Archive for the ‘Slipstream’ Category

The Soul Factory

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016

Somewhere not on the physical plane, there was a long room filled with machines, raw materials, and assembly lines: a factory. Its small, gray workers were stirring random mixtures of the black oil of various sins and the warm, sweet syrup of myriad virtues into a thick clay which could be molded by the machine at one end of each assembly line into the correct shape. Soulmaking: A tedious and exhausting job.

The soulmakers existed only for this job, though, and there were hardly ever complaints or transfer requests filed. The last worker to transfer out was one by the name of Chip, and the soulmakers idly discussed him as they worked.

“He said,” recalled the storyteller, a female soulmixer named Gold, “that this job had no meaning. What do you think of that?”

She got a round of shrugs in reply. It wasn’t that any of them were unhappy with the job. It was that none of them could imagine feeling strongly enough about anything at all to file a transfer.

“Got to be done,” grunted a worker called Smoke as he and his partner, Brick, lifted a huge vat of viscous black sludge between them and dumped nearly half of it into Gold’s mixing bowl. Brick and Smoke portioned out the more unpleasant qualities of the souls of men.

The Soulmakers were equipped with sharp minds in order to make decisions about how much of each material to pour into any given mixture. Their only task was to make sure that it all came out even at the end of the day, not for the individual souls, but for the net amount of each material used. In this way, the Soulmakers kept the balance of good and evil as new souls came into the world. What happened to the balance after they got there was the affair of the human race.

Smoke’s laconic answer reflected the group’s general sentiment. It had to be done, and who else was going to do it? They were the Soulmakers. There was no point, they thought, in not doing what they were supposed to, what they had been expressly designed to do.

This was why Chip’s story had reached the status of a legend among the workers. His choice to change careers would forever be a mystery to them.

Gold stirred a few more times and then pushed the mixing bowl toward Flint along the conveyor belt. Flint had the job of allotting talents and abilities, and had a brightly-colored selection of vials on his worktable.

The mixture before him was thick, dark and ugly. He looked up to glare down the line at Smoke and Brick, through the tinted lenses of his protective goggles. They just gave him twin shrugs of unconcern.

“Had to use it all somewhere,” Smoke said.

Brick just nodded. For some reason that no one cared enough to figure out, Brick never spoke.

Flint turned back to the task at hand and frowned briefly in thought. There were few substances that would be compatible with such an unpleasant mixture. He carefully poured in a large portion of a clear liquid from a bottle labeled Intelligence. It was absorbed quickly into the black mass and the conveyor belt whisked the bowl away.

Records indicated this particular concoction would be shaped into the soul of one whose heartlessness and hunger for power would drive him to rule over and crush a small nation. But Flint and the others did not imagine this future as the Soul Clay was molded by the machine and then deposited into the chute.

It never occurred to the Soulmakers to wonder about the fate of the souls they concocted. Destiny wasn’t their job, after all. Their attention was always focused on the next task.

Another bowl came whirring toward Flint and he could see from a distance that this one would be much easier to work with. The solution in this bowl was translucent and tinted with a pleasant purple color. He poured in some sweet-scented magenta Music and some gently bubbling Resilience. He was pleased with the new, smooth texture, though his face, like every Soulmaker’s, was all but unreadable behind the wraparound goggles and the pall of factory pollution and chemical residue. He sent the bowl along for its final mixing before it went through the molding machine.

The records showed that this soul would belong to a girl born in the poorest part of a city. Her unfailing positive attitude, sincere kindness, and remarkable musical ability would help her get out of the city, though, and she would make a brighter life for herself. But she would get sick before she was middle-aged, and her soul would leave the world too soon.

“Looks like you’re almost out of Intelligence,” Gold remarked, squinting over at Flint’s work station between mixing bowls.

“I can see that,” he replied shortly.

Gold had an irritating habit of commenting on things which were not only obvious, but also frankly none of her business. They all knew the assembly line didn’t run efficiently if the workers were constantly looking at each other’s work or in any other way trying to keep the big picture in mind. It was death to everyone’s concentration.

“Messenger?” Flint said, without taking his eyes off the bowl of clay he was perusing, “Could you fill this bottle, please?”

Yet another small gray Soulmaker, in goggles and coveralls, took Flint’s Intelligence vial and disappeared into the maze of workers and machinery, heading for the mysterious filling station which existed somewhere in the cavernous room.

The Soulmakers who had the job of refilling everyone’s supplies knew all the secrets and shortcuts of the vast Soul Factory. The rest of the Soulmakers, however, knew almost nothing about what lay beyond their specific assembly line, beyond the one task to which they devoted all their concentration.

That messenger could have vanished in any direction at all and Flint would not have known the difference, even if he had bothered to watch him walk away. What difference did it make what the outer reaches of the factory looked like, anyway? He was sure it was all in perfect working order.

“Brick,” Smoke spoke sharply from the other end of the conveyor belt, “Carry that over here.”

There was a pause, then, “What’s the problem? It’s not that heavy, is it?”

Flint sent the bowl along and glanced over, despite himself, feeling as curious as he ever got.

Brick was standing next to a big tub of something brown and thick; it looked a lot like mud, and it certainly looked heavy. But Smoke had less compassion than most Soulmakers, which wasn’t much to begin with, and he just said impatiently, “Come on, Brick. I need that, and I can’t get up right now.”

He was looking down intently at his work as he put a scoop of gelatinous green Envy into a bowl and recorded a measurement.

Brick reluctantly gripped the edges of the tub with both hands, lifted it, and began to walk around the conveyor belt toward Smoke.

Flint returned his eyes to his work as another bowl was deposited in front of him. He studied the solution and reached for the vial he wanted without looking up. His hand found an empty space where it should have been.

“Where’s the Intelligence?” he asked aloud, speaking to no one in particular.

The great events of the universe have started out with the tiniest of triggers. Brick’s foot slipped. There was something on the floor.
(more…)

Lady Bird

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

She leaned forward, bringing herself closer to the edge of the cliff. She often wondered whether everyone could see the way she saw. Especially when she was on the rope with her head between her legs, or hanging from the trapeze, her heels underarm. She thought then, can they see these lights? These shapes on top of the spectators’ heads, their most secret secrets untangled against my tangled body, and these darknesses in their palms, and the birds in their mouths, can everyone see them?

She peeked over the edge. A steep fall, then jagged rocks. Then water.

These birds, crammed between their teeth, are they swallows?

The man pulled her back. “Be careful,” he said. “You’ll fall.”

She pursed her lips. “You shouldn’t say things like that to an acrobat. It’s bad luck.”

“Does Lady Bird care about such things? Born on the rope. Isn’t that what the ring master says every night?”

“You think you know so much about me, don’t you?” Her eyes fixed on the ocean, she caressed the wooden box that lay between them. She tapped the crudely carved spade on the lid. “But I know nothing about you.”

“You know everything. Why do you talk like that?”

“What’s in the box, then?”

A gush of wind ruffled his hair. The girl shuddered in her transparent costume.

“You could have at least changed before dragging us up here,” he said.

“What’s in the box?”

“Why is this so important?”

She looked around. A wasteland. Can everyone see this? she wondered. The beach beneath them almost beaten by the tide. The pleasure wheel fading in the distance, its lights dim and pale. And the circus tent, off-white specked with desolation.

“Why are you so scared?” He reached out, his fingers brushing her cheek. “You know my life before the circus means nothing.”

The girl pulled her leg over her shoulder, pushing his hand away. She peered at him behind her thigh. No secrets over your head, no lights. Who are you? Why are you hiding?

“You say that, and yet you hold onto that box,” she said.

“Let it go. It’s just a box.”

“Throw it in the sea then, why don’t you?”

“Can’t you leave me this one thing? Everything else is yours,” he said. It wasn’t a complaint. Merely a statement.

“Everything?” she asked. “Even your lions?”

“Yes, even them. Say the word and I’ll bring you their heads.”

She put her leg down and glared at him.

“I would never do something like that.” Her eyes softened. “Bring me their heads… Silly.”

He chuckled. “I always had a flare for the dramatic.”

“True.” She rested her forearms and chin at the edge of the cliff and thrust her pelvis towards her head. She then bent her knees and hung her feet over her face. She looked at him behind her soles. Nothing. How are you hiding? You are the only one who can. “What’s in the box?”

“Oh, come on. Milk. It’s just milk.”

“Milk?”

“Yes, snake’s milk.”

She frowned. “Very funny.”

“All right,” he said. “A watch.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

She sat up and put her ear to the lid. “I can’t hear anything,” she said. “Be quiet.”

“I’m not making any noise. It’s the wind. The waves.”

“Hush them, then. What kind of a useless tamer are you?”

“Do you enjoy hurting me?”

“There is no watch in there. Tell the truth.”

“It’s dirt from my birthplace.”

“You were born on a ship.”

“You forget nothing.”

She remembered the first time he entered the circus tent, his lions on a leash, the box tucked under his arm. She was hanging upside down above the ring, yet she saw no shapes. No darknesses, no birds. Most people hide their secrets in their hearts, at the back of their heads, or under their tongues. Where are his? she had wondered. “Tell me.”

His face grew serious. He studied her small feet, dangling over the edge. “Fine,” he said, “I will. But you won’t ask for anything ever again.”

“Promise.”

“It’s two pieces of paper. One holds my name.”

She laughed. “Your name? Aren’t you the Desert Lion?”

“Aren’t you Lady Bird?”

“All right. And the other?”

“Nothing.”

“You said you’d tell me.”

“I did.”

She stared at him counting three breaths, an old balancing habit; one, earth, two, sky, three, my body in between. “Show me,” she said with the fourth.

“You promised not to ask for anything else.”

“I lied. Will you open it?”

“Why are you doing this? You know I can’t refuse you anything.”

“That is why I do it.”

“I’ll have nothing left.”

She shrugged.

“What if I don’t?”

“I’ll fall.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“Am I?” She put her weight on her palms and lifted her waist from the ridge.

“All right. All right. Sit straight.”

She obeyed. She sat cross-legged by the box and waited.

He fished for the small key hanging from the chain around his neck. He opened the box, pulled out two yellowed sheets and handed them over.

“Is that your name?” she asked.

He nodded.

“It doesn’t suit you.” She glanced at the second page, then looked at him.

He gazed at the horizon, silent.

“Was that all?” she asked.

He nodded again.

“Why keep it for so long, then?”

“I just wanted to have something that was mine,” he said. He retrieved the pages and put them back in the box. He locked it and tossed the key in the water. “Are you happy now?” he asked.

“Very.” She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. Is that a birdie between your teeth?

They sat side by side, shoulders touching. He stared at the sharp rocks underneath.

She suddenly turned to him as if she’d just remembered something.

“I’m working on a new number. Want to see?”

“Sure.”

“It’s not perfect yet,” she said, and threw herself over the edge.

A swallow soared by, almost brushing his cheek.

Natalia Theodoridou is a UK-based media & theatre scholar. Originally from Greece, she has lived and studied in the USA, UK, and Indonesia for several years. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, among others. She is a 2014 Rhysling Award nominee. Her personal website is www.natalia-theodoridou.com.

The Furred Devil’s Apology

Monday, January 20th, 2014

These chains are not necessary, sir. I admit, the opera house is in tatters. My claws never were a meet companion for chenille and gobelin tapestry. There are rows of cushioned seats that will want replacing. Yet no one was injured.

And I am myself again.

Much better. You are more than gracious. Ah, and tea served. One remarks the gentleman in you, Detective. Let us proceed to detail, that I might repay your kindness.

I will not soften off the matter. You will have perceived my antiquity. The bears with which you mingle in this vast city of ours are not so furred as I and their frame much diminished. Why that fit that came upon me? – it was the battle scene. The jabbing and parrying of those smooth-faced actors, so very choreographed, that bland depiction of slaughter. A groan, the actor sinks to his knees and the rapier through the middle is redrawn and flourished, clean and brilliant. War is not so, sir – I have seen – Forgive me.

I am perhaps the last living witness to that war between bears and humans now called the Only War, and be you willing I will tell you of it. Mayhap in the history you will find a morsel of our entwined past not known to you before and that will move you to forgive my rampage.

(more…)

Autumn in the Woods

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Lonely, the ghost of Autumn leaned against her tree and stretched her legs along the edge of her grave. A breeze sipped uselessly at her warmth, though she still tucked her arms into her dress. Her bones clawed from the earth, brown with the rot of years. Autumn envied them. Her eleven years remained untouched by the passage of time.

She prayed most nights, when the stars were out and the animals scuttled by in small packs. In the beginning she prayed for life. Then, as the years rolled by and she began to know the animals by name, she prayed only for a friend. She prayed for anyone to know she was there beside the tree. Anyone other than the devil-man who had put her there.

That October day, with her arms tucked in her dress and her eyes scanning the fogged horizon, a boy answered her prayers. At first she thought he was the devil-man, but his feet fell lightly and without malice. She dared to peek around the tree and saw that he was young, her own age at most. He had scraggly brown hair and boots that looked too big for his feet. He had red lips that looked pretty in the setting sun.

The boy saw her and Autumn was very nervous. She stepped timidly around the tree, her hands clasped at her waist. She wished that she could change her clothes. Her dress was tattered, her flesh grimy with dirt. Her hair hung in a mess of knots and bugs.

“Hello,” said the boy.

Autumn had not spoken in many years. “Hu-low,” she managed.

The boy stared at her, scrutinizing. He wore a striped shirt and torn jeans and had a long stick in his hands. “Are you lost?” he asked.

“No,” she said curtly. “Are you?”

“I’ve got a compass,” he said. He showed her his compass.

Autumn stepped softly toward him, but not so far from the tree that the shadows would come.

“I heard you crying,” said the boy.

“Oh.”

He went to her, swishing his stick high and low. Up above, a squirrel scurried along a branch. “Why are your clothes so dirty.”

“Because I live in the woods.”

The boy smiled. “Nice place to live. Do you get cold at night?”

“Usually not.”

He extended a hand. “My name’s Davie.”

Autumn liked his name and politely told him so as they shook hands. Dirt crunched out when their palms met.

“It’s really David,” he said. “But I like Davie better.”

“Me too.” She pushed her hair behind her ears. “Would you like to sit with me?”

Davie hesitated and then leaned upon his stick. “Are you sure you aren’t lost? I live just outside the woods.” He pointed into the distance. “You can’t see it from here, but off that way.”

“I’m sure,” she said.

Davie looked at her doubtfully, and Autumn feared he might leave.

“Please, stay,” she said hurriedly. “Just for a few minutes?”
(more…)

A Place for Lost Things

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Empty farmland and the occasional rambler: that’s the usual view from my bedroom window of a weekend. That’s why I noticed her; even wrapped up in a thick winter coat and a daft purple bobble hat, the way she moved dragged me to the window to get a better look. She was patting her coat and repeatedly checking the pockets. I knew that dance. I grabbed my own coat and went out to be of assistance. She looked up. When she smiled I realised she was quite a bit younger than me. Hound-on-the-prowl to dirty-pervert in a heartbeat.

“Saw you from my window,” I said. “Over at the farmhouse. You lost something?” I kept my distance so not to worry her.

She was on her knees scrabbling about in the grass at the foot of the stile marking the start of the Meriden-Blythe footpath. “Yes,” she said. “I think I dropped some keys around here.” There was a trace of something local in her voice, it bubbled beneath a dominant Kent accent.

Her car was parked up on the opposite embankment, the driver’s door open into the road. “Shall I shut that for you?” I asked. “There’s not much traffic comes through here but what does comes hurtling through like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Thank you,” she said.

I went over and when it slammed shut I said: “Wouldn’t want you damaging your car and losing your keys now.”

I climbed over the stile and looked in the long grass clumped there, crouching so as not to get my knees dirty. “Am I looking in the right place?”

She looked up at me and shrugged with her eyebrows. “I opened the car with them when I got back from my walk so they can’t be far. They must have fallen. Honestly, I’m not normally like this. I’m usually the one shaking their head and tutting at other people losing—”

“Don’t blame yourself; things are always wandering off around here. I’ve seen people before doing just what you’re doing. Patting themselves down and all that.”

She laughed politely. She struck me as the sort that maybe did lots politely.

“I’m not even joking either,” I said. “The bloke that used to live in the house across from me–”

“The white cottage?” she asked.

“That’s it. He used to call round here the Birch Lane Triangle. His stuff was always going walkabout.”

“There’s a lot of space around to here to lose things in,” she said. And then added: “It’s so lovely.”

“Two miles either side of us and I’m the only one living here at the moment,” I said.

“No one’s in the white cottage?”

“Not at the moment. Not since Rog went.”

“Rog who loses things.”

“That’s the fella.” I shuffled along a bit to look in another bit of grass, moving like some sort of man-crab.

“Have you ever lost anything in the Birch Lane triangle,” she asked.

“Only my heart and soul,” I said. “But that’s divorce for you.”

Another laugh from her: polite.

“No, seriously,” I said. “I don’t have enough stuff to lose. I’m only renting that place up there while I get on my feet. What I’ve got is all in a garage down in…” I shut myself up. “Don’t worry, we’ll find them. Rog used to say things always turned up eventually.”

“I hope he’s right,” she said, and we carried on the search in silence.

Felt like ten minutes had gone by when she said: “I wish I’d brought my gloves today.” She blew hot air into her cupped hands.

“You cold?” I asked. It was a stupid question. My hands were already numb. Not expecting a yes, I asked: “Do you want a cup of tea or something? My kitchen’s just there and maybe we can warm up and come back out in a bit.”

“Yeah, go on then.” I can’t say for certain, but it didn’t sound like she was just being polite.

We didn’t talk on the short walk to my place; I might’ve believed she wasn’t standing next to me at all.
(more…)

And Down We Fall

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

‘Always thought she was the cat’s mother, that one,’ my mom says, and across the road I can see Mrs. Trent dangling the bloody bed sheets out of the bedroom window, showing off because her dumb, lanky daughter’s become one.

My mom shuffles me inside and shuts the door; stomps through to the kitchen and back to making tea, flicking the radio on to drown out all the cheering and clapping and back-slapping. I don’t know why she bothers, the band will be here soon, making a racket with their horns and their trumpets; half-deaf old codgers in red suits and brass buttons, playing hymns over the screaming as the lord does his work.

It’s cold in the kitchen, and there’s a right bitter breeze coming in from the broken window -our Sal ripped the cardboard out when she forgot her key- and I almost ask mom if we can light the fire but I know that she’s saving the last of the coal until we’re near freezing.

“Put another jumper on,’ she says, as if reading my mind, snapping the radio off when Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ starts playing. I watch as she mashes corned beef and potato together and shapes in into wonky blobs, ready for frying. I do that, usually. I like the squish and squelch of it around my fingers, and nobody can make a neater circle than me, but I know better than to say anything. She’s the same every time it happens, her face gets that look and she’ll go off on one if you even dare breathe near her.

She melts lard in the burnt frying pan, and lights the nub of a cigarette, and stares out through the garden window as the hash crackles and browns, as the flames hiss as water from the pan of smelly cabbage bubbles over.

The front door slams, and I hear our Sal before I see her.

“That bloody Maggie Trent?” She shouts, and barges in and throws her bag on the table, her dark hair all over the place and her nose pink with cold.

“Watch your mouth,” my mom says, nodding with her head at Sal to move her bag so that she can put the plates down. My sister throws it on the floor, and a bottle of nail varnish skids out, and a new purple scarf. She must be nicking again, as she spent all her wages on those stupid platform boots that she can’t walk in. She picks them up before mom can see, and looks at me as if to say, and you keep your big mouth shut.

“I can’t believe he picked that Maggie,’ Sal says, ‘pissy knickers we used to call her at school, dopey mare.’ When nobody replies she slumps down into the chair with a sigh and starts biting her nails.

“And stop that filthy habit,” Mom says, sliding the plates across.

“Christ! Can I do anything?!”

I pick up the cutlery and put my drawing to the side, before mom starts on me. It’s an angel, just like the one that has been coming for the girls, and I’ve given it bloody fingers and sharp teeth and black eyes that I coloured in so hard that I nearly ripped the paper.

Boring hash and mouldy vegetables, again. We’ve had the same thing for days, since that grumpy old cow in the shop up the road stopped mom from putting stuff on the slate. “And I’m Bo bleeding Derek,’ she said, when I told her that mom would pay her next week.

We eat in silence. The cabbage is mushy and the hash is burned, but I’m so hungry I don’t care. “Eat us out of house and home, you will,” my mom used to joke, when I was a little girl, but that’s when she was seeing that fella who got that money off his gran. She doesn’t say it now. It isn’t a joke now.

I look up to lick the last of the mash off my knife, running my tongue over its blunt edges, and I see that mom’s staring at our Sal across the table, the way a cat looks at a bird in the garden, her puffy eyes like slits.

“Wha-?’ Sal mumbles, through a mouthful of food.

My mom’s eyebrows come down, and then she gets up; the chair pushed back so hard that the cheap lino crumples around its legs. She races over to Sal; grabs her and pulls her hair back, like she’s going to tie it into a ponytail.

“What’s this?” she says, pointing at what looks like a bruise on her neck, and my sister goes as red as ketchup, jerks her head back and tries to pull her hair back over it.

“It’s nothing,” Sal says, trying to get up, but my mom’s bony fingers are in her shoulders, keeping her pressed down on the seat.

“That’s how it starts you soft sod, are there any more?” She asks, grabbing Sal’s chin and jerking it up.

“Get off, mom,” Sal says, struggling, but mom’s strong and I think any minute now I’m going to hear our Sal’s neck crack.

“Bugger off!”

“They leave signs, they do, before they come-”

“Bugger off!”

“Let me check Sal, around the back-”

“It’s just a lovebite, a bleeding lovebite, get off!”

My mom jumps back like our Sal’s slapped her.

“From whom?” She says, speaking all cold and posh like the Queen all of a sudden; her face all twisted like she’s sucking a lemon. She stares at Sal like she doesn’t even know who she is, and our Sal just looks at her feet. In the quiet I can hear the Hallelujahs outside, and the cymbals crashing, but it feels noisier inside; inside my head.

“Tommy,” Sal says, at last, the word only half out of her gob before my mom jumps on her.

“That Baxter boy? Jesus Sal, don’t you want more for yourself?”

“I’m not going to marry him or nothing!”

“Just going to make a tart of yourself, then?” my mom shouts and our Sal flinches, but mom’s just getting going so she won’t be able to stop her now. ‘You need to be different, Sal, you can’t be getting your drawers off for any Tom, Dick, or Harry, you need to respect yourself, get a good man, shit sticks around here, my god, shit sticks…”

“And you’d know,” our Sal says, her voice rising, her cheeks burning, and I want to tell her to shut up, because I know she’s going to get it, but she carries on, “which of your fancy men is coming round tonight? Bob? No, he packed you in, didn’t he. Mike? Oh no, he cleared off too, Ray? Maybe –” and then it all goes off and mom’s cracked Sal around the face and she’s calling her a cheeky bitch and telling her to get out of her house and Sal’s shouting and crying and the table’s going and there’s milk all over the place and then the doors are slamming so hard that the whole house rattles and I sit with my head in my hands as all the noise goes up the chimney, and into heaven, and into the ears of an angel.
(more…)

A Canvased Soul

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Sariah Williamson was born purple and blue but not because she wasn’t breathing. She leaked colors, warm colors when she was happy and cool when she was sad. The nurses cleaned her up cautiously and handed her to her mother, and Sariah’s skin sweat shades of orange as she nursed at her mother’s breast.

Fearing their daughter’s life would be under a microscope somewhere, the Williamsons fled. They found a back country town few people wanted to visit and made a home for themselves. And Sariah would have grown up happy there had it not been for her mother’s discovery.

One morning when Sariah had soaked her cloth diaper, Sariah’s mother stripped her of her clothes and placed her naked on the newspaper. As her mother went about doing the laundry, Sariah leaked happy colors onto the paper. When her mother returned, she found a wonderful masterpiece under her daughter’s bum. She took it into town to show a friend and a passerby bought it on the spot. “It’s just so beautiful,” he had said.

From that day on, Sariah’s mother would place her down on a canvas to nap, and as the naked babe dreamt, the canvas would fill with colors that dazzled her parents and art collectors alike. And soon these paintings were sold all over the world.

Sariah grew older, creating masterpieces from her sweat and tears. Her parents built her a studio where she would strip her clothes off and ponder the day’s emotions over a canvas. She’d think about her poor brothers and sister who were constantly criticized by their parents for not being as gifted as her. The canvas would swirl in blues and greens. Sariah would think about learning to drive in secret, for she was the only Williamson child forbidden from doing so, and the canvas would soak in oranges and reds.

After the piece was finished, Sariah would promptly then take a picture and send it to her agent who would then find a buyer. The Williamsons grew wealthy and their little cabin in the woods became a mansion with four wings, a high fence, and an Olympic-sized pool within it, though Sariah didn’t swim in it often because she’d dye the water for a week.

But lately, Sariah’s paintings were growing dim. “I think I’m running out of soul,” she explained to her mother.

“That’s ridiculous. How does someone run out of their soul?”

“I don’t know,” Sariah said. “I just feel really tired all the time, all dried up and spent.”

“Well, you can’t take a break. Perhaps you should drink more water,” her mother said.

Her father wouldn’t let Sariah take a break either. “How will we pay for all our things? Would you have your brothers and sisters wear hand-me-downs?” he asked.
(more…)

Another Life

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

I don’t know what I am. Maybe I’m a God. If so, I’m the worst excuse for a God that’s ever been. The only thing I can be sure of is that I’m not normal.

The first time it happened, I had just woken up from a nightmare. Something malevolent had been chasing me through a twisted corkscrew of a hallway. I lost my balance and fell. As I rolled onto my back, I caught a glimpse of something jagged descending toward my face.

I woke with a shout, my heart-racing, arms and legs tensed. I lay dazed, barely able to breathe, trying to remember my own name. Rain pattered against the window just above me, while gusts moaned to one another in the dark.

Lightning struck with a sudden flash of light and a loud crack. My mind clenched and a stab of pain pierced my skull. Something inside me lurched.

One moment I was in bed, an after-image swirling across my vision, and the next I was somewhere else.

I stood on a hill, overlooking a city. A giant mushroom cloud dominated my field of view. White hot at the base. Yellow as it extended up. Red as it billowed outward. Dark gray at the rounded top. Each color shot through with streaks of black. It was beautiful and horrific at the same time. Larger than I could have imagined.

Two more, smaller but no less ominous, perched on the horizon.

I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I tried to turn away, but I was frozen in place.

Nothing moved. Nothing at all.

Ahead of me, an older couple clutched one another. A woman in a bright pink coat cradled a dog, crouched on a nearby sidewalk. Two guys, roughly my age, one wearing an Orioles baseball cap, froze halfway out of their rusted Ford Mustang.

Terrified and awestruck, I stared at a picture of nuclear Armageddon, and felt very small.

Not a single sound intruded on the hellscape. Not one car horn, not a single voice, not even the wind. Just empty, eternal silence.

This isn’t real. It’s another nightmare.

But it wasn’t, and in a flash I knew why. I wasn’t Bobby MacDonald, senior at Robert Murrow High School, candidate for class valedictorian.

No. I was Benjamin Joseph Shelton, senior foreign relations adviser to the President of the United States. B.J. to my friends. Benji to my wife, Melissa.

I was both at the same time. I knew everything about Bobby MacDonald. Every last detail of my nerdy little life. I remember asking Jenny Byars to go to prom with me. I remember getting Eric, Jason and Glenn to come over on a Friday night to watch the premier of Battlestar Galactica. I remember cursing at my mom and the resulting slap across my face. I remember my dad breaking down in tears when my granddad died of a stroke.

Those memories were me. Bobby MacDonald.

But I also remember catching a quick out from Skip Morris at the goal-line just as time expired. I remember my Bar Mitzvah. I remember asking Melissa to marry me at my parent’s lake house, and the joy of holding my newborn baby girl for the first time. I remember bringing my dog, Buster, to the vet to be put down. I remember the giddy, surreal feeling of meeting President O’Neil for the first time.

And because I was Benji, I knew the city was Washington D.C., and I knew why, most likely, there were mushroom clouds blooming all over the United States.

Eleven days ago, from Benji’s perspective, one of our Dart-class surveillance subs, the USS Lansing, disappeared. Intelligence reports placed her in the East China Sea and the top brass were ninety percent certain the Chinese had captured her. I attended one high-level meeting after another. The Pentagon had to bump my security clearance for a meeting with the President and Joint Chiefs. If I hadn’t been so terrified, it would have been a thrill.

The White House got me a hotel room ten minutes away, and a town car to chauffeur me. I hadn’t seen Melissa or the kids since the whole thing began, though I talked to them on the phone each night.

The whole situation spelled disaster. The Chinese postured, we blustered. It spiraled out of control. The UN stepped in. President O’Neil took us to DEFCON 1 earlier today, Tuesday, September 21, 2027.

Queasiness overtook me. It wasn’t 2027. It was Monday, January 21, 2013. Barack Obama had begun his second term, the East Coast continued their recovery from Hurricane Sandy, and a sick horror clenched my stomach at the thought of Sandy Hook.

I stared at the freeze frame in front of me. Nuclear devastation. An event that Bobby MacDonald could barely grasp, but one Benji Shelton could.

This isn’t an XBox game or a movie. It’s real. All too real.

I desperately wanted to cry, but couldn’t. A wild panic grew in my chest, flooding me with an insane desire to scream, long and loud.

Pain shot through my skull again.

When I opened my eyes and saw the dim outlines of the ceiling in my room, a burst of relief overcame my fear. My room, not Benji’s. I twitched a finger, wriggled my toes and raised a knee. I let out a shuddering laugh before dissolving into helpless tears.

At some point, emotionally exhausted, I blacked out and slept.
(more…)

The Flower Garden – Part 2

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Greg knew his thinking was impaired. He was halfway back to his father’s house, with Annie in the passenger seat nursing two doggy bags. And it meant that he was also going to have to run her back into town later. She might have some vague plan about staying over, but if she did, this was the worst possible way to go about it.

“It’s real close to the road now,” Annie told him. “I saw on the news there was one in Florida, marching through some sugar plantation. It was on track to go between two of the houses on the farm, but the alien budded about three days before. Split into two. The two of them set off on different directions, one heading for each house. Craziness.”

Greg watched the thing as they drew nearer. There were still cars parked on the shoulder. It was definitely closer to the highway than when he’d arrived.

“Nobody tried to stop them?” he said.

“Sure. There was footage of a farmhand with some kind of sugar machine, kind of like a bulldozer, trying to push one of them to the side. Even the budded ones are too big to budge. Their tendrils dig down deep. And the army and all what have you, they’re busy with the really big ones.”

Greg swung the car into his father’s driveway and pulled up near the old pickup and stopped. His father was on the veranda with the telescope. Greg climbed out and walked over.

“Company,” his father said.

“You remember Annie?” Greg said. “I brought her over to talk some sense into you.”

“Hey,” Annie said. “I brought wings.” She held up the bag.

“Wings.” Greg’s father smiled down at her. “I could go for some wings. You bet.”

“They’re just leftovers, really.”

“I’m not fussy.”

Inside his father arranged the wings on a plate and nuked them. In moments they were crispy hot again. “So,” he said, setting the plate on the table. “Going to talk some sense into me, huh? People have been trying that for decades.”

Annie laughed. She took one of the wings, and his father took one too. Greg just sat. He didn’t like the way his father looked at Annie. Not quite a leer, but it was at least flirtatious. He was too old and sick to behave like that.

“I figure you’ve got plenty more life in you,” Annie said. “I don’t understand this attachment to the land. There was a whole long period that you didn’t even live here.”

“That’s right. And there’s two things. First, what I’ve got is terminal. I don’t have plenty more life in me. Unless I let them experiment and, you know, quite frankly I don’t have the energy for that.”

“Experiment?” Greg said. “There are other treatments?”
(more…)

The Flower Garden – Part 1

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Greg Winden saw the living machine thing from the Lockheed’s window as the aircraft made its final approach into Garnet Hill. He’d always enjoyed seeing his father’s house from the plane whenever he flew in from Newark, but it was weird seeing a mechwurm just across the highway. He remembered his father grumbling about being so close to a flight path when planes came over. Garnet Hill was so small that there were only a couple a day, and nowadays the aircraft were so quiet you barely noticed them anyway. Really, his father had little to complain about.

The alien machine changed that. His house and garden were in its path. Both would be crushed under the thing.

Greg stared at it as the plane went by. His earset snapped off some photos.

The thing was like some ancient whale-sized bottom-dwelling sea creature. Bigger than whale-sized. Its black, segmented body would have looked little bigger than a snail, from the altitude, but the passing cars on the highway almost straight below belied its real expanse: they looked like toy cars. Like a kid’s micro-slot car set, with a fascinated frisky cat about to pounce on them. It had to be two hundred yards wide, and more than three times that in length.

Apparently it was one of the smaller ones. Some of the biggest, in Africa, had grown to several miles in length.

Then it was gone, the plane making a last banking maneuver, correcting for final approach.


In the small terminal, Greg saw Annie Smith in an airline uniform, checking baggage tags. She was still slim, though her hair had lost its sheen. They’d dated in school. Two months, then she got pregnant to one of the linebackers. For a moment–a year or more–Greg had felt like he’d never recover from the betrayal, but looking at her now, he felt no animosity. She was just another woman approaching middle age, still living in Garnet Hill.

“Greg,” she said as he reached for his bag.

“Annie.” He pulled the bag off the carousel.

She waved her scanner at the bag, then at his earset. “Not stealing someone else’s bag are you?”

“What’s your little magic thing there say?” He stared at her eyes. There was something about them still. Like a kind of homing beacon. Land here they said, everything’s safe. He was surprised at still feeling a physical attraction.

She glanced at the scanner. “Well,” she said. “Who’d have thought. It’s actually yours. Staying long?”

“Maybe. Dad’s not well.”

She nodded. “I hear that thing’s heading straight for his house.”

Greg nodded. “Crazy, huh? I saw it from the plane. Like a giant slug.”

“Yeah. A few months ago it looked like it was going to mow right through Garnet Hill’s downtown, such as it is, but then the thing budded and changed direction a little. People lost interest when they knew their homes and businesses were safe..”

“But now it’s heading for my old family home back off highway 91.” Greg watched other people taking bags and leaving the terminal, meeting family or heading for the Hertz kiosk.

“Sorry. I remember your Dad. Came back from San Francisco.”

“Shouldn’t you be checking those bags?”

Annie glanced over, then back at him with a grin. “It’s Garnet Hill, Nebraska. Who’s going to steal a bag?” She paused, watching his face. “Regulations. I’ve got to appear to be checking bags. Makes everyone feel better.”

“Sure.” Greg shuffled his bag up onto his shoulder and headed for the kiosk. “Nice to see you again.”

“Uh,” she said. “Go for a drink? While you’re in town?” She paused. “Maybe.”

He looked back around. Her eyes were wide, the grin had faded. Greg nodded at her. “Sure. Why not?”

She thumbed her earset and he did likewise. His gave a quiet tinkle that it had received her details.

“I’ll be in touch,” she said.
(more…)