Salt Water Taffy By Matt West

Mar 02 2014

It was a beautiful summer day on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Tommy and his little sister Hanna were running down the wood planks, hand in hand. They were two of the very few kids that actually lived near the Boardwalk, and after every summer all the new friends they made had to leave to go back to New York or Maryland. They always had each other though, and that was enough for them.

That particular day was nice, warm with an overcast. That meant they could run down the beaches barefoot without the hot sand burning their little feet. The Boardwalk was coated so that they wouldn’t get splinters as they ran along, looking at all the ice cream and candy vendors that dotted the storefronts all along the ocean.

They turned a corner, skipping and yelling out to some of the other children that were dripping ice cream on their tee shirts or spilling snow cones down their chin. Then they saw a small store tucked into an alleyway next to the Hershey ice cream store. It didn’t have any candy or decals in the window, only a large sign that read “Salt Water Taffy.”

“Hey, let’s check that place out, I’ve never been there before,” said Tommy, pulling his little sister along.

“Wait… I’m scared. Let’s get mommy first.”

“Come on, I’ll protect you sis, it’s just a store, what are you, a scaredy cat?

She finally relented and they walked slowly up to the wooden door of the small store. Tommy twisted the brass knob and the well greased door glided open on its hinges. There were huge hooks nailed to the walls and a counter that the children were too short to see over. The display case had lots of little wrapped candies in different colors, but all the same size. A tall dark man leaned forward from behind the counter and greeted them.

“So children, would you like to try some salt water taffy?” the man said, as he held out two little wrapped pieces for them to grab out of his long lanky hand.

Hanna hid behind her brother, a little startled by the man that she hadn’t seen before. Tommy grabbed the taffy and said “Thanks,” then they both walked toward the door to leave.

“Remember kids, if you chew it you can’t stop until it’s gone….”

The door shut behind them.

Tommy unwrapped one of the little white pieces of candy. It was covered in wax paper, and was a little hard to get out of its cocoon. He popped it in his mouth. It was just the right size to fit inside and suck the swirling creamy-sugar juice that seemed to spontaneously emit from it. The juice was getting a little too much so he started chewing, and just as the dark man said, he couldn’t stop. If you stopped chewing for even a second, it would stick to your teeth like cement, and you couldn’t get it off.

“You want this piece?” he asked his sister. She shook her head no, so he unwrapped it and popped that one in his mouth too. They ran along the Boardwalk for a while longer before their parents came to the arcade to take them home.

All night Tommy was having strange dreams. He found himself in a dark cellar—damp, with the smell of mold and warm mustard seeping into his flaring nostrils. There was a cauldron in the center, and logs with orange fires dancing about them. He walked up to the cauldron and saw a goopy white liquid in there, and right before he went to dunk his hand into it he saw the face of his little sister, bobbing up and down in the liquid.

At breakfast his mom made pancakes and eggs for the family. It was seven in the morning, and the family was sitting down at the table before another day on the Boardwalk. Both parents were elementary school teachers, and were able to let their children play all summer without having to send them to camp or summer school.

When Tommy’s mother poured the syrup on his pancakes, he had a weird feeling in his mouth, kind of like how he felt after eating the salt water taffy the previous day. His mouth felt sticky, wet, and sweet. He ate the pancakes but they didn’t fill him up or quench his sugary thirst.

That day at the Boardwalk his parents ate lunch at a fish and chips restaurant, while the two kids had tokens to play some of the carnival games scattered around the area. They popped balloons and threw rings on bottles, trying to win big furry animals to put into their rooms. The whole time Tommy’s mind was occupied by the old shop that sold salt water taffy in the alley. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t convince his sister to go back with him, so after their money ran out he told her to go back to mom and dad and that he would go by himself.

He walked down the alley, and approached the wooden door with the brass knob. He turned it quickly and stepped in. The dark man stood behind the counter, and smiled as Tommy made his way over.

“So, you liked the taffy that I gave you yesterday did you?”

“Yes….”

“Well, here are a couple more pieces for you to have if you like.…”

The man threw him two more pieces of taffy, this time colored red. He opened one and put it in his mouth, chewing violently so that the sweet creamy treat wouldn’t stick anywhere in his mouth.

The man lifted a huge glob of red sugary mass and put it on one of the huge hooks nailed to the wall of the shop. He let it droop down, and then gathered it up and placed it back on the hook. Every time Tommy thought the taffy would fall off the hook, the dark man would snatch it real quick and place it on the hook again. He did this over and over again for about five minutes while Tommy watched, fascinated by the whole process.

“I need someone to test this fresh batch, what flavor should it be I wonder….”

“Oooh! Strawberry, it’s my favorite,” said Tommy, as the man put the blob into the wrapping machine.

“Strawberry it is….”

He flicked a switch and the machine started to rumble and spin, and then little blobs came out, and tiny pieces of wax paper formed around the tasty bite size candies. The bucket at the end of the machine was filling up with taffy, and the dark man grabbed one and gave it to Tommy.

“Go ahead… try it.”

Tommy put it into his mouth and the taste was more than he could ever hope for. On his way back to his parents all he could think about was salt water taffy. He asked his parents if they had ever tried it, and they said yes of course, it’s just as important to Atlantic City as the casinos—it just wouldn’t be the same place without it. Tommy was thrilled at what his parents said, and loved the fact that he had found out how wonderful the candy was all on his own.

The next morning Tommy felt ill, and couldn’t eat his breakfast. It happened right after his mother told him that they were just going to relax at the house today, and not go to the Boardwalk. All he could think about during the day was the red taffy that he ate yesterday, and how he could get more. It filled his mind and pushed out all other thoughts, he couldn’t read, he couldn’t play video games, all he could do was sit in his room and think about salt water taffy.

Finally he decided to wait until the family went to bed. He peeked outside his room, and quietly tiptoed around the house, making sure to check everyone’s bedroom to be sure they were asleep. Once he felt confident enough, Tommy put on his fresh sneakers and hightailed it out of the house and toward the Boardwalk. They only lived a few blocks away from it, so he was at the shop in less than ten minutes. It was nine thirty at night, but something told him that the shop was still going to be open, even though it was usually only the most popular places that stayed open this late.

The door to the taffy shop was closed as usual, and when he turned the knob it opened noiselessly just like all the other times. The dark man was behind the counter, this time with a bag full of strawberry salt water taffy.

“I thought you might come back… do you want some taffy?” the man said with a devious grin.

“Yes….”

The man threw Tommy a few pieces of taffy, which he summarily unwrapped and scarfed down. It filled his little stomach with a pleasure that he had forgotten, like he had just scratched an itch after being in a straight jacket for ten years.

The man’s eyes pierced into Tommy’s soul, “So, do you want this bag of salt water taffy? I’m running out myself, and need more ingredients. I’ll make you a deal, if you bring that little girl with you tomorrow, I’ll give you all the taffy in this bag and then as much as you can stuff your face with before you leave, do we have a deal?”

Tommy nodded.

As he turned to leave for home, the dark man said, “By the way, what color was her hair again?”

“Blonde…”

“Blonde huh? So, do you like banana flavored taffy or crème flavored?” asked the man, smiling.

“Oh I like banana!” said Tommy, opening the door to leave.

Hanna was wearing the summer dress that her mother made for her as a foray into her passion, clothing design. She had made a few mistakes with this one, so it didn’t bother her to let Hanna run around the beach or the Boardwalk with it on—she would have another go of it next week. Tommy was with her, always her guardian, and sometimes an annoying older brother. This day, he was extremely annoying, trying to get her to go with him to the salt water taffy shop. She really didn’t want to go again, but after a few hours of this she finally relented and agreed to go, but only to get some free taffy and then leave.

They approached the shop, but this time the door was open. They both walked in, Tommy first, and then Hanna. Then a loud bang, and the door was shut. Tommy whirled around, and Hanna was gone. The dark man appeared behind the counter.

“Hello Tommy, thank you for bringing your sister, I was starting to get worried that I wouldn’t be able to make anymore salt water taffy.”

A calm came over the shop, and Tommy was introduced to his banana flavored sister again—in neatly wrapped wax paper packages.

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First in, Last Out By Matt West

Feb 23 2014

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

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

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

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

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Monsters Notwithstanding by Michelle Marr

Feb 16 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” Mason muttered.

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

“Me? Pick on her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Layla?”

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

“He followed me home from school.”

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

“He’s a nice monster.”

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

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

Mason cut her off. “No is no!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

“Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

“Why are you dressed up?”

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

“Don’t you hate ties?”

“A mean haberdasher.”

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

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

“Oh. Do you want me to make dinner?”

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

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

“Mason! There’s a letter for you!”

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” Layla asked.

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

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

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

Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When?”

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

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

His lunch.

The monster had tuna on its nose.

Mason saw red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday

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

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

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

“Layla!”

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

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

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

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

“Layla!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ . . . Charlie?” Layla stammered.

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

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

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

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

Friday Afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve got to go?” Mason asked.

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

“No problem whatsoever,” Mason said.

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

“You like her,” Layla teased.

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

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

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Broken Dreams by Dave Fragments

Feb 09 2014

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

“Is he as good as he looks?”

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

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

“Robots ain’t boxing.”

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

“Hell no. You ain’t no promoter.”

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

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

“You still hold that against me.”

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

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

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

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

“Coach said fight and I fight, sausage boy.

“Got insurance cards?” Mickey snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And a palooka come back to brag.”

“Tweety-bird.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I said.

“Want I get ice for your face.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know how robot-fighters are programmed?”

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

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

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

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

“You?”

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

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

“What’s your offer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bastards.”

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

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

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

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

“We all come to this end,” I said.

“I’m not ready.”

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

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

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

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

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What Does the Dead Man Say? by JH Mae

Feb 02 2014

Samuel looked at me like he wanted to hurt me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me be, please let me be.

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

I smile back. This has to work.

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

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

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

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

Paul looks at me.

Should I be scared?

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

“Cold bitch. . . ”

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

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

“You didn’t even read it,” he said.

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

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

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

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

No, not really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t judge, don’t analyze…

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

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

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

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

I don’t know what that means…

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

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

“Ten…nine…eight…”

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

“Five…four…three…”

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

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

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

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

“Five, four, three…”

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

“One…You are there…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because you need to learn how to be human.

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

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

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

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

“Open the door. ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone needs a friend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“. . . E tu non sorgi ancora. . . ”

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

“E puoi dormir cosi’?” I sing.

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

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

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

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

“Vieni, bell’idol mio…”

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

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

“Rendi men crudo, oh Dio…”

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

Yes, yes…

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

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

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

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Nothing at Camden Town by Frances Gow

Jan 26 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

#

Thump, thump, thump. “Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the matter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Psst!”

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

“A fiver,” he said in a gruff voice.

“But I can get two for the…”

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

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

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

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

“I was just about to knock for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Die, My Darling by Morgan Dreiss

Jan 19 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Silo Confession By D.W. Gillespie

Jan 12 2014

Judge Kimball, 

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

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

Father Meyers: Do you mind if I record this? 

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

FM: Why’s that? 

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

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

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

FM: So, that’s why you asked for me? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FM: Thank you. 

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

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

DM: How’s that? 

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

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

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

DM: What do you know about me? 

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

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

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

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

(pauses and sighs)

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

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

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

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

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

(Lights cigarette. Long pause.)

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

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

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

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

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

(sighs)

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

(silence)

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

(unintelligible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DM: Yeah. I was getting there.

(Lights another cigarette)

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

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

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

(Long pause) 

FM: So what happened? 

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

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

FM: What happened? 

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

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

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

FM: So, did Bill go back? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FM: You said your father wasn’t around? 

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

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

(Long pause with deep breathing) 

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

FM: You…left your friend there? 

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

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

“You’re alright.”

(sighs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

FM: Change? 

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

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

(crying)

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

(sniffing and moaning sounds) 

FM: How did he get out? 

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

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

(laughing)

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

FM: So, was…was he dead? 

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

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

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

FM: What did he say to you?

(laughs or cries) 

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

FM: And that was the end? 

DM: No.

(Sniffing)

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

(Long silence) 

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

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

FM: I…I don’t under… 

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

FM: What truth? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FM: No! Please put that down… 

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

FM: …oh Jesus please… 

DM: …for good. 

FM: …NO! NO! PLEASE SOMEONE HELP! 

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

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

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

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

Best,

Sherriff Pete Wallace

 

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Mago’s Legacy By James Eastick

Jan 05 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below him stood Hodge, his face fixed with concern.

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

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

“Slowly…” Mago reiterated.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good evening, sir.” Mago greeted.

Garrant leaned forwards, closer to the screen.

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

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

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

“Go on…” Garrant answered sullenly.

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

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

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

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

“What kind of breakthrough?” Garrant followed up.

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

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

“For how long?”

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

“Have you tested it again?”

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

Garrant scratched at his broad chin.

“I’m coming to visit.”

“You sure that’s wise, sir?”

The look on his face darkened.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You excited about tomorrow?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since you were twelve?”

He stopped again, and recounted.

“Eleven.”

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

Hodge shrugged his big shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

Mago looked up to Hodge and met his eyes.

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Ready to begin?” Mago asked.

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

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

“Who moves the world?”

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

“What does it mean?” He asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My machine.” He said proudly.

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

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

“One moment.” Mago uttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s fine, Hodge. Thank you.”

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

“Why do you tolerate that idiot?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready to continue?” He smiled.

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

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

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

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CUSTOMER SUPPORT By Adam Gaylord

Dec 29 2013

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

 

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

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