The Invitation by Milo James Fowler

Aug 10 2014

Keeping up with the Joneses was never an issue for Lana Jenkins. The Joneses were slobs. They parked rusted old clunkers on their lawn—an atrocity itself with more weeds than grass—and she was almost certain there were no discontinued use stickers anywhere on them. She had pled her case repeatedly before the board of the home owners’ association, but they seemed to have a higher tolerance for bylaw infractions than she ever would.

For Lana Jenkins, there was only one perfect house on the street, one she knew would always set the bar high for the entire neighborhood. She’d be the first to admit that, despite how well she and her husband kept up their own two-story brownstone (from its lush, well-groomed grass to the beaming sunflowers along their white picket fence—a cliché she kept in pristine condition with weekly touchup paint and an annual fresh coat whether it was necessary or not; she told her husband the paint should “shine”), it would never hold a candle to Henderson Manor.

On Landis Lane, Henderson Manor was the only bona fide mansion in a ten mile radius, complete with hedgerows eight feet tall, wrought iron fencing, an automatic gate, a four-car garage, and more square footage than Lana had ever seen in her life. Not that she had ever been inside—but she swore she would someday, and she told everyone on the street that sooner or later, the day would come.

Old Man Henderson was an old scrooge who kept to himself, and none of the neighbors had seen him in years. Everything came by special delivery, from groceries to doctors to, finally, a fancy new hearse from the local funeral home. Perhaps Lana Jenkins should have spent at least a moment or two mourning the loss of one of the neighborhood’s oldest residents, but instead she saw it as a golden opportunity.

The house would be put up for sale. And she would—at long last—have a chance to take a good look around inside, posing as a prospective buyer, of course.

Only she never got the chance. There was no FOR SALE sign, no open house, no realty company providing guided tours. Just a few days after the hearse took away Old Man Henderson’s remains, moving vans arrived en masse from local charities to take all of the old codger’s possessions. He must not have had any family; or perhaps he did, and he had been estranged from them for years. Regardless, it seemed that he had bequeathed everything he’d ever owned to the Salvation Army, the Goodwill, and AMVETS. In two days, they managed to cart all of it away.

Lana Jenkins watched from her kitchen window, busying herself washing the same dishes by hand the dishwasher had already pronounced sparkly clean only hours before.

If Mr. Jenkins noticed her peculiar behavior, he never mentioned it.

“Well, that’s the last of it,” she announced one evening.

“Oh?” He sat in his favorite armchair with the evening paper unfolded before him, blocking his wife’s compulsive obsessiveness from view.

“The place is just an empty shell now.” She choked back tears.


By the end of the week, moving vans had returned. But this time, they came bearing all-new furniture, and Lana Jenkins once again found a reason to hold her post at the kitchen window, oohing and aahing at virtually everything she saw. Whoever was moving in, they had great taste in furniture—and plenty of it.

“Oh Henry, it’s colonial! I simply adore it!”

“Oh?” Henry Jenkins manned his armchair, as per usual.

Lana Jenkins watched with growing anticipation as the days passed and fewer movers made deliveries. To date, she had yet to catch even a glimpse of the new owners, but she knew it had to be just a matter of time. Perhaps they came in under cloak of darkness, once the Jenkins’ had turned in for the night. Or perhaps they themselves hadn’t even physically moved in yet.

“Where are you going, Dear?” Mr. Jenkins glanced up from his paper early one evening.

Lana held up a pink, flowery envelope. “I’m going to invite them to dinner.”


“The new neighbors, silly. Who else?”

“The old Henderson place?”

“Of course!” She gave him a peck on his bald dome. “Be right back.”

She shut the front door behind her and nearly skipped down the driveway, but immediately she collected her composure as Mrs. McDonnell passed by, walking her prim poodle and spying on the neighbors (an evening ritual).

“Mrs. Jenkins,” the elderly woman greeted with a frown firmly ensconced for no apparent reason.

“Mrs. McDonnell.” Lana hoped the conversation would end there. The old busybody habitually had no concept of other people’s time.

“Have you spotted them yet?”

Lana forced herself to smile. “How’s that?”

“Our new additions. Word is they come from money. Have you seen how many moving trucks? They must own a museum! But have you seen them? Because nobody has, from what I can tell. Word is they’re both lawyers who work all day in the city. You’ve got yourself a good view from across the street. So tell me, have you met—?”

“Not yet.” Lana nonchalantly slipped the invitation into a skirt pocket. “But I plan to.”

“Still hoping to see the place, eh?”

Lana knew her aspirations regarding Henderson Manor were a secret to no one. “Well, perhaps one of these days.” She forced a cheery titter. “You never know!”

Mrs. McDonnell’s frown remained intact. “You have such a beautiful home yourself. Be thankful for what God has given you. Every breath! I tell you, when you get to be my age—”

“Oh yes, we must always count our blessings!” Lana made a pretense of checking the empty mailbox and flipping the little flag up and down. “Well, good evening, Mrs. McDonnell!” She returned to her own house.

“Good evening.” The old woman plodded on, but the poodle looked back at Lana, seeming somehow to divine her intentions.

Lana waited until Mrs. McDonnell was halfway down the street before she emerged from the shadowed corner of her front porch and hustled to the end of the driveway, retrieving the envelope from her pocket as she crossed the silent street.

It was nothing fancy, just a friendly invitation to have dinner with Mr. Jenkins and herself, just a thoughtful gesture, the kind she was known for. But it was also a hopeful gesture. Usually, when one has company over for dinner, the event is reciprocated at a later date. Old Man Henderson would never have replied to such an invitation. But these people, whoever they were, had to recognize hospitality when they saw it, and they would appreciate the chance to meet the fine, upstanding citizens who lived across the street from them. Honestly, everybody in the neighborhood simply adored Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins!


But as the days passed, turning into a long week, Lana started to believe the new additions to Landis Lane were more like Old Man Henderson than she ever would have thought. Surely people with such fine taste in furniture could not be rude enough to ignore four dinner invitations?

“I’m sorry to have to say this, but it must be said.” Lana threw down her dish rag, and it thumped into the bottom of her empty kitchen sink. “They’re as bad as that awful old man!”

“Oh?” Mr. Jenkins said from his armchair.

“I’ll never see inside that beautiful home!” There would be no stopping the tears this time.

Then, as if on cue, the doorbell rang.

“Who on earth could that be?” Mr. Jenkins folded his paper and glanced at his wristwatch. “Eight-thirty on a weeknight?”

“I’ll get it, Darling.” Lana brushed past him, dabbing at her eyes quickly with a silk pocket handkerchief. Composing herself, she came to the front door and glanced through the side window, drawing back the pink floral curtains for just a moment—

A pair of the most beautiful people she’d ever seen in her life stood outside. They looked like movie stars or fashion models or gods—Aryan beauties chiseled from marble—Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich’s doppelgängers, right there on her very doorstep!

“Dear?” Henry’s footsteps approached her from behind.

Lana realized she hadn’t replaced the curtain and was staring at the couple who smiled stiffly in return.

“Oh my…” Lana pulled open the door. “Welcome—”

“Good evening,” said the man with a thick European accent. “Are you the Jenkins?”

“Yes!” Lana nearly squeaked with delight. The goddess outside seemed to find her reception amusing. “I’m Lana and this—” She pulled her husband to her side. “This is Henry.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.” The suave god bowed slightly at the waist. “We must apologize. We did not intend to be rude, you see, but we have just moved in across the street and only checked our mail minutes ago. We found your invitations—”

“Dear?” Henry turned a quizzical frown upon his wife.

“Yes?” Lana leaned out the door expectantly.

“It was so kind and generous of you to ask,” the man continued.

“But we will be leaving on business tomorrow, and we could not think to impose on you with this short notice,” the woman spoke up, her voice as sweet as a Strauss composition.

“No imposition, none at all! We haven’t even eaten dinner ourselves yet!” Lana knew she sounded overeager, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Uh…” Henry began—probably about to spill the beans that they’d had meatloaf two hours ago.

“Come inside, won’t you?” Lana elbowed her beloved husband of thirty years out of the way.

“We couldn’t possibly—” began the goddess.

“Oh, I insist!” Lana beamed.

Yet the gorgeous couple remained outside, immoveable. “We had hoped you would join us,” the man said, “for drinks, perhaps?”

Lana blinked. “Join you…at your house?”

“Much remains to be unpacked and such, but if you do not mind a bit of clutter…” the woman said.

Without a word to Henry, Lana replied, “We’ll get our coats.”


Henderson Manor was even more amazing inside than Lana had ever imagined—and this she knew after just seeing the entryway: marble tiled floors, alabaster pillars, a vaulted ceiling with windows to the stars. She had to remind herself to breathe.

The Schmidts, as the very attractive Austrian couple were called—Mr. and Mrs. Rolf and Greta Schmidt—escorted them to the lounge where Rolf acted as their bartender, mixing cocktails to order with all the pizzazz of a Las Vegas nightclub attendant. Henry, who seldom warmed up to people right off, seemed almost as taken with the couple as Lana had been at first sight, and she had to pinch herself to stay in the moment. She was here, finally; this was really happening, every moment of it.

The Jenkins made the Schmidts roar with laughter and the Schmidts returned the favor without pause. After three or four drinks, it became a bit unclear as to who had invited whom in the first place. They all got along together so nicely—like old friends who had some serious catching up to do. Henry regaled them with stories of snafu’s from his years in the navy, and Rolf shared hilarious tales about eccentric clients with no grasp on reality—one of them being Old Man Henderson himself.

“He gave it to you?” Lana inquired wide-eyed.

Rolf shrugged up one shoulder as he explained. “His children, a son and a daughter, took every cent he ever had over the years, but he gave it to them gladly. When it came to this house, however, he knew there would be no way to split it evenly between them.”

“So he left it to us,” Greta said with a broad smile. “In return for our years of service.”

Lana could not believe they had served the old man for very long. The couple appeared to be no older than twenty-five, if even that. But also ageless, in a way she couldn’t put her finger on.

“And besides, he could not let them know about his basement.” Rolf winked at Henry. “Children never forgive their parents for such things, no matter how much they spoil them.”

“Oh?” He had Henry’s attention.

“How much did you know about the old fellow?”

Henry deferred to his wife. “We seldom saw hide nor hair,” she said.

Greta appeared confused by the idiom, but Rolf replied, “Suffice it to say that Mr. Henderson had certain rare . . . appetites. And he used the basement to satisfy them with great gratuitousness.”

Lana could not help cringing. Just the thought of the old scrooge being a sexual deviant almost caused her to toss up her martini. But she would never have done such a thing on the gorgeous crimson upholstery.


An hour or so later, though no one appeared to be keeping track of the time, Lana and Greta were discussing the finer points of colonial style home decorating when Rolf announced all of a sudden, “I know you Americans prefer to eat your dinner well before midnight, but for us Europeans, we can only begin to digest a meal properly once the moon is high.” He gestured to the vaulted glass ceiling where the lunar sphere had risen to its peak.

Greta leaned forward to touch Lana’s hand. “His way of asking you to stay for dinner.”

“Dinner?” Henry scoffed loudly. He’d had more to drink than was good for him.

“Oh, we couldn’t possibly impose,” Lana began.

“We insist!” Rolf bellowed with a hearty laugh.

Henry shrugged, glancing at his wife. “I’ve got nowhere to be tomorrow. How about you?”

One of the many benefits to their retired stage of life: a flexible schedule. Lana shook her head with a bright smile. Her cheeks were beginning to grow sore from all the gaiety over the past few hours.

“We would be honored.”

Rolf clapped his hands together as loud as a sudden gunshot. “Then it’s settled.”

Greta touched Lana’s hand again and Lana blinked, fought to stay in the moment, struggled to see Greta clearly, found her eyes clouding, her vision unfocused. Then the vaulted ceiling capsized, and a martini glass shattered.


Lana Jenkins awoke in a cold, dark, unfinished basement. She sat in a slat-backed chair bound hand and foot with unyielding duct tape. Beside her with his head lolling onto his chest, Henry sat in the same condition.

“Good morning, Mrs. Jenkins.” Rolf bent low to grin at her. The glow of a single light bulb dangling from above glanced off his stark white teeth. They appeared to have grown sharp—

“Morning?” Her voice came thickly.

“A few minutes past midnight already,” Greta said from shadows in a corner of the room.

“What—why are we—?” Lana couldn’t put her thoughts together. What were they doing? How had they gotten here? What was this place?

“It has been a pleasure getting to know you,” said Rolf, stepping out of her line of sight. “Mr. Henderson always taught us to be respectful to guests. But now we must say goodbye.”

Good…bye!” Greta mimicked a scene from the Sound of Music, her sing-song echoing off cold, rust-stained concrete.

“What do you mean?” Lana licked her sour lips.

“It is time for dinner now,” Rolf said, reappearing with what looked to be a hacksaw.

“Already ate,” Henry mumbled, nearly incoherent. “Meatloaf…”

“Henry, wake up!” Lana stared at the saw in Rolf’s grip. “Wake up now Dear, you must wake up.”

“Oh let him be.” Rolf came alongside Mr. Jenkins and laid the jagged blade flat against his neck.

Lana screamed, fully alert as everything about this moment came into crystal clarity. “You can’t do this! People will find out! We know all of our neighbors very well and they’ll notice if we’re missing—!”

“And who did you tell you would be coming here?” Rolf raised an eyebrow.

Lana swallowed. “You—you came unannounced…”

“Death often does,” Greta said with a laugh as Rolf started in with the saw.




Bio:  Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. When he’s not grading papers, he’s imagining what the world might be like in a few dozen alternate realities. He is an active SFWA member, and his work has appeared in more than 70 publications, including AE SciFi, Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and Shimmer. His novel Captain Bartholomew Quasar and the Space-Time Displacement Conundrum is forthcoming from Every Day Publishing.



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The Wind by Michael Shirzadian

Aug 03 2014

Calo didn’t notice his apartment door left slightly ajar when he skipped energetically down the stairs and past the smiling marble statuettes leading to his residence on an especially cold October evening belonging to the Wind. Prairie Wind, Calo thought; fitful and unforgiving. Calo hadn’t seen his roommate Candorous for an indeterminate number of days, so noticing the door left ajar might have shocked him at first, had he noticed it, until the carefully constructed algorithms of his obsessive Superego would have rationalized the occurrence thusly: the Wind in these parts can do anything. It was a rationale with which Calo had grown quite familiar, one used by him often to deflate those nagging ambivalences which, he concluded, must accompany modern life for all the twenty-somethings of South Charleston; growing up, the Wind seemed always more fierce on those sordid farms. On his seventh birthday, his father had told him the Wind had carried their money away and so, ergo, Calo couldn’t have a birthday cake. An indeterminate number of years after his seventh birthday, per Calo’s tenuous memory, his mother had used the Wind to explain the unexpected disappearance of his father. He remembered his first girlfriend had said she was leaving him for the Wind and that his first wife had said the same. It had seemed to Calo that only Candorous was immune to the great kinetic power of this Wind, but upon Candorous’ sudden and unexpected departure, some unclear number of days (or was it weeks?) prior, Calo returned to his windswept rationale, that the Wind in these parts can do anything, a maxim whose status after so many years of exhausted use and reuse had passed in Calo’s mind from rationale to obvious truth about the human condition imparted by time. There is no escaping the Wind, Calo knew. So he could only be afraid.

Not having noticed the door left ajar, it would have been impossible for Calo to have noticed the glass of ice water which had been placed meticulously and intentionally on the top of the door, leaning at a slight angle against the white panels above the frame so that at the slightest irritation the glass would fall on and soak the unsuspecting door-enterer below. Drenched and shivering, standing in his foyer, hearing the Wind howling around the rough contours of his ears—his ears now red with cold—Calo wondered how he, and not the Wind, had been first to trigger this simple and goodhearted prank. Calo wondered too: who do I know in this small town well enough that he might feel comfortable to engage me in such a lighthearted and juvenile way?

Later in the evening, while pondering these questions and trying to remember what Candorous had looked like, before Candorous left unexpectedly, Calo peered up at the large brown clock sitting above his fireplace on the mantle, sitting tame like a lion’s head, stuffed. The only light in the room emanated from a derisory fire burning stupidly in the fireplace; Calo was drinking wine. The Wind was tapping at the windows with dead leaves and Calo’s mind was a gray and torpid haze. He noticed the minute-hand on the clock turning not forward, as he remembered minute-hands to turn (?), but backwards, slowly (re)winding the hour-hand backwards too, click after loud click, and click. The Wind! Calo thought suddenly, quickly placing his glass of wine on the coffee table and rushing to the clock on the mantle as if swiftness in this matter might prevent whatever damage a rogue minute-hand presents to an otherwise good clock. When he lifted the clock to his face to examine it more closely he noticed no irregularity—that time was moving forward once more, and loudly, at its regular (?) speed. He sighed with relief. He finished his wine and ran to bed, laughing loudly like the clock.

The next morning before rushing out the door for work Calo cut a pepperjack cheese sandwich and left it on a ceramic plate on his dining room table. He opened and closed his apartment door behind him and only the smiling statuettes saw him wink back at the building before he skipped around the corner brightly to work, whistling a tune whose name eluded him but whose sounds were old and familiar and maternal.

At work Calo stared at his computer screen and wondered about Candorous and the pepperjack cheese sandwich. He trapped a spider in a glass used typically for water (the glass Candorous had left on the doortop!) and throughout the day he played with the spider, cutting off bits of its long legs slowly, between long intervals of time, until the spider constituted only a black fuzzy ball the size of a pencil’s eraser. Calo watched the ball tremble. Perhaps a reasonable thinker could attribute the mysterious opening of the door to the Wind; perhaps a reasonable thinker could attribute the glass of ice water to the Wind; the Wind in these parts can do anything! Calo located the spider’s black eyes. He held his pencil’s eraser above the spider and very slowly he began to push down on the trembling ball of fuzz, its eyes pleading up at him for relief, bursting with black fluid and fear. Stranger things have happened. When the spider popped and spilled out the yellow content of its abdomen Calo laughed childishly and reached for his glass—Candorous’ glass!—then placed it gently in his backpack. He fled home through the violent Wind.

He couldn’t stop laughing. He was right! He was right about Candorous—it was a game! He was there. Candorous was there. He was around. He was home somewhere, unseen. The pepperjack cheese sandwich had been eaten while he was at work and in its place a large ‘C’ carved into the ceramic plate. C is for Candorous, Calo thought, laughing, prouder than death, sitting in the wooden chair at the table and tracing the cool C with his forefinger; he could not contain his smile. He could hear the clock on the mantle ticking loudly, clicking loudly. This time the clock ticked faster than he thought he remembered clocks ought to tick (?), accelerating at an exponential rate so that Calo had to lean through a vague dizziness onto the table, and, steadying himself there momentarily, he noticed one of the chair’s four wooden legs had been filed down to its flimsy core, noticing this only seconds (?) before the chair snapped below him with a tick much louder than the now-slowing ticks of the mantle clock. Calo fell stupidly to the floor. He was there, on the floor, for an indeterminate amount of time. He examined the ceiling from the floor, admired its stucco, remembered Candorous had decided on the stucco but had regretted it later.

Or was it somebody else who had regretted it?

The next day before he left for work Calo draped random corridors of his apartments in a transparent plastic wrap, on which he had deposited a sticky residue like glue. Candorous would appreciate the prank when he walked unknowingly into the traps! Would be impressed at Calo’s dedication to their game.

When Calo returned home through the Wind later that evening he noticed the plastic wrap had been torn down and on those corridors on which Calo had placed the plastic wrap originally there were now small footprints walking up and down the walls, resembling the small prints of cats or rabbits; Calo smiled at the assurance of such ingenuity and helped himself to a glass of wine.

Though he sensed its presence, through a gray and torpid haze, tonight he could not hear the clock. Tonight he would focus on outperforming Candorous, whose paw-print prank had quite outshined the exorbitant simplicity of Calo’s plastic wrap prank. Calo’s focus was so great, his attention so devoted and distended to the task of out-pranking callous Candorous—who was not dead!—that he neither saw nor heard the modest bits of pebble, mica, which the Wind’s tremendous momentum had blown into the glass windows of the apartment while Calo resolved that the best prank would be one which instills in Candorous not lightheartedness or joy but fear; Calo remembered the spider and its eyes drowning against the weight of the eraser. He laughed.

At the dawn of the next morning Calo rose early and set to work hunting the cats of his neighborhood. He disdained the Wind (it had taken so much from him!) but he endured it to hunt the cats. When he had strangled enough cats Calo returned home with their carcasses and strung them up in his apartment from the stucco ceiling; Calo had always liked the stucco. He remembered Candorous had decided on the stucco but had later regretted it.

Or was it somebody else who had regretted it?

When he returned home from work later that evening Calo saw in horror that alongside the cats there were now other dead animals: mostly dogs, Calo noted, but exceptions abounded and were first to catch the eye: two pigs, a heifer, large carrion birds with dead tongues rolling lazily from dead mouths. Calo found a white pony strung up by its frail hooves to the ceiling fan in his bedroom. When he flipped the switch to the ceiling fan the pony swung wildly like a dark and malfunctioning merry-go-round car; its eyes were dead and white. He had again been outdone. He retrieved his last bottle of wine from the kitchen and fell onto his bed, below the pony still spinning wildly; he drank from the bottle until he fell into that spinning place of slow-ticking clocks and Wind.

In the early morning when he rose Calo’s actions were quick and intentional. He sewed a large, durable cloth sack in which he placed heavy rocks of disparate shape and color; bits of mica clung to his sweaty palms. Above his apartment door—the same door above which Candorous (it must have been Candorous!) had placed the glass of ice water—Calo screwed in a large hook and threaded through it and to the doorknob a durable cord of twine which connected finally to a small contraption controlling the gravitational inclination of the sack of rocks; a separate cord of twine connected the sack of rocks, inversely, to a hook which Calo screwed into the ceiling a few feet in front of the door; at the bottom of the second hook, in the very center of the foyer, in front of the door, a noose hung still, eager for the prank. Calo envisioned it thusly: Candorous, assuming Calo had left for work, would enter through the door to set up his next prank and his entrance would cause the sack of rocks to fall swiftly to the ground; the falling rocks would pull the rope hanging in the center of the room upward and Calo, standing on a wooden chair, waiting for Candorous, would be hoisted upward by the neck. He would try to smile so that Candorous would be afraid.

The perfect prank! Why hadn’t he thought of it sooner? What a mockery! All those foolish and lighthearted pranks! Candorous would surely understand Calo was mocking him. He would understand. There was no question in this matter. The best prank is one which is paralyzing and to which the target of the prank cannot respond.

What is more paralyzing than death?

He could not say how long he would have to wait. This is the great compromise of life. It was fitting, somehow, to him—that he would be hanged unexpectedly, without warning, as quickly and unexpectedly as Candorous’ recent (?) ascent, or his father’s departure an indeterminate number of years prior. The mockery, he thought. One must not forget the mockery. Again he could hear the clock ceremoniously slowing the pace of its ticks. Standing on the wooden chair (he had checked and double-checked the four legs for weaknesses), Calo could see the entire room: all the cats of South Charleston hanging upside-down by their tails, stale blood dripping from their eyes; large carrion birds with dead tongues rolling lazily from dead mouths; the clock had almost stopped ticking entirely and Calo’s mind was a gray and torpid haze; he had forgotten to switch off the ceiling fan in his room. He heard strange music from outside his apartment, a tune whose name eluded him but whose sounds were old and familiar and maternal. The Wind, he thought. The Wind in these parts can do anything. He looked out past the window to the left of his door and saw the statuettes eyeing him curiously, containing their dumb smiles a little, and Calo smiled back at them, just a little, his small heart pulsing inside his small chest like warriors whose philosophy is anticipation and anxiety and whose weapon is the steady drum of war. Calo was a cold warrior. The noose around his neck was cold. Where’s Candorous? Calo remembered the fuzzy ball of spider and imagined its long legs detached and flung far from its dry and punctured corpse; he saw those thin legs shaking like eager bones; sticks that beat the drums; the Wind as loud as the drums; it was soon. He had been outpranked and so, ergo, the limbs of his dry and punctured corpse would shake like eager bones. The Wind in these parts can do anything. The doorknob rattled a little when the clock stopped its slow tick; Calo was still and focused, waiting; he eyed the sack of rocks like a warrior whose philosophy is anticipation (one always returns to one’s burden). The doorknob rattled again, as if Candorous was struggling with the lock. Stranger things have happened. Calo looked outside the window the statuettes smiling at him broadly winking their gray and wistful eyes confirming the presence of callous Candorous who would trigger the rocks, Calo’s burdens gathered together in a sack more tenuous than memory; One must not forget the mockery Calo looked into their eyes the small eyes of the statuettes eyes fitful and unforgiving and he began to imitate their smiles the sack slams to the floor The Wind! The damned Wind! a pressure on my (?) neck the door left slightly ajar this strange pain deep, I say: smile, you fool! Smile if you remember how to smile, Calo! my small eyes fill suddenly with black fluid and fear, pleading for relief, and I am lifted——I am lifted up, straight up, and away from this spinning place in South Charleston of maternal music and eager war drums, of slow-ticking clocks and the Wind.

Bio: Michael Shirzadian is a writer and HS English Language Arts teacher living in New Mexico. He writes fiction and creative nonfiction when he’s not grading student work or brainstorming/assembling lesson preps. He received his M.F.A. (fiction) from the University of Colorado in 2013, and will begin doctoral work at The Ohio State University this fall.

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The Creeping Complacency by Jamie Lackey

Jul 27 2014

Gwen froze in the kitchen doorway. Jeff was singing. And cooking bacon. “Who are you, and what have you done with my husband?” she asked.

Jeff laughed. Gwen hadn’t realized how much she’d missed that sound. He pressed a plate of French toast into her hands. “Here, sleepyhead. Eat up while it’s still warm.”

“Thanks.” Gwen was glad that he’d broken out of the funk that he’d been in since the move. “How did your trip into the mine go?”

Jeff beamed at her. “It was great. They broke through into this huge subterranean cave formation, and think I got some really good shots of both the cave and the mine’s working conditions. I emailed them to Harry, and he got me an interview with a gallery in the city.”

Gwen buried a wave of unease. Jeff usually showed her his photos before he let anyone else see them. “That’s fantastic! I’m so proud of you!”

At least the news explained his mood.

“Good morning, Doctor!” Gwen’s first patient of the day practically skipped into her office. His skin stretched parchment-thin over his emaciated frame. He had terminal throat cancer, and he’d been despondent the first time Gwen saw him.

“Hello, Jonah. You seem to be in good spirits this morning,” Gwen said.

“Yes, ma’am. I just woke up feeling more cheerful than I have in years. I even made the wife breakfast.”

Gwen nearly dropped his chart. “Oh?”

“She’s always said that I make the best scrambled eggs in the county.” He scratched his head. “She cried when I took her breakfast in. Can’t quite figure out why.”

“Well, your condition affects her life, too.”

“What, the cancer?” Jonah shrugged. “Everybody dies, Doc. I’m just thankful for today.”

Sheriff Dawson scowled as he rolled up his sleeve. “Let’s get this over with.”

His gruff mood steadied Gwen. Whatever was going on, it hadn’t affected everyone. She prepped the sheriff’s rabies vaccine. He stared at the wall while she administered the shot. “I’m going to need to see you again next week.”

“I know the drill,” he growled.

Two of Gwen’s next five patients were oddly cheerful. They’d all been in the mine yesterday–three of them working, Jeff taking pictures.

Maybe there was something in that cave they’d discovered.

Whatever it was, it worked better than any antidepressant on the market. Gwen tried to tell herself it might be a good thing. That maybe if she could figure out what it was, she could sell it to a pharmaceutical company for millions.

She told herself it was silly to be so afraid.

“Honey, could I get a blood sample?” Gwen asked.

Jeff nodded and rolled up his sleeve. “Of course.”

He’d always hated needles–Gwen usually had to bribe him with a lobster dinner to get any blood out of him. He gazed up at her and smiled like an angel while she prepped him for a quick blood draw.
“So, what’s going on with you?” Gwen asked. “Are you just happy about the gallery interview, or is it something else?”

Jeff brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek. “I really was being terrible, wasn’t I? I agreed to move here, but I didn’t try to fit in or make friends. I decided I was going to be lonely and miserable, and I wouldn’t let you do anything to help. Well, I’ve changed my mind.”

Gwen stared at his blood as it filled her sample tube. She wished that it really was that simple. Maybe it was. “Did you see anything odd in the cave?” she asked.

“Just rocks.” He tilted his head to one side. “The air did smell a little funny.”

Gwen’s stomach twisted. If it was in the air, that was a very bad thing. She kissed his cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Gwen spent days in her lab, alone. Tom, her physician’s assistant, went down into the mine to set a broken leg, and the next day he was one of them.

Gwen tried to keep herself from thinking of them that way. Her husband was one of them, for heaven’s sake.

It took her days to figure out what was going on. She found elevated levels of an endorphin-like chemical in Jeff’s blood, and his antibodies reacted to HIV and rabies.

It was a virus.

Her fingers shook as she filled a tube with her own blood. She didn’t think she had it. She wasn’t happy.

She examined her blood for an hour before she was satisfied. She was clean. No extra chemicals, no strange antibody reactions.

It wasn’t contagious.

She started keeping a list, of who had it and who didn’t.

“Honey, you assistant called me this afternoon,” Jeff said. He almost looked concerned behind his perpetual good cheer.

Gwen grunted. She just wanted to eat something and to go bed.

“He thinks you’re working too hard. And I’m worried about you, too. You don’t seem happy.”

“I’m fine. Just busy.”

“Busy with what? Tom doesn’t know what you’re working on.”

“It’s none of Tom’s business,” Gwen snapped.

“Is it any of my business?” Jeff asked.

“No,” Gwen said.

“Oh. Well, okay.” Jeff reached over and patted her hand. “Then I won’t ask you about it again. Let’s go to bed. You look tired.”

Gwen stared up at the ceiling and listened to Jeff breathe. She couldn’t sleep. She missed her husband.

“I think it’s like mono,” she whispered. “I can’t find a cure. Once you have it, there’s no getting rid of it.”

“Would you like to see my latest photos?” Jeff asked over apple cinnamon oatmeal.

Gwen forced a smile. “Sure.”

She paged through the prints he handed her. Landscapes, flowers, and a few shots of a puppy. Technically proficient, but this was the kind of stuff he used to make fun of. “They’re pretty,” she offered.

Jeff beamed at her. “I’m glad you think so. I like them too. It’s too bad that the gallery didn’t feel the same way.”

“You sent them these?” Gwen asked.

“Of course,” Jeff said. “Why wouldn’t I?” He shrugged. “They asked for more pictures after they saw the shots from the mine, so I took these. The phone call was a bit unpleasant. Harry said some unkind things.” Jeff shook his head. “But I suppose some people are just like that.”

“Gwen, I think you should come down to the mine,” Jeff said. He squeezed her hand. “A bunch of us have been talking, and we figured out that everyone who’s unhappy hasn’t been down there. I–I want you to be happy, Gwen. I hate seeing you like this.”

“No you don’t,” Gwen said. “You’re too complacent for anything to bother you.”

“Gwen, I love you.”

“Then love me for who I am. Don’t ask me to change.”

Strong hands grabbed Gwen’s wrists and ankles and lifted her off the bed. She screamed and struggled, but more hands clutched at her. “It’s okay, Gwen!” Jeff shouted. “We’re doing this for your own good! You’ll see!”

Jeff, Tom, and Jonah shoved her into the backseat of a car. Jeff climbed in beside her and wrapped his arms around her. “Shhh, shhh. It’ll be better soon.”

She trembled and fought not to cry. There had to be something she could do. Some way she could escape. She didn’t want to trade her dreams away for cow-like happiness. “Please don’t do this. Misery is part of the human condition,” she said. “I can’t be a doctor if I can’t understand it.”

Jeff kissed her forehead. “That’s just a lie you tell yourself because you’ve had to deal with unhappiness your whole life.”

Maybe she was crazy to not want what they had.

But she’d rather die than go down into that mine. The car pulled to a stop. “We’re here,” Jeff whispered.

She kicked him as hard as she could, jerked the car door open, and jumped out.

She was barefoot, and wearing just an old t-shirt and a ratty pair of sweatpants. Rocks bit into the bottoms of her feet as she ran. “Honey, come back!” Jeff shouted.

She spotted a truck and sprinted to it. The door was unlocked, and the keys were dangling from the ignition. She drove as fast as she could.

She couldn’t let them force anyone else down that hole, either.

She was going to blow the damn thing up, bury the virus’s source beneath tons of earth.

She had no idea how she was going to do that.

Sheriff Dawson hadn’t had any reason to go into the mine, but two of his deputies had, so Gwen avoided the police station. She ditched the truck and hid in the bushes outside the sheriff’s house.

She grabbed his sleeve as he walked out to his car.

“Doc? What the hell?” He took in her bleeding feet, tangled hair, and torn clothes. “Are you okay?”

Gwen shook her head. “There’s a virus down in the mine. It–it changes people. Jeff, Tom, and Jonah tried to drag me down there last night.”

The sheriff scratched his head. “Two of my boys were trying to talk me into coming down into the mine. Said it would cheer me up.”

He believed her. Gwen sagged with relief. “We have to destroy it,” she said. “Blow up the mine, bury it.”

“You sure that blowing up the mine is the only way to keep it from spreading?” he asked. “That’s a whole lot of private property. And the town’s livelihood.”

“They outnumber us. Do you want to get dragged down there?” Gwen asked.

The sheriff shook his head. “Being happy all the time shouldn’t sound all that bad. But no. I don’t.”

The sheriff drove her to her house, where she grabbed a pair of shoes and a jacket. Then the drove back to the mine. It looked deserted.

He handed her his handgun. “I’m going into the storage office, where they keep the explosives. You stay out here, keep watch.”

Gwen had never held a gun before. It was heavier than she thought it would be. She took a deep breath.

“Gwen!” Jeff came out of one of the buildings and beamed at her. “You came back!”

Gwen brought the pistol up, just like they did in the movies. “Stay away from me!” she shouted.

Jeff held his hands up, palms out. “Hey, hey. Calm down.”

“Don’t you dare tell me to calm down! You kidnapped me!”

“I’m sorry about that. I see now that it was too pushy. I shouldn’t have tried to force you. I promise I won’t do it again.”

“I don’t trust you,” Gwen said.

“I was hoping you came back to go down into the mine willingly,” Jeff said. “I–I would be very happy if you would.”

“I’d rather die,” Gwen snarled.

“Then what are you doing here?” Jeff asked.

The sheriff came out with a dolly of boxes. They were carefully labeled DYNAMITE in large red letters. Gwen stepped between him and Jeff, and waved the sheriff toward the mine’s service elevator.

Jeff looked at the boxes, then up at Gwen. A tiny frown creased his face. “I don’t understand.”

“We’re going to blow up the mine,” Gwen said.

Jeff blinked. “Oh.” He scratched his head. “I suppose it’s a good thing that there’s nobody down there right now.”

“You’re not going to try to stop us?” Gwen asked.

“You’ve got a gun. And I love you. If you really want to do this, of course I’ll support you. I just want you to be happy.”

“It’s ready,” the sheriff called.

Jeff smiled at her.

“Do it,” Gwen said.

The elevator groaned as it lowered into the earth. After about sixty seconds, there was a muffled boom, and the ground shuddered beneath her feet.

“There. Now, will you put that gun down? Let’s go home,” Jeff said.

The sheriff took his gun back gravely. “Is it really over?” he asked. “Just like that?”

“I hope so,” Gwen said.

“Do you want to go home with–him?” the sheriff asked.

Gwen nodded. “It’s okay, now, I think. It’s not like he wanted to hurt me. And he can’t drag me down there now.”

The sheriff grunted. “Well, keep the gun.”

The next morning, Gwen woke up in the best mood. She hummed as she got out of bed. Maybe she’d make breakfast.


Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her fiction has been published by over a dozen different venues, including The Living Dead 2, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction, and she has appeared on the Best Horror of the Year Honorable Mention and Tangent Online Recommended Reading Lists. She reads slush for Clarkesworld Magazine, works as an assistant editor at Electric Velocipede, and helped edit the Triangulation Annual Anthology from 2008 to 2011. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Find her online at

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ICE FISHING by Iulian Ionescu

Jul 20 2014

Why don’t you just leave me alone?

Jake tapped the ice with his foot. Usually he’d hear the lake answer, vibrate back like a violin string, but today the ice was harder than cement. The few inches of snow that landed over night swirled in the wind piling up like sand dunes.

The boy blew hot air in his hands and glanced at his father who was almost done digging the ice hole. There was something about the old man that made him looked vulnerable every time he wasn’t staring. Or talking. Hunched over, grunting as he drove the tool through the ice–

“Jake!” his father shouted, throwing him a sideways look. “Don’t just stand there. This is not a playground, you know? This is food. Remember? What you eat every night.”

Jake exhaled deeply and walked to the toolbox. He kicked the trailer cable’s hook to the side – their only safety measure in case the ice were to break – and sat on a stool.

His father wiped the sweat of his face. “Prepare the lines, we ain’t got all day here!”

Jake opened the different boxes, breathing heavily. There was no reason to answer the old man; he didn’t need any more yelling. He still wasn’t over the talk he had heard a week before – it rang in his head as if it was yesterday.

“He shouldn’t even be here,” his father had said with a grunt, as he threw the empty bottle of whiskey in the sink. “You wanted all of them, now you put food on this damn table.”

Jack sighed and unconsciously waved his hand as though to chase away the memory of that night.

“You done?”

“Almost,” Jake answered, tightening a knot on the line.

His father pulled the cork out of the ice, cracked his back and took out a pack of cigarettes.

“Leave that,” he barked, “come scoop some of this ice out. We need room.”

Jack grabbed the special ladle and walked to the hole. The temperature was so low, the surface of the ice was already freezing. He stared at the tiny ice crystals floating in the water.

His father lit his cigarette and gave him a shove on the shoulder. “Go on, fish ain’t gonna wait till you ready.”

Jake began to scoop out the floating ice and scrape the edges of the hole. He glanced back towards his father walking to the truck, parked by the edge of the lake. The old man was bent forward, hands in his pockets, looking down. Like that, he didn’t even look angry.

“It’s okay,” his mom had told him the other night. “He didn’t mean it. He’s not like that.”

Maybe he wasn’t, Jake thought. When he was sober.

A bubble of air popped on the surface of the water inside the hole, throwing pieces of ice upward. Jake recoiled, startled. He looked closer. The darkness beneath the surface was deeper than the night sky. Another, smaller bubble, popped.

Jake got up and hummed.

“What’s up boy?” his father said, returned with another stool in his hand. “Scared?”

“No,” Jake answered. “I saw–”

“Bring the lines,” his father interrupted him and spat to the side. “Too much talkin’.”

Jake curled his lower lip and trudged toward the lines. From the corner of his eye he saw another bubble burst in the hole.

“But I saw something,” Jack mumbled to himself.

He picked the lines off the ice and got up, but as he turned half way, the ice shuddered. Jake’s blood froze in his legs. The ice shouldn’t shudder, not at this temperature.

But there it was again. It quivered, as though something was pushing it from underneath.


Jack looked up at his father, who was staring inside the ice hole, hands in his pockets.

“Dad, look out!”

Before his father could turn his head, something burst out of the ice hole – a green, dark column that thrust up towards the sky, enlarging the hole as it rose, throwing ice, snow, and water up in the air.

Jack’s father fell on his back, and Jake dropped to his knees, watching the creature raise higher, spinning. The boy was numb, as though he had become one with the lake. The creature was now up at least twenty feet, a giant eel, its body wider than an oak trunk.

“Dad,” Jake shouted, “run!”

His scream must’ve distracted the beast, because the giant eel turned its head toward them. The beast curled in the air, waving its scaled body, mouth wide open, revealing white, sharp teeth.

Jake’s father was on the ice, facing down, covering his head with his arms.


Jake ran and slid over the ice, positioning himself between his father and the beast. All the hair on his body stood on ends and a fist clumped in his stomach as he looked up toward the eel monster.

The beast opened a mouth wider than a truck and thrust forward with a bellow.

Jake stood ground. He glanced forward and for a fraction of a second his eye met his father’s eye. The old man peeked under his arm, glued to the ice and shivering.

Before Jake could make a move, the ravenous mouth grabbed his body, and he felt his bones crack and his lungs emptied of air. The stench coming out of the beast’s mouth was sickening, and Jake’s right hands slid on the slippery, wet skin, unable to help him budge. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.

The monster rose up again, waving its head left and right in the sky. Jake opened one eye, barely able to breathe, clasped in the close grip of the beast’s mouth.

Somehow up there, stuck inside the eel’s mouth, when everything seemed final, Jake let go. He unclenched his muscles and exhaled the last of his air. For a second, he smiled, imagining that’s how it must feel to be up in a ride at the amusement park.

The mouth tightened around his body and the head shook harder. Feeling his ribs snap, Jake finally cried.

He wanted to say a prayer, just like his mother had taught him, but before he could utter a word, his whole body got jerked forward. He fell from the sky, still in the grip of the monster’s mouth. The ice drew closer, approaching. He closed his eyes as both beast head and human hit the frozen surface of the lake.

The power of the hit made Jake lose consciousness for a quick moment. When he came to the ice kept sliding in front of him, and the grip of the monster’s mouth turned loose. With a grunt, he pulled his left hand out and was able to stretch it forward, touching the ice, as he was sliding over it.

Then the mouth opened more and Jake flew forward, propelled by the momentum, rolling on the ice and smashing into the snow mountains by the edge of the lake. He felt as though every bone in his body had been shattered, but he didn’t feel the pain.

He jumped up and wiped a stream of blood dripping down his face. He watched with wide eyes as his father’s truck pulled the giant eel, the metallic trailer cable coiled around its body, dragging it away from the lake. The truck stopped short a few yards into a nearby field.

“Dad!” Jake shouted.

His father came out of the truck carrying a pick axe.

“Don’t you touch my family,” the old man shouted and threw the harpoon towards the beast’s face.

The weapon ricochet off the creature’s scales without damage.

For a few seconds everything stood still. The eel stared at Jake’s father, mouth wide open, dripping white saliva. Jake shivered, watching his father holding his arms open, no weapon in sight. His father turned his head and their eyes bridged the distance of a few yards. For the first time, it wasn’t an angry glance. It was a scared one and a happy one.

The beast snatched Jake’s father’s body in one bite and slithered out of the cable’s grip. Jake covered his mouth, swallowing his cry, as he watched the eel snake back to the hole, his father’s boots shaking by the side of his mouth.

A moment later the tail of the monster disappeared into the ice hole. Jake ran there and looked down. A few smaller bubbles of air popped at the surface. A few seconds later, the water began to freeze again.

Jake cried and his tears froze over the ice in tiny droplets.

Maybe he wasn’t like that.  


<<< >>>



Iulian was born and raised in Bucharest, Romania, where he earned his Bachelor’s in Finance. He moved to the US in 2001, and became a CPA (oh, the excitement!). Despite his career choice, Iulian’s creative side kept him awake at night. He is an aspiring sci/fi and fantasy writer. He published several short stories and is currently working on two novels. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and son and he blogs at and He is also the editor of

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Aces High by Holly Day

Jul 13 2014

Holes had been drilled in her arms, strung through with metal threads. Her veins had been drained of blood, the marrow stripped from her bones and replaced with alloy. Her skin had been removed completely. What remained of her organic form had been dipped in metal lighter and more flexible and infinitely stronger than aluminum foil. Sharp claws curled where her hands had been, and her legs terminated in flat, toeless stumps. She wasn’t a human being anymore, by any measure of what could be called a human being by any dictionary on Earth. She was barely a living thing anymore, just a brain and a couple of necessary organs kept alive by a sophisticated life-support system. But she could fly. She could fly higher than any bird ever born, and could hit any target on earth with deadlier accuracy than any weapon previously conceived. She didn’t need bullets, even though she had thousands of them at her disposal. She was a bullet. She was a bomb.

Far below her, on the ground, was her target, and rising up from that tiny building she was going to eliminate, that wafer-sized square she was going to crush into clouds of ash and broken cinderblock, was the enemy’s own weapon of choice, coming up at her like a tiny shimmering spear of light. Valerie squared her shoulders and dove headfirst towards the target, hands together, over her head, as though she was diving into a backyard swimming pool.

*        *          *     *

“You can’t be serious,” protested Martha, eyeing her daughter with great concern. She frowned angrily as another car suddenly cut her off, assuring that their wait to exit the gridlocked freeway would be at least another ten minutes. “You’re so smart and pretty, and you have so many things to do still.” She reached out and touched Valerie’s hand lightly, briefly. “Don’t you want to get married, have a family? You’re too young for children now, of course,” she added hastily, then changed her mind. “No, you’re not too young. Not if you’re contemplating never having children. If having a baby will make you change your mind about this, then I give you permission to have as many babies as you want.” She blinked back sudden tears, squeezed the steering wheel tightly. “Are you pregnant? Is that why you’re even considering this?”

“It’s for a good cause,” Valerie replied calmly. The recruiter at her school had coached her on what to say, easily preparing her for any arguments her mother might present. “I’d be saving lives, right? Thousands of lives. Wouldn’t you be proud knowing your own child saved thousands of other children’s lives? Besides, what’s the point of having my own children if they’re not going to be safe?”

“Then I just won’t allow it.” Tears itched again at the corner of the older woman’s eyes, and she brushed them away angrily. “Dammit, you just can’t do it. I fucking forbid it. You’re fucking grounded just for bringing it up.” She slammed on the brakes as the car in front of her flashed its own brake lights. “I spent too much fucking time and energy and love on you to have you just give it all up like this. You just can’t do this to me.”

Again, Valerie was prepared with an answer. As if she was reading a cue from a card, she calmly recited, “I understand the sacrifices you made to raise me, Mom. This is why I’m dong this, to pay you back for what you’ve done for me. Let me make the sacrifices now. Let me do this for you, for our country. For my country.” She smiled at her mother beatifically, waiting for the next well-rehearsed part of the argument. She was more prepared for this conversation than anything that had ever come before. “And you know, legally, I can do anything I want. I didn’t even have to tell you I signed up for this. I only told you so that you wouldn’t be worried when I left.”

“You fucking zombie,” muttered Martha, shaking her head and staring straight ahead of her. “Jesus Christ.” She regained a bit of her composure, then turned to face her daughter. “You’re not even in there anymore, are you?” she said. “You’ve already left me, and I don’t even get a say here. Fucking seventeen years old,” she continued, turning back to the road ahead. “Seventeen years old, and you’re already dead. Fuck!” she screamed, banging on the horn in frustration. The car in front of her honked back, several times. A boy, around the same age as Valerie, hung his head out the window and jeered, “What’s the problem, grandma?” Martha briefly thought about driving her car straight into the back of his, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. Even if she had a real accident, one that landed them all in the hospital, the military recruits would still come for her daughter’s battered, broken body, would still take her to her assignment.

*          *          *          *

But Mom, I’ll be able to fly, Valerie thought as she spread her gleaming metal gliding wings and began her circular descent. And then the flash of memory was gone, and all she could see was the painful patchwork creature crawling up the sky to meet her. Valerie shuddered inwardly as the thing came closer, a boy, she guessed, a little younger than her. In their attempt to compete with the scientists that had worked on Valerie, whoever had worked on this new thing had completely sacrificed finesse and beauty over speed and function. Where Valerie had been promised that she would be able to lead a life of adventure even after her mission, that the beautiful new body she had been given was hers for the rest of her life, the boy who had volunteered to become this ragdoll of twisted metal and septic-looking patches of exposed organic material obviously knew he was on a one-way trip. He didn’t fly so much as claw his way up through the air, swinging first one arm, then the next, up over his head as he neared Valerie. As he drew closer, Valerie could even see his original face was completely covered with a clear plastic shield, a hose pumping oxygen trailing from one side to a tank mounted on his back. The eyes that stared up at Valerie were bright and angry against a pallor of sagging, dying flesh.

Valerie eyed the boy coolly, automatically willing the projectiles in the palms of her hands to slide into place. It wouldn’t be any big deal to just circumvent the boy completely, but she hadn’t had a chance to try her tiny bombs out on anything yet. She sized up her opponent as he drew nearer, deciding that the large, cumbersome tube grenades strapped to his forearms would be no threat to her.

It was funny, or ironic, how she felt right now—she wasn’t sure which. The short time she had spent in her nearly-adult body as an adolescent, she had been riddled with insecurity about her body, her body language, what she was supposed to talk about with friends and what she was allowed to say to boys, and the whole experience had been just awful. But now, just weeks after officially joining the military as part of their Elite, she felt perfectly in control of everything around her. Everything. The boy below her posed no threat on any level. He could either attack her or try to kiss her, and she would have been able to deal with either situation perfectly.

“Wouldn’t it be strange if he did try to kiss me?” she marveled suddenly, almost giggling aloud, then shuddered. The boy was a brutish pile of sharp metal parts and exposed tubes and wires and flapping pieces of loose flesh. His mouth was an angry snarl of teeth, lips dry and split, gray. He probably would not try to kiss her. Valerie regained her composure, coolly took survey of what she took to be vulnerable areas and aimed accordingly. She paused, not sure if she should just shoot the newcomer and get it over with, or if she should wait until he was within earshot and say something menacing, or brave, or comic-book corny, like “Nice killing you!” or “Next time, make sure your arms match your feet before taking off, Lunkhead!”

It seemed as though her attacker was thinking the same thing. As she watched, the boy tried to shape his malformed mouth into words, finally settling on some sort of gesture which Valerie decided must be insulting. It had to be. She made a gesture of her own in return, then aimed carefully and fired.

Pain raced through her body. The world went pure white, then black, then she could see again, and she was falling. Something was lodged in the spot where her stomach used to be. Pieces of her opponent were falling with her, pieces of her own perfect new body mingling in the wreckage and falling like bits of shiny metal rain. He must have a got a shot off, too, she thought as she spread her arms as wide as she could and tried to go up. “Fly!” she screamed, and her voice sounded tinny and mechanical. “Fly!”

*          *          *

The woman woke up to find her house empty. She wandered from one room to another, not really worried, but curious, calling her son’s name out at the entrance of each doorway. She finally gave up and went into the kitchen. Breakfast dishes were in the sink, and half a pot of coffee was still hot on the stove. “So at least he was here,” she muttered to herself distractedly. The older that boy got, the less she saw of him—and, she had to admit, that was how it was supposed to be.

It wasn’t until she stepped out the front door and saw the children dancing, dancing, in the street in front of her house that panic began to set in.

“He’s a hero!” gushed one girl, barely in her teens, one of her son’s classmates.  She rushed up to meet the woman and threw a wreath of wildflowers around her neck. “Jola’s a hero!”

The woman felt a cold knot of empty growing in her stomach, balling up to become something solid and hard until the weight of it couldn’t be held up any longer. Words like “why” and “how” and especially “no” fell out of her lips, but so quietly only a few of the celebrants nearby could hear her speak.

Bio: Holly Day was born in Hereford, Texas, “The Town Without a Toothache.” She and her family currently live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she teaches writing classes at the Loft Literary Center. Her published books include the nonfiction books Music Theory for Dummies, Music Composition for Dummies, and Guitar All-in-One for Dummies, and the poetry books “Late-Night Reading for Hardworking Construction Men” (The Moon Publishing) and “The Smell of Snow” (ELJ Publications).

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Megapixilated by D.A.Cairns

Jul 06 2014

The image captures the true essence of the person: as the soul bleeds into the frame, the pixels incarcerate the unwary. Darius Umbete knows this truth. It is both frightening and exhilarating to think of the eternal imprisonment facing all upon whom he focuses his lens. The unsuspecting victims of his art. Another candidate stands before him now.

‘How much is it?’

‘$495,’ replies Darius half heartedly. He is the only salesman in New South Wales, perhaps even in the whole of Australia who does not require a sales pitch or a personality. Darius knows photography. Cameras, lenses, auto exposure, auto flash, backlights, catch lights, APS, CCD, latitude, length, compensation value, pixels and the list goes on. He smiles at himself.

The customer smiles, albeit cautiously and asks ‘Is that negotiable?’

Darius stares at him. The camera is already too cheap and this man clearly too incompetent for such a superb piece of photographic  technology. Too much of a simpleton.

‘Maybe, you’d like to see a less expensive model. This one’s probably more than you need, anyway. Overkill, you know?’


Darius laughs and the man’s bemused look intensifies. ‘You only want to shoot family and friends, don’t you? And capture some scenery when you’re on vacation?’

The man nods, and Darius recalls the first time he shot a friend. He hadn’t known at the time what he was doing or what he was capable of doing, even though he’d seen his father do it. It was terrifying. He gulps hard, feeling  a cricket ball in his throat, and reminds himself that he has, since that awful day, never again photographed anyone he loves or even anyone he likes.

The customer is staring at Darius as though there is something wrong with his face. He resists the urge to take a clumsy swipe across his countenance.

‘I said, okay. Show me another one.’

As he returns the Nikon D5100 to the display case, Darius hopes that he only imagined irritation in the customer’s voice. The crap that he has to endure from Neanderthals like him is more than he can bear at times. He grabs a Panasonic DMC LX5 and summons a quantum of patience.

‘This one is two hundred dollars less and has many of the same features as the Nikon. It only offers 10.1 megapixels though. Whereas the Nikon gives you 16.2.’

With a childlike brightness in his eyes, the customer says, ‘More megapixels means better pictures, right?’

Darius almost calls him a philistine but instead manages a cordial affirmation. ‘Precisely.’

After the man decides to purchase the Panasonic, Darius asks him if he would like a demonstration of some of its features. He declines with abruptness: reeking of arrogance. Darius is offended and insists that a brief tour of the device will stand the customer in better shape for photographic adventure than if he simply goes home, and reads the instructions. ‘They can be a little confusing you know.’

The customer is unconvinced but hasn’t left yet. Darius knows that is because, although he has taken the man’s money, he has not handed over the camera. He presses on, attempting to filter out the urgency from his voice. Why doesn’t anybody properly appreciate what cameras do? Why don’t they understand the power in their hands? A feather touch on a small button kidnaps a moment in time. He has seen it. He has done it. His father showed him how. He spent every spare moment teaching Darius about photography, and not merely instructing him in the mechanics but instilling him an awe of the deep, dark magic of the camera. He remembers the first time his father shot an animal and how he forced him to watch the disintegration of life, piece by piece, cell by cell, pixel by pixel. Darius had felt both mortified and enchanted.

‘Look, I need to get going. Thanks for the offer but I’ll figure it out.’ He reaches for the bag with his camera in it. ‘How hard can it be?’

Darius forces a smile and reluctantly hands it over. ‘If you have any problems, give me a call.’

The pleasantries end, and as soon as the happy customer turns away, Darius’ smile dissolves. He’s sold another camera but he doesn’t give a dingo’s kidney about sales figures. He sells loads of cameras and he earns juicy commissions and bonuses on a regular basis. That much is easy. The problem is he knows that the cameras he sells will not be treated with the respect they deserve. They will be underutilized. Dishonoured. Most of the Cretans to whom he sells cameras do not deserve such high quality equipment.  Darius thumps his fist against his thigh, and glares down at the counter. He sees the coiled sales receipt then glances at the computer where the customer’s details are still on display. His jaw loosens.

Darius offers to stay late and close the shop. This offer is generously accepted by his colleagues who see their job as a means to an end. Darius also sees it that way but his end is dramatically different to theirs. By the time he has rung off the till, secured the shop and activated the alarm, he has already rehearsed his plan dozens of times. He has the address and he has his camera: a custom built model which he started to assemble following his father’s premature death when Darius was fourteen. It had taken more than a year and had caused him incredible frustration. The money had been a problem too especially after his mother caught him stealing from her purse. Other sources of funding presented themselves. Finally, he had completed his project, having employed everything his father had taught him about the power: how to summon it, how to harness it and how to use it. He had shot twelve people before he even started working at the camera shop which was two years ago now. Five more people had since fallen victim to his camera. As his obsession grew, his control waned. The passion which raged in his veins, barked and howled inside his head like a rabid dog. It boils.

He feels it now. His body is humming with the power, struggling for freedom, to fulfill its calling. Darius walks faster. He has the customer’s address and he knows the street. It isn’t far. Soon he’s standing on the lawn, staring at the house, shaking and sweating, reaching for his camera. His thoughts lose coherence. He feels nothing as he walks to the window. He sees the man at the dining table with his family: a picture book cliché. Darius wants to take a photograph.  He knocks on the front door and waits. He doesn’t know who will answer. He doesn’t care. He raises the camera to eye level and feels its energy vibrating through him, rattling his bones. Light appears in the viewfinder as the door swings silently open and Darius stops breathing as he hits the capture button.

The flash illuminates the doorway and temporarily blinds him but then he sees it happening. He’s seen it before but it never becomes less thrilling. Pieces of a woman disconnect from her body and flutter away, like dust beaten out of a pillow. Little bits fall towards the ground but vanish before they reach their destination. Cells break down. Skin melts like cheese in a pizza oven. A woman. Her clothing evaporates thread by thread. It takes so long, Darius feels impatient again, and tired.  It’s a woman. He has shot a woman. Not the man he wanted. He realizes he must leave. The show is almost over. She is nearly gone but if he stays too long he may be seen. He can’t be seen. Darius rushes away into the night clutching his camera in one hand and his head in the other. He feels cold now, and weak. Very weak but still a whisper of triumph blows in his ear: an ecstatic resonance in his twisted mind.


D.A. Cairns is married with two teenagers and lives on the south coast of New South Wales where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had around 30 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) He blogs at Square pegs and has authored three novels, Devolution, Loathe Your Neighbor, and his latest, Ashmore Grief which is available from Artema Press at



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Cyber Kill By Lawrence Buentello

Jun 29 2014

The room lay bare of all technology, a bizarre stipulation made by Eric Gastif, Director of Technical Operations for Cyber Barriers Security.

But why the man would make such a request of the senior leadership for one of the most respected computer system security providers in the world, Ken Johnson didn’t know.

Gastif had requested—rather, had demanded—that absolutely no technological devices be admitted to the meeting room, whether computers, digital recorders, miniature net devices or cellular communications. He even asked that only mechanical wristwatches be worn into the room.

But as the three directors approached their seats at the conference table, Johnson considered the dark expression on the older man’s face more the product of deep concern than psychosis. The lines drawn across the pale cheeks spoke of many sleepless nights. Gastif’s coat hung on his shoulders much too loosely; the last two weeks seemed to have aged him considerably.

Johnson, the Chief Liaison, took his seat, uncomfortable without the presence of a briefcase, or at least a folder of papers. These, too, were things Gastif refused to allow into the safe room, perhaps fearing that someone might covertly substitute some device in their place.

Gastif leaned forward in his chair and sighed.

“I want to thank you all for agreeing to my requests,” he said, placing his hands on the table. “But if you’ll indulge me a few minutes to explain, I’m sure you’ll understand.”

Johnson glanced around the table at the other members of the board to gauge their reactions to this statement. Edra Hannish, the President of Cyber Barriers Security, sat wordlessly, reserved, her face drawn in the poor lighting. Jim Tolland, Head of Technological Research and Development, stared at the older man curiously, as if watching a disturbing natural phenomenon; he’d made no secret of his feelings about Gastif’s recent behavior.

“The security breaches have become a world-wide phenomenon,” Gastif continued. “You’ve all read the reports. Hundreds of security systems have detected infiltrations from an unknown source. Not the typical disruptions that we’re used to. Those vulnerabilities we can trace fairly easily, whether they originate from private individuals or curious governments. The first incident to capture my attention was the one the Pentagon reported. They believed some of their computers were being breached by the Chinese, or possibly the Russians. When our team arrived at Bitterroot, we thought the same thing. But when we observed the system there we found something else entirely.”

Johnson leaned back in his chair. This was the first time he’d heard about a breach of security at Bitterroot, which, he previously believed, was impossible to achieve. The facility in Colorado was a single-storage system, in which no external lines of communication were attached to the servers. Storage devices downloaded and transferred highly sensitive information from the system manually, which meant that individual service modules could easily be tested for breaches before they were used within other systems.

The Bitterroot system was a closed circuit, and yet Gastif was now declaring it compromised.

Johnson glanced at Hannish’s face to see if her expression might betray her knowledge of this, but as usual her thoughts were unreadable. At the first sign of trouble she’d calmly organized the company’s personnel into a multi-tiered investigation team, and had since reserved her opinions of the matter. An ability to not rush to judgment as hundreds of clients were crying foul made her an excellent leader, if not the only clearly thinking person in Cyber Barriers Security.

But now the investigation was done, and Johnson wondered what her conclusion would actually be.

“Impossible,” Tolland said, waving his hand. “Bitterroot couldn’t possibly be contaminated. It’s the most secure system in the country.”

“That’s what I believed,” Gastif said, “until I drove down into the tunnels and monitored the system with the chief engineer. Something, some program was running throughout the entire system. We couldn’t isolate it, but we could see where it was multiplying files within the system. After a while the copied files simply vanished.”

“Vanished?” Tolland said. “They couldn’t just vanish.”

“They did,” Gastif said, raising his hands like a magician. “Into thin air. They left no magnetic footprint whatsoever. After a few days of similar episodes, the ghost program ceased. During that time, of course, no storage units were allowed into or out of the installation. I thought it was a particularly ingenious Trojan program that would copy information and then covertly deposit it in any storage units we subsequently introduced to the system. So we searched for any foreign algorithms in the system, but came up empty. Then we cleansed the storage units and scanned them twenty times before, during and after any information transfers. But we still couldn’t find anything.”

“An aberration?” Edra Hannish suggested. “A system failure?”

Gastif shook his head. “We analyzed every part of the system, tested every program, scanned every file for corruption, even the deep storage. The system was in perfect condition.”

“Well,” Hannish continued, smiling briefly, “if there wasn’t any exposure why are you so concerned?”

Gastif nodded gravely.

“That was my initial reaction, too,” he said, “but then I became curious. This—malfunction, if you will—was particularly noticeable at Bitterroot, where you wouldn’t expect a breach of security. I began to wonder if this same phenomenon might be detected elsewhere, so I called our European offices and had them observe some of our more sensitive clients, foreign governments, utility services, financial institutions. I told them to monitor for radiation exposures, additional energy loads, or any other type of significant event.”

“And?” Tolland asked.

“And they observed the same phenomenon in nearly every system they monitored. As if some program were collating all the available information, copying it, and then simply deleting the copies and every trace of the ghost program. But none of this collated information—let me emphasize this point—was ever transferred to any system. There simply was no loss of proprietary information, no cyber attack to trace.”

“A nuisance virus, then. Something delivered into a variety of systems just to annoy us. The equivalent of territorial graffiti.”

“I would be comforted by that thought,” Gastif said, “if I could make myself believe it was that innocuous. Actually, I almost did make myself believe it. A hacker might very well create such a program to avoid prosecution should he be caught. But then the other incidents began to occur, and I couldn’t believe it was so simple anymore.”

“The shutdowns,” Johnson said, feeling he should speak. As liaison to so many clients, he’d had to suppress too many fires in recent weeks, fires that grew proportionately terrifying.

First, several energy systems went offline, and then miraculously recovered. Then hospitals in several cities lost their networks, including their emergency networks, before recovering them. And then the military computers shut down completely before coming back online after a few hours. Some disruptions were as minor as television cable companies, and some were completely untenable, like the FAA systems.

Most recently, communications and other orbiting satellites were experiencing inexplicable outages. Nothing had been permanently affected, but the fact that they had all occurred so closely together was impossible to ignore.

“Yes,” Gastif said, nodding. “The shutdowns. The pattern has been as baffling as the infiltrations I’ve described. Nothing’s been permanently affected, only temporarily compromised. Which seems to have left too many people—too many important people—with the impression that nothing significant has occurred.”

“And has something significant occurred?” Tolland said. “I’ve studied the same reports, and I can’t see anything about these aberrations that can’t be explained by advanced hacking techniques. If the creators of this virus, or whatever it is, intended to hurt us we’d already be injured. We would have suffered some damage, some loss of information, some adulterated program, some loss, wouldn’t we?”

“Perhaps. If these acts were being committed by the people with which we’re familiar.”

“You don’t believe they are?” Johnson asked. He was beginning to see a darker expression fall over Gastif’s face, as if they were quickly approaching the subject matter which had painted the man’s deathly pall.

“No,” Gastif said, “I don’t. And I don’t believe whoever conducted these exercises intended to ruin any of these systems.”

“Exercises?” Hannish said. “What do you mean by calling them exercises?”

“Just that, Edra. The Bitterroot attack gave me the best clue to what we’re dealing with. You see, after these systems came back online—all of them, as far as I know—they conducted a systems check on themselves across the board. Most systems do, of course, but these checks were comprehensive, at times more thorough than they should have been.”

“You suspected they were part of the infiltration?”

“Yes. After these checks, though, the systems functioned normally, so they seemed unrelated. But they weren’t.”

“It was just another part of the hack,” Tolland said dismissively.

Gastif shook his head. “If a malicious hacker had meant to cause some damage or to compromise sensitive information, he would have done so. There’s no point in creating a sophisticated program to infiltrate the most secure computers just for bragging rights. It’s simply not worth a life sentence in a federal prison. And the shutdowns? Malicious mischief? How could one person, or even one group, cause so many disruptions in so many places all around the world? And leave absolutely no footprint?”

“How indeed?” Johnson asked. “That’s why we’re all in this room, to try to uncover who’s behind these attacks.”

Gastif frowned at this statement, stared at his hands a moment, then looked up fearfully. Johnson thought he was imagining the fear in Gastif’s eyes, but as the man’s steady gaze held everyone at the table he realized that it wasn’t an illusion.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you who’s behind the attacks,” Gastif said grimly. “Or what. Not specifically. I arranged this meeting to describe what I believe is about to happen. That’s why I wanted to meet in this particular room, protected from electrical surveillance and absent of any electronic equipment. Because I believe it’s found in even the simplest computerized system. I believe it can infiltrate any electromagnetic system it pleases.”

“What can infiltrate these systems?” Tolland said impatiently.

Gastif paused a moment before continuing. His eyes focused first on the table’s surface, then on his fellow directors.

“As I said before,” he said, “I requested that our foreign offices monitor our systems for disruptions. At first they found nothing. I suppose that was because they were using traditional analysis tools. But a technician in Belgium, because he was lacking available personnel, decided to set up a hyperspectral imaging camera to capture any fluctuations in the electromagnetic fields within his systems. Should the typical fields fluctuate within the room the variations would be recorded. This is what he found one day after the camera was tripped.”

Gastif reached into his coat and pulled out a series of glossy prints. He slid the sheets toward Hannish, who then passed copies to the others.

Johnson stared at the strange image of a symmetrical oval of light hovering in a pale field. An artifact on the digital image? But the glowing oval seemed well-defined.

“What is this?” Tolland asked.

“The first recorded image of our hacker,” Gastif replied. “But not the last. When I received this image I instructed several other technicians to set up the same type of monitoring equipment. Over the next few days several identical images were recorded, each manifestation occurring during the breach of a system.”

“But what exactly is it?” Hannish said.

Gastif cleared his throat. “I believe it’s some sort of being.”

Tolland’s laugh was short and incredulous. “What are you talking about?”

“I believe this thing, this entity, whatever it is, infiltrated our systems as easily as sea water is absorbed by sand. This entity, perhaps several of them, simply entered into our electronic systems, assessed the data, recorded the data within itself and left the equipment undamaged. It wouldn’t have to transfer information outside of the system it infiltrated because it could record the data within itself. Now, I’m not certain if this is a living entity, or simply the agent of some entity, but it is completely beyond anything we understand. It is an organized energy system that can infiltrate any electromagnetic mechanism, I’m sure of that now.”

“This is preposterous,” Tolland said. “Is that why you called us together in this cave? Because you believe electric ghosts are invading the world’s computers?”

“Let him continue,” Johnson said. He rubbed his hand across his mouth because he felt the same growing fear that Gastif undoubtedly felt. Perhaps it was too much for the others to absorb so quickly—

“I might have remained skeptical,” Gastif said, “if I hadn’t been present during one of the disruptions. Pure chance, I imagine. But I was in the room when one of the entities—when its energy field—was recorded. We watched it materialize in the camera’s display screen. At the time I still didn’t know its precise nature, but I felt an impulse to test the strength of the field, so I walked forward and extended my hand into it. I tell you, I felt its intelligence. Not a human intelligence, but it was as if the entity phased into my own bio-electrical field, just briefly, but long enough for me to perceive that I was being analyzed by a thinking mind. I know that sounds insane, but I knew it was sentient. And dangerous. That was enough to convince me.”

“I thought I was hallucinating,” Johnson said, though he wondered if he should speak of it at all. “I had the same experience in Washington during one of the events. I felt there was something in the room with me—”

“Perhaps it’s because of the electrical capacities of the human brain, I’m not certain. But I’m sure I sensed the presence of an intelligent being.”

“A plasmal life force?”

“I can’t say what they are precisely. But I suspect I know their intentions.”

“What are their intentions?” Hannish asked evenly, but Johnson could see the unease in her eyes, hear the worry in her voice. Was it because she was beginning to believe Gastif? Or did she fear the man was suffering a mental breakdown? Johnson worried that his own experience wasn’t just an illusion.

“Let’s just say this,” Gastif said, leaning forward and speaking softly, perhaps too softly for anyone or anything outside the room to hear. “What would you be able to do to the human species if you controlled all the existing computer systems in the world? First you would have to examine all the pertinent systems and all the information those systems held, and then you would have to experiment to see if the information you’ve learned actually allows you to manipulate those systems. And once you’ve learned the intricacies of those systems and were confident that you could manipulate them perfectly, what would you be capable of doing? If you had control over the electrical plants, the refineries, the air traffic, military equipment, hospitals, communications centers all over the world. Nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, weapons of all kinds all over the world in every nation. What if you had that kind of control?”

The room was silent. The directors at the table stared at one another, not knowing what to believe.

“This is fantastic,” Tolland finally said, and laughed. “You’ve created a monster in your imagination, a monster that doesn’t exist. There’s some other reason for these incidents. There must be.”

Gastif sighed, then said, “I know all this sounds incredible, but who do you think would be the first people to recognize such an invasion? Not the military, not the news media. It would be the people who monitor the security of the systems that were being compromised. We are the ones who would see it happening first.”

The silence in the room became uncomfortable after a few moments. Johnson finally broke the silence.

“We could just shut everything down if it were a matter of security,” he said. “We could control it.”

“Could we really?” Gastif said. “Do you actually think you could convince every world government to put its military defenses offline, to shut down the power plants, to cripple industry? Exactly how would you go about accomplishing that? No, that’s what makes this attack so brilliant. Consider this for a moment: if you were an invading force, that is, if you were invading an entire world, how would you go about it? Destroy everything and hope that what remains is viable? No. The more intelligent method would be to wait until a species had advanced far enough technologically to take advantage of their weapons and devices. All you would have to do was to create a method for infiltrating their electronic systems, some sort of remote capability that could infiltrate even the best security systems. To that kind of technology, our security systems wouldn’t even exist. It may be the best way, the most painless way, to enslave intelligent species everywhere.”

Johnson thought a moment, then said, “We could insulate the most important systems against electromagnetic infiltration.”

“Perhaps. But I suspect they have the ability to breach any type of insulation we might come up with. In any case, we may not have enough time.”

“We have to notify every government we can. Let them know what to expect. Surely there’s something we can do—”

“Are you even listening to what you’re saying?” Tolland said, his voice echoing sharply in the room. “You’re creating a global scenario from isolated incidents. It’s ridiculous!”

“I’ve seen the evidence,” Gastif said. “The shut-downs were precisely orchestrated events conducted from within the systems themselves. The entity or entities entered the systems, manipulated the programs and left. They walk through energy fields as easily as we walked through that door. And they can do it whenever they please.”

“Is that why you have us isolated in this room like Neanderthals? Because you think electromagnetic ghosts are haunting you?”

“Yes, to be honest.” Gastif glanced around the table, smiling weakly. “Once I came in contact with one of the entities they knew that I knew about their existence. I began sensing their presence whenever I spoke on the phone, or turned on my computer. I think they were monitoring me through electromagnetic devices. And since they were privileged to know my every interaction with the people in the company, surely they were able to define the company’s hierarchy.”

“You mean everyone at this table,” Johnson said, now acutely afraid.

Gastif nodded, his mouth drawn.

But Jim Tolland wasn’t so easily convinced.

“You’ve lost your mind,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve completely lost touch with reality.”

Johnson turned toward Edra Hannish. If Cyber Barriers Security’s president was going to declare Gastif’s analysis the product of a deranged mind, now would be the time. But she didn’t.

“If all of this is true,” Hannish said instead, without emotion, though her face seemed ashen, “what do you think will happen next?”

“Next?” Gastif said. “Subjugation, perhaps. If we’re lucky.”

“And what if we aren’t lucky?” Johnson asked, leaning back in his chair.


“But there must be some way to intervene—” Hannish began.

A faint chime interrupted her statement.

Gastif stared around the table in disbelief; then Tolland, his nose wrinkling in irritation, reached into his pocket and retrieved a small cell phone. He apologized perfunctorily, but Johnson’s eyes widened in fear.

“I told you not to bring any devices into this room!” he said, nearly screaming. “I told you—”

“You really didn’t expect us to take your paranoia seriously, did you?” Tolland said, shaking his head again. “My responsibilities require me to be accessible, Mr. Gastif. This meeting has been an exercise in lunacy. As far as I’m concerned, you should seek out medical help. I, for one, am not going to act as an enabler for your delusions.”

The phone chimed again; no one in the room said anything for a moment, but as Tolland began thumbing the device Gastif shouted, “Don’t answer that phone! Someone take that phone from him!”

Gastif moved from his chair, but he was too far away, and neither Hannish or Johnson seemed to comprehend the command

Finally, Johnson lurched from his chair, stumbling.

Tolland tapped the cell phone, placed it to his ear and said, “This is Jim Tolland, how can I help you?”

By the time Johnson reached him the lights began flickering in the room.

And by the time he was able to terminate the call, it was much too late.

The End

Bio: Lawrence Buentello has published over 80 short stories in a variety of genres, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His fiction has appeared in Short Story America, Stupefying Stories, Perihelion Science Fiction, and several other publications. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife, Susan, and two Australian shepherds.

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The Fortune Cookie by Catherine Carlson

Jun 22 2014

Frank Bowen had been waiting ever since he went to  lunch at the Laughing Dragon and he was plenty scared.  The guys at Stephens and Wayne, the ad company he worked for went every week to the Dragon for its buffet. The food was great and Frank had his usual sweet and sour chicken with veggies, an egg roll and peach cobbler for dessert.

At the end of the meal, the waiter brought the check and laid down four individually wrapped fortune cookies. Steve, Jim, Keith and Lonnie all cracked their cookie in half, pulled out the little white paper and read their fortunes out loud, laughing and slapping each other on the back as they kidded each other about their ridiculously silly fortunes. Jim’s fortune told him not to spend money he didn’t have. Everyone laughed at this because Jim had inherited his parents’ wealth and many properties when they died ten years ago. Steve‘s fortune said Be content with what you have. If he had been content he would have never climbed the ladder to the top of the agency.

The four friends urged Frank to open his cookie. Snapping it in half, he pulled the paper out and it was blank. Not a word was written on it.

“Guess they forgot yours,” Jim said. “Just make up your own.”

Some of the other guys laughed. “Leave it to Frank to get the blank paper,” Steve piped up.

But Frank didn’t laugh it off because the whole situation made him feel uncomfortable and not just the kidding around. After finishing their drinks, Jim, always the conscientious one, said they’d better get back to the office.

Leaving a generous tip, the five friends walked to the front of the restaurant to pay their bill. Each one paid his own bill and when it was Frank’s turn, his hands shook uncontrollably and instead of taking two twenties out, he almost handed the woman behind the register a hundred dollar bill, He caught himself in time and pretended to laugh it off.

“See you back at the office, Steve called out as he slid into his new Ford Sports Track. He had a sweet souped up Corvette, but today he had taken his wife’s vehicle because he needed to stop by the hardware store and pick up a few things that would never fit in his car.

The rest of the group called out their farewells as each one slid into his respective vehicles and headed back to the office after a long and leisurely lunch.

Frank’s mind wandered as he walked into the middle of the street headed for his Jeep Cherokee on the other side. An old white pickup traveling at least five miles above the speed limit screeched on its brakes as Frank fell to the pavement. The driver didn’t stop, and a crowd formed around him, but Frank opened his eyes, felt his face, arms and hands for injuries. Nothing hurt and everything seemed to be intact, so he got to his feet, brushing off his jacket and tucking his shirt back inside his pants.

“I’m fine, he told the open mouthed spectators, just a little scared, but nothing seems to be broken. You can all go back to whatever you were doing now.”

The audience remained silent for a second, as if not quite knowing what to do, and then one by one, they pulled away from the group. Pulling himself together, Frank walked over to his Jeep and was happy to see that he had no pain anywhere. His fortune cookie should have said, Today’s your lucky day, because he couldn’t have gotten much luckier to have been knocked to the ground by a hit and run driver with not even a scratch on him.

Slamming the door and sliding in behind the wheel, Frank checked his face in the rear view mirror. He had a small smudge on his forehead, or was that a bruise? It didn’t matter whatever it was didn’t hurt. His face, slightly pale as his reflection stared back at him told of his narrow escape. He started up the car vowing to put the unfortunate experience behind him.

As he neared home, Frank found himself regretting his lifestyle. He’d always loved the free and easy life, no wife, no kids, no one to worry about except himself. Thinking of the empty house that awaited him put Frank in a reflective pensive mood as he drove into his driveway, parked his car and got out. Harry Gerken, his next door neighbor stood in his yard watering his flowers. “Hi, Harry. How’re you doing today?”

Harry never even turned to look at him. Either he was so absorbed in his work that he didn’t hear him, or he just didn’t fee l like answering. Harry had always been a good friend, so Frank chalked it up to old age and immersion in his task.

Frank climbed the porch steps, unlocked the door and let himself in. His house wasn’t very large, but had big open rooms. Sunlight streamed in the living room windows where the curtains parted.

He went upstairs to his bedroom, took off his work clothes and donned a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. While dressing, Frank had a strange feeling. He’d felt it as soon as he entered his house. The feeling, like a dark heavy burden hovered over him and weighted him down. It made it difficult for him to move from one place to another in his house. Frank was tethered like a ball on a pole to his home and he didn’t like the sensation, didn’t like it at all.

His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. Frank picked up the receiver but it continued to ring and even though he said “Hello, who is this,” it continued to ring.

Determined to call the phone company to report the malfunction, he replaced the hand set. Tomorrow would be soon enough to report it. He just wanted to relax for the rest of the day,  Pulling back the living room curtains he looked out at the sun drenched street and yards of his neighbors. Maybe he’d go out and sit on the porch for a few minutes, relax and enjoy the quiet spring day. The more he thought about it, the better the idea sounded.

Grabbing a glass of iced tea from the refrigerator, he headed out to the small cement stoop that served as his porch. Its black iron railings wrapped around inside itself. Frank had always liked that iron railing. The black color and curling of the iron gave the house a homier look than it had before he had put it there five years ago.

Sitting there lost in his thoughts, he heard a loud screeching sound and was surprised to see a black cat standing in front of him, its fur raised inches off its back.

He’d always liked animals although he didn’t have any pets. His work schedule demanded he be away from home a lot and he didn’t think he could put the time and effort and love into taking care of an animal.

Frank wished he had a pet now. Maybe he wouldn’t feel so alone. Maybe he should have gone back to the office instead of coming straight home, but after the accident, he thought maybe he’d better take it easy and make sure he didn’t have any injuries that might land him in a doctor’s office.

The cat still stood there, growling as he rose from the stoop and inched his way over to the animal to assure him that he wasn’t going to hurt him. Standing in front of the cat Frank slowly extended his hand. Just then, the cat let out another inhuman scream and ran away.

Frank stood up and looked after the animal. What had gotten into that cat? He’d never had that affect on animals before.

He looked at his watch and realized it was later than he had thought. Where had the afternoon gone? Soon the newspaper boy would ride up on his bike and throw the paper onto the porch. Frank wondered if there would be anything about his accident in there. Probably not, the driver had left and he hadn’t gotten hurt or required an ambulance. He had gotten up and left before they could answer the man’s 911 call. If the ambulance came at all, it was after he’d been long gone.

Sitting down on his porch again, Frank waited for the paper boy and didn’t have long to wait.  John Wilson, his paperboy rode up, and threw the paper into the yard. Frank waved at the boy but he didn’t wave back even though he looked right at Frank. John rode on after barely pausing to throw the paper.

He got up and walked to the middle of the yard and picked up the paper. Taking it back to the house, Frank picked up his empty iced tea glass and entered his house, closing the screen door carefully behind him.

Walking slowly into the kitchen, Frank rinsed his glass out and put it rim side down in the dish drainer.  He’d read the paper later. It was time for supper, but he didn’t feel hungry. Maybe he’d skip tonight and just watch TV until bed time.  Bed time? When was the last time he worried about that?

At the end of the day Frank usually stopped at O’Malley’s on his way home for a drink or two. More often than not he didn’t come back alone. That’s probably the reason he felt so lonely today coming into an empty house. He hadn’t remembered feeling that way before, just today.

That’s alright; things would straighten out tomorrow once he got back to work. He should have gone in after the accident. He was alright, not a broken bone on him and no aches and pains. He felt pretty good for being knocked down by a truck racing the clock.

He watched a drama on TV and then the tail end of the news, something about an accident, but he didn’t catch the whole thing, just something about a hit and run driver. Maybe that was the driver who hit him. Frank wondered if they caught him/her yet. It didn’t matter. It turned out alright, but he certainly didn’t want that guy doing that again to someone else, they might not be so lucky.

As the night wore on, Frank discovered he wasn’t a bit tired so he decided to stay up and have a few beers. Maybe that would make him sleepy, but after three drinks, he still was no more tired than he had been earlier.

He lay down on the couch and tried to rest while watching a scary movie on TV. The cable stations were on all night so he kept it on hoping the droning voices would tire him even more.

Frank turned off the TV and went into the kitchen to make coffee. The sun was just peeking out of the clouds and after a quick shower, he felt more refreshed.

After two cups of coffee he debated whether to eat breakfast or not. He still wasn’t hungry and hadn’t eaten since the lunch yesterday, but there was no sense in eating if he didn’t have an appetite. By lunch time he’d probably be famished.

Checking the kitchen wall clock, he saw he’d better get going. He didn’t want to be late, especially since there might be some repercussions from his hooky-playing yesterday afternoon.

Grabbing his briefcase and leaving the house, Frank felt a strange pulling sensation but tried to ignore it as he walked to his Jeep, opened the door and slid behind the wheel.

Minutes later, he noticed cars pulled over to the side of the road and a crowd gathered in a circle as if hiding something. An ambulance, fire engine and two police cars also were on the scene, the policemen directing traffic around the accident.

Frank recognized this place as where the hit and run driver got him. Maybe the driver came back and hit someone else. He hoped that they got him this time.

Climbing out of his car, he slowly walked over to where the crowd gathered. As he got closer he felt the pull even stronger, like a magnet drawing him closer.

It wasn’t hard for him to squeeze in between the thinning crowd. The paramedics hovered over the body listening for a breath and taking vital signs until one of the men said.

“He’s gone. We’ve done what we can.”

Frank felt the force pull him down and inside the body of the man lying in the middle of the street. His expensive suit was torn and dirty In his right hand, he held a fortune cookie with a blank paper  flapping in the gentle breeze.
















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Shem Dating Service by David Macpherson

Jun 15 2014

“I did the speed dating nightmare,” Sharon said. “The last one was in the basement of the synagogue. The rabbi was acting like he was a combination of yenta and football ref. He was encouraging us to talk truly and then he blew his whistle when the time was up. Have you done it?”

Mish laughed, “Yeah. The thing with speed dating is that it does exactly what it promises, you learn the true nature of a lot of men in a brief moment. The problem is that what I learned is that most guys are shallow, useless monsters who can only remember how much cleavage you had showing when the time was up.”

“Or they talk so much you realize that they have nothing to say. On the other hand, the greasy guys who will stop and go, but enough about me, tell me about you. I am sure all they are thinking is…”

Mish jumped in and said, “Cleavage. That’s all. You know, I gave up all that. I gave it up like bad luggage. I joined another service.and its not going to get you a nice husband, it ain’t even going to get you a nice soul mate to look forward. They promise company. It works for me.”

Sharon put down her glass, “That sounds a little escorty to me Mish. I don’t think I’m going to be looking for Richard Gere in American Gigolo. Though if I ever did, he’s the guy I’d order from the menu.”

Mish smiled. “It’s not like that. Blondie is singing Call Me on the soundtrack. It’s a company I heard about from a speed dating night. This woman told me about it. It’s Shem Dating Service.”

“Shem. The names of God? They are not a modest service, are they?” Sharon pushed her glasses back on the ridge of her nose. which was the thing she did when she found herself uncomfortable and interested all at once, though not sure why she was feeling that..

“Is that what shem means? I wish I knew things. Oh well, they are a nice little group. They set you up with, hold on, I can say it. They set you up with simulacrums.”

“Okay, Mish, you got me. I know what shem means, but you go big latin words, I’m out.”

“Simple word then. Golems. They make golems. It’s clay, but they look good. They set you up with a good Jewish golem and they are everything you need them to be. I think I got their card.”


Linda El was dressed in a good charcoal suit and spread out the brochures in front of Sharon. “First, you must forget about all you saw in the old movies or maybe in the stories you bubbe might have told. The giant slab of clay wrecking Poland. That’s not what we do with Shem. We use special glazes and these golems are handsome, lifelike companions. They talk, tell tales, listen and are pleasant to be with. This is not a torrid service. We believe that we free the modern woman from struggling with dating, and always having to worry about the man they are seeing. We create good men.”

Sharon shook her head slowly. “So they aren’t hulking walking ceramic bowls with hebrew letters written on their foreheads.”

“Not anymore.We put the written shem, the name of god that brings life, in a slit in the back of their neck. The shem actually transforms the glazed surface into something like skin. They are supplied with good teeth and hair. These are not husbands, they are someone who can have dinner. watch television with, be warm and companionable. Think of our gentle golems as the best of dating and solitude combined. Just a reminder. They become inactive on the sabbath, so Friday night and Saturday day, they do not move or interact, But think of that as a time to expand yourself, do things for you. See friends, read a book.”

Sharon stacked the brochures into a pile and then pushed her glasses up her nose. “This is crazy. I can’t believe what you are saying. And I also can’t believe that I am going to ask you how much the subscription is.”

“Before we talk the membership fees to access all our services, let me give you a free sample. You can have a complimentary date of up to eight hours with one of our standard golem models.”


He was to be called Joseph. He was tall and slender and spoke in a quiet lilt. It was an accent that Sharon could not place. She thought, this is how clay and dirt speaks, soft and grounded. They had dinner at a Thai place, though Joseph seemed to push the food around instead of eating. They strolled down to the movie and saw something she picked. He laughed at the right places, he seemed sad at the deathbed scene.

They kissed near midnight at the town gazebo and she was almost disappointed that it didn’t taste of clay or dirt. It tasted more of moonlight and antique words from an old language. He did not ask to be let upstairs or worried about her number or her email. He just smiled contentedly like a cherub statue and walked her home in the peaceful knowledge there was no inherent need or insistence, only a nice night out with someone pleasant.


She called up Linda El and had her send over the papers to sign up for the deluxe membership. She was going to have a pick of available golems. All golems in all forms for her disposal, though she was not quite sure..


The golem Noah was in her bed, sleeping soundly. He snored like gentle rocks, she thought. She had been his pick for the past several weeks. He felt warm and solid next to her. She was never afraid. He slept like he was formed in the bed, part of the landscape. Sharon asked him to tell her a story earlier and he did. It was about the trickster Joha and his family. He laughed at the punchline, but Sharon just smiled. There were lessons in old stories that she had a hard time finding.

The moonlight hit his back and he looked like he was from a black and white movie. He continued his tectonic breathing, she felt safe. Sharon got up, found her glasses, and went behind the sleeping form of Noah. She ran her finger up and down the back of his neck and then found it. She found a seam about an inch long at the bottom of his neck. She pushed two fingers in and felt the piece of paper. She pinched it between her fingers and removed it from the golem in her bed. There was a slight twitch from Noah and then he broke down into dust. It was all that remained, dust.

It took her two hours to clean up the mess that he left behind. When all the dust was cleaned up, she examined the sheets. They were not worth saving, so Sharon tossed them into the trash. She put on a clean set of sheets and slept well and comfortably.


Linda El, from the dating service, was not happy. “Of course the package you purchased allows from the golem to be destroyed. But you removed the shem, you did this on purpose. Why did you do that? Noah couldn’t have done anything untoward or incorrect?”

Sharon said, “No, not at all, he was perfect. It couldn’t get any more perfect, which is why I did it. I wanted to finish the feeling, the moment I was having.”

Linda El paused, began to speak and stopped. After another span of time she said, “The reason you do such things is, of course, your choice, whether it makes sense or not. I will not be sending any additional golems to you, though you will still have to fulfill your contractual obligation of seven more monthly payments.”

“I was going to cancel anyway. I feel satisfied.”

Linda El said again, “You do have seven more monthly payments on your contract.”

Sharon smiled at a distant thought, “That’s fine.”


Sharon and Nic met at the grocers. It was too cute to even admit to. They were awkward for the entire first date. She tripped while walking to the restaurant. He spilled a water pitcher over the entire table. It was that kind of date. His hands were clammy, he stuttered when he was nervous.

Sharon pushed her glasses up and said, “Sold.”

But almost every evening, before she would kiss him goodnight, Sharon ran her finger around the back of his neck. Only when feeling nothing like a seam or scar or obvious flaw, she would surrender and close her eyes and touch his lips with hers.

David Macpherson lives in Central Massachusetts. He has published short work in Every Day Fiction, Linguistic Erosion, Haggard and Halloo, 365 Tommorrows, among other publications.

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GOD’S CLAY by Jake Walters

Jun 08 2014

              Joe was looking for a white house, small, at the edge of a village called Hamilton somewhere in Pennsylvania, not that he knew where Hamilton was, or Pennsylvania, for that matter; this land was all just trees and dusty roads and streams and fallen leaves to trudge through.  When he was thirsty he crouched at the brook and cradled his hands in the water and raised them to his cracked lips in the same way he had done since he could drink by himself.  He had never used a cup.

The people that lived in the white house would help him.  They were named Mr. and Mrs. Dodge.  They had helped others like him to hide, to get something good to eat, to rest, and then they had pointed them in the right direction further north.

At night Joe walked along roads, directed by a vague sense inside him of where he was going and by the moon and stars and the direction of the wind—what mattered, he supposed, was not that he got to the white house, because he knew there were other houses like it, but that he put distance between himself and the place he was coming from.  He was alone, which worked against him, he figured, but he could not risk coming with others.  They would make noise.  They would ask questions.  They would die.

There, in that place that he was coming from, sometimes they were brought back, they who had gone far indeed and then had been caught, lucky to escape the rope or a fate even worse, and hauled to their masters, where they were forced to hold onto a pole and were whipped for hours, their screams searing the night.  Joe spent a few nights fully alert, curled up on the hard wooden floor, listening.  Each strap was a crack as clear as a bucket of water splashed in the face.  The screams came later, but they always screamed, eventually.  And then, after a few days, they were out with the rest of them, digging, picking, planting, carrying, their faces cast down, their steps careful, as if by merely breathing wrong they would be brought back to the shed to receive the treatment again.  And, maybe they would.

But after some time, they started to talk; about how they had gotten away, about what the world was like outside of there.  And, once, one of them said, “I never made it that far, but you get up to Hamilton, Pennsylvania, you look for a white house.  Man there named Dodge.  He help you.”  That was the first time Joe even thought about escape, in a serious kind of way.  Oh, he had dreamed, as had all of them, about how it would be to sprout wings one fine day and take off into the air, and look down on their hell and then to flit off wherever his heart felt.  But his business was not so clean.  No wings.  Only tattered shoes and mud, and swimming across rivers by instinct because he had never properly learned how, and running crouched over so that he could not be easily seen.

After two days, he could sense them on his trail.  Dogs, men on horses, the law.  He knew that if the dogs got to him first, they would rip at his legs and genitals like ravenous monsters.  The men were not necessarily better.  And he knew that all he could do then would be to curl up into a tight little ball and hope for death, sure that it would mercifully come, but by what means, and when, a mystery.  But he never saw his pursuers.  He did not know how it was supposed to work.  If they would wait for him in the next village, or if they would overtake him in the forest and string him up to a tree.  He always assumed the latter, but now, in fleeing, he supposed some of the game was in the waiting to see.

When the sun broke over the horizon in the morning he walked a little deeper into the woods and found a hollow place to sleep for a few hours, covering himself with brush and branches and mud.  When he cocooned himself inside he allowed himself to pray a few words, his eyes still searching through the branches for intruders, his ears still alert for the sound of footsteps and heavy canine breathing.  When he did drift off, he did not know if it could be technically called sleep, but rather some kind of slow-state, where there were no colors or smells, no future, no past.  He liked that time the most.  It was when he felt most free.

When evening crept back in he brushed himself off and continued on his chosen route, trying to keep the road in his peripheral vision, but finding it nearly impossible because there was no traffic, not at night.  Sometimes a falling branch sounded like a command: “Stop!”  And his heart would freeze for that moment, terrified, and a primal wound opened in him and he would decide, without really deciding, whether to obey or not.  Before discovering whether or not he would run, it would dawn on him in a wash of relief that there was nobody in these woods except for him, that nature was playing tricks on him, and his veins would slowly cool again until he could breathe normally.

Joe lost track of his days and nights until they were all just a period of moving slowly and hiding, foraging for berries and grass and water from the stream, which sometimes wound deep into the woods and after a half-day of walking would reappear like a recaptured slave.  Its water was clear and cold.

He had memorized the way it was written: Hamilton.  After some long age of wandering, he saw it from a distance scrawled on a sign at a bar, and despite not being able to read, he recognized the H and its brethren letters immediately, and he knew that this was his village.  Hamilton, Pennsylvania.  He emerged from the woods in the morning, just enough light to see and to give himself away by.  Men were gathered around horses, chewing tobacco and smoking.  They watched him as he neared them, and he knew that they knew who he was.  He was a black man, sneaking out of the dark forest.

“Hey,” one of them called to Joe.  “You.”

“Yes sir,” Joe responded automatically.

“What are you doing?”

These were the first people he had spoken with since his flight—except for God, not that He was a person.  “I’m going home,” he said without thinking.

The men nodded slowly.  “And where is home?” one of them asked.  “You look lost to me.”

“I ain’t lost,” Joe responded.  “But I got to talk to Mr. Dodge.”

“I figured it,” the man said.  “You’d be better off turning tail and heading back.”

The thought was an excruciating one, like sticking his bare hand into a fire.  That was a sensation he knew from experience.  To imagine going back of his own free will, his legs functioning, his eyes able to move in their sockets and look upon whatever they saw with joy, his lungs able to suck air in their own time and at their rhythm, not rushed nor labored; to leave these things behind was an impossibility.  “No,” Joe said, unaccustomed to telling any white man no.  “I need to see Mr. Dodge.”

“All right then,” the man said.  A smile stretched across his lips and his face looked decimated, a skull smiling.  “Head on down the main road.  Last house on the right.  Clear out of town.”

“Thank you, sir,” Joe said, setting off.  He put the men behind him as quickly as possible, the muscles in his shoulders and back tensed, waiting for stones to strike him, already listening for the cruel laughter that would accompany this.  But when he screwed up the courage to glance back at them, they were already gone.  “Good,” he muttered.  Maybe they were not bad men.  But they all were, in one way or another, it was just that with some it took more digging to find out how.

The village consisted of a few small shops, some houses, a post office and a couple more bars.  He recognized his word, Hamilton, several times as he walked.  He saw in the faces of men and women and children an odd curiosity as he passed their gardens and lawns.  He felt something like a mule being shown and somehow this treatment was just as bad as where he had fled from.  Sometimes he thought he heard whispers as he passed, but when he dared look at whomever had spoken, no lips were moving—just that cold stare, curious but anxious for him to pass.

He put the village behind him and the house, small, stood like a jewel at the base of a gentle hill.  The grass was long and in the full and green garden there was a bare-backed man crouched at his crop.  Joe stood for a moment at the road, staring—he had never seen a white man do this kind of work before, and the way the muscles and tendons in his back stretched across his shoulders was just like a black man, except that the skin was pink and obviously sweaty.  The man raised his head to the air, as if sniffing, and then turned and saw Joe watching him.

“Can I help you?” the man called out, standing without difficulty.

Joe did not know what to say.  I hope so.  Please.  He took a tentative step toward the man, aware now of the sun, the slight breeze, the fact that despite his clothes he was naked.  “My name is Joe,” he called, his voice cracked.  “Are you Mr. Dodge?”

The man’s face broke into a bright grin.  “Call me Steve,” he said, striding toward him.  “I bet I know why you’re here.  Right?”

“I reckon so,” Joe said.

“I’ve helped a bunch of you before,” he said, now standing only a few feet in front of Joe.  He was a tall man and despite being white his face was dark.  Joe had the impulse to take his own shirt off and offer it to him, but he beat it down within himself—it was a stupid notion, that a white man would accept it, that it was reasonable to offer it.  “Why don’t you come in?”

Joe took one last look about him: the road, stretching off deeper into Pennsylvania, the blue sky, the clouds skittering above him.  He was not sure he could give it up.  But he felt something crumble inside himself, a kind of wall, and then there were hot tears pooling in his eyes, and he realized that this was what he wanted, what he needed.  To give it up, to let someone take him and take care of him.  He stepped onto Steve’s lawn.

“You hungry?” Steve asked.

“Oh boy, am I,” Joe responded.

“Well, follow me.”  Steve wiped his hands on his trousers as he led Joe into the small white house.  It was cool and dark inside, cramped but not in an unpleasant way.  His master had had a much nicer home, a mansion really, and Joe had only been inside a few times, mostly to move some of the larger furniture from one sun-soaked corner of the sitting room to another.  But he liked this house much better.  “Why don’t you sit at the table?” Steve said, indicating a stool pulled up to a wooden table.  “I’ll have my wife fix something up.”

“Steve?” Joe heard.  It was a woman’s voice.  “We got company?”

“Yes, we do.”  He winked at Joe, and Joe felt instantly embarrassed.  A trim young woman entered the kitchen hurriedly, crimping her hair.  “His name is Joe.  He needs our help.”

“I’m Hannah,” she said, curtseying ever so slightly.  “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

As a force of habit, he looked down and away from her feet as he spoke to her.  “The pleasure is all mine, ma’am.”

“Why don’t you fix some stew for Joe?” Steve said.  “I have to go finish up in the garden.”  For a terrifying moment, Joe thought that Steve would wink at him again as his wife turned to the stove.  But he was already out the door and in the sunshine.

“How long have you been running?” she asked, rattling pans.

“I don’t know.  Seemed like forever.”

She nodded.  Her hair slid against her back.  “We got one come all the way up from Georgia before.  I can’t even imagine it.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Joe said.  “First time I was ever on my own like that.”

She turned to look at him for a moment before returning her attention to her work.  “A lot of them say that.  They been cramped up with everyone else all their lives, they didn’t even know what it was like to be alone for a minute.  To have only your thoughts to keep you company.”

“And God,” Joe said.

“Yes, of course.  Sometimes I think He brings you here.  Because He knows.”

Joe wanted to tell her how alone he was, even on the plantation.  He had many friends, and of course everyone knew him.  Many of the older ones had sat around in the evening laughing at him running around naked as a baby.  But he was alone, regardless.  When he was picking, or digging, the only things that existed for him were his sore hands, or the shovel, scraping some insignificant hole into the earth.  Even the master disappeared.  That was how he survived, really.  Any other way, and he would have jumped up at his snide remarks and his whip, wrapped it around his sunburned neck, and squeezed with all his strength until his face turned purple or his head popped off like an apple being plucked from a tree.  “Well, I’m glad I found the place,” Joe said.

“So am I,” Hannah said, already stirring something wonderful in a giant pot.

Steve came in after a few more minutes and their conversation took a quiet turn.  Of course, Joe would never have even spoken to a white woman before, and his sense of danger, now a thing finely tuned inside him, would have been screeching even at being alone in a room with one.  But he was in Pennsylvania now, and so their conversation had a different texture.  It was as though Hannah did not want to let on to her husband that they had been speaking about anything more important than the soup.  It was a kind of secret she and Joe shared, and it made him nervous and excited him at the same time.

They ate.  Joe, ravenously.  He felt sick afterward, unable to properly move, but it was a good pain, a kind he had never known, picking scraps off the salty strips of meat the master sometimes threw them around Christmas.  They drank coffee afterward, and it was the first time Joe had ever had any.  He did not understand why men loved it so—it was bitter and hot and did not mix well with his insides.  But he was energized, and it encouraged him to broach the most important subject.  “So,” he said, “where do I go from here?”

Hannah and Steve looked at each other.  “What is the hurry?” Steve asked him.

“Well,” Joe said, contemplating his answer carefully.  “I want to get settled somewhere as soon as I can.  I got a life to get living.”

Steve laughed, which Joe took as a good sign.  Hannah said, “Of course, but surely you want to rest a few days?  You can’t have it in mind to leave too soon.”

“I would hate to get in the way,” Joe said.

“We’ve had runaways stay for a long time,” Hannah said.  “How long did the one stay, Steve?”

Steve nodded his head slowly, and for some inexplicable reason Joe felt an unpleasant tingle rush down his spine.  “A real long time,” Steve finally answered softly.  Now he was staring at Joe, and Joe shifted on his stool.

“Maybe I’ll take a little nap, if that’s all right,” Joe said, imagining himself crawling out a window and running away, but knowing that he would not, because beyond Hamilton, he knew nothing.  He still needed their help.  The problem was that he was starting to feel trapped, and he wondered if there was any place on earth where he would no longer feel that way.

“You can sleep in our bed,” Steve said brightly.  This was a thing Joe could not even fathom.  A white man and woman, giving their bed to a runaway slave?  Joe was about to object as a natural reaction but Steve ordered his wife, “Show him where.”

She nodded once and stood from the table, and Joe followed her.  It was a small house indeed, and their room was the first that Joe and Hannah came upon.  Joe saw a curious room with a narrow door in the back of the house, and he was about to ask what it was for, but Hannah interrupted by saying, “You just sleep for as long as you need to.  You need your rest.”

“This is awful kind of you,” Joe said.  “I didn’t think I would ever sleep in a bed.”

She left him alone and he slid under the sheet fully clothed.  He had often tried to imagine what it would be like to lay in such comfort.  After a few minutes, he crept out of the bed, laid on the floor, and fell asleep.


In the early morning, he roused himself awake and listened to the intense silence of the house.  This was when he would be waking into his public morning ritual, along with the rest of the slaves; all of them yawning, stretching, peeing and shitting just outside, trying to find enough light within themselves to stumble to the fields, or the house where they would cook and clean, for another day, given away for nothing, no returns on their time, no love, no purpose.  The saddest part was always the biggest perspective; Joe could handle the work easily, but working with no opportunity for love was like planting gardens in the desert sand, and it was the thing that finally made him run away—not the love he hoped he might find in a woman, or in making a child with her, but any human love that he could freely express.  It was a dream he knew existed, somewhere.  Back on the plantation, that was what Hamilton meant to him.

He sat up and stretched, and then stood and started toward the door.  Quietly—he did not want to wake his hosts.  He would step outside and breathe some free air and wait for them.

Just outside the bedroom he glanced toward the strange room that had caught his eye the day before.  The door was cracked open, a slit of sharp morning light stabbing into the darkness beyond.  Going somewhere in a white man’s house without his permission was akin to stealing a horse, and he could be hanged for it, probably even in Pennsylvania, but still, something drew him there, step by silent step, until he was just outside.  He listened carefully for the sounds of breathing, because he did not want to enter the room if Steve and Hannah were sleeping there.  Such a thing was unthinkable.  But there were no sounds, and so he slowly pushed the door open.

There was enough gray morning light to barely see by.  The room was empty but for a sturdy table in the middle.  Joe could discern shapes, lumps, and his mind scratched for some solid hold as to what they might be, even as he knew.  But still he needed to go closer, to see, to feel, to know.  And he did go closer, his knees weak, his lips trembling, bladder about to open.

The biggest lumps were two naked legs, one presumably male, the other female; an entire ribcage, laying like the frame of a burned-out ship; arms, but with separated hands, all from different donors; and a face created from too many people—eyes, lips, cheeks, teeth, a fat, bloody nose, all of them laying slightly askew so that it looked like God had created a man while under the influence of some powerful drug.  Joe was drawn toward the eyes.  He never knew eyes were that big in a person.

A noise from behind him.  Joe spun around.  Hannah stood in the doorway, her hands grasping the frame, her legs wide, blocking his exit.  “Steve,” she screeched, her voice high and thin like an attacking alley cat.  “He found it.”

Then the sound of someone rolling out of sleep, and the quick shuffling of feet.  “What?” Steve cried as he appeared behind his wife.  “What are you doing here?” he demanded of Joe, pushing past his wife but not entering the room.

Joe began to stutter.  He could think of nothing to say—indeed, what was he doing here?  “What is this?” he finally managed to ask, trying to creep away from the table and its gruesome setting at his back, but afraid to move closer to Steve and Hannah.

“It’s our slave,” Hannah said, her voice coming from behind Steve’s broad shoulders.

“Quiet,” Steve snapped.  “It’s nothing.”

But now Hannah moved past her husband.  “We might as well tell him,” she said.  “It’s kind of like building a man from clay,” she said evenly, “except it’s God’s clay we are using.”  She moved close, and he felt like a ghost was brushing near him when she put her fingers on the tabletop and let them skim over it like leaves on a pond.  “We take a part from each runaway that comes through.  And when he’s finished, he’ll be ours.”  She paused for a long moment and Joe had the horrifying thought that she would start to recount from whom they had stolen each limb: Remember that nigger we took the left hand from?  How he screamed!

“Why?” Joe croaked, aware that Steve was inching closer now.

“We don’t condone slavery in Hamilton,” Hannah said, putting her hand on Joe’s shoulder.  He had never been touched by a white woman and now he shivered.  “But it isn’t slavery if we create him.”

Now Steve was at his side, and he too put his hand on Joe’s shoulder.  Joe looked down once again at the morbid collection on the table.  “Only one part remains, and then he will be alive,” Steve said.  “He needs a heart.”

Joe felt his own heart burn with fear as he swung his massive right fist out at Steve, connecting with his temple.  Steve crumpled to the ground like a bag of ashes, and Hannah screamed: “No!”  Joe wanted to run out of the house, north, south, it did not matter to him; but he kicked Steve in the throat, and then in the face, over and over, his foot sinking into the softer parts and cracking against the harder parts, each stomp a blessing, a spit in the face of any master, anywhere.  Steve’s wife was still screaming, and when he was satisfied that Steve was dead, he turned to her.

“Don’t,” she said, cocking her head and backing up, her eyes gleaming.  “Please don’t.”

He did.


Henry had heard in the week before his slipping off the plantation grounds that he should look for a small, white house in Hamilton, Pennsylvania, should his path take him there.  There were other suggestions, too, from those that had been around and shipped back: places in New York, even risky houses in Kentucky, places where at least he could eat something and lay his head down for a few hours before resuming his flight north.  Not that he wanted to run, because there was a kind of safety where he was, despite the roaches and the snakes, the sun bearing down on them, the whip.  But he had to run.

He kept to the woods, moving at night; he imagined that other, successful runaways, had done the same, and that he was following some kind of sacred trail in their footsteps.  He hid under fallen trees to sleep during the day, and once he climbed into the branches of a tall tree and dreamt there.  He never moved when he slept, probably because he had always laid between two other sweaty slaves at night, and if he rolled into one of them he was bound to get smacked upside the head.

It appeared from nowhere, like a mirage, a forest clearing—Henry could not read, but he recognized the word he had scratched once in the dirt with his grimy, sore index finger: HAMILTON.  He remembered how he had wiped it away immediately after writing it, afraid some white man would see it and thrash him, how he had spread dirt over it after it was erased, as if the evidence could never be fully cleared away.

He saw no one as he walked through the village, which seemed strange to him.  The stores, the bars, the post office, all empty, as if they had been fled from at the feet of Armageddon.  A couple of horses, walking freely down the main street, whinnied as he walked past them.  “Hey fellas,” he crooned to them.  “Where is everybody?”  He thought he saw something like terror in their gigantic, otherwise calm eyes.

The village was behind him in minutes, and there, set back just a stone’s throw from the main road, was a small white house.  He knew it was the house, but something told him to keep walking.  He squinted and saw movement in the garden, but whomever was working there was crouched low, his face in the soil.

“Hey!” Henry heard.  He looked toward the house and saw a black man coming toward him, grinning.  “You need some help?”

“I was looking for a Mr. Dodge,” Henry said.  He saw the black man glance toward the garden at the name, Mr. Dodge.  “Who are you?” Henry asked.

“My name is Joe.”

Now the man in the garden seemed to finally be aware that there was company.  Slowly he rose, like a weed growing, and shambled over toward where the men were speaking.  His clothes were in tatters, so much so that he was practically naked, and his arms and legs were pink and black and raw, like he had been hideously burned.  The man’s eyes darted independently of one another and his curly hair was streaked with mud.  With dawning horror, Henry saw that this monster’s face hadn’t just been in the dirt.  It had been eating it.

“Don’t mind him,” Joe said, whacking the beast with his palm.  A bit of skin sloughed off.  “He’s just my slave.”  Joe watched after it as it lurched back toward the garden, finally collapsing there onto its knees, its face low to the ground like an anteater’s.  “Say, you look hungry,” he said, smiling.  “How’s about I get my woman to fix something up for you?”

Henry watched the thing for a moment as it sniffed in the garden, and he imagined what Joe’s wife might look like, who she must be.  And he said, “Can you just tell me which way north is?”  Joe shrugged, and pointed, and Henry hurried away.  By the time he had walked a few miles, he knew two things: he was sure that none of Hamilton had been real, and he was sure that he had finally escaped.


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