Archive for the ‘TCL #22 – Winter 2017’ Category

Alone Among the Many

Monday, April 24th, 2017

The smell of cows always makes me nauseous. Not as much as when I first found out my mother had fallen in love with a woman, nor as bad as when our nosy neighbors thought they were living next to the bastard son of a Korean whore. No, that odor reminds me of the creatures and what happened to our heifer, and that alone is enough to make me sick.

We bought the calf from a farm ninety miles from our home, where we lived in an abandoned town in Huginn, Maine. We moved here after the incident in Portland. Abby said we would be safe in the old farmhouse, even though no one had lived there since Abby and her family were the last to leave in the 1940s, twenty years before. She would have been right if we could have just stayed there, but every now and again we had to walk the ten miles, past the trees with the odd carvings, to our truck and drive to Ashland to buy supplies. Buying a cow was my mother’s idea; a way to have a year round supply of milk without leaving the safety of Huginn.

We found an ad in the Yankee Trader and used a payphone in Ashland to call about the heifer. The calf was still available, but that call turned out to be our first mistake. By the time we arrived, the farmer was waiting, watching the rusting remains of Abby’s white truck drive towards his barn. His eyes followed from one end of the frame to the other, as if he was trying to decide whether he would trust his calf in such a beat-up old hulk. He pointed to the homemade wood cab resting on top of the cargo bed.

“You going to put her in there?” he asked me, ignoring Abby. If she was insulted by the slight, she didn’t let it show.

“That’s right,” said Abby. “Roger will hold him steady while I drive.”

“I hope your son is strong enough to keep her still. She may seem small, but she can kick hard enough to knock that wooden frame right off the back of your truck.”

“I’m not her son,” I said, blaming Abby for the farmer’s confusion. It wasn’t her fault, but it was always easier to hate her when people thought she was my mother.

“We drove a long way for that heifer and I don’t intend to leave without her,” said Abby.

“All right now, young lady,” said the farmer. “I didn’t mean any offense. I’m used to selling my stock to men with trailers meant for this kind of hauling.”

“I would have sent my husband, but he died in Korea.”

The farmer’s grin turned downward and I could tell he finally realized who we were. I thought he would refuse to sell the heifer to us, but I guess business comes before religion. “Well, I suppose if a woman wants to farm nowadays, then she should farm,” he said. “Tell you what, I can let you haul with my GMC. ‘66, steel construction with an I-6 engine. Suspension so smooth the boy and the heifer will sleep the whole way back.” He pointed to the blue truck.

His truck was nicer than ours. It was brand new and looked jumped right out of last month’s Digest.

“And how much are you charging for that?” Abby asked.

The farmer’s grin returned. “Oh, just an extra thirty-five.”

Abby scoffed. “My truck will do just fine.”
The farmer rubbed at his neck, but he gave us no more problems.

Before long, the calf was lying on a bed of hay next to me in the back of our old truck. Abby accelerated slowly onto the two lane road toward home—or at least the place Abby and my mother considered home. The first part of the journey would be the easiest; fifty miles of paved blacktop to Ashland. From there, it would get harder; twenty miles of uneven dirt roads and then we had to walk the calf the final ten miles to Huginn.

“Will we be able to get home before dark?” I called from the back of the truck bed, stroking the heifer to keep her calm. “You know how mom gets nervous.”

“Yes, Adeunim,” said Abby. The word was enough to raise the ire I had hoped for earlier. My mother taught me enough Korean to know it was a term of endearment for a stepchild. I was sure that despite their relationship, I was not Abby’s stepson.

Abby met my mother at a bereavement group outside of Boston a decade earlier. Abby had been attending for years, showing up a few days after her husband Arthur’s body was returned from Korea, sealed in a box and left that way at the military’s strong recommendation. The women in the group were either young Korean War widows or older World War II widows that never remarried. Their reaction when a Korean woman opened the door of the Dorchester Congregational church social room was a palpable hostility. It didn’t matter that her husband was an American or that he had died fighting the enemies of the United States. Instead, they saw only Mi-La’s features, pink-smooth skin, silky black hair and rounded eyes that looked like the heathens that killed their husbands. She ran from the room with Abby following her. Abby never went back to that group for consolation again. She found solace with my mother and whatever peace we had in this country evaporated as their love grew.

I tasted bile, groaned, and fought it down. The heifer was well-behaved and I didn’t want to barf on her. She couldn’t help her awful smell.

“Roger?” Abby noticed my discomfort. “Hang in there.”

I swallowed, said I was okay and changed the subject. “Do you think we’ll actually be able to stay here this time?”

“I’m hoping there are enough legends about Huginn to prevent anyone from bothering us.”

What legends? I thought as the urge to puke overwhelmed me.

“Damn,” said Abby. She braked quickly and we came to a stop at a metal barrier blocking a path running perpendicular to the logging road.

The calf remained still and I leapt over the side of the truck as if I were the confined animal, leaning over to grab my knees and sucking in the cool fall air, trying to force the nausea to pass. I knew we’d reached the end of the dirt road and would have to walk it, but it wasn’t until I felt less sick that I saw why Abby had slammed on the brakes.
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When It Sticks

Monday, April 17th, 2017

It’s Thursday Night, and Darrell is all set to tell the angels he won’t go to their meetings anymore.

At first he thought about just walking away–that is, going home after work on Thursdays, instead of taking two buses out to Jim’s suburban estate. On the other four weeknights he can walk in twenty minutes to his third floor flat, whose one distinguishing feature is that it overlooks the Seekonk River. Darrell suspects the rent would be a hundred bucks cheaper without this. The toilet gurgles all night long, and the neighbors downstairs aren’t always as quiet as he likes, but no matter–it’s home, and he need not share it with any other guy.

Just forget the meetings. They’ll get the idea soon enough.

Angels, though–he’s not sure what they would do. The last time someone left, Jim and his assistant leader, Tom (who’s still not an angel) went to the poor devil’s house and knocked on his door and asked nicely what was going on. Darrell doesn’t know how the conversation went, but the poor devil did not return.

That was before the whole portrait business started, though…

He likes more and more the idea of free Thursday nights. He could fix a proper dinner, like frying chicken in the Fry Daddy instead of stopping at the corner burrito shop and munching with one eye on his watch. He wouldn’t have to balance on a metal folding chair with a boxy guitar on his lap, strumming praise songs he’s privately never really liked, singing those songs besides, and leading everyone else in the singing on top of that. When his own attempts at transformation didn’t work out, he’d thought at least maybe he’d get out of leading the songs. An angel’s singing voice turns even a nursery rhyme into the music of the spheres, and fingers dragged across metallic strings interfere with this more than accompany it.

Still they urged him to play on.
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Cat Videos In The Time Of Expiration Dates

Monday, April 10th, 2017

On my eighteenth birthday I received a letter from the government. It came in a plain white envelope with a black stamp in the corner. Along the bottom, in faded red ink, was the urgent message, “TIME SENSITIVE INFORMATION: OPEN IMMEDIATELY.” I signed for the letter. Receiving it was mandatory.

I wished there was somebody else in the house with me, but my siblings had already moved out and my parents were shopping for furniture to remodel my room when I left for college. The silence in the house was absolute.

I took out my phone: “It’s here,” I texted Ally.

Ally: “OMG! On my way! Did you open it?”

Me: “Not yet. Door’s unlocked.”

I walked upstairs to my bedroom slowly looking at the envelope. It felt heavy in my hands, but that was probably only in my head. I placed the letter on my desk and sat in front of it. My dim, dark reflection caught in my computer monitor watched me as I tried to ignore the envelope sitting in front of me. I wanted Ally with me, but I could only resist the temptation for a few minutes before I opened it.

I put my finger under the triangular flap and slid it across the envelope. The sound of ripping paper filled my room. Inside was a single piece of paper expertly folded into thirds. The corners aligned perfectly. I wondered if there was one person at the Bureau that spent all day folding these letters into perfect thirds. It was, after all, a very important piece of paper that deserved that level of attention to detail, because printed on this piece of paper was the exact date of my death–my expiration date.

As part of the Third Law of Humanitarianism every eighteen year old received this letter from the government. The date printed on the paper was one hundred percent accurate.

My heart pounded in my chest. “Relax,” I said to myself, “there isn’t anything to worry about.” I was in decent physical condition. There wasn’t any trace of cancer, high blood pressure, or diabetes in my family history. My grandfather had died from a heart attack, but he was eighty-three. That couldn’t be blamed on faulty equipment. Of my immediate family my father had the shortest expected lifespan at seventy-two years, while my sister had the longest at one hundred and three. Everything would be fine.

I unfolded the letter:

Dear Matthias Williams,

In accordance with the Third Act of Humanitarianism we are sending this letter to inform you of your expiration date:

May 24, 2034

Regards,

The Expiration Date Bureau

“Damn.”

I glanced up at the calendar: May 22, 2034.

“Damn.”
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Finders and Keepers, Its and Not-Its

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

I’m not the hoarder, Granny Keeper is. I’m just the finder.

I found her the day I lost everything. My boyfriend, my wallet, my job. I had no idea where the boyfriend or the wallet went, I just knew they weren’t there when I woke up. Will’s stuff was all gone, from his Xbox to his nose hair trimmer, so at least I knew he wasn’t kidnapped.

Maybe my wallet was, though.

On the other hand, Trisha the manager was crystal clear on why I lost my job. You’re supposed to write the customer’s first name on the ticket, not bitter identifiers. Codependent Hipsters. Sugar Daddy and the Sidepiece. Short-Term Engagement.

At an aggressively cheerful chain restaurant like mine, such shenanigans are the kiss of death. Termination effective immediately. Absolutely bone-chilling terminology, I would have preferred to be released.

She was sitting at the kitchen table in the dark when I got home. I flipped on the lights and there she was, complacently knitting a bright red scarf. She later gifted it to me as a memento of our first meeting, and I love it now, but at the time it was garish and eerie. I mean, who knits in the dark in other people’s kitchens? Usually psychos, I’m guessing.

I didn’t say anything at first, I just watched her. She was round and soft and friendly looking, like Queen Elizabeth’s approachable twin, and she hummed That’s Amore to the click of the needles. I thought maybe she had wandered off from her family, and I tried to recall the faces of the missing people I had seen posted at Wal-Mart. She didn’t look familiar.

At first, the humming and knitting was kind of nice. Soothing. But then it started making me nervous again. Needles and all. “Hi,” I said, and waved, which was kind of awkward since I was only two feet away.

“Hello.” She laid her knitting down in her lap and folded her hands. “How was work today, dear?”

“Well, I got fired.”

She clucked her tongue at me, a disapproving mother hen. “Well, now, that’s too bad.” She patted the chair next to her, and I slid into it.

She invited me to sit in my own chair.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

“Not really.” I shrugged. “But we should probably talk about what you’re doing here.”

That was important to get out in the open.

“Why, I’m from Craig’s List.” Wispy grey eyebrows, aged rainbows of surprise, soared into the delicate lines of her forehead.

“Craig’s List?”

“Your new roommate?”

“My new roommate?” Echolalia, the long banished, obnoxious childhood habit was bubbling up. Ms. Jess, my poor speech teacher had worked so hard to break me of it. In her honor, I bit my tongue (literally, front teeth vivisecting quite a few taste buds) and forced myself to listen, without interjecting, while my elderly trespasser explained herself.

“Your ad.” She spoke the words deliberately and slowly, as if to a very small child or crazy person, which wasn’t really fair, considering the circumstances. “I’m taking the extra room. We’ll split rent and utilities right down the middle, but from the looks of you I imagine I’ll be taking over groceries. You’re skin and bones.” She dug around in an enormous patchwork bag, and pulled out a package of Fig Newtons from beneath a tangled web of multicolored yarn. “Please, have some,” she said, brandishing them at me.

Dismissing an irrational fear of being fattened up for Baba Yaga’s oven, I took one and chewed on it thoughtfully. I guess it was nice of Will to put an ad on Craig’s List for a new roomie. It would have been nicer if he had just told me he was leaving. Or nicer still if he’d just stuck around.

On second thought, a Craig’s List ad is a pretty crappy farewell gesture.

“So, how come you were sitting here in the dark?” I asked.

“Don’t talk with your mouthful, dear. No one needs to see that,” she admonished primly before answering my question. “It would have been rude to barge in here and turn on all the lights as if I owned the place.”

“Right,” I said, making sure I swallowed every last crumb first. “What’s your name?”

“You can call me Granny Keeper.” She resumed knitting and humming.

“I’m Bree.”

“I know, dear.” She patted my hand. “It was in the ad.”


Granny Keeper was flipping pancakes when I came downstairs the next morning. Like, literally flipping them. A procession of them soared from the spatula, stopped just inches from ceiling and spun, hurtling back to their blistering doom.

I hadn’t eaten breakfast in five years, but that was all about to change.

“I need something blue,” she said, handing me a plate.

“Something blue?” I repeated. Gah. I bit my tongue, gathered a thought, and tried again. “What do you need?”

“I’m not sure yet. It’s just so empty in here. We need something blue. After you eat, you can run out and get me some things. And then I’ll see which one I want.” She unclasped a dainty beaded coin purse and pulled out a crispy new fifty dollar bill. “Get as many as you can.”

I don’t know what was in those pancakes, but I said yes.
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Robots versus Prom Queens

Monday, March 27th, 2017

So few robot myths remain in our legends. Perhaps it’s because humans can’t accept the faults of their electronic children. Maybe it’s because robots don’t tell fairy stories. Anymore. I think neither wants to admit how similar we truly are.

–Fodor Ix

Folktales of the Spaceways, vol. 113

The Green Queen slammed her wand against her titanium-laced throne, “Commence with the defacement.”

Abe knew what he had to do next. He’d done it many times before. “I am sorry, Iron Jefferson.” His whispering voice hummed through his speaker grill. “I will be quick.”

“I do not wish to lose my face, Iron Abe. Can you help me?” said Iron Jefferson.

Abe looked around at all the beautiful prom queens of the Queen’s court surrounding them, their lithe, feminine robotic bodies contrasting sharply with his and Jefferson’s industrial functionality. He moved past the chains holding Jefferson in place. “I will do the only thing I can.” He loosened the clasps around Jefferson’s Faceframe. “I will save your face.” With the removal of the Faceframe, Jefferson’s robot body fell, suspended only by his chains. His smokestack ceased its sooty production.

“Iron Worker Abe,” said the Queen, rising. Her emerald dress swished as she stood. “You have the traitor’s Faceframe?”

Abe looked into Jefferson’s green eyes. The Faceframe felt so light. “Yes, your majesty.”

“Then connect it to the Make-over Array. I tire of looking at both of you.”

The array gleamed with surgical sterility. It sat like a headless chrome and plastic monster in its den. After locking Jefferson’s Faceframe into place across from his former body, Abe started the machine.

“My lovely subjects,” the Queen addressed her court.

Abe removed the defensive programming from Jefferson’s Faceframe.

“See the traitor before you.”

Abe knew Jefferson was now compelled to operate the Make-over Array against himself.

“For him, justice was swift and appropriate.”

Abe watched the construction arms descend and cut into Jefferson’s body.

“His Faceframe now runs the very machine that will bring beauty and order to his once treacherous form.”

The arms hacked and buzzed at the old, iron carcass. As Abe watched, the smokestacks and grills and dials disappeared.

“No longer will he be a threat to us.”

The shape changed. The contours smoothed. Wire veins and composite tendons knitted around the altered, iron frame.

“She is now one of us.”

The flesh crept from the Array around molded sinew, like living silk and synthetic fibers. A new prom queen stood naked before the others. Abe turned off the Make-over Array and watched the green eyes of Jefferson’s Faceframe turn black.

“Simply perfect,” the Queen declared. “See how I make beauty from ugliness. When humans were still aboard this ship, could they create something so wonderful?” She whipped her wand against the throne. “Delilah, take our new sister for reeducation.”

Abe watched one of the lady robots–like the others, but with spun, copper-colored hair around her bare, golden shoulders–step forward to take away the new one. Delilah looked at him.

The Queen sat down in her throne, borne away by attendants. After all had left the chamber, Abe removed Jefferson’s face from the Make-over Array.

He made his way back to his cabin, ignored by all who passed him. Once through his door, he found one of the few clear spots left on his walls and mounted Jefferson’s dead Faceframe with all the others he’d saved.
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By Sword and Song

Monday, March 20th, 2017

The Song rang out clearly from the battlefield. Aliara heard it in the lilting moans of the wounded as the ground spread crimson beneath them. She heard it in the joyful chorus of the victors as they stood triumphant over their foes. Before she’d become a Knight-Initiate, people had often told her they could hear the Song in the simpler aspects of life. Farmers in the scratching of their plows as they tore through the soil to prepare it for seed. Mothers in the bubbling laughter of their children as they lay in their cradles. Yet, for her it was the battlefield that cast its voice to the sky in a hymn that was both mournful and exalted at once.

“The plan worked perfectly,” Aliara breathed as she looked around for her horse. One of the Illdrin, the heathens from the south, had struck a lucky blow and unhorsed her. His part in the Song ended soon after.

“You are surprised, Aliara?” Havvermath rumbled.

Aliara looked up at her friend and mentor, and smiled at his gentle rebuke. “I guess not. I’ve heard people speak of the general in awe since I first began training to be a Knight. Some even claim that He of Many works through him in battle, giving the general insight into the minds of the enemy.”

Havvermath nodded. “I too have heard this.”

“Do you believe it?”

Havvermath rode silently a while considering the question. Aliara didn’t mind, she knew her Sword-Father to be a thoughtful man. She waited for his answer and let the sounds of the battlefield wash over, and comfort her. Spellchanters could be heard, using the power of Voice to heal the wounded and praise He of Many for granting them a fragment of His power. She smiled to hear this, feeling closer to the Most High and knowing that the agonized moans of the wounded and dying were but parts of the Song.

“Well?” Aliara prompted.

“I think it is for the Spellchanters to ponder the will of He of Many, and for us to deal death to those who would be His enemy,” Havvermath said.

Aliara frowned at Havvermath, but before she could reply she noticed their Sergeant yelling at two Knights. His face was flushed and his eyes flickered dangerously between rage and murder. Sergeant Falmere saw them and waved them over, glowering at the other two Knights as they hastily departed.

“Where have you been, Havvermath? Everything’s falling apart, and you’re off flirting with this doe eyed child?” Falmere growled.

“Sir, Aliara is a Knight-Initiate, and I am her Sword-Father, set to look after her until her own blade sings true.” Havvermath placed his hand on Aliara’s shoulder. “This was her first battle, but already she holds her sword steady and delivers death like a seasoned Knight. I have no doubt that she will soon have no need of me, and easily surpass my modest skill with a blade.”

Falmere snorted. “Always the humble Knight, eh Havvermath?”

“I only speak the truth. What is it you require of us, Sergeant?” Havvermath asked.

Falmere narrowed his eyes and looked around, making sure no one else was in ear shot. “The general was abducted and his honor guard slain while we battled the Illdrin.”

Aliara muttered a prayer to He of Many. “But, how?”

“We don’t know. No one saw the godless bastards come or go! Luckily, one of our Spellchanters managed to pick up their trail. He said he could sense the vestiges of the general’s incorporeal form or some such crap. Who knows what they’re talkin’ about half the time. All that matters is that we can track the general, and get him home safe,” Falmere said.

“I’ll alert the other Knights,” Havvermath replied.

“No!” Falmere barked. “No one can know! Only us three, the Lieutenant, and the Spellchanters are aware of this. If the rest of the Knights find out there’ll be panic, and half the damned army will charge off on their own tryin’ to find him.”

Havvermath sighed. “What aren’t you telling us?”

Falmere spit and scratched his chin. “There’s more god-cursed Illdrin camped to the south. An even bigger group than the one we just fought, and they’re lookin’ for trouble.”

“Then I will stay here with a squad of Knights and sing my last verse in the Song, while the rest of you go and save the general,” Havvermath declared. “It will be my honor to die so that the general may live.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Aliara said, gripping the hilt of her sword.

“Shut up, both of you!” Falmere shouted and pointed at a lone Spellchanter who approached. “You two, and this fool are gonna rescue the general. A small party will attract no attention, and you’re our best warrior, Havvermath. You’re easily worth ten other Knights.”

“I think you overestimate–.”

“Shut up, I said! This is Colvin, the Spellchanter who found the general’s trail,” Falmere explained.

“These are my escorts? Why so few?” Colvin asked with a frown.

“I must agree, this is foolishness!” Havvermath protested. “Let us at least take a full squad of Knights.”

Aliara waited for the Sergeant to explode and start screaming at Havvermath, but the rage never came. Instead he sighed and his shoulders slumped. He looked like a man drowning with no land in sight.

“I tried, Havvermath. I tried to have the whole bloody army ride off after the general the moment I heard about this, but the Lieutenant won’t hear of it. When I pressed the point, I thought the dead eyed son of a whore was gonna have my head for insubordination. You ever try arguing with him?”

“This is pointless,” Aliara said. “If it’s going to be only us three, then let’s stop wasting time and go. Each moment we wait could be the one that costs the general his life.”

“Doe eyes is right. Go! Get the general and bring him back to us!” Falmere shouted.

Havvermath nodded. “My blade shall free the general or slay all those who had a hand in his downfall. I swear it, Sergeant.”

“Let’s hope it’s the first one,” Falmere muttered.

Aliara couldn’t help but agree.
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Sanachi’s Escape

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

In the middle of the open plaza, a bullet spanged away, leaving a puff of thin, red dust trailing skyward. The old woman leaning over the well shrieked, threw her hands up to cover her head, and raced for the alleyway. Too late–the next bullet barked, and she went down.

Sanachi, hiding in the shadowed nook below the crumbling church steps, shook his head. Stupid. She should have hunkered down and waited. The guard would’ve gotten bored and left. Instead, she’d made great target practice.

He squinted against the harsh, late morning light. Atop the city wall, some 30 feet up, the single Peforri guard strolled away whistling a happy tune, his rifle slung over his shoulder.

Sanachi stayed put, despite the heat from the open plaza engulfing his tiny hidey-hole. He was twelve now, not some stupid eight-year old, and he knew a set-up when he saw one. Five years on your own teaches you things. Like how to wait.

And, he hoped, how to plan his escape.
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