Jarod K Anderson

Jarod is a fan of comic books, John Milton, tattoos, pulp detective novels, herpetology, folklore, video games, and all things sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Growing up, he wanted to be either a ninja or a maple tree. These aspirations led him to teach college English. Teaching freshman English led him to change careers. He lives in Ohio. His fiction and poetry has been published in Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and elsewhere. Jarod’s book of science fiction writing prompts, 100 Prompts for Science Fiction Writers, was published in 2015 by Sterling New York, a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble. Find him online at www.jarodkanderson.com

Jarod is a fan of comic books, John Milton, tattoos, pulp detective novels, herpetology, folklore, video games, and all things sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Growing up, he wanted to be either a ninja or a maple tree. These aspirations led him to teach college English. Teaching freshman English led him to change careers. He lives in Ohio. His fiction and poetry has been published in Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and elsewhere. Jarod’s book of science fiction writing prompts, 100 Prompts for Science Fiction Writers, was published in 2015 by Sterling New York, a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble. Find him online at www.jarodkanderson.com

Just an Expression

The job posting on the Newark Advocate’s website read, “Do you have an expressive face?” Beneath that single question was an inky little drawing, like a grayscale watercolor, of a man’s face. The only other text on the ad was an address.

The face from the ad had a kind of careless artistry about it, like it hadn’t taken much time or effort, but still hinted at a real mastery of proportion. More importantly, it was my face. It wasn’t a detailed drawing, just a smudge of a thing. But the angle of the nose, the jawline, the receding hairline, even the stippled hint of a five o’clock shadow were all mine. I’d seen them all in the bathroom mirror moments before opening my laptop.

It had been more than five months since I could reasonably call myself employed, so I was ready for a sign of hope from the universe. Hell, I would have settled for something vague. The faint s-curve of a dollar sign burned onto my toast. A fortune cookie promise of wealth. This wasn’t vague at all. It was right there on my computer screen in black and white. My face was on a help wanted ad.

My hands started shaking before I had finished running the iron over my interview shirt. I hated interviews. I also hated walking into a job without knowing a thing about it, but getting evicted was still the greater evil.

I did my best to think of witty small talk on my drive to the office park. I thought we could have a laugh at how much I looked like the little drawing.

“Looks like I’m you’re man,” I’d say.

“Ha, what a fun coincidence,” my soon-to-be boss would reply just before offering me a sizable signing bonus. Sure.

I found the address and parked. The office looked just like every other office in the complex, a brick façade with mirrored windows that showed nothing of the interior of the buildings. The door swung open just as I was getting out of my car. A young man with tidy blond hair and a charcoal gray suit stomped down the front steps scowling and muttering to himself.

He saw me heading toward the door and shook his head.

“I wouldn’t bother,” he said. He threw his arms up in exasperation and continued walking.

I decided to ignore him. After all, it wasn’t his picture in the ad and he didn’t seem like someone I would want to hire anyway.

A Junker’s Kiss

When Julie’s teeth were made of bone, I used to imagine her drunk with lust and working to undo my belt buckle in the lab supply closet. That was my favorite fantasy from our time at Ohio University. I’d let slip some casual interest while we worked on our latest immunosuppressant and she, frenzied with the knowledge of mutual attraction, would pounce. In the dream, she was somehow both the aggressor and the shy, sweet lab assistant with the crooked smile and fatal dimples. Beautiful human contradiction.

She still had the dimples. But, now her grin was a crude mosaic of neon aquarium gravel, twisted bottle caps, and bent pennies. I thought I even glimpsed the head of an old G.I. Joe action figure replacing one of her lower molars. It all shifted and changed from week to week, but she never missed a shift and she seemed mindful to avoid any bodily alterations that would interfere with the work. She always kept most of her fingers and her thumbs for pipetting and note taking. That alone set her apart from the other junkers I’ve met. That, and her involvement in their creation.

Of course, it’s not as if we set out to create sentient trash heaps or even fuse living and inanimate materials. We were doing basic research aimed at addressing a pressing need in medical science. Targeted immunosuppressants, coupled with a precise cocktail of growth stimulants, could have revolutionized the science of organ and tissue transplants. If we had succeeded, we would have saved thousands of lives. Hundreds of thousands. Waiting lists for transplants would have become an ugly antique, an ethical quagmire left in the wake of medical progress.

God, how often did I give that speech to potential donors in elevators and in the offices of venture capitalists? It was such a good speech, though I had yet to consider the possibility of making organs and tissue irrelevant. It might still have been a good speech if not for the damn news media. They hardly bothered considering the science they were trampling when they sent the cameras to provide exhaustive coverage of any delinquent with the wherewithal to misuse my technology. Filming a tree. Ignoring the forest.

A subtle deepening of our understanding of immune response? No interest. A man mods his body to the size of a pickup truck and murders half a city block? Gas-up the news van and cancel the evening weather report.

“Julie, would you grab my notes for me? There, next to the fume hood. Thank you.”

Those teeth. Hard not to think of cleaning between the couch cushions. But those dimples. Hard not to think of other things.

I suspected it was a bit of a tribute when she began, but I was somewhat shocked when Julie became a junker. It was, perhaps, the second biggest shock of my life. Ranked somewhere behind losing my lab at the university. But, then, labs can be found outside universities and dimples can eclipse a great many flaws. Technical skill and financial creativity can also eclipse flaws. In fact, they can turn a back alley basement into a world-class research facility. They can raise the luminaries of an age above the backward-looking nobodies that would hold them down. They can…

“What’s that, Julie? An appointment…? Ah, of course, it’s 10:00PM.”

A young man, nearly ten feet in height, carefully stooped through the entrance, moving with the awkward care of an infant giraffe. Almost all of his height was in his legs, both of which were a twisting lattice work of bone and metal, rebar and fencing materials woven with ligament and hooked with bone spurs.

“Well,” I said, retrieving his record from my file and clicking my pen, “how do you feel? Have you eaten? Have you produced any biological waste?”

Julie flashed him a reassuring smile.

His eyes surveyed the room independently of one another. I made a note on his chart.

“I don’t need to eat anymore. Same as last time. You know that,” he said without looking at me. His human hand wandered over to the starburst of steak knives and flatware that was his other hand, exploring the bent tines of a fork with careful tenderness. Then, his hands changed position and he began feeling his flesh hand with his inorganic hand. I wrote “expansion of sensation” on his chart.

“But, I think it’s happening slower,” he said. “My body…it doesn’t take to the rest of me as quickly anymore. I need more. Stronger. You’ve got stronger stuff, right?”

I looked the young man up and down.

“It looks to me like you’ve had plenty for now. Just keep track of how you feel and we’ll adjust your schedule to–”

It’s amazing how quickly a person with six foot long legs can cover distance.

He had caught up the lapels of my lab coat with his human hand and cocked back the jagged ball of his other fist before I even had time to be surprised. My fear synapses were just starting to fire when his metallic fist began to shoot forward, but those synapses were quickly drowned out in a cerebral thunderstorm of anger. The stiff weight of my new right arm was just coming into play when Julie acted.

In one fluid motion, she tugged her left pinky out of joint with her right hand, trailing a razor-thin filament of wire behind it. The wire flashed through the air quicker than human sight and the young man’s mostly inorganic arm clattered onto a lab table before cartwheeling to the floor.

He clamped his remaining hand over the exposed bone and wire of his missing arm and took two awkward steps backward like a startled heron. He nearly caved in his own skull on the doorframe, but somehow managed to flail his way up the narrow steps and out the door.

Julie turned as if to pursue him, but I put my right hand on her shoulder, the swirling metallic of my mercury skin blazing against the stark white of her lab coat. No one could call my new arm “junk.” It was an elegant application of technology.

Her shoulders tensed at the sudden contact and she whipped her face in my direction. I don’t think I had ever actually touched her before. Her eyes were wide. We were both breathing heavily with the excitement and adrenalin.

The silence felt suddenly meaningful, so I tossed words at it. “I think we need to seek out a better class of test subjects and perhaps…”

When she kissed me, it tasted of copper mixed with the syrupy sweetness of hot soda pop. My knees wobbled, but she caught me around the waist and pulled me in tight with a pneumatic hiss of a sigh. Wobbly knees could always be replaced, but lips… I made a mental note that lips were just right.

Jarod K Anderson’s work has previously appeared in The Colored Lens, as well as in Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Electric Spec, Raygun Revival, Fourteen Hills, Stupefying Stories, and elsewhere.

The Shallows

Merpeople are just like regular people, except that they’re hideous and alien and inscrutable. Okay, forget the regular people comparison. The point is, they sorta saved me from drowning after they sorta almost drown me and now we’re friends. Okay, acquaintances.

It was just a beautiful accident that caused them to swarm me that morning. But, don’t blame them. It was my own fault. I was fishing. They hate that. Or they hate rowboats. Or they hate the color orange. Or they love it. Or they were drawn by the smell of the sun-warmed Doritos I was eating. Anyway, no one is to blame for what happened.

Tuesday morning at sunup is the best time to fish. That’s just fact. The little gulf inlet that points a crooked finger at my sleepy Florida town is all but empty then. It’s often just me, a few retirees, and maybe a couple other kindred spirits with the dedication and strength of character to call off work in the name of the angler’s life.

See, it’s all about laying the groundwork. On Friday, I might start to have a cough. Maybe I run into a coworker over the weekend and maybe I’m not looking so hot. Monday, I heroically drag myself to work, though nobody thinks I should be there in my condition. Then, on Tuesday, I’m paddling out to my favorite spot and dropping the anchor before the sun has risen enough to burn off the fog. The moment I cast my line toward the shore and the sunrise, back toward the poor saps working there, and wedge a breakfast beer between my knees, I always know that I’m doing the right thing.

This last time was the best yet. The sky was cobalt, the breeze was warm, and I didn’t see another soul. Perfection. I was shooting for flounder, running my lure low against the seabed, and I figured I’d have a good buzz on and a flounder on the grill before I’d usually be pulling the squished PB&J outta my lunchbox.

Everything was going as planned until I noticed that I was drifting more than made sense. I reeled in my line, laid my rod in the boat, and turned to test the anchor rope. I figured, hoping the damn thing hadn’t come loose, that I had better reposition the anchor, but when I went to pull it up, I found the rope was taut. But, not just taut. It was vibrating with tension and seemed to be pulling me off to sea.

“That’s not good,” I said to nobody in particular.

I wiped Dorito-orange fingers on my safety-orange lifejacket and considered my options. I could cut the rope, but that seemed a little drastic. I could swim to shore. Even more drastic. I could wait a bit and see. Sounded reasonable.

I gave one more tug on the rope, just to be sure. It was tight as a steel cable. I looked off at the open water, which I was quickly approaching, and decided that I’d better “wait and see” with knife in hand. My little rowboat wasn’t really made for the open ocean.

I was just clicking open the latch on my tackle box to hunt up a knife when an unforeseen possibility forced me to alter my plan. The metal bracket to which the anchor line was attached creaked like an old screen door then it, along with the entire prow of the boat, was yanked underwater. A moment later, I felt the rest of my little boat disappear from under foot and I was left bobbing like a cork near the mouth of the inlet.

Turns out, I should have cut the rope. The water was unexpectedly cold, so it took me a moment to jumpstart my brain. I was back online and thinking, “huh, that was odd,” when I was quickly forced to rethink my whole understanding of “odd.”

Hands, maybe a dozen of them, started feeling me beneath the surface. I let out an involuntary squeal and tried to pull myself legs up out of the water, but there was nothing to pull against. Trembling, I forced myself to look down. Vague shapes. All around me.

I crossed shark off my terror checklist first. Sharks don’t gather round and gently paw their prey. As far as I know.

Something like hope rose up in me when I had the thought, “asshole divers,” but that possibility quickly faded. I could see arms and shoulders. Dark, slick heads. But, the bodies tapered and undulated off to an unseen distance, trailing strange, streamer-like appendages. They looked a bit like those stylized oriental paintings of dragons. With that observation, final horror knocked the wind out of me, just as I was jerked underwater so hard I thought my hips had come out of joint.

I didn’t think I was going to die. I knew I was going to die. And I’ll say this for myself: I kept my eyes open. I almost certainly pissed my pants (for all that matters underwater), but I kept my eyes open. I’m strangely proud of that. Though, I really didn’t see much.

I felt like I was being jerked in several directions at once and I was sure that I was about to come apart at the seams. My legs were on fire. Then, I remember a moment of calm, followed by the burn and pressure as one of them bit me just beneath my right ear. Then they left.

For just a second, I registered obsidian eyes staring into my own, then sharp claws parted my lips and fingers like ice were thrust down my throat. It hurt. Everything hurt.

Other hands must have been shredding my clothing, but I didn’t feel it at the time. I just felt the frozen fingers in my mouth and the white-hot agony of the bites on my neck as the skin split wider and wider.

When the seawater poured down into the expanding wounds and met the fingers in my throat, iron-hard arms wound around my torso and began compressions, forcing the last of the air from my body and from my life. The pain in my neck and throat shifted. It was like opening a window and finding new air, sweet with a thousand smells you couldn’t describe, and realizing that you’d been holding your breath.

Is it weird to say I didn’t even notice when I stopped having legs? Well, I didn’t. It was all about breath for me. Trading air for water. Invigorating is too small a word.

I seemed to get new eyes thrown into the bargain as well. After the change, I could see everything. My broken little boat lying on the seabed. The shreds of my old clothes. Everything. I could pick out every fish for a hundred yards. I could almost count the scales on the merpeople as they swam back out to into the vastness of the open water. Fast as torpedoes. Without a single word or sign. Nothing at all.

I like to think they’ll be back. I’ve even caught glimpses of them out at the edge of sight. But, whenever I swim out of the inlet, the vastness makes me dizzy and I feel like I’m falling in every direction. They’ll be back for me. I figure they can’t just abandon me without showing me the ropes. I figure this is the equivalent of merpeople hazing, and we’ll all be closer friends for it in the end.

We’ll probably all laugh about this someday.

It’s hard to say how much my mind has changed. I still love flounder, though it tastes sweeter than ever before. I remember all of my life on land, and I get a giddy little thrill every time I realize that I’ll never have to go back to work again. I don’t think I’d even fit in my cubicle anymore.

I watch the swimmers and the dolphins. I study the comings and goings of the boats overhead. I visit with manatees and I toy with the idea of scarring the hell out of divers, but I always think better of it. And, most of all, I wait for my people to return. I’m the king of this sunny little inlet, but I’m alone.

Maybe some day I’ll get up the courage to swim out into the wide world and look for them. Maybe, but not today. Today, I’m pretty sure it’s Tuesday. There are more flounder here than I could ever eat and I even have some beer left. All in all, things could be worse.

Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a day. Make a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Plus, he’ll get to see if a manatee can get drunk. What’s better than that?

Jarod K. Anderson formerly taught English at Ohio University. Currently he works at
the largest botanical gardens in Ohio. Jarod writes about plants by day and robots, ghosts, and magic by night. It’s a good arrangement. His work has appeared in Escape Pod, Ray Gun Revival, Eclectica Magazine, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere.