Something doesn’t feel right for Sid.
It wasn’t the morning. Nothing went wrong then. Sid slept perfectly well. His wife even woke up around the same time and the two made passionate love, more passionately than ever before. It was as if their bodies were listening to each other and responding accordingly. So that was awesome… was it work? Sid did arrive late but since he was usually on time his boss completely understood. She even complimented his work from the previous day and talked about giving him a raise.
It must have been his co-workers then. He hated a few of them and he was sure there were a few that hated him back. One of them must have said something, done something to piss him off. But no. Each one was nice, hospitable, and even pleasant. And on the way home – sugar on top – people actually let him into their lane without flipping him the finger.
But something doesn’t feel right.
Was it his night class? It had to be. One of the professor’s readings must have concluded in a caustic debate that Sid was included in. Today the professor was reading a couple of short stories. After the first story was read, this student – a real moron – raised his hand. This guy always managed to piss people off. That was the thing that he did. He had to be the catalyst.
“Well I feel the story is kind of bad.”
Sid licked his lips. This was it. Give it to him professor.
“Sorry to hear that… is there any particular reason?”
“Well to me it doesn’t work,” the student challenged.
The professor looked back at the student. “I think it does. I think the use of language, punctuation and metaphor choices are nothing short of brilliant.”
“I… I guess… I think I just needed more description to get a better picture of what was going on and I think the author did a poor job with the ending… I am sorry for disagreeing professor.”
Now the professor finally looked a little angry. “Please do not apologize. Great ideas come from open discussion and intellectual back-and-forth. Thank you for sharing your opinion; maybe you will like one of his other stories better.”
And that was the end of the discussion: a respectful exchange of words. No complaints. Compliments? So then what went wrong? Was it one of the other stories the professor read that gave Sid this feeling? Nope. No one fought. There was only a free exchange of opinions. Nothing went wrong. Sid’s day was coming to a close, or concluding if you want to make the point crystal clear.
But something still doesn’t feel right for Sid. It was as if he awoke in a parallel world. On the way home he racked and wracked his brain. What is wrong then? What is wrong, wrong, wrong… that’s it! Suddenly Sid realized the problem. It’s this story he was in, nothing went wrong. You cannot have a story without conflict. When Sid realized this he knew what he had to do. He parked his car in the middle of the street, got out and shoved a stranger. Conflict must occur. The stranger did nothing. Sid shoved him again and called him a “fucker”. People don’t like being called “fuckers”.
The stranger looked at Sid concerned. “Are you alright sir?” Sid looked at the kind eyes of the stranger; he could not push him anymore.
“Yeah I’m fine, thanks for asking.”
“Are you sure? I will listen if you need someone to talk to?”
The stranger gave Sid a kind hug and continued down the street. What a bastard, Sid thought, I will have conflict. He went home to his wife. They have had vehement arguments in the past. It was simple: insult, argue, make-up, end of story. And he might even get the bonus of make-up sex.
“You’re a stupid slut,” Sid said to his wife as he walked through the door.
“Is this a sex game?” his wife asked unabashed, “I’m a naughty whore; you want to handcuff and punish me?”
That could be fun, Sid thought… no conflict. We need conflict.
“You’re supposed to fight with me.”
“Oh… you’re the naughty boy… do you want me to punish you.”
“I’m insulting you.”
His wife looked at him with a blank stare. “Why?”
Sid did not have an answer. “I don’t know.”
“Oh… do you want to talk it through.”
“No,” Sid sulked.
“Do you want to have sex?”
Sid was getting angry. “What is wrong with you?” He gave his wife a disapproving shake of the head and stormed out of the house.
Conflict, conflict, conflict. That was it! These previous attempts were small, petty, he needed to go big. Very big. Gunfire down the street was big, fire a few in the air, wake up the neighbours, the cops come, spend the night in jail… maybe even get assaulted by a larger inmate. Now that is conflict.
Sid remembered there was gun shop up the street that was open late, with wallet in hand, he jogged to the spot where the shop was, but it wasn’t. There was a flower shop where Sid was sure the gun shop once stood.
“Fucking hippies!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
We must have conflict! There has to be another gun shop in the area.
“Where do I buy a gun?” Sid asked a random woman walking by the street.
“A what?” the woman asked, with a look that suggested deep confusion.
“You’re kidding me right?”
“Why would I do that sir?” responded the woman as she blinked her innocence to Sid.
Sid was lost for words. Everyone has gone crazy. How can you live without conflict? Something has to be wrong. Has to be! He pushed passed the kind woman who only apologized for being in his way. There was not a gun shop anywhere. There had to be one. But his searching was futile. He would not find a gun anywhere in this city, or bullets, or even blanks. However a lack of fire power has never stopped humanity from hurting each other in the past: Sid would make a weapon. Make something sharp, break into a random house, rob, cops, jail, end.
Sid looked for somewhere that sells knives, bats, brass knuckles, cleats, something that would bludgeon. But no stores were open. Everyone was home, spending precious time with their families. What has this world come to?
Sid shambled home, defeated. This story was never going to end. He was doomed to make wild, judgement-free, mutual-pleasing love with his happy confident wife, listen to respectful debates and put up with the kindness of strangers. Fuck.
“There you are honey, I missed you,” his wife said as she wrapped her arms around him.
“Of course you did… you probably want to have sex now?”
“If you don’t mind… I can go without you if you’d like.”
“No…,” Sid said dejected. He might as well get this over with. Sid looked at his wife, whose pants did not make it up the stairs with her. Then he followed behind her, his head slumped: he failed at obtaining conflict. But then it hit him. This was the conflict! His inability to obtain conflict. Hero wants conflict, fights for conflict, fails. Classic tale. Something feels wrong so now everything feels right. And unfortunately, this story concludes with an unhappy ending. Then the two made long passionate love, each having multiple orgasms.
Something doesn’t feel right for Sid.
Something compelled her, that’s what she would tell the world later, when she was interviewed mere days before it all went to hell. But that was months later. And this is today. An ordinary, though stormy day.
AnnaMaria stepped out from under the protection of the stone archway, not really noticing the warm drops of rain that freckled her blouse. Thunder crackled faintly, far enough away it sounded more like someone crinkling wrapping paper. Within seconds her dark hair was streaming wet and sticking to her face and neck, but she couldn’t bring herself to seek shelter.
I’m so glad I came out. This is so beautiful, she thought, admiring the dark cotton puffs of the storm. A CRAAAAA-AAAACK made her flinch. And getting closer.
Brilliant white sparked directly above her.
Words, whispered in a thunder tender growl, touched her ears. She crumpled to the ground, graceful as a dry fall leaf, a smile frozen on her face, one that would have been beatific but was instead made grotesque by the blood dripping over her lips to the sidewalk.
Colors danced, stunning her with pink arabesques and yellow grand jetés. AnnaMaria reached out, wanting nothing more than to join the rainbow jubilee. She extended an arm, intending to grab hold of the next pulse before it could disappear. Instead of connecting with the brilliant blue, her fingers slammed into something unyielding and cold. Her mind jolted awake, and she became aware of a steady beeping. Then an alarm. Muffled, hurried footsteps that grew louder. A door swinging open. The footsteps stopping beside her.
She sensed someone hovering nearby, checking … something. A monitor, her brain told her, as it put all the sounds together. You’re in a hospital.
AnnaMaria blinked, trying to bring the someone – probably a doctor or nurse – into focus.
Yet the joyful colors remained.
She raised a hand, touching her face, expecting soft skin, but encountering gauze. She blinked more furiously, frantically, until tears ran down her cheeks. The beeps became more rapid, as did her breath, until she couldn’t catch up with it.
“Slow breaths,” the someone ordered. He her mind filled in, automatically creating a face to go with the kind voice. “That’s it, easy does it. Now, Ms. Sanchez, do you know where you are?”
AnnaMaria tried to speak, but her voice caught and rasped, until she finally choked out, “The hospital?”
A smile touched his voice. She heard a faint scrabbling sound. Pen on paper? “That’s correct. I’m Dr. Holloway. Now, I know this is cliché, but what’s the last thing you remember?”
She paused, the dancing colors slowing as she pieced together the last moments on her feet. “The storm? There was thunder and …”
“You are very lucky,” Dr. Holloway said, after scratching a few more notes. “Not many people survive a lightning strike.”
“Lightning? I didn’t see any …” AnnaMaria squeezed her eyes, only inciting the colors into a merry jig. “I can’t see,” she whispered. She raised a hand, touching her face, hoping for a thick swath of cloth, but her fingers found only skin. “I can’t see. I can’t see. I can’t see!” Her voice grew shrill as a hungry baby bird.
A warm hand gripped her shoulder, interrupting her frantic cries. “It may be temporary,” Dr. Holloway said. “We need to do more tests …”
But the truth clogged her ears to the rest of his reassurances. For somehow she knew it wasn’t temporary, and that no test would show anything. No reason for her sightlessness. No hope for curing it.
The chill of reality stripped her of all warmth and she shivered, pulling the thin hospital blanket to her breast. As far as she was concerned, it was a death sentence. How could she make a living reporting on the latest fuck-ups and fashion faux-pas of the wealthy and the famous if she couldn’t see them? And it wasn’t like she’d made any friends along the way; her stilettos had left a punctured trail of betrayal and lies as she’d clawed her way to the top. Now the vultures would all get their turns at her flesh and bones.
She rolled away from the doctor, not caring whether he stayed or left, the sting of tears along her cheeks the only company she wanted. When she finally drifted into an uneasy sleep, it was to the murmur of thunder rolling in the distance.
Weeks of counseling, both for her in-the-crapper mental health and to teach her how to cope with her new “situation,” did nothing to improve either. She couldn’t stop stewing and chewing over the shithole of her life. Not only was she … she couldn’t even think the word … Her boss had called the day after her accident to offer his well wishes, and for her to take all the time she needed to heal and adjust. And then, just before he hung up, he off-handedly mentioned that Marla Fucking Newton would be taking over her column for the foreseeable future.
AnnaMaria cringed. See. With only the company of the now-dead phone line, she realized she’d all-but been fired. Fired! Her. Something that fucker had been wanting to do since he squeezed his Twinkie-loving lardass into the manager’s chair last year. She could see – flinch – the corners of his greying pornstache fold into the pockmarked skin of his cheeks as he delivered the news, hanging up before she could react. And to double D Marla no less. The ass-kisser had been after her job for months. All those simpering compliments hadn’t fooled her. She’d accepted the busty bottle-blonde into her circle though; better to keep the competition as close as her black silk panties.
It had been all over the news, of course, with her show at the forefront. Marla had taken the lead to “break the big news to all you stunned viewers out there.” Stunned by her too-tight blouse, maybe. Though she couldn’t actually see it, AnnaMaria had experienced enough of the bitch’s wardrobe to know exactly what she’d worn to tell the world the good news.
Tears stung her eyes again. Dark pools of poison men around the country had claimed to drown in, to plunge into, to see eternity … the analogies were as endless and clichéd as the men giving them.
Once the gauze came off, Dr. Holloway promised her eyes were perfectly normal, at least on the outside. As for the insides … he ran test after test until she was numb from the crushing waves of hope he kept offering and told him to stick it.
Yet she was still blind. The word coated her tongue with lemon-rind bitterness. But at least she could say it now.
Out of habit, she reached for the lamp beside her bed to turn the light off. She caught herself this time. Last night she’d knocked a fucking pile of magazines to the floor; they were still there. Not that it made a difference, but she closed her eyes and took several long, slow breaths. Thunder rumbled, sending her heart into a wild tango.
She gripped the blankets until her knuckles hurt, hating the fear. Even as a child, she’d never feared the huge storms of her Floridan home, counting the seconds between lightning and thunder well into adulthood. Will I ever not be afraid?
Though she couldn’t see the flashes, her ears told her the storm was drawing closer as the sound of thunder became the roar of a dragon.
But the thunder wasn’t traveling alone. A soft sigh broke through the chaos, caressing her ears with velvet, wrapping her in the warmth of something she could only identify as love. It ran tendrils of honey-sweet words along her skin until she moaned in climax.
Blinking through the haze of intoxicating pleasure and belonging and unity, she bolted upright in bed. “Whoa! What the fuck?!” she whispered, clinging to the wispy fragments of the unexpected erotic dream.
She wasn’t expecting an answer. Let alone a full-on conversation.
“Something’s different,” Dr. Holloway muttered, tipping her chin from side to side as he performed the usually routine part of their weekly appointments. “How odd …”
AnnaMaria shrugged. “If you say so. Not like I can tell.” A total line of bullshit, but he didn’t need to know that.
The light he shone in her eyes flared through the veil of blindness. Yet it wasn’t the first hint of sight she’d experienced since the accident. It started after the – visit? Encounter? Molestation? – three nights ago from, well, from something, someone, she’d never thought possible.
His sigh was not subtle. “I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”
She shrugged again. “Not like you’d believe me anyway.” Especially since she didn’t believe it herself. To come to her, an ice queen, a happy-to-backstab bitch who took advantage of other people’s most embarrassing moments. Went looking for them. Created a few incidents, even. Just to get the “scoop.” So for – it? – to come to her was ludicrous. To claim that she, AnnaMaria Corvalis, was special? Chosen? Maybe she should check herself into the Psych ward while she was here.
Her mind sprung into a life of its own, creating sparks of thought faster than sand in an hourglass. She squeezed her eyes shut and dug fingernails into her scalp, desperate to gain control. Dr. Holloway was at her side as she slumped over, his cologne warm and comforting. Focusing on that, breathing it in as if it was more precious than oxygen, AnnaMaria opened her eyes and screamed.
He glowed. Ribbons of blue, green, and silver bathed the doctor in soft light. “Please let me help you.”
Trust him …
The thought was effortless, a drop of water sliding from a leaf. So she did. Without hesitation. She took his arm and let him guide her out of the small room to a table in the cafeteria. She let him bring her a cup of weak coffee. And when he hesitated taking the seat next to her, she smiled, but not the false smile she’d used to get a story or trick some fluff-brained celeb into sharing too much. No, this smile was genuine, demure, and for the first time in more than ten years AnnaMaria felt comfortable in her own skin.
With coffee-warmed fingers, she took one of his hands in hers. “Everything is different,” she said, seeing, sensing, his surprise; understanding it was at her sudden change in attitude, at her frankness. “A few nights ago, something … no, someone. Someone came to me. At night. It was personal. Close. Erotic …” She paused and raised an eyebrow. The colors dancing around him pulsed faster now, and were ever so slightly tinged with reds and oranges. Partly from concern, but mostly, and she couldn’t help the suggestive lick along her teeth. The reds flared briefly. Definitely aroused.
Ego-boosted, she straightened in her chair. Much as she was now curious to pursue this, him, thanks in no small part to the memory of that visit, there would be time for that later.
She sensed his curiosity, saw the blues darken as he waited for her to go on. “God came to me,” she said.
“Yes. And don’t look at me that way. Trust me, I’m no religious fanatic. The only time I ever believed was during a damn good orgasm. But yes, it was God.”
Dr. Holloway toyed with his coffee. She could hear the paper cup shifting on the cheap plastic table, saw the colors – his aura? – shifting with his movements.
“How do I know?” she interrupted. “I just do. And no, I wasn’t drunk, or on anything else. I wasn’t hallucinating. I wasn’t dreaming.”
“Ms. Corvalis …”
“AnnaMaria. Or Anna. Please.”
“Fine. Anna, it’s just … damn if I don’t believe you. Your eyes. They’re different.” He paused, and took her hand. “They’re iridescent now. Not much, but they almost shimmer …”
Her hand reached for her eyes. “And they weren’t like that before?”
The strong blues and greens around his head shimmied subtly. “No, and I had plenty of time to study them. Your eyes, I mean.” His coffee cup shifted around again. But AnnaMaria didn’t say anything, giving him time. She almost chuckled out loud. How unlike her, giving someone time to think. The old her would’ve stuck a microphone in his face and all-but beaten him with it until he gave her something worth taking to air.
“Did he say anything?”
This time she did laugh, not cruelly, but she couldn’t help it. “She had plenty say, but only one thing that’s for everyone.”
“Don’t even get me started. The woman bitch-sessioned for two fucking hours about how Her mate had ended up with all the credit. Not that She really minds, since they got it all wrong anyway. Men …” AnnaMaria couldn’t keep the smile from her face as the swirls around him shifted colors, the blues and greens deepening, threads of curious yellow changed into deep violets of understanding. And acceptance. Before he could ask, she said, “The message, one She wants everyone to know is that, well, They’re coming back.”
“Yes, They. God. Well, all gods. They left awhile ago. For reasons the human mind is not capable of understanding. Trust me, I tried.”
His colors changed suddenly, sharply, with worry. “All of them?”
AnnaMaria grabbed both of his hands. “Yes, but … She says it will be glorious.”
The message spread, slowly at first, for most chose not to believe. At first. Until They arrived. Then everyone believed. It was hard not to when every god ever prayed to returned. They didn’t appear all at once; it started as more of a slow trickle. One here, three there. The slow trickle quickly became a deluge, with major and minor deities popping up every few hours.
It was as if no time had passed, at least not to Them. Except They were no longer content to keep to their old territories. Apollo and Artemis were seen hunting in Canada. Anubis and Thor were spotted sunbathing on the beaches of Los Angeles. Loki, Puck, and Sun Wukong traipsed about the world creating blizzards in the jungles and hurricanes in the deserts. Zeus seduced his way around the world and back again.
Something had compelled her to go outside, she claimed, in an interview mere days before the world went to hell. More precisely, before it returned to the gods. Some mortals cowered in their basements, in denial of the war waging on their front lawns. Some joined in, swilling wine at bacchanals; orgies reigned supreme in newly erected shrines; the war gods took great delight in “games” involving nuclear warheads.
The humans, though kindly tolerated by some of Them, were really not needed in this brave new world. After years of being largely ignored and unloved until the humans needed something, the gods had decided to take back the earth. Bombs exploded overhead, accompanied by storms the like of which hadn’t ever been seen by human eyes. Towering mountain ranges erupted in the middle of New York City, Rio de Janeiro, and Paris, while a large lakes occupied the Sahara and Gobi deserts. The gods reorganized the world’s geological features on whims as fleeting as whispers, often in competition or argument.
AnnaMaria’s last thought, as the thunder gods tossed lightening bolts over them, was that she wished she’d asked thought to ask who it would be glorious for.
Jill Corddry started telling stories at an early age, and her parents get credit as the first to recognize her writing ability (and encouraged her accordingly). She even managed to use her BA in English for many years as a content writer for a few dot coms in Seattle. These days Jill finds a few spare minutes to write in between taking care of twin toddlers and soaking up the California sunshine. She has stories published in Lakeside Circus, Bewildering Stories, in the Demonic Possession anthology by James Ward Kirk Fiction, and an upcoming anthology by World Weaver Press. She is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and the California Writers Club.
Lorwin Leatherworker grew uneasy as the warm winds of the wastelands rustled his dark, flowing hair. It had been little over a day since their improvised caravan had left the ravaged village, the only home he had ever known. He was accompanied by a handful of fellow nervous villagers, the Elder Guard and their leader.
Most of them were silent, still in shock after the horrors they had witnessed the previous night. The guards marched them along on horseback with somber faces, likely thanking whatever gods they bowed to for delivering them from the task ahead.
None of the chosen had any useful training or actual experience in the art of battle. They were just simple peasants driven by their faith in the prophets of old and blind rage over their recent losses. Their baggy, worn clothes and rusty makeshift weapons were hardly ideal for traversing the deserted wastes, not to mention actual combat.
The shrieks of the giant scavenger birds above reminded Len of the horrible night; he and Wenda had been fast asleep in each other’s arms when the raid began. It was only a matter of minutes before the airborne demons had all but completely razed the once-quaint town, their black leathery wings fanning the flames that engulfed the villager’s defenseless homes of brittle straw and wood. Lorwen had come face to face with one of the horned aberrations when the roof over the bedroom collapsed on him and his beloved wife. The red-eyed creature had gazed at him curiously for a moment as it hovered over the burning house, and then flew off to continue with its siblings’ rampage on the dark, moonless night.
Lorwen had managed to drag his unconscious wife away from the flaming wreckage before joining the other desperate villagers in their futile attempts to put out the inferno and ward off the incoming attackers. It wasn’t long before all that remained were ashes and corpses as the flying beasts returned north before the night reached its end, leaving the devastated settlement behind.
It was only after sunrise that the sobbing had ceased, and the survivors began reclaiming their possessions from the smoking ruins. It had been ages since they had suffered an attack of this scale. As the peasants calmed down, the village Elder elegantly emerged from the smoke in tattered robes and began his speech, attributing the sudden attack to prophecies of old. He told the tale of the Great Beast, which had now awoken and had sent his heralds to announce his terrible return. Lorwen paid little attention to the faithful rambling, being more preoccupied with his wife’s failure to wake up.
In his fragile state of mind, he still harbored disdain for the talk of prophecies and monsters, but the townspeople cheered as the Elder offered them a solution to their woes. The prophets had long foretold that on the advent of such a tragedy, a small group of warriors would unite against the forces of the Great Beast and drive it back into oblivion from whence it came.
In the commotion, Lorwen hadn’t noticed the Elder approach his wife’s sleeping body. As he carefully touched her silky brownish hair with a wrinkly hand sporting various golden rings, he claimed that there was only one way to bring her back; appeasing the gods and fulfilling the prophecy.
God or no gods, Lorwen accepted the offer to become one of the Chosen Few. Whether for love or hate, he had embarked on the journey not for his people or his fallen brothers, but for Wenda Rivercrosser. However, he was certainly not alone in this endeavor, for three others had been chosen as well.
Leaving Wenda behind was not an easy task, but at least Lorwen had guaranteed she would be taken care of by accepting the Elder’s offer. A hero’s wife could not simply be left for dead, no matter her condition, he had thought. The best healers would certainly try their hand at aiding her recovery.
Lorwen and the other chosen warriors left the village as the priests had commanded; with only their present clothing and whatever crude weapons they already owned, as it was prophesized. And so the guarded caravan, led by the village Elder, parted soon after the break of dawn from the peaceful village towards an uncertain fate.
Though at first the group was accompanied by the greenery and wildlife of the southern Livelands, the heat and despair of the rocky north was soon upon them. The famished birds overhead were the only reminder of the natural world, now. Legends claimed that the north was once thriving with life, long before the dark magic of the Ancient Wars, though it was now hard to believe.
Lorwen adjusted his hand-made quiver and hunting bow, looking around at his fellow village folk. Having lived his entire life there, he knew most of them personally. Bal’nur Smithand was shambling to his right, as if in imaginary chains of grief. A large hammer, probably crafted by his own hands, was slung over his broad, unarmored shoulders. His eyes, however, contrasting with his imposing figure, were that of a frail, broken man. He had lost someone in the raid.
Up ahead trekked Farel Lakeson, who was borrowing a canteen from one of the guards. He had no living family in the village, so Lorwen wondered what would drive a homely merchant to enter such a perilous quest. Probably the potential rewards, he concluded.
The last of Lorwen’s companions travelled closely to the Elder’s horse. Marlon, son of Markon. He used to be in the city guard before falling into disgrace after wounding his fighting arm during a duel with a fellow guard, back when Len was a young lad. Still, the old one could be their savior. Despite his crippling injury and apparent uselessness as a guard, he still carried a proper blade.
As the ill-fated caravan drew nearer to a cluster of rocky hills, they saw the cracked metal entrance grow larger in the distance, rising up from the dry earth as an ebony tombstone. It was, for all intents and purposes, a gateway to the underworld. On the dusty soil they could find faint specs of blood; perhaps the city guard had not been entirely incompetent and had wounded some of the devils. It was more likely that the creatures had brought some reward back with them. Ahead of the massive entrance, the Elder signaled for them to stop. The guards on horseback formed a corridor leading up to their master. The four warriors approached him as they were summoned by name. Lorwen was the first to be called upon.
“Lorwen Leatherworker, step forth.”
Lorwen did as he was told. This was no time for hesitation or regrets. Even so, the old man’s condemning eyes were heavy with a condescending gaze. They told Lorwen his odds of returning with life were slim. The Elder continued:
“We leave you, the chosen, as you were on the crimson night, in the manner that the gods have commanded. May they watch over you.”
A red cross was painted on Lorwen’s chest with a foul smelling substance. He waited for the Elder to finish the ritual with the others, who were just as perplexed as he was. When they were ready for entry, a pair of guards dismounted their steeds and began to operate a complex system of gears and pulleys connected to the iron gate. The ancient tomb was slowly being unsealed, and Lorwen wondered how the Great Beast’s servants had escaped it in the first place.
When the grinding of ancient machinery ceased, a large wooden platform was revealed, suspended in the air by colossal chains of iron, leading downwards into the cavernous abyss. The chosen warriors reluctantly stepped onto the contraption and heard haunting echoes of their footsteps in the vastness below. A disturbing rumbling sound answered their entrance into the monstrous crypt.
The Elder solemnly waited for the ominous sounds to subside before lighting a torch and handing it to a startled Lorwen. He then quietly whispered into the warrior’s ear:
“Wenda Rivercrosser is in good hands.”
As Lorwen quietly nodded, the Elder stepped back, and the guards began turning the cogs once more, lowering the chosen few into their pitch-black fate. Bal’nur clutched at his hammer as if he intended to strangle it, breathing heavily. The others were in better control of their emotions, but equally frightened. Marlon stepped closer to the torch, with the flames exaggerating his already stern features. Farel, remarkably calm for a merchant, had one hand in his pocket as he stared at the blackness below.
Lorwen studied his surroundings, attempting to use the light from the torch to gauge the size of the chamber, but it was of no use. Nothingness surrounded them on all sides, and the light from the entrance was now no brighter than a lone star in the sky. The merchant then broke his concentration:
“Do any of you gentlemen happen to have a plan?”
These were the first words any of them had spoken to each other since their ordeal began, though Lakeson’s query was a useless one. After a few moments, Bal’nur replied:
“We go down, we kill what we find.”
The comment managed to silence them for a little while longer, at least until they heard fluttering and bizarre chirping in the distance. Lorwen was about to draw his bow when Marlon interrupted, placing his good hand on the younger man’s trembling shoulder.
“Don’t bother, Leatherworker. If they were going to attack us, they would have by now. Save the arrows.”
Lorwen nodded in agreement; perhaps the geezer wasn’t as useless as he’d previously thought. Whatever waited for them in the shadow of this unholy dungeon would be far worse than the winged vermin. Still, the group instinctively huddled together near the torch. Together, they would be difficult prey to pursue. The flying demons would occasionally be glimpsed circling the lift, but always far enough that their exact number and position could not accurately be determined. Eventually, the animalistic chattering and flapping of wings stopped altogether. In the corner of his eye, Lorwen glimpsed the stony walls of their destination.
As the warriors drew nearer, it was apparent that this forsaken place was not of their time. The little that they could see of the dungeon’s exterior was unlike anything they had ever witnessed in the surface world. Stone blocks interlocked seamlessly in this buried tower, as if the entire structure were one solid monolith from a bygone age, carved by beings of unimaginable power.
The lift came slowly to a halt, barely touching the sides of the Great Beast’s peculiar home. The doomed party cautiously stepped into the underground entrance. The structure’s interior was comprised of an interlocking maze of damp corridors and smaller chambers. Boots steadily sank in the wet, spongy floor of the concealed labyrinth, and the stench was inhuman. Farel Lakeson appeared to be feeling queasy, and the other warriors promptly stepped away from him.
“I suggest none of us stray too far from the light. If one of us were to get lost in these corridors, I doubt we’d meet again,” stated a concerned Marlon.
The sick merchant quickly concluded his retching and resumed his place amongst the others. Wiping a rust-colored liquid from his mouth, he questioned Marlon:
“That’s a fine idea, old man, too bad none of us know which way to go.”
Lorwen paid no heed to the ensuing argument as he silently surveyed the dungeon floor. His years of tracking exotic-skinned game to be used in his inherited leather business had provided him with a hunter’s intuition, although the Beast they currently pursued was definitely no prey. To his right was a pile of human-sized bones, with several more littering the wet floor further down the corridor. Lorwen shone the light towards the bone trail and pointed. The others understood immediately.
The group was silent during their wandering in the damned ossuary, contemplating how many men had died there. Scraps of rotten clothing still clung onto scattered remains of their former owners. This was not the work of one of the lesser devils. No, this brutality was caused by something far more insidious. They could tell that the gods offered no protection there.
Finally, they reached the end of the corridor, with the trail leading into a tight metallic stairway and into deeper levels of the dungeon. Some of the lower floors were flooded, whilst others contained bizarre artifacts from a younger, more innocent world.
The merchant stuffed his pockets with useless metallic boxes which he found scattered across the lost chambers of the massive crypt. Perhaps they would be worth something to the outside world if they ever managed to return from their quest. None of it mattered to Lorwen, however, whose thoughts still dwelled on his beloved Rivercrosser.
Eventually, the estranged party reached a collapsed portion of floor, with a dangerous drop leading into an even larger chamber. Above the caved-in ruins was ancient message, scrawled crudely onto the walls in reddish brown:
As the group took a risk and dropped down to the other floor, the stench of death and rot became much worse. After recovering their senses, they found the author of the foreboding message lying against a large pile of rubble. The skeleton was almost entirely preserved, and still wore his village guard’s distinctive armor. Lorwen pondered over the hows and whys of the unfortunate man’s death in these forgotten catacombs. Had he really made it this far on his own? And if so, what business had h-
Marlon suddenly pulled Lorwen by his collar and pointed to his own ears, indicating there was something of importance to be heard. The confused Leatherworker lowered his torch, careful not to put the fire out, and drew his bow silently. The extension of the darkness ahead of him was immeasurable; this was by far the largest chamber they had encountered. Enormous pillars were spread amongst the looming shadows, serving as a foundation for the accursed buried palace. Metal husks of ancient box-shaped carriages were abandoned in the darkness, worn away by the forces of time. It took a moment, but Lorwen heard what the son of Markon was referring to. He signaled the others to stay put and focused.
It was the sound of blowing wind. Oh his grimy skin, Lorwen felt a humid, warm breeze. Where in the nine hells was it coming from? Unable to bare the shear blackness any longer, he took an arrow and held it up to the torch, turning to Marlon for his consent. The old man nodded, and Lorwen shot out an arrow with flaming quills. It did not need to travel far before it revealed the object of their supposedly holy quest in its brief, shimmering light.
The Great Beast was already staring at the unsettled party with numerous shining red eyes, breathing heavily. It had been expecting them, waiting. The entire structure trembled as the gargantuan Beast lunged towards them like a tremendous mad reptile, dragging itself along the damp, stony floor. The extremities of its titanic limbs were freakishly large but also disturbingly man-like. The grand demon sported several serpentine necks culminating in eerily expressive faces, which looked to be crying out in agony with terrible fangs and forked tongues. Luckily for the chosen warriors, the crude lighting and the direness of their situation prevented any further description of the dark creature, whose complete appearance would have certainly driven even the sanest of men to madness.
There was no way any of them could feasibly defeat the beast in combat, even with legions of well-armed soldiers. But before the others could properly react, Bal’nur Smithand charged with the fury of one who had lost all he had once held dear in life. Alas, even as he bellowed the sacred names of gods and ancestors to aid him in battle, an oozing black tendril emerged from the roaring beast and impaled the foolish warrior to the ground, leaving behind a lifeless doll of flesh.
Learning from Bal’nur’s foolish example, the remaining few attempted to retreat. Lorwen gripped the torch as if it held his eternal soul in the flames, and led the way atop the giant pile of rubble which had led them to this final chamber. He, the merchant and the old man were no longer warriors of fate, only desperate mortal men on the run.
None of them dared to look back during their tiresome climb out of the treacherous dungeon, but the chase soon took its toll. Fortunately, the Beast found it difficult to pursue them through some of the more compact stairwells and corridors, which slowed it down. Their bodies were weak, but before long the frightened men were sprinting though the upper levels, dodging bones and following the light of the torch. Damn the gods, thought an enraged and worn out Lorwen, damn the Elder and his prophets too! But before he was finished cursing, Farel let out an excruciating cry of pain.
A black tendril had pierced the merchant’s ankle and had begun dragging the writhing man down the corridor as he tried to no avail to stab the accursed thing with a shining gold dagger previously concealed in his pocket. The two survivors picked up their pace as they heard screams and the sounds of the metal trinkets the merchant had attempted to loot being flung about.
They were almost free, approaching the wretched lift that had first brought them to the decaying labyrinth. For a moment, a dreaded thought plagued Lorwen’s panicked mind; who would stay behind to operate the lift? The only observable controls were at the entrances, so only one of them could embark.
The two men reached their only known means of escape with a few moments to spare, and it seemed Marlon already held the answer to Lorwen’s burning question. As they stopped running, the old man approached Lorwen and handed him his rusty sword.
“You have a long life ahead of you, lad, and I’ve many a deed to atone for.”
Lorwen was speechless, but he saw the weight in the once-disgraced guard’s gaze. He had accepted his long-overdue fate. Lorwen put the sword away and Marlon was soon operating the ancient controls. The Beast was approaching fast, but the lift would be on its way, powered by dark magic from another age.
The beast did eventually reach the son of Markon, but Lorwen was already too far to see or hear most of the ungodly carnage below. Even the lesser demons were quiet now. The old man’s sword was all that remained of the brave party, but before melancholy could set in, Lorwen sensed something had gone awry. Curious sounds and vibrations indicated the contraption was stopping, not far from the exit.
As the chains rattled and walls trembled, light from above blinded the lone warrior. The gate was opened, and as his eyes adjusted, Lorwen saw the Elder, looking disappointed. His mind raced, but before anything intelligible could be uttered, the man spoke in a thundering voice:
“It’s a shame you had to find out this way. Most perish feeling honor in their hearts. Yet now you see the truth, unlucky one. We always pay what is owed.”
Lorwen’s heart was almost escaping his chest. There was nothing he could do at this distance, but he did not wish to hear the Elder’s story.
“Be assured you are not the first, or the last, and we pray that you shall be rewarded accordingly in the next life. It was never intended for you to slay the Beast, foolish boy, but to feed it.”
There was no time to ponder the consequences of his words. The contraption was now moving again, only downwards. The gate was closed once more, to be opened again only for the next generation’s sacrifice. Very little passed through Lorwen Leatherworker’s mind as he descended towards the gaping maws of the Great Beast, which anxiously anticipated their next meal.
He held out his sword firmly, as if it were one with his arm. He could smell the decay which emanated from the demon. It would not end like this. Lorwen dropped his torch into the fathomless depths below. He hesitated for a moment, and then he jumped, his last thought being the memory of Wenda Rivercrosser’s loving embrace.
Leanne searched around in the back of the van, looking for her new soil knife. She moved aside kneepads and seed packets, a box of condoms and several paperbacks from the Goosebumps series, ridiculously overdue. She could swear she had tossed the knife back here when she loaded up the van for carpool, but it had been a hairier morning than most; Mondays always were.
The old soil knife would work. The field basked in March morning light, cool and silent except for the hum of dragonflies darting among her crops. The Red Russian kale called to her. The rows stood like green soldiers, their spines purple, darker than her usual strains of kale, and arcing toward the sky. The kale was experimental, something requested by two of her clients. Chef Anton wanted a hybrid for a spring salad, and the new Thai restaurant was going to pan fry it with garlic.
As she harvested, the soil sang to her nose, tangy and rich. She never listened to music while she worked. There was too much noise in the rest of her day: children shouting in the morning, NPR as she drove, leaf blowers and the neighbor’s broken pool cleaner whining in the back yard.
Hours later, the van brimmed with freshly washed greens. She made her stops at the restaurants and then drove to her mother’s house. She smiled as she pulled into the driveway, appreciating the tidy front yard and the wicker rocking chairs idling on the porch. Her mother’s house always looked ready for company, like the covers of Southern Living she displayed on the coffee table.
“Hi, darling,” her mother said as Leanne came in with her basket of greens. “What have you brought me this time?”
“A hybrid kale. It’s fresh out of the ground this morning.”
“Lovely. Would you like some tea?” Her mother was still wearing her housecoat but her hair was coiffed and she had on her pearl earrings.
Her mother filled their glasses with iced tea while Leanne perched on a barstool in the kitchen.
“Let me taste this kale.” Her mother leaned on the counter and pulled a leaf out of the basket. “It’s washed?”
Her mother chewed and then smiled.
“Wonderful. So what else do you have going on today?”
“I’m on my way to get a trim.”
“You should stop trying to hide those grays, the blonde highlights do nothing for you.”
“I thought you liked my hair this way?”
Her mother wrinkled her nose. “I don’t care for it, no.”
“But you’ve always said I looked younger this way.”
Her mother tilted her head. “Have I?
Leanne started to speak but stopped herself, sliding off the barstool with a frown and a sigh. “Never mind. I need to get going or I’ll be late.”
“Okay, darling. Thanks for the greens, they’re just delicious.”
“You’re welcome.” Leanne gave her mother a peck on the cheek.
After the hair appointment and picking up the kids, she toted the basket she’d brought home for the family into the kitchen. The kids wouldn’t touch the kale, of course, but after they cleared their plates of lasagna and went outside to practice kick flips and soccer, she made a nice side salad for her and for Chris, drizzled with the homemade balsamic vinaigrette he liked.
He took a bite and grinned.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s great.”
He loaded up his fork with more greens and had another taste.
“Really good,” he said.
“Great,” Leanne said, pleased, taking a taste herself. He was right, the kale was crisp and sweet. A breeze wafted through the open window and past their plates at the same moment that a calmness came over her.
He set down his fork, and wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin.
“So I got an e-mail today,” he said. “The twentieth reunion is coming up.”
“Yep. May 2nd.”
Leanne widened her eyes. “That’s only six weeks from now. Crap, I bet that stupid Jennifer Mulgrew will be there, and I’ve gained so much weight since the last time I saw her. Do you think I look okay, or should I go on a crash diet?”
“If you think you can lose it, it’s probably best that you do.”
Leanne stared at him. Chris continued eating.
“Really? You think I should lose weight?”
Chris held his fork in midair and assessed her.
“I’d probably be more attracted to you if you did. Maybe just fifteen pounds.”
“Chris!” Leanne put down her napkin and glared at him. He frowned at her while a piece of kale slowly made its way into his mouth.
“How can you keep eating while saying things like that to me?”
He put down his fork. “What did I say?”
“Seriously?” Her eyes started to smart but she was too angry to cry.
“Leanne, I am completely at a loss here.” His green eyes looked sincere and for a moment Leanne wanted to believe him.
Leanne gazed at the green leaves on her plate and their purplish spines. She speared a bite with her fork and put it her mouth. The flesh was sweet and earthy, all the flavors of the soil and springtime circling her tongue at once before she swallowed. She had a strange sensation, as if her brain had just been washed in sunlight.
“Ask me something,” she said to Chris. “Ask me something you’ve been afraid to ask me.”
“What on earth?”
“Please. Just do it.”
Chris reflected. “All right. Why didn’t you answer the phone when I called Saturday night? Was your phone really dead?”
“I was having sex.”
Chris’s face drained of blood.
Leanne dropped her head into her hands. “Ten baskets to each restaurant – what am I going to do?”
“You were having sex with someone Saturday night and you’re more worried about your clients than about our marriage?”
Leanne’s gaze was sober, her response unvarnished. “Yes.”
Mandy Foster lives and writes in New Orleans. When not writing, she bakes cakes and chauffeurs her two young sons.
You know there’s nothing like the sound of a wood chipper in the morning. Never thought I’d grow so accustomed to it. Of course, never thought I’d be sitting outside, next to a runway, working as a “Bird Suppression Expert” either. Yup, I didn’t expect my life to end up like this. I was a normal man with a good career, great friends, a modest apartment, and a fast, yet practical car, but then one day everything changed.
Who could have cursed me? Was it the gypsy I cut off while driving on the 405? Was my mixologist miffed about an insufficient tip? Or did my last OkCupid date really go that bad? I still don’t know.
It started simply and innocently, as things often do. One day after returning home from work, I noticed a procession of ants marching across my kitchen floor. This in itself was not unusual. A bachelor with an aversion to washing dishes was likely to see ant hordes on a fairly regular basis. But this procession of insects was different. Instead of going for the remnants of Thai food in the sink, or the last bits of cream & sugar in a mug, these creatures were climbing my fridge.
My first thought, in horror, was that they’d found my carefully collected collection of condiments… but the trail lead further up, to my freezer, where the weather stripping had parted just enough to allow the army of ants access inside.
Had my freezer malfunctioned? Where there once existed organic, free-trade, single source vanilla ice cream would I now find a creamy lake upon which the ants would be feasting? Had they burrowed into my free range bison? Pillaged my truffle pilaf?
These fears vanished in an instant as I opened the door and discovered a fully functioning freezer. But, if there was no melted food, what were the ants doing in the freezer?
Were they on some sort quest, searching for gold in their Yukon? Perhaps a charismatic leader was taking them to the promised land? Or maybe, like the Rebels on Hoth, this was the only place that their enemies wouldn’t be able to find them?
Whatever the case, they had died in droves. So I took out my vacuum and removed the pile of black carcasses. What a crazy fluke I thought. But, when I returned home from work the next day, I was surprised to find a new collection of the faithful.
This continued for a week. Every day, more dead ants.
Then as abruptly as it started, the onslaught ended. Had the ants realized only doom awaited them inside? Had a coup de tat disposed their leader? Or had they simply all killed themselves? I laughed at these stupid creatives with their insatiable death wish. How foolish they were!
In hindsight, I should have seen this a sign of things to come, but I was too wrapped up in myself to head what must have been a gypsy’s warning!
For several months I had a reprieve, but this break from death wasn’t to last. The next unlucky victims headed not into the frozen wasteland of my freezer but into the barren desert of my automobile.
It was a warm October day when I first noticed the smell of death in my car.
You know, they say you can tell a lot about a person by the state of their automobile, and mine was always pristine. Not only did I keep it clean, but I wouldn’t even let certain things inside it, like McDonald’s food, or gypsies. Not to brag or anything, just to say that if the car smelled like anything, it would’ve been manliness.
So, right away I knew something was wrong. Had a passenger left food inside? Had I forgotten one of my triple shot soy mochas? My nose wrinkled as I searched for the offending odor, but nothing. My car was clean, as always. Perhaps the smell was coming from outsider? My neighbor had probably left something rotting in the carport.
The next day, after a coffee meeting with a potential client, I entered my sun-baked car and was distressed that not only was the smell still there, but it was considerably worse. The hope of a “carport solution” evaporated. As I drove home, with the windows down, I considered the situation. The most logical explanation was that a poor varmint had crawled into the engine bay, been crunched to death, then slowly baked by the heat of the motor. That would explain why the smell got worse after driving, right?
Arriving home, I popped the hood, then used my nose like an olfactorial dowsing rod. I carefully sniffed around the engine, but the smell neither grew stronger or weaker. Perplexed I stood back, had I imagined it? I opened the driver’s door and the waft of death assured me that there was most certainly something dead nearby.
I grimaced and prepared to undertake a similar dowsing on the interior. Unpleasant odors are an interesting thing. First off, as the name suggests, they are unpleasant, but something about them has a kind of “traffic accident” quality. Just like we can’t help and look at collisions, we can’t help but enjoy the experience of a horrible odor. We might not like the smell, but the experience is interesting.
Or is it just me? It’s just me? Ok, well forget it then. Anyhooooo.
As best I could tell the odor was coming from behind the driver’s seat. I remembered hearing something on “Car Talk” about mice crawling into heater vents. So, fashioning a hanger into a crude hook, I went mouse fishing. In the heat vent below the seat, I cast back and forth hoping to land a mouse corpse. But no luck.
Having exhausted my technical abilities I realized it was time to seek professional help.
A short time later my car was at the repair shop. The next day, after they’d taken the entire interior out of the car, they’d discovered the source of the smell… and it wasn’t a lone mouse. No, it was an entire mouse colony! Droves of the small, fury, and formerly cute creatures had found their way into my car, burrowed under the carpet, and died.
It had happened, again. Death was following me.
But this was just a coincidence. What else could it be? I couldn’t be making these creatures commit suicide, right? That would be preposterous…
As the smell of death left my car, so did this persecution mania. In time, I forgot about the death march of ants and the mass starvation of mice. Once again, the animal deaths in my life were relegated to local, sustainably grown, organic meats. And of course, sushi. Which although I never inquired, was certainly the product of hardworking, sixth generation, small business owner fishermen and their lifetime fishmonger friends.
Life was good.
But then, just like before, everything would change, again.
The end began one pleasant spring evening. I was returning home from a hard day of video editing where we hoped to convince viewers that they needed, deserved, and in fact, could not live without a better toaster oven. Important, work that would no doubt directly improve the lives of people the world over. Who doesn’t like tuna melts, right?
As I unlocked the door, thoughts of dinner were over taken by a deep rooted sense of dread. You know how you feel when your best friend asks you to appear on Ricki Lake and you’re pretty certain it’s really going to end up involving an ex-lover and someone’s new “Baby Momma?” Well, that’s pretty much exactly how I felt.
The door swung open and there in front of me… hanging from my chin-up bar… was a monkey. And when I say hanging, I mean “hanging”… like from the gallows.
I dropped my vintage leather attaché and ran over to it. The poor creature had a belt wrapped tightly around its neck and it didn’t appear to be breathing. I loosened the noose and lifted the limp little monkey out. Quickly I placed it on the ground and listened for a heart beat. There was none.
My first aid training kicked in. One-two-three-four, I gently compressed its small chest. Then, with a large breath I filled its lungs. More compressions. Another breath.
Defeated, I leaned back against the wall and lit a cigarette. As I pulled the sweet smoke into my lungs I contemplated my own mortality. If this monkey could die in my apartment, what did that mean for me? I took another drag. Was life so short? Was every moment of our time here on Earth a gift? I raised the cigarette to my lips and pulled deeply. Or did anything mean anything at all? Wasn’t this a symbol of the futility of existence? As the nicotine filled my blood, I pondered these greater questions of life.
Or at least I would have if I smoked. Since I don’t, I just stared into space.
I had practical concerns; namely disposing of a dead monkey and deciding on dinner. Since the monkey wasn’t going anywhere, I covered it with a pillow case. Since I was hungry, I ordered Thai food. Overall, the situation called for whiskey, so I got some.
The next morning, after a night of fitful dreams, a sudden sound awoke me with a start. As my eyes came into focus I saw something swinging from the chin-up bar. It was another monkey!!! I leapt out of bed. Fell. Got up. And rushed over to it – but alas, I was too late!
Why had another monkey committed suicide in my apartment?
The question gave me a splitting headache. Or maybe it was the previous night’s whiskey. Either way, I needed two Tylenols and some strong coffee. Shortly after, coffee in hand, I considered the situation. I had two dead monkeys and no alibi.
Would I need an alibi? I took another sip of coffee. Dark Roast. So smooth. Single Origin. So supportive of small indigenous farmers. I took another sip. I couldn’t have a gypsy curse, I was a good person! Surely the coffee I drank earned me some good anti-gypsy karma!
There’s a saying I had learned in ‘Nam. Or rather, that I learned reading about ‘Nam. “Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action.” I still might be able to plead that I was a victim of coincidence if I could end this now. And if there was anything my liberal arts education had taught me to do, it was how to “end things now.” Or even “before they started” if you asked my last OkCupid date.
First thing was first, I needed to build a “Scare-Monkey.” But what would frighten them? Naturally, I turned to Google. It didn’t take long to find that the dearly departed were in fact Capuchins and their main predator was the Harpy Eagle. I printed out a rather fierce looking Harpy face and taped it to the chin-up bar.
By this time I was late for work. Further measures would have to wait.
Taking a trash bag, I gently placed the two creatures inside. As I began to leave, inspiration struck. My remaining belts! Just in case the Scare-Monkey didn’t work, it was probably safer to have them.
At the dumpster, I said a quick word and tossed the bag in. Those cute little monkeys deserved better, but my main concern had already shifted to my client lunch. Thai food was out of the question. Perhaps I could talk the client into ribs? No, probably not. Salads would be the best bet. I could get the organic, pork belly frizze salad. Yes, that would be a good compromise.
With the Capuchin corpses out of my mind, I joined my fellow Angelenos as we slowly made our way across the city, alone in our metal boxes.
That evening, after a long day making movie magic, and a happy hour, that may have been too happy had the LAPD inquired how happy it was, I returned home. As I walked up from the carport, my scotch filled mind decided the best course of action at this juncture was to text message a “friend” to see if she wanted to come over and “watch some Netflix.” Luckily, before I hit send, I opened the door… and once again was greeted by a pair of monkey eyes. Dead monkey eyes.
Hanging from my chin-up bar, a vintage tie around its neck, was another Capuchin!!!
Those damn dirty apes had gone too far! It was one thing to Harry Houdini their way into my apartment. It was another thing to Mrs. Harry Houdini their way through my carefully collected tie collection! This meant war. Or at least, it meant taking down the chin-up bar. My biceps, lats, and abs would have to make the temporary sacrifice.
Because this was only a temporary situation, right? I mean, how many free-range suicidal monkeys could there be in Los Angeles? The fact that there were at least three was enough to drive a man to drink.
Several whiskeys later, with the chin-up bar on the floor, belts around my waist, and ties tied to my arms, I crawled into bed with hopes of a better tomorrow.
But the next day things would get worse, again.
I awoke to find a monkey with its head in the oven. I rushed over and grabbed it roughly. “Bad Monkey!” I scolded as I tossed it out the door. Turning back, I saw another monkey about to drop my toaster over into a sink full of water! Shockingly, the irony was not lost to me.
Charging over I unplugged the cord before the monkey could flip its switch. But, before I could catch my breath, there was a noise in the bathroom. I ran to it and found a Capuchin slicing itself with a razor! I slapped it across the face and grabbed the blade.
Oh no, the other monkey! I ran back just in time to see the monkey in front of my vintage, American made, electric fan. It gave me a big, toothy grin and snickered. Then it jammed both arms into the spinning metal blades!
As the monkey’s blood sprayed over me, my Apple products, and the walls covered in the artwork of my many talented and passionate artist friends I sank to the floor. What had I done to deserve this curse??
Helplessly I watched as the door opened and more monkeys entered to do their dirty deeds. I didn’t care. The fight had gone out of me. It was at that moment the “Game of Thrones” theme began to play from my iPhone. I answered and was greeted by a breathy female voice. It was Kristi from the Phi Tappa Sigma Sorority. Apparently I’d won a Facebook contest and they were here to clean my apartment.
“Good god no!” I screamed into the phone. Hanging up, I hurriedly packed a bag. Ants, mice, monkeys, now co-eds? I had to find that gypsy and make amends!
The phone rang again and if by reflex, I answered. Pouting, Kristi upped the ante to include a car wash. In the background her sorority sisters giggled. Tempted by the offer, I paused to consider, then noticed my reflection in the mirror.
Is it just me, or is there something sobering about seeing yourself covered in blood and monkey fur?
The image of sudsy nubiles vanished. Grabbing my bag, I made a beeline for my car. It was actually a little dirty… Maybe just a quick wash. No! I must not give in, I must make my escape. The key turned and my car roared to life. Jamming it into gear I fishtailed into the street.
Kristi and her sisters desperately gave chase. But the Priuses that their daddies’ had bought them weren’t going to cut this mustard. Those battery assisted go-carts definitely weren’t going to catch 2.5L of turbo powered combustion!
I was free. Or at least, I was on the road. I thought If I could just keep moving, I’d be safe. Speeding onto the 101 freeway I left Los Angeles.
Four years, thousands of voles, mice, possum, armadillos, squirrels, and the occasional hobo later, I finally found the gypsy woman I’d cut off on the 405. But no amount of begging or bribes would make her lift the curse. Turns out it wasn’t her’s to begin with. Maybe it was that OkCupid date after all? At any rate, she gave me some words of advice, simply “A blessin’ an’ a curse be two sides o’ tha same coin. So flip it, yo.”
Hang on, need to clean out the wood chipper.
Okay, I’m back. Every once in a while it gets gunked up from all the birds flying into it. A good cleaning keeps it running smooth and “cruelty free.” You know, when I started, I didn’t have to clean it myself. I used to call the facilities people, but after Raul ran in front of that 747, they’ve all steered clear of me. So now I handle all my own maintenance. It’s not the most glamorous gig, but the skies around the airport have never been more bird free, and hey, it’s a dying.
Get it, cause it’s my “living,” but things keep–
My journey to become a filmmaker had a unique beginning – I grew up in a home without a TV. My father, an English major, and my Mother, a working musician, believed there were better ways for a child to be entertained. So I read, explored the woods, and played with LEGOs. Exercising my imagination, I learned to tell my own stories.
In school, I excelled in math and science, entering college 2 years early. But it was a TV production class that inspired me the most and led me to pursue a career in filmmaking.
With this goal in mind, I moved to San Francisco where I studied Cinema and Digital Art. In 3 years I made over 20 short films and graduated Magna Cum Laude. Then it was on to my current home, Los Angeles. Since arriving I’ve worked a variety of film industry jobs, primarily as an editor. Editing has made me a stronger filmmaker while allowing me the freedom and funds to pursue my own creative projects. Currently I’m transitioning to working full time as a writer and director.
Lily’s playing with my hand again, tugging and twisting at the fingers. I don’t mind, because it keeps her near, though I try to stop her from putting the tips of them in her mouth. The metal is supposed to be safe, and I’ve had no ill effects since my original hand was replaced, but when it comes to her health I tend towards the overprotective.
“Do the thing, Daddy! Make it do the thing!” She doesn’t look at me as she makes her demand, but takes ahold of my wrist and starts to shake it back and forth. She’s been sitting in my lap watching me stare out the window for too long, and she’s bored.
“Okay button, I’m sorry, I’ll make it go. But first you have to let go of it, okay?”
Lily releases my finger, making a great show of placing both hands behind her back. I put my hand on the arm of my chair and let the fingers unlatch, all four extending outwards, black segments snapping outwards and revealing the narrow linking bands within. I wiggle them, showing off their flexibility and range, and Lily giggles gratifyingly. She starts running her fingers carefully over each extended section, humming happily under her breath. Every time we’ve done this I’ve told her to be careful, and she tries her best, but it’s not long before she gets overexcited and forgets.
“Careful button, don’t touch the connectors, they’re delicate.”
Lily makes a face at me, but she does as she’s told. She turns her attention to her favourite part, tugging upwards on the middle finger and giggling happily as it pulls back further than any living finger could and snaps into place. I explained to her the first time she did this that it was only Daddy’s hand that did that, that she mustn’t try it with anybody else, but I still found myself paying for some poor boy’s wrenched finger a few days later.
The advertising wall to our right is playing an episode of her favourite show, but she doesn’t look around, still immersed in her examination of my mechanical hand. I watch it idly over her head, glancing down from time to time to make sure that she isn’t doing anything that she isn’t supposed to. The fuzzy creatures that populate the hypercolour island are learning an important lesson about manners and waiting your turn while queuing up for rations, and as usual the blue one gets in trouble for not doing what the law officers tell him to. He’s Lily’s favourite, though she struggles to articulate why. It’s not long before he finds himself placed in a hovercell made of cardboard tubes and carted away, much to the consternation of his little friends, though I’m sure that he’ll be back for the next episode.
I look down in time to see Lily snap the back of my wrist open and peer eagerly inside. There’s a small compartment inside, and she gets her face as close as possible to the tools within without actually touching them. She loves to test exactly how close she can come to breaking a rule before she gets in trouble. “Can I?” she asks, without looking up.
“Carefully, honey. Handles only.” I can’t deny her anything. Given what’s coming, I don’t see why I would. I glance towards the window again, but there’s still nothing to see, just the wide white roofs of the other hives spreading out towards the horizon. It’s not a real window, of course, we’re far too deep in the hive for that. I don’t think that Lily can tell the difference; in fact, I’m not sure that she’s even seen a window made of glass
Her clever fingers work their way into the compartment, and she carefully tugs the first device out. I’ve only let her do this a few times, and I keep a close eye after the time she managed to singe both hands with the element calibrator. She goes for that one first, of course. My brave little girl. She has to use both hands to work it out, and as I watch I’m suddenly struck with the thought of how little she is, of how everything in the world is too large for her. I glance across at the news feed on the left wall, but it’s not time yet. I don’t have to explain to her how much large the world really is. Not just yet.
Lily waves the calibrator back and forth, chuckling gnomically, then suddenly becomes bored and thrusts it into my free hand. She digs out a second and holds it up. “What’s this one?” she demands, eyes crossing slightly as she examines it. The device she’s holding is a bioluminescent merger, a delicate scalpel with a growing green tip that’s used for painting pheromones into organic matter. Her finger slips up towards the sharp end and I carefully slip it out of her fingers. She looks as though she’s considering fighting me, but consents to have it taken from her.
“That’s a merger, honey. It’s used to make things…like each other. Make them connect.”
Disinterested now that her ownership has been usurped, Lily is reaching back into the compartment. I juggle the two devices that I find myself holding, trying to keep my artificial hand still while she explores it. “What’s this one?” If she presses the stud on the end of the long implement she’s suddenly holding, the head will blossom outwards into a ridged globe, loaded with the reactants necessary for stimulating asexual reproduction in artificial lifeforms. Once again, I slip it out of her hand, and it rattles against the other two. Perhaps this was a bad idea.
“Why don’t you play with your toys, honey? They’re a lot more fun than mine.” Lily makes a face at me; she’s smart enough to know the difference between a genuine suggestion and a dismissal. We try to stare each other down, and I feel one of her black moods building in the air. My own state of mind is fragile enough today, and I find it hard to believe that I would have had it in me to calm her. Finally she relents, slipping off my knee and chirruping happily as she tips her blocks out onto the ground and goes to work.
Lily’s show is finishing up, the closing tune blaring cheerily out despite our disregard. The wall has gone through a lot of changes in time that I’ve lived here. When I was a young man it was pure pornography, sweaty bodies of every shape and form heaving and pouring over one another. Then I grew older and it gave way to technical programs, blueprints and schematics and engineering conferences broadcast day and night. Finally that slowed as well, as all the sciences came together in their one final project, a marvel of engineering and biotechnology that demanded everything from every available mind and set of hands. After that, it all just…tapered off. We were done. It horrified me to think about it; an entire world’s scientific exploration, complete. No, not complete. Abandoned. Taken as far as it could be, certainly, but when I was young we believed that the journey would be endless. Lily will never know that feeling. Her world, whatever shape it takes, will always be limited.
I glance across at the time as I slot my tools back into their compartment. I wonder if I will ever take them out again. I stand and wander restlessly towards the window. Less than an hour now. Nothing will come to a halt today. Indeed, it will be more beginning than end. I’ve even got a new job lined up, a consulting role at one of the last remaining engineering corporations. Before long I’ll be teaching, I suppose, and after that whatever I can find. I wonder if there will be a role for a historian at the end of history. I look down at Lily, playing blithely with her blocks, and I wonder what sort of a life she will have. The domes should keep us safe long enough for her to grow into old age. Middle age, at least. Older than I am now. But what sort of life will it be? What sort of ennui will her generation suffer, knowing that everything that can be done already has been?
Suddenly Lily abandons her project and scampers over to me. She crouches at my feet, eyes big and wild like an animal’s. Behind her, the blocks are arranged in a long network of intersecting crosses. It’s the same pattern that she always makes with them. I don’t know where she got the idea from, or why she doesn’t experiment further – I’ve certainly encouraged her to. She just seems to think that that’s how blocks are supposed to go. Before I can say anything, she scrambles up my leg and into my arms, tiny fingers and feet digging mercilessly into my hip and ribs. She ignores my laughing grunt of pain as she hauls herself up by my shirt and wraps her legs around my side. I catch her, as she knows that I always will. Her eyes are still wild, and I wonder what she sees. I lift her above my head, shaking her and making her scream like a wild thing. She writhes around up there, shaking out whatever badness briefly had her in its grip. If only it were so simple for me.
“Kick the blocks!” Her grin is as mischievous as it is infectious.
“Are you sure button? You put them all together so carefully!”
She favours me with a look of deepest contempt. “Kick, Daddy! Be the monster!”
Still holding her in my arms, I swing my legs in long outwards strokes, knocking her blocks to the far sides of the room while she claps and squirms in delight. She has little to no interest in her creations once they’re complete. The point for her, I think, is to build them. Being a parent is the opposite. Making her was the easy part – it’s everything that comes afterwards that takes a toll. At least some part of her will survive into the future. I’ve made sure of that.
It’s time, or close enough. I carry Lily over to the window and we look out towards the horizon, towards the facility that has been my life for the last five years. My role there is done, and while at first I was frustrated that I would be sitting out the actual launch, I find myself glad to be home with Lily instead. There are some things that should be shared with those closest to you, even if they don’t understand their meaning at the time. When I was a boy my father woke me in the middle of the night and insisted that I look into the telescope that he had erected in our back yard. That was just a few years before living under the open air became untenable. Through the lens I saw little more than a dot among dots, but he insisted that it was a comet, that in years to come I would be able to tell people that I had seen the last passing of Halley’s comet. I didn’t fully grasp the significance, but I felt the enthusiasm radiating off him, and I treasured the moment we shared beneath the stars.
“Look Lily, do you see that?”
I have to point a few times before I get her attention long enough to make her look. She glances out towards the horizon, then looks away again, bored. I watch for us both. In the distance – almost too far to be seen, even with the window’s enhancements all the way up – a glow begins to build. I can’t tear my eyes from it, and before long Lily stops her squirming as well, watching it as well. She likes bright things. “Is it a bomb?” she asks, her tone more curious than afraid.
“No honey, it’s a launch.”
“Like when you went into space?”
I smile, thinking of the exhilarating rush of liftoff, excitement and terror boiling through my guts as the earth fell away. My one and only trip beyond the poisoned atmosphere of our world. Today’s launch will be nothing like that. The passengers will be completely serene, their minds controlled and clear. They will only need our clumsy boosters for the first part of their voyage, to claw their way up and out of the gravity well, the prison into which they were born. After that they will travel under their own power, and I do not imagine that they will look back.
“These are special people, my little button. Men and women that have been worked on by scientists, including your old Dad. I helped build the systems that tell them how to build things.”
Lily thinks about this. “Like how the advertising wall tells us things?”
“Not really. They’ll just know. More like…you remember the birds in the documentary that we watched? Like how they just knew how to build a nest.”
“What are the sky people going to build?” She’s watching the glow intently now, as though she might make out the tiny figures being propelled skywards.
I smile at her choice of words. Sky people. The future will still need poets, I suppose. “Well, their homes, to start with.”
She looks sceptical. “They don’t have homes?”
“They do. They did, I mean. They lived at the facility, where I used to work. But they’re going to go out into space and find new homes.”
Lily tugs absently at my hair while she thinks about this. This is the conversation that I’ve been dreading, the one that I’ve played out so many times in my head without a satisfying resolution. How much to explain to her? How much of the truth will she understand, and how upset will she be by it? There are no good answers to these questions, I know, and a million years of parenting has failed to come up with any sure means of resolving them. I have promised her, silently, a thousand times, that I will never lie to her. I cannot yet tell if I will be strong enough to keep that promise.
“Will they be cold out there? In space?” Lily’s questions are never the questions that I have prepared an answer for.
“Well, no. Their skin isn’t like ours. It’s double shielded, requiring to external warmth, and they can even turn their pain receptors on and off.”
Lily is leaning out towards the window again, reaching towards it will her grubby little hand. What has she been touching to get so dirty? I take a step closer, letting her push against the window until she satisfies herself that she cannot reach the sky people. “Are they going to come back?”
I shake my head. The truth is that the sky people cannot survive for long in our atmosphere. They are too tall and heavy for our gravity, and their delicate senses are at constant risk of being overwhelmed by the telecommunication storm that blankets our world. They have huge grey eyes and jet black skin and their wingspan is like an angel’s. Most of all, though, they have no need for us. It has become painfully clear that since the commencement of the final stage of their transformation they no longer feel any kinship for we mortals. We made them better than ourselves, able to live in conditions that would destroy our fragile forms, and some days I think they hate us for it.
“Then why did we make them?”
Now it all comes out. I could have easily come up with a different answer, one that was safe and not technically untrue, but I find that I can no longer restrain myself. “This planet doesn’t have much time left, Lily. A hundred years, they think, at the most. There’s too much damage done. There isn’t anything more that they can do.” I search her face for the fear that I have been expecting. “A hundred years is a long time honey. A very long time. But after that there won’t be anything more. No more of…of us.”
I watch her carefully, trying to see the information sink in. Her eyes change, and I cannot tell if she is about to cry, if she understands what I’ve said at all. “But they’ll still be there?”
“You mean the sky people?” She nods. “Yes button. They can live where we can’t, and after we’re gone they’ll still be around.” She thinks about this for a while, chewing her lip and kicking her feet absently against my ribs. “Is there anything else that you want to ask?” My heart is sick with the burden I have lain on her, the knowledge that her world’s time is cut short, her generation’s potential limited and fragile.
“Can we have curry for dinner?” The question is delivered in the same tone as any other that she has asked me this afternoon.
“Yes button. Anything you want.”
“And can I go play now?”
Not sure what to do with her calm response, I nod and place her back on her feet. Suddenly joyous, she scrambles through my legs and sets to work reassembling her network of blocks. I turn back to the window, the clicking of her toys a comfort of sorts as I peer out at the blast of distant light, trying just as Lily did to make out the tiny figures that hurtle skywards, never to return. I ache at their loss, at the conclusion of the final stage of our world’s development. All our science, our music, our poetry and history goes with them. In a thousand years, their history will record us as their incubators; our only purpose their creation. I cannot quite bring myself to hate them for it, but when I look at Lily it is a close thing indeed.
Finally, I smile. I have, in my small way, put a piece of myself inside them. More than I was supposed to. Not a piece of myself, I correct myself: a piece of my world. A piece of Lily. They will never know her name, but she will live on through them, become an intrinsic part of their world. I will, in my insignificant way, have had my revenge on the cruelty of destiny.
Then I turn my back on the light, on my betters, and crouch down on the ground beside Lily. She hands me some blocks and tells me where to place them, and we play until it is time for dinner.
* * *
Theta One glides in low over the asteroid. His vision flicks rapidly through the spectrums of the solar radiation pulsing outwards from the nearby star. The project to link the asteroid to the adjoining five is going well, and they should be ready to link it to the orbital wing in less than a hundred years. He drops towards it, eyes picking out the tiny grey buildings from which his kind work. The hardest part of the process was smoothing out sufficient space on the rocky surface, but now that it is complete, the colony can truly flourish.
He has been flying long enough for the local planet to have rotated half the way around the sun, and he is beginning to tire. His companions will be waiting for him in their home. Theta Eight will have prepared sustenance for all, and with luck Gamma Nine will once more share his bed. Their life here is good, their work rewarding. He looks outwards at the stars, already wondering where they will travel next.
The colony is clearly visible now. Theta One descends towards the long network of intersecting crosses, the same pattern that emerges in everything they build. He closes his enormous eyes for a long, sweet moment as he falls, thinking of his companions, of his mission and of himself. From time to time he feels a strange stab of melancholy for those who came before them; their mysterious builders, now lost to time and distance. He wonders what they would think of their construction. He hopes, distantly, that it would please them. Then he puts the thought aside and opens his eyes, allowing the artificial gravity to guide him down into his world.
Alex Hardison is an aspiring science fiction writer, comics and video game enthusiast and all around Batman expert living in Australia with girlfriend and cat. He writes about comics at http://notesfromcrimealley.blogspot.com.au/ and has previously been published in Flurb.
Hey, Ma, you ever dream about fish?
I know, I’m sorry I ain’t called in a while. But I gotta ask you a question: You know what they say about fish in dreams? I’m tryin to figure out what my shrink—my therapist—is tryin to tell me.
Not that I believe in all that psychological stuff. My company just started sendin me to this guy ‘cause of the stress. It’s a good job, I like the work fine, and the benefits are decent—I mean, hell, anymore just havin a job is good, right? Benefits are gravy. But you know, it can get pretty stressful havin to deal with customers who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground, plus be polite about it even when you feel like tellin ‘em to hang up and call back when they’ve grown a brain.
Anyhow, my boss started pushin all these employee wellness programs; said he’s sick and tired of payin for all these benefits no one’s usin. “Deb,” he says to me, “I want you to start goin to ‘see somebody,’” you know, with that look like he don’t want to say what “see somebody” actually means, even though we both know what it means. I ask why, he says he heard me on the phone with a customer—a “client” he calls ‘em—and almost had a heart attack. Says I was one step away from losin it and tellin the lady what I really think of her. Well, seein as how I couldn’t really say he was wrong, I couldn’t really say no. So I been goin to “see somebody,” but I don’t know how well it’s workin, ‘cause it seems like every time I come out of one of those sessions I’m more irritated than I was when I went in. Like last time, when we talked about the fish…
So a few a weeks ago I head to Dr. Ober’s office—yeah, Dr. Ober, Herr Doktor Ober, straight outta central casting. Old guy, thick German accent, has probably been doin psychoanalysis since it was invented. He’s got this little bitty office over on the east side; low overhead I guess, but not bad once you get inside. It looks just like I imagined a therapist’s office would: wood paneling, soft lighting, diplomas all over the walls—he’s even got a bust of Freud in his bookshelf. No couch, though, which is fine by me. I like to look people in the eye when I talk to ‘em, know what I mean? I talk to people on the phone all day at work, can’t look at any one of ‘em in the eye.
Anyway, I walk into his office a couple a weeks ago and he asks me all the usual questions: how was your week, you sleepin okay, anything unusual happen at work? Then out of the blue he asks me what did I dream about the night before. He never asked me that before. I usually don’t remember my dreams, but it just so happened that I did remember what I dreamed about that time.
“Well,” I say, “I dreamed I was sixteen years old again, and I was home with Ma.”
That’s right, Ma, back in you and Pop’s house.
Then he goes “A-ha!” and scribbles somethin into that little notebook he always has on his desk. It always bugs me when he does that.
Anyway, I start tellin him about the dream. “I’m sittin in the kitchen readin the paper, lookin at the movie ads. I remember feelin really antsy, like I just had to get out of the house.”
Then he goes, “A-ha!” and writes some more.
I go on. “Well, I really wanna go see a movie, but Ma won’t let me ‘cause she wants me to stay home and help her and some guy I don’t even know move a bunch of boxes of old clothes up into the attic.” Well, soon as this comes outta my mouth, I know what he’s gonna ask.
“Could zis man be your Fazzer?” he asks, and he sits back and looks at me, and his leather chair makes that creak you always hear when professors or rich people sit back in their leather chairs and look at you.
“No, it’s not Pop,” I tell him. “I just said I didn’t know the guy. Anyway, I remember bein really angry at Ma for makin me stay, ‘cause I didn’t wanna help her at all.”
Ma, it ain’t dirty laundry, it’s therapy. Anyway…
“A-ha!” he says again. “Aggression against ze Mozzer schtemming from ze Electra Complex!” And then he scribbles into the little notebook again. Someday I wanna get ahold of that thing and find out everything he’s sayin about me. See, that wasn’t the first time he said Electra Complex, so I looked it up and frankly I don’t buy it. No, Ma, I ain’t even gonna to get into it, ‘cause I know it would just upset you, and it ain’t even true.
Anyway, here’s Herr Doktor Ober, writin away and I’m thinkin he’s thinkin I’m a total creep; but really I’m thinkin he’s the total creep. And I’m also thinkin this is gonna be my last visit to him.
“So are you sure you don’t know who zis man is helping your Mozzer?”
“No!” I say, startin to lose my patience. “Do you want me to go on or not?”
“Pleass continue,” he says. He puts his pen down and leans back in his leather chair. Creak.
So I continue. “Well, like I said, I was real mad at Ma—but only in the dream, got it? So just to spite her, I start to go downstairs to call a friend, ‘cause I always went downstairs to call my friends so she couldn’t hear what I was sayin.”
“In ze rreal life or ze drream only?”
“Oh,” I say, “both, I guess. So I’m barely down two steps when I hear her say ‘Dammit, they’re out!’ Now Ma, she don’t usually use that kinda language—” Yes, of course I told him that. “—so I come back up to see what’s wrong, and then I see this fish. It was this big, fat green fish, about a foot and a half long, and it’s just swimmin through the air like it’s water. Swimmin nice and slow, big lazy circles like it don’t got a care in the world. Then two more fish come out of the box and start swimmin around just like the first one. They’re all kinda fat and sparkly, just kinda circlin around, nice and slow. Ma and this guy are goin crazy, runnin around, ducking, tryin to catch these fish again but they can’t. And the fish just keep swimmin around like they don’t care.”
Then Ober asks, “Und how did you feel toward zzese fisch?”
I hate it when he asks questions like that, ‘cause you always feel like you’re gonna say somethin wrong and he’ll think you’re nuts. But because I decided this was gonna be my last visit, I wanna at least get somethin out of it, so I answer: “I dunno, they were interesting all right, but they were kinda disgusting too. I wanted to look at ‘em and I didn’t, you know? I wanted to touch one to see what it felt like, but I was too scared to.”
“A-ha!” he says, and he looks real happy. “Ya, zzis is goot. Go on!”
So I go on. “Well, like I said, I was too grossed out to get any closer. Then all of a sudden, one of ‘em starts swimmin right at me. I’m standin there, frozen, and I don’t know what to do. I decide to duck and let it swim over me, but at the last minute I have this urge to smack it, you know? Just give it a good smack and see what it’s made of. So I reach up and grab it, really grab ahold of its skin, and then it starts to rip open. I’m so grossed out and scared by now, I just throw the thing to the ground. And when it hits, it explodes, like when they show a star explodin on TV, you know, with all those little white sparks comin out. It was so weird!”
“Well, then nothin,” I say. “Nothin happened after that. I just woke up.”
Now I’m startin to feel real weird ‘cause he’s scribblin in that little book like there’s no tomorrow. He’s sittin there writing, goin “Mm-hmm” and “A-ha” and I’m just sittin there feelin funny. Then he goes, “Zis man helpink your Mozzer, are you sure he iss not your Fazzer?”
By this time I’m really startin to lose it. I mean, whose dream was it, his or mine? So I tell him no, it wasn’t my father, and who had the dream anyway, and why was it so important to him that this guy should be Pop. So of course then he apologizes and tries to get me to calm down. People know not to mess with me when I’m riled up, which is I guess why they sent me over here in the first place, to keep me from gettin riled up. But like I said, it don’t seem to be workin.
So I keep gripin and askin what he means by this and by that, and he just sits there real quiet. And I say I want to see what he’s writin in his little book about me, that I ain’t gonna stand for it no more. Well, he flinches like I hit him, kinda jerks back like I’m stickin a pitchfork in his face or somethin. I guess that little sign of fear just kinda eggs me on, ‘cause then I stand up and lean over his desk, and that old leather chair is creakin like crazy ‘cause he’s tryin to sink right through it into the ground. I was breathin hard, I realize now. I mean, I didn’t think about it at the time, but I was breathin kinda hard and I prob’ly had my hands in fists, now that I think of it. I got my hands in fists and I’m standin over him and he’s tryin to creep back into his seat. And I’m just a woman, but a pissed-off woman, and he’s just an old man.
Then his lip does this—quiver. I just keep lookin at him, and his lips start shakin, and then he takes in this trembly breath and his whole face kinda falls in on itself and he starts cryin. Like not even a man-cry, more like a sniffly kid-cry, like he ain’t even sure what he’s cryin about, and what else can I do but get him a tissue?
So I grab the box of Kleenex next to the Freud bust and kneel down next to him and he takes one and dabs at his eyes and the tip of his nose, and I realize I could never hurt this man. And I’m too embarrassed for the both of us to look him in the eye, you know, so I stare at his hands, which are sittin in his lap holdin the soggy Kleenex. His hands look kinda dainty, with long, tapered fingers, and they look soft, but I don’t reach out and touch ‘em, cause they—I don’t know why, but the way I felt toward his hands is kinda like the way I felt toward the fish in my dream.
And I can’t even look at his hands no more, so I stand up and get my stuff to go.
“Wait,” he says, and I screw up the courage to look at him. He’s quiet now, looks a little more composed. He even tries out a smile, but it’s kinda shaky. “So, you know who I am?” he asks.
I just shake my head. I should be out the door by now, but I don’t move an inch.
“I ssink you know who I am,” he says. And now he’s real calm, at peace. He leans back in his chair, creak, like he’s real tired, but satisfied. And I’m like a tree in that office; I can’t move. I stand there, coat and bag in hand, lookin at him; and he closes his eyes and just sits there.
I don’t know how long I stood there, a minute, five, ten? An hour? Finally he opens his eyes and sees me still standin there, and acts surprised even though we both know he isn’t. And he says, “You are not comink back, are you?”
And finally I can move again. I shake my head and turn my back on him. I head for the door, and I got my hand on the doorknob, and I hear:
Splash, like water.
I turn back around; no one’s there. He’s gone.
I call out: “Dr. Ober?”
I try again: “Herr Doktor Ober?”
I start feelin that tingly kind of scared, you know, ‘cause he was just there and now he’s gone. I head toward his desk and my heart’s beatin like crazy. If he’d a had a receptionist or somethin, I woulda called ‘em in, but it was just me there, inchin toward his desk by myself.
First thing I notice as I get closer is, that book he’s always writin in is gone. It always sat on top a that desk, him scribblin away in it, but it wasn’t there no more. Well, I start lookin around for another door, thinkin maybe he just took his book and went home; but I don’t see no other obvious ways out, and the thought of a psychiatrist with hidden doors in his office scares the crap outta me, so I don’t look around for no secret panels.
So I come around the side of his desk—‘cause somehow the idea of a shrink hidin under his desk don’t scare me as much as the thought of a shrink with hidden doors in his office. But before I can look under the desk, I see a puddle in his chair; a puddle of water in that little divot where he used to sit and ask me all those questions. And I just stared at that puddle and watched his balled-up Kleenex soakin up the water, meltin like sugar.
Well, I just went home after that. What else was I supposed to do? I never went back after that, and no one ever called me.
My boss asked me yesterday how things are goin with the doctor. I said fine. He said good, he could tell.
But now, almost every night, I dream about fish. I can’t stop dreamin about fish, only now it’s always just the one, and he’s still got that goddamn little book, and I can never figure out for sure what he’s tryin to say.
So, Ma, I was kinda hopin you could tell me.
Tara Campbell [www.taracampbell.com] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.
Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. Her work has appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Potomac Review Blog, Hogglepot Journal, Lorelei Signal, Punchnel’s, GlassFire Magazine, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Litro Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog.
Every day was an exciting new one for Hamish Harrison. He knew it sounded ridiculous, but he couldn’t wait to jump out of bed at seven on the dot, and get straight into the thick of things.
There were promotions to be made, friends to be met, and wishes to be fulfilled—every day was sunny and bright, and just as happy as he was to meet it.
Sometimes, he wondered if it got a bit tedious, but then…of course not. He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to end up like the others…like Lucy Payne.
Hamish opened his eyes to find his older sister watching him. She was doing a lot of that lately. Did she blame him for the death?
She noticed him watching her, and quickly looked away. Hamish sighed, and turned to head inside the house. Even if Beth was suspicious of him being different, nobody else did. He was perfect to a tee.
He didn’t stand out. They lived in their double storey brick house, and had always lived there, too close to all the other double storey dark brown brick houses in the street. They never stood out.
He walked up to the front door, and hoped again that nobody would believe Beth. They couldn’t. How could they when she sided with the other after…Oh Lord, not the flames…
Hamish forced the thoughts out of his mind, and wondered if Luke would give him a lift to the dormitories tomorrow.
Oh well. At least his friends thought he was normal. He had to be normal. He was normal. It was as simple as that.
The flames woke Hamish Harrison out of his trance. He stared ahead, out of the car window and at the vast expanse of nothingness, and quickly tried to extinguish the flames out of his mind. He shook his head and turned around to face Luke.
Luke looked ahead at the road, and didn’t appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary.
Hamish sighed. “Are we almost there?”
“Almost,” Luke replied dully.
They spent most of the road trip in silence, and Hamish spent the time trying to force the images out of his head. It was quite easy, if you focused on the dusty building up on the left near Brown’s River, or the trees losing their leaves just off the road, and then the vast expanse of road where there was just road and not much else.
The university was in the desert. When Hamish first learnt about it as a child, it sounded fascinating and mystical. Now, it sounded silly. But he didn’t tell Luke.
Don’t be silly. You’re going for an education. Appearances don’t matter.
Yet again, he was fooling himself. Of course they mattered. If you wanted to fit in, it had to matter. He had to fit in, even if it was this dull looking university in the middle of the desert. He had to be the best.
Blue eyes forced their way into Hamish’s mind. They stared at him, unblinking, and he couldn’t look away. He didn’t want to look away. A hand reached out somewhere beneath the eyes, towards the eyes, and he realized they were his own.
Hamish awoke with a start. The blue eyes morphed into a blue light, and he forced the blueness out of his eyes. When he focused in on the perfectly clean, not-a-speck-of-dust-anywhere dormitory, the images left his mind. His dorm mates were shouting. Someone called out his name. Bradley Dormer threw a pillow at him.
Hamish suppressed a sigh. He was used to this. It was just…
No. Cliques were always noisy. Normal people made lots of noise. Quietness was suspicious. Beth deserved to be an outcast.
Hamish jumped out of his bed, and threw the pillow back at Bradley Dormer. The blond-haired boy broke out laughing.
Hamish sat in the Sociology 101 classroom, and realized he’d been daydreaming. Blue light clouded his thoughts. It was getting annoying.
He stared up at the professor, wiping the drool off his chin. Next to him, Dan Dreamer let out a snore. The teacher didn’t notice, and Hamish smiled. Stupid professor.
He looked away from Dan to focus fully on the professor. Mr. O’Hearn, he thought his name was. Yes, it was. They’d met during the orientation week, when he was with Bradley Dormer and Luke scavenging freebies. Mr. O’Hearn yawned.
The door to the classroom opened. A blond haired woman entered, and Mr. O’Hearn did notice her. He frowned.
“You’re late, Miss Payne,” he said. “Class started twenty minutes ago.”
Hamish didn’t focus in on the blond haired girl’s response. He just stared at her, mouth moving and all. He opened his own mouth, and a whistling sound escaped through his lips. The girl stared at him, her blue eyes piercing. She recognized him. Holy crap, she recognized him.
The blue eyes clouded Hamish’s thoughts until he couldn’t breathe. He tried to move his mouth, but it remained open. He felt numb. He couldn’t even really tell if his mouth was still open. Maybe it had flown free of his lower face and escaped to a parallel reality.
He kept staring until Lucy Payne—Lucy Payne—moved away from the door to her seat. She sat next to Dan Dreamer, and flushed at him. She didn’t look at Hamish again. He snapped back to this reality, and Mr. O’Hearn’s voice exploded through his ears. He held his hands to his ears, until the sound went back to normal. No one noticed him. They couldn’t have noticed him.
She was back.
Hamish wanted to escape, but he couldn’t. Class finished and Dan was one of his friends. Which meant Lucy Payne was one of his friends. Dan was the leader of the inner circle.
If he got on Dan Dreamer’s bad side, he might as well say goodbye to a life at the university, at any semblance of a normal life at all. He stood up and followed Dan Dreamer out of the classroom. Other members of the inner clique followed. He kept his eyes on Dan the entire time, wondering why? How? Why?
How had Lucy made it back up the ranks? Was it possible?
Dan hastily introduced this sudden new girl to his group of friends. They all grinned at her, lopsided puppy dog grins, and even Hamish copied.
“Boys, this is Lucy Payne, my girlfriend,” Dan said, smiling innocently.
The males all responded with cheerful replies, and Hamish could barely manage his. He knew Lucy knew.
The party started at five fifty-six p.m. Hamish and Elizabeth Harrison had invited everyone this side of California. This party was going to be the greatest party of the year, and even Hamish knew it. Everyone arrived in a good mood, the food was amazing, the drinks were even better, and the unpopular ones had simply forgotten to come. He watched as Beth and James Parris danced along to a catchy pop song; he wished he could recall the tune, but it escaped his mind. It was a song from the 70s, he knew that at least. He remembered because Beth and James were dancing the hustle, and that was a popular dance from the 70s. Beth used to be cool like that. She called him out of his trance, to get more beer. Their dad would have some more in the attic. He was always cool like that.
Hamish shrugged and walked towards the kitchen, unashamedly whistling to the song. He smiled; this was definitely the best party he’d ever had.
He stopped short as he reached the kitchen. He would’ve moved, but he couldn’t. He stood there, stunned, body stuck in place, as he watched Lucy Payne make out with his father. As their lips connected, and Lucy moaned, and his father rubbed his hands against her back, Hamish didn’t know what to…What was happening? What was she doing?
Shocked coursed through his veins, and he didn’t know whether that was possible, but he felt something he’d never felt before. Was that was shock felt like? Time froze for him in those moments he couldn’t move, and then went really fast, faster, before it went back to normal.
Finally, he regained his grip on reality and shouted out something incoherently. They both turned around, but neither stopped what they were doing; his father’s hands remained where they were, and their lips didn’t part.
Hamish moved forward, unsure of what he was going to do. He couldn’t even speak, but he wanted to…he wanted to…
Thoughts he never dreamed possible entered his thoughts: While Lucy stood there stunned, he would grab her, thrust the nearest table knife into her chest, choke her, and as she stood spluttering, he would slit her throat, before throwing her onto the cold linoleum and smashing her skull. He tried to shake the thoughts out of his head, but they wouldn’t leave. He couldn’t possibly want to kill Lucy, would he? Even if she was breaking the code!
While he stood there barely able to move, his father and Lucy finally drifted apart. As they did so, his father tripped back and hit his head on one of the high benches. Without warning, the stove behind him lit up, flames licking up into the air and then…holy crap, his father was on fire!
Lucy jumped away, bumping into Hamish, and they both started screaming. Their screaming seemed to attract everyone else, and soon enough everyone was just watching as Hamish’s father twitched and screamed and moved around on the spot. Hamish couldn’t watch; as he screamed his incoherent screams, his eyes turned to Lucy Payne.
It was the first time he’d ever seen those blue eyes. He wasn’t even sure they were Lucy’s. But those eyes were on her face, and he saw a look of pure malice, of complete and utter sadistic pleasure…and for the first time ever, he was truly terrified.
Lucy Payne left town a week later.
The party started at seven oh-three. Dan Dreamer had planned the party to mark the end of their first day of classes. Hamish wanted to join in, he really did. He wanted to kick the football around with his friends, and cook some fatty burgers on the grill, and drink so many beers he’d pass out and miss half of his second day, just like everyone else. When everyone else started dancing the Thriller dance, Hamish sat down. He watched the black television box, hoping nobody would notice him.
He was wrong.
Of course, when he looked away from the television to prepare himself to start dancing, Lucy Payne was sitting next to him, playing with a loose strand of her blond curly hair. He looked away immediately, but had to return to her: the blue light was blinding. No, it wasn’t even her eyes, he noticed. Her eyes were actually hazel. Then why had he always imagined her with those piercing blue eyes, so penetrable they would sear his eyes if he looked at them for too long? Lucy’s eyes were hazel.
“You killed my father,” Hamish said, clearer than he felt.
There was silence. Lucy stared back at him, her expression unchanging. Her lips remained thin and pursed.
“No, Hamish, I’m innocent,” she replied.
“You killed my father,” Hamish shouted, and he stood up suddenly.
He expected everyone else to stare at him, to wonder why on earth he had the gall to shout at Dan Dreamer’s girlfriend. They all just stood in their spots, swaying to the beat of the thrum, a calming concerto. He looked around for the stereo. The music; it was making him nervous. Why would anyone dance to this?
He shivered, and made his way out of the room, towards the kitchen. The music followed him, but still he could find no stereo, no MP3 player, no speaker systems on the wall. He stopped in front of the stove, staring at it. What was happening to him? Was this what happened when you finally lost your cool? He was probably in the university hospital wing right now, and this was just a vision his overactive mind had cooked up for him. Lucy Payne: What an impossibility! He’d been in the clique too long. He couldn’t be mad.
He had to talk to someone, there had to be someone to talk to. But of course there was no one. He didn’t even know where Luke was, come to think of it. Was he even still at the university?
He was all alone.
“I didn’t kill your father, Hamish Harrison,” Lucy Payne’s voice rang out.
Hamish looked up to see her. He was shocked to see Dan Dreamer by her side, but Dan didn’t speak. He stood there, looking rather bemused.
“You’re a fool if you think I killed him,” Lucy continued. “We both saw everything as clear as day. I know you wanted to fit in, but at the expense of my life?”
“You killed him, I know it,” Hamish muttered.
“I may have screwed around with your father, but I certainly did not kill him!” Lucy responded irritated. “Something else killed him. Someone else, I don’t know.”
“No, you killed him.”
“They killed him; the ones who enforced the rules of the clique,” Lucy sneered.
“You’re lying,” Hamish hissed. “Why don’t you go away? You’ve already ruined my reputation.”
“See!” Lucy shouted, giving Dan a quick look. “Reputation, cliques; it’s all you idiots ever care about. You’re so far up your own ass, Hamish Harrison, you don’t even realize why we have cliques, and why he cliques have their own cliques. It’s just to please the Ones.”
“Screw you,” Hamish shouted back. “How dare you say such a thing, you outcast? You don’t have a right to question anything, not after what you did.”
He turned to face Dan, hoping he would offer some insight. The Leaders always offered the best insight.
“I don’t care; none of this is real,” Dan said, half-heartedly.
Hamish glared at him. How could it be so easy for him to turn against the way? He was just like Beth, when Beth changed after their father died, and he was just like that lunatic Lucy Payne. Was he the only normal one around here?
“Fine then, Hamish,” Dan said. “If you think being in the clique is so awesome and being an outcast is the end of the world, then answer this: what is the blue light?”
Hamish stopped in his tracks. He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out. A sort of “gack, gah—what? How do you…” escaped his lips, but nothing coherent.
Dan Dreamer smirked, and Hamish felt as if he were truly the outcast here; the only one who knew nothing in this excellent world.
“It tells us that we’re not in control of ourselves and all that matters is that we belong to the clique, and to be normal, and that anyone who isn’t normal should be shunned. Sometimes we don’t even need the blue light.”
“I don’t believe you,” Hamish said.
Dan smirked again, and raised an eyebrow towards that murderer Payne, before turning around, as if to say follow me. Of course, since the traitor was his clique leader, Hamish followed him.
“You’ve seriously got issues,” Hamish told Dan. “Your reputation is nothing now.”
“How was the blue light?” Dan replied sarcastically.
The three of them stood in front of the Vice Chancellor’s office; a thick, sturdy metal building that looked more like a shed. The door held a neatly handwritten sign that proclaimed the hours of Vice Chancellor Stephen Wright to be 9am-6pm.
He imagined he would be like an angel, and the others in the clique would be his servants. He would punish the outcasts, and he would get his members to kill Dan and Lucy for him. He would watch their deaths. He would be taken up to the highest level, he would be supported and loved for all of eternity, and they would suffer, all because they had sinned and they weren’t normal. Lucy killed his father; she deserved much worse, but she could choose to redeem herself in the eyes of their Ones.
“You won’t be saying that when you are suffering for what you’ve done. You’re on a path that can’t be fixed.”
“There’s no-one higher up!” Dan snickered, but Hamish ignored him. “If you want the truth Hamish, it’s in there. You’re not the only one. We’ve show so many others the way, and it all ends the same. You’re too caught up in your ways.”
“You’re a fool,” Hamish replied. “You can say goodbye to your crown. You won’t be the leader of this clique anymore.”
“You think I care about the stupid goddamn clique?” Dan shouted. “We’re so close to defeating the Ones, you stupid machine. Don’t you get it? Don’t you want to think?”
“You’re just jealous,” Hamish grinned, and opened the door to the office, only briefly surprised the door wasn’t locked.
He was about to slam the door shut, when Dan slam-tackled into him. Hamish fell backwards, his head hitting the hard concrete. Concrete? He felt a blow on his face, before the door slammed shut.
Dan moved away from him immediately. Hamish looked up, but he could barely hear anything; he couldn’t even see Dan. His head hurt; Dan really had knocked the wind out of him. He rubbed the back of his head, grimacing at the pain.
When he looked back up, all he could see was blue. A foreign text was scrawled all over the room; strange hieroglyphics that were impossible to decipher.
He tried to stand up, but he was frozen in place, just like when his father was killed by Lucy Payne.
“There’s no Chancellor, Hamish,” Dan Dreamer’s voice rang out from next to him. “There’s no-one of our kind higher up. The Ones aren’t like us.”
Hamish continued to stare at the blue, mesmerized by the brightness, the white gibberish, the sinister message. He couldn’t react.
“Lucy and I were just about to discover the truth,” Dan continued. “After your father died, she began researching mysterious phenomena. It turns out the Ones killed your father. They wanted to plant hate between you and her. And it worked.”
Hamish’s gut was churning. These Ones, he was a toy in their game. He wasn’t even human anymore. Was he ever really human?
“They use the concept of cliques and outcasts to keep us under control,” Dan said. “You and Lucy were the only ones who could stop it. Thanks to you, it’ll keep happening.”
Hamish began to scream. His head was on fire, and he couldn’t hear Dan anymore. He wondered if it had ever been Dan at all. The blueness seared into him, pouring blood out of his every orifice, creating new ones, scarring him until he couldn’t feel, didn’t want to feel anything, but still the pain continued. The white writing started to make sense, even though he’d never seen the language before. He continued to scream even long after his throat was hoarse and dead and had been ripped from his body. He screamed as the white words entered his consciousness and subconscious, and tore everything of him, literal and otherwise, before doing the same thing all over again, and again, and again.
In a universe far away, someone switched off, and Hamish didn’t see anything else. Instead of blueness, like he was used to, all he saw was black. The pain vanished, replaced by the blackness, the emptiness.
It swallowed up everything.
Every day was an exciting new one for Hamish Harrison. He knew it sounded ridiculous, but he couldn’t wait to jump out of bed at seven on the dot, and get straight into the thick of things.
There were promotions to be made, friends to be met, and wishes to be fulfilled—every day was sunny and bright, and just as happy as he was to meet it.
Hamish Harrison’s life was perfect.
J.M Morrow is a fiction writer from Melbourne, Australia, who spends most of her spare time writing. When she isn’t writing, she can be found procrastinating, and reading books by Muriel Barbery, Suzanne Collins, George Orwell, and whatever’s on her constantly growing to-read list.
“Where are we?” Annie Pike asked herself over and over. She sat quietly and patiently beside her husband as he piloted their SUV along an unpaved road through the darkest forest she could imagine. Again she asked, this time out loud. “Where are we?”
Joe’s mind was nearing a hypnotic trance watching their neighbor’s pickup taillights bouncing along the rut filled road ahead. The increasing density and changing forestation caught within the vehicles headlights defined and edged every object creating a surreal third dimensional scene from a viewfinders of yesteryear. It held his attention, until Annie’s question.
“No need to worry,” he smiled. “It’s not far, maybe a mile or so.”
“I still don’t understand why we couldn’t have done this at the Casey’s house like we first planned?” she responded. He sighed and changed hands on the steering wheel, the free hand went to her knee, lightly squeezing then caressing through her jeans.
“I told you Moe and I wanted to put Lenore to the test. Come on, you know these people are charlatans. Everything is rigged, the spooky sights and sounds, all wires and tape recorders.”
“How was she going to rig the house for the séance if Carol was there?” Annie glanced at her husband unable to believe he actually thought their neighbor’s new friend, Lenore, was anything but a true Spiritualist.
It was Carol’s husband, Moe, who brought this on and convinced Joe that Lenore was a hoax. Moe believed Lenore befriended his wife only to sell her some hocus pocus and steal what she could from their home. Moe called her a gypsy, tramp and thief.
“So all of a sudden Carol has this new friend, this… Lenore,” Joe pronounced the name eloquently with a wave of the hand, as if announcing the arrival of royalty, “who meets Carol in the market parking lot; just appears outta nowhere, like magic. Did you know she convinced Carol her life is in danger, future bleak and the only way to resolve the matter is through a séance.”
Annie rocked in her seat as the SUV rocked through the grooved earthen road. “No, I didn’t know that she —”
“Can you believe the balls on these people?” Joe interrupted, “preying on Carol’s emotions while sizing up the house and planting sound devices and crap. Okay, we’ll have this séance but at a place she’s never seen and had no chance to rig. We’ll see how good she tells the future.”
Joe’s attempt to discredit Lenore went ignored. Annie asked again. “Where are we?”
Ahead, the bright illumination of the full moon outlined a cabin nestled amongst a backdrop of dark pines, standing like silent sentinels over a sacred sanctuary. “We’re here.”
“Finally,” Annie muttered as they pulled next to Moe’s pickup. Joe rushed inside and flicked on the outside light, allowing the women to view the hunting cabin for the first time since it was a joint investment between the two men. A home away from home where they could fish and hunt, their castle in the forest, private abode, sanctuary and lair. For the first time the wives got to see it.
The outside bulb had already attracted a handful of night insects, fluttering about in its warmth, although it was still humid after a scorching summer’s day. The light illuminated the porches warped flooring stretching the length of the cabin’s front. A screen door centered the front of the structure with one window on each side. A stone chimney peered over the roof’s crest like a cold and empty well.
“Lovely ride in the country,” Carol exclaimed as she left the truck with Lenore at her side. They joined Annie on the porch.
“That was a cow path,” Annie commented. “I thought we’d never get here.”
Carol’s facial expression showed astonishment and disgust of the cabin and the roadway. Lenore silently whisked past them and went in, sitting at a table placed in the middle of the cabin where she sat with hands on the tabletop. She closed her strangely dull black eyes and said, no demanded, “Join me.”
Perhaps it was the dimly lit room, or her dark clothing with bandana wrapped around her raven hair, but Joe whispered, “like the gypsy woman in the werewolf movie.”
Moe giggled until Carol shot an angry glance his way. The women sat at the table with Lenore, each holding a hand with the other opened for their husbands to join them. Joe and Moe looked to each other with amusement then sat, completing the circle. Lenore lowered her head softly murmuring. Annie looked to Carol and shrugged.
“She’s putting herself into a trance,” Carol whispered. The two husbands smiled at each other.
Below the cabin, at the foot of a shrub laced incline, a lake stretched across the scenery illuminated by the full moon. The forest greeted the shoreline with tall pine and birch connected by a maze of vegetation, thick and thorny. A rowboat drifted aimlessly on the still water; its oars locked in the up position.
A young man sat on the floor of the boat, resting against the stern, his arm draped over the shoulder of his high school sweetheart nestled in front of him. He thought of taking her to the deserted hunting cabin atop the hill and having sex, like they had on several occasions. But for now, he was content to gaze at the clear night sky and the many pinpoints of lights, so far away.
“It’s so peaceful, just right for dreaming,” the girl said taking hold of his hand.
“And what would those dreams be?” he asked, although he heard the answer before and hoped she would say something else, anything.
“Dreamt I worked at the Bird Cage and …”
“Are you kidding?” he shook his head disagreeing with her. “No girlfriend of mine is going to work at a strip club. I don’t care if you get a million dollars a night.”
She giggled, “I’m only kidding, I knew you wanted to hear something besides ‘save and start a family.’”
“How’d you know that?”
“I met someone yesterday, a woman, a strange woman, but after we spoke for a few minutes I felt she really had her finger on the pulse of my future.”
“Pulse of your future?” he asked. “What made you discuss the future with a stranger?”
The girl wondered. “I don’t know? It just came out, something about her made me want to talk. I thought she was a kook at first, but she told me things only I knew, and then she said you did not want to get married. I guess she was right.”
He leaned back and looked to the stars, hoping maybe the conversation would change. A lucky guess he thought about the woman’s analysis.
“So?” she asked.
“I don’t want to talk about that stuff,” he said.
“Maybe I should wish upon a star?” she said gazing into the heavens. Suddenly a flash of light crossed overhead, disappearing as fast as it materialized.
“There goes one! Did you make your wish?” he asked.
“Didn’t see it; too fast.”
“You have to begin wishing as soon as you see it, even though it goes away, its okay, as long as you begin when it’s visible,” he explained.
“Who told you that?” she asked.
“My grandpa, when I was a kid.”
“Did you get your wish?”
“Naw, he died anyway; heart trouble. I wanted him to get better. Aww, what does a kid know about those things anyway?” he said, his voice quivering slightly recalling the wish made for his grandfather’s life. She was about to reply to his heartfelt emotion when she spotted a light in the sky.
“There!” her voice echoed across the lakes surface. He looked up expecting to see the tail end of a burning meteor but instead witnessed a pinpoint of light growing in brilliance and size. It wobbled and flickered, as though dangling on a string in space.
“I thought they went away?” she asked.
“I thought so.” He said watching the light brighten and grow from a pinhead to golf ball size and still growing and moving closer fast.
Lenore’s head rose showing her big, black pupils, like marbles set against a bone background. Everyone tightened their grasp of hands. Lenore spoke. “Carol… Carol Manning.”
Moe grinned thinking she could have learned Carol’s maiden name during their discussions. Joe thought the same, and rolled his eyes.
“Yes?” Carol answered. Lenore’s voice became hollow, like a bullfrog in a cave. Everyone sat upright, alert, curious.
“Carmen… seek me… lust …” Lenore slowly blurted out in deep resonance. Carols face turned ashen, her eyes wide in shock.
“Oh my God, Oh Christ no, I don’t believe it …”
“Desire … lust …” Lenore continued.
“What the hell is that?” Moe asked. Carol sobbed. Annie’s mouth was wide open. Joe laughed.
“I’m no expert, ole buddy, but I think a ghost named Carmen got the hots for your wife.”
Moe turned to his wife, “Suppose now your gonna agree this is all baloney.”
Annie was in awe. Carol confided in her about the affair six years ago with a man named Carmen. Her mouth was opened in awe.
Lenore continued. “Roscoe …”
Annie inhaled sharply hearing her long deceased dog’s name. She removed the memory of the puppy’s tragic death from her thoughts, until now.
“Killed … Beau,” Lenore muttered.
Joe looked astonished at Lenore then back to Annie. “You gonna believe her?”
“I had a dog when I first met Joe,” Annie explained without removing a glare from Joe, “it died from a fall down a flight of stairs, a supposed accident. And I used to call Joe, my Beau.”
“I never touched that dog,” Joe denied.
“You son-of-a-bitch, you never liked him because I loved him. You were jealous of a damn puppy?” Annie shouted.
Joe released his grip and threw his hands into the air. “How did this bitch think up stuff like that?”
Lenore’s deep voice boomed again before anyone could think, “Gathering …”
“Yeah, we’re gathered, and all we hear is crap! You just had to have this damn séance!” Moe yelled to Carol, now in tears.
“…for death,” Lenore finished the sentence.
Everyone stopped arguing, yelling, sniffling and looked to each other for an explanation of what they just heard.
“What, what do you mean?” Carol looked to Lenore.
“Yeah, what gives?” asked Moe, releasing his wife’s hand.
Suddenly the cabin light flickered. Lenore lowered her face then raised it again with open eyes. The trance was over. She smiled and stood. “Perhaps you will now believe of those able to speak from the other side.”
Moe still held a negative believe and said accusingly, “That was all lies made up from the past. I thought you could tell the future?”
Lenore walked to the fireplace hearth and stood by the cold ashes of last winter’s fires. “I am a teller of events.”
She waved her hand to the light that went dark instantly. The room remained illuminated by a glow flooding in through the windows, a brightness with growing intensity.
“I told you of past events and of a future event, this gathering of death, and it shall be.”
The approaching roar sounded like a hundred freight trains, shaking the cabin violently. Carol and Annie screamed as Lenore dissolve and drifted up the chimney in a wisp of black smoke.
“My God, it’s headed right for us!” the boy shouted. The girl opened her mouth to scream but went unheard as the thunderous roar past. The boy toppled on top of her, covering against the searing ball of fire catapulting over their heads.
A loud boom followed the explosion. Earth and trees cascaded into the lake by the massive impact, rocking the rowboat side to side, almost tossing the couple into the water. When it finally stopped, they raise their heads to peer at the hill. They gasped in unison at the furrow gouged into the hillside and crater of smoldering earth atop the reshaped hill where the cabin once stood.
“That woman I met told me not to go there with you tonight. It was a place for unbelievers, a place where death would be,” the girl whispered. They held each other tightly, glaring at the impact, never noticing the swirl of black smoke circling the boat until it drifted away, toward town.
Bio: Henry P. Gravelle is the author of several short stories, novellas and novels found in print, Ebook, Kindle and Nook publications. He has also written several screenplays and short plays. Please visit his web site at: www.henrygravelle.com
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. www.milojamesfowler.com