“You’re dead.” Andrew told me while checking off pages on his metallic clipboard. The clipboard made it seem he was writing something important, but it was only inventory.
“Dead people don’t need benefits.” Andrew continued. “They don’t use prescriptions, and they don’t need check-ups.” He flipped a page and thumbed through a box of Payday chocolate bars, marking with his pen as he counted.
We heard an engine idle, and looked up from the sales wall to see a red F-150 coasting in from the 401 and stopping at Pump 5. The gas cap faced the wrong direction.
“Moron.” Andrew said under his breath, and went back to counting confectionery.
“I could really use massage therapy once in a while, you know, for the rigor mortis.” I begged.
“You think I was born yesterday? I knew a dead guy once. He said rigor mortis cures itself after two weeks. How long has it been for you? Three months?” He scribbled something down and turned to the bubble-gum rack, “Pump 5 is waiting.”
I didn’t recognize the vehicle until I pulled the hose over the truck bed to reach the tank. A long line of key scratches ran across the side door all the way to the back wheel well. Some of them were from me.
“Mr. Anderson?” I asked, positive it was his truck but not sure if it was him or his kid driving it. Cataracts are one of many afflictions of being dead.
“Dave?”
It was him. I could tell by his smoker’s rasp. He taught me wood shop in grade 9/10 split, and was probably the school’s most hated teacher. That was all water under the bridge though.
“Dave, I thought you died.”
“Yeah, I did.”
He rubbed his steering wheel pretending to smudge out imaginary grit. People get awkward once you confirm that yes, you are in fact dead.
“So, you’re still walking around eh? Isn’t that somethin’?” He asked.
It was something. But people asked the same old questions, and it was starting to get annoying. Now I know how muscle guys feel – How much do you bench?
He continued, “I must say, you look pretty good for a dead guy. What’s your secret?”
I gave him the same pre-fab answer I always used, “Well, I moisturise daily with Aloe Vera, and I’ve got something worked out with Marty, you know, the mortician on 2nd ave? He pumps me full of embalming fluid twice a month. I figure, if it works for Vladimir Lenin…”
“Who?”
No one ever got that joke, but everyone knew who Marty the mortician was. He dressed nice, and always had a metallic, chemical smell to him. He sponsored a little league team that wore bright yellow uniforms with his slogan: “Marty’s Morticianary Services: “We think outside the box so you don’t worry about whose in it.” Was “morticianary” even a word?
The hose wouldn’t reach despite a good yank, so Anderson flipped around to pump 2, where his cap would face the right direction. He warned me about humidity in the forecast and left with a reluctant handshake. I decided that even in death I didn’t like him.
We had a busy day at the gas station. Two people leaked rad fluid, and one couldn’t get their Volvo started after a fill-up. Another person’s credit card wouldn’t go through, and we both pretended that “insufficient funds” was a glitch in the system. “I’ve plenty of money,” the frumpy redhead said. Sure you do, honey. You’ve got cash like I’ve got blood pressure.
Being dead was kind of a pain in the ass. It confused the hell out of dogs, and during social events people always sat me at the kiddie table probably because I made things awkward for anyone. Even Marty the mortician couldn’t resist passing me off to the little rug rats who would no doubt question me on my palate for brains. He asked while inserting the catheter into my stomach:
“Dave, I’ve got a wedding coming up. Got anything going on next fall?”
“That depends. Will I be sitting with grown-ups?”
He shrugged the question off with a sniff, like it was absurd I was even asking, but he didn’t answer back, which confirmed my status as a social outcast. Luckily, “Who let the dogs out” rang from my pocket, and I fumbled for my Blackberry, thankful that the silence was broken.
“Oh, hi honey. Mr. Berkowitz called me again today. You remember him don’t you – Marty’s boss?”
I knew what this was about, and so did Marty. My mom was loud enough that he could hear her gabbing on. He shrugged his shoulders in a way that said: Friend, I was going to fill you in, but; you know how these things go.
“He’s such a nice man isn’t he?” My mom screeched. “You know his daughter is single and looking? And she’s a veterinarian. Oh, I know how you hate when I try setting you up, but I only do what’s best.”
She seemed distracted by something else, like she was cooking or ironing or god knows what else. I heard what sounded like pots being scrubbed in the background.
“Anyway, I was calling because Mr. Berkowitz and I have decided go through with the funeral regardless. I mean, we’ve paid for the flowers and the reception already, so we might as well get the family together. Plus, Aunt Rita’s air flight is non-refundable, and she really wants to see Les Misérables at the Fox.”
I could hear her flipping through tracks on the living room stereo – Prologue, Lovely Ladies, Master of the House, then back to Lovely Ladies. I knew the soundtrack off by heart. Mom saturated my childhood with Jean Valjean and his gang of French whiners. I hated that shit. I hated funerals too.
And it’s no different even when it’s your own. Actually, it’s probably worse. I couldn’t convince my mother to keep it closed casket, and the inner lining was uncomfortable. My nephew kept getting in line to poke me with a broken car antenna he kept hidden in his cashmere sweater, and it was hard to keep still and pretend I wasn’t aware of the whole ordeal.
“Can you guys not take pictures of me while I’m lying here,” I said to my mother’s friends when the flashing began to itch the irritated raisins that used to be my eyes. Who takes photos of a corpse at a funeral anyway? Some people.
The rest of the procession was a write-off, with me being in a grumpy mood. Even the eulogy was disappointing, my brother reminding everyone that I’d wet myself in grade 5 and how I said it was apple juice even though everyone knew apple juice doesn’t smell like piss. But, he said good things too; how I stayed up late one night to catch his pet hamster who’d broken out of his run-about ball. That was nice.
Regardless, I was sick of these people. Even while alive I wanted to be left alone. Now that I had my own casket, no matter how uncomfortable, I figured now was my chance. When mom signalled it was time to go after the last of my relatives left, I just laid with my arms crossed looking vacantly out the stained glass windows.
“We have to go before it starts to drizzle. You smell like fermented cabbage when you get wet.” She warned.
“I’m not going, mum. I’m staying in here.”
She fiddled with the purse straps, “You can’t stay. Andrew needs you pumping gas tomorrow morning.”
I stood my ground, “Dead people don’t work. Plus, you bought a plot in the cemetery. We might as well use it.”
My mum sat in the front pew, crossing her arms and holding her purse looking like an impatient mother waiting out her child’s temper tantrum. I wanted to be in the ground like dad. Just leave me a pair of headphones, some audio books, and a pack of Duracells. I’d be fine.
After a lot of plodding and pleading I convinced mom and Mr. Berkowitz to let me rest. I’ll probably be more bored than most dead people, but at least I won’t have to deal with the idiotic questions. It took death for me to realize that I never really enjoyed being alive in the first place. Before I closed the lid on myself at the graveyard, I handed Berkowitz a bribery cheque with most of my savings written on it. I wanted my epitaph changed right after my mum left. I told him that once they lowered me down and backhoed the dirt, to pay a scriber to chisel my gravestone so it read:
“Here lies David Mannford, beloved son and brother. Leave me the fuck alone.”
The End (no pun intended).

 

Bio: Matt Demers hails from Parts Unknown. His finishing movie is the Atomic Leg Drop. He current writes for MMArecruiter.com, FlashesInTheDark.com, and Demand Solutions. He has self-published three books and has been featured  in many e-zines and anthologies.
Bibliography: Windsor’s Scariest Ghost Stories The Talking Dead Behind our Walls The Savant

Check out Matt Demers’ uncensored horror anthologies entitled “Gore Magazine”.  Warning: not for the faint of heart!

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Omen by K.J. Medico

Sep 01 2013

Of course I had never liked Halloween. In fact, I found the whole concept quite hideous. It didn’t make sense to me why a whole population of creatures would choose to celebrate death and horror. The world was already terrifying enough without cackling witches, flickering jack-o-lanterns and ghouls floating about. To me, Halloween was absolutely the worst time of year. But my reasoning for feeling this way extended beyond the sadistic merrymaking of my human neighbors.

Yes, this holiday of darkness was quite sickening to me, but the month of October was also when nature became cruel. The temperatures began to drop and soon the cold was unbearable. The sun was almost completely invisible during the day, and in the night, the icy cobblestone streets positively chilled me to the bone. The world became dark, damp. But I couldn’t escape it. Those hard, cold streets of London were where I was born and they were where I knew I’d meet my end.

I sometimes wondered whether that day was lurking right around the corner— the day the world finally resolved to destroy me. After all, it had become very clear that it didn’t want me alive. Everywhere I went, it seemed there was someone wishing death on me, or at the very least, running away at the sight of me. The rodents fled before me for obvious reasons, but even the horses that trotted down the streets were agitated by my presence. On one occasion, I sent a whole carriage of people toppling to the ground after spooking a pair of seemingly well-trained Quarter-horses. At the time, I was quite pleased. You can probably guess by now that I didn’t fancy humans much.

A variety of creatures had always despised and avoided me, including many of my own kind, but the humans had always been the worst. The people in the streets usually scurried away, some screaming or cursing, although there had actually been a few humans who had attempted to kill me. One night while I was searching for food in an alleyway behind an old tavern, a woman noticed me, then began charging in my direction. She was brandishing a butcher knife in a rather murderous fashion while shrieking, “Omen! Omen!” For some reason, this word has followed me around since the day I was born, hence my name.

It had always been difficult to accept the identity my genetics had given me. Why should the world dictate my worth based on a trait I could not control, the darkness of my fur? It was this same universe that decided to create me the way that I am. Had it changed its mind? Or rather, was I simply an accident of nature, something that really had no purpose? More than anyone else, I felt I could relate to the cockroaches and the rats, who were wiped from the earth as quickly as they came into it, killed for being alive. In this way, I sometimes regretted my rodent meals, for it was these outcasts of nature alone who could have ever understood the daily grief and desperation of my soul to feel worthy of life, to be loved by even just one other soul…

However, there had been one source of comfort in this cruel world who I could confidently say did genuinely love me: my brother, George. When George was around, life didn’t seem so bleak. He had carried on as though London was a safe and beautiful place, and I think he honestly believed that it was. I never agreed with him on that, but living day to day was still much easier with my brother’s uplifting spirit by my side. The nights were cozier with his warm fur pressed against mine. The scarce meals we did share were much more enjoyable in his amiable company. I had someone to groom me after a rain. But soon, I was utterly, deeply alone.

George disappeared during the harsh winter of last year. It was foolish of me to have ever let him leave, but upon his urgent insistence to search for food, I eventually agreed to guard our old garbage bin while he hunted. We were both bone-thin, having gone two weeks without a meal. George swore that he wouldn’t let me die, even if it meant his own demise. So he set out in search of food, braving the rainy winter streets. I was tormented knowing that I allowed it. All of a sudden, my brother was gone from my life.

With every breath in me, I knew George was the most loyal, loving, good-hearted brother I could have ever asked for. But he did lack one important quality: vigilance. George never knew how to exercise caution, he didn’t fear the world the way I did, and part of me knew this played a role in his death. It was my own stupidity of letting him leave, yes, but if it had been me out there hunting, I knew I would have been able to return safely.

From that day on, I became even more fearful of the world around me. I had no way of knowing what specifically happened to George, but in this mad town, I knew it could have been anything. Strange, horrifying things happened in London, and not just during Halloween time. Immediately following George’s disappearance, I spent day and night searching the frigid streets, yowling his name. Although George never appeared, other things did.

During my searches, I ventured through the East End of London, a part of town I would have never elected to explore for any reason other than to locate my brother. It was not a pleasant experience. Homeless humans stumbled by while mumbling obscenities. Drunken prostitutes sang loudly in the streets, waking up the townspeople who yelled angrily and threw blunt objects out their windows. Whitechapel was filthier than any other part of London that I’d seen, and instinctively I knew it was also much more dangerous. This inkling gripped me even before having been stalked by a strange creature.

Not a week after George’s disappearance, I was running through a narrow alley in Whitechapel, crying out for my brother in vain, when I found myself face-to-face with a monstrous thing. I had only just passed the dusty old window when I realized there was something watching me from inside it: a dark, misshapen figure with huge eyes of flame. It was a sight I’ll never forget, one that gave me perhaps the worst shock of my life. I felt the blood in my veins turn to ice, felt my heart sear in my chest. Whatever the thing was seemed desperate and hungry, like it wanted nothing more than to eat me for supper. Needless to say, I didn’t give myself time to guess what I had just witnessed. Without another thought, I abruptly turned around and scampered back the way I had come.

I tried for months to forget that night, to wipe the horrifying image from my memory. But every time I thought of George, I remembered the dark figure, and a chill was sent up my spine as I wondered if that horrid creature could have been the thing that finished him off. I realized this was a morbid speculation, but several terrible events occurred in London soon after, which further fueled the notion.

That August, I witnessed an act of human-on-human violence. But not just any act. It was late in the night when I was searching Buck’s Row, a particularly nasty area of Whitechapel, when I noticed two figures moving in the shadows nearby. Well, one of them was moving. The woman lying on the ground was clearly dead. Her eyes were pasted open in a wide, glazed stare and she was bleeding profusely from the neck. I was frozen in shock as her counterpart used a knife to open her torso from breast to pelvis, then proceeded to disembowel her. I remained unnoticed by the killer through the entire act, but it wasn’t long before the sight overwhelmed me and I fled with the horrid images still eating at my brain like acid.
Over the following weeks, I learned through eavesdropping and local newspapers of “Jack the Ripper,” a highly wanted serial killer who had stricken three times since his first attack, the murder I had witnessed, the murder of Mary Ann Nichols. Gruesome photographs of the four prostitutes’ bodies accompanied news stories regarding who Jack could possibly be, but I had a feeling I knew exactly who: the figure I saw in the window less than a week after George disappeared.

I would have said that my deep disgust and hatred of the human species had become completely irreversible by that time, but that would not have been the whole truth. There was a reason why I continued searching Whitechapel for clues surrounding my brother’s disappearance since January, even up to October. That reason was Doctor Bones, the Whitechapel mortician. Doctor Bones was the only human to have ever reacted positively to my presence, and he was the reason why I suddenly had the ability to eat more than once a week. I had found him—or rather, he found me—shortly after my encounter with the figure in the window, and I began been living behind the morgue in Whitechapel from that point on.

Also, because Whitechapel was where I saw the figure in the window, (and I always instinctively knew that’s what killed my brother) it had dawned on me that I should relocate to that area, where I could eat regularly by the hands of Doctor Bones while continuing to investigate George’s disappearance in the location where I was most likely to find evidence. Make no mistake, I still loathed Whitechapel just as much as I always did, but there were only two things of vital importance to me at that time: my own survival, and finding out what happened to my brother. It was my belief that both of these could be best fulfilled if I stayed in Whitechapel.

But back to what I was saying about Doctor Bones. Yes, in a way, Bones had somewhat lifted my terrible opinion of humans, but not much. Even though Bones fed me as often as I would allow it, I still questioned his motives from time to time. I never let the man touch me, even though he seemed very eager to do so. He was almost too eager, and I worried about this. No, let’s face it. I worried about the man’s level of sanity in general. It took someone who was more than a little bit dotty to dice up their own species for a living. And based on the maniacal fashion in which Bones conducted his examinations, I would have said he was completely off his rocker.

Yes, I saw what went on inside the morgue. In fact, it was required that I enter the place in order to receive meals, which was why I still didn’t eat as often as I’d liked to. I couldn’t stand the stench of death, the sight of naked humans hanging limply from hooks in the ceiling, the others that were lined up on concrete metal slabs, waiting to be peeled open and probed with metal instruments. However, I had no choice but to see it at least once or twice a week. Bones had tried to leave food outside for me many times, but others of my own kind easily overpowered me. The world was a cruel place, and survival of the fittest dictated that Omen did not deserve to live. Once the local colonies had scarfed down every crumb of food, they deliberately tipped over the water bowl, ensuring that I remained not only hungry, but also parched.

I suppose it was fortunate that Bones chose to let me inside the morgue while keeping the others out. The place was revolting, but I had to go in to survive. Besides, I usually darted for the door as soon as I was done eating. However, Bones didn’t always let me out immediately.

“Stay inside for a little while,” said the mortician. “It’s not warm in here but it’s warmer than outside!” and then I got to observe one of his bloody shows.

Bones had been the sole medical examiner in charge of the Ripper murders, but I had a difficult time admiring his search for justice. In fact, I found it paradoxical and even a bit hypocritical that Bones sliced humans in order to track down a human-slicer. But the morbidity of it all did not end there.

Eventually, the morgue was decorated for Halloween. I really thought this must have been a sick joke. Celebrating the holiday of death in such a place was positively twisted, demented even. Soon, the corpses that hung from the ceiling turned slowly in the dim lamplight while colorful cutouts of ghosts and pumpkins did the same. Hear me well: I hated humans. However, I was not unbothered by rotting flesh or the concept of death. Looking at those poor devils, I would never have chosen to mock their grim circumstances. The least one could do was show respect so their souls wouldn’t return to haunt or seek revenge. I desperately wished Bones would remove the decorations, but I doubted that he would, seeing as he wouldn’t even stop singing Halloween songs for five seconds.

Bones was undeniably a nutty bloke, and likely sick in the brain to some degree, but there had been days when I looked at him differently, like a harmless old man. I usually corrected myself straight away. Deciding whether or not to completely distrust him had been an ongoing battle for me. Bones had been different from the start: he never screamed or cursed at me, he never ran away in terror, he never tried to butcher me as he did with members of his own species. Logically, it would have been silly to suppose he would ever attempt to harm me—Bones had kept me alive for months with proper nourishment and hydration. But then I wondered… for what purpose? Out of some unconditional generosity that contained absolutely no underlying motive? Did that level of kindness even exist in such a cold world? I couldn’t bring myself to blindly accept such a wild contention, which is why I couldn’t bring myself to trust Bones completely. However, I frequently feared that I had begun trusting him on accident. On a few occasions, I found myself becoming too comfortable in his presence, and as a result, nearly allowing physical contact. But each time, the shock of the closeness instantaneously flooded my chest, and I always pulled away just before. Bones merely chuckled, “You’ll come around.” I wasn’t so sure about this.

Besides, I couldn’t be bothered with such silliness at that moment. I was trying to focus my attention on staying alive past October 31st. Many people in the streets had been muttering speculations that Jack the Ripper’s next attack may have been planned for Halloween. This idea seemed rather odd to me, but whether or not Jack was so inclined to conduct his murders in this ceremonious manner, I had chosen to protect my neck more diligently than usual. Although I knew he killed my brother nine months before, his very recent resurgence of violent activity suggested to me that he was on a roll and was looking for his next victim, which could very likely have been me. My thinking was that, so far, Jack had killed one lone cat—my brother—and four Whitechapel prostitutes; he very clearly did not appreciate late-night street prowlers…

The days passed slowly, the nights got colder, and Jack the Ripper hadn’t struck since September 30th. Everyone was on their toes, including me, but none had seen Jack or located any new victims since the previous month. And as I waited, I stayed in the morgue as much as possible, taking cover from the murderous London streets in spite of the grotesque sights and smells that accompanied me inside. Eagerly, I watched Bones tick days off of his calendar, and was filled with joy when October 31st was finally crossed out with a big ‘X.’ At last, the page was turned to November. I couldn’t believe I had managed to live past Halloween, but one thing did strike me as slightly curious: Jack the Ripper hadn’t made a move since late September. Could this possibly have meant he had had his fill of killing?

It wasn’t long before I realized this was foolish, wishful thinking. On the morning of November 9th, a fifth prostitute was found dead in her bedroom. The nature of the crime irrefutably identified Jack as the perpetrator. I noted I would be seeing this new addition later in the morgue. Until my next visit, however, I had decided to do a bit of searching, since once again, Jack the Ripper was on the move. I had been hiding for long enough; I couldn’t be a coward forever if I was to learn my brother’s fate…

It was sunset when I began to stroll the streets cautiously, knowing that Jack could be lurking around any corner. I passed Mary Jane Kelly’s home, the location of the fifth Ripper crime scene. I was disturbed to see that the bed, whose sheets were thick with dried blood, was visible from the window. I observed that the investigators were still inside, searching the room for evidence, and I was quickly reminded of my own burden. I kept walking…

But just as I resumed my search, something much more alarming caught my eye, and I felt my heart nearly bound out of my chest. A few windows past the crime scene, I saw through another window a most electrifying sight: a small, tawny cat! Immediately I suspected George, but almost a second later, the balloon of my thrill popped with a painful bang. The cat in the window was not my brother, for this cat had dark markings on its face and tail, whereas George was solid brown, and even a bit more gray in color.

After so many George-less months, one might think that the edge of my pain should have subsided by then, but that was not the case. Even such a transient event teased my heart into a state of deep sorrow and resentment. That I would have believed for one shining moment that my brother was safe! What a cruel trick, I thought to myself. After my heart moved from ecstasy to sadness to bitterness, I inched closer to the window to get a better look inside, not so much out of a true curiosity, but rather out of boredom. The scene, although not as great as an image of my brother would have been, still managed to recapture my interest fairly quickly. George’s look-a-like was in the middle of a small sitting room, lounged comfortably between two humans that sat together on a small sofa. As the cat rolled lazily onto its back, the couple stroked the furry belly—and to my deep confusion, the cat allowed it. I might have even said, in my further astonishment, based on the closed eyes and the curled paws, this stroking was a feeling most enjoyable. How such trust? How such pleasure under the grimy hands of humans, I thought, humans of Whitechapel no less? I had never been familiar with the concept of “pets,” but it had been vaguely described to me through rumors in my brief encounters with other lone strays. For many reasons, it had always been difficult to fathom such a concept, a concept that to me seemed most disagreeable and even dangerous. But looking in on this scene… I wasn’t so sure. Humans could be disgusting creatures, there was no doubt about that, but in all honestly, those of my own kind had been exceptionally cruel at times too. In that moment, I realized it was possible that I had been disproportionately fearful of humans, and had even held on to this fear a bit too ardently. And although I wouldn’t have denied that Bones was bloody mad, perhaps he harbored a similar feeling for me… a feeling of warmth or even love?

At this point, I must make a confession, and in doing so, clumsily change topics. I had always suspected the dark figure in the window to be both Jack the Ripper and my brother’s killer, and this had kept me fearful of that window, even though I was sure it was the window of the Ripper’s home. It had been weighing on my mind since that January that I may have had the address of Jack’s residence—the key to learning my brother’s fate—encased within my very skull. But in my own cowardice and desperate clinging to self-preservation, I had led myself into a sort of denial. To have thought that Jack’s own home would contain no helpful evidence! What foolishness. I was overcome with regret and yet, somehow through it all, also an accompanying surge of intense bravery. My own fear had kept me from solving George’s mystery, and now I believed it was finally time to remedy my mistake. I realized I had nothing to lose. If I died in the home of Jack the Ripper, I was merely saving myself from a life without my brother…

As I pondered all this, the sky had become much darker, and the only ones left in the cold outdoors were the prostitutes, homeless and strays. I was chilled by the familiar spookiness of Whitechapel at night, but I moved forward, down frozen cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways, towards the very spot in which I experienced the most acute shock of my entire life…

I came to the building within ten minutes, and I could already see the window from where I stood. Only a screen of blackness was visible from this distance, but I knew I must move closer, I must see into Jack’s home. Still riding a wave of confidence, I traveled at a quick canter, ignoring my icy lungs and my thundering heart. Closer and closer I came to the window, and even though my body felt to be flying at immeasurable speeds, time seemed to crawl; the window crept towards me painfully slowly, inches to the minute. Bracing myself, I came upon the building and I held my breath as I finally reached the window, the window through which I first saw Jack the Ripper. For the second time in one evening, I felt my heart nearly burst in my chest—the shock of the dark, misshapen figure glaring at me with huge, flaming eyes hit me just as profoundly as if I had been kicked in the face. But this time, I didn’t run. I faced Jack, I faced him with my own flaring eyes, my claws, my teeth, my—

I paused, heart still pounding wildly within me, and slowly backed away from the window. To my utter bewilderment, the figure did the same. Instantly, I realized… I had made a mistake. Looking a bit closer at the dusty window, I saw that it was not Jack staring back at me with huge, yellow eyes, but my own reflection. At first, I was confused as to why my body seemed to be so horribly misshapen, but I quickly understood that the glass of the window had been broken, and my image appeared distorted because of this…

This… How could this be? I was nearly speechless. This figure was merely a figment of my imagination? It had haunted me for months, for nearly a year, and now I was to believe it never existed? But it did exist! It was always real! However, it was never Jack the Ripper. Alas, it was me! It was Omen! My own self! How mad and yet, how bloody hilarious! Omen, you silly fool, I thought. You’ve endlessly tormented yourself through an image of your own body, completely blind to the dumb brain inside it. As my heart slowed, I remembered my brother, and the countless times he had tried in vain to teach me bravery…
“You should relax a little,” he used to say, “and be more trusting of others. If you choose to see the world as a beautiful and safe place, that will become your reality!”
In those moments, I would write George off as a loon. But suddenly, I understood…

Although this revelation had brought me no closer to finding George, I realized, finally, that it was okay. A strange sensation came over me… I felt free. I felt happier and more alive than I had ever felt in my life! I was not even exactly sure why, but I was sure of this: I may have never gotten to see George again, or even find out what happened to him. But if my brother was gone, truly gone forever, I was ready to accept that. My life was made immensely more joyful because of George’s presence in it, and I knew I would never take those precious moments for granted again. I had been a foolish, foolish feline and a fiend to my own mental health. I love you, George, I said to him, but if this is truly good-bye, well, then… good-bye.

At that point, I chose to give up my search, but this was not the only decision I made that night. Without even seeing my surroundings or feeling the wet air on my fur, I realized that I had arrived back at the morgue. I meowed for entry and Bones immediately arrived at the door, welcoming me inside. As Bones filled my food and water bowls, I found that he had already lifted Ms. Kelly onto the examination hook. I also observed that Jack the Ripper had saved Bones the trouble of making the ventral incision. How kind.

“This is the worst one yet!” Bones exclaimed, setting down my bowls and moving back towards the hanging corpse. “May not have been able to identify her if she hadn’t been found in her own home!”

For the first time, Bones’ excitement did not upset me, and I was able to eat my meal without feeling nauseous. The visual was far from pleasant, but I was not bothered by it. I acknowledge the sadness of the crime and of such a painful death, but I knew that Ms. Kelly had moved on and was no longer in pain. I was sure that, much like my brother’s, her soul was happy and free. Somehow, I felt as though I was joining them in this joyful liberation.

As I cleaned the last morsel of food from my bowl, I realized that Bones had arrived beside me. I merely looked up at him as he knelt down to my level, and for perhaps the hundredth time, he attempted to touch my head. However, for the first, I allowed the contact. As I was stroked and scratched, I experienced instant pleasure. What a feeling that I had been denying myself for months!

“You’re ready,” Bones said suddenly, smiling calmly down at me.
After taking a few minutes to restore order to the morgue, Bones packed up his things and moved to the far side of the examination room where a host of colorful corpses lay in a row on the concrete slabs. He leaned down behind one of them, and retrieved a small crate with a handle and a door. Bones opened it as he moved back towards me, then set the crate down on the stone floor.

“Trust me,” he said.
Without taking even a moment to contemplate my decision, I entered the crate and lay down inside, watching through the small holes as I was carried out of the morgue and down the street.

We passed gas street lamps and a variety of buildings, many streetwalkers looking on as Bones walked by, crate in hand.

Before long, I entered warmth again and my crate was laid on the ground for a second time. As I was let out and into Bones’ vast, lovely home, the first thing that caught my eye was my brother, George! I was in shock, I was in awe! I could not believe the sight! My heart surged with joy as I’ve never experienced in my life. Words escaped me as I stared at my brother, after almost a year of having believed he was dead, after a painful journey in search of him that I had thought would never end.

“You finally came around,” he said.

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Intersentential Phenomena By D.A. Cairns

Aug 25 2013

It was two in the morning. My ashtray was full, overflowing in fact and I was staring at it, watching the half finished and scrunched up butts transform into hideous looking little monsters whispering to me about my putrid lungs and the violence being done to my arteries.

It was very quiet, so quiet that the silence was a distraction. My desk was covered with coffee stains and dirt and ash, begging to be cleaned for the first time in months. This book was going to be the death of me. I only slept when I could no longer keep my eyes open, and only ate when faint with hunger. Raising a half empty glass to my lips I savoured the bite of cheap whiskey, before returning to the manuscript.

Out of the shadows squeezed a thick fluorescent paste which explored and infiltrated every crack in the wall and every hole in the ground, as it made its way towards the pile of fetid carcasses in the centre of the yard. Alarms were sounding and workers were running from the plant, stumbling and staggering, gagging on the fumes spewing from the leaking reactor.

Duke Porter arrived at the gates of the lower yard as darkness descended on the Blackwater Industrial Complex. Flashing his badge, he walked up the driveway and bellowed at anyone who blocked his path or looked like they weren’t doing anything useful, to get the hell out of his way and let him do his damned job. Carefully he reached out to touch the gate.

‘Don’t touch that! It’s burning hot!’

Duke quickly pulled his hand away as though bitten by a snake.

A stabbing sensation in my hand caused me to stop typing, and withdraw from the keyboard slowly, like reluctantly releasing a loved one from an embrace. I felt hot. Drinking again from the dirty glass, I read over the last two paragraphs. In the corner of my eye, I saw something glowing, but when I turned to look at it directly, there was nothing. Rubbing my eyes, I stood and walked to the bathroom. I felt really hot, uncomfortably hot so I ripped my shirt off and tossed it on the floor in the hallway.

As I splashed cold water on my face, I thought about Duke Porter, and how much I loved and admired him. He was everything I wanted to be, and simultaneously everything I knew I would never be. My hero and my best friend.
A lethal stink penetrated my nostrils while I was standing staring at my dripping, haggard face in the mirror, but the alarm I felt at first passed quickly when I realised it was emanating from the pile of sweat laden clothing on the bathroom floor.

No longer feeling unnaturally heated, I returned to the office, listening to the whispering trees as they brushed the windows, gently rocked by a cool breeze. The curtain fluttered over the desk flicking the upper layer of cigarette butts from the ashtray onto the floor. For a moment I thought I saw the glowing again but I relegated it to imagination and determined to return to the book.

Duke Porter apologised in his gruff and insincere way before ordering the plant worker who had saved him from considerable pain to get away from the gates because they were dangerously hot.

Grabbing a stick from the ground, He pushed it against the gate which to his surprise yielded instantly and swung inwards to reveal an apocalyptic scene. Amidst flashing lights and blaring sirens smoke poured from countless infernos and Porter felt bile rising in the back of his throat at the sight of the ragged and disfigured carcasses in the centre of it all. It looked like a ball of twine except this string was limp and rotting body parts. Dogs mainly, but a few cats and as he looked more closely, more than a few pigs. The luminescent paste poured through every gap between the bits and pieces of dead animals and filled all their orifices, lighting them from inside, weirdly like a Halloween pumpkin.

Again I saw the glow, but this time I refused to ignore it. Wait a minute, I thought, I am seeing what I am writing. Despite assuring myself thus, I still walked slowly to the corner of the room where I had seen the light. The room was dark apart from the focused beam which illuminated my desk, and a faint gleam floating wearily through the window from the streetlight out front of my house.

‘Pigs,’ I said aloud. ‘Zombie pigs.’ As I examined the wall, I realised I was alone and talking to it as if it were my trusted friend. Had I been talking out loud all night? There was nobody here to tell me whether I had or not, and I could not remember. I peered intently at the wall, pushing my face closer and closer to it. It stunk of dirty laundry too.

‘Okay,’ I said to the wall. ‘I can talk to myself if I want to. What’s wrong with that? It’s actually a mark of incredible and indisputable genius. But where was I…ah yes, writing a horror masterpiece. Duke Porter and the Zombie Pigs.’

The breeze kicked up into a wind which sent the curtain flapping over the desk again so reluctantly I shut the window, and lit another cigarette. I was getting hot again.

The Duke stood dumbfounded before the open gate, unable to move a muscle. Others gathered behind him to watch the fantastic spectacle of decaying carcasses reanimating. The paste was somehow reviving them. Gradually the twisted ball of flesh began to unravel as one mutilated animal after another disengaged itself from the mass and stood groggily on their paws. Porter and the other onlookers were frozen in horrible disbelief.

After some time I realised I was sitting motionless. Shirtless and sweating. Dry mouthed and confused. I looked at my hand and saw the cigarette had burned right down to the butt as it lay unsmoked between my yellow stained index and middle fingers. A glow from the corner was accompanied by a fresh wave of dank bathroom odours. Or was there something else in here? Yes, a rotting smell. A childhood memory of a rat which my dad had trapped and killed under my bed without knowing it, confirmed it.

I didn’t realise immediately that my glass was empty even though I drank from it. ‘I’m pretending to drink,’ I said to the wall. Then I waited for an answer. When none was forthcoming, I continued, ‘I am delirious. I need a drink of water and something to eat.’

An angry gust of wind whistled through the cracks of my house, and the office door slammed shut. I jumped. I could see Duke Porter walking slowly towards the gate of the incinerator yard, but his face kept changing. First himself, the imagined likeness of Brad Pitt, then me, the antithesis of him, then a pig’s face. I was moving towards the door, so slowly that I might have needed an hour to cover the five steps needed to reach it. When I finally arrived, it was locked from the outside.

Stupefied by alcohol and sleep deprivation, I had not, up to this point in time, considered seriously what might be happening to me. As I wrenched and ripped at the door handle with both hands fortified by panic, I cried out for help. An over reaction? Couldn’t I have easily slipped out the window? Guilty on two counts but as I said, I was freaking out!

I spun around to look at the computer screen and watched the words I had written dance on the screen, fading in and out, and my head began to feel like the only part of my body still functioning. But it was heavy and caused me to lose my balance. I heard glass shattering and felt pain, sharp and cruel in my stomach and my arm before I lost consciousness.

Duke Porter shook off his fear like sand from a beach towel as he steeled himself with the resolve of a superhero. He commanded all the stunned bystanders to leave immediately, assuring them that he, Duke Porter, had everything under control. At that moment he felt invincible. Although he had no plan, his heart swelled with the courage of a pride of lions as he stepped forward towards the mob of four-footed living dead. Picking up an iron bar he had spotted on the ground, Porter began to beat his left palm with the weapon and threaten the zombie animals with death should they attempt to pass him. For a moment neither Duke nor the animals moved so he kept on drumming his palm with the rod of iron, and swearing insults at the evil creatures.

Suddenly I stopped typing and looked at my hands, they hurt, especially the left one and my palms were all cut open. Blood covered the keyboard and the desk, and my glass was empty again. I screamed in pain, fright and frustration as I tried to remember what had happened to me. Wasn’t I on the floor a second ago? I could not even recall what I was writing about anymore. The door! The door was locked from the outside. I was trapped. I panicked, then I fell. The window! I cursed myself for not thinking of the window before. Rushing to the window, I told the wall how happy I was to be free, to be alive.

Half way through however, I lost heart. I had totally forgotten that somebody must have locked me in the office, and that somebody was possibly still in my house. I am ashamed to say that at that crucial moment my courage failed, and I retreated back inside the office to consider my position. The mixed stench of body odour, wet towels and rotting flesh was so thick in the air that I gagged on it every time I took a breath. I lit a cigarette, sat on the floor and listened. At first there was only heavy silence which brought me tremendous relief, but then a heard a sound. An unexpected sound coming from just outside the office door. I crawled along the floor to get closer to the door and as I did the unmistakeable sound of snorting filled my ears with a new kind of terror. A flashback again to my childhood where I was surrounded by grunting porkers, covered in mud, slipping and sliding, desperate to escape their stench while in the background I could hear my brothers laughing. I hated pigs!

It was then, in an instant of miraculous clarity that I realised I was writing my own worst nightmare. A light came on, its beam fingering its way under the door, and the animal sounds disappeared. Again I listened. Cowering, rigid with fear. Light began to break into my office cautiously as though not wanting to disturb me but I was already extremely disturbed.

Magically the increasing light infused me with some courage, and after smoking another cigarette with insane alacrity, I edged closer to the door, and stretched out my trembling hand towards the handle. Still locked. I heard a strangely familiar voice. Mum?

I called out, ‘Mum? Mum, is that you?’

Footsteps, the handle turning, her voice clear and concerned. ‘Are you all right, dear?’

The best way to describe my answer was incoherent babble. I mentioned the lights, the pigs, the heat, the smell, the blood, and the locked door in a continuous verbal stream which could not have made any sense to her. The look on face said as much.

‘Did you say the door was locked?’ she asked. ‘It wasn’t locked. I opened it straight up.’

BANG!

I jumped and grabbed for the security of my mother’s embrace. ‘What was that?’

She pushed me away gently and looked me in the eye. ‘Something fell…probably the broom I was using. I stood it against the wall when I heard you calling. What’s wrong with you?’

‘A broom?’ I said incredulous. ‘That wasn’t a broom, mum.’

She turned and walked away but before I could ask where she was going, she bent down and picked up a broom off the floor. When she turned, I screamed. Her face was a pig’s face, framed in her hair. I spun on my heels, skating on the slippery tiles, and flung myself back into the office slamming the door shut behind me. Picking myself up off the floor, I noticed the computer screen was still on, the screen saver apparently not functioning. I read the last words I had written as though they had been written by somebody else.

The rotting mangy animal zombies eased confidently towards Duke as he stood defiantly between them and the gate. They barked and yowled and grunted menacingly as they advanced. Porter swung at the first of the pigs and his rod of iron connected with its head instantly dissolving it in a splash of green paste. Too easy, thought Duke. Even as the animals began to surround him, increasing their numbers, he was confident he could dispatch the whole hellish horde back to the cesspool abyss from which they had sprung. Duke Porter felt no fear.

I suddenly remembered the satanic beast which had impersonated my mother waiting on the other side of the door. Waiting? Why? I had not locked the door. I hesitated. Duke Porter felt no fear. I created him, I feel no fear, I told myself, but still I sat; a heartless statue.

The office door opened, I felt the light on my back but I did not turn around. I was ready to die, and this realisation relaxed me. Shoulders unhunched, heartbeat slowing, breathing quite normally, I prepared myself for death.

‘What have you done to this room? Mandy’s only been gone for two days and you’ve turned the house into a pig sty. Boy, am I glad I decided to come over and see how you were doing. Badly, apparently. What is that smell? Is that you?’

Mum kept on yabbering as I turned very slowly to face her. I still expected a pig’s face to greet me, but was relieved to discover nothing but an angry and disappointed scowl on my mother’s face. Sheepishly, I listened as she ranted and raved, criticising me for this and that, berating me for my lack of self respect, lambasting my laziness.

She wanted me to wash and help her clean up but I protested that I needed to finish the chapter I was working on. I yielded to her undeniably authority when she said I would not write one more word until I smelled and looked like a human being instead of a pig.

‘Mum,’ I said, ‘I’ll do whatever you say but can you please stop talking about pigs. I hate pigs!’

Bio: D.A. Cairns is married with two teenagers and lives on the south coast of New South Wales where he works part time as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had 19 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) Devolution was his first novel and novel no.2 is currently seeking an agent or a publisher. Anyone interested?

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Low Tide on the Bryn By Craig Kyzar

Aug 18 2013

She awoke with reluctance to the cruel charade of another day. In the fleeting moment before complete consciousness, she lay with her eyes closed as her body processed the surroundings and suppressed the screaming of her dreams. The room was chilled, as always, and the tickle of salt air on her nose confirmed her usual position facing a slightly cracked window. But this morning was different; she did not need to open her eyes to see that. As she clutched a small, tattered baby blanket to her chest, familiar tears began to well. But these tears were not met with the usual burning of muted morning sunrays.

She could not remember the last time she awoke pre-dawn, or had even wanted to. Her mind toyed briefly with the notion that she was finally turning an important corner but the deadened emotions within seemed to negate those hopes immediately.

“Maybe,” she thought, extending her arm back for the comforting warmth of his body but finding only a barren handful of empty sheets. They had not greeted a morning together in weeks, nor would they do so today.

Echoing down a short hallway, the groan of old wooden floors alerted Tom to her awakening … yet he made no effort to draw away from his piping cup of coffee for any sort of proper greeting. She was all he had left and he hated himself for the uncontrollable resentment he felt toward her.

“Arabella,” he acknowledged without turning as she crossed the creaky threshold into the kitchen. “You’re up early.”

Her steps were plodding and deliberate, as though not entirely conscious. From behind, she reached out to gently touch his shoulder but his instinctive recoil shut her down once again.

“There’s coffee on the…” But it was too late. Arabella quickly reclaimed her hand and continued on her path. Placing the remains of the powder blue blanket gently on the edge of the kitchen table, she shuffled through the rickety front door and down the aging steps of their modest stone cottage, mottled with an array of seaside lichens in various earthy hues.

As he watched her leave, Tom cast his eyes downward: too exhausted to berate himself further. He knew that she blamed herself more than he ever could and he so wished he could let go of the anger and be of some comfort. After all, the love of a mother is unrivaled. Compared to such a powerful force, his own bitterness was just petty.

Beyond the tall grasses of the bryn, Arabella’s toes sunk beneath the gritty sand that forever delineates the lush vegetation above from the lapping waves below. Her strawberry hair blew randomly across her fine features as ominous clouds battled overhead. Here, at the edge of the world, the weather was always violent and the atmosphere always cast in foreboding shades of yellow and green.

While she had never measured her strides or labeled a single landmark, the precise location of her sanctuary was never difficult to find. Despite the perpetual shifting of the earth beneath the tides, this spot was clearly and forever marked with heartbreak. Her screams, like invisible scars, still lingered on the howling winds as she followed the siren song of her own sorrow to this personally sacred space.

Here, at the tip of a natural jetty far from prying eyes, she was free to cry. Such was her daily ritual. This was where he drowned. No, this was where she let him drown … and she knew that is why Tom had never accompanied her here. But Arabella saw this place as so much more. This was the closest she would ever be to her son: a place to set aside the weight of self-hatred and breathe in the lingering essence of their final moments together. She was not ready to give that up, and Tom had long ago stopped trying.

But something about this morning felt different. Perhaps it was the exceptionally tender hour, before the rest of the world had awoken, but the air was filled with a serene calm that was not coming from within. Through the rumbling of distant thunder came a silence usually filled with the rolling crash of water upon the shore. As Arabella approached to assume her mourning spot at the edge of land, she was bewildered to find … more land. Before her bare feet, the sea receded in a way she had never seen, revealing a narrow path that extended into the distance and vanished into the depths of an ethereal offshore mist. To each side, it appeared as though the sea had evaporated into the atmosphere for the sole purpose of the revelation, leaving behind a fragmented field of puddles merging into vast plains of shallows.

Had this really been there all along, resting just below the surface? Where did it lead? Was it really there at all? Perhaps she had finally given up the fight for sanity, as her husband obviously suspected, and this entire surreal landscape existed only in her mind.

Consumed in a swirl of uncertainty, Arabella experienced the first tinge of curiosity since the death of her child. That, in itself, inspired further investigation. With childlike abandon, she lowered herself one sizeable step onto the path. Surprisingly, it held firm beneath her, unlike the melting sands to both sides. Gaining added confidence with each step forward, Arabella was struck with sudden paralysis when her first glance back revealed a murky haze but no defined shoreline. Trapped and alone as the fog encroached on both sides, her curiosity quickly turned to panic.

In a rush of fear-laced adrenaline, the mind is capable of many things. Her mind, she was certain, heard a gentle voice on the breeze … his voice. As she doubled-back in the direction from which she came, she heard it once, and then again, at the same time heartwarming and horrifying, “Mummy!” While her heart longed to turn back and race into the mist, her feet carried her toward solid ground faster than she had ever moved before. The journey back seemed endless but Arabella just managed to climb ashore and dust the sticking sand from her clothes before turning back to the sea and watching the last of the once prominent path submerge again beneath the waves.

Arabella stood and shivered, silently stunned, as the thick fog dropped from the air and back into the shallows. There was no destination on the horizon. Indeed, there never had been. Not visibly so, anyway. But she was so certain that she had heard his words on the winds, and so desperate to believe the impossible.

Wandering into the edge of town, dazed and dirtied, it dawned on Arabella that she had not stepped out in public since young Austin’s funeral. Surely, her current appearance would do little to quell the rumors of her deteriorating mental state. Still, as much as she wanted to rush home and share with Tom, she worried about the reception such news would receive.

Instead, Arabella steadied herself and greeted her way through the small village, purposefully tight-lipped so as not to disclose too much of her experience with anybody at one time. God forbid she mention the haunting calls riding the winds at the water’s edge. Frustrated by the bubble of busybody presumption surrounding her, Arabella kept her inquiries polite and pleasant, limiting each to the mysterious path beneath the waves and the destination on its far end. Burdened with inescapable self-awareness, she meekly absorbed every stare and made every effort to disregard the gossip hanging audibly in her wake. But the exercise proved fruitless. According to all but her own eyes and feet, no such path existed. Indeed, the very idea of an Atlantean roadway beside their sleepy community dripped with lunacy. If it had never been seen then it could not be real. This was no collection of dreamers or adventurers. These were simple people, with dirty hands and an affinity for the familiar. Each had their place and none were eager to deviate. Perhaps this was why she never felt at home here; her spirit had always been far too open to the preposterous.

The next morning, Arabella slipped from the covers as Tom slept, greeting the first rays on the horizon with the slightest hint of a long-lost smile. Through force of habit, she again placed the tatter of blue fabric on the table’s edge. But this time she turned back to reclaim it and stuff it deep in her pocket before battling the gravity of the sloping hillside in the relative blindness of early morning. Along her familiar route, she sat on the damp sand of the jetty’s edge for what felt like hours, studying the increasing light in a futile attempt to identify the pending approach of the phenomenon. Her entire essence hummed with curiosity. Like a wide-eyed child on the brink of discovery, her body rocked with the methodical rhythm of the lapping waves. As the morning wore on and the gulls began to squabble, each passing minute intensified and lengthened through a lens of frustrated expectation.

As the first flickers of self-doubt crept among her thoughts and she pondered the long walk home, a thunderhead formed over open waters and drew in toward shore. Arabella held her breath and closed her eyes. She stood at land’s end; her face lifted to the heavens and arms extended to embrace her consumption … awaiting a downpour that never came. The sky again filled with a rolling fog and the water’s solid surface fragmented into a patchwork of broken oases. At once, the dead winds revived with a thunderous snap as a charge of electricity bathed her bare skin. For the briefest of moments, she lingered, basking in the empty validation that she was right and they were all so wrong.

Arabella’s timid green eyes opened to the same alien landscape she had discovered the previous day. But this time, all semblance of fear and confusion gave way to calm and curiosity. Again, she lowered herself onto the firm pathway and waded into the fog, this time far deeper than the last, training her ears to every sound carried to her on the breeze.

Arabella was now entirely cut off from the world beyond the beach, or what little she knew of it – surrounded in every direction from a shapeless wall of blinding white that maintained a solid density just inches beyond her reach. To avoid disorientation, she kept her eyes downward, often looking back for the comfort of her own footprints.

Suddenly, a playful giggle broke the muffled silence of her cottony surroundings. Startled, she snapped her head forward just in time to witness a wake of swirling vapor over the path ahead, but not the solid mass that left it. Before she could process the confusion, another giggle raced across the path behind her as she turned to catch sight of the mischievous three-foot high shadow just beyond the curtain of fog. By all rights, she should have been terrified but that exuberant laugh that hung in the air brought Arabella instantly back to a place she never expected to revisit.

“Aus…Austin?” she pleaded into the mist as the figure kept elusively out of sight.

“Mummy!” The giggling voice bounced back from behind her, as though shouted through a long, echoing corridor connecting another place entirely.

Arabella spun around again, instantly noticing a pair of footprints not behind her but before her. They were a fraction the size of her own and left a much fainter impression in the damp sand, but they were there … and they clearly lead somewhere. She followed the tiny prints forward, through a palpably dense wall of air and into a sudden expanse of circular space.

The circle was barren, save for a small, smooth boulder to the right, ideally placed for sitting above the wet earth. Here, the fog kept its distance, creating a sense of breathing room relative to the constricting corridor between it and the real world. In the center of the circle stood little Austin: his beach attire still pristine and his dark hair perfectly combed. He had Tom’s hair, which had always sat so peculiarly atop that perfect reflection of her face.

“I’m sorry, mummy,” his sweet voice echoed within the tight confines, wonderfully oblivious to his plight, “I seem to have lost my hat.”

“My angel,” Arabella gasped amid an unexpected flood of tears, unleashing a violent flow of emotion that rolled through her body in spasms. In life, it had always been his favorite pet name and she never hesitated to use it, yet the connotations of the moment gave it all the more unintended relevance.

From the center of the circle, his gaze remained leery as he watched his mother collapse uncontrollably to her knees before reaching out to embrace him. He met her gesture not with a step toward her but rather a resolute step back.

“No, mummy,” he said with a proper firmness far beyond his tender years, “you mustn’t touch. You must never touch.”

Arabella’s heart sank as much from the reception as the inability to grasp and hold her baby but the dejection was short-lived. She was sharing a new stolen moment with her angel, after all. Perhaps even heaven had its drawbacks.

“Chase me, mummy!” Austin laughed away the disappointment, provoking a playful chase around the perimeter of the circle while Arabella made sure to keep her distance, as ordered. For what seemed far too short a time, mother and son ran and played until she could no longer catch her breath. She sat on her rock perch and proudly watched as Austin drew her pictures in the sand: drawings of a home he would no longer recognize, drawings of daddy, and drawings of the wondrous places he had since been. Her world, as tiny as it had now become, was perfect once again.

Suddenly, in the indistinguishable distance, a low, rumbling horn bellowed through the fog. It was nothing she had heard in an entire life spent on the shore, but it clearly meant something to Austin. His playful mood changed instantly as he tossed aside his drawing stick in a huff and looked upward with pleading eyes.

“You have to go now, mummy.”

“What?” Arabella panicked. “No!” How in the world could she be asked to walk away from him again?

“You have to go while you can.” He did his little boy best to hide the melancholy tone beneath a reassuring calm. “Hug daddy for me?” Austin always had a way of prowling his seated father, sneaking ever closer from behind and leaping up to hug his neck while dangling over his broad shoulders in gleeful victory. And it suddenly struck Arabella why Tom now looked so lost in that familiar old chair.

“Come with me!” she pleaded, but the fog was already closing in. “Baby, wait!” Austin’s eyes lit up as Arabella reached into her pocket and retrieved the humble remains of blue. She extended her hand as he raced back across the circle, stopping just beyond reach. It sliced her to the soul that she could not hand him his security blanket directly, let alone hug him goodbye. Instead, keeping a brave face, she kissed the blanket and placed it atop the rock.

As the rising waves began once again lapping at the sides of the pathway, she stepped beyond the circle and raced back toward shore. Austin’s last words hung in the air behind her as she stepped back onto the beach just ahead of the tide, “Come see me again, mummy.”

Tom sat, motionless, on the porch as Arabella returned home. Her cheeks were stained with tears but her mood was far from sad.

“Where’ve you been?” His voice sounded gruff and irritated, but that was simply his way. The more she pulled away, the more ineffective he became at keeping her mind stable and grounded in reality … the more he failed as a husband. He would never know how he would have fared as a father. This was the last responsibility that meant anything in his simple hillside life.

“Just … down at the beach.” While a large part of her was thrilled that he cared to ask, she was not at all ready to explain her morning’s adventure to the most stubborn and pragmatic man she had ever known. Still, she steadied herself for additional questioning as her body vibrated from the boiling emotions inside.

“Where’s the blanket, Bella?”

“I don’t know, Tom.” Arabella hesitated and turned away, knowing her rather strict limitations as a liar. “It has to be around here somewhere.”

To avoid an unnecessary fight, Tom let the discussion die peacefully. Still, her erratic behavior was increasingly worrisome, and not only for the awkwardness it caused in town.

The ritual repeated again the next morning, with Arabella rising even earlier to sneak into Austin’s dusty old toy chest and retrieve his most prized worldly possession: a hand-carved locomotive, given to him by Tom’s father on his fourth birthday. The vision of her angel, alone and bored on that desolate patch of earth, had grown so loud in her thoughts. Perhaps his train would bring a few hours of comfort. The next day, she surprised Austin with his most battle-tested toy soldier … and the day after that, a weatherworn jack in the box.

As the week wore on, Tom would busy himself through the early hours, keeping his mind and hands too occupied to fret over his wife’s routine disappearances or the sudden, seemingly delusional, contentment that had so swiftly replaced her chronic depression. Thinking only made him wonder. Was the poor girl finally beyond salvation? Or had she somehow found peace and moved on without him? If the latter, should he be relieved by her recovery or resentful at her ability to let go of all the remorse that he still held so tightly? She was growing more detached from the outside world by the day, vanishing before daybreak and returning hours later. When she did return home, she did so without a word, wasting the remaining daylight hours coiled in a corner seat and gazing distantly through the window.

On the fifth morning, as Arabella broke the veil of her newfound sanctuary, she was met not with playful giggles but a pensive quiet. An expansive series of train tracks ran the perimeter of the circle, looping gracefully around the sitting stone and leaving intricate patterns in the impressionable sand. But on this morning, there were no indulgent laughs or imaginative locomotive noises enlivening the space. Instead, Austin sat in the circle’s center with his back to Arabella and his arms wrapped comfortingly around his legs. His face was buried against his knees as though he had been crying inconsolably before her arrival.

“Mummy? Am I bad?” The heartbreaking simplicity of the question poured forward, hitting the misty wall in front of him and rumbling along the outskirts to hit her ears hard from both sides. “Is that why I have to be alone in this place?”

“No, angel…” Again, the inability to embrace him rendered the words hard and inflexible. “There’s nothing bad about you.”

Austin turned slowly to face his mother; her words provided empty comfort, at best. “Where are the other children?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart. I honestly don’t.” Their community had always been composed of older adults, many of them too poor to ever consider a family, so Austin’s brief life had never been particularly filled with joyful socialization. But Arabella knew this was not what he meant. The same question had consumed her thoughts for days: why was her baby left in limbo on the tides when it was she who deserved the burden of punishment for her momentary neglect? His loneliness was inconceivable, surely dwarfing the emotional isolation she suffered at home.

The day’s visit maintained a quiet tone throughout, filled with arm’s length consolation and shared outbursts of frustrated tears. Through necessity, the two had found creative ways to share the illusion of contact and, on this day, Austin sat on the hem of Arabella’s soiled dress as each tightly grasped opposite ends of his deteriorating blanket remains. Her resolved continually weakened beneath the weight of maternal instinct, as she grew increasingly unable to envision a fate terrifying enough to outweigh the solace of a single embrace. But Arabella honored the rule, all the same, fueled only by the uncertainty of the repercussions that a touch would have on her baby.

As the familiar bellow pierced the fog, signaling the end of another visit to this realm, she turned away to hide her daily anguish.

“Mummy?” Austin started, just as Arabella stepped through the fog. “You will come visit me always, won’t you?”

“Every day, Angel … you be a good boy.” With that, she once again cried her way across the land bridge back to the tangible world, and another day of misery.

“So, Tom … how is that lovely little lady holding up these days?” With his usual impeccable bedside manner, Doc Josiah tinged his inquiry with polite pleasantry but the rumors had long-since spread about town. The poor girl was now seeing things and wandering through public looking a complete mess. Perhaps the question had become largely rhetorical.

“I’m worried about her, Doc,” Tom admitted through his grizzled exterior. She disappears daily, spends most of her time in her head … she’s not eating … I fear I might be losing her.”

The two men talked through the severity of the situation before sending Tom on his way back to the fields with a firm pat on the back and token assurance that all would be ok. With the white-haired old doctor’s help, Tom would no longer passively sit and watch Arabella deteriorate beyond recognition. And while it gave him no pleasure to betray her trust, he was committed to doing whatever it took to recover his fading wife.

That evening, over modest plates of picked over cod and potatoes, Tom stared across the table: searching Arabella’s distant eyes for any sign of coherence.

Without blinking or shifting her gaze up from the table, Arabella laid down her fork, retrieved the small linen from her lap to wipe her lips, and stated with an eerie calm, “Austin misses you, Tom.”

Tom stared back in bewilderment, uncertain whether to speak at all for fear of exacerbating the spiraling nightmare. He rose from his seat and rounded the table, gently spinning Arabella toward him and kneeling at her side. “Arabella, sweetheart, Austin is gone.”

“No,” Arabella corrected, at first dismissive and then belligerent, “no! He’s not gone. He’s just … not here.”

“Not here? Then where is he, Bella? Where is he if not here?”

“I can’t…” As far as she was concerned, her lucidity had never wavered. So why was she suddenly so disbelieved? Faced with such abrasive scrutiny, what could she say? “Come with me, Tom. Let me show you.”

As Tom lowered his head in devastation and defeat, a hollow knock on the front door echoed through the small cottage. Tom exhaled deeply as he rose to answer the call.

“Tom?” Arabella panicked as the doctor stepped over the threshold after a brief discussion outside. “Tom, let me show you! Please!” Her pleas went unanswered as Tom restrained her thrashing arms. Before she could process what was happening, a sharp needle jab gave way to a dull malaise that spread through her body like a racing virus. As the two men stood above her with palpable concern on their faces, Arabella began to drift out of consciousness. It was no long-term solution, but at least now she would rest. Into the dead of night, Tom sat over her and silently prayed: prayed it was a start in the right direction.

The next morning, Tom woke to Arabella’s screaming howls and a sun already ascended high into the morning sky. His own lack of sleep left his senses dull and prevented any real ability to stop her from pushing him aside in a manic dash out the door and down the hillside.

She sat along the water’s edge, silently willing a parting of the waves that never came. Watching the languid ebb and flow of daylight through the clouds, it became clearer and clearer: she had missed it. She had broken her promise. The longer she sat, the more ominous became her thoughts. Without ever understanding it, what if she had also broken whatever delicate link had granted her and her baby this impossibly unlikely second chance? What if her last goodbye had become the last goodbye?

As Arabella took refuge in a small thicket of woods within sight of the shore, she eluded the chilly onset of dusk and the growing calls of the searching townspeople. Her exposed skin grew tingly and then numb as she wallowed in the dreaded thoughts of that remaining spiritual thread of her son, adrift and alone in an isolated world, betrayed yet again by his own mother. As desperately as she wanted to, she could not blame Tom. She had married a simple and closed-minded man all those years ago and, for all his shortcomings, he had always stayed true to who he was. No, there had only ever been one failure in this family, and she was determined to hold on to every bit of self-hatred.

Arabella stared up at the passing hours overhead. The icy air of the seaside held no moisture, opening itself to the rich black tapestry and vibrant celestial shimmer of the heavens beyond. She studied every detail of a crisply defined moon through the sky’s crystalline clarity. Every so often, her mind would wander back down the beach to the terrible concern poor Tom must be enduring. But Tom could always take care of himself and Austin needed her far more than this tangible world ever did.

On the far side of midnight, after the darkest dark but long before the earliest rays, Arabella awoke on a bed of lush grass beneath a violent gathering storm. As she crept from her hiding place and made her way to the water’s edge, a familiar electrical charge brought her skin to life. She had never thought to seek the elusive path by moonlight, not that Tom would have ever tolerated such unconventional behavior.

The faint illumination from a waning moon guided the way as Arabella cautiously approached the end of the familiar outcropping. As though awaiting her arrival, Arabella’s footprints upon the ledge prompted an immediate recession of the tides despite the steady fall of a light rain. The drops fell heavier with every step deeper into the iridescent fog, until the rainfall upon the shore behind her became a deafening roar, interspersed with whips of thunder and lightning strikes that stabbed deeply into the dense mist and unleashed refracted light across the entire horizon.

Within the soupy haze, Arabella remained shielded from the downpour and protected against the vicious release of energy from above. By all rights, the shallows near land should have boiled onto the shore during such a storm, yet Arabella confidently strode forward, deeper down a path uninhibited by rising waters.

Stepping into the circle, Arabella instantly spotted Austin leaning next to the sitting stone, cowering against the only protection this world afforded. Just as in life, his eyes filled with terror and the overwhelming need for the comfort of her arms. The look was poignant but exquisite and the nurturing spirit within Arabella welcomed it, in spite of the helpless fear it conveyed. This was where she was needed; it was the only place she would ever find joy.

“Austin, sweetheart…” Her voice again rang with the omnipresent calm of a loving mother at ease in her role. “What happens if mummy touches?”

Austin’s voice stumbled with trepidation. Was he allowed to share this with her? And what consequences would he face if he did? Encouraged by a gentle nod, he continued, “Then you stay here … with me.”

Another crash of thunder pierced deeper into the shielding fog, eliciting an involuntary whimper from the cowering child.

Arabella smiled sympathetically at his reactions. Since the day he was born, Austin had always been terrified of violent weather. She dropped to one knee and extended her arms without reservation. “Come to mummy, angel.”

Austin tentatively crawled across the circle to mere inches from her outstretched hands. “But what about daddy?”

Reaching forward, Arabella took her baby in her arms and pulled him tightly against her. In that moment, an overwhelming sensation of lightheadedness tore the energy from her body and rippled down her entire being. After a moment of recovery and a long overdue kiss on the cheek, she responded, “Daddy is going to be just fine.”

Two weeks later, the town said goodbye to Arabella in a humble seaside service, not far from the spot where the tattered remains of her dress washed ashore. Tom said nothing; he could not have spoken if he had wanted to.

As the service ended, the townspeople lined up to offer moments of solace and shared memories of a beautiful young girl before dispersing to their waiting lives and families. Tom stood entirely alone, brooding beneath a yellowing sky that respectfully deferred to the sadness of the day. He had not set foot on wet sand since the day Austin was lost but fate now gave him no choice: not if he wanted to say a proper goodbye of his own. As he removed the small wreath of white roses and baby’s breath from a makeshift stand of twigs, the air grew stale and heavy. For a lingering moment, he stood atop a modest peak that quickly descended on all sides. The sloping hillside ahead and the town behind him existed largely in shadow, deprived of contrast by the soul-sapping cloud cover.

He could have stopped at any point along the water but something pulled him along the shore to a destination he could not anticipate. His mind meandered over years of bittersweet memories as his feet pushed forward, until he found himself at a standstill – overlooking a sea that had now taken everything. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if it would accept him as willingly as it had welcomed his family.

As the winds shifted and the clouds rolled landward, Tom kneeled to float the wreath atop the lapping waters. Saying a silent farewell, he turned for the lonely quiet of the cottage. Mere steps into his journey home, his ears rang with a crackling silence as rhythmic waves ceased to fill the air. Looking over his shoulder, Tom fought a lifetime of reason to accept the scene behind him. From the end of the jetty extended a narrow road amid a swirling corridor of dense fog. At his feet, the wreath now lay at the start of the pathway, encircling his son’s prized locomotive.

Tom reached down to retrieve and clean the toy train, the physical contact invoking a degree of acceptance. Tom found himself struggling with a foreign desire to step upon that path and learn where it might lead. After all, he had nothing left to lose. Still, there were chores waiting at home, alongside an empty new life of solitude. Responsibility had always been Tom’s lot in life. His dreamer was forever gone, as was his light.

Tucking the locomotive beneath his arm, Tom turned for home. As he stepped away from shore, the winds turned again, this time carrying a single enticing echo. Tom turned back to the impossible pathway and dared the sound to repeat. After an endless moment of silence, it did just that, and just once more…

“Daddy!”

AUTHOR BIO

Craig Kyzar is a former award-winning journalist and international attorney, earning his Master of Laws degree from NYU School of Law. Upon graduation, Craig spent eight exciting years practicing law in large firms around Manhattan before turning his focus toward a much smaller clientele. Today, Craig is heavily involved in nonprofit work dedicated to enhancing children’s literacy skills and connecting economically disadvantaged youth with a life-changing love of reading.

When not frolicking in fiction and playing with poetry, Craig’s editorial columns and articles are regularly featured across several news outlets, providing uniquely provocative views on legal, political and humanitarian issues. His heartwarming personal essays have also appeared in journals such as Recovering the Self.

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Donald Trump to The Rescue by Peter Wood

Aug 11 2013

Bruce was almost relieved when the Ruport Murdoch slammed its interstellar drive into reverse. He didn’t know why the ship had stopped light-years from Earth, but at least it got him out of another pointless argument with his wife. Since boarding the star ship five years ago it seemed like Bruce and Tammy were always bickering about the pizzeria they ran with Bruce’s brother, Rusty.
With his faded Red Sox cap turned backwards Rusty leaned against the bulkhead as the ship shook. He laughed. “Man, that was amazing.”
Six months pregnant, Tammy rested in a chair. She glared at Rusty. “Glad you’re having fun. You ever think the drive might be blown?”
Rusty shrugged. “Ain’t no use in worrying.”
Bruce steadied himself against the kitchen counter while the vibrations slowed. “What the hell happened?”
As if in response the ship’s P.A. crackled to life. “The interstellar drive is fine. We stopped, because another Earth ship contacted us.”
The P.A. explained that with the time dilation the new ship, the Donald Trump, had left Earth twenty five years after the Rupert Murdoch with an improved interstellar drive. The Trump could reach the colony in three months, instead of five more years. It could take some colonists from the Rupert Murdoch. More details were coming.
Tammy’s eyes had a faraway look. “Only three more months.”
Bruce didn’t believe it was that straight forward. Nothing in a corporation controlled galaxy was free. “They didn’t say we could all go.”
Tammy rolled her eyes. “You’re so damned pessimistic.” She marched into the pizzeria’s tiny dining area. She joined a group of physicists and a man Bruce didn’t recognize.
The stranger wore a goofy grin, like a tourist gawking at big city skyscrapers. He must be a stiff, one of the fat cats who escaped the tedium of a long space voyage by spending most of the trip in suspended animation.
Bruce hated the stiffs. The beautiful people.
Rusty’s girlfriend, Lori, sat at the only other table that hadn’t cleared after the announcement. Lori stood up. “Rusty, I have to go. They’ll need me in Cryo.”
Rusty grinned and grabbed her arm. “You can be late.”
She jerked free. “No, I can’t. The lab’s probably going to thaw out everybody. Do you have any idea how complicated that is?” She rushed to the air lock.
“You think we should start making pizzas for the stiffs?” Bruce asked Rusty. Those in suspended animation had prepaid to have various things waiting for them when they awoke. A surprisingly large number craved pizza. “Maybe your girlfriend knows if the stiffs want their orders.”
Rusty was quick to correct him. “Lori’s not my girlfriend. She doesn’t like me calling her at work.” Rusty changed the subject. “You hear about that stiff who thawed out a few months ago and demanded lobster and champagne.”
And even though Bruce couldn’t afford lobster on Earth, much less at inflated prices an interstellar flight, he knew the stiff had gotten everything he wanted. “Some of them bastards even got their pets frozen with them.”
An HVAC grunt stepped through the air lock and fiddled with the room’s temperature controls.
Bruce approached the worker. He half expected the grunt to hit him up for a bribe. Stuck on a company town of a ship for ten years meant many ship workers relied on payoffs to get by. “Are the guys in the deep freeze waking up?”
The man sneered. “I don’t care. We don’t get to leave early. Maintenance goes down with the ship, man.”
“Thanks,” Bruce mumbled. He should have known better than to expect a straight answer. Low men on the ship totem pole, ship workers resented him, because he had his own business. Bruce could afford some of the Murdoch’s extras, like a multi room apartment and time in the exercise quadrant.
Tammy walked up wheezing from the exertion. Her pregnancy was slowing her down. “Did you call the Cryo Lab and see when they’re waking the stiffs?”
“Not yet.”
Tammy sighed. “Do I have to do everything?” She pointed to Rusty who was now laughing with the HVAC guy. “Why doesn’t your brother call his girlfriend?”
“He doesn’t want to.”
Tammy’s voice cracked. “You need to get us off this ship. We can’t raise a child here.”
* * *
Bruce got the Cryo Lab on the holo screen. Lori muttered a halfhearted hello. She kept looking about as workers in lab coats rushed about furiously in the background. She said she had no idea if the clients wanted their damned pizza and hung up.
Bruce decided to prepare the stiffs’ orders. If he was going to get to the colony with something to show for the long trip, he couldn’t afford to make anyone angry. Maybe he’d squirrel away enough money to outbid the stiffs for one of the best properties.
Tammy diced onions on the galley kitchen’s narrow counter. Unlike Bruce, the stresses of the trip rarely got to her. Some passengers couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without taking anxiety medication.
Rusty flipped through channels on the holovision and nursed a beer. His Red Sox cap sat on the table. He never came to work without it, despite Tammy’s constant comments that it did not look professional.
The airlock opened. A man wearing a strange uniform entered. The stranger flashed a salesman’s smile and held out his hand. “I’m Ensign Luis Deville from the Donald Trump.”
Bruce wiped his hands on his apron and shook Deville’s hand. He introduced Tammy and Rusty. “Has it really been twenty five years since we left?”
Deville nodded. “Bruce, it’s been at least that long.”
Rusty jumped up. “Hey, how my Red Sox doing? They won the Series yet?”
“They won it about ten years ago. But the last few years nobody’s beaten Tokyo, not even Mexico City,” Deville said.
“When I left they were talking about bull dozing Fenway,” Rusty said.
“Fenway’s still there,” Deville said.
“Fantastic.”
“Can we talk about something a bit more relevant?” Tammy snapped.
“Hey, want some pizza, bossman?” Rusty asked Deville.
Deville’s smile almost seemed genuine. “You got pepperoni, Rusty?”
“I’ll fix you right up.” Rusty began shaping a doughball.
Turning so Deville couldn’t see, Tammy rolled her eyes.
Deville set a comp cube on a table. “The first thing you need to understand is that we’re not a United Nations ship. I work for Interstellar Rescue. We save colonists.”
Bruce knew Deville’s kind. The new ship wasn’t on a humanitarian mission. It was here seeking corporate profit. This wasn’t a rescue. It was a hold up.
“Save colonists from what?” Bruce asked.
“Boredom. Wasting their lives. We’ll get you to the colony years faster that a piece of garbage like the Murdoch.”
Rusty sat down and handed Deville a beer.
Deville took a long sip. “Our ship is much smaller than yours.” He gestured about the room. “They don’t make big old cruise ships like this anymore.” He took another sip. “We get reimbursed by the U.N. for some passengers and after we meet our quota we’re allowed to charge additional passengers.”
Tammy glared. “It’s going to cost us to go to the colony?”
Deville shook his head. “It won’t cost everybody.”
Rusty stood. “Gotta get that pie.”
Rusty brought the pizza and sliced it on the table. He slipped a plate in front of Deville.
Deville shoved a slice into his mouth with plump fingers. Sauce splattered on his shirt. “Lord, this almost makes me want to switch ships.”
“Can we go on the Trump?” Tammy asked.
Deville swallowed. “I need some information first, Tammy. How are you guys related?”
Tammy’s eyes narrowed and she focused on Deville. “Bruce and I are married. Rusty is Bruce’s brother.”
Deville nodded. “Got it. Here’s the deal, Tammy. Rusty gets to go as part of the U.N. quota. One of you two also gets to go. One adult from each family. You and Bruce count as a family. Rusty is a second family.”
Tammy made no effort to hide her sarcasm. “Thank God we haven’t had our child yet. Or we might have to leave the baby behind.”
Deville put down his pizza. “Tammy, even then you’d be okay. The first two children in each family get free passage.”
“Your policy doesn’t make any sense,” Bruce said.
“I agree, Bruce. I wish we could take everybody for free. But, what can I do? It’s a United Nations mandate.”
Bruce snorted. “Like a U.N. mandate means anything.” The corporations had the U.N. in their back pockets.
Deville put down his beer. “The Trump doesn’t have to be here at all. We could have let you coast into the colony in your rusty antique while the new ships whiz past you. If your ship makes it at all.”
“Why wouldn’t our ship make it?” Bruce asked.
“Your drive has a history of breaking down. And when that happens a ship is on its own.”
Deville’s eyes darted as his retinal muscles activated the comp cube. The United Nation’s Space Agency’s holographic logo hovered over the table. Deville blinked as his eye movement triggered a virtual floating keyboard that only he could see. “Watch this. It explains things better than I can.” He slumped in his chair and let the comp cube continue the sales pitch.
“Ortiz Drive Death Trap,” boomed a voice. An image of rescue ships in deep space. “These ships arrived too late to save the UNSA interstellar Transport John D. Rockefeller. Another victim of the Ortiz drive.”
For the next few minutes Bruce watched a rapid fire montage of star ships in various stages of damage. The Stephen Jobs. The Sam Walton. The Ray Kroc.
Bruce’s stomach lurched. They had almost booked passage on the Kroc, but switched to the Murdoch when the Kroc wouldn’t let them open a restaurant.
Bruce wondered how many times Deville had sat through the holofilm or if the holofilm was even telling the truth. Interstellar Rescue’s claims about the drive might be an elaborate corporate con game to bilk an interstellar ship’s captive market.
Bruce felt a headache coming on. “How much will it cost for me to go on the Trump too?”
Deville waved his hand over the comp cube again. He pointed to the screen. “There’s the figure.”
Bruce’s headache worsened. “We can’t afford that.”
Deville took another sip of beer. “Bruce, when the Murdoch gets to the colony years after the Trump, it’ll be nothing better than scrap. If it makes it at all. The people who designed it are dead. Your ship could arrive in five years or twenty or thirty or never. It all depends on the drive and the relativity effect. You’d be taking a huge chance. I wish you could see that I’m trying to help you.”
Deville turned off the comp cube. “I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but the tickets are first come first serve. The U.N. mandated slots are guaranteed, but once we run out of paid slots, they’re gone. You need to buy a ticket. You owe it to your kid, Bruce.”
Bruce massaged his temples. He had two impossible choices. Go early and arrive owing money or stay on a ship with no customers and get there years late. He could pay for the trip if he cleaned out their savings. Hell, that still wouldn’t be enough. He’d have to borrow a third of it from Rusty.
“We can provide financing,” Deville said. “The terms are quite reasonable.”
* * *
After Deville left Bruce took a deep breath. “I’ll stay,” he said to Tammy.
Tammy stared at him. “And miss your kid growing up? No big deal, I guess.”
“Of course it’s a big deal. You think this is easy for me?” Bruce snapped.
Rusty stood up. “Time for a break.” He pulled out a joint and stepped into the utility hallway.
“Have you lost your mind?” Tammy asked.
Bruce closed his eyes. “I’m a businessman. We need money to survive on the colony.”
“Your child needs a Dad.”
Bruce put his arm around Tammy. “If I have to buy a ticket, we’ll arrive there in debt. My way we got money and a business.”
Tammy pulled away. “All you care about is money.”
“That’s not true.”
“What if the Murdoch’s drive breaks?” Her eyes pleaded. “If you stay, I could be years older than you when we see each other again. Your son or daughter could be grown. You might not even make it.”
“I know that,” Bruce mumbled.
Tammy sniffled. “I’m going to pack.” She stood up and walked to the air lock. She stopped and turned around. “Are you coming?”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Why can’t you leave now, Bruce? What could you possibly have to think about?”
Bruce did not know what to say. When he did not respond Tammy walked out of the restaurant.
As the air lock slid shut behind her Bruce knew that she would have slammed a door shut if she could.
• * *
While Bruce filled the stiffs’ orders he obsessed over the cost of a ticket on the Trump. But no matter how many times he ran through the numbers he still couldn’t make it to the colony without borrowing money.
When Rusty returned, Bruce wondered if he had seen Lori. Knowing Rusty he might have hooked up with some new girl. It was about time for his brother to screw things up again.
Rusty laughed. “Why you messing with those pies? You know there ain’t no pleasing a stiff.”
Bruce ladled sauce. “You gonna help?”
“Where’s Tammy?”
“She’s been helping,” Bruce grunted. “She’s pregnant, you idiot. She’s tired.”
Rusty opened the oven. Hot air rushed out. He rotated the pies so they would cook evenly. “These are almost finished baking.”
Bruce sprinkled mozzarella. “If you’re not too busy to do your job, could you take them out when they’re done and box them?”
Rusty closed the oven and leaned against the bulkhead. “You serious? You really gonna stay?”
Bruce scooped out a big handful of pepperoni and spread it on a pie. “What choice do I got?”
Rusty clasped Bruce’s shoulder. “Bossman, listen to me. Lori says the stiffs are buying all the extra seats to the colony. The Trump’s gonna sell out.”
“Why the hell don’t the god-damned stiffs just stay in the deep freeze?”
“Because they get whatever they want. You know that.”
“The stiffs have been sleeping for five years, doing nothing and they still get special treatment. What the hell have I been working for?”
“Bossman, you got to go on the Trump.”
“It’ll bankrupt us.” Bruce looked at the boxed pizzas and was at once overcome with rage.
At Interstellar Rescue. At the stiffs. But mainly at himself for not figuring out how to get to the colony without blowing all their savings.
The game was fixed. He couldn’t win. Hell, the cruise line probably owned Interstellar Rescue.
Bruce slammed his fist into the teetering stacks of pizza boxes and knocked them off the counter. Pizzas slid out and hot cheese oozed onto the floor. Tomato sauce mixed with grime and dust.
A rat sized sanibot scurried out of its cubbyhole to clean up the mess.
“Leave it alone!” Bruce barked.
With an indignant beep the sanibot slunk away.
Rusty grinned. “I guess you’re not finishing the orders.’
Bruce panted. “No, I’m not finishing the order. I got to take out a friggin’ loan.”
* * *

Deville tore off a jagged chunk of pizza. “Good stuff,” he said through a mouthful of food. He pointed to the mess on the kitchen floor. “What happened in there?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Bruce said.
“I told you the ship was breaking down. Even the sanibots are busted,” Deville said.
“I told it not to clean up the mess.” Bruce ran his fingers through his hair, a nervous habit he usually reserved for arguments with Tammy. “My wife and I have talked about your proposal. I need to take out a loan.”
Deville smiled. “You won’t regret it, Bruce.”
Rusty took a seat at the table. “So, you get a commission, right?” Rusty asked Deville.
“I do.” Deville’s eyes fluttered as he worked a virtual keyboard.
Rusty jotted a figure on a napkin. “Is it this much?”
“What are you doing?” Bruce asked.
Rusty spoke in a casual tone, as if he were offering to pick up a check at dinner. “Bossman, let me do something for you for once. Relax.”
Bruce was tired. He was in no hurry to hear about how much a loan would cost. He leaned back in his chair and listened to Rusty and Deville.
Deville’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your point?”
“Let’s skip the company’s fee. I’ll give you that much if you let my brother on that ship.”
Deville’s eyes lingered on the napkin. “It doesn’t matter if you pay me ten times the fee. Nobody extra goes on the Trump.”
Rusty smiled. “You’re not gettin’ my meaning. I’m not talking about anybody extra’s going. I pay you that and you let my brother go instead of me.”
“I can’t.”
“Sure you can. Say there was a mix up. What are they going to do? Come back and get me?”
“Why are you doing this?” Bruce asked Rusty.
Rusty shrugged. “I got to stay.”
Bruce wondered if Lori was pregnant. Or maybe like the HVAC guy she wasn’t allowed to leave the Murdoch.
“You know what’s funny?” Rusty asked Deville. “I figure Interstellar Rescue might be doing to you what you’re doing to us.”
Deville’s smile vanished. “I’ll do all right. I get along fine with Corporate.”
“Yeah, but by the time you get back to Earth the folks you know will be gone and a whole new group will be there.” Rusty smirked. “I reckon you’ll do fine. Interstellar Rescue’s putting your money away for you and it’s gonna be waiting for you when you get back. Because Interstellar Rescue’s all about helping people.”
“Shut up,” Deville said.
“I’m just trying to give you a little nest egg in case things don’t work out.” Rusty reached for the napkin. “But, you don’t need to worry about anything, I guess. You don’t need my money.”
Deville folded the napkin and put it in his pocket. “I want the money tonight. And if you change your mind, you’re not getting it back.”
* *
Bruce was giddy at the thought of seeing Rusty for the first time in eleven years. Today was the day the Ruport Murdoch finally arrived at the colony. He glanced at the clock. “Hurry up, honey.“
Tammy bounced their daughter, April, in her arms. “We got plenty of time.”
Russell, their ten year old son walked in the kitchen. “Do I have to go?”
Bruce picked up his son and hugged him. “You’re going to meet your uncle today. You’ll love him. He tells great stories and he loves sports. I bet he’ll go out to the recreation fields and play baseball with you.”
Tammy gave Russell a mother’s stern look. “Go clean up. We need to leave.”
It seemed like a lifetime ago that Bruce and Tammy boarded the Donald Trump. Bruce did not like thinking about the three month trip. From armed sentries preventing people without tickets from boarding to substandard living conditions the trip had been a nightmare. Interstellar Rescue had given them the bare minimum- a mat to sleep on, water and stale corporate rations. Everything else cost extra. Even medical care for pregnant women.
Bruce was surprised that he actually enjoyed the time away from his brother. But after the relief wore off he began to miss Rusty. When the Murdoch didn’t arrive on time he fell into a deep depression for almost a year. The colony assumed the Ortiz drive had claimed another ship.
Two weeks ago the colony received the first transmission from the Rupert Murdoch. Limping home with a damaged engine, the ship was almost at the colony.
“You got someone to cover the restaurant,” Tammy whispered as she put April in the bassinet.
Bruce grinned. Nothing was going to ruin his mood today. “Of course.” Their pizza place was thriving. Colonists appreciated having an alternative to the corporate restaurants that littered the city. He and Tammy were very lucky when an Earth chain had pulled out of the colony and offered its fixtures for sale dirt cheap.
Bruce drove through Prime Insurance City. Lord only knew how much the insurance conglomerate had paid for the naming rights. By the time Bruce and Tammy arrived, another improvement in the star drive had made the Donald Trump obsolete, and the city was already half built. Instead of being among the first colonists to settle the planet, Bruce and Tammy landed at a functioning starport that saw half a dozen ships a year.
The family stood in a crowd and watched the Rupert Murdoch appear over the tops of the towering trees that flanked Prime Insurance City. The ship slowly descended on the tarmac.
The gangway creaked to the ground. Hundreds of people spilled out. The crowd rushed to meet them.
Lori and Rusty walked down the gangway. Rusty looked good, about the same age as when the Trump left. Lori looked like hell. Her face was wrinkled and she had gray hair and easily appeared twice Rusty’s age.
Bruce ran up to meet his brother. “Rusty!”
Rusty gave him a blank look. “That’s my Dad. My name is Mike.”
Bruce stared at Rusty’s son. Yes, it wasn’t Rusty, but the family resemblance was strong. “I’m your Uncle Bruce.” He hugged his nephew.
Mike gawked at the sky. “This is huge. So much space.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Lori said. “It’s beautiful here.”
Mike turned his head back to the Trump. “I don’t know,” he muttered.
“Where’s Rusty?” Bruce asked Lori.
“The Trump left almost thirty years ago,“ Lori said. “Rusty and I had Mike five years after.” She sighed. “Rusty passed away two years ago.”
Bruce fought back tears, “How?”
Lori showed a sad little smile. “He died of colon cancer. After we lost the restaurant we couldn’t afford anything, but basic medical treatment.”
Tammy stood behind Bruce. She put her arm around him. “I’m so sorry, honey,” she whispered.
Bruce could think of nothing to say.
“Bruce, I loved your brother,” Lori said. “He was a screw up. I’m still not sure how he ran the restaurant into the ground, but I loved him.”
“He shouldn’t have given me his ticket,” Bruce said.
Lori shook her head. “Bruce, you’re wrong. That’s the one thing he did right. If he had gone on the Trump, I wouldn’t have had Mike.” She pointed to April and Russell who were standing behind Tammy. “And, those must be your kids. They’re beautiful children.”
“I could have bought a ticket,” Bruce muttered.
“I wasn’t allowed to go on the Trump,” Lori said. “Even all the stiffs together couldn’t have bribed my way out of my work contract.” She sat a small duffel bag down on the tarmac and reached inside. She pulled out a small object. “Rusty wanted you to have this.”
Bruce stared at Rusty’s battered baseball cap. His voice cracked. “I never saw him without it.”
“He wore it through Chemo,” Lori said. “He said the hat should go to somebody who had seen the Red Sox play.”
“Rusty dragged me to a few games.”
“He said he wanted it to go to family.”
Bruce put on the cap. It fit snug. “Thanks.” He stepped over to his children and picked up Russell. “Lori, I’d like you to meet my family.”

BIOGRAPHY

I am an attorney in Raleigh, NC. I have been a science fiction fan since falling in the love with the original Star Trek in the 1970s. My favorite writers include Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Margaret Atwood and Ernest Hemingway. I have had stories published in Bull Spec, Enounters, Stupefying Stories, Ray Gun Revival, Interstellar Fiction, Bards and Sages and Every Day Fiction

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Maternal By David Massengill

Aug 04 2013

Talia usually saw the pregnant woman walking along the beach where the government workers had piled all the bodies. But today the young woman was coming out of Islanders Market with a bag of groceries in one hand. She had sky-blue eyes and wavy black hair that nearly reached her waist.

And she was no longer pregnant.

“Hello,” Talia called from across the street. She felt a pang of guilt because she’d assured her husband, Frank, that she’d never speak to any of the nest people they’d seen on the island.

The woman turned toward her, surprising Talia. Usually, the nest people remained in dazed states due to the insects living inside their heads. They continued their daily routines as much as possible, yet they seemed oblivious to all that had occurred in the last 10 months. The destruction of the island’s population by poisonous, roach-like insects that killed you just by landing on your skin. The government’s evacuation of the survivors who were willing to trade their homes for a refugee center in Seattle. Talia and Frank were certain the nest people weren’t aware of the bugs inside their heads. After all, how could they go about their lives with such knowledge?

“It’s a lovely morning,” the woman called. She was looking past Talia at Seal Bay. Talia glanced behind her at the cloudy sky, the gray water, and the wreckage of the military plane that had crashed months ago on the adjacent island.

“Yes,” Talia lied. “Beautiful.” She started across the street toward the woman, and she glanced down at her wrists to make sure there was no exposed skin between her sleeves and her gloves. Frank had constructed her “body suit” out of a hooded blue tracksuit and a thick sheet of plastic that shielded her face and neck. Frank didn’t like her leaving the house for her solitary Sunday walks, but she told him she needed the alone time and exercise to keep her sanity. She didn’t mention she’d been keeping track of a pregnant nest person she’d spotted around town.

“My name’s Talia,” she said. She extended her hand, which was trembling. “I’ve seen you before, but we’ve never met.”

The woman gave her an empty look and said, “I’m Mary Beth. I come to town once a week to run errands.”

Talia smiled as she discreetly looked for the scab or scar that would confirm that Mary Beth was a nest person. She remembered watching a news program about nest people when there was still TV and the redbug attacks were limited to Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The commentator said it was unknown why the insects nested inside certain people. Some left their hosts without harming them while others immediately triggered death by poisoning. The one common denominator was that each nest person had an entrance wound on his or her face or neck.

Talia saw a dark red mark beneath Mary Beth’s pale chin. “Did you have your baby?” she asked. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t be so bold in her questioning, but she needed to know what happened to the child.

“The baby’s at home,” Mary Beth said, her face brightening. She looked almost fully conscious. “We chose the name Sarah.”

“So you live with your husband,” Talia said. She hoped her voice didn’t reveal her disappointment. But if Mary Beth had a healthy husband then Talia’s plan had gone to rot.

“My husband?” Mary Beth asked. She gave a distant look, and then there was a flash of terror in her eyes, as if she recalled something horrible. Her daze returned and she repeated, “We chose the name Sarah. Do you have any children?”

“No,” Talia said. Her response was barely more than a whisper. “My husband and I have been trying.”

She remembered how she and Frank had moved to the San Juan Islands two years ago to start their family. The move was just after her 37th birthday. She’d been certain that the stress of her paralegal job in Seattle was preventing a pregnancy. Frank didn’t mind that she wanted to give notice at work, and he was open to relocating because he could conduct his software design business anywhere. But he did suggest they stay in their condo on Queen Anne for another year.

“I feel like we need to get away from the city and all its distractions now,” Talia had said. She didn’t mention that she wanted to separate herself from her three closest friends, all of whom were new mothers who talked ceaselessly about their babies.

After the redbugs infested the island and the government workers came to collect the survivors, Frank asked Talia if she wanted to return to the city. She knew she’d never reproduce if they were confined to some cramped and stinking refugee center. She figured that with most of the residents deceased or evacuated, this gorgeous, forested island would be their private utopia. And their child’s as well.

“We’re resourceful people,” Talia had told Frank. “We’ve managed so far, and we’ll continue to do so.”

But they still hadn’t managed to make a baby.

“I wish you and your husband the best of luck,” Mary Beth said. She smiled robotically and started to walk away.

“Wait!” Talia said, suddenly terrified she’d lose this opportunity.

Mary Beth looked back at her with those expressionless eyes.

“We haven’t exchanged addresses,” Talia said. “I think we few people left on the island need to watch out for each other. I haven’t seen any swarms lately, but as you know the insects can come out of nowhere.”

“Insects?” Mary Beth asked. “I saw honeybees on my walk into town. It’s a lovely morning.”

“Where do you live?” Talia asked. She knew she sounded aggressive, but she didn’t care. She guessed Mary Beth wouldn’t either.

“Our house is a 10-minute walk from town,” Mary Beth said, “near the woods. Would you like to see it?”

“Please,” Talia said. She knew Frank would be expecting her return soon. But first she had to see the baby.

They walked to the house without speaking, and Mary Beth remained a few steps in front of Talia the entire time. Talia was going to try some small talk, but then Mary Beth began humming a monotonous, slightly eerie tune.

The house wasn’t near the woods so much as it was engulfed by them. Talia peered past trunks of evergreens and massive, flowering shrubs to see a small structure with peeling white paint. Surrounding the house was a picket fence with various gaps in it. Dry pine needles littered the ground.

Everyone’s yards had taken on wild qualities after the redbug attacks, but this property looked as if it were on the verge of becoming a ruin.

“Welcome to our home,” Mary Beth said before heading between the trees.

Talia followed until she saw the tree trunks that were closest to the house. Her heartbeat quickened.

Hundreds of redbugs speckled the bark, their crimson exoskeletons gleaming in the morning light. None of the insects moved. They appeared to be waiting and watching for something.

Mary Beth continued past them nonchalantly.

“Be careful of the insects,” Talia whispered.

Mary Beth looked back at her without alarm. “I saw honeybees on my walk into town,” she said in a flat voice. “A cluster of baby spiders, too.”

Talia also walked past the trees. She thought she saw a redbug’s feelers point in her direction, and she hurried toward the front door.

Entering a dim living room, she smelled something both sweet and decaying, and she tried not to retch. A ripped bag of diapers sat on a couch and a tipped-over baby bottle leaked milk on a coffee table. Facing the couch was a muted television showing static on its screen. In one corner of the room was a tangle of bloodstained sheets.

Talia heard a baby’s gurgle in another room. Mary Beth walked toward the sound, which originated from a dim bedroom that was connected to the living room.

Talia was about to follow her when she glanced inside the kitchen. It appeared to be the only room with a view of the forest. Talia noticed that the window above the sink was wide open, and she thought of all those redbugs that could fly inside. She moved to close the window, and that was when she saw the corpse lying on the kitchen floor, beneath a table covered with cans of baby sauce.

Talia knew the young man had been a victim of the redbugs. He had the ashen skin and bulging eyes of so many other corpses she’d seen around town after the attacks. Frank had once told her that fever cooked the victims’ brains.

“I thought you wanted to see the baby.”

Talia was startled by the voice. She turned around and saw Mary Beth standing directly behind her, staring at her coldly. Mary Beth didn’t look at the man’s body.

Talia slowly pointed at the corpse and asked, “Is that your husband?”

Mary Beth continued with the creepy stare. “We chose the name Sarah.”

“Yes,” Talia said, trying to shake off her horror. “The baby.”

As they walked toward the bedroom, Talia decided that she and Frank would never be able to take Mary Beth into their home. The woman had obviously lost her mind to the insect inside her head. Talia was originally going to suggest that Mary Beth and the baby live in the guest bedroom. Now she knew that if Mary Beth didn’t surrender the baby she would steal it. She was certain she could outrun the nest person if she had to.

The crib was beside an unmade double bed. Talia noticed dark yellow stains on the bed’s rumpled comforter. The stains reminded her of the squashed redbugs she’d seen around town after the government workers’ brief occupation.

Mary Beth walked to the crib and leaned over its railing to reach for the infant.

Talia suddenly dreaded that something was wrong with the baby. After all, the mother was a nest person with apparent brain damage. But what if the baby were healthy? Talia imagined teaching her child to walk on the back lawn, which Frank had sealed off with Plexiglas. She and her daughter could learn to sew sweaters and make blackberry jam to store for the upcoming winters.

“This is Sarah,” Mary Beth said.

Talia beamed when Mary Beth turned around. The adorable, pink-faced baby in her arms was swaddled in a fuchsia blanket, and she wore a little knit cap on her head. Her eyes were closed, but she didn’t seem to be asleep. Her lips moved as if she were mouthing words.

“I think she’s trying to say something to me,” Talia said. “May I hold her?”

Mary Beth nodded and handed her the baby.

Talia held the child close to her chest and sang, “Sarah, Sarah….”

She patted the top of the baby’s head, and then her hand froze. She felt bumps beneath the cap. She pulled the wool above the forehead and saw two repulsive stubs protruding from where the baby’s hairline would be.

The thing in Talia’s arms was growing antennae.

“I want to put her down,” Talia said in a frightened voice. She held the baby away from her, and Mary Beth received the bundle.

Talia saw the baby’s eyes open and stare at her. They resembled spheres of coal.

Panic made Talia flee from the bedroom and rush toward the front door. She swore to herself she’d apologize to Frank if she ever made it home again. She’d been so foolish, so selfish.

She cracked open the door, and a cooing sound came from behind her. Talia turned when she heard what sounded like “Mama.”

BIO: David Massengill lives in Seattle. His short stories and works of flash fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Eclectica Magazine, Word Riot, 3 A.M. Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, Yellow Mama, Tainted Tea, and The New Flesh. Read more of his fiction at www.davidmassengillfiction.com.

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The Boy Who Shook Hands with Darkness Albert Kivak

Jul 28 2013

Three days after Tom Brewer’s portrait hung on the wall, it began to move. The sallow, crinkled paper encased in the frame depicted tales of the coastline: the Ferris wheel, the carousel, the boardwalk, all drawn with brisk detail in the lower backdrop of the rendered picture. Rising dead center, a profile of Tom’s head grinned smugly, exposing cherubic white teeth. Its eyes flickered something more than life, the dark pinpoints rolling exotically as onyx marbles.
Tom knew it was alive. He couldn’t deny the sensation of being watched. The ill-fated, threatening caricature of his face, floated free in the spaces above his bedside and below the ceiling. It was snickering; its ghastly pale face with jet black hair (features of a crinkled pug-nosed hare) twinkling a cheesy smile slated star-crossed fire even Jesus couldn’t deny. Evil—it reeked of evil.
It was his own face drawn, but it was not his face. Tom remembered the story well—a story his mother told him, tucking him in bed—of John the Baptist. He came before Jesus, yet he was beheaded. Who knew why God allowed him to fall to the wayside? As his head dropped, splashing scarlet red, he must’ve seen his own body, lying in its pool of blood, Tom was quite certain of this. That same disjointed feeling arose in his soul and pervaded the conversation the next morning.
“What’s wrong?” Tom’s mother, Susan, asked as breezy as sunshine, cooking her morning meal. She banged the frying pan on the stovetop as she mixed egg whites with milk and flour, pouring the batter onto the cast-iron. “You seem like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Maybe,” Tom said, under his breath, playing with his food. “Dunno.” He sat in his chair and peered through the clear glass of the dining table. His feet never stopped twitching.
“Do you have the flu? You’re not talking as much,” Susan commented, flipping pancakes with a spatula. “You want one?”
“No, I’m full. I don’t feel so good.”
“You don’t feel so good?” Susan asked, making another fresh platter. “You don’t feel so good? Why don’t you feel so good?”
Tom shrugged and poked at the burnt toast with his fork. The spare, half-eaten bacon solidified and became harder. It was beyond saving now. Golden gleam of the crispy fat looked like a burned victim and every time Tom poked at it, he winced. Susan came around to the table and laid her hand on his forehead.
“You seem fine to me. You sure you don’t want any pancakes, sweetie?”
“No Mommy.”
“Oh my God!” she cried in stricken horror, pointing to the round crepe building. “But, honey, these are your favorites!”
“I know,” Tom said, licking his lips. “Juss not hungry.”
“Okay?” Susan said, trying to figure out the anxiousness on his face. “Why? You’re not mad at me since I can’t come to the open house night?”
“Daddy’s coming…” Tom mumbled.
“Sure he will. Daddy will take care of you. I’m so sorry that I can’t be there with you.” Susan crossed back to the low simmering gas stove. “With work and all, I don’t want to miss anything, especially how hard you’ve turned yourself around. I’ve been hearing good things about you. Isn’t that right?”
Tom nodded, cheeks flushing.
“So Dad will come take care of you and look over your stuff.”
“Yeah.”
“Isn’t that nice, sugar plum?”
“No, I hate him.”
“You what?” A look of surprise came over Susan, and then anger. “What did you say, boy?”
“He’s not my dad.”
“I’m sorry I can’t be there like I promised, but I’ll make it up to you somehow. Okay?” She pressed on. “It’s just that I have been on a very tight schedule—you know?—been busy most of the week.” Something was smoldering, smelled of burnt batter; Susan scraped furiously to prevent further loss. “All right, Tommy?”
“But he’s not my Dad,” Tom said, and pushed back his plate.
“Are you thirsty? You want something to drink?”
“I don’t want to be with him,” he answered, stomach groaning restively.
“All right, fine. You’re getting water. Just plain old water. No orange juice—no nothing.” Susan poured her son a glass and sat across from him. She set her plate down and bolted chunk-size pancakes in her mouth, chewing as she spoke. “Get the orange juice out of the fridge, now, would you?”
“Momma?”
“I said NOW!”
“Momma something attacked me in my bed last night.” Tom gasped at the brink of tears. “He said he was coming to get me.”
“Bring me OJ and we’ll talk.”
Tom Brewer walked to the refrigerator, shuffling slowly, opened the door and rooted in the back. He grabbed the carton on the lowest shelf and brought it out. Susan snatched it from his hand and drank straight from the container.
“So what happened in this dream?” she asked, peering over the table.
“I wasn’t dreaming, Mommy.”
“Is that right?”
“Right,” Tom huffed. His throat worked up and down, eyes glazing over, thinking back to last night. The drawers had shifted into a disemboweled snout, the shelves pulled back to show wrinkled clothes draped over the outcrop of frilly sun bleached hair. Its eyes were the crevasses within the folds, and its gaping mouth carved back in a sadistic glee of deranged sentient. “It was real.”
Tom’s pupils tracked his mother’s face, seeing only the rippling body and untidy sheets, as the cover rose in a misshapen hanged parishioner.
“They were real.”
“Who are they, Tommy?”
“My dad and my brother,” Tom whispered.
Susan’s hand jerked in an automatic reflex, knocking the glass over. It rose in the air and, falling, crashed back to earth. The most interesting thing happened (and when Susan relayed it over in her head, later, her disbelief turned to sudden unease) as she shrieked unable to stop herself. The glass had bounced off the parquet floor, not even shattering to bits and pieces. It rolled on the floor and came to rest at Tom’s feet, and the memories rushed unbidden with full force like the waves crashing against the cove.
——————————————– 2 ————————————————–
Her eldest son, Jake, was born eight years before Tom was conceived. He was just twelve when he was pulled in a riptide. Susan’s husband followed the same fate. Trying to save him, he was caught in the same whirlpool. Susan had screamed on the shoreline, kicking up sand as she ran back and forth at the edge of the beach.
Jake had waded out to wet, mossy boulder of a cape to search for abalones and common periwinkles. Susan couldn’t swim and watched the ocean fizz–slap around her son. He was only a few meters away from her when she looked up, but now was being towed out of the sandy bar. The vicious wave swamped over the bobbing frame, furiously keeping afloat with tiny, stick arms.
She could still see it now, as she sat in her workspace, finger rapping on the keyboard, a body floating, and two heads, one dipping under attempting to rescue the other one. They went under, both her son and her husband, into a sea of churning crosscurrent. Scummy lather foaming and creating a gyre of turbulent rotation, smash against the rocks, and, with that, they disappeared under the emerald foam.
Susan Brewer hung her head low as the monitor in front of her blurred, doubled, and blurred again. The accounting numbers on screen for her billing code job were arbitrary jokesters in life—simple digits with no meaning. The words spoken from Tom’s lips out-swam the digits.
Susan rubbed her forehead. Keeping the migraine at bay was useless. A name accosted her, just that name. She remembered Tom’s rangy demeanor, the hollowed cheekbones and the pale, anemic eyes, telling her something he could have never known because she had never mentioned it to him.
Jake, he had said. His name is Jake… like the lake… the lake of brimstone and fire…
The phone rang. She answered. It was the secretary asking if she was okay, she didn’t sound well.
Susan said she might have to punch out, but she could handle another hour.
Then the secretary said her fiancé Hal was on the other line.
After talking with him for a minute, Susan stood up from the chair and punched out, calling in sick.
———————————————- 3 ————————————————–
Later that night, Tom saw it again. It moved under the blanket sheets—a lump at the foot of his bed. He looked away from the covers, and then, stole a glance at the sheets, with wide, unblinking eyes. Heart pounding as if he was running the Colfax marathon, his throat itched maddeningly for a drop of water. He swallowed hard, perspiration matting his hair, and yet he still refused to budge. If he pretended to be asleep, the hunched shape would disappear also. It had to. He closed my eyes, and counted to three.
“One,” Tom mouthed. His throat bobbed. His pajama was soaking. What came out was a hoarse whisper, no more than a land breathing carp.
“Two.” The bed creaked. Something hideously grotesque flickered past the corner of his eye; an indistinct fuzzy blob hunkered at the far end of his bed. It was malformed in nature with blotchy, obsidian membrane, bulging in an ill-defined shape like a gnat’s eye. It was darker than its surrounding, squatting five or six feet from the spot where Tom lay frozen in terror. He shut his eyes…
“Three,” and opened them, again. His eyes bugged out in disbelief, as he witnessed a lumpy grey tissue (with a tunneled nose, and a crumpled face) rise slowly—oh so calmly—on the folds and mesa of the coverlet.
No!! Tom thought. It’s supposed to vanish on the count of three!
The lopsided head moved like a caterpillar on a pair of flaccid stumps, paddling on a ganglion of severed nerves and sliding limbs. It raised its head, once, bubbling, black pus flowing out of its exposed cranium, velvet hair stippling the top of its skull like ingrown byssus, as it slunk towards him in a jerking manner.
Please, let this be a dream—please!
He felt it on his lower calf, the weight pressing on top of his blanket, rustling, breath strangled in his throat. Tom kicked at his bed sheets, entangled around his legs, with no luck. His arms and legs were weighted down, held down with bags of sand. Tom opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out.
Say something! Anything! Scream! Mom! MOMMM!!!
He tried. His lips refused to part. Oh how Jesus, he tried—but the only sound generating from his voice box were faint, glugging sounds like the wheeze of a gastropod. The mental circuits wiring the vocal cords had cut short, firing disintegrated synapses down to bluish cold lips. Tom whimpered, observing the irrational bulbous head with blinking, gelatinous eyes. He saw it clear as daylight; that was the horror of it all.
This was not a dream.
This was real
It loomed closer in his periphery, drawing nigh.
Get up! GET UPP! MOVE! DO SOMETHING!! DON’T JUST LAY thheerrreeee!!!
But I can’t… Tom moaned silently. I can’t move! Someone help me! HELP ME! MOM!! MOOOMMMYYYYYYY!!!!!
The world’s asleep, Tom Brewer. Thin prudish lips curled back into a smile, revealing glittering white teeth that did not move. Mommy’s dead, Tommy. You already know this.
Noo…
She’ll be where we are soon. It murmured, creeping forward, wobbling closer. She’ll love every minute of it. And so will you.
What are you?! He glanced up at the ceiling, then back down again at the half-shadowed amorphous hump of shriveled face. Did he really think it’d disappear that quickly? Did he really? Whooo ARE YOUUU??!!!
Hot air blew into his face.
Mommmmieeeeee!!
Sweat dampening his armpits, everything went slack as his eyelids slid open, and he watched the black, decapitated head pulsating in the shadows. It was the head of the great prince of darkness and son of perdition. It transformed halfway up Tom’s torso. Now, he was staring at his mother’s severed head, as the world turned a metallic grey, and he screamed into the abyss—into eternity.
——————————————- 4 ———————————————–
“Ahhh…” Mrs. Gault said, steering her past chairs and desks for parents, “You must be Tom’s mother.” In a corner, Susan eyed the small sleeping cots stacked up for nap-time and nodded. The cookies and chips, whatever that was left-over, were gobbled up—every last piece. “Right this way.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
Tom’s teacher led Susan to the corner of the room, a workstation full of bright crepes and colored paintings. On the north wing of the wall, a single portrait was pinned on a cork board. “I never thought you’d show up, Susan. Where’s Hal?”
“Oh, he couldn’t make it.”
Francine Gault raised her eyebrows. “Shouldn’t he be concerned about Tom’s progress?”
“I think so.” Susan paused and asked. “Has he been progressing?”
“That’s the thing. Please, come here. Take a look,” Mrs. Gault said and directed Susan to her son’s drawing. “Your child is very intuitive. He’s always curious about the littlest things. Sometimes, I catch him speaking to someone else.”
“Has he made any friends?”
“One in particular.”
“Who?” Susan wondered aloud, heart beating fast. She knew the answer even before the clown spoke.
“Jake, claims it’s his brother.”
Susan sucked in a breath and let out a tremble of conspicuous air.
“I see,” she said.
“I don’t mean to pry, but were you married previously?”
“No, not that I know of.”
“Is Hal his father?”
“Yes, of course, why do you ask?”
“I want to show you something,” Mrs. Gault said, directing their attention to the wall with the bulletin board. “Yesterday, I had the students draw a self-portrait. This was a class exercise for today, actually, and the parents were supposed to figure out who drew what picture.”
“Did they do well?” Susan asked, peering at the classmate’s palm tracks covering cork board in gusty blue, red, and yellow paints. Above it, taped on the wall, a low hanging crepe paper dangled with the words: CHOOSE YOUR OWN FACE!
“Everyone got it right the first time, yes.”
“I suppose that left-over one is my son’s.” Susan said, hooting with laughter.
Tom’s teacher’s smile turned grim. “The student’s wrote their names on the back. Tom didn’t write his name. He kept writing something else, so finally I crossed it out and wrote his name for him.”
“He knows how to write his name—I taught him how.”
“But do you notice anything out of place with your son’s drawing?” Mrs. Gault asked.
Susan edged up to the self-portrait. “No, I don’t see anything wrong.”
“The two stick figures near the bottom of the sand, who are they?”
The drawing was suspended with a thumbtack; Susan refused to answer.
“Tom says they’re his father and brother. He claims what he draws is Hell, and his brother and father are there, burning.” Mrs. Gault said. “Have you been teaching your son Revelations?”
“He’s been saying what now?”
“He’s become a bad influence on the kids. They’re talking about hell as if it’s a good thing. Also, your son’s been sleepwalking.”
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t come here to hear you talk poorly about my son.” Susan said, glaring at the teacher. “And about this sleepwalking incident, I’ve never known Tom to do anything like that.”
“It’s been recent.”
“Whether it’s recent or not, I came here to see my son’s work and progress—have you praise it—not tell me he speaks in tongue. Are you crazy?”
“I’m not lying, Susan.”
“Are you sure about that? Are you sure he’s not just wanting to use the restroom?” She countered, looking coldly at Francine. “You must have the wrong child. My child would never act that way.”
“All I know is your son needs help. Please get him some help. I’m just concerned about his state of mind.”
“Okay, fair enough. I’ll check up on him.” Susan said. “Right now, we’re leaving. Where is he?”
Mrs. Gault inhaled and led Susan to where Tom was sitting and drawing with crayons. The teacher bent over, placing her hands to her knees, skirt rising, and said: “Tom? You have to leave now.”
“Hey boy, your momma is here.” Susan said. “How do you feel?”
Tom looked up, peeked back down, and continued drawing.
“Put the crayons down, now, Tom. We have to go.”
Tom put down his red crayon and got up out of his chair. Susan gripped his hand tightly and pulled him out of the classroom. They went down the hallway and outside. When Susan arrived at her duplex apartment, on the very top floor, she pulled out the drawing from her shoulder bag. She had taken it off the corkboard before she left.
Save for the small figures in the background, it was a lame attempt to recreate the caricature from Laguna Beach hanging in Tom’s room. The only difference between the original and replica was the amount of hair drawn. In Tom’s version, the portrait of the face had long straggly hair piled on top of the dome shaped head. It was a blond color, just like hers. It was curly, just like hers. Through the paper, Susan saw something on the other side. She flipped the portrait over and, on the back, a name was blotted out with white-out, but she could still see through it. The shaky scrawl of Tom’s handwriting blazed up in Susan’s retina.
In the back was written Beelzebub.
—————————————— 5 ——————————————-
A scream pierced the night. Running footfalls clamored to the child’s room. It was small well suited for the dingy apartment of the upper story, nestled in the east chamber. The mother opened the door and rushed inside.
. Cold draft blew in through the opened casement window, fluttering the curtains. In the bed, the blankets were pulled over to the side and had fallen on the floor. There lay Tom rigid as a streamliner, thrashing his body, head flailing. Arms outstretched, he shrieked the most inhuman scream possible, eyelids dancing. Sweat drenched his pajamas, his eyes pulling upward to show white collecting wickedness, seeing something consecrated, not of this world. Sweat poured over his body like baby oil.
“Hey, Tom. Tom!” Susa Brewer shouted with a grating annoyance. “Snap out of it! It’s just a dream—a nightmare.” She approached the side of the bed and shook her only child. His skin felt sticky yet cold. How? The flu? Was he down with the influenza?
Tom’s eyes flew open and he stared at her, pupils shrinking from the ceiling lights and whimpered: “Momma, what happened?”
“You’re here,” Susan said, brushing his damp hair aside. “You’re safe here with me,” and double-checked the opened window. Nothing could get in since it opened with a crank on the bottom hung sash, so why was she so fearful?
“Where am I?”
“In your room, Tom. You okay?” She walked to the far end of the bed and twisted the window shut. “Did you open this while I was away?”
Tom whispered, moaning. “I won’t go back.”
“God, it’s freezing in here.”
“I don’t want to go back,” he murmured.
“Go back where, honey?”
Tom pointed at the portrait hanging on the wall, stolid, full of waxen features and vulpine grin. Her son was losing it; he was imagining things because I wasn’t there for him as much as he’d like.
“What are you looking at?” Susan asked, turning to follow her son’s petrified gaze. A soft breeze rippled the curtains. “The portrait? Are you looking at your portrait?”
Tom’s upper lips quivered.
“There’s nothing to be scared of, Tom. It’s just a caricature, honey, a caricature, you know what that is? Why would you be afraid of something like that?”
“It is too!” Her son broke out crying and blubbered. “It is too, real!”
“There’s nothing there, now. It must’ve been a dream.”
“No, it is here.” Tom cried, gasping for air, shoulders hitching in a low tremor.
“What is here, Tom?” Susan said, crossing her arms, and rubbing her face. “There’s nothing here, babe.”
He pointed a shaky finger at the far wall where the portrait of her son hung in a wooden frame. The bulging forehead and the flicker of a muddy cornea revealed cherubic innocence and lips drawn back, flashing pearly white.
“That? That’s just a picture someone drew, Tommy, remember? We bought that at the beach?”
She remembered the wide-brimmed fisherman’s hat, and the man sitting in the nylon, folding chair in front of the easel, and feeling a tinge of attraction. She could feel his eyes on her long, smooth legs as she set her firstborn son down for the composition. In his quarters that night, he introduced himself as Hal Benedict, a good guy who gobbled her up more than gabbed.
“You said you wanted to have your face drawn. And the guy who drew it gave us a five dollar discount. Remember that?” Susan ruffled his hair. “You were happy about that.”
“That’s not me, Mom.” Tom persisted. “It’s not!”
“And why do you say that?”
“Something’s wrong with it.”
“I know,” Susan said with a nod. “You wouldn’t keep still. That was the problem.”
“It’s cursed—it’s alive!” he wailed, tears shedding. “You have to believe me.”
“Don’t be silly. Pictures can’t come alive, especially self-portraits. It took him nearly twenty minutes to finish drawing this,” She strode across to the wall, and laid a finger on the portrait, tracing the contours. “You’re lucky he didn’t take any longer than he did, so be thankful. He gave you life. Don’t you like the colors, Tom?”
He remained silent, eyes as large as Petri-dish, and crawled underneath his blankets.
“No matter,” Susan said. “If it continues to bother you, I’ll remove it, okay?”
“Okay.”
“That portrait is you, Tom. I don’t know why you think otherwise.”
“Okay.”
“All right. You go to bed now like a good boy.” Susan reached to the door. “I’ll be seeing you in the morning.” She flicked off the lights. “G’night honey.”
From the bed, came no answer. The room was thrown into the blackest of black darkness where there was no return.
————————————— 6 —————————————–
Susan woke up from a dream in a stranglehold. In the dream, she was a priest, baptizing a boy child. It kicked and screamed, as she dipped it in a basin full of holy water. When she brought him up, she realized it wasn’t water, but red wine and the scent of ancient nails. Streaks of prism color shimmered up from the largest of all abalone shell. She held the mollusk by the feet, dangling him, his hairless head dripping a cascade of baptismal fluid. She heard a strange pitter patter noise and shallow breathing, down the hallway, away from the altar. Something creaked close to her. It was approaching in slow, schlepping steps.
Susan awoke with a start. The stench of urine assaulted her senses as she inhaled a whiff of the cloying ammonia and tried not to gag. In the eldritch shadows, Susan saw her son next to the bedside, eyes adjusting to the dark. Tom stood facing the wall, adjacent to the headrest, tinkling.
“Jesus, Tom—how old are you?”
He made no attempt to respond; his eyes chivied back and forth under half-opened eyelids. He looked shriveled and his face blanched with a chalky pallor. Naked, except a pair of underwear, Susan noticed dollar quarter bruises on his back and neck, becoming vine-like as they traveled higher. Eyeballs kept chivying up and down like illustrative heartbreak, back and forth, under the layer of skin and eyelashes fluttering. Her heart seized with sub-zero frost.
Are you crazy?
(have you been hurting him?)
No, he does not sleep walk.
(your son needs help, please, get him some help)
There’s something wrong with him.
There was nothing wrong or aberrant about her son, Susan thought. Sure, it looked like bite-marks, but that was only where the fire ants had gotten him playing out in the backyard, all by himself.
But that was weeks ago. The scars had already healed by then. The scratches on his arms looked nothing like the attack of fire ants. They were splotchy red as if someone had taken a thin razor and sliced open the skin without drawing blood. Susan watched her son make a stabbing motion with his hand, turn around, and shuffle out of her bedroom in slow disconnected steps. She watched him walk down the corridor to his room and lie down on his bed, stepping over the low side rails, muttering an incantation. Susan followed her child into his room and her gazed settled on the opposite wall instinctively.
The caricature of the child in the portrait wasn’t Tom. She had known this for many years, putting on the impression contrary to what her son believed. The caricature was of Jake. Hal had drawn Jake when he was little and, now, Susan wept bitterly.
He wasn’t supposed to die, only that bastard… only that bastard…
The perfect plan Hal had Susan concocted had backfired. Only her husband was supposed to drown, not Jake, dear God, not him. She missed him. Even if she had wondered why he was born only to perish underwater, she missed him terribly. In the end, she left the portrait hanging for another night. And then, the end came for Tom the following night.
———————————————— 7 ————————————————
The voices were one. They were all in him and coming from him. She recognized her husband and Jake gurgling upward like an open fissure from Tom’s little voice box. The same speech patterns of his deceased family members flowed out in legion of lesions, as Tom wailed and filed his teeth, grinding and gnashing his canines.
“Honey, are you okay?” Susan Brisket asked as her son writhing under the sheets, tightening her robe. “It’s just a dream—it’s all over, now.”
She stood at the side of the bed, assessing the rumpled sheets rise and fall. “Tom, stop acting like a monster and come out from under there. Please.”
A deep rumbling croak uttered from its depth, leaden and squealing. “No, fuck you!”
“Baby, get out from under there. Who told you that? Who told you to use words like that?”
Vulgarity twisted in the bedspread, rising and falling. “You,” it cackled, then, here was Tom’s real voice, unaided, brittle with heart, came lisping out. “Help me, Mom. Help me. It’s got me.”
Susan grabbed the bedspreads and yanked the coverlet off of the (fetus) boy lying on his side, convulsing uncontrollably. Restraints that were simply belt buckles and his father’s ties had unclasped themselves and were gone. Tom sprang up, angry-dark, tottering with gleeful rage, throwing the sheets over her, suffocating her, obscuring her vision. The white sheet seemed to have taken a life on its own, as it choked her breathing, the fabric becoming hands. Susan was thrown against the wall, rising two feet off the ground, arms flinging upward and out in surrender. She flayed about, thrashing her head, shrieking in her mind. Please stop, please! Tell it to stop! Tommmmyyy!!!
She couldn’t see, but she heard the voice from the depths of hell, clotted, purple, and bruising pillory. His slate tongue flicked and, she heard him from two inches from her face, the blanket sheets smothering her mouth and nose.
“Hell is a fun place, Mother… better than heaven!” Susan smelled sash cloth and ashes. She prayed incessantly, relentlessly, never ceasing to repent and pray God for deliverance.
“Mother, God can’t help you,” It moaned, screeching with laughter. “There is no God.”
Blood drained from her face and began to leak down her nostrils and out her ears.
“You killed us. Now pay for our sins.”
And then, finally, miraculously, as it had whipped her off her feet and onto the wall like a malevolent magnet, it (whatever it was) let her go, and she dropped with a sudden thud. Susan scrambled out of the blankets, screaming—a scream that pitched continually out of her soul like gambler’s tossed dices, chattering, never-ending.
“We are all waiting for you,” it said, as it leapt out of the apartment window. “Join us…”
When the screams died down, and Susan ran to the window, she discerned a small cadaverous figure at the bottom of the concrete pavement, looking back up at her with lambent eyes.
“Tom! Get back here! Tom!” she shouted from ten stories away. “Where are you going?”
Down at the foot of the stairs, the thing smiled a leering grin and rasped, “Search for my father—my real father.”
The cock crowed three times, and it was gone.
Oh dear God. Susan thought, heart squeezing with terror. Hal!
Dawn descended and the rain began to fall. Somewhere off in the distant thunder crackled and boomed, lightening striking the top of the Susan’s flat. It flashed brilliantly, and, in the light, she saw the portrait of herself hanging, and its eyes moved just the way her son told her.

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A Silver Soul By Rebecca L. Brown

Jul 21 2013

For one hundred pounds I will sell you my soul…
There was nothing that Julian Hart loved more than getting something for nothing. He had dedicated his life to just that; setting up convoluted deals in which people unwittingly bought things which they already owned. All it ever cost Julian was time and ingenuity – and he had plenty of ingenuity to spare.
When he saw the advert in the newspaper, Julian was horrified – horrified, that is, that he hadn’t thought of it first:
For one hundred pounds I will sell you my soul.
And then an address – somewhere in London, judging from the postcode, he thought. Nothing else.
Was that what a soul was worth? He wondered. A high price for something so inconsequential; something, perhaps, which did not even exist. Julian tried to imagine what kind of man – or woman – would want to purchase a soul. He already knew what kind of man would sell it; a clever man. An inventive man.
The kind of man Julian simply had to meet.
Julian looked again at the address; it was not far from where he lived. He tore the page from the newspaper, folded it neatly into his pocket for future reference and then promptly forgot about it.
#
Andrew King was not an impious man. Nor was he an especially intelligent man. He was, on the other hand, especially poor.
It had not been his idea to place the advert – it had not, in fact, been Andrew who placed the advert at all.
“The only thing you have of value is that blimmin’ soul of yours!” His wife had growled.
“And that more valuable than anything else a man can possess.” Andrew had told her. Perhaps he even believed that – and certainly if you asked him he would tell you that he did.
“Not more valuable than a roof over our heads and full bellies.” Andrew’s wife’s belly was fuller than most, but he didn’t tell her that. He would have liked to but, although he was not an intelligent man, he was not so foolish as to commit marital suicide.
“If you spent as much time working as you did polishing pews with your backside, I’d be a wealthy woman.” She continued.
“Man shall not live by bread alone…”
“Man shall not live at all if he doesn’t have a little bread!” Andrew’s wife scolded. “And man shall not keep a woman like me by the purity of his soul. Gawd, it must shine like silver, the way you keep at polishing it!”
“A soul is worth more than silver.” Andrew had told her. “More than its weight in gold…”
#
What is a soul worth, Andrew’s wife had found herself wondering the next morning. She wondered a great many things in the mornings since all of her chores were by now so familiar that she could have done them blindfolded. Where would you find a buyer for a soul?
Certainly, there were stranger things bought and sold in London. If you went to the right place, you could sell your honour for fewer than five pence. But surely a soul would be worth more than that. At least, a soul like Andrew’s must be.
They let her place the classified for free. The young man who noted down her address was pink-faced with merriment at the idea. A soul! For sale!
“You must sell us the story afterwards!” he insisted.
“Of course.” If she could sell a soul then she was certainly prepared to sell a story. As she made her way home, she found herself wondering how much she could charge per word. A woman like her did not give her word cheaply, she thought. For as many words as a whole story would need, she might well be able to charge a whole pound.
#
“I have come for your soul.” The man said in a deep and foreboding tone – or, at least, in as foreboding a tone as he could muster.
“Well you can’t have it!” Andrew told him. He slammed the door shut and then apologised to it. On the other side, he could hear the man laughing as he made his way down the street.
“Why did you do it?” He asked his wife. “Surely you knew…?”
“Don’t you come all clever with me!” Andrew’s wife blustered at him. “How should I know that trying to sell your soul to keep your dear old wife in bread and butter would end us up like this?”
They had been knocking at the door all morning; jokesters and ministers and all manner of curious people, all wanting to see the man who wanted to sell his soul.
“By rights you should be thanking me!” She told him, although she didn’t explain why. Perhaps Andrew would have asked if there had not been another knock at the door.
Andrew King was a well-mannered man. Too well-mannered to ignore a knocked door if he was on the un-knocked side of it. Wearily, he drew himself up to his feet and made his way out to the hallway.
“Is it taken?” The man twitched as he spoke, as if at a moment’s notice he might leap up and flee down the road in search of a burrow in which to take cover.
“What – ?”
“The soul, man! The soul…” He spoke the word ‘soul’ with the same covetous reverence with which another man might say ‘diamonds’ or ‘princess’.
“I – ”
“This is the right place, isn’t it? You are selling a soul?”
“Yes. I mean to say no. Somewhat…” The man was becoming twitchier by the moment. It was infectious, in a way. Andrew could feel the urge to twitch creeping up all over his skin. The man looked so uncomfortably forlorn that Andrew couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.
“Perhaps you’d better come inside.” Andrew said.
The man hesitated on the threshold of the door, as if simply by passing through into a house he was committing some unspeakably unthinkable crime, before entering.
“Have a seat.” Andrew gestured towards a chair with one arm and the man flinched back as if struck.
“I’ll stand, if you don’t mind; I prefer to stand.”
There was an uncomfortably polite moment as both men waited for the other to speak.
“Who’s this?” Andrew’s wife asked.
“Is it taken?” The man asked again, as if the sight of Andrew’s wife had somehow jolted his memory. “The soul – is it taken? Do you still have it? Can I – can I see it?”
“I – ”
“Of course you may!” Andrew’s wife interrupted him. “Do you have the money?”
“I have it.”
“Why do you want a soul?” Andrew asked. The man’s eagerness was making him feel more and more as if he were about to become the victim of some bizarre kind of robbery or other.
“No reason.” The man told him.
“One hundred pounds worth of reasons.” said Andrew’s wife.
“Then sell him your soul.” Andrew told his wife.
“Ah! But is my soul worth that much?”
“I’ll take them both.” The man said. “One hundred pounds for each of them. I have the money with me…”
“Take hers,” said Andrew, “you can’t have mine.”
“He means, of course, that you can’t have his for just one hundred pounds. Mine – huh! – yes, mine you can certainly have for that, but my husband’s soul is polished like silver. It is a beautiful soul and you will be lucky to have it at two – no! three – hundred pounds.”
“I’ll take them both.” The man repeated. From his pocket, he took a handful of crisp bank notes and began to count them out onto the table.
“Four hundred pounds,” he said at last. “Now can I see them?”
“Of course you may! Andrew – show the gentleman the mettle of your soul!” Said Andrew’s wife. “For myself, I carry mine with me always. Look – here it is.” She held out her hands, cupped together as if to hold some precious trinket or other.
“I – my soul is a part of me. I can’t just take it out. I can’t – ” Before Andrew could stop him, the man had taken hold of his hand and was examining the palm as if it held the very secrets of creation.
“Yes,” He said at last. “I’ll take them. Both of them.”
“Hand over the money and they’re yours.” Andrew’s wife promised.
“Oh! But – the contract. There has to be…” The man patted at his coat from top to bottom. When one of his pockets made a scrunching sound, he reached in and produced a tattered piece of paper. “Like this.” He said. He unfolded the contract and tapped at it with his finger.
“Write one down and we’ll sign it – do it on the back of this one if you like. It doesn’t matter.” Andrew’s wife told him.
The man produced a pen from his top shirt pocket and smoothed out the piece of paper as much as he could. On the blank side he wrote:
We, the vendors, condemn our souls to the possession of the holder of this contract for the price of four hundred pounds and no pence (which has been received in full).
“I’m not signing this.” Andrew said. “’Condemned’; what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Hand over the money and I’ll sign for us both. I’m his wife, after all.”
The man pressed the money and the pen into Andrew’s wife’s hands.
“Sign!” He said. “Sign!” Andrew noticed how wide his eyes were. The man licked at his lips.
“No. I’m sorry, but you can’t have mine. I never intended – ” Andrew tried to snatch the pen away but it was too late. ‘Mr and Mrs King’ his wife wrote.
“There.” She said.
The man snatched up the contract and tucked it into the same pocket from which he had taken it out.
“Two souls.” He said in a voice which was almost dream-like. “I have two souls – and you have none!” He laughed, then. A terrible laugh which went on and on until tears ran down his cheeks. “None at all!” He pointed at them with one trembling finger. “You are soulless. Soulless creatures. I have two souls and you have none at all.”
“I never agreed to this.” Andrew said.
“As if that would make any difference! No – you put your soul in her hands and she gave it away for pittance.”
“Two souls.” Andrew’s wife repeated. “Not three?”
“Two souls, dear Madam Soulless. I had none of my own.”
“What Satanic creature are you, then?” Andrew made the sign of the holy cross as best he could. The man laughed.
“No Satanic creature – no more than you yourselves are. A Satanic customer, you might say. Two souls – two of them!”
“What have you done?” Andrew turned to his wife. “Woman what have you done?”
“Two souls!” The man repeated once more. “I sold my own for a pittance – and for a portion of a pittance I have purchased two more!”
#
It wasn’t until Julian walked past the house itself that he remembered the newspaper clipping. He pulled it out of his pocket to check that – yes – this was the right place. The paper had become brittle and torn around the edges – had he sent his overcoat to be washed with it still in there? He wasn’t sure.
Since I’m passing by, he thought. There’s no harm in knocking.
“If you’ve come about the soul then you’re too late.” The man who peered around the door at Julian Hart had wide, red-rimmed eyes which moved constantly but never seemed to blink.
“No, Sir – not at all! I came to congratulate you on your singular ingenuity.”
“Oh.” The man said. “I see. Well – “
“I myself have considered following your marvelous example…”
The door seemed to fling itself open as if it had been pushed outwards by tightly coiled spring.
“I will buy it.” The man said. “I’ll – come in! Please come in!”
Julian stepped into the house and closed the door. The man was already half way down the corridor – Julian followed him and found himself in a modest living room. A wild-haired old woman slept in a chair in one corner. To her chest, she clutched a small bundle of filthy bank notes.
“Quiet.” The man said. “Quiet – don’t wake her. I will buy it from you… but you mustn’t wake her.”
“What’s this then?” Julian asked. “A trade in souls? I sell it to you for sixty and you sell it on for one hundred?”
“I’ll pay you double that for it. Triple. What do you weigh, sir? I’ll pay you your weight in gold when I can get it. Just – do you have a piece of paper, sir? There has to be a contract. It has to be – “
“What’s this?” The woman was awake. She eyed Julian hungrily, the way a half-starved dog looks up into a butcher’s window. “What’s this? A man?”
“Dear lady, I’ve come to sell your… your husband?” The woman nodded. “I’ve come to sell your husband my soul. A foolish venture you may think, but – “
“Whatever he’s offered you, I’ll pay double.” The woman seemed to leap out of her chair, gripping at Julian’s wrist with sharp- nailed little hands. “Double that, if I have it. Can I see it, sir? Can I see?”
“You’ve woken her!” The wide-eyed man sighed. “I knew that you would – I knew…”
“Ah!” The woman squawked. “Ah! You would have bought it and left your dear wifey to suffer, would you? Would you?” She looked up at Julian, her hands still tightly locked around his wrist. “Sir, you must forgive me. You must – “
“You must not give it to her!” The man hissed. The woman turned to glare at him. “You must not – woman, if you don’t release him, I’ll tell – “
“Tell what?” Julian asked.
“Fool!” The woman almost shrieked. “You soulless, mindless fool!”
If it was an act or a scam of some kind, Julian couldn’t work it out. No matter which way he turned it in his mind, it didn’t seem to fit.
“Don’t give it to her!” The woman moaned and dug her nails still deeper into Julian’s wrist.
“Just – just show it to me. Please – before you go. Just show me…”
“How – ?”
“I’ll show you how, lovely sir. You just let me and I‘ll show you how.” The woman crooned. She twisted Julian’s wrists together, pressing his hands so that the fingers formed a cup.
#
There were marks on Julian’s wrists where the woman’s nails had dug into him. One of them had broken the skin and a prickle of blood had risen up to the surface. His hands shook a little, although he didn’t notice them.
He had sold so many other things in the past. – most of them things which had never belonged to him. Those which had – his dignity and his pride – had not seemed to matter at the time, although now he feared that they were simply small parts of something much more valuable.
“He doesn’t have one.” The woman had pushed away his hands. “No more than we do – who did you sell it to?” She had asked him. “What did you get? How much – ?”
“I – ”
Julian didn’t know. Perhaps he had never had a soul to begin with. How would you know? What difference would it make?
Except that now he knew for certain. He knew that he lacked.
Was it visible – obvious to everyone but him? Beauty, he knew, was in the eye of the beholder. Was soullessness in every eye but yours? What would they do if they caught him? What would they do to him?
Somewhere behind him, he heard the crazed laughter of a soulless creature and the desperate sobbing of another.

End

Bio: Rebecca L. Brown is a British writer based in Cardiff. She lives with her partner and two cats.

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Election Night by K.J.Lane

Jul 14 2013

The central Machine of the New Regime was struggling to process the mass of data flowing through its memory. Each byte of information flooding from the millions of voting terminals had combined to simultaneously jam its pathways, dragging its process to a slow march, degrees away from a total crash. An unheard of malfunction. Unthinkable. Frantic technicians struggled, dancing in panic, to free up memory, closing down all none essential programs, anything to alleviate the immediate danger of shutdown. Systems governing weather monitoring, tidal predictions and some of the low level accountancy algorithms were swiftly terminated. The damage could be assessed later. The morning after. Engineers stood back and watched the technicians at work, happily dictating the theory but useless to intervene, handing over such menial tasks as running code to their inferior colleagues.
The voting had been expected to be close. The electorate hadn’t disappointed. Those supporting the right wing challenge of the Progressive Fascist Party had voted in force, pushing the issue right to the brink of the central computers processing power. Unease at their revolutionary policies spiking dramatically. The ruling coalition were cutting it very fine. High level officials were worried. Whispers of a coup by the army, or special police or one of the more radical monastic sects were rife. Even the level one citizens, disenfranchised by various acts and repeals, usually uninterested in politics and the acts of state, had their televisions tuned to the result. Waiting. As the technicians struggled to avoid the unthinkable, plan and counter plan were formed and redrawn behind the closed doors of power. The world was watching.
At the chess game no one was concerned with politics. Focus was firmly fixed on the two players. The crowd of old intellectuals and retired revolutionaries all had been cut adrift through one misdeed or the other, an academic paper deemed to be blasphemous, a small act of pointless resistance, graffiti on the subway. Most were removed from the new society, happy to attend an illegal gathering, proud to be continuing a fine tradition of supporting the game years after it had been banned. Allowed to only those at the highest level. Somewhere deep in the libraries of the great monasteries stilted games continued, but for research value only. In the disused shopping centre the contest was living and breathing, each small twitch and sigh watched intently, move and counter move silently applauded in the minds of defeated men. In closed corners a few hushed comments mentioned the election, serving only as a backdrop to the larger issue of the night. And this would be a ranking match. A real decider.
The two opponents were striking in their difference. One smiling contentedly, happy in his pursuits, the other crouched over the board, effort etched on every wrinkle of his face, concentration scratching his brow. Grand Master Zamyatin betrayed his famed intellect with the nervousness of his play. His heavy white beard, lending him the air of antiquity. The small dark glasses only added to the effect. But behind those lenses his eyes continued lurking, screened from his opponent and the watching public. His simple black suit and heavy working boots completed the dishevelment, simple in its small normalities. He shifted repeatedly between moves, the leather of the chair’s upholstery moaning softly at such constant agitation. The white pawns he had drawn to begin with being lifted and replaced with a wide degree of variation. Quick and aggressive at moments of panic. Followed with long periods of inactivity as the Grand Master mediated on the next possible move. As the game progressed the moments of alarm were becoming more and more frequent. Zamyatin feared the end could be close. Just beyond his fingertips.
The young boy’s alternative style changed the game he played, gentle, more fluid. His composure was unnerving. Bright aggressive attack and slow defensive block, completed in the same breath, a moments consideration before a soft glide of his small hand. His legs dangled over the edge of the large chair, unable to reach the ground, swinging slowly back and forth in a small pendulum, tick, tock, constant like his play. His colourful shorts and bright T-shirt, advertising the latest animated feature film the authorities had released, featuring a family of talking dogs, compounded the contrast. The boy smiled continuously throughout, infectious, his sightless eyes staring above the head of his opponent, off to some lost face in the crowd that would remain unseen. His father sat behind him on a tall stool offering silent support, unable to speak, gagged by the strict conditions imposed for ranking matches. Not that support was required. The bright neon light of the advertising viddie-boards overhead played in shadow across his face.
Things had improved for the staff of the central Machine. The engineers could breath easier, their votes would be counted. The technicians had managed to free up enough memory to get the machine processing. Working slowly, chewing the data carefully, methodically, pulses streaming, calculations predicted that at it’s current speed it would take approximately two years to tally the remaining votes. This had worried the engineers at first, but further explanation calmed them from the frenzy which was initially launched into. Blind panic after blind panic. Serious problems in this endeavour could cost them their jobs, their vote. For the technicians failure could carry an even higher price. In dark corners dictators in waiting were growing anxious, heated phone calls shared with their military backers. Various ministers of the ruling coalition fishing out their favourite general or commissioner of police for quiet reassurances.
In the apartments of the vast housing towers, strained eyes were locked on their screens, glancing to digital clocks above artificial fires to reassure themselves that the announcement was late. Something extraordinary was happening. An old propaganda film about the roles and responsibilities of a citizen, seen many times before during compulsory broadcasts, was being rerun. Excitement was growing. Even the tired teenagers had dragged themselves down from their roof world of possibilities to view the great event. An election happened once in a lifetime, filling them with lost feelings, strange hope gripping the hearts of even those that had seen the worst before and had tried to forget. Changes, maybe new beginnings, a chance for another way. Bizarre ideals of a brighter future, not seen for a generation, teased their lips, waited to fall forward into an uncertain new world. Everything the New Regime had promised and failed to deliver. A new belief that could only be stillborn.
The owners of the more opulent mansions, beyond the city walls, nestled away in small coves near sheltered shores were less impressed. They knew little would change. The status quo would have to be preserved. Their way of life depended on it. Shallow dreams, hidden in forbidden books of political theory had to be suppressed. The cobwebs of the system were not about to be brushed away by a new wind. They sipped their synthetic wines and watched with interest the old film portraying each worker as an integral part of the machinery that held the foundation together, and laughed.
The endgame was upon them. Grand Master Zamyatin had been pushed back again and again. Bright excitement ran through the crowd, unsure what they were witnessing. The boy’s unsensing smile continued as each piece was moved, growing sinister in its intensity, the lips turning too high at the corners. The row of captured white pieces, lay in a straight line in front of the boy, to the side of the board, shadowing his own black forces, poised on the verge of taking one of the remaining white rooks, condemning the Grand Master to a slow and lingering death. A desperate defensive manoeuvre by the old man saved him briefly, but it was a small stay of execution. The boy’s father edged closer to his young charge, anxious to have it ended. Looking up Zamyatin caught the eye of the judges, already beginning to usher the overbearing parent back to his designated position. The smile of the boy flickered momentarily, sensing the commotion, offering the old man nothing, before returning brighter than before, normality regained. A waving hand from the judges urging him to continue, eager to be done also. The risks were high. Lingering could have consequences.
The technicians continued to shut down further, none essential, programs. The estimated time frame for the calculations to run their course now stood at about three weeks. Not quick enough. In the haste several more important circuits were shut down in error, switch A for switch B, resulting in loss of power to four sectors of the city. Two public hospitals were without supply for ninety seconds until one of the internal diagnostic programs noticed the error and quickly checking protocol brought back up power online. The delay proved fatal for five patients on operating tables. This would not be highlighted to the maintenance staff for several weeks, but they were assured such losses were acceptable in the larger plan. The processing time had now been reduced to two hours. A second propaganda film, “ Promises of The New Regime.” was played. The lengthening delay proved too much for the short attention span of the teenage roof dwellers as they slipped away from crowded living rooms, returning to their twinkling fires, inevitable clashes with the authorities back on the schedule.
The lights surrounding the chess game flickered, the naked bulbs announcing the frantic redistribution within the supply grid. The Grand Master’s destruction was almost complete. Reduced to three pawns, his queen pinned down, he was out manoeuvred and out thought. There was no escape left. The judges had already advised him to concede on three occasions, aware of the unnecessary risk they were all taking, but the old man wasn’t done. Those at the edge of the crowd had already started to drift away, satisfied, searching out sanctuary from the empty city, their minds turned again to everyday matters, the impending result, dark whispers foretelling of hidden violence should events take an unforeseen turn. The streets were no place to be if the night turned dangerous. Still the Grand Master hung on. Even the boy’s stone exterior had started to crack, small fractures, but visible, an uneasy movement at the corner of his smile, his sightless eyes drifting from their fixed point.
Activity at the central Machine had slid to a halt. All the prodding and investigating, the closing of programs and the reassignment of vital duties, could not change the conclusions the diagnostic programs were indicating. The technicians had run out of options. Huddled with the engineers in informal conference they laid the decisions out to be evaluated. Only by shutting down one or more of the core responsibilities could the result be calculated within the required time. The suggested targets were rated and rerated. With haste forced upon them and reports of growing unease from all sectors of the city starting to filter through, the decisions were made. The aftermath would have to be swept up later, the excuses fabricated to fill the twenty four hour news stations. The required circuits were pulled and the heavy flow of electrons began to free up, running quickly through the stretched pathways, scorched torrid with the overload, burnt bright with strain. The entire crew sweated cold with relief.
On every available screen in the city the propaganda film was interrupted, the announcer’s cultured tone bringing relief to an impatient population. The delay had been short but imperfectly timed. The masses wouldn’t wait. The build up was cut to a minimum as further tales of unrest circled, a prison riot in one of the western sectors apparently out of control. Finally it was ready. The central Machine downloaded the result directly to the broadcast, as the law dictated, pausing for nanoseconds, allowing several safety programs to ensure the validity of the outcome. All was in order. The result was closer than most had expected, only one percent separating the opposing groups. Tight but inevitable. The ruling coalition held. Small pockets of resistance, breaking out in the Progressive Fascist Party’s heartland, far to the south of the city, were quickly controlled, the young mobs scattered throughout the vast industrial farms, running before the special police units that had been on standby for such eventualities. The central Machine nearly crashed for a second time, struggling to cope with the massive power surge as billions of induction kettles were switch on in unison, the proletariat desperate to slacken the thirst, now the excitement was at an end. Further redistribution was required but the grid held. On project roofs the teenagers huddled around their fires, continuing with their games unaware. The authority drones, until now busy in suppression, would be visiting soon.
The lights of the shopping centre gave out, plunging the game into darkness. In the panic most of the onlookers bolted, fearing a raid, crashing through window displays of sports equipment, charging down mile long grocery aisles attempting to escape through any route offered. The players didn’t rise, only a small flinch in the face of the young boy announced he was aware of the changing circumstances. The Grand Master continued to stare at the board, the pieces barely visible as his pupils dilated, making the most of the little light crawling from clouded corners. With a single pawn and a trapped queen, he was in deep trouble. But his king had not been captured yet. Barely breathing. He would fight on. The senior judge, brandishing a torch, broke the heavy silence.
“ I fear we cannot continue in these circumstances.”
“ Then the game is ours.” The boy’s father rose from his position, joy stretched across his grey face. Zamyatin held his nerve, restraining the anger from infecting his voice.
“ I am not defeated yet.” The boy’s mouth moved to answer before a light touch from his father silenced the infant outburst.
“ Your position is untenable. You would have lost.”
“ Have I lost yet ?” The judges shuffled their feet, cowered by the situation. Again, the boy made to speak, another light touch halting him.
“ I think you should be pragmatic here.”
“ I’ll think for myself thank you.” Silence again. Turning to the senior judge the old man decided to force the issue. “ What is the rules governing a situation like this ?” The judge hesitated.
“ Well this really is rather unusual….” No way out, escape, acceptable compromise offered itself and the Grand Master wouldn’t be short changed.
“ But ?” Another pause. “ What do the rules stipulate ?” The boy’s father was anxious, aware of the most likely outcome.
“ In a situation such as this….. I’m afraid the rules dictate…..” The judge looked towards the blind boy, unease dripping from his gaze. “The rules dictate the game is abandoned and a rematch being arranged within three months.” The boy howled with a pale cocktail of frustration, hinting at hidden capabilities that frightened the old man, leant towards dangers beneath. Rising from his chair, he glanced down on the child, satisfied with his escape. The judge continued, “I really am very sorry. But those are the rules as set down.” The Grand Master couldn’t resist a parting shot, his prevailing reserve crumbling.
“ I will enjoy preparing for our next encounter.” The quick movement of the boy almost caught him, lashing out with strange ferocity, his small white teeth bared in an animal snarl, filed to a point behind lips red with blood. As his father struggled to restrain him, hatred burning from his damaged eyes, Zamyatin stepped back from the table, for the first time shaken, caught cold by his opponent. The child was crying, whimpering and twisting, a caged, injured beast.
“ I think you better leave.” The father’s voice worried Zamyatin. Accepting the advice he disappeared into the gathered shadows, the child’s growls still hanging around his head in a hissing cloud.
Far to the south of the city, sitting quietly in his study, deep in the heart of the sprawling Progressive Fascist’s complex, the party leader sipped on a glass of syntethic brandy. He had just finished talking to his silent backers in the monasteries. As expected they had confirmed that their official line would be they had never supported him, had never spoken to him or any member of his party. He had had his chance, they said, and the chance was gone. Better luck next time. There would be another election in ten years, if he agitated correctly. Then maybe they would reconsider their position, but for now the matter was closed, the issue was dead. His contacts in the military had been even more silent, initially refusing to take his call. Finally, he got through to a junior officer who made the mistake of speaking to him. An error of judgement that was to catch up with him in the following days. Forget it, had been the advice. No one was going to back a loser. Keep a low profile. Who knows what time might bring. The young officer hung up. No amount of further calls would be answered.
The Fascist party leader weighed his option. His chances of escaping untouched by the purge that would inevitably follow were slim. A long stint in the political prisons was not appealing. His party was dead, it’s support scattered, disorganised, it’s heavyweight backers in the hierarchy running for cover, wary of the coming sanctions. They had even more to lose than a self made political renegade. Their names were at stake, their reputations. He took his only option, finishing his brandy before straining to the task. Swirling the heavy liquid around his mouth, he teased out every last pinch of bitter taste. His secretary found the body twenty minutes later, the sound proofing of the study muffling the shot. Placing the tea tray on the desk she touched the revolver, still warm from use, and sighed. A terrible end.
Grand Master Zamyatin retired, undefeated, six weeks later, his place amongst the immortals of the game secured. He enjoyed the sea view from his apartment high in the towers on those days the conditions would allow. The central Machine hummed quietly on.

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