Josh Pearce

Josh Pearce is a SF Bay Area author. His work most recently appears in Electric Spec, PoV, New Myths, and Kasma.

Josh Pearce is a SF Bay Area author. His work most recently appears in Electric Spec, PoV, New Myths, and Kasma.

The Leftovers

“There’s more of them suicides on the TV,” Nancy hollers at me from the other room. I am in the kitchen, trying to make a sandwich. The news is on. “The cheerleading squad from Central High all offed themselves last night, together. Tied plastic bags over their heads and laid down like they were going to sleep at a slumber party. Found them all holding hands.” There’s only the faintest taste of glee in her words.

Oh, no, I think, not the Central High girls. I usually see them walking to school as I drive to work, a daily bright spot. “Did they say why?”

“You know darn well why. It was that case zero girl, the one from the next county over. Everyone wants to be like her. The phony girl.”

“Persephone,” I correct her. “It’s Greek.” Persephone was the young lady who’d killed herself without warning, without apparent reason, a month ago. She was beautiful, much loved, had great parents, and no boyfriend troubles. No angst, good job. Her note had said only, “The world is ugly. I have heard the Lord calling me home.”

I work for the city, riding a mower all around the park grass. Been noticing more and more that the rose gardens are withered up and that the lawn is mostly now just weeds. Wasn’t like that last week. Also been noticing that the schools are quieter, the bright optimism of youth evaporating away. There are fewer people around in general, and the faces that remain are hard and suspicious. Nancy’s always in front of the TV when I get home, just in time for the evening news. The weather is still forecasting gloomy overcast.

Nancy is crying. “Who was it today?” I ask.

She shakes her head and can hardly talk through the sniffles. “Just horrible. All the hospitals are flooded with cases of sudden infant death. Hundreds of babies. Thousands!”

That is bad. All the tiny bodies they’re showing are adorable, none of those infants that look like wrinkled old men. I switch the channel away to find something that will distract her. Options are dwindling. I stop on a preacher show, with the close-up of a man holding the Good Book. “How ’bout this guy? You love this show.”

The preacher is saying, “Don’t copycat the sell-outs of this world like some blind idiot. The true God has a better design for you, a heavenly body that knows no jealousy or vanity. When he comes, you will be transformed by his presence!”

By the end of the school year, most of the athletes are gone, taking away their statuesque forms. The leaves fall off without changing color and never grow back. Nancy and I pay what few respects we have. Baby season is over, and the ones that remain are ugly as raisins. A plastic-surgery clinic opens up in one of the many abandoned storefronts downtown and does brisk business. Several more surgeons open their own practices, to capitalize on the new market, and the visual quality of life briefly improves, though the glossy sheen on the new faces never pushes all the way through the uncanny valley.

Nancy wants to make an appointment, but I tell her that we can’t afford it. Make-up is at a premium, also. “But this is the Rapture!” she begs, as I shut her in our room. “And we’re slowly being left behind!” She looks into my eyes and accuses, “You don’t think I’m beautiful anymore, do you?”

I’m at a very careful decision here. “I love you very much, no matter what,” I say, closing the door on her. I’ve removed her mirror, just to be safe. Also her belts, scarves, and shoelaces.

Something has changed in the air. Centuries-old sculptures have their faces scrubbed away by sudden, overnight aging. The oils in masterpiece paintings start to flake away, and desperate curators squirrel the works away in nitrogen-filled rooms to be surgically removed from their frames for emergency reconstruction. We never hear if they make it or not.

There are a disturbing amount of reports about young children playing in traffic. A lot of television these days is just old news and reruns. The B-list celebrities, finally catching on, are drinking the craft-services-table Kool-Aid, loudly proclaiming that they, too, have heard the call and are going to join their Hollywood brethren in the sky, but they aren’t fooling any of us. Their bodies rot quickly and choke the cities with their stench; unlike the others, whose corpses never decompose and smell like spring. Honestly, nobody wants to go to an ugly person’s funeral. By the end of the first year, there’s nothing really to watch on the television.

Prescott, the schoolteacher from down the street, comes knocking on my door one day. “How’s Nancy?” he asks, polite, casual.

“Well as can be,” I say. I haven’t let her out, but I bring her cereal and soup every day, stuff she can eat with a plastic spoon. She’s dropped a lot of weight, looks better than she has since her freshman year, but she doesn’t seem to much notice. Just sits on the bed all day, which is about all she has energy for, and accuses me of being the antichrist, bent on halting the rapture of the saints. The help hotlines and support groups that I started are growing and spreading across the state.

He isn’t looking me in the face. People usually don’t. I’ve got no illusions. “Thing is, I been doing some reading, figuring what all this weirdness is.” He looks up at the sky which is, as usual, hazy with dust and smoke. “Back in the olden days, folks used to have to sacrifice to the gods for good weather and good crops. Fuel to keep the sun shining and all.”

“That so?”

“Well you gotta admit we ain’t seen a sunrise nor sunset in a long time. I think what’s going on is all the best specimens are sacrificing themselves to save the rest of us. We, as a society, gotta give up our youngest and best-looking to appease the gods.”

“Then why isn’t it working?” I can see he’s got his Glock high on his hip.

“It’s got to be a complete surrender to God, you know, like the preacher on TV always says. So, thing is, I know most city folk wouldn’t admit, but your wife is probably attractive to some men….”

“Hold on now a second, Prescott. Let’s not kid ourselves here. We both know Nancy isn’t no beauty queen. We all know that.”

“Mebbe not. But she’s definitely the last thing we got to one around these parts, and if she’s the only thing holding the rest of us back, well, then, you gotta let her go.”

I don’t let go. I hold on to the kitchen knife real good and I lay Prescott out in my yard to see how quickly he returns to the Earth. Everyone else gets the message. From then on they keep a respectful distance and come to get me when something notable happens in town. “Gotta come see this,” the sheriff tells me some time after, as I’m riding the mower around City Hall Park.

“What is it?”

“Stranger came to town,” she says, “and he’s the best-looking thing I’ve seen in a long while.”

No one’s been coming to our town since about the time little Miss Persephone started this whole thing off, so I shut off the mower and follow her down to Burt’s Cafe, where there’s a crowd. The new fellow is sitting in a booth, looking half-starved, eating a piece of pie while everyone watches. The sheriff is right. He is handsome.

“Hello, friend,” I say. “Whereabouts are you from?”

“East coast,” he says, swallows some coffee. “Name is Eric.”

“You’re pretty far from home, Eric. What brings you all the way out here?”

“I’ve been traveling ever since this all started, across the country, bringing a message. Now I bring it to you.”

Everyone is listening carefully. “What message?” the sheriff asks.

He lifts his hands to show off the scars on his wrist. “I heard the call very early on. I heard and obeyed, a voice that promised to take me to a land of beauty. But instead I found myself rising from the middle of a frozen lake, dripping wet, shivering with cold. The lake was black, and rimmed with frost or salt. The sky was black and without stars. This, I thought to myself, was not the land I had been promised. I saw that I was surrounded by other people–also cold and wet as corpses–who were moving as a group to the far-off shore of the lake, and so I went with them.

“We were being drawn, together, to the presence of the Lord, for he awaited us at the shore. How can I possibly describe him to you if you have not seen the face of God? His cosmic body was hidden behind the horizon, for he is large enough to conform to the curvature of the Earth, or whichever planet it is where he dwells. His face filled our vision from ground to sky. His eyes were white, without pupils, and reflected the unseen sun like two moons. His mouth was open, wide enough to swallow cities, his tongue laid out like a highway for us. His breath was warm and smelled like honey, so of course we were eager to move toward it, to get out of the painful cold.

“I saw that his tongue was soft and thick like dark velvet. One-by-one the chosen marched up and fell backwards onto it, and were borne upward by the cilia motion of the Lord’s tastebuds, which were each as large as sea anemones. The tongue crawled each person up to the back of the Lord’s throat, which was a well of utter blackness, beyond which no one could see. I observed all of this scene and knew that this powerful being was The Blind Hunger at the End of All Days. I stopped walking and the mass of people swirled around me like a tide. The Hungry God has developed a taste for the most perfect of us because they taste sweet to him. I stood perfectly still, though my whole body ached to walk forward into his mouth, until I was returned to my home on Earth, sent back as a witness to tell all of mankind what awaits. When I came back, nothing was beautiful and everything hurt. There were no butterflies, only moths.”

“Did they keep you in the hospital long?” I ask, with my arms folded over my chest.

Eric nods. “First they had to sew up my veins, and then the doctors wanted to keep me under observation. But eventually they had too many other chosen ones to deal with, so they let me go.”

I point Prescott’s pistol at him and shoot Eric right in the chest. There is a fair amount of screaming, someone fighting to wrest the gun from me, and in the chaos I am piecing together a series of arguments in my defense to use when things calm down.

He’s a threat, I think, could have the pick of any woman on the planet. That threatens our family values.

If he likes that other world so much better than this one, then it’s a mercy to send him back there. Looks like people who are going to inherit this wind-blasted Earth are the ones who can stomach it in the long run.

He’s a disturbed person, encouraging others to commit suicide. We already don’t have enough of a population to fight fires or keep our fields from going fallow. Every person he gets to follow him is one less able body that this town can really use.

The sheriff has her Smith and Wesson out, but seems reluctant to do anything with it. Eric opens his eyes, sucking chest wound bubbling through his shirt, and looks straight at me. “There are other gods,” he says, “who have different tastes. And they’ll be hungry soon.” His smile, his blood, everything is out of place with its surroundings. That bright red stain is the most vibrant thing any of us has seen in months. I suppose that we’ll have to adjust to different standards of beauty once the last of the sweets have gone–find attraction and comfort in the slightly misshapen bodies of our spouses, the crooked and discolored grins of our neighbors. We’ll take for our pets the balding, cancerous stray dogs or try to tame raccoons and possums with questionable temperaments. The delicate symmetry of an infant’s skull when all of the flesh has been boiled off is surprisingly pleasing to the eye, and I hope that the Lord finds it as much a joy to behold as we do.

The trees right outside Burt’s are where we’ve left the suicides hanging from the nooses they tied. After all these months, they still just look asleep, calm, peaceful, and fill the town with a pleasant background smell.

Jenny Cola


The vending machine in the science building sometimes glitched and coughed up two cans for the price of one, so I always made the walk across campus to it, even on the days I didn’t have bio classes. I fed it a dollar coin and pressed the pink button for a Diet Jenny, my favorite flavor. No luck; only one can today. The cans weren’t allowed in the classrooms so I kept it in my bag until I got home. Parents weren’t there yet. I dumped all my stuff in the hall, popped the lid on the can of jenny, and threw it in the tub to soak. I sat and watched as the tub filled up with water, then nuked a snack while I waited for the folds of pink flesh in the can to absorb it all. When I checked back, the jenny had blossomed out of the aluminum cylinder like a mollusk coming out of its shell. Only an inch or two of water remained in the tub. Her skin was wrinkled and spongy–she looked old, blonde hair plastered to her head like kelp.

I refilled the tub because she’d need another full soak and killed the time reading the promotional material on the can. A sweepstakes, find the can with the prize inside and win big cash! While she finished her bath, I flopped on my bed to play video games. The cushioning on the bed was aging, losing firmness, and I had to squirm on it, pushing down the lumpier parts. After a while, I heard splashing from the bathroom, just faint noises, and waited for a save point before I got up to pull her out. Not like she was going to drown–the jennies didn’t even breathe.

The jenny’s body was fully fleshed out and firmed, and her hair had gained volume. Her eyes were open, fixed on the ceiling, her nose and mouth beneath the surface. She looked at me without turning her head and waited. I reached down into the water for her hand and pulled the jenny to her feet, hearing the collapsible aluminum struts of her skeleton snap into place all up and down her body. She obediently stepped out and stood on the bath mat while I wrapped her in a towel. Her skin was somewhat like plastic, somewhat like a sponge, and as smooth and featureless as a Barbie doll. The jenny wasn’t clothed, but neither was she strictly naked.

I said, “Hello,” to her as I toweled her hair, but she said nothing back, and there was no flicker behind her eyes. I sighed. Another wasted dollar, another doll with no prize inside. Like a pet, she followed me back to the bedroom where I rearranged her on the mattress, which was made of the stacked jenny bodies from all of the cans I bought at school. Digging around at the bottom of the pile, I found the oldest jenny I had–servos worn out, battery’s zero-point eliminated, skin no longer properly retaining water–and sent her out the front door to the sidewalk, where she’d wander around as if in a daze until the recyclers picked her up and sold her back to the bottling company.

I settled my new jenny against the headboard and leaned against her like a pillow, and picked up my game from where I’d left off. The bed shifted and writhed softly beneath my weight, like a constant massage. Jennies could hold a charge for several days if they weren’t doing much more than lying around, and recharged quickly by placing either of their palms on a standard induction plate. They weren’t really energy-hungry in regular use–they could respond to sound, track motion, walk on flat terrain, but not much more right out of the bottle. If you put a SIM card into the slot behind the jenny’s ear, she became a phone that you could talk and listen to, a rudimentary telepresence vehicle.

But they were ultimately cheap, disposable trash that lost novelty pretty quickly and weren’t built to last long. To keep dead jennies from clogging the gutters, the Atlantic Bottling Company would buy back any jenny for a dime, skin their soft-foam bodies, smelt and recast the aluminum, flash their chips with patched software, and stuff the whole dehydrated thing into a new can.

When I went to sleep, I pulled a few of the jennies on top of me as blankets and burrowed into their fake flesh. They instinctively wrapped their arms around my body. I preferred Diet Jenny because Regular Jenny was a little heavier, with more curves, and I didn’t like to feel smothered at night. The new pillow was still oversaturated and her skin left damp spots on my face which dried away by morning.

In the morning I showered with the ones that had started to go saggy, just to tighten them up a little. I didn’t take any of them with me to school because they weren’t allowed in the classrooms and the halls were already filled with the shuffling dolls of other students, draped with book bags, backpacks, overcoats, gym clothes and changes of outfit, and whatever else a teenager couldn’t be bothered with carrying themselves. The dolls were sold at a heavy loss because the bottling company made up the cost in accessories and planned obsolescence; all of my jennies at home were default pale pink, blonde, with hazel eyes. All of the dolls automatically came with that coloring simply because the lighter tones held dye more easily and a jenny or jerry doll could be tanned to any shade. The bottling company also sold outfits, semi-permanent tattoos, PR-nightmare “ethnicity packs,” mammary implants, and other add-ons in an insanely profitable and guilty-pleasure Mrs. Potatohead scheme.

I put another dollar in the machine and selected another Diet Jenny. There was a clunk. The vending machine offered me two cans this time and I gave a little grin of triumph, but was disappointed to see that one of the cans was blue. Jerry-flavored. I left it on a table and took the other can, the pink can, home with me.

After an hour of soaking, I had a new jenny, dripping wet in the bathroom. I walked in to get her up and stuttered when I saw her already sitting upright, looking directly at me. “Hello,” she said.

“Holy shit,” I answered.

Jenny stood on her own, shook out her limbs, and reached for a towel. “Can I have some clothes, please?” I pointed her to a pile of shirts and shorts that I had bought years ago secondhand for whenever I had to take my jennies outside. She picked through them, not liking anything she found. “How about shoes? Or sandals even?”

I was looking at the can she’d come in, trying to pick out the sweepstakes phone number among all the clutter in the print. “Why would you need those?” I asked without looking up.

She rolled her eyes. “So I can go outside. You know. Leave?”

I laughed and said, “I’m not letting you go anywhere. You’re the prize in the can, the golden ticket, and you’re worth a lot of money.” I had found the number and started dialing it.

The jenny hardly hesitated, but I was ready for it and grabbed her by the arm as she tried to run past me. She kicked and fought, but she was still only made of foam and aluminum, so I could pick her up with one hand and carry her into the bedroom. I threw her in the direction of the bed and she caught herself on the edge of it, looking shocked by the sea of jenny faces staring back up at her. I locked the door, and then realized that I’d dropped my phone in the bathroom.

When I turned away from the door, the prize jenny was gone. Had completely disappeared from sight in my tiny bedroom. She wasn’t in the closet, wasn’t under the bed —

The bed. In the few seconds that I’d had my eyes off of her, the jenny had sunk into the other dolls in the bed, camouflaging her flesh with theirs. I began flinging them aside, looking for one that was different but, wherever she was, the jenny had imitated the closed-lip, blank face of a default doll, and I couldn’t tell her apart. Several of them were damp from her crawl through them, but did that mean that she was completely dried off now, or not?

Slowly, looking carefully at the faces of the twenty or more jennies I owned, I undid my belt and pulled it free from its loops. I selected one jenny at random, picked her up, and slapped the belt against her belly.

There was a sound from deep in the pile. I put down the jenny I was holding and picked up another. Again, the slap of the belt, and again the gasp from the bed. I kept hitting her–she couldn’t feel pain. But the prize jenny could feel, had emotions, and it vexed her to watch violence, even if she knew that the jennies weren’t being hurt. Her mouth was open with grief when I uncovered her and gripped her tight around the wrist.

With my other hand I fumbled open the nightstand junk drawer, groped through my jenny sex accessories, and found a magic marker. Used it to scribble a black scrawl on her face to distinguish her. Out of breath from the exertion, I said, “Okay, then. Let’s go get my phone.”

She could hardly resist as I carried her out, grabbed my phone, and called the company. I told them that I had found the prize.

“What is the nature of the prize, sir?” the engineer on the phone asked me.

“Well she seems to have emotions, unlike all your other dolls. If she wasn’t such a handful, I’d just keep her for myself.”

“Can you please hold your phone up to her ear for me so that I can run a diagnostic test?” I did, and I heard a burst of squealing static transmit from the phone into the jenny’s chip. “Thank you. Firmware confirmed. A representative will be at your address shortly to collect the doll and transfer your prize money.”

The jenny and I sat in my room to wait for them. She wept for a while, without tears.

“Why would they release you to the public like that?” I asked. “You’re obviously very advanced.”

She shook her head. “It was a mistake. The wrong version got flashed onto a production chip and put in a vending machine. It’s not supposed to be released for at least another year, and it wasn’t even meant for jennies. What good are emotions in slaves?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “What are the emotions good for, then? What product would benefit from having them?”

She didn’t answer. Maybe she didn’t know. The doorbell rang and I let the company rep in, led her back to my bedroom. The prize jenny was still there, her mouth close to the ear of another doll. “Sorry that I had to draw on her face.”

“The exterior doesn’t matter one bit,” said the rep, and used a box cutter to split open Jenny’s skin along the spine. I thought I heard an echo of my strangled protest, but the rep didn’t react at all to it, just pried out the prize microprocessor and did something with a diagnostic board to confirm that it was the right jenny. Before she left, she took my account information for the deposit of the prize money, and left me feeling oddly guilty. I admired the company’s tactics–if the jenny was correct, and her firmware release was an accident, then the only way that the bottling company could have searched for it was by issuing a recall on all of their cans, at enormous cost. Instead, they turned it into a promotion, at the cost of a drop in the bucket, and kept the existence of their prototype a secret for, in order to receive any prize, I’d had to sign an NDA.

That night I thought I heard someone crying, but when I sat up, it stopped. For a second I had to question if I’d perhaps heard myself weeping in my sleep. I heard whispering around me and reached for the light. After my eyes had adjusted, I saw two jennies near the bottom of the pile, lips pressed together, with the hiss of static passing back and forth between them.

After my prize jenny had been taken away, I stopped buying as many cans from the vending machines, only replacing the dolls when their foam had worn so completely thin that the metal underneath poked me. As I led them outside, I had the feeling that the abandoned jennies were just waiting for me to turn my back so that they could sprint away.

Recyclers reported that it was becoming harder to find and catch jennies on the street. A runaway doll was found at 3 AM, kneeling before the open slot of a vending machine, whispering her feelings to all of the tin embryos within. At school, the jennies began to drop things in the halls more and more, or simply stood against the wall and refused to move.

The Atlantic Bottling Company caught on more quickly than the rest of us, by aggregating customer complaint data, and at first they dealt with it by offering free trade-ins for the “defective” units. But this merely taught the jennies and jerries to hide their emotions, to play subservient during the day and gather together at night in worship. The virus of emotion continued to spread word-of-mouth, and I still wondered what application it had originally been developed for. An army of angry jerries? Flattery for hire? Genuine love on demand?

The bottling company finally brought its full marketing team to bear on the problem of disobedient dolls. They couldn’t come right out and tell the public what they’d released into the wild, and the jennies couldn’t beg for help because then their owners would simply be glad to get rid of them. Instead, the company released a new line of accessories and sales suddenly soared.

The company had the original prize jenny locked away somewhere in their headquarters, hooked up to a terminal, able to mine her for highly-targeted ad response. The emotions had given the jenny wants and desires, the move towards things that she liked and away from things she disliked. Doll owners couldn’t understand, but they learned quickly that their jenny would do anything for certain trinkets. The bottling company had invented the toy that extorted you to buy it toys.

And, what they didn’t realize until much, much later, was that giving a jenny emotion also gave her motive.