The Rescue Mission by Dominique Collier

Mar 30 2014

Mac’s eyes were so swollen and caked with dried blood that he could barely see his torturer. He still heard the cold, cruel voice.

“We’ll find your comrades with or without your help,” it said. “If it’s without your help, we’ll kill you. I wonder, would they do the same for you?”

Mac began to wonder, too. Why hadn’t they found him? Were they even looking?

Pain raged through his body like fire. His healing powers worked too slowly to oppose the injuries inflicted upon him. He fought to stay conscious. How long had it been since he had eaten, or slept? He’d stopped counting the days. His arms and shoulders ached unbearably from supporting the weight of his suspended body. His ankles were shackled to the floor.

The alien paced the room. Its green scales glowed. Mac closed his eyes but it didn’t help; the image of the one they called Arezdor was seared onto the back of Mac’s eyelids. Suddenly a fist slammed into Mac’s face. He reeled and winced as the manacles dug into his newly broken wrists. He opened his eyes.

“Tell me the location of your team.”

Mac’s eyes followed the beast Arezdor as it ran its fingers across several instruments lined up on a workbench. Mac wanted to vomit. He suppressed the terror that flooded through his body as Arezdor picked up a pair of pliers. He’d already lost his fingernails today. What would be taken next?

Arezdor put the pliers down. Relief welled up inside Mac until Arezdor grasped a six inch serrated knife.

His head nearly exploded as he tried to speak.

“You’ll never . . .” he began. It was almost too much of an effort. “They wouldn’t . . .” He gave up. Lights popped behind his eyelids and dizziness overtook him. He fell into welcome unconsciousness.

The mission had started nearly two weeks before. His team comprised six members of an elite force known as the Ospreys. On Earth they were feared throughout the world as the deadliest group of special operations fighters in existence. They endured the most grueling, intense training known to man.

Mac had been asleep in the bed he shared with his wife when the call came in. She groaned and rubbed the growing bulge of her belly. The timing could not have been worse. The baby would arrive any day. His wife looked into his steely eyes as he listened to his assignment over the phone. Her look begged him not to go. But he knew she was aware that all the pleas in the world could not keep him from his honor-bound duty
.
When Mac stepped off of their spaceship, the Haliaetus, onto the planet Leona, he found the air so thick it was difficult to breathe. A heavy fog surrounded him. He could just make out his hand when he stretched it in front of him. Strange noises filled the sky. Birds shrieked and swooped threateningly over Mac’s head. He fell quickly into an Epsilon formation so that he and his teammates were close enough to see each other.

Out of nowhere giant talons raced toward his face, ready to rip out his eyes. He dove to the ground and rolled. As he got back to his feet he readied his R8000 Blaster, but the monstrous bird, or whatever it was, had disappeared into the haze.

A shout from one of his teammates reached Mac and he swung toward the sound. Jason, or Shank, as they called him, was being dragged by an enormous creature that resembled an eagle. Its ten foot long serpent’s tail cracked the air like a whip. Giant claws formed vices around Shank’s biceps as it pulled him further away with each thrash of its immense wings. Already the mist attempted to envelop Shank and the creature as though it harbored a malevolence that strove to aid in the beast’s capture of the human.

Mac once again took aim with his Blaster. This time he got a shot off and was rewarded by the sound of an ear-splitting screech, followed by a thud as Shank’s body hit the ground. Shrieks from more of the creatures filled the air. Mac knew his team needed to take cover immediately before they became the birds’ next meal. At his command they belly-crawled through the mist toward a dim outline that appeared to be a forest. When they reached its edge and crossed into its shelter, the mist dissipated. They saw each other’s faces for the first time since they’d landed and there was no fear. Years of training and hundreds of missions had hardened them.

Mac did not need to remind his team why they had come. None of them would forget the panicked and terrified expressions of the parents whose children had been kidnapped. The women shook with uncontrolled sobs while the men tried their best to be strong, though tears dripped from their solemn faces. They gazed at the Osprey team as its members boarded the shuttle. Their eyes implored the men to bring their children home safely.

One hundred and fifty children had been taken from an elementary school in Calisee, United States. New monitoring systems throughout the surrounding galaxies allowed the Osprey team to track the kidnappers to their home planet. The world trembled as it imagined the horrors that awaited the innocent little ones. But they had hope. It lay in the Osprey team; in Mac and his men.

Mac was surprised how quickly darkness fell over the hushed planet. An eerie silence accompanied the creeping night. He didn’t believe in omens, but it made his skin crawl nevertheless. What was out there, watching them, waiting for their guard to be let down? Mac took the first watch.

“Get some rest,” he grunted when one of the other men offered. “You’ll need it. No telling what this place has in store for us.”

A fire was out of the question. The last thing the men wanted to do was alert anyone, or anything, to their presence. Within an hour Mac began to shiver. A swig from his flask warmed him for only a moment. Soon his teeth began to chatter and his body began to shake. He had to make a decision. Would he risk the dangers of the unknown planet, in the dark, to seek shelter from the cold? As the temperature continued to drop, so did the men’s chance of surviving the night where they lay.

Mac kicked the men awake. “Pack up, we’re moving.”

“Torro,” he whispered. “Climb a tree. Look for any type of shelter.”

“There’s a cave within a mile of here,” Torro reported.

Leona’s two full moons provided enough light for the men to travel by. In trained silence the team pushed through the jungle. Their bodies ached from the cold. No ordinary man would have the discipline to keep from shivering in that climate, but the Ospreys knew that even the sounds of chattering teeth could give them away to an enemy.

They reached the cave and hustled inside to escape the howling wind that had reared up as they traveled. It stung their skin and put tears in their eyes. As the warmth of the cave slowly thawed their bodies, Mac and his men huddled together on the rough ground to try to get some much needed rest. Manny stood guard.

Mac felt as though his eyes had barely closed when something woke him. His hand automatically went for the knife on his belt, but his arm was pinned tightly to his side. His other arm was in the same predicament, and both legs were bound together. Vines that glowed bright pink were wrapped around his body. They retracted toward the ceiling of the cave, drawing him up, high above the ground.

“What the hell?” Manny shouted. Mac saw that the rest of the men were also elevated to a dangerous altitude by the glowing pink vines. At that instant the vines began to squeeze. They cut into Mac’s flesh and compressed his lungs. A dark sap oozed from the vines and seeped into the lacerations they had made. Mac felt a searing pain where the sap entered his wounds. It spread as the substance entered his blood stream and was pumped throughout his body. He felt engulfed by fire.

Then things began to really get weird. Everything looked ten times brighter and seemed to pulsate to an unheard beat. The objects in the cave seemed to have grown lungs and were breathing. The pink glow of the vines filled the cave and what Mac saw terrorized him. Spiders the size of dogs clung to the walls. They reached legs out to touch him. He looked at his teammates. Shank had grown a second head. Cargo’s skin had turned to vapor and now hovered in the air around him. Mac turned his eyes back to his own body. Raw, oozing boils blanketed his exposed skin. Bugs dropped from the ceiling several feet above and landed on him. They fed on the discharge of the boils. He squeezed his eyes shut and re-opened them. The boils and the bugs were gone. Instead he saw floating blades hack away at his limbs. Blood spattered everywhere.

“It’s a hallucinogen!” Mac shouted to his team. His body, which healed thirty times faster than the average human’s, began to dispel the poison. He watched his skin regenerate to close the fissures made by the vines.

He had no idea if what he saw next was real, but it chilled him to the core. A king cobra as tall and as wide as a redwood appeared from the depths of the cave. It slithered toward him deliberately. Mac again squeezed his eyes shut, but when he opened them the giant snake was still there, only closer. The monster spread its hood and rose to its full height. It filled the cave. Its head was level with Mac where he hung, suspended by the vines that still held him fast. The snake flicked its forked tongue. It came within inches of Mac’s face. He could smell the venom on its breath.

Without warning a coil of the snake’s body wrapped tightly around Mac’s. As it held him firmly, the snake bit into the vines that suspended Mac from the ceiling and they snapped. The serpent lowered him to within ten feet of the ground. Though the snake was coiled tightly around Mac’s midsection, his left arm was now free. He reached for the knife that he kept on his belt and with one fluid motion, plunged it into the snake’s body. Instantly the beast let loose its grip and Mac tumbled to the ground. As he struggled to his feet the snake darted at him, fangs bared. Mac dove out of the way just in time. It struck at him again, and again. Each time, the fangs that were the size of Mac’s body nearly sliced him in half.

With each successive dive Mac worked his way closer to the gear laid out near the mouth of the cave. When he reached it he ducked behind one of the larger packs to shield himself while he dug in his own pack for his Blaster. He steadied the Blaster until the giant snake darted once more and he shot straight into its gaping mouth. The blast hit its mark and the snake was knocked back by the force of it. It hit the ground and the cave shook with its weight.

Mac didn’t know for sure if the thing was dead. He had to get his teammates out of there. They dangled far above him, still overwhelmed by the effects of the hallucinogen that had streamed into their veins, eager to devastate and destroy. Mac had another tool in his arsenal that he now thanked God for.

He aimed the levitation beam at Cargo and pressed the trigger. A jet of purple light streamed from the gun. It enveloped Cargo and he floated up an inch from where he had hung. Mac transferred the levitation device to his left hand and used his laser gun in his right hand to cut the vines that held his friend captive. Cargo began to plummet toward the ground where he would be smashed to pieces. Mac followed his friend with the levitation beam until it found him again, and he was instantly buoyed up. Mac slowly lowered the man to the ground. He repeated this process with the rest of the team until every man was safe on the floor of the cave.

Though still on edge and seeing things that weren’t real, the men were disciplined enough to function even in this state. They grabbed their gear and followed their leader out of the shelter and into the dawning sun.

For the next three days the team roamed the planet as they searched for signs of the kidnapped children. When they deemed this approach too slow, they agreed to split up to cover more ground. They had a rendezvous point at which they were to meet every night. The location of this rendezvous point would prove to be a secret that Mac paid dearly to protect.

Alone, Mac picked his way through the jungle with all the stealth of a tarantula stalking its prey. Nevertheless, the elements of the strange land were more of a challenge than he’d ever expected. The haze left him unaware of surrounding dangers. Unknown plants grabbed at him and tore his clothes and skin. Creatures that looked like nothing he’d seen before attacked him. The struggles that ensued, though he won them, left him bloody and exhausted. If it hadn’t been for his body’s healing power, they would have left him dead.

Eventually Mac came across a small stream, on the other side of which lay nothing but more of the same jungle. He heaved himself into the air to jump it. Halfway across his body was hit by a jolt of electricity that knocked him to the ground. But he didn’t land in the stream, or on its bank. Instead when he opened his eyes he found he was indoors. Dank air and darkness closed in on him. He could see little but that the walls and floor were made of rock. A single door with no handle interrupted the continuous line of bare wall. The room was completely empty save himself, some ankle shackles, and some chains that hung from the ceiling. No furniture or even a toilet offered the semblance of a place of habitation. His weapons and other gear had not made the journey with him.

Within moments of his arrival, his captors appeared. They were like twin reptiles that walked upright. Their green scales glowed, adding an eerie intensity to the effect their presence had on Mac. Both had guns pointed at him. He was forced to let them chain his wrists and ankles. When he was bound and completely powerless, an alien much bigger than the other two entered.

“What are you doing on my planet?” it asked him angrily. Its deep, gravelly voice echoed in the small room. A box around its neck translated from the alien’s language to English. The other aliens wore similar boxes around their necks, though they hadn’t spoken to him.

Mac was silent. The alien who had addressed him rammed a fist into Mac’s gut.

“Answer me.”

After he got his breath back Mac said simply, “My name is Mac Alton, serial number 258781.”

“I know why you’re here,” the thing said with a rumbling laugh. “You’re a human from the planet Earth.” Its ghastly smile displayed rows of teeth as sharp as knives. “You’ve come to rescue the other humans that we took from your home planet.”

Mac’s face remained blank. He gave nothing away.

“Who did you bring with you?” the reptilian creature asked.

Again Mac’s silence earned him a violent return for his uncooperativeness. This went on for hours. The alien never seemed to tire of knocking Mac around.

For days, maybe even weeks, this torment lasted. Though his wounds healed overnight, each day wreaked new havoc on his body. Mentally Mac weakened day by day. How much longer could he resist the pain and starvation?

“You’re being taken to the red cell,” one of the alien henchmen told him one day with a malevolent grin. “That means they’re going to kill you.”

Mac hung limply from his chains. The lizard-like being unlocked Mac’s ankle shackles, and instantly Mac flexed his core and threw his legs around the thing’s neck. He squeezed his legs with all his remaining strength and twisted them. The creature’s neck snapped and it slumped to the ground.

It took every bit of dexterity Mac could muster to wriggle the key from the henchman’s belt with his toes and transfer it to between his teeth. He hoisted himself up so his face was level with his wrists and worked the key into the lock. With a click the manacles popped open.

A crowbar Mac found on the bench of torture instruments served to wrench open the door with no handle. In his weakened state Mac nearly passed out with the effort. He slipped through the opening he’d made into a brightly lit hallway. A guard turned toward him in surprise and Mac slammed the crowbar into its skull. It went down as the satisfying sound of crunching bones filled Mac’s ears. The aliens’ skeletons were much more fragile than he had thought, given the strength of Arezdor’s fist.

Mac quickly felt his strength return. He took the gamma ray gun from the guard’s belt. With that and his crowbar he fought off slews of the reptilian beasts as he made his way down the halls of an immense compound. Finally he came across a solo alien who he was able to overtake. Mac held the ray gun to its head.

“Show me where the human children are,” he demanded.

“Please don’t k – kill me,” it begged. “I’ll show you.” A fear had spread through the alien masses of the man whose wounds healed magically. Though Arezdor had tried to suppress the rumors, all knew of their leader’s inability to permanently harm the prisoner.

With the ray gun to its back, the alien led Mac down one corridor after another. A quick zap of the weapon mobilized any threats that they came across.

“You’d better not be screwing with me,” Mac growled when five minutes had passed and they had yet to reach the location of the children. They’d come to a large room filled with windows and dominated by huge double doors. Mac jammed the ray gun into the alien creature’s temple.

“They’re right ahead, through those doors.” It pointed with a trembling finger.

Suddenly every window in the room shattered and men swung through them, dropping to the floor in front of Mac. He recognized his team. They had found him at last. Relief and gratitude filled him. A smile broke out across his face.

“It’s about time you showed up,” he shouted good-naturedly.

“We can’t all have your good luck,” Shank responded in kind.

Without further display of emotion the team turned to face the double doors toward which the stunned alien still pointed.

“Open them,” Mac commanded his guide.

It hurried to the keypad next to the door and entered a passcode. The doors slid open. Inside, the men found the children in giant cages. Some of the children cried, others stared blankly at the bars, while still others lay on the ground in a fetal position. Mac knew every minute that passed could bring alien forces upon them which they might not be able to combat. He risked a shot at the lock of one of the cages with his newly acquired ray gun. The lock broke and fell away. Quickly his men followed suit with the rest of the cages.

They herded the children out of the room and into the corridors. Once again Mac utilized his alien guide, at gunpoint, to show them the way out of the compound. It trembled and mewled but nevertheless managed its assignment. Shank, Torro, and Key took the front of the entourage while Mac, Cargo, and Manny held up the rear. They instantly annihilated the profusion of aliens they came across with their powerful Blasters.

To Mac’s surprise the team had moved their ship to a landing spot only half a day’s trek from the alien compound. When the weaker children lagged and fell, the men carried them until their strength returned. They arrived at the Haliaetus shortly before dark.

“Good to see you old girl,” Mac cried as he patted the side of the ship. “I’m coming home, baby,” he added in a whisper.

“All the children are present and accounted for, Sir,” Key reported.

“Then let’s hit the road,” Mac answered. He wasted no further time in getting the ship off the ground and headed toward home.

The scent of lavender greeted Mac as he entered his house for the first time since he arrived back on Planet Earth. The most welcome sight in the world met his eyes. His wife sat on the loveseat with their new baby in her arms.

“Meet Eva,” she told him. She blinked back joyous tears as she held the baby out to him. Mac took little Eva in his arms and gazed into her solemn infant eyes. All the meaning of his life looked back at him and he knew why he had fought so hard to stay alive. It was all for love of the three most important things in his life; his wife, his baby, and his country. For them, he would endure anything.

Biography: Since childhood Dominique has been pulled by the incessant and infatuating world of writing. She loves immersing herself in worlds of imagination, peopled by outlandish and larger than life characters. She believes that sometimes, most of the time, escaping into a good book is the cure for all one’s problems. Dominique has a degree in psychology and apart from writing, she works in the behavioral health field.

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Reasons by Sathya Stone

Mar 23 2014

“I’m sorry sir, he paints what?”

“Gravity,” said the old man. “A difficult choice.”

Mr. Chopra was not interested in lucidity. A habit reflected, I thought, in the kind of artists he sponsored. Worse, he was a minimalist. A product of his mother’s Jainism, perhaps.

“Please elaborate,” I said. “Sir.”

“I will show you. Come.”

He grabbed one of the steel bars and pulled himself along. After a moment, I followed. It was my first time in orbit, and I found everything to be new and exciting. Mr. Chopra, I could tell, wasn’t comfortable propelling himself forwards using his arms. Not a strong man, I had realized quickly. On Earth, he gave an impression of great power and vigor.

Up here, there was no room for lies. All was stark and sterile and definite.

His room was bigger than the one I was crammed into with Tim, and slightly more comfortable. Two paintings were fixed to one wall. “This,” said Mr. Chopra, gesturing towards the larger one.

A powerful sense of motion and depth hit me at first glance.

The picture showed a man in a grey suit in the act of falling down, painted against the colorful background of a graffitied wall. A closer examination showed that the violent sense of movement had been achieved by a clever and subtle distortion of the background. I thought I got it. The subject of the painting wasn’t the man, it was the act of gravity.

“What do you think?” said Mr. Chopra, abruptly.

“An artist with a very fine understanding of space and time,” I said. “Does he always paint people falling down?”

“People, things. Buildings collapsing. Met him when my old headquarters was demolished. Skinny white boy in the crowd. Never took a video of it, drew from memory. Clever.”

I nodded. Say what you liked about the Mr. Chopra (and people certainly did), but for all his ruthlessness in business matters, he had a sweet spot for young artists. Provided they were talented, of course. I hadn’t yet got to know Gabriel Lundgren; I had taken the first shuttle with Tim and Onyeka, and then had been busy sorting out the tax exemption forms. The artists had arrived two days ago. I knew Gabriel as a kind of specter, a tall colorless creature with long limp blond hair, floating about, staring dreamily at everything with vague surprise. He signed whatever I put in front of him without reading the contents.

“Talk to him,” Mr. Chopra ordered me. “Him. The Ikebana girl. The other one will be fine.”

#

“I create,” Brant corrected, when I implied that he ‘painted’. “I’m interested in the act of creation, which is not defined by the tools. I don’t think of what I do as simple painting. The parameters set by the tools do not interest me.”

Gabriel was looking rather bemused. “But don’t you paint?”

I thought Brant Siddiqui was an ass, but Gabriel was one of nature’s innocents.

“I capture the moods of the sky with what tools I am allowed, yes, and my paints are created from nature, by myself. I need to feel that I have control over the colors from the start, that they’re mine. The creation of the paints is the soul, the true heart, of my artistic process.” He shot me a look like I had farted or something. “I find it extremely crass, even vulgar, when natural scenes are painted using materials that hurt the Earth Goddess.”

That sounded rehearsed. But he didn’t have quite the flare with words that he did with a brush. Unfortunately for me, Brant was an amazing artist, particularly given the self-imposed limitations of his palette. Crushed leaves and flowers and berries didn’t yield colors even half as vivid as what you got in a basic paint box. Didn’t seem to matter. Brant Siddiqui could read the sky like I read a book, and put the sky down on paper like I (and possibly he) could never write a book.

And, fine, it wasn’t a bad example he was setting, being an important member of the Anti-Pollution art movement. He was a good person, essentially. If only he never spoke, I could like him.

“Well I’d-I’d,” Gabriel’s hands twisted. “I’d like to paint you.” He didn’t look anyone in the eye, and now he was cringing, feverish blotches of pink appearing on his cheeks.

Brant’s eyes went wide. “You what?”

“I want to – to, you’re, up here, you’ve,” he waved an arm desperately. “I can’t paint the absence of gravity.” He looked like he was about to cry. “I tried, but -”

I’d learned to read his body language over the past few days, and I thought he was angling himself towards me, begging help.

“You think having Brant as a subject will help you?” I prompted.

“He’s so full of gravity!”

I wanted to laugh. Brant’s didn’t seem to be sure whether he should be offended or not. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, in a tone I knew would just send Gabriel even further into his shell.

To my surprise, Gabriel found some coherence from somewhere.

“You’re so – you’re anchored. All the time. The – the things you say about the,” he cringed again. “Earth Goddess. I think it helps you be – I think you’re sure of who you are, it creates a sort of – illusion of gravity.”

“That’s,” for once Brant was at a loss. “Uh, sure, fine. Whatever. You can paint me, if you like.”

Gabriel nodded, looking at his hands that just kept knotting together.

#

“Why does he do it?” I asked Captain Nantakarn, later. “What’s the point of all this?”

He angled his head slightly and smiled. A calm man, Nantakarn. Yeka had told me his story. The Captain’s (large) family was entirely dependent on the salary he got working for Mr Chopra. The man himself just wanted to be a Buddhist monk.

On Earth leave, Nantakarn lived in a monastery in the Himalayas and was, in fact, a monk. When Mr. Chopra sent for him, he would walk sedately down the mountain, take a few buses across Nepal, and someone would meet him at the India border with a SmartCar.

Apparently the Captain had received Ordination twice, but each time he left, he went back down to being a novice. A Buddhist Sisyphus.

Still, the peace and gentleness hung over him like a shining cloak. “A complex question Ranbir, I’m afraid. And I do not possess a great understanding of Art.”

“It’s not really about Art, is it?” I said, tentatively.

“Ah, no. Not entirely. He possesses great acumen for business, my old friend Rajesh Chopra. Yes. A forward thinking man.” He nodded gently for a few seconds. “The Chopras isolated a profitable niche in the space exploration industry. Space toilets, Ranbir. The fundamental reality of existence that comes in many forms. Lunar and Mars colonies will need toilets.”

“But there won’t be Lunar and Mars colonies for a long while, sir,” I said, growing uncertain. “I’ve read the feasibility studies, it’s – an interest of mine. Off-world colonization is too expensive and lacks any immediate benefit. The money’s better off being poured into population control and farming and carbon capture.”

He was giving me a strange, knowing smile. “Yes. Exactly. A depressed civilization. Pollution and disease, too many mouths to feed, there is not much room for dreams. Young people look to feasibility studies for inspiration, not the stars.”

“So Mr. Chopra thinks that – sponsoring Space Art will bring the romance back to off-world colonization?”

The Captain shrugged. “Perhaps.”

#

The view of the Earth amazed me the first day, and the next and the next. Yeka was in the observation deck when I had my break.

“How are your babies doing?” she said, as I strapped down into the comfy chair beside her.

“They’re not my babies,” I said, half-heartedly. “Gabriel is painting Brant. Well, he’s trying to. Brant keeps giving him advice.” Yeka grinned. “They were arguing about the role of perspective in Space Art when I left. I hate artists.”

“So does our boss,” she said. “That’s why he hired you to deal with them. You know, your predecessor quit when the last Anti-Poll guy we had up here couldn’t find any biodegradable materials, and used his own feces for a sculpture.”

I shuddered. “You don’t think Brant -”

“Oh God no. He wouldn’t get his manicured hands dirty.” Yeka smiled. “He’s not that bad, you know. I helped him with the physical training. You should get to know him better. Can’t keep this job if you hate the artists.”

“I like Gabriel and Hanako!”

“You barely notice Hanako. Tim’s been giving her beta blockers. You didn’t know, did you? She’s not handling the trip very well.”

Nonplussed, I said: “why didn’t Tim tell me?”

“He’s not obliged to tell you. Your job is to ensure that the artists trust you and will confide in you. Right now, Ranbir, you’re doing a fantastic job of judging them.”

“I’m an art critic! Judging them is what I do!”

She gave me a long, cool look. “Not anymore.”

#

“It’s so unfair!” Hanako said, when I finally cornered her. At least I spoke Japanese, that had to help a bit. “The others can paint something! What am I supposed to do?”

“Well, that’s not really true, is it?” I said. “Gabriel has no gravity and Brant can’t make his paints. I think you’re just being overly sensitive.”

She clutched the steel bar and glared at me. “You don’t understand!”

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime! Chopra-san chose you because he thinks you’re creative and resourceful. Billions of people will see your work with his patronage!”

“Do you have any idea of the pressure? Do you? My teachers and my family will be – be ashamed of me, be so disappointed, if I don’t manage to do a damn flower arrangement without any damn flowers!”

I found myself glaring back at her. “Since when is ikebana about flowers?

#

It was truly hard to concentrate on tax forms when Gabriel and Brant kept bickering about the symbolic value of self-made paints versus the basic advantage of having a professional in charge of making your creative tools. They had been fighting for days.

I had been worried that Gabriel might slip off into depression before, but now he seemed angry enough to survive the trip.

The taxes were surprisingly interesting, in a way. There’s a sentence I never expected to say. But I had ended up reading the notes pages about measures to discourage space tourism by the rich, while simultaneously helping business owners’ who needed a large crew up here. Basically the more people per meter of spaceship, the lower your hydrogen tax. And that was in addition to the break you got by buying larger quantities. I knew that most people thought that the world could only be shaped through taxes and fines, but… gods. They really did take Neo-Tax Culture seriously over at International Space Revenue.

#

“I’ll use it to represent humanity,” she snapped, when I flattened myself against the wall. “It will be the heart of the arrangement.”

“All right, all right…”

“I think it’s an interesting idea,” said Tim, cheerfully snapping the scissors. “What are you going to make out of my hair?”

Hanako blinked, making the mental switch to English. “I will make stem. Only Gabriel’s hair for flower. Yeka’s hair is moss. Ranbir’s hair,” she waved a hand uncertainly. “Leaves. In ikebana not many flower.”

“Sounds great,” said Tim, and started chopping off his hair.

I wasn’t sure if it was the best idea I’d heard, but she was trying, and that was the important thing. Now if Brant found a sky of some sort in Space they’d all at least have projects to keep them busy.

When she was gone, Tim yawned and carded his fingers through the uneven spikes of hair he had left. “It’s amazing. I’ve done this trip six times and they always think of some damned thing. Old Mr. Crapper’s right, people get more creative the less they have to work with.”

Tim was… Tim, and it seemed like a good opportunity.

“Do you reckon Mr. Cra – Chopra’s doing this to inspire off-world colonization?”

Tim stared at me for a moment, and then he grinned. “Captain Holiness told you that, eh? Well, he’s not one for malicious speculation. You should have come to me for that.”

“I have now.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Tim, strapping himself back into his bed. “I think the old guy’s a titan among men. And doesn’t stint on my salary either, which leaves me very kindly-disposed towards his little ideas. How-ever,” Tim was the only person I knew who said ‘however’ in ordinary conversation, and he always rolled the word around in his mouth. “I’ll tell you this, my young disciple. You and I might be fine with sterilization now, but when Chopra was a kid, it was like a banner over your head saying ‘my own parents kicked me in the balls.’ He was the second son. You’re opening your mouth without thinking, that was before the international One Child Policy. Law said that only one kid would be allowed to reproduce, and his parents took the runt of the litter and sent him off to the operating table.”

Tim made me a little uncomfortable, but I always wanted to hear his nonsense. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“Well, elder brother went and squandered his inheritance and life over some Spanish dancer, and then lost custody of his kid. Young Rajesh was the one who took the little shop selling to private explorers, and made it NASA’s own supplier. I think it’s like, validation, you know. Guy misses the kid he never had, and made a toilet empire instead. The toilet empire is his child. Internalizing my wisdom, cadet?”

“With only mild confusion sarge.”

“Don’t give me cheek, cadet. It’s symbolism, or projection, or… other big words that’ll convince you that I know what I’m talking about. No, no, really. Take the pretty Hanako. Just your ordinary ikebana artist. But take away her – stuff, materials, her metaphorical little swimmers – and she gives birth to some Space Art bullshit that’ll shoot her like a speeding bullet into fame and fortune. Losing one thing, an important thing, can make you – you know, more inclined to create, be greater than you would have been with your balls functioning correctly, as it were. Metaphorically. This whole endeavor is Chopra trying to convince himself that he wouldn’t have been the aforementioned titan amongst us puny humans if he’d never been sterilized.”

I tried to imagine a world where sterilization was a stigmata and not a responsibility.  “Was it really such a big deal, back then?”

“Yeah, it was pretty bad. And abuse, strictly speaking, sterilizing a child without consent. But they were desperate by then. We’re still desperate, I suppose.”

He reached for his blanket. I stared at the ceiling. “Ah, well, an interesting theory,” I said, diplomatically. “My thanks, sensei.”

Tim sighed. “At least this trip made one person happy.”

“Who?”

“Brant. He’s having the time of his life, getting to move around without his prosthetic legs. Don’t blame him, I’ve seen those things.”

“And it’s funny, but Gabriel insists that Brant was the one who brought gravity up here with him.”

I heard Tim shift in his bunk, and then he turned off his lamp. “Well, Brant was probably the one who noticed gravity the most.”

#

“He said he chose me because I’m a beautiful African woman! And as such – I quote – the closest approximation available to the true form of the Earth Goddess’ first children! I think the bastard called me -”

Artist, Yeka, deep breath! He’s an artist and therefore we ignore his personality… quirks. Anyway, can I be offended that he doesn’t think my ginger pee isn’t as good as your African Eve pee?”

“You can’t be offended about anything, Tim,” I said. “Look at yourself and just assume anyone who says or implies anything bad about you in any way is telling the truth. What’s Brant going to do with your pee, Yeka?”

“Freeze it and shatter it and use the fragments to represent the stars. The sharpness of the fragments is supposed to convey the absence of sky, apparently. Or something. I think that’s what he said. I was too busy wanting to knock his stupid racist head off.”

Tim wandered over to the glass and stared down at the planet, the swollen blue green view that always made my heart contract.

“It’ll be utter rubbish, you know,” he said, quietly. “The art always is, but when we go back down to that funny little planet, the critics will rave about it all and people will flock to see it.”

“Maybe it’s good,” I said. “Maybe we’re philistines.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe. Probably.”

“That’s why he does it, dimwit,” said Yeka, moving to Tim’s side. “Mr. Chopra feels helpless because he can’t produce an heir to take over his business -”

“-Empire of Crappers ruled from the Porcelain Thro -”

“Shut up! I mean, that’s got to be it, yeah? The business he spent years building up like his – his own child – passing to his idiot nephew, who just wants to be a ballroom dancer. The – imagine the feeling of helplessness! He’s torturing the artists by making them feel it too.”

“They don’t seem helpless,” I said, with a flash of sympathy towards Mr. Chopra.

But Yeka wasn’t done.

“Everyone’s helpless against the – the – I mean look, just look. That planet down there. It takes your breath away. Every – every time, doesn’t it?” I could see the blue-green reflected in her dark eyes… just for one fanciful second, anyway. “You could be the greatest artist in the world, but there aren’t enough words, or enough colors in a paint box.” She appealed to me, with an intense expression like a priestess in the midst of a ritual. “The artists come here thinking they can make sense of it, but no amount of talent is sufficient. That’s our planet. That’s the greatest truth there is, the deepest and most helpless of all feelings, and you can’t express it to someone who’s never been here. And when you’ve built your life around trying to make everyone feel what you feel… this place is heaven and hell for an artist.” She sighed. “Poor things, really.  And we’ve got Brant collecting pee. It just makes me feel so small…”

“It’s probably better than not being able to create anything,” I said, with a rush of irritation.

“And our Ranbir is a self-obsessed jackass,” said Tim. He patted my arm. “It’s good. Hang onto it. Don’t ever let the grandeur in.”

“I hate artists,” I muttered, turning away from the grandeur to go find my boss. “And ginger psychiatrists. And people with sterilization issues.”

#

I don’t know what possessed me to ask.

His fierce eyes had a hint of amusement in them. “Why do you think?”

Well, I should have anticipated that. Mr. Chopra always asked for people’s opinions. I didn’t know what he did with them.

I looked at him, really looked at him. A stern, old creature, often kind to me, and I thought it was a shame that his particular combination of genetics wouldn’t be passed on. He seemed lonely, against the darkness that arced over the shining hemisphere of the Earth.

“Tax exemption,” I said.

He grinned, suddenly, and I sagged in relief. He patted my shoulder. “You’re right, beta.”

I knew it, I knew it was some mundane, stupid reason….

Mr. Chopra sighed, gazing down at the heartbreaking splendor of the planet. “I love being up here,” he said, very quietly. “This place… it can be kind, in its cold way. But the hell-tax on hydrogen makes it more expensive for me to take a holiday by myself in orbit, and bring only the crew.”

“But you get a tax break if it’s a project by the Chopra Arts Foundation, because it’s a non-profit organization.”

He nodded. “I like them,” he added. “The kids’ art. Call it – what’s that phrase of Timothy’s now? – hm, yes, pseudo-philosophical bullshit. It is. But it’s the way of youth.” He shrugged. “They’re bright things to have around.”

“Yeah,” I said, as the sound of Gabriel and Brant having yet another argument floated down the corridor. Hanako hadn’t left her room in days, and Yeka said she was surrounded by human hair while deep in meditation. All of it, just for a moment, seemed very small and warm.

Bio

Sathya Stone studied in England and currently lives in China.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Joy Thief by Tim Jeffreys

Mar 16 2014

It was something like a dwarf or a leprechaun–no one knew for sure, least of all the thing itself–and the most noteworthy thing about it, aside from its tiny stature, pale green skin, huge hook nose and beady black eyes full of anger, bewilderment, and hatred was that it had been born without joy.

It lived alone in the attic of a huge, luxurious, abandoned house which stood on the hilltop overlooking the town and which people said had once belonged to a movie star. Quite when the dwarf had moved into the house no one knew for sure. All they were certain of was that the dwarf had booby-trapped the place and now no one dared venture inside the grounds for fear of falling foul. So the dwarf was left to its own devices.

It was seen in the town from time to time, wearing a scowl that could startle babies from their sleep. It came to steal. It wanted only the best. Food from the delicatessen; bottles of vintage whiskey from behind the counter at the off-license; gold and silver sparkling things from the jewellers which once touched would have alarms ringing. The dwarf was sneaky and quick. It would flee with its bounty to its high attic on the hill where it would gorge itself on duck-liver pate, swill himself into a stupor, and parade up and down before the mirror resplendent in necklaces, earrings and twinkling tiaras.

And yet, despite all this, still it had no joy.

It knew what it was missing because it often spied on the townspeople and it had seen their smiles and it had heard their laughter. More than this though, the dwarf had a peculiar gift, for it could see people’s emotions, it could touch them, it could hold them in its hands. It knew the warm colours of joy: the yellows, oranges and reds. It knew too the cold colours of sadness and the boiling blacks of rage. Often after it had grown tired of the spoils of yet another raid, it would sit before the attic’s huge front window gazing down at the town and thinking about all the people down there enjoying themselves. Its hands would wrestle in its lap, its skin would grow greener, and anger would fill its mind like steam in a lidded pan on the boil. Other times it stood before the huge mirror propped against one wall and practised smiling. But the smiles looked more like snarls and the dwarf would feel nothing inside except emptiness and it would stare at its horrid little face in the mirror and sigh. It would see the black-brown aura surrounding itself and it would snatch at it and dance about in frustration trying–fruitlessly–to push it away.

Then one day the dwarf had an idea. If it could steal the townspeople’s food and drink and jewellery, could it not also steal their joy? Could it not steal their joy and bring it back to the attic to keep for itself?

It decided it could, and it decided it would.

Immediately upon having this thought, the dwarf began hunting about the house for a receptacle in which it could store all the joy it planned to steal. It eventually turned up a stopper-ed bottle, bigger even than itself, and big enough certainly for all the joy that would be reaped from the town. This it carried carefully, and with considerably effort, up the stairs to the attic and there it was given a label written in the dwarf’s shaky hand which read, simply: JOY!

How to begin? The following morning the dwarf descended the hill and crept into the town just as the day was getting underway. People were scurrying hither and thither about the streets, and cars and buses were bellowing along the roads. The dwarf kept to the alleyways and rooftops. It was so busy in the streets that all the colours of the people’s emotions mixed together into a brownish fog, and the dwarf couldn’t separate the joy in coveted from the misery and hate it had plenty enough of already. Eventually, when things quietened down, it came across a man stood on a ladder and painting a sign above a shop. The man was clearly enjoying his work as the dwarf could see an orange aura surrounding him. The sign read: HOLLYS CUPCAKES. When the man had painted in the final ‘S’ he climbed down from his ladder, stepped back and admired his work. Seeing the man’s orange aura glow brighter, the dwarf crept up behind him.

“What an absolute disaster!” the dwarf said.

The man glanced around, then down, and saw the dwarf. He looked startled, but said: “What do you mean a disaster?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” the dwarf said, jabbing a finger at the sign.

The man looked over his handiwork. “I don’t see a disaster. I think I did rather a good job.”

“Ha!” said the dwarf, stepping closer and pointing at the end of the word HOLLYS. “Haven’t you forgotten something? Shouldn’t there be an apostrophe before the ‘S’?”

The man stared at the sign and his face sank as he realised the dwarf was right. The orange aura began to drift away from him like smoke blown on the wind, but as it did the dwarf leapt into the air and bundled it up in his arms. Holding fast to the joy, he ran laughing from the town, sped back up the hill and through the grounds of his house–carefully avoiding the booby traps. He was still laughing maniacally over his victory as he ran up the stairs to the attic, dropped the joy he still held gathered in his arms into the bottle, then grabbed the stopper which was lying beside it on the floor and popped it in place. There! Finally–finally!–he had some joy of his own!

The dwarf danced about the attic room, but when he at last stopped and looked at his bottle he saw to his horror that it was empty.

“No!” he screamed. “Where’s my joy!”

He took out the stopper again, and pressed his face to the opening in the bottle as if the clear glass had been preventing him from seeing what he knew to be true. The joy he had stolen–all of it–was gone.
Determined not to be beaten, he stomped down the hill again the next day. In the town, he found a dressmaker’s and snuck inside. A young woman was trying on a blue dress in front of a mirror and the dwarf could see that she was pleased because she glowed orange just as the man painting the sign had the previous day. Sneaking up behind her, the dwarf yanked on her skirts. The woman looked down and let out a little exclamation.

“That dress makes you look fat!” the dwarf said.

“What?” the woman said, switching her eyes back to the mirror. “No, it doesn’t.”

“Yes, it does. It makes you look bulbous. And the colour’s not right. It makes you look ill.”

“Oh, what a horrid little creature you are!” the woman said, stamping her foot. “How dare you! How dare you!” She kicked out at the dwarf, but the dwarf was more interested in her orange aura, which he saw sliding away from her as something darker took its place. He leapt up in the air and gathered all the orange colour to him. Then the shop bell rang and turning on the spot, the woman realised that the dwarf was gone.

Back in his attic, he carefully pushed all the joy into his bottle and quickly stoppered it before any could escape. But then, as he stood and stared at the bottle, he saw the orange glow inside it simply evaporate until there was not a trace of it left.

“No!” the dwarf screamed so loudly that down in the town a dog woke up and started barking and a couple walking hand in hand in the street glanced up at the sky with bemused expressions.

Lying in his too big bed that night, turning and grumbling and kicking at his blankets, the dwarf resolved himself to one last attempt. The next day it would return to the town and gather all the joy it could. It would take the bottle with it and pop the joy straight inside.

So the next day, it went into the town library and began to shout. All the joy that left the people who had been sitting around in silence, engrossed in their books, it snatched from the air and pushed straight into the bottle which it rolled along at its side. Then, it found two women sat together talking on a park bench and went and stood before them.

“Yesterday,” he said, addressing one of the women whilst pointing a finger at the other, “she told me you talk too much!”

“What?” said the woman accused. “No, I didn’t!”

“And she told me your husband’s a bore!”

“I did not!”

“And your children are spoiled!”

“What? Who said that?”

“She did. About you. But you said her house is a mess.”

“I never said any such thing!”

“You did! Because she said yours is too perfect.”

“What?”

This went on and on until the calm orange glow that had been surrounding the two women began to leave them, and the dwarf grabbed at it and crammed it into his bottle before it could drift away.

The rest of the day the dwarf spend in the same way: making trouble between friends here (this it got a special kick out of, since it had no friends of its own), ruining people’s day there. All the joy went straight in the bottle and when it was full the dwarf rolled it back up the hill and carried it upstairs to the attic.

Only, when it finally got there, the dwarf again found that the bottle was empty. Despite everything it had done, it still did not have any joy.

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…Often Go Awry By Jeffrey Hunt

Mar 09 2014

“And you with small pets at home!” Dr. Jenner exclaimed. He slid his keycard through a slot in the wall and the elevator doors sprang open. Dr. Jenner sprang inside. Dr. Timothy, who was more than a few steps behind, picked up his pace. “It’s true we draw almost exclusively from the neuroscience fields,” Dr. Jenner continued, “but in your case we made an exception.” He smiled without turning around. “You’ll soon understand why.”

Dr. Jenner was a short man with little hands and little feet and tiny recessed eyes. He wore thick glasses, a collared shirt and tie, and the top of his head was bald. Despite his age, however, Dr. Jenner talked nearly as fast as he walked and his personality was matched by the elevator doors, which abruptly shut just as Dr. Timothy, who had almost caught up, was leaping forward.

“Thanks,” came the out-of-breath-reply as Dr. Jenner re-opened the doors. Dr. Timothy scurried in. He was much taller than Dr. Jenner and much younger. He did not wear glasses and his black hair showed no signs of thinning yet. He was also wearing a blue denim shirt tucked into his jeans. No tie. “Those doors sure shut fas–”

“Anyway,” Dr. Jenner exclaimed, his face animated and his voice full of energy, “to get back to the study. So what we accomplished in the beginning was astonishing! Truly, truly astonishing! We aren’t talking about intelligence that multiplied at some linear rate, but intelligence that multiplied geometrically! We started with mice and had plans to move on to other, larger species, but such a massive increase in intelligence left us with several problems.”

The elevator jolted. “Problems?” Dr. Timothy asked as he looked about. Dr. Jenner shrugged, then brought a hand to his neck and began to loosen his tie.

“The increase in intelligence left us with in a dilemma–a dilemma both ethical and practical.” Dr. Jenner explained. And then, as he popped his collar’s top button, in an even swifter tempo: “So what do you do with a mouse that’s doubled in intelligence? You know, wha-da-ya-do with it when you’re done using it in tests? Now, I’d say you simply get rid of it. Kill it. Or, ‘sacrifice’ it, to use today’s PC mumbo jumbo! Who cares if it’s twice as smart as before–was it ever that smart to begin with?”

“No, not really,” Dr. Timothy replied, nodding his head.

“So, wha-da-bout a mouse that’s tripled in intelligence? Well, you can kill it too, ’cause it’s still just a mouse, right? But a mouse that’s quadrupled in intelligence? Quintupled? Sextupled? Septupled? Is it still a mouse at that point, or some new… thing?” Dr. Jenner shrugged. “You see, phase one–mice–was only supposed to be the beginning. As it turned out, however….” The elevator began to slow.

“So phase one was also the end?”

“Yes, yes it was.” Dr. Jenner shifted his weight from one leg to the other, then leaned in close and began tapping the elevator’s floor display. “Like I said, the mice’s intelligence increased at a geometric rate, and for some time. Truthfully, we’re not actually sure where they are now.”

“Really?” The elevator came to a stop.

“Yes, really, though they stopped learning–of that we’re sure!” Dr. Jenner scoffed. “Eventually progression terminated, and that’s when we got the upper hand!” At the word “progression” the elevator doors flew open and Dr. Jenner flew out into a long hallway. He surged forward.

“Upper hand?” Dr. Timothy called out, left behind again. “And why the hurry?”

“No hurry!” Dr. Jenner called back. “Anyway, the mice plateaued, and then they actually regressed a bit! And that’s when we showed those little things who was in charge!” To himself, though loudly: “Fast, clever, conniving little… things.”

Dr. Timothy jogged after Dr. Jenner. “So the mice, er, things… they don’t look like–huff–mice anymore? What–huff–do they look like–?”

“Oh no!” Dr. Jenner shouted over his shoulder. “They still look like mice! Always have! They eat like mice, and they drink from their little sucky things like mice, and they run around in tubes like mice! But their brains, oh!”

At the end of the hallway was a thick desk which an armed guard sat behind. Dr. Jenner fished out his ID as he slowed, and by the time Dr. Timothy caught he had already scanned a palm. Then, as he rushed past the guard, he jerked a finger back and yelled: “He’s with me! Botanist! First day! Slow.”

The guard chuckled and turned to Dr. Timothy. “Hello sir, and welcome to our special division of the National Institute of Mental Health. If you could just show me your badge and then sign here…” he motioned to a clipboard.

Dr. Timothy presented his ID and signed.

“Thank you,” the guard said after a moment. He pushed a button and the doors in the back of the room slid open. Dr. Jenner ran inside. Dr. Timothy ran after him. The guard watched Dr. Timothy disappear, chuckled again, and then cupped his hands around his mouth. “Good luck keeping up!”

#

“So you do-ya-know what we did with the things?” Dr. Jenner asked talking as the doors slid closed far behind them. “You know, in the end, do-ya-know what we did with the highly intelligent things we’d created? No? Well, in the end, we decided to just let it all play out naturally.”

Dr. Jenner took longer and longer strides, flying past meeting rooms and offices and storage closets. The steady increase in speed was accompanied by a steady reddening of the older man’s face, and before long Dr. Jenner’s entire head looked sun-burnt. The change exposed a white scar that ran the length of his neck, thin and relatively smooth until it met the collarbone, where it became thick and jagged.

“You see,” Dr. Jenner continued, “in just a few years the things will… well, I guess it’s easier to just refer to them as mice. After all, they still have four feet and a tail, and their brains aren’t quite like ours! Close, yes, but still more Mus musculus than Homo sapien!”

“I see.” A nod. “So they won’t be alive much longer.”

“That is correct,” Dr. Jenner affirmed as he began to rub his neck. Although his scar remained white, the skin around it went from sun-burn to ripe tomato. “The mice could become a problem, particularly if any animal right’s people hear about them, but for the time being everything is fine. We made ‘em comfortable, they’re content, and very soon they’ll all die of natural causes. And that’ll be the end of that. No more mice. Or things. Or whatever.” He walked up to a door, opened it, and motioned for Dr. Timothy to walk through.

“Thank you.” Dr. Timothy entered a long, empty hallway.

Dr. Jenner closed the door behind them, though with great difficulty; his hand, twitching rapidly, was barely able to twist the knob. “So, fortunately for us, mice don’t have long lives. Also, fortunately, mice have small cerebrums. And since the whole procedure really hinges on total cerebrum mass… hey!” He spun around, continually to walk backwards but looking straight at Dr. Timothy with wide eyes. On his lips, a conspiratorial smile. In his mouth, a dark, flicking tongue. And about his temples, pulsing veins.

“Uhhh…” stammered Dr. Timothy, though he kept walking.

“Do you know how we found that out?”

Dr. Timothy moved his gaze about Dr. Jenner’s face, from Dr. Jenner’s eyes to mouth to temples. From Dr. Jenner’s hands to the floor. “How did you find that out?” he finally asked.

Dr. Jenner smile turned hideously wide and he turned back around. “So we might be running tests on, say, a thousand mice,” he continued as he rushed forward. “Out of those thousand we might notice two or three just don’t cut it–they can’t figure out how to get water out of their little sucky things or they get all tangled up in their little exercise wheels. These are the exceptionally dumb mice and using them in experiments would throw everything off, so when no one’s looking we just take off our shoes and BAM!” Dr. Jenner mimicked bringing an imaginary shoe down on an imaginary mouse and as he mimicked, giggles.

“Wow,” Dr. Timothy muttered. “That doesn’t seem very scientific. You use shoes?”

Dr. continued on as he turned a corner. “For this study we got as many of those mice as we could–we specifically asked supply labs for their dumbest of the dumb, for their Lennie Smalls, for their John Coffeys! And you know what we found? Treat those mice with the procedure, and treat regular mice with the procedure, and the only differences in end intelligence corresponded directly to individual cerebrum mass!”

“OK, but who is John Coffey? I know who Lennie Small is–?”

“So-da-ya get it now?” Dr. Jenner almost yelled. He was standing in front of a metal hatch set into a wall of dull, black rubber. A red hand glistening with sweat slid a keycard through a nearby slot and the hatch immediately swung open. The men passed into a white, octagonal chamber which quickly sealed as air moved and a compressor whined. “Our work–the procedure—could’ve great potential on people with developmental delays or mental disabilities.” Dr. Jenner reached the end of the chamber, another hatch surrounded by rubber. The moving air stilled, the compressor shut off, the chamber unsealed, and Dr. Jenner bounced into a dressing-room. He pointed Dr. Timothy toward a locker that read DR. TIMOTHY. “But since the whole thing’s linked to cerebrum mass, we don’t dare experiment on larger animals.” Dr. Jenner threw his tie into the locker, took a lab coat out, and then feverishly began attacking its buttons.

“Ah, because–”

“Mice we can control! Sure, at first we’d a number of difficulties, but in the end we got over ‘em. But what would happen if we tried using rats, or dogs, or… chimpanzees?” Dr. Jenner wobbled over to the only other door in the room. “And they have thumbs! Oh no, no! We-don’t-want-another-incident!”

“So this incident–what happened?”

Dr. Jenner stopped, brought a hand back up to his scar, then dropped it. His face was as red as a fire hydrant and his gaping, bloodshot eyes were darting everywhere. His teeth hammered against one another and sweat poured from his face. We sat like that for several of seconds before moving in close.

“Wouldn’t you know,” he half-whispered, “but there was a small… downsizing in staff. Life with the mice at peak intelligence was rough. Very, very rough. We were just about to start taking off the shoes–” he made the smashing-the-shoe-into-the-mouse motion again “–but then the regression occurred and things got worked out.”

Dr. Timothy finished the last button on his own white coat. “Then that’s excellent,” he said.

“Yes, excellent.” Dr. Jenner replied. “Most excellent. Eventually we were able to communicate with the mice. They made some requests, we acquiesced, and now they’re all set to live out the rest of their natural lives in comfort. Dilemma averted. No more incidents.”

Dr. Jenner put a hand on the door. “So-ready-to-go-in?” he asked, jumping, twitching, throbbing, quivering, chattering, and sweating almost uncontrollably. “Read-to-see-this-for-yourself?”

Dr. Timothy gave Dr. Jenner the “thumbs up” gesture.

Dr. Jenner opened the door.

#

The lab was large and very cluttered. In the front, on top of a vast series of tables, were intricate doll houses complete with balconies, decks, lawns, flower beds, various types of hedges, and small backyard swimming pools. Connecting one house to the next were colorful plastic tubes that rose up and formed a high network of navigable pathways which the occasional mouse ran through. Sipper water bottles were strapped to the sides of the homes and wood shavings spilled out of lower-level doorways. Grow lamps were also stationed along the tables and in the back of the lab researchers walked around various pieces of equipment, adjusting dials and moving things and taking notes.

“Ah, it’s good to be back,” Dr. Jenner said as he reached into a nearby cooler balanced atop two lab stools. The cooler was half-full of red, oval capsules, and as Dr. Timothy watched Dr. Jenner shoved handful after handful of capsules into his mouth. His hands pedaled between container and orifice with great fervor, fervor so intense that more than a little of the cooler’s contents fell down to the floor.

Dr. Timothy did a double take. Dr. Jenner kept shoving. After a second: “Dr. Jenner, what are you–?”

“Oh these!” Dr. Jenner said through a mouth oozing crimson saliva and capsule fragments. “Yeah, these things! Well the mice actually–smack–make them! I don’t like to go more than an hour without getting–smack–some into–smack–my system–smack! They taste–smack–so delicious!”

“You eat them every hour?” asked Dr. Timothy as he sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose and glancing about.

Dr. Jenner took a large swallow, then licked his lips and returned to stuffing his face. “Yeah, or every half-hour, or every fifteen minutes if I–smack–can help it! Really, I don’t even like–smack–to leave the lab since we can’t take these things out of here–going upstairs–smack–to get you–smack–sure was–smack–a drag! But those plants needed some help, and the mice need to be happy….”

After an especially large scoop the bottom of the cooler showed and Dr. Jenner paused. Followed by a shake of the head and a scoff. “Why am I stopping? They’ll make some more soon–they always do!” And he proceeded to continue gorging himself. And, as he gorged himself, and as Dr. Timothy watched, Dr. Jenner slowly stopped shaking. His faced cycled back to its regular color. The scar on his neck faded away. His perspiration slowed. His veins calmed. His lips stilled. His teeth stilled. His previously bloodshot eyes whitened and shrunk down to a normal size. A minute, to minutes, and then Dr. Jenner let out a big sigh of relief.

Finally, the older doctor was calm.

Dr. Timothy took his eyes off Dr. Jenner and looked down at the cooler. He stuck his arm out, picked up a single capsule, brought it to his nose, and sniffed. He shook his head. “What are they made of?”

“Oh, who knows,” Dr. Jenner said sedately. “The mice make them and, well, I’m sure the mice–oh those great, wonderful mice!–have our best interests in mind.” Dr. Jenner leaned against Dr. Timothy and began to breathe deeply. His head fell and his shoulders drooped. His eyes glazed over. Slowly, he began to drool; serenity at last.

“And there’s such a strange odor in here,” Dr. Timothy said as he steadied Dr. Jenner. “I know I should know what it is, but I just can’t place it. And if it isn’t these pills…?”

Dr. Jenner mumbled: “I don’t know what… you’re talking about. The buildings above us are… old and as airtight as… sieves. This laboratory, however, is… sealed behind over two meters of concrete.” Dr. Jenner shut his eyes. “You saw… the airlock. No strange… smells around h–”

“Hello, Dr. Jenner,” interrupted a man carrying a large metal bowl. The man was almost exactly the same height as Dr. Timothy and like Dr. Timothy he wore a lab coat. Unlike Dr. Timothy, however, the man wore a badge that read LAB ASSISTANT, talked in a drawl, and his eyes were slow to move and focus.

The man sauntered up to the cooler, tilted the bowl in his arms, and a column of red ovals cascaded out. He quit pouring when the cooler was full and set the bowl on a nearby bench. “Fresh batch,” he explained.

“How often do they make new batches?” Dr. Timothy asked.

“Oh, just whenever we… get low.” The man popped a handful of capsules into his mouth and his eyes became even more obscure. Chewing, swallowing, another scoop, and then it occurred to him that the man on which Dr. Jenner was leaning against was new.

“Oh, hello,” he said to Dr. Timothy. “I bet you’re the plant expert. My name… is Justin.”

“Hi Justin.” Dr. Timothy backed up, placed Dr. Jenner against the wall, and then walked over to one of the table-top houses. He peered inside and looked at the plants growing around the various lawns. “Do you know what these plants are?” he asked Dr. Jenner, turning back. As he asked his question a single mouse ran through a tube to the side and into the house, a white blur and nothing more.

“Ummmph,” Dr. Jenner replied.

“Oooh, too much at once,” Justin explained.

Dr. Timothy tried again. “Justin, can you identify these plants?” He poked about the bottom of one, a spindly collection of waxy leaves with a woody stem and small, red berries. He flicked another, an almost bare, light-colored stalk topped by an olive-colored sphere with a little pointed crown. Both plants were stripped in multiple places, leaves missing and woody branches cut. Both were also wilted, tops bowing towards the ground.

“Not really,” Justin mumbled as he walked over to the join Dr. Timothy. “But lately the plants… haven’t been doing too well, so I’m glad Dr. Jenner finally hired a botanist. The mice really… love their plants, and we don’t want them to get angry if… the plants die. Honestly, we should have hired you directly after the… incident provided an opening. Glad you’re here now though.”

“This,” Dr. Timothy said, pointing to the first plant, “is Erythroxylum coca, an Andean coca plant. And this,” he pointed to the second plant, “is Papaver somniferum, an opium poppy.” He paused for a second, sniffed both plants, and then turned back to Justin. “Do the mice harvest these?”

“Oh,” said Justin as he leaned against the table, “they’re always doing something with them. Pruning and shearing and… mixing them up and stuff. I don’t really understand why, but for whatever reason,” Justin repeated, “the mice really love… their plants.”

Dr. Timothy began walking towards the middle of the lab, past more doll houses and pools and plants. Justin followed. As they walked small doors and windows and shutters opened, moving small piles of wood shavings and sending creaks through the air. No mouse in any house, however, made an appearance.

“They seem a little… shy today,” Justin observed, looking at the houses and then at the empty tubes about his head. “I guess they aren’t used… to visitors. The mice must only… be used to us.”

Dr. Jenner and Justin reached two men pouring clear, fuming liquids from two vats into an ice bath. On a nearby table a group of mice supervised. When the mice saw Dr. Timothy and Justin they crouched down and backed under a nearby triple-beam scale until only their white heads showed. They looked across at Dr. Timothy with their pink, pupil-less eyes and stared. Their eyes never closed. Their noses never twitched. They hardly seemed to breathe. Several moments of silence.

Finally, Dr. Timothy took a single step forward. “Well I guess I should introduce myself–”

Justin perked up and put a hand across Dr. Timothy’s chest. “Better watch out Doctor–those liquids are sulfuric and nitric acid. Very dangerous.”

“Sulfuric and nitric acid?” Dr. Timothy asked.

“Hey Dr. O’Brien. Hey Dr. Keyes.” Justin waved. The two doctors turned around slowly. Once they saw Dr. Timothy and Justin they smiled and began to set their vats down. And the mice jumped to action. They ran out from under the scale, snapping their tails and squeaking furiously. Dr. O’Brien was closer to the table, and as Dr. Timothy and Justin watched a single mouse jumped onto Dr. O’Brien’s shoulder and bit into his earlobe hard enough to draw blood. The mouse then jumped over to Dr. Keyes and did the same thing.

Dr. O’Brien and Dr. Keyes quickly turned around and picked their vats back up, blood dripping down onto their shoulders. With heads hung low the pouring resumed. The mice returned to the scale, vacant eyes again fixed on Dr. Timothy. The rebellion had lasted all of fifteen seconds, the only evidence of it spreading red spots on the top of lab coats.

“Is the incident how Dr. Jenner got his scar?” Dr. Timothy asked quietly. He glanced back and across the lab but Dr. Jenner was too far away to see clearly.

“Yeah… sulfuric and nitric acid.” Justin answered as he touched a finger to his own scabbed ear and grimaced. “Later, they’ll add… sodium bicarbonate and… diatomaceous earth. The end result will be those.” He pointed across the room to very high, very wide stack of brown, hand-length cylinders with diameters the size of large coins.

“Those four things you named–you know they’re the four main components of dynamite, right?” As Dr. Timothy spoke a mouse ran through an overhead tube and into a nearby house. Dr. Timothy looked up and around the laboratory but the other tubes were empty. He resumed talking. “And if that is dynamite, there appears to be enough here to break through the laboratory’s concrete seal.”

“Ha, ha, ha!” Justin’s laugh was high and nasal. “Dynamite, oh no, the mice can’t make dynamite–they aren’t that smart. You heard, right? Their cerebellums are too small and they’ve regressed far past peak intelligence. Really, there isn’t any trouble here. We’re fine and fully safe and we’re all… cooperating… fully.

Dr. Timothy kept pointing at the stack of cylinders. “Then what are those for?” While he pointed a second mouse ran through and down a tube less than an arm’s length away.

“I don’t know, but the mice use the nitric acid as… a fertilizer for their lawns, the sodium bicarbonate to… balance the pH in their pools, and the diatomaceous earth keeps their pool water… nice and clean.” A glib smile. “And ‘to get through the seal!’ Really doctor, you’re sounding crazy! We just had these extra chemicals lying… around and the mice devised a safe way… to store of them.” And as Justin said the word “store” a third mouse passed by.

“What about the sulfuric–?” Dr. Timothy stopped as Justin took some capsules out of a pocket. “Justin, let me see those new ones.”

“Doctor, you know there’s a bunch in the front of the–”

Dr. Timothy snapped the capsules out of Justin’s hand before Justin could get them into his mouth. Dr. Jenner brought them to his nose. He sniffed again. “Nope, not these either.” He dropped the capsules to the floor and a fourth mouse went into a nearby house.

“What do you smell, Doctor?” Justin asked as his hand thrust up from a different pocket and up to his face.

“Burnt almonds.”

“Oh, that smell,” Justin said through chews, “I can tell you–smack–what that is. It’s–smack–hydrogen cyanide. Those guys over there–” he pointed to people at the very end the lab who were quickly shuffling away “–are helping the mice turn it into–”

And another mouse disappeared into a house.

“Hydrogen cyanide?” Dr. Timothy interrupted. Concern.

Disinterest. “Yeah–smack–hydrogen cyanide. Like I was saying, they’re going to combine it with….” He trailed off as Dr. Timothy suddenly bent over, arms reaching down and fingers beginning to undue the laces of his shoes.

And another mouse.

“Dr. Timothy, what are you doing?” Justin asked, cocking his head for a better view.

And another, and another, and another, and another.

“Getting ready,” Dr. Timothy replied in quiet but firm tone. “And I suggest you do the same.”

#

“Exceptionally dumb mice…” Dr. Timothy muttered as he slowly backed up against a wall. He held a shoe in each hand and he swung his head swung back and forth, scanning the laboratory for danger. Next to him, Justin swung his arms happily and smiled. The people in the back on the lab were gone. The overhead tubes were empty. Slowly, dollhouse doors around Dr. Timothy and Justin began to open. “Exceptionally dumb mice…”

“What?” Justin asked, oblivious.

“Justin,” Dr. Timothy said as his back hit the wall, “how would you feel if one day you realized you didn’t call the shots in your own life? If you found out other people got to choose when you ate, when you exercised, when you slept?” Noses emerged from the dollhouse doors. Whiskers, white ears, and pink, pupil-less eyes. “And at this time, you also came to the realization that people were taking advantage of the fact that you were stupid and ignorant by running tests on you and stuff?” The mice advanced, creeping to the edges of tables and across the floor, slowly forming a thick half-circle about the two men. “And not only were you being taken advantage of, but so were millions and millions of other individuals similar to yourself, and this had been happening over the course of decades? Except in the case of the individuals most like yourself, of course, because they weren’t even being taken advantage of–they were just being disposed of in an exceptionally cruel and painful way. Now, how would you feel if you found all of this out one day?”

“I bet I’d feel pretty mad,” Justin chuckled as he shoved another handful of pills into his mouth, “I’d be pretty p.o.’d.”

“Pretty p.o.’d,” Dr. Timothy repeated as he caught a bold mouse almost to his heels. He kicked at it and jumped back. “Pretty p.o.’d indeed.” Another mouse darted forward and again Dr. Timothy kicked. “So what we need to do now–”

But there no more time. The rest of the mice followed suit, running across and up and jumping over and flying through the air. The surged forward, a great white flood, and as they attacked Dr. Timothy began to spin his shoes about in mad, rapid arcs while stomping his bare feet furiously.

Teeth sunk into lab coats and shirts.

Justin screamed.

Teeth sunk into skin and muscle.

Clothing reddened.

Small bodies hit the floor: Thud! Thud! Thud-thud! Thud! And then much louder: THUD!

And against the wall, cylinders of sulfuric and nitric acid kept stable by sodium bicarbonate and diatomaceous earth rolled across the floor. Farther back in the lab, aerosol canisters tinged with the scent of burnt almonds were primed and readied for the explosive unsealing of the buildings above. Fuses lit.

The second, and much larger incident, had begun.

# # # # #

BIO: Jeffrey Hunt has a degree in English literature. He currently teaches in Seoul, Korea, likes to travel, and is deathly allergic to peanuts.

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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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