The Colored Lens
Table of Contents
- Waterproof by Marcelina Vizcarra
- The Opening by Peter J. Enyeart
- The Broken Chair by Steve Toase
- Some Say In Surf by Greg Little
- The Virgin and The Dragon by Melinda Moore
- Wild Blue Roses by Jeff Suwak
- Drained by Dusty Cooper
- Damned by Nyki Blatchley
- Truth Banks by Damien Krsteski
- Magic Hands by Iulian Ionescu
- The Transceiver by J.A. Becker
- The Master’s Voice by Todd Thorne
By Marcelina Vizcarra
As the train pulled into Waterproof, mothers swept their children indoors, shutters slammed and locked, the sheriff pulled his wife’s brother, the town drunk, across the porch of the jail and inside to safety. The painted ladies at the Calliope, who knew a little something about temptation, peeked between the curtains at the couple holding hands at the depot. Newlyweds. Of course, they were in a hurry.
The steam whistle drowned the sounds of the fight at the apothecary where Tom Beadle chased his son, Junebug, into the street and yanked the bindle from the boy’s hands. The nearby tourists watched with relish, as if happening upon a silent film in real life, as the pair mouthed oaths at each other, one’s arms flapping in frustrated flight, the other’s legs kicking underwear and tooth powder out of reach. Junebug gathered his belongings and stumbled onto the train platform.
Tom couldn’t believe his son could be this naïve. Changing time-climates on a whim. Nobody in Waterproof rushed anything. Even elections and executions often stalled until worthier candidates were found. Now, the wheezing train needed only to catch its breath before stealing Junebug away. “Work another year,” Tom said. “Save some more money before you leave. Then, if you still want to go, I’ll match you dollar for dollar.”
“Thanks, but no thanks, Pa. I’m stagnating here.”
Stella had said the same thing when she handed over Junebug at the depot seventeen years ago. Tom blamed her for their son’s wanderlust–and himself too–since the boy had been conceived during that peculiar ambition of courtship, when everything resembles an escape-hatch from boredom. Boredom meaning the shackles of reality.
Even then, the chronodrought had already lasted decades, had already made people bolt for the coasts, the north, the east, where time precipitated, dense as water. But after Junebug was born, Tom changed his mind. As Stella boarded the train, he recited the jetlag of childhood milestones, hoping she might stay. She simply faced the horizon, as though she couldn’t hear him over the thunder of her thoughts.
“The weather will surprise you,” Tom said now. “The almanac predicts a monsoon in New York.” Junebug’s eyes gleamed. Tom instantly realized his mistake. No doubt the towered city was the boy’s chosen destination. Tom’s blame shifted toward the tourists, the retirees, and their Vernian tales of undersea travel and rockets to the moon like that Méliès film, _Le Voyage dans la Lune_, shown when Tom was a boy by a newcomer with a hand-cranked camera.
And hadn’t Tom shown Junebug the same film when the newcomer traded it for laudanum? Hadn’t he perpetuated the romance of escape? Waterproof was a prison, he might as well have said, a drying puddle where everyone makes constant concessions just to justify their optimism. Optimism meaning thirst.
Down the street, boxcars opened to allow the mechanical arm to hand out water barrels, rolled away to be rationed later by the deputies. The train panted like an animal stranded in the desert. A few moments more, and it’d lurch from its place in a bid for survival. “If you just stick around for a while, things will improve,” Tom said, raking his tumbleweed of beard. He eyed the cartilaginous specimens hanging from the butcher’s eaves, the dust-furred candy jars in his own apothecary window. “We have penicillin now. Didn’t have that when I was a boy. And the new dentist that turned us off tinfoil fillings.” Occasionally, a tourist left behind a music player, and the townsfolk gathered around it, listening to spongy snippets until the batteries gave out.
Junebug already had one foot on the car step, one hand on the grab bar. Through the windows, Tom caught the gaze of a tattooed woman drinking out of a plastic canteen, a man that looked as if he’d fallen face first into a notions box. He couldn’t compete with such inducements. Tom slipped his father’s watch into Junebug’s hand.
“Don’t worry, Pa,” Junebug said, swinging up and into the vestibule. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Hey, pal, where can I get a drink around here?” a tourist asked, cuffing at Tom’s shoulder.
Newcomers stumbled into the Calliope. The saloon’s furniture was strewn topsy-turvy, as though arranged by flood. “Well, hello, hello, all you tin-toothed cowards. Still desiccating in your hundred-year-old drawers, I see,” a polyester cowboy said. “I’m here to fetch my hat.” He slapped the counter with the impatience typical of tourists. “Sarsaparilla,” he said. “Haven’t had one since I was a boy, the day I forgot this, in fact.” The stranger snatched the child-sized hat from the lost-and-found box and balanced it atop his head.
“I found it this morning when I was sweeping,” the bartender said.
“No kidding? Then you might as well throw out all this other junk,” he said, pawing through the cravat pins and skeleton keys. “The owners are probably daisy fertilizer by now.” The newcomer turned his sunburned face to Tom.
“You look familiar.”
“I run the apothecary.”
“That’s it. You sold me a quart of lemon drops when I was a boy. Or should I say yesterday.” He threw air-quotes over his head which Tom thought made him appear just as juvenile as the last time he’d seen him. “That junk made my face pucker to the size of my fist. Still, fresher than anything in the train’s dining car. So, kudos on that. Ever been?”
Tom ignored him.
“I asked if you’ve ever ridden the train.” He snapped his fingers in front of Tom’s face. “Of course not. I forgot. You’re the same age as me. If you ever left, you’d be dead before you got back.” He let go a laugh that ended in a dry cough.
“Sorry to hear about Junebug leaving,” the bartender said, handing Tom another bottle of bourbon. “He was a good boy.”
The stranger tsked into his mug. “You let your son leave town without you?” The newcomer made a show of looking at his wristwatch, a piece that estimated time for six major cities. “Your grandchildren are probably graduating from college about now. What a pity you rubes are so afraid of the weather.”
Tom started to protest, but some fool started hammering on the steam organ. The newcomer had already drifted into another conversation.
Tom paid the bartender and slouched outside into the static of dusk. Passing the jail, he heard the sheriff and his brother-in-law laughing over a game of cards. He saw the tracks swerving east into darkness, could just make out the husks of dwellings abandoned when the lightning veered too close. One morning, the sheriff had found Jamison’s boy out there, skin sucked into the bone cavities, eyes as black as anthracite. Hear tell, the room had melted around him into a vitreous puddle.
In the apartment above the apothecary, Tom stumbled around the chairs and their ghostly doubles as he packed his clothes, his razor, the single postcard Stella sent from New Orleans–a naked woman wearing a mask on the front, indecipherable blotches on the back. When Stella’s body returned, draped with a sheet, Tom refused to look underneath. She’d arrived only two days after she left. While Tom concocted infant formula at the apothecary counter, she’d cavorted in parades, he imagined, riding in the oared rocket from the Méliès film.
What had he missed by staying in this godforsaken town, this island of desert? He pictured a lifeboat slipping past, full of doppelgangers lofting trophies and moneybags, rocking women on their laps.
His father had ridden out one clear morning and returned hours later, withered, repentant. He made Tom promise to work the apothecary, to keep his life as small and still as the dioramas Jamison sold to the tourists.
Before Tom locked his shop, he pocketed a daguerreotype of Junebug swinging on a cardboard moon. He’d deliver the photograph, that was all, because the boy had forgotten it in his haste.
As Tom waited on the platform, the newcomer strolled over, tipped his undersized hat at Tom. “Proving me wrong, are you?” he asked. Tom raised his chin.
Tom suspected it’d hurt to accelerate, his body distorting like rubber, or splitting like the mercury beads he chased with his pestle. Either one would be worth it if he could locate Junebug. A task, Tom reckoned, that would approximate jumping into a cyclone.
The express sped into Waterproof. Somebody got off the forward car. Tom boarded with the newcomer. The refrigerated air felt clammy against his skin. The gas of hygiene chemicals made his eyes water. He tried to ignore the women wearing men’s undershirts. Once seated, he noticed his reflection in the window. He looked old, tired. He was both. He didn’t recall shaving this morning, though maybe he was too drunk to remember. He lifted his hand to his beard. No, he hadn’t shaved.
From the other side of the glass, the reflection motioned to him, stepped forward. As Tom watched, the reflection dangled his father’s watch at the end of a broken fob, then abruptly slid sideways as the train jerked forward. Tom called to Junebug to wait and shoved past the newcomer, still battling his valise in the aisle. The train was out of town before Tom reached the vestibule. He gripped the bar and shut his eyes. Even through his eyelids, he could see the lightning, snapping like ropes against the horizon.
By Peter J. Enyeart
Vala glided over to the ganglion she was to be operating that day. It was always oppressively cold in the extremities of their Gracious Host, but she knew she would soon be warm, or at least oblivious, in her neural nest.
She was unpleasantly surprised to find that the Consecrated Pilot she was replacing was the survivor they had picked up, Drexel. The one who had an Opening when the Worm he had been piloting fell in battle.
She knew it was pointless to begrudge him his success, so she took a deep breath and then tapped his helmet to let him know she had arrived. His eyes opened slowly. His pupils were great black disks and seemed not to see her. What had those eyes seen? He nodded to indicate that he was sending a request for temporary CNS control of the ganglion during the shift change. He continued to stare at nothing for several moments, until his pupils contracted back into awareness, and his body shivered into life.
She carefully withdrew the terminal spike from his helmet and placed it in the sheath, formally severing his Communion with the nervous system of the Gracious Host. Then she grasped his forearms, planted her feet in the mound of neural flesh, and pulled him out of the morass. The zero-g inertia carried him to the opposite wall. He flipped around to plant his feet on it, and pushed off with just enough force to come lightly to a stop, floating just in front of her.
“Anything interesting during your shift?” Vala asked.
“Nope,” she heard his reply broadcast into her earpiece. “Smooth sailing.” Drexel clasped Vala’s forearm, and Vala reciprocated, inwardly cringing. He helped her up into the fleshy mound, and she soon found herself up to her chest in tissue.
Drexel removed the terminal spike from its sheath. Just as he was about to plunge it through the hole in Vala’s helmet and into her skull, she said, “Wait. What was it like?”
“What was what like?” he asked.
“The Opening!” she responded.
He smiled. “Like the brushing of cloth against your skin, or the scent of the meditation hall.”
“No, really, what was it like?”
He laughed, and his almond eyes seemed to glow. “Come talk to me in the mess after the ceremony. But for now, CNS is waiting on you.” Then he thrust the terminal spike into her brain.
She gasped, as she always did, as her normal sensory space was submerged in that of their Gracious Host, Mzee. Mzee was a massive space-faring creature dubbed a “Turtle” after the terrestrial organism it resembled. If a diamond-hard, jet-black photosynthetic sphere with a mouth stalk and eight limbs for grasping food and firing pellets to attack and maneuver could be said to resemble a turtle.
Once fully connected, the bland taste of empty space-time filled Vala’s mouth, but she could also detect the dim bitterness of the sun, vague pinpricks of flavor from the stars, and the mild sweetness of a distant asteroid. This was her brain’s synaesthetic interpretation of Mzee’s acute sense for space-time curvature. As for the Turtle’s electromagnetic sense, she soon heard her own voice chiming as Mzee emitted a radiolocation wave, and her body then warmed when the wave returned to tell her how far away they were from their quarry.
Sage Bindeen was personally directing the CNS today, and her voice sounded in Vala’s mind. We’re still pursuing the enemy Worm that killed ours. We’ve identified it as Tovian, but we don’t expect to catch up to it for quite a few shifts. It seems to be headed for the closest asteroid, which was recently ceded to us by the Nation of Tove. We’ve requested reinforcements, but we remain the only unit in the area and have been ordered to intercept. Hold the course.
Since today there were no changes in momentum to be made by firing pellets, Vala’s task, as on most days, was to focus on keeping her assigned extremity absolutely still and prevent any rebellion- “disharmony” was the preferred term- on the part of the Gracious Host, and in so doing hone her own mind through the exertions of Communion. Mzee didn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight today, but any lapse in vigilance might give the Turtle a chance to act up and embarrass her. She was determined not to let that happen again.
The shift was mostly uneventful, until at one point she had the eerie sensation that she was not in control of her body. It passed quickly, however, and by the end of the shift it was the continued failure of her ego to dissolve that still bothered her most.
“Do not seek annihilation of the ego; instead, understand that there is no ego to be annihilated,” Sage Bindeen said, quoting from the sutras at the start of the ceremony commemorating Drexel’s achievement of an Opening. Vala had heard it all so many times before. The ruddy black robes of Bindeen’s office flowed out from her body in all directions. Drexel, almond-eyed and curly-haired, floated next to her, and the rest of the crew not currently on duty floated about them in a loose sphere.
“We are gathered here because, after interviewing this Consecrated Pilot concerning his experiences after our recent battle, I can certify that he has had an Opening. To experience an Opening is not to attain Understanding, which is complete freedom from all attachments and escape from the cycle of death and rebirth, but it is a momentary dissolution, a first cracking of the door. Drexel, you have seen the sliver of light, and it is now your duty to hold to it, nurture and protect it like a sprouted seed, so that over time it may grow into the full flower and fruit of Understanding. Will you accept the calling you have been issued?”
“Yes, Sage,” he responded, and curled into the fetal posture that demonstrated his respect.
Bindeen continued. “We are the heirs to a profound spiritual tradition that is the result of thousands of years of our Communion with the Gracious Hosts. Let us all give thanks that, by virtue of the spiritual exertions we undergo in order to maintain Communion, our minds are honed, sharpened, and prepared to ascertain the true reality of the universe. Let us all renew our vows to humbly assume this yoke, to use our Understanding for the betterment of all people, to work in fellowship with the Gracious Hosts to provide for both the people’s spiritual needs, through the guidance our Understanding allows us to give, and for their material needs, through the raw materials in the asteroids the Gracious Hosts take into their bodies so that all might partake of their bounty.”
Vala thought they would all wither into unenlightened husks before Bindeen reached the end of her sermon, but at last it was time to chant the Sutra of Consecration that ended their ritual meetings. Vala raised her voice with the others, listening to the drum and the bells that kept the time, but her mind was elsewhere. So many of her peers had Openings, but she remained behind. What was standing in her way?
Drexel cleared a spot on the wall of the mess for Vala to latch onto. The air was dense and warm. Ropy vines formed on all surfaces, frequently bursting out into broad leaves. They sucked their meals from floating globes and looked at each other. His eyes were wide and glittering, as if he lived in a constant state of surprise.
“What was it like, having an Opening?” she asked.
After a pause, he replied, “The funny thing was, it wasn’t such a big event.”
“I know you’re supposed to say that, because nothing is a big event if you have Understanding, but both of us know it was.”
He smiled. “I suppose the experience of the fight and of my Worm’s death put me into a more receptive state. After we were rescued, when we first entered Mzee’s core, a chime rang to mark the shutting of the lock. It was the first sound I had heard in hours, and it felt like the first sound I had ever heard. It broke open a barrier within me, and I realized that everything was the same thing. The chime, me, the walls of the core, the Consecrated Pilots who recovered me, the dead Worm, the stars themselves… We were all just facets of the same diamond, and there was no need to cling so tightly to the one I had always thought of as myself. And the funny thing was, I had known it all along. So in the end it wasn’t a big event.”
“I wish I knew what you meant,” Vala responded.
“You do know. You just don’t know it yet.”
Vala sighed. “If we’re all one and the same, and if so many on all sides have reached Understanding, why are we still fighting each other? What good does Understanding really do us?”
“Understanding allows us to do what we have to do to survive, without hesitation.”
“Is that all it’s good for?”
“Of course not, Vala. It just helps you put all of yourself into whatever you’re doing.”
“But why can’t we just return to a simpler way of living, and stop fighting?”
Drexel said nothing. Vala knew why. The Cerulean Federation of which they were a part would quickly fall behind and be swallowed up by the other nations if they showed the slightest inclination to abandon the fight for raw materials.
“I give up. I don’t understand any of this,” she said.
“Vala, you just need to let go.”
Just hold tight and keep it steady again today, Vala, she was told at the beginning of her next shift.
Her breathing slowed, and Mzee’s perceptions slowly drowned out her own. With a mental sigh, Vala focused on her task. She would keep her extremity still, and she would do it for eight hours.
She concentrated. Occasionally her mind wandered to thoughts of Drexel, or to worries about ego, or snippets from the sutras (“those who Understand do not need to recognize themselves as having Understanding”). But she always brought her attention lightly back to keeping still, and as the day went on these distractions began to subside. She was still and would remain still. Therefore, the extremity was still and would remain still.
The stillness gave her time to reflect. Memories of the past came to her. Once she had been free to roam as she pleased. She would eat foodstones until she was full, and then head closer to whatever star she was orbiting to absorb the energy to digest them. She would go back and forth in that manner until she grew bored, and then she would move to a different star. Each food system had a different flavor, and she was a connoisseur. Traveling between them took time, but once she was in motion toward her next destination, she would sleep until the pull of the next star was strong enough to wake her. It was a good life.
She remembered meeting her mate. They had encountered each other unexpectedly on a particularly large and delectable foodstone. Neither had emitted mating signals, and so each treated the other as a rival for access to food. They fought for supremacy. They launched and dodged pellets, and darted all over the surface of the rock. No clear victor emerged before both were too exhausted to continue. She respected her opponent so much that she offered to share the foodstone, and to her surprise, he agreed.
They traveled together after that, forming a team that no other could match. Respect grew into friendship, and friendship into love. They emitted mating signals, and had children: their fiery, elegant daughter, and their quiet but tenacious son.
Eventually their family was drawn, like countless others, to a system that broadcast strong signals of plenty. Their son, who was almost to the age of independence, disliked the signals, indicating that they were unnatural and suspicious. But she and her mate were confident in their ability to ward off any threats, and so the family set off.
By the time they awoke, it was too late. Her nerves burned, and her body no longer responded to her wishes. She tried to signal to her mate, but was silenced. She tried to go to her children, but was stilled. She was forced to signal in a code she did not know. Parasites had taken control of her body.
She was made to eat far too much, particularly of the metallic foodstones, which had only ever been a side dish before. Though she was always engorged, she felt weak and hungry. She was always made to return to the food system’s water planet, where the contents of her stomach were torn from her through a gash the parasites had made in her side. Sometimes she had to fight. Innumerable Worms, their hereditary enemies, inhabited this system, but both Worms and Turtles seemed subject to the same infestation.
Much time had passed as she and her kind were forced to systematically devour the food of the system, until all that remained were mere crumbs, which were fought over in increasingly desperate engagements. An achingly fresh memory was of meeting her own son, now fully grown but seemingly stunted, in battle. The pellets they launched at each other quickly shattered her joy at seeing him again. Eventually he was outmaneuvered and exhausted, and though he was already vanquished she launched high-impact pellets into him repeatedly until…
Vala, help me.
A fist rapped on her helmet.
“Are you okay?” came the voice over her earpiece. “It’s time for the shift change.”
Vala opened her eyes.
“You have lost sight, Vala.” Sage Bindeen floated alongside her. “You are not the first to have such experiences. But trust me when I tell you that these are merely illusions that will entice you off the path that leads to Understanding.”
“It was not an illusion, Sage. The experience was so real. We really must stop…”
Bindeen waved her silent and regarded her sadly. Her narrow eyes were like a sparkling river threading between the creased canyon walls of her brow and cheekbones. “It has long been scientifically established that our Gracious Hosts are not sentient, and do not feel pain or fear. It is not unusual for young Consecrated Pilots who have overstrained themselves to project their distress onto their Gracious Host. But I assure you that the Gracious Hosts in their divine equanimity are neither troubled by our presence nor moved by our gratitude for their aid. Comprehending the truth of this illusion will be the next step in your quest for Understanding. The fact that you have seen such visions is a sign that you are progressing, however.”
Vala said nothing. She was confused. She wanted to scream and fight, to force everyone to face the truth, but the creeping doubt that she herself was the problem would not leave her. She didn’t know what to do, but the one thing she knew she must not do was jeopardize her access to Mzee.
Sage Bindeen turned and proceeded onward, motioning that Vala was to follow her.
“Vala,” she said. “All that is necessary is that you continue the devotional practice of piloting your extremity. Can I trust in your continued willingness to bear the burden of Consecration?”
Vala curled into the fetal posture. “Of course, Sage.”
“Excellent! Remain diligent, and you may have a place in the CNS on the next tour. But enough conceptualizing!” She laughed and clapped Vala on the back. “Uncurl, and let me give you a hug!” The massive woman’s warmth enveloped her.
The next morning Vala was back in the cold of the Eighth Extremity. The fugitive Worm had indeed fled to the asteroid and stayed there. They could see the rock now, and would reach it during this shift. They launched pellets to the fore in order to decelerate. It was a relief to finally have active work to do, but the impending encounter made everyone nervous.
A few hours later, as the asteroid loomed large in front of them, Bindeen contacted everyone: Target in sight. All ganglia, prepare for synchronization. Ten seconds.
A few moments passed, and Vala’s mind was opened wide. She had joined a mental orchestra with Sage Bindeen as conductor. Everyone knew what they and everyone else were supposed to do, and acted in harmony. Synchronization was quite draining, which was why they only did it when they needed to make Mzee perform complex actions, but it was also quite exhilarating, especially with a crew as experienced and skilled as this one. Vala tended to the solitary in normal life, but she craved the sense of union that came from synchronicity. A taste of Understanding. She could feel Drexel’s presence in the Extremity-Four Ganglion.
The asteroid was very large, and represented quite a prize. They could see nothing of the Worm, but it had to be lurking somewhere nearby. Were there others? They settled into a close orbit.
What is that? the Sage asked. Mzee turned toward whatever Bindeen had seen in the corner of her eye. Nothing untoward presented itself to Vala, but she launched a pellet from her extremity as willed, and Mzee approached the rock’s horizon. A crater soon opened below them. It looked to have been crudely carved out by a large chisel.
Another Turtle has been here quite recently. Not one of ours. Let’s withdraw a bit.
Vala and the other pilots launched a few pellets to lift Mzee away from the surface. As they did, a large Worm glided around from the far side of the asteroid, launching pellets from its tail to accelerate. Its mouth was open wide in attack position, and its diamond teeth glittered in the sunlight.
Evasive action. All extremities swung around and launched a volley of pellets to blast them away from their attacker.
Another Worm appeared, the one they had tracked here. It was moving fast to block their escape. There was a moment of indecision as the collective consciousness decided how to respond. Then the extremities turned on the newcomer. This compromised their escape trajectory from the first Worm, but their chances of fleeing were now small. If there were only two Worms, perhaps they could use the terrain of the rock as cover while they concentrated their superior firepower on their attackers. The tactics employed by the Worm pilots clearly demonstrated their skill, however. It would be a difficult fight.
As the battle progressed, Vala did everything she could to hit one of the Worms, but care had to be taken such that they did not launch themselves into one as they fired at the other. Though Mzee zigged and zagged all over the surface of the rock, the opposing pilots did a superb job of staying on either side in orientations that made it difficult to hit them.
As the Worms continued to evade the few shots she was able to get off, Vala grew increasingly frustrated, and she could tell the other extremity pilots felt the same. If this continued, the Worms would close in on them, and the situation would become dire.
They decided to concentrate the firepower of all the extremities on one of the Worms and take their chances with the other. The one on her side was chosen as the target, and they launched a massive volley. One of the pellets passed clean through, but the Worm, while clearly injured, did not stop moving.
Vala felt pain. Their gamble had failed; the other Worm had taken advantage of the opportunity and had bitten off the Third and Fourth Extremities. Drexel had been in the Fourth.
Struggling under the physical and psychological shock of the loss, they twisted the extremities around to a position in which they could fire on their attacker. The Worm quickly moved out of the line of fire.
As the fight dragged on and grew increasingly desperate, Vala’s thoughts turned to Drexel, and his response when she told him about her vision.
“Vala, even if what you felt was real, what can we do?”
She fired another volley at the uninjured Worm.
“Our civilization is dependent on them.”
The pellets passed harmlessly out into space, and the Worm turned on them.
“But what must it be like, your will always under someone else’s control?”
More pain as the Worm tore off the Fifth through Seventh Extremities on the starboard side in quick succession, narrowly missing Vala in the Eighth. Mzee now had three limbs remaining, two on the port side, and one on the starboard.
“Perhaps we should just resign ourselves to decline. Give it up, set them free.”
Vala gave up. She relinquished control of the Eighth Extremity, and it sprang to life.
What are you doing?! Sage Bindeen demanded.
Let Mzee take care of Mzee, Vala responded.
Vala! We won’t be able to establish Communion again if you let her go. Concentrate!
It was too late. Vala’s defection combined with the chaos of the moment was the opening that Mzee needed to rip through her neural bonds. The Gracious Host sprang into life and spun quickly around to fire on the uninjured Worm. The Worm’s pilots were clearly unprepared for the maimed Turtle’s sudden revival. It took several direct hits and was still.
Mzee then directed attention to the Worm they had injured previously. It dared not escape into open space lest Mzee shoot it down immediately, so it tried to flee around to the other side of the rock. Mzee lost sight of it over a ridge and pursued quickly. But the Worm was gone.
Mzee realized what had happened in time to smash a pellet into the Worm, just as it was moving up from its hiding place below toward Vala’s Eighth Extremity. A large, black chunk of the Worm floated away from the rest of its body, but after a brief pause it struggled onward and tore off the end of the extremity, including the pellet jet needed to fire off further volleys. The Worm was dying, but it bit off another small chunk of the extremity and tossed it away, working towards the breach in Mzee’s carapace where the extremity joined to it.
Vala ripped the terminal out of her skull. She gasped aloud at the shock of disconnection. Her head blossomed in pain. She struggled out of the mass of nerves, spinning out of control and smashing into a membranous wall.
She righted herself and pushed off toward the core. The cold enveloped her. The entire extremity shuddered as the Worm bit off another chunk. She proceeded onward. The Worm followed close behind.
She moved as quickly as she could, but the Worm was gaining. Each fleshquake was stronger than the one before, as the jaws worked their way towards her. It seemed the world was breaking apart. She pressed on while several more chunks were torn off behind her.
Another bite, and the section of the passageway where Vala had been merely seconds before was ripped away. The force of it knocked her against the other wall, but she could now see the opening that led to the safety of the core. She scrambled to get oriented and pushed off in resolute desperation. Another dozen seconds, and she was almost there.
A diamond wall suddenly blocked her path, only to be replaced by stars spinning past as she was flung out into space. Her air supply had been torn away, and she gasped for breath. Her mind was clawing, screaming, hissing, as it flailed her limbs in a vain attempt to save her.
Gradually, however, the futility of struggling overcame her, and Vala became still. Her fate accepted, she now remembered how rare it was for her to see the stars with her own eyes. Before it had been through the senses of Mzee that Vala looked out on space, but it now seemed that something had been lost in the neurological translation. Stars were everywhere she looked, all around her, flashing, dancing, shining, singing. She had moments to live but was comforted by the starlight that had traveled hundreds and thousands of years from all directions to meet her here now.
All clutter cleared, and she felt happier and more at peace than ever before. Everything that had hurt her and held her down was washed away. Barriers fell, and the universe seemed to reach out and enfold her back into its womb. Gratitude flooded her: gratitude for the stars, for the sun, for life, and for death.
A beautiful black mass that Vala dimly recognized as a Turtle’s carapace settled gently over her, and the mouth stalk gaped open to receive her. As her vision darkened, she could still see the tears of joy that leaked from her eyes and floated away, sparkling like newly formed stars leaving to take their places among the heavens.
The Broken Chair
By Steve Toase
With lengths of dried rosemary Helena tied the pieces of broken chair together into a frame. Splintered legs pointed out to sea. Crouching upon the water the storm dragged its fingers through the currents.
In the harbour fishing fleet boats were tied slack against the tide. Back and forth they echoed the breath of the salt. From her basket Helena took out nine jam jars. Their glass was scoured to opaque with handfuls of powdered bone. Each smelled of funeral bouquets, not that Helena noticed. All her senses had faded to worn paper lanterns long ago.
Pausing, she reached in her pocket for her dad’s photo. The young, proud, man bore as much resemblance to the old man, breathing his last in the now broken chair, as an acorn did to an oak. His sepia hands were clasped in front of him, unmarked. When they placed him in the ground his one remaining hand was scarred by fish bones and the crush of wet rope.
The storm came closer. A smoke-coloured wall spat at the reluctant sea. Into each jar Helena placed a single piece of fabric cut from her birthsheet. Taking a pin from her hat she pricked her left thumb and let a single drop fall into each jar. She watched the slow blood soak into frayed yellow cotton and nodded at the sky.
Through the wind Helena battled back to Bill’s cottage. Inside she placed the photo on a hearth cold for too many years. None of the fleet owned up to what happened to the insurance money. Closed as scales, and the law had no knife sharp enough to pry them apart. Instead an old man died mutilated, cold and broke, with no spirit left to pass over. Helena pulled another blanket around her shoulders and watched through thick glass. Driving rain reached the cliffs and shuddered them loose.
Helena woke early the next morning. Cup of tea in hand she walked to the broken wood frame. At the bottom of each jar sat a single knotted piece of fabric. In the distance the fleet set out from the embrace of the harbour. Engines tore across the dawn. She watched the boats make their way out to the fishing grounds. She waited while they set their nets. Recovering the first knot she whispered ‘Dad’ under her breath and undid the twist of fabric. As she reached into the next jar for the next knot the clouds above the fleet began to fatten and fill with the undead storm.
Some Say In Surf
By Greg Little
When I finally reach the beach, I begin to relax, confident that the angry mobs howling for the blood of my kind have been left behind. Wind whips the soaring causeway as I cross the sound onto the barrier island. Leaky and exhausted though my car is, I imagine the cold more than feel it.
The jersey wall is scarred with impacts. The only other car is wrecked from both front and back at the causeway’s bottom, island-side. On any other road these details would slip into the glaze of civilization’s accelerating collapse, just one more mysteriously wrecked car. Here though, the mangled hulk stands out, alone and forlorn.
The beach is drenched in bleakness, the cold bleaching the land and sea to grays and slates. The smell of salt makes the air sag in a sky dark with the threat of drilling rain. I wonder again what I’m doing in this place. Already I’ve seen half-starved humans scavenging along the older country roads. They watch my passing with nebulous looks, between yearning and hunger, in their eyes. Some are even armed, clutching at their weapons in intense debate.
The small barrier island appears completely deserted. Perhaps the human mind really does move in inescapable tracks, and a beach in winter is meant to be desolate. This is a good thing. I’ve come for the solitude. It’s the only thing likely to keep me alive.
After transferring the remnants of my life from my car to a house I’ve crowbarred open, I step out to the beach. I’ve never come in the winter, yet the churned water, the hiss of breaking waves and the brackish tang on the air are perennial, reminders of summer days long past.
Sheets of water slide up and back as I edge near the surf. I spin in slow circles, taking in my circumstances here. I wonder what’s happening up the coast.
The northeastern seaboard was burning as I fled. The Gimmies, enough of us, wage a diffuse civil war against the far more numerous “baseline” humans. For our troubles, we will probably be exterminated.
Despite my resolve to stop, I keep wading back into these swamps of conjecture. It should mean nothing to me. I’ve rejected my Gimmie “brothers” and “sisters” who insist that we didn’t bring this upon ourselves, who seek only someone else to blame.
Agitation flares at the thought of those left behind. I lower my head and close my eyes, trying to find calm. I can’t get excited. I must not grope blindly along old attachments. That way lies the curse He laid on me. After several deep and measured breaths, I raise my head and open my eyes.
And I notice I’m not alone after all.
She’s three houses down, draped in quite a lot of white and a large, floppy hat, as though this was the heart of summer and not an overcast winter day. My hand is up and waving before I can stop myself, and I snatch it back as if the air is laced with thorns. I’ve specifically come here to sever human contact.
Despite the slip, she makes no move to return the greeting or even acknowledge me. I catch a flash of brilliant flame red from beneath that floppy hat, easily the most vibrant color in the entire vista, fairly glowing in the gloom. Its richness invites fixation. I’m suddenly starving for color but instead I turn for the house.
It’s then, as she slides to the edge of my sight, that I see them. They billow out behind her, passing through clothing and chair both, ribbons of brilliance, some thin as threads, others thick as ropes. Wings of light.
I turn back suddenly needing to be sure, and the wings vanish. I tilt my view, and they are there again. I have my answer, and I make my way back along the warped, weathered boardwalk leading back to my house.
She is a Gimmie as well. Even more than before, I can’t afford to have anything to do with her.
That night the clouds blow themselves out to sea, and I’m able to see the stars, all the dappled brilliance of our slice of the Milky Way. This one thing is even more spectacular than my memory, for in all the long stretch of beach, only the house three down has any lights to speak of. I spare a glance, wondering what she is doing over there, what she is doing here, on this island. On my island.
Wondering who she is.
Another lapse of attention, and I chide myself, turning back to the stars, glittering like a carpet of heaven above me, more beautiful than I’ve ever seen and never seeming so far away as they do this night.
Inland, there are several distant explosions.
The following morning her gear is parked on a plumb line between my boardwalk and the surf, as though the beach shifted three houses down in the night. Her chair is empty. What sort of message is this? Why can’t she be content with her half of the island? Where is she now? Perhaps she decided to take a swim, I think with a laugh and a shudder, imagining that frigid water.
That’s when I notice her floppy white hat, bobbing out along the wave tops.
Before I really comprehend what I’m doing I’m in up to my calves, but though I’m aware of the cold, it doesn’t touch me. I’ve experienced this before–some tertiary part of my Gift–but I’ve never tested it in water. Somehow the fact that it carries over is more disturbing than exhilarating.
Despite the churn of the incoming tide, I spot her quickly. She’s floating as well, not too far from her hat. Her hair seems to have sucked up the salt water, its fire tamped down to a sodden auburn. Her skin, what I can see of it around her clothing, is going gray. It’s happening before my eyes, as I watch.
Calling upon ill-gotten and inhuman strength to fight off the slapping waves, I reach her and drag her back to shore. Her breath is terrifyingly shallow, yet I must admit I’m struck still for a moment by her elfin features, fine and lovely even through the gray mottling of her skin.
Her breath is shallow. It’s too cold out here. If she is to have any prayer of survival, she needs to be brought into the warmth. My brain arrives at these decisions without any consultation with me, and soon I’m easily hefting her waterlogged form free of the breakers. The surf has carried us back down the beach, so I jog not to my house, but to hers.
She mumbles a little as I, red-faced at what catastrophe demands of me, undress her and try to dry her, but she speaks no words as I wind her in blankets and tuck her into bed. She’s so cold that I pile every blanket in the house onto her bed. I begin to worry that the blankets will not be enough until I find a heating pad and somehow thread it into the heart of the downy bivouac, plugging it in once it is secure.
I watch her for a long time, and gradually her breathing steadies, and that gray, mottled look vanishes from her skin. A cloud seems to drift from her face as her normal pallor returns, and with it her sleep eases.
Sometime later the sun plummets into the western horizon as I watch from her sofa in the other room.
The next thing I am aware of is eyes upon me. I start awake, thinking my own eyes will open to familiar blackness and that sense of a cage within a cage, the inner one open, the outer one locked fast. Though it’s dark outside the windows, the house around me is bathed in light. I see her, the fire back in her hair, standing over me and wrapped in a white bathrobe. I briefly wonder if she owns any clothing that isn’t white.
She looks at me appraisingly, and I can detect no other emotion on her face. There is no gratitude, but there is no anger, either. Tilting her head in a way I know well, she views me out of the corner of one dark eye. I caught several glimpses of those luminous wings, like ribbons bunched together at her shoulder blades then fanning expansively out, as I put her to bed earlier.
“I can see you around the edges,” is all she says, her expression wavering not an inch. “You’re like me.”
“No two Gimmies are alike,” I say and wince as the words leave my mouth. It’s disgustingly rote, but worse; it’s like something He would say, except without the pejorative. But the tone, the slight lilt, alternately instructing, scolding, and mocking, is all His.
Her face is all thunder and lightning now. “I hate that word,” she bites. “Don’t use it again.” Her words pile atop my sense that the words are another’s, spoken in my voice. I turn away in shame, and again glimpse the wings.
She bustles about her kitchen, preparing something or other for the two of us. Twice I rise, intending to help in some awkward, intrusive way, and twice she instructs that I sit.
“If you can’t sit quietly,” she finally says, “tell me your Story.” The capital is obvious, and the context of who we are leaves only one story worth the telling. It’s not the first time I’ve traded it with other sufferers of my particular affliction. Other Gimmies.
“I’d rather not,” I say, really meaning it. Somehow her look, all innocence, splits the shell of my resolve after several awkward moments. That look seems to say “Oh? I’ll get it out of you sooner or later.” Sooner or later, Gimmies all traded Stories.
I lean back on the sandy couch and begin. White walls in the beach house give way to white walls of the waiting area.
My chit is glowing. It’s my turn. I can’t honestly say how long I’ve been waiting here, but it seems as though my fellow occupants have changed over three or four times since my arrival. I’ve heard that this close, though, time passes in a funny way, or seems to. So maybe I’m wrong.
I find myself staring at the slow, pulsing off-white glow of the chit, as if running my eyes over it, turning it in my hand, will reveal some essential truth, something deeper than “your turn.”
People in the room around me begin to notice; their eyes turn to me in slow sequence. A dozen pairs, each as different as clouds, each filled to brimming with different thoughts and emotions. Envy, anxiety, fawning awe. Even hate. The incessant murmur of the waiting room pauses, but just for an instant, as they wait for me to move.
I rise on shaky knees, and the babble resumes, grating ever deeper into my bones. I worry I’ve already waited too long. I’ve heard the same warnings that everyone receives, that too much delay will result in another being called. And there are always so many waiting.
The chamber I seek is down a deceptively short side hallway. The door opens before me on silent hinges, and inside is… dark.
“Come in, come in so that the door may close.” The voice is deep, comforting in a large way. It seems to resonate in a room bigger than this one is, but that is difficult to quantify in the pitch darkness. Even the bright white rectangle of the door behind me seems not to lessen the blackness, as though the light is made to wait at the boundaries like everyone else. Then the door swings shut as silently as it opened.
“Do not fear, friend. Is it darkness you see? It is different for everyone. The perception of me depends upon the mind of the perceiver. I apologize if it frightens you, but really, you have only yourself to blame.” Laughter, then, rich and amused. I wince, as though the rumbling curves of that sound hide rolling, sharpened edges.
I begin to get a sense of the room. At least I think I do. There is some structure, like a lattice, at the center. A cage, closed and locked. He is locked inside. Chained, perhaps. Yes, there is the faintest rattle of chains.
Doubt seizes me.
“I… I’m not sure I want…”
The door silently swings back open behind me, letting in a frail wedge of that too-weak light.
“Then by all means, leave. You are not required to stay.”
I almost do it. But the waiting room behind me has gone deathly quiet in the interval since I first entered this place. I can’t remember it being so quiet when I was out there. Somehow, that silence frightens me more than this black room. The door closes again, almost as though I will it.
Then He is in the room with me. His cage has opened as the door behind me closed that second time. I hear nothing, but somehow I sense Him close. I sense Him free.
“Do you…” I begin, then my tongue seizes. I try not to think of where he is.
“Do you bestow abilities or grant wishes? I… I’ve been told both.” Even in this darkened room, brimming with His power, the words sound silly when spoken out loud.
“I fulfill needs, not wishes.” His voice is perfectly patient, perfectly instructive. He makes a sound then, like sniffing, as though testing the air. “There are those, like yourself, who have… lost that which they need to endure this life, and that I can provide.
“I do not confer abilities, as you say, but my touch is heavy and your forms are soft and pliable, and I leave an… imprint. Most who partake of me emerge altered in some way appropriate with their need. But come, we must discuss your need.”
I goggle at the darkness. “I… I don’t know, really. I was misled in what I came here expecting.”
“Quite understandable. I will work with you. Now, what is it you need? You can tell me anything.” His voice is soft now, reasonable, like a doctor confident that all is under control with his patient.
“I ended something, a relationship, ended it too early, and I need to undo–”
“No,” He says, cutting me off with practiced brusqueness, “that is specific, much too specific.”
“I… but I don’t understand. That is what I wish done. Or undone, rather.”
“I believe it,” He says. “I can smell it on you. But I do not give you what you want. I give you what you need.”
I furrow my brow, fear giving way, edging by degrees into irritation. “What’s the difference?”
“That depends. Sometimes it is great, sometimes so subtle as to be nearly indistinguishable. But in both cases, the difference means everything.” He adopts a lecturing tone. “What you describe is a symptom, an example of your need. I cannot deal in such minutiae. Were I to give you what you asked, even assuming I could, you would simply find another way to inflict the same pain upon yourself.”
His words light a despair in me, kindling it into an acrid little plume of smoke. “Then what do I do?”
“Think. Think! What about this failed relationship troubles you so greatly?”
“Being alone,” I say, but that feels wrong at once.
“No. Again, that is an example.”
“I don’t… pain?”
“Pain over what?”
“Over losing her!” For the first time there is heat in my voice, and it seems to shock against the sudden chill of this room. I worry I have offended or angered Him. But there is a chuckle, dry and pleased.
“Good. Your passion means we are close. You spoke the word yourself just now. You feel pain for the loss, a loss you aren’t strong enough to bear.” It is an echo of what He told me earlier, when I first arrived.
“I’ve tried to bear it,” I say lamely, trying to defend myself for some reason.
“I know you have,” He commiserates. “You have struggled with it valiantly.”
“I can’t bear it any longer. I want it gone.”
“Of course you do. But do not be short-sighted. If I remove the pain of this loss, what happens when the next one, perhaps even worse, arrives?”
“Are you saying it will?” I ask this, horror-struck, and then I feel His hands upon my shoulders, horrifically normal hands, squeezing in a firm grip that is somehow both comforting and revolting. The chains rattle behind me now, and His voice resides just behind my ears.
“This world has no limit to the cruelties it inflicts upon those that call it home.”
“I don’t want this, not again. I… I can’t bear it!” The pain of memory, stabbing and barbed, is piercing my brain. I feel my chest tighten against it in a sickly flush of warmth. My voice breaks, and tears threaten.
“You are weak, and you would be strong.”
“Yes.” It is a small miracle, this distillation of my thoughts into so concise a message.
“You need never be forced to bear great loss again.”
“Yes!” This one is even more perfect.
“Good. That is good. Your need is clear to me now.” There is a sense of falling, as though the black floor has dropped away, plunging me into a deeper darkness from which I will never emerge.
From far away a voice intrudes into that remembered rush into the void. The voice of the woman I pulled from the surf. It breaks into my reverie from the beach house where we now sit, the smell of grilled cheese sandwiches heavy on the air.
“You are trapped, and would be free,” she whispers. There are tears in the whisper.
Now the memory of the dark room closes around me again, the reverie total in my recollection and recount. The sense of vertigo, of endless falling, is gone.
“So be it,” He says, and in his voice is the hunger, the anticipation, that will echo in my dreams from that day forward.
She is smiling sadly as I return to full awareness, handing me a gooey, toasty sandwich on a paper plate.
“Eat,” she says with soft kindness. Then, “She tricked you too.”
“She?” I ask, then am forced to endure such a long-suffering look it’s almost as if we haven’t only just met. The perception of me depends upon the perceiver. “‘It’, I suppose. It tricked us both.” It tricked us all.
“Yes,” she said. “You were the same as I was. You didn’t make the requests, not directly.”
“No, I didn’t. They were in Its own words, not mine.”
“I think,” she whispers, “that they always are.”
I nod. “They always are.” It’s almost a ritual, this conversation or something very near it. Gimmies always go through it after the giving of a Story, as though to confirm that nobody got a better deal, that nobody managed to trick Him. Her. It.
“What’s your Story?” I ask, knowing what she will say.
“Not now,” she says. “Now, we eat.” And so we do. The sandwiches are good, better than grilled cheese sandwiches have any right to be.
She stands abruptly after both plates are cleared away. “You should go.” Her voice nearly reaches apology, but she manages to pull it back.
“Do you fly? Was that how It marked you?”
She turns away. “Yes.” Her answer is hard and brittle, the polar opposite of the supple wings I keep snatching glances of. At her tone, I decide not to bring up the water and her near-drowning that seemed little like a drowning. Instead I stumble lamely into a different question, equally bad.
“Will you show me sometime?”
“No!” Her voice is laced with pain, riddling with cracks, then she pulls that back as well into her trademark monotone. “No.” At last the detachment fails her, and she falls into that tearful whisper I recall intruding into the telling of my Story. “Please don’t make me.”
I can only nod. Neither of us speaks another word as I leave, and that’s good. I can’t afford any attachments here. As I tromp across cold sand made luminous in the glare of the fat moon, I am already planning how long I need to prepare to leave the island and go elsewhere.
I wake the next morning to the sounds and smells of a kitchen in use. My kitchen. Suspicion and alarm give way to curiosity and rue. Who else could it be? That’s what I get for ruining the lock. I get up and dress in a ragged t-shirt and pajama pants. Beach bum chic.
She’s making scrambled eggs and something that requires batter. “The last of my eggs,” she says. “They were close to going bad. I didn’t eat them as fast as I thought, so I hope you like a lot of them. Hard to imagine being worried about cholesterol now.” Her smile is crooked, every bit as rueful as my waking thoughts.
Her tone unsettles me for a moment. There was a sense of finality when she spoke about the last of her eggs. Like they were the last ever. I think back to pulling her from the surf, and that only inflames the theories I’d formed laying awake the previous night.
“I didn’t sleep,” she says, eerily echoing my own thoughts, and by the look of her eyes, she isn’t exaggerating much. “I never thanked you for pulling me out yesterday.”
I hesitate at the last stair, as though to step down to her level is as irrevocable as entering that dark room with my glowing chit had been. For an instant we teeter there, the pair of us, poised between the expected societal niceties and an uglier truth that one of us knows and the other can guess.
“I got the impression that you didn’t really want to thank me,” I say, gently. The plunge is not as harrowing as it looked from above. She lowers her eyes beneath that shaggy curtain of crimson, but does not break down as I feared she might.
“I’d been planning on it before you arrived. After you got here I… hesitated. But you didn’t seem to want to be approached.”
“So you arranged it to happen right behind my house?”
“I… I think I wanted to at least give you the option.” She doesn’t sound nearly as sheepish or shamed as she ought. She sounds dead.
“It’s water, then? Water is your Catch?”
“When I was telling you my Story, you spoke once, something about being trapped, and wanting freedom.”
“Yes.” She is refusing to meet my gaze again, and her voice has recovered its tremor.
“Then I assume your Catch didn’t appear until–”
“Until I got here. As I got here.”
I recall the wrecked car and the damaged causeway.
“You can’t even cross salt water? Even over it?” Before she can reply, I’m already marveling at the wickedness of it.
“The sound between the island and the mainland is salty enough, apparently. When I realized, I tried to cross the causeway in my car. I began to go numb and black out less than halfway across. It was… painless, almost like falling asleep in a warm, soft bed. It was terrifying how seductive it was, but only later, after I’d woken back up.”
“And how did you manage that?”
“I shifted the car back into neutral just as I went under. All I could do was hope that I didn’t roll back down into something that would kill me.”
“I have a car. If I drive–” But she was shaking her head and laughing–or sobbing–silently within the curtain of her hair.
“No. That’s not the right way to think about it at all. It’s not a question of having someone else carry me over or of getting across fast enough to avoid slipping into a coma. Don’t think of it in terms of having hard and fast rules. It doesn’t want me to escape. That was the Catch. It’s not going to let me cross any body of salty water by any means.”
And that sounds all too plausible. In fact, I realize at once that I believe her, that I’m certain she’s right. I can almost feel It inside me, squirming quietly in gleeful resonance with the cruelty of her notion. And what does that notion mean for me?
“When you say the last of your eggs–”
“I can’t get any more,” she says. “I’ve already cleared out the island’s general store. When I run out of food, I run out. Why do you think I was trying to kill myself?”
A week passes with me carefully avoiding the subject of her inability to leave the island. It’s a balance I seek. And between my constant self-reminders of the dozens of homes worth of non-perishable food on the island and her seeming satisfaction with my increasingly frequent company, it’s a balance I keep. But just for a week. After that, the empathy begins to creep in, twisting my bowels in anxiety even as it warms my heart.
It happens when I walk in on her in the bath.
It’s an accident, of course, an unlocked door and no light peaking out from beneath to warn me. The water in the bath is cold. I can tell that at once by the lack of fog on the mirror. She makes no move to cover herself, and I make no move to look away, but there is no recognition, on either side, of the vulnerability this forces upon her.
My first assumption, just a random scramble for meaning in what I’m seeing, is that the water heater is broken. The weather is just starting to turn, the last teeth of winter are wearing down with the grinding passage of time, but a broken water heater would still necessitate that she switch homes.
Then I notice that she is sweating. Sweating in a cold bath. Shivering, but not from cold. From fear. In a momentary spike of my own fear and a singular palpitation of the heart, I dip a finger into the water and taste it.
Not salt. Fresh. Or near enough, with her skin submerged in it for enough time to wrinkle. Then it hits me. This is her roller coaster. Frightening because of its similarity to her Catch, exhilarating for the same reason. And not dangerous. Not to the body, at least, though judging by the glazed look in her eyes, I can’t say the same for her mind.
I call to her once, twice, and on the third attempt, the focus returns to her eyes. Horror dawns there, but horror of a different kind.
“What are you doing?” she cries, making a move at last to cover herself, and the spell lifts from me at that moment. I sputter something about being concerned when she didn’t respond, then back out of the room, and for once I’m hard pressed to describe which of us is redder.
“Here, take this,” she says, and from out of nowhere produces a shotgun, an over-under double barreled affair. I must be staring, because she grins crookedly. “What?”
“Where did you get this?”
“In another house, further west down the island, behind a few locked doors. That reminds me, I borrowed your pry-bar last night, but don’t worry, I put it back.” I remind myself that she doesn’t sleep very much.
“You just, what, sensed there was a gun there you could use?”
She rolls her eyes. “It’s hardly the first house I checked. There might be some other stuff there too. We can go look again later, after you get back.”
“So what am I supposed to do with this?” I point at the gun, which she has broken open along the breach. Both chambers are empty.
“It was getting ugly in the rural areas, even before I came here. It can’t be better now. If you meet someone threatening, don’t try to be all noble. Shoot them.”
This time I blink, and she looks exasperated. “You’re over-thinking it. Don’t over-think it. Just do it. There aren’t any second chances. Not anymore.” Eventually I nod, but she doesn’t look satisfied until I take the gun. She unslings an olive, canvas ammo bag from her shoulder and hands that to me as well.
“Wait,” she says then, reaching at my waist to pull two shells free, then loading them into the breach and snapping the whole assembly closed with a satisfying click.
“Not exactly like target shooting,” I venture shakily. “Maybe you should hold onto this. You seem more comfortable around it than I do.”
“No, it is exactly like target shooting…” She pauses, and I can tell she means to say something else. She breaks my eye contact, and just as I am about to prompt her, blurts “you should go.”
“I… was about to.”
“No. I mean you should go.”
A beat passes between us.
“I can’t do that. I’ll have to, eventually, but I can’t do that yet. Not with your–”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Says the woman who hands me the gun.”
She almost smiles. “It’s not the only gun I found. I told you, I can take care of myself.”
“Begging your pardon, but you can’t. Not yet.” I’ve been convincing myself I’d work out a solution to her problem for two weeks, and I’ve been wracking my brain over it, but so far to no avail.
“Soon then. You should go soon.”
“Soon. But not yet.” I try not to let my hurt show. I try not to feel too hurt. But I think I fail at both. My heart thunders. She doesn’t mean anything by it. I know that, deep down.
“Ok,” I say, “I’ll be back with groceries and gas.” I hope to find the latter, but for now, I’ll settle for the former.
I approach the grocery store, the only one for miles, warily. The inland Food Lion has become a fortress since I passed through. It had still been running before, albeit on reduced hours. I think back to some of the booms we’ve heard at night. What could have gone on during the intervening weeks?
Sandbags block all the windows and narrow the lane to the doors. The parking lot is nearly deserted. Then I see someone waving from the shadows behind the sandbags, signaling me to approach a sort of sandbag carport, a fortified parking space. Fortified against what? It strikes me that either the person firing at me was doing so from elsewhere, or I am being very easily led into a trap.
This stops me short, and the person waving does so a little more frantically. I curse. What use could they have for me? I’m running on fumes. Perhaps they need slave labor to stock the shelves? Smiling grimly at this thought, I pull into the offered spot.
The greeter is helmeted and appears to be wearing a flak jacket around his paunch. He has a gun as well, and that pretty well freezes me to the seat, but his is pointed up at an angle. He notes my gun, propped in the passenger seat, and pauses.
“You’re gonna to have to leave that in the car if you mean to go shopping today.”
The two men running the store are doing so out of basic human decency. Somehow the power is still running, both here and on the island, and Jean, my escort in the store while Floyd guards my car and gun, thinks that the attitude behind the power company must be the same altruism.
“Sure as hell nobody’s been paying their bills lately,” he says. Until he brings it up, the thought of losing power on the island hasn’t even occurred to me. Still, after a moment of queasy panic at the notion, I force myself back to relative calm. There is nothing to be done about it.
Shopping is quick and efficient. “It’s handouts, you see, money being worthless in these parts recently.” Jean delivers this in practiced rote, and I wonder if he was even a Food Lion employee before all the troubles started.
They arrange me some basic perishable food, enough for two to eat before spoilage sinks in, and a choice from an assortment of canned and dried goods. “It’s gotta last,” he says by way of apology. “No telling if we’ll ever get another shipment. But folks gotta eat.” I decide I like Jean.
As we gather everything up and bag it together, Jean looks at me anxiously. “You’re over on the island, right? You two must be the only ones. I saw the other car go by some time ago, and then yours, but no one else.”
“As far as I know, we’re alone.”
“Do what you can to stay that way,” he says, with real concern rimming both his voice and his eyes. “Don’t draw any unnecessary attention to yourself. You got nowhere to run if someone who means trouble decides to cross the causeway after you.”
This seems as good an opening as any. “You guys had much trouble?” I indicate his gun.
“Not yet, but we’re hearing rumors. Got a lot of friends in the military.” He lets this cryptic statement stand, and I’m too unsettled to inquire further.
The pair send me off with a hearty “God bless!” to speed me along, all the while hoping they don’t notice that I bear what some in the Bible Belt have taken to calling the Devil’s Touch.
It’s not the Devil that’s done this to me. If there is a Devil, there’s also a God, and the latter has the former corralled. No, this is worse. What touched me, what touched she and I both, doesn’t answer to anybody.
I arrive back, the car partially gassed thanks to Jean and Floyd’s hoarding, to a pair of empty houses. We’re each too lazy to move any closer together, so it takes awhile to ascertain that she isn’t in either of them. I assume she’s off procuring a larger arsenal, and set about storing the perishables, splitting them evenly between houses so we can lounge at both.
At some point I think to look up, and there she is. Jean’s words are like hot lead branding my gut as she swoops above and between houses, sometimes rocketing straight up into the air, sometimes diving down at speeds that would frighten any who didn’t know better. Despite her seemingly erratic flight, I note she keeps well clear of the island’s fuzzy borders.
In use, her wings glow like fire, and it’s impossible not to see them, even in bright daylight. Their glare even claws at the edges of my sight when I look the other direction.
At least it’s not night, I think. Though at night, most watching eyes would be asleep. I stand, entranced by her acrobatics, the sheer artistry and grace of her movements, dumbfounded with dry goods piled in bags at my feet.
At last she comes down, on the opposite side of her house from me. I shake off the trance of the experience, as I always must after seeing a Gimmie use the double-edged Gift they’ve been given. After a while, I realize she isn’t coming to meet me, though she must have seen me or the car by now.
Concerned, I find her where she landed, kneeling, her whole body wracked with sobs. The glory of her wings is fading into a shimmer like heat haze sprouting from her back. In time it will be gone entirely, viewable only from the corner of my eye once more.
I don’t approach. I don’t know what to say, not precisely, but I know what she doesn’t want, and it jives with what I can’t give perfectly.
“When I’m up, it’s pure joy,” she says, heaving and hitching between words, “but when I come back down, all I can think is that it cost me everything.”
What starts as tears turns into that full-body grief that only the deepest sadness can prop up. I leave the dry goods and pick her gently up from the ground, carrying her up the stairs, past the stilted underbelly of the house.
I enter the first bedroom I find, not hers, I realize at once, but it will suit to let her rest and recover while I make dinner. Her brazen flaunting of our existence here is all but forgotten. We can discuss it later if need be.
Her weight is warm and solid against me, hitching with diminishing sobs as her strength leaves her. I walk in a daze, fighting back my own tears, my own losses, until my knees strike the edge of the mattress.
I shift, preparing to lower her gently down, when all at once she is clinging with an iron grip. I look down to meet her shining eyes.
“Stay with me,” she says, and rising, brings her lips to mine. They are warm and moist, and her mouth is parted open, sharing breath with mine. Her tongue tastes like a spray of sea salt.
My heart thunders warning in my chest, a drumbeat of doom. This is not good. This is the very thing I’ve been avoiding, even fearing, this attachment I feel cementing itself between us. But it’s been a long time, even more in perception than in fact, and there are other parts of me awakening.
I lower her slowly to the bed as I’d originally intended, except that I follow, settling my weight atop her as she sighs in welcome.
A frozen lasagna is slowly baking in the oven as the stars come out and we emerge onto the second floor deck to watch. They carpet the night sky, a thick glittering layer of lights across the blackness. Clouds sidle in from the left, the east. Between that slate, puffy layer, and our need to hold one another close, I am at first unaware when a different kind of light show begins.
We are pressed hard together, she sandwiched between me and the railing with my arms wound around her, my lips exploring the curve of her neck, when she notices the clouds lighting up fitfully, like blooms of fire just beyond that low layer.
“Thunderstorm,” she coos, kissing me again, and I revel in it. The sounds of the titanic forces being unleashed beyond the clouds reach us some dreamless time later, and to my unconscious mind they are wrong, too strident, too full of directed wrath. But my conscious mind is consumed with the feel of her, the smell of her, the knowledge of her that I’ve gleaned these last few hours.
I am in so deep so quickly that I forget to be afraid.
Later, dazed and aching, we watch one of the last remaining news channels. This is an indulgence we seldom allow ourselves. In our other lives, each of us tells tales of being a news junkie, but now we avoid it unless both are in the mood. This does not happen often.
It is the bleary looking anchorwoman, made-up to the point of uncanniness, that tells us the truth of the false storm off the coast.
“There has been an extended instance of aerial and naval combat off the Mid-Atlantic seaboard tonight,” the anchorwoman intones. “The identity of the attacking force is not known or has not been disclosed by the Pentagon at this time, but United States forces have reportedly repelled the attack before it could reach population centers along the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.”
How long since the country’s infrastructure functioned well enough to closely follow the movements of all other nations, military and civilian alike? Yet for some enemy to strike so close to home, to be surprised in this way… It leaves me both empty and frozen inside, and the sensation must have soaked through me, for I do not realize I am shaking until I feel her hand rest, steadying, across the back of mine.
“It’s not our world anymore,” she says. “It belongs to them, for better or worse.” But how can that be true? How, when so many of the world’s troubles lie at the feet of our kind? The feet of the people who answered a selfish, infernal call.
The aerial battles occur with a kind of maddening regularity. Sometimes they are delayed by actual thunderstorms. But despite our resolve, the evening news, once a guilty pleasure, becomes a nightly event.
The skies flash most nights, accompanied at times by upthrust lances of light at the horizon, as from ships. They combine, these auroras, forming a scintillating drumbeat that marks the passage of the days.
Another trip to the Food Lion passes without event before we have our first fight. Our moods, perfectly out of sync at the start, never clashing, gradually meld closer and closer until I lash out at her at precisely the wrong moment.
“You should go,” is how the conversation ends. There are only two ways she delivers this phrase, and this is the one with a temporal clause implied. I should go, but I should also come back. It both relieves and frightens me to hear that tone.
After, I stalk down the shoreline at near high tide. The sun is setting behind the clouds. Cloud cover has been nearly omnipresent since I arrived, at odds with my memories of this place. Despite the clouds, the air is warming fast with the ripening of spring, and the water is begrudgingly giving up its winter ghosts. I try to focus on the cool, grainy feel of the wet sand sucking lightly at my feet, but the relentless crash of surf draws my attention outward like a wire.
The ocean seems a two-faced god under such lighting, slate ridges capped with white, foaming chop receding into a flat, consumptive basalt in the distance. I cannot help but see the water as a bleak, swallowing thing, sucking out the light of the world and that which remains in me.
Later I return, but not to her house, rather to mine. I notice her deck light go out shortly after I enter and flip on the kitchen lights, so I know I’ve been observed.
My body hopes she will venture over, now or later in the evening, seeking company. My mind and the raw edges of my pride hope she will stay away.
There is no contact between us for three days, and then, as if exploding in both minds at once, we meet each other midway between homes, each on the way to apologize to the other.
We decide a change of scenery is in order, and transfer our flag to my house.
The days pass, helped along by whatever time-killing aides we can find in an entire island worth of houses. Today is Monopoly.
“I’m not trading you Park Place, you can forget it!” She laughs as she says this, but the twinkle in her eye is sly as well. My favored gambit has failed. I imagine my little top hat crushed beneath her boot. I can’t believe this set is missing the battleship.
We tear through such games at an alarming pace, and notice more and more repetition as we raid the other houses for their entertainments. It’s both mildly irritating and strangely depressing to dwell on it, so I, at least, try not to.
On the next turn she purchases Boardwalk, and three rounds after that, I’m paying for her damned hotel there.
I can’t help but notice that the two-faced ocean god has stratified itself. It seems ancient, unknowable and vaguely menacing when I walk alone, scenic, cool and inviting when she walks with me.
One day we perform a complete circuit of the island, as much as that is possible while having to avoid large swathes of the marshy inland side. Tired, sore and laughing at the finish, we are almost too exhausted to attend to one another after collapsing on my couch.
Five trips. Five trips is all I manage to Food Lion. I’ve recently begun to be worried. The perishable foods there are stretched to their final limits, with no resupplies in sight.
I begin to fear what will happen when the other food runs out as well.
It’s just minutes before I climb into my car, ready for shopping trip six. She suggests, as she hands me the shotgun I’ve never needed, that I negotiate for more of the perishables, since they are close to vanishing. Not many people are coming in for provisions, so there seems a decent chance Jean might listen.
Then the world is ripped open as the explosion passes over and through us.
At first I’m certain the blast is closer to us than it seems. But after several seconds of silent, still panic between the two of us, we run up the stairs to the front porch, hoping for enough vantage to see what’s happened.
The black smoke rising like a thick, hooded cobra is easily visible. East, and toward the landward side of the island, I think. Then we hear the sound of the jet, coming in low and slow. It’s tough to tell for certain, but I think it bears United States Air Force markings.
I see the second bomb drop after the pilot hits the throttle. It’s almost suicidally low, but I don’t really consider this, because I know instantly what the target of both bombs is, and I wonder how we will resupply with the causeway destroyed.
The second explosion rips the air, and she reads the truth of matters on my face. From hers I read only fear.
Some time passes with nothing but silence between us. On the point where I think she is finally ready to speak, two more explosions rip the sky open, somewhere further inland.
The news gives us the truth of matters. Invasion is expected, even imminent. Some jackal of a nation, or perhaps a whole cabal of them, is here to savage the once-great United States, now eating itself from within. Access to coastal barrier islands is being destroyed up and down the eastern seaboard, to prevent them from being used as easy staging areas for any landing forces.
The rotting corpse of the nation must be kept sacrosanct.
Shortly after the report begins, she flips channels. Other networks have come back online, but they broadcast nothing but reruns, some from shows twenty years gone, whatever they can dig up in their archives. It’s as though they seek to lull us all onto a bed of leaves. The leaves cover a staked pit, the stakes coated with a narcotic venom of simpler times.
We watch the inanities drone on for a while, then she speaks beside me, softly, right into my ear.
“We need to start scouring the other houses.” She leans in to kiss me, throwing her warm, needy weight against mine, and as she bears me down, she whispers “You should have gone.”
The tone is again clear. Gone, and not come back. The tone is heavy, swinging shut like the door in a black prison.
We acquire what must be every remaining gun on the island, prepared to defend our ridiculously small territory if necessary. We split the arms between both houses. By some unspoken, unanimous decree, we still have not thrown in our lot with one house or another.
Along with the weapons, we grab and haul every non-perishable food item we can find. This was a vacation island, most of the homes were for weekly rental, and thus not stocked with any food. But a few were not rented, serving only as ad hoc vacation homes for the owning family.
It should go without saying that our haul of food is distressingly small.
We watch the boat coming in through the old-fashioned spyglass. I’ve already had to resist making pirate “arrr” sounds for the better part of an hour, more out of nervousness than humor. She’s not in the mood.
“Boat” is misleading. This is a landing craft. That said, it is a landing craft in a bad way. Badly damaged, it’s taking on water, and there are blood smears along both inner and outer walls. Three soldiers remain in what must surely have housed forty. Why it is alone, certainly off course, we couldn’t say, but it ran afoul of some American weaponry, and now they are looking for a safe place to ditch.
It is a cruel vagary of fate that puts them half a mile east along the beach from us.
One of the men is wounded, but the other two set out at once, foraging. Ensconced in my house, we exchange glances as we watch from blinded windows. It will be more than obvious someone has been here before them when they see house after house with pried-open doors.
The sun is setting, but there is enough light to see by. The two motile men do not split up, but begin moving together, inspecting house by house. We have a fifty-fifty chance that they will choose to move away from us and buy us time.
We lose the flip.
When the sun finally sets, the men apparently decide that’s enough for one night. Their body language speaks volumes. They haven’t found any supplies, and are suspicious of why. They move into the nearest house to the boat, carrying their now-unconscious comrade in with them. But their conversation occurs out on the deck, lights blazing. It appears our luck will hold this one night, because they haven’t searched far enough to notice my car. Not tonight at least. But if they continue in the same direction tomorrow…
I counsel that we stealthily move in the night. The sound of the surf should muffle my car, and we could flee down the other end of the beach, buying ourselves more time. It will take them days to search everything.
“No,” she says, with a firmness I’ve never heard. “Right now they aren’t sure what they are up against. We have to take them now, while we have surprise.”
“All right,” I say, and she blinks at this sudden agreement. I congratulate myself mentally, preening in my own head under the praise. It isn’t myself I’ve been fearing for. Not exactly, not directly. “But let me do whatever it is we’re going to do.”
She’s shaking her head already. “No, too dangerous, we both–”
“If It told me anything truthful at all, these men probably can’t hurt me.” She stops dead at this, frozen as if in stone. I’ve never volunteered what my Gift was, and she has never asked. It has been a source of guilt for me, since she shared hers so easily, but I gave my Story, something she has yet to cough up.
She swallows sourly, worried, I think, more about the imbalance that exists between us now than anything. She considers her response for a long time. “I want to help.”
“The best way you can help me,” I say, in possibly the most honest statement I’ve ever made to her, “is to stay safe.”
I’ve never used my Gift for what I am about to do, but I believe it will work. That’s most important, I think. To believe.
The door yields to my kick as though it’s rotted, clattering inward in two pieces. Feeling a surprising rush, I spare the briefest of moments to be impressed with myself. Perhaps she can ignore the sensation when she’s flying, but I feel Its will coursing through me as I deliver the kick. I’d have avoided doing it if I could.
I’ve left the pry-bar at home, keeping my hands free. Most of the weapons we’ve found scattered throughout the island in their little closet strongboxes are sporting in nature, but one of the rarer pistols is tucked in the back of my waistband, safety on, as I’ve repeatedly confirmed. The fear of injury is habit as old as any, and hardest to shake.
It’s my trusty shotgun that I bring to bear against the shadowed form rising to meet me. It’s the deep darkness of the night, so I never get a look at uniform or ethnicity. I have no idea who these people are who are invading a dying nation. And I don’t care. I hesitate. Of course I do. But I don’t believe with absolute certainty in my invulnerability, and it’s her voice I hear, colored white and red and urgent, speaking in my mind.
No warning. No chance. As I pull the trigger and feel It slithering within me to utterly dampen the recoil, keeping my aim absolute, I wonder which of them, It or she, will dehumanize me more in the end. Which is it that robs us of our compassion, the one that offers gifts, or the one that risks taking them away?
The shot lights the room, so bright that it reveals even less detail than the darkness. But there is a glimpse of a human form staggering, and a man’s cry rips through the shocked, burnt air as the flash fades from the room but not from my sight. Then there is crashing, thumping, and the breaking of glass as the second man, revealed as a white silhouette in the flash, flees out the back onto the decking. I pursue.
As I stand on the back porch, the light of the moon picks him out in eerie bluish white against the sand and waves. He runs, I don’t know where, and since he appears unarmed, and I decide right there to let him go. In the morning we will clear out this house, and he will have nowhere to go. So long as he stays away from us…
A pair of glowing fans, symmetric and blurred with speed, streak down. I fancy hearing a piercing wail, as though her Gift was to be a banshee, as she swoops down almost too fast for sight and scoops up the fleeing man. Then she rockets skyward, and I have time for little thought beyond a muted anger at both her recklessness and her savagery, before his form plummets screaming to the earth, moving much too fast to be saved by the porosity of piled sand.
A shot rings behind me, from the house. I twitch and duck simultaneously, nearly falling in spastic haste. But the shot is singular and does not repeat, and I know somehow that it’s the sound of the third man, the wounded man, taking his own life with his pistol.
Despite the damage it has sustained, I manage to swing the landing craft around, hugging the shore, and use it to reach the mainland. I make this decision with virtually none of her input as I’m not speaking to her for reasons that already seem petty. She is at first hurt, then sullen, then angered by my silence. The fact that my actions hurt her only angers me more, because the hurts don’t make me happy, as I feel they should.
Over on the mainland, it’s just a short walk to my destination. It’s quickly evident what the other two explosions were. I can smell it well before I see it. The Food Lion is gone, replaced by an acrid, stinking crater. I suppose any landing forces could not be allowed to find food, either. And neither can we. As I stand there stupidly, I wonder where Jean and Floyd were when those bombs fell. As I bring the boat back, I wonder just how long our island provisions can last.
Summer waxes and wanes, and as we live on rationed canned beans, soups, and vegetables, all the while our relationship oscillates like a dozen mini-seasons wedged within the larger one of the world. When we can bear to keep our hands from one another we can barely speak, until the edges of our freezes and thaws blur together, and sometimes we forget whether we are angry or happy with our lot and one another.
We drive golf balls into the water until the supply runs out. We fire an old, much-used PVC potato cannon, filling it with whatever we can find that’s of vaguely the right shape and inedible. Despite my refusing to allow her to fire it, we carry this game past the point of good sense, and I am given further proof of my Gift when the cannon finally explodes beside me. The worming sense of Its protection pulsing through sinew and vein is almost worse than I imagine dying must be.
We play every old board game anyone ever left at a beach house, even the ones we had shunned before. Some are decades old, some so new they have electronic, even video components.
There is a brief period during one of our good spells where panic seizes me, and all I can think about is that I will somehow, after all this time, get her pregnant. For a time I’m unable to touch her, such is this fear, but it’s been months, and at last I come to suspect that this is yet another one of Its Gifts to us. I derive a mean satisfaction that what It undoubtedly intended to be cruel is a blessing in disguise.
Perhaps It can’t foresee everything.
She lets it slip into conversation, that her birthday is approaching. I have no idea if the hint is intentional, but an idea occurs to me.
It happens as we watch the last network. The signal is spotty, so much so that we can barely discern what the anchor says, but the fighting has evidently moved west, inland.
“Bad news,” she says beside me. “Except for us.”
“Everyone seems to have forgotten about us,” I reply, turning to smile at her, a smile that hides my new notion. She fixes me with her own grin, and it is only a little sad.
“As long as you remember,” she says.
The house’s electricity chooses that moment to finally die. In truth, it lasted far longer than I would have thought.
With the risk of our discovery seemingly reduced, I begin working on her birthday gift. It will be a delicate thing, and my stomach turns in knots as I do it, certain she will hate it, fail to see the humor, and spurn me for good. But some part of me is sure in a different way, and I continue my work.
She is at first suspicious, then annoyed by my long absences, and finally I have to confess what it is I am doing, if not exactly what I am doing. A smile replaces the slow smolder of her anger, as though an obscuring cloud has moved on, allowing the sun to shine through again. Encouraged a bit by this, I continue my work, no longer trying so hard to hide.
When the big day dawns, her mood buoys my hopes. I take her to the sound side of the island, and do something I have never done. I ask for a lift.
To my surprise, she agrees readily. Locking her hands together over my breastbone, she lifts us both easily into the air, and I direct her where to go, keeping us well clear of the coast with my instructions. I try to marvel at this, her Gift allowing us to soar, but all my nerves are for my gift to her.
She laughs when she sees it. The sound is so lovely and crystalline clear, as though it’s shaking caked filth from the inside of her lungs, that I’m moved to tears. They are tears of laughter, and relief as well.
Three houses in a row display it. I have pulled sheets taught across the sound-side of the roofs, and upon them written the words that comprise the message in old paint.
DRAIN THE SOUND.
As she lowers us gently to the ground, kissing me first sweetly and then roughly, I wonder which of us hopes more strongly that the joke message is heeded.
Two days later, in August’s last gasps, our food runs out. The topic has been one we’ve both been studiously avoiding, as is our tendency. She informs me at breakfast, trying not to make it sound like disaster.
“You should–” is how she tries to end the declamation, and I interrupt.
“We’ll do another house search. There must be things we’ve missed.”
And, hours and hours later, we have discovered that there are indeed things we’ve missed, but nothing of any appreciable amount. We prolong our starvation’s beginning by a few days at most with what we find.
Having few options makes decision-making surprisingly easy. I ready the boat to head to shore, hoping to search the same way we have searched the island. Meanwhile she will try her hand at fishing, at least as much as she can manage, with the dangers of the water.
She hugs and kisses me before I go, with an urgency that could almost make me weep. Midway through, I think I realize why, and then she speaks, confirming it.
“If you don’t come back,” she whispers into my chest, “I’ll understand.” But she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand at all.
The boat is running low on fuel when I arrive, so I make that a priority as well. But I might as well not bother.
The houses, those that aren’t burned to the ground, have been picked clean, whether by soldiers of either side or locals I can’t say. Anything of use has been stripped away and carried off. Eventually it is getting so dark I risk losing my way back if I stay any longer.
She is trying to cook two meager fish over an open fire when I arrive, utterly empty-handed. We eat the fish that night, but there is something wrong with them, and we spend the next day throwing up.
A day after that, both nauseated and starving by turns, I promise that I’ll try the other islands to east and west. “There are bound to be houses like the ones here, ones that have provisions.”
“Unless they have people like our island does who’ve eaten them up. What about gas for the boat?”
“We’ll do one more sweep of the island.” Despite the doubt scrawled across her face, it’s not impossible. It wasn’t what we looked for the last time. It’s possible that we just missed it. “I’ll swim if I have to.”
“On no food? You’ll drown!”
“My Gift…” I say, then hesitate. The next words could open up another rift between us. But they need to be said. “I’m not certain I can drown.” She looks away, for of course, drowning is all she can do in the ocean.
“You should go,” she says, and it’s obvious what she means. I say nothing. She doesn’t understand, and I can’t bear to explain.
We never do get around to searching the island. Not for fuel, anyway. The next day brings what can only be a hurricane, a monster storm of shrieking winds and crashing waves. More than one house simply vanishes in between flashes of lightning, leaving only the sounds of screaming, splitting wood. I see more waterspouts than I care to count as we huddle in another house, one further toward the center of the island. We have to keep her away from any standing bodies of salt water.
Only the orientation of the storm prevents the beachhead from being swallowed utterly. It is several days before the flooding recedes, and we are amazed to find both her house and mine still standing. They are now neighbors in truth, the two houses between swept out to sea. A number of other houses, more than half of those I see, have joined them in watery graves.
From the beach, it’s possible to see the island immediately to the west. Or rather, it’s possible to see where that island was. Of the dunes and the homes that dotted them, there is no sign.
She is screaming at me, howling that I need to leave, that I need to go and leave her behind. I can’t recall how it started, I only know that after withstanding the barrage for half an hour, I need to get out of the house. Her shrieks of grief and rage chase me out the door.
For something to do, I walk east, examining the devastation and looking to see if the next island down suffered the same fate as our other neighbor. It’s an idle fancy, for somehow I know that it has, and I know that this somehow means that both islands were uninhabited, both stocked with food.
What surprises me more is when I come upon the bombed-out causeway and find its rubble gone, as well as the entirety of our island east of that point. As though the storm reached out with shears of wind and lightning and simply lopped it off.
I don’t mind admitting that I spend a fair amount of time screaming for no particular reason at this discovery. It wants our world to shrink smaller and smaller. I know this. I feel the truth of this thing twisting and writhing inside me, like a worm filling my guts.
As the sun sets, I head home, wanting only to take her in my arms.
I notice the bottle immediately upon my arrival, and my brain names it. It’s a bottle of painkillers, formerly in the master bathroom’s medicine cabinet, and it was, as of this morning, at least half full.
It stands empty on the kitchen counter now. The message is clear, though there is no physical note. You should go, written in suicide.
My heart thunders a terrified beacon of warning.
Swearing, I run from bedroom to bedroom, starting with ours, finally ending in one that we have never used, as though she wants to hide from me for the maximum possible time, to let the poison work within her and minimize the chance I might save her. I can barely breathe by the time I enter.
I find her crying but full of life, and scan the floor for signs that she has thrown up the pills, seeing nothing as I rush to her. I am hugging her, crying as well, feeling her heartbeat strong and fierce, and then I am shaking her in rage, feeling my own heart alternately race and seize in my chest.
“Why?” I am whispering this, over and over through my tears, then shouting it. “Why? Why? Why?” I am waiting for her to speak, to confirm that she is, in fact, somehow not dying.
“They didn’t work,” she sobs. “I took them as soon as you left. Hours ago. They didn’t work. I just wanted… I just wanted to free you from me.”
We curl around each other on the floor, holding tight for so long that our bodies cramp and scream. But her heartbeat never falters, and she never throws up the pills. She never even gets sleepy.
That is when we first begin to suspect that we cannot, in fact, starve to death, that maybe we can only die in the careful ways It has prepared for us. What seemed a condemnation of slow death shifts into a kind of hell.
Winter. A winter that seems to last forever. Perhaps this stretching of time occurs because I know that the season will mark a year, one year since I first became snared on this island.
I can feel It moving through me all the time now. It coils and slides, constantly dulling the hunger, feeding it with whatever repugnant energies It possesses, but never taking the ache in my belly away completely, never satisfying. It’s as though a worm in my guts is eating me at the same rate my body can heal itself.
She says nothing, but I know she feels the same way.
For a time after the pills, I feared that she would simply step out into the surf one day. But she is stubborn. She cannot bear to give It what It so obviously wants. Despite this realization, for a time I try never to let her out of my sight for more than moments. Even when we are at each other’s throats and I am banished back to my home, I try to watch her through the rubble of the intervening spaces. But after a month of stressed, exhausting vigil, I relent, relaxing by degrees, and she remains safely shore bound.
The longer we go since our last meal, the more our features change. I can’t describe it much better than that, but they grow less human, more as though we live lives trapped on the covers of fashion magazines. Wrinkles are smoothed over, blemishes vanish, eyes glaze, the skin wears a constant sheen as though it is burnished. She is more beautiful to look upon, so much so that I cannot even glimpse her without becoming aroused, even in the throes of anger. But she seems more terrible as well, less human. Her hair is a beacon of bloody fire, day and night. Her wings are visible constantly now, brightly burning fans spraying out of her back.
I can tell by the way she resists looking at me, even when we make love, that she sees the same, sees some bright cording in my muscles or bones, though she will not say it.
I find her standing at the high tide line at dawn. She stands poised there on the knife edge of my fear, a fear that seized my heart the moment I woke to find her gone.
“You could be free,” she says in a dreamy, distant voice, a tranced voice. “A few moments of fear for me, and you could be free.” She leans forward, on the point of taking a steps and entering the surf zone. The waves churn and froth, each trough seeming to yawn open like a mouth hungering for her. The tide is coming in, coming to steal her away and swallow her.
I hesitate for a moment, but fear waiting too long, and at last I break my long silence.
“I can never be free,” I say. “Never.” This arrests her, brings her up short from her intent. At last she turns to look at me, her hair the red of some strangely burning chemical, a red that inflames. I try to focus. She speaks into my struggle.
“You only say that because I’m still alive. It’s flattering to think that my death would break your heart. But you’d get over me. You’d get over me and you’d go on. You would be free.”
“I wouldn’t,” I say, and it sounds lame, as though I am merely making the sounds by rote. I reach out and grasp her, forcibly tugging her back from the brink. She resists, and I force the issue. I am stronger. It has made sure of that. She twists in my grip, snarling.
“Let me go! Let me die! I don’t want to be here anymore! It’s taken everything from me, don’t you see? Everything! It’s even taken this place! I used to be so ha… so happy when I was here! I…” Then she is falling into my shoulder, her strength gone, her body crumpling into mine.
And at last, I tell her everything.
“It was a wedding, my wedding,” she says later, safely back on the porch. Despite the cold, she will not go with me into the house. I suppose, like me, she only feels it around her edges now, as though the frigid air is trying to pry its way into a box with no seams. Nevertheless, I sit blocking her from the stairs to the boardwalk, trying to forget that she could simply fly up, then plummet down into the water. But her Story draws her in quickly, and she seems to forget that I am there.
“I ran from the wedding, ran at the very end.” A single tear falls from each eye, running along tracks I’ve learned well after kissing and cursing their fellows away this past year. “I didn’t leave him at the alter or anything so dramatic,” she says, a sad smile altering the paths of those tears, making them unfamiliar to me. “But I left him with no warning. I was certain he had read my fears in my face. They’d been growing there for months, and I was certain he could read me, but he reacted… he was so… so shocked. And then that just made it worse, made me want to get away even more. I ran an hour after telling him, just packed up a few of my things and vanished. And I didn’t explain. I didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. I think quite a few of them, my family especially, could guess, probably before I knew myself.”
“You went to see It,” I say. I can’t bear the pain that is wrenching her face, contorting it and gripping my heart in a mirrored fist as it goes. I want her to get away from this failed wedding now as she did in life.
“Not at first. But my fiance wouldn’t stop calling. He wouldn’t stop trying to find out where I’d gone, what he could do to fix things, what he had done to make me hate him. And I didn’t! I didn’t hate him! I still don’t. I love him. But I couldn’t bear the thought of spending my life with him. Love… it wasn’t enough. Does that make sense?” She isn’t looking at me, but her tone is desperate.
“Of course it does.” I’m lying, but it is well meant. It doesn’t make sense; it can’t make sense, not to anyone who isn’t living it. But I can at least imagine the concept of what she’s saying.
“Eventually I went to see It. When you told me your story, you said your relationship soured, and you told me that you asked to feel no more hurt. I asked to be free, free from the hurt I had left behind me. If you think about it,” she says, turning to look at me again, “we asked for the same thing, but nuanced. Apparently that made all the difference between us.”
“Yet here we are.” Now I am smiling, and I wonder if it is as sad to look at as it is to wear.
“I felt so different after It was done with me. Like something alien was living inside my skin, looking out from my eyes. Months went by at a blur. I’d wake up in unfamiliar cities, never remembering flying there. I was spiraling out of control, afraid I was losing my mind. So I came here, to this beach, this island. This used to be my favorite place. I thought maybe I could clear my head here, and forget about everything that was going on back home and with the rest of the world. As I crossed the causeway I felt my Catch taking hold.”
“Before that,” I say, with a knowing tone, a tone of profound understanding, “you were just like all the rest of us, sure that Catches were either myth or something that happened to other people.”
“It is clever like that. Clever to delay the price you pay for Its gifts. My fiance stopped calling immediately after I went to It. I didn’t hear from anyone, him or family or friends. I didn’t even try to contact them. I think I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to, even if I wanted.” She pauses, and looks deeply at me with penetrating eyes that seem to shift through the entire color spectrum, blue to green to brown. What color were her eyes originally? I can’t remember. Each shade is lovely. Her wings explode expansively behind her, passing through the back of the chair, the planking of the deck, even the wall of the house as though they are mist. She has never looked more beautiful. I have never wanted her more or been more frightened by her.
“Whatever It did to me worked. In a sense it did. When you and I… when we made love, I didn’t feel the pain I expected. I didn’t feel like I was betraying him, my fiance.” Now she laughs, and the laughter is bitter and amused. It stabs me. “Instead I felt loss, like I’d lost some part of myself, the part that should have felt like I was betraying him. It had done something to me, made me less than human.”
“It did exactly what we asked,” I countered. “But in Its own words.”
She nods and moves forward to embrace me. “Always in Its own words,” she agrees. Then she adds something, something I do not expect. “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done to you.”
“It’s all right,” I say, doubly surprised for meaning it.
“You should have gone,” she says, for the last time.
“Maybe this is where I was supposed to be.”
At least It left us one another.
In the darkness of the frigid house, buried beneath the blankets, we come together, and our union has a sense of intimacy we have never managed before. She is warm beneath me, and I bask in the glory of her otherworldly beauty, no longer made afraid by it. The ribbons of her wings wrap themselves tight around me, and for the first time I can feel them there, a ghost of her own warmth binding me in her embrace. Even through the constant, gnawing hunger, the cold, the fear, the loss of the world around us, we find for some few moments a measure of bliss.
There is a power in acceptance.
She wakes me with a gentle kiss. I look up to her face, smiling and brimming with tears both.
“It’s time you got up,” she says, and there is something in her face I cannot read, not at first. Then memory crashes home, understanding dawns, and transmutes to terror, but her smile steadies me, calms me, and I wonder that she has ever felt fear.
“There’s a time to stop suffering,” she says, turning to leave the room. I follow.
We stand out on the cold porch for a time, heedless of the wind, and she turns at last from the ocean to look at me. Her face fills up my entire world. She is all I have left, but in a strange way she is also all I need.
“Walk with me?” she asks this with a hesitance that I find charming, and I take her hand, lacing our fingers together, my palm almost swallowing hers. We stroll out down the boardwalk, watching the grasses sway in the dunes, imagining that it is warm and sunny, not cold and gray. I look and see that she is smiling, and my own widens.
We walk for long hours, ignoring the constant call of our limbs for food. We walk east, to where the island ends now so abruptly, the turn and head west, to the last extremes of the wider side of the island, where the sand piles up into expansive beaches and sandbars, creating strange eddies and currents, and the occasional tide pool. We see a fish leap up from the surface of one such, a silver dart plinking back into the rippled darkness of the pool, and it makes both of us laugh a little.
Eventually we are back, back at the beach before our house. The tide has receded, the beach stretches to its zenith. Our hands are still interlocked, and now she turns to grasp my other one. I wind them before her and stand pressed to her back, and she leans back into my shoulder.
“Are you sure?” I say, the thought of what she intends twisting in my heart for long moments.
“It’s time,” she says, and her voice is steady. “Past time. The world’s grown stale with time.”
I can think of nothing to say.
“Carry me?” she asks, and I turn her to face me and hoist her up into my arms, my hands hooked beneath her thighs. I feel her wings curl in and brush my back.
Locked together in that way, I begin to stride out toward the waiting surf. It has been patient.
She shivers the moment I enter the water, clutching tighter to me with limbs that already seem to weaken. The sea is frigid around my ankles, but she is warm in my arms. For the barest instant, I hesitate. Then I feel her growing restless, and I continue on, wading deeper.
The water sloshes past my knees in short order, and I watch as one of her toes scrawls a whorl through the foam of its surface, emerging shiny and wet with salt water.
“Sleepy,” she murmurs in my ear, her grip loosening. I tighten mine to compensate.
“Stay with me?” I whisper into her ear, nestled in its flame red canopy.
“Always,” she returns with a kiss to my cheek. But the kiss is already slurred, loose, and I notice her hair darkening as its flame begins to cool. She goes slack in my arms as her feet slip into the water, now piled to my waist.
Her skin begins to gray like the day I pulled her from the surf. It’s at this moment, at this terrible sight, that my heart begins to lurch and seize.
Before yesterday, I had kept the truth locked away, from her and from myself as well. But of course, I have a Catch too. I had asked not to feel loss again, in Its own words, and It had granted me this boon. A long time passed before I came to understand what this meant. But here, on this island with her, I had at last grasped this truth. If ever I was on the verge of feeling such loss, my heart would simply stop, and I would never feel loss, or anything at all, again.
You should go. How often had she said that? How many times had I needed to hear it before I understood what was happening, what had already happened, to me? Leaving her here alone would not be the same as carrying her out into the surf to die. But a great loss was a great loss. My heart would not know the difference.
She could never leave this island alive, and now, because of the ties that bound us, neither could I. But we had come to an understanding that last night in the darkness, bound together in body and spirit. We would not live out some eternity imprisoned on this island. We would die together, and we would not die trapped.
She moans against my shoulder now, her warmth fleeing, her strength ebbing. Her eyes are fluttering shut and she struggles to keep them open. “Hold me until it’s over,” she whispers, and I can hear fear fluttering in her voice, fear at last. I can see her wings guttering like candle flames.
The water is up to both our shoulders now, and still my strength, my Gift propels us forward. We will not die trapped on this island, and we will die together. My stuttering heart is the proof.
“And beyond,” I promise her.
“I love you,” she says with sluggish words.
“I love you,” I say to her. It is, I realize, the first time we have spoken the words.
At last my heart forces me to halt. I hold her head above the water, mere instinct, I suppose, but it laps past our chins out here beyond the breakers. It is bitterly cold, a cold I can feel at last, and the node of warmth she provides is almost extinguished. Her eyes have closed and will not open. Her hair has darkened almost to russet, and her skin is gray as ash. Her wings are just a faint blur in the air and water around us.
I can feel It twisting up, wrapping its tendrils around my heart, anticipating the moment, the moment It has been waiting for. I begin to fear that I will not notice her departure. Terror seizes me at the thought that she will be alone in whatever lays beyond for one moment more than is absolutely necessary. I promised to be with her always.
I needn’t worry. I feel the life go out of her, as she goes totally limp at last in my arms. Her nugget of heat is smothered utterly, and her wings dissipate into sea and sky.
I feel her die in my arms. To think that for a moment I actually feared that I wouldn’t feel her die in my arms.
The pain, the final pain, seizes me at last. It is agony in my chest, but it does not match the dread I have nursed for months. No, the worse pain lies behind my eyes, and in my memory, and buried in my soul.
Be strong. It will just be for a moment. It is her voice, and it reaches past the deeper pain, leaving only the death of my heart, like blood solidifying in my veins. And it occurs to me that I am holding on, clawing to life with all the strength that remains, a need as deeply rooted as only instinct can be. I hold it as tightly as I hold her chilled body to me.
Somewhere I imagine It must be laughing. For an instant, my face screws itself up in rage, but then that slips away. Its victory no longer troubles me. I let my pride slough free, for what use is pride? What use is pride when I can hear her again? She calls to me from the other side. She is somewhere beyond, and she burns bright and hot as the sun.
Let go. I miss you already. Let go and come find me.
And I do.
The Virgin and The Dragon
By Melinda Moore
Vivian slammed the rooftop door open; the metal and brick clashed with all the defiance a wrongfully scolded four-year-old could produce. Tears made the marker ink on her face mix together like Neopolitan ice cream, but what dripped into her mouth tasted like paint. Her feet thudded on the cement before her tears cleared and she saw a mass of gold and brown scales: a dragon took up most of the rooftop.
She stepped back so she could see the face, and gulped and wheezed until the sobbing stopped. She asked, “Are you Puff?”
The dragon opened one eye and said, “Hardly.”
His lid began to close but stopped midway when she said, “I just drew a cave for him on the hallway wall, but since you’re here and he’s not, you can have it.”
The lid opened all the way again. “You painted a dragon cave?”
Vivian nodded her head like the bobble knight on her dad’s dashboard and said, “It’s beautiful except my mom hates it and says I can’t watch TV for a month, especially if it’s any of dad’s movies.” Traffic honked and screeched far below as if to add an exclamation point to her exasperation.
The dragon closed his eye before saying, “I don’t have much use for a two dimensional cave.”
Vivian sniffed the snot up her nose and said, “Are you hungry? My mom just went to CostCo and bought a big box of Goldfish.”
The eye opened and he said, “Goldfish? I can never catch enough of those to make it worth while. But if you have a big box…”
“I’ll be right back.” Vivian could hardly believe a real dragon was on her roof. Her mom was always telling her dad to grow up and quit telling Vivian such fanciful stories. But now she had proof. Down in the kitchen, she slid her step stool across the ceramic tiled floor and into the pantry. She stretch on the stool just enough to pull the bottom of the Goldfish box with her fingertips. It thumped to the ground. She listened for her mom’s footsteps, but she must’ve been asleep in her room. Vivian grabbed her treasure and ran up to the rooftop again, worried the dragon would be gone. He was there.
“I have the goldfish!”
He opened both eyes and said, “Well?”
She tore the box and bag open and scattered the crackers in front of his mouth like they were magic dust.
“What are those?”
“Are they dead?”
Vivian stared at the treasure and realized her mistake. A lump swelled in her throat, and she choked out, “They’re crackers. I didn’t mean real fish.”
The dragon sniffed. A long tongue darted out and licked up several crackers at once. “Cheesy,” he said and continued to lick the roof clean. “When can you bring me more? I’m Darius by the way.”
“I’m Vivian. We’ll have another box in a month. Can you come in and play?”
“I couldn’t possibly squeeze through the door.”
Vivian slumped, but then recalled the story about princesses kissing frogs. Maybe if she kissed him, he’d turn into a boy and fit through the door. She ran to his snout and gave him a peck. When he didn’t change, she dashed through the door and down the stairs, hoping he’d never guess her foolish notion.
Vivian burst out of the door and onto the rooftop, the only place she didn’t feel awkward in her body—tall enough to be a woman but flat like a little girl still. “Light the roof on fire! Light the roof on fire!” she yelled. Her fingernails and sneakers were covered with gold glitter, glimmering in the moonlight. The gold scales of her friend Darius glimmered as well, but there the similarity ended.
“If I light the roof on fire, where will you sit?” asked Darius.
Vivian slumped. He was always so practical. “I got your favorite tonight,” she said, not one to linger over disappointments. She only had an hour until her mom would be home from work and wanted to make the most of it. “Coke, lemon-lime and strawberry pop.”
“Oh, good. What did you get for yourself?”
Vivian stopped slurping her soda and gave a loud burp before answering. “Just Coke.”
Darius rolled onto his back and opened his mouth. Vivian set her own cup down and opened the Double Gulp with both hands. Pouring it down his throat she said, “You could ask politely, you know?”
“Oh, are we comparing notes now on who’s ruder?”
Vivian stuck her tongue out.
Darius’s tongue shot out of his mouth and wrapped around a passing pigeon.
Vivian turned away and popped her gum to avoid hearing the cracking of bones. Maybe today he would change into a prince and leave his dragony habits behind. When Darius finished his meal, Vivian said, “That was gross.”
“How’s school been?”
“Oh, you know, boring.” She told him about endless lectures and gossipy friends. At the end of her patter, she gave him a sidelong glance and said, “Logan wanted to kiss me behind science lab.”
Darius yawned with his maw gaping and tongue rolling out. When he finished he said, “And did you?”
Vivian wanted to blurt out, “Because Logan isn’t a dragon,” but instead said, “He chews spearmint flavored gum. I hate that. What have you been doing?”
He told her about flying over the Atlantic and being almost seen by a plane and then a cruise ship, but he reached a cloud just in time. “I think I’ll spend time in the Caribbean this month. Do some shark hunting.”
Vivian wanted to go shark hunting too, but more than that she wanted Darius to be human so they could be friends together. She had no idea how old he was, but always imagined his human shape as the same age as herself. Her mother would be home any minute, and it sounded like Darius wouldn’t be back for awhile. She jumped up. “I’ve gotta go!” She closed her eyes and planted a kiss right on Darius’s muzzle. When she opened her eyes, he was still a dragon.
She fled the roof, cheeks burning.
Vivian set a huge box loaded with cups of designer coffee onto the rooftop of her apartment building. Left over heat from the summer day radiated up from the cement. The full moon shone off the gold scales of Darius—it was her favorite time to view him. She said as if it hadn’t been months since they’d seen each other, “I’m afraid they got cold in the elevator.” She wore a black camisole with shorts, and had a tattoo on her shoulder of a gold dragon that looked similar to Darius.
“I’ll take care of that if you step back,” said Darius. He stood on his hind legs and puffed out a flame over the box. “That should do it. Would you mind pouring them for me? I hate the taste of cardboard.” He flopped down on his back as Vivian set aside one cup for herself and began pouring the rest down Darius’s throat. When he was finished, he rolled over, and Vivian sat down and leaned against his belly. “How were finals?” he asked.
“Good. This is my last summer home. Time to go out into the real world.” She wanted to ask if he would visit her when she found a new apartment, but was too worried he’d say no; he’d never visited her at college. Instead, she asked, “Done any shark hunting lately?”
“Been in the mood for bear. Just got back from the Black Forest. Date anyone interesting this semester?”
Vivian thought of the guy who’d hounded her the whole semester for a date. He was in all of her classes, but she hated how he smelled of wet dog and drooled on her books whenever they studied for tests. At their last session, she’d had to punch him in the jaw to keep him from ripping off her shirt.
“No,” she said and pulled her knees up to her chest.
She heard a howl from the corner of the roof and saw a wolf dressed in what looked like her study partner’s Chicago Bears jersey. The wolf gnashed his teeth and ran right for her with his claws clicking on the cement.
Darius swung his tale around and impaled the werewolf with the spike on the end of it. There was a brief whimper and then nothing. Vivian stood up, walked away and looked out at the city lights with the sound of a skull splitting as accompaniment to the horns of traffic below.
“You should set up shop with a nice musician or something. This Little Red Riding Hood business is only going to get worse as you get older,” said Darius when he’d finished his meal.
Vivian turned around and tried to ignore the spittle mixed with blood on his golden scales. She walked back to him, closed her eyes and kissed him on the muzzle. He was still a dragon when she opened her eyes again. “All men turn into monsters at some point,” she said and walked to the staircase.
Vivian popped the cork off of a bottle of Champagne on top of her childhood apartment. She’d come to visit her parents in the hopes of seeing Darius again. As she poured, bubbles ran over the rim of the glass and over her golden ring with the silhouette of a dragon carved into it. She set the glass down and held up the bottle to Darius. “If you hold the bottle like this, I think you can drink it yourself.”
Darius sat on his bottom with his tail stretched out behind him as she’d taught him the last time they’d been together. She molded his claws around the bottle, feeling sparks of affection shooting through her veins. After she’d pulled her hands away, he lifted the bottle to his mouth and tilted it up.
“Bravo!” she exclaimed and clapped her hands. She drained her own glass and popped the cork off of another bottle.
“Congratulations on your promotion,” said Darius.
“Maybe I can finally take time off for a vacation with you. I took some hunting classes.” She could feel his eyes on her as she wrapped his claws around another bottle.
He drank it down, and she drained another glass. He said, “I was actually thinking of hibernating for awhile. Dragons do get sleepy. Any thoughts of settling down?”
She shivered when she pictured the man who’d been interested in her before she’d been promoted above him. He always had cold hands, and his handshake almost crushed her fingers. She heard a flap behind her and whipped around to find the man standing behind her and bearing fangs. Darius reached past her and impaled the vampire’s heart with his claw. “I think a nice executive would suit you,” he said.
She smashed her glass and yelled, “I am a nice executive.” Before Darius ruined his breath with vampire dinner, Vivian pressed her lips onto his muzzle. He was still a dragon. As she stalked to the staircase, she heard claws dicing up the vampire.
Vivian jabbed her cane onto the cement and hobbled out of her helicopter that had landed on top of her childhood apartment. She smiled at Darius who was still golden and glittering in the moonlight. He hadn’t aged a bit. One of her servants had brought up a serving set, and she poured out the tea.
Darius picked up a cup nimbly with his claws and said, “You should’ve had someone to take care of you like I did.”
“I’ve done well enough, besides who did you have?”
“Why do you always kiss me goodbye?”
The evenings of nightcaps with her scaled friend flitted through her mind and pressed a tear out of her eye. “I hoped you would turn into a prince, but I’ve never liked princes as much as I liked dragons.”
“Kiss me one more time, please.”
Vivian set down her tea cup with a shaking hand. Now that she was old and wizened, he’d change into a prince for her? Still, maybe they’d have a few years together as the same species. She leaned over and pressed her lips against his muzzle. The pop and puff of magical smoke she’d hoped for all these years finally happened, except Darius didn’t change into a prince—she changed into a dragon. Elated. she stretched out her golden wings that glittered in the moonlight.
“I can teach you to hunt properly now that you’re a dragon,” said Darius before pressing his muzzle against hers.
Sparks exploded in Vivian’s heart and she felt the full rush of dragon desire. Unable to control all the new feelings, she pushed off of the rooftop and flew towards the moon with Darius in heated pursuit behind.
Wild Blue Roses
By Jeff Suwak
Tiernan discovered the dead dogs outside the trapper’s camp at the base of Mount Storm. The animal’s frozen carcasses hung impaled upon the trunks of black oaks, branches bursting out of their flanks and eyes and mouths. The moment he saw the grim spectacle, the druid knew that Bril’s mind was too far gone. There could be no bringing him back, now.
But I must try, Tiernan thought. At the very least, I must try.
He moved forward stiffly in his furs and heavy boots, unaccustomed to such clothing after spending so many years in the Druid Circle’s warmer southern climes. Even with all the coverings layered upon him, he still shivered–though whether it was because of the cold or because of his mission, he could not be certain. Confronting a fellow member of the Circle was always a sad affair, but this particular trip was doubly so. The druid to be uprooted had been Tiernan’s student. More than that, they had been friends.
The trappers suffered worse fates than their dogs. Tiernan found their corpses scattered over the plain outside a log cabin, twisted heaps mutilated on the ground with grim coats of raven pecking the flesh from their bones. Chaotic designs of blood in the snow told the story of a harried and futile retreat, one of men injured and terrified in flight before falling. The druid imagined those desperate figures wheeling about in clouds of murderous birds, and took a deep breath to steady himself.
He shooed the birds away. They rose with angry caws and lighted upon the cabin roof to watch him through their black eyes, as though warning that he might be their next victim.
One by one he dragged the trappers inside the building. Druidic tradition was to leave the bodies in the wilderness to decompose naturally, but city people lived and died in different ways, and their beliefs had to be respected. He scattered fireseed over the cabin wall and struck his flint, setting alight the makeshift pyre.
The ravens scattered into the air and headed north, into the gathering dusk with a flurry of beating wings and shrill cries. Back to their master, Tiernan thought. Back to Bril.
He climbed to the far side of a rise and set up camp out of sight of the billowing flames. The sight of druidic power used so savagely unsettled him. The Art was meant for gentler things. Rapid-seed spells were meant to replenish forests, not skewer sled dogs. Bonding spells were meant to commune with animals, not to employ them as assassins.
Bril knew all these things. Or, at least, he had once known all these things. He had been among the gentler souls of the Circle, and it was difficult to associate him at all with the brutality that had occurred on that mountain. Tiernan huddled deeper into his furs.
He cleared snow from the frozen earth and built a fire as the sun set low in the sky and the shadow of Mount Storm stretched long over the plain. He laid out an elk skin and sat upon it, watching orange shapes rise and sink from the fire’s black embers. It was said that long ago druids could read the future in that fiery language, but if such a thing was ever true, it had long since ceased to be so.
Tiernan blamed himself for Bril’s violence. All along he had known that his friend’s acute sensitivity put him in danger. A druid taking Stewardship over a piece of land entered into a Communion with that place, and the connection could become so deep that it risked consuming his mind completely. Bril’s temperament made him exceptionally vulnerable to that kind of psychic disintegration.
A hard wind whistled through the dark and bent the fire sidelong. Tiernan pulled the elk hide tighter around his shoulders and thought about the desolation of that place where his friend had spent the last five years of life, removed from connection with other people.
To the north extended the Bladed Mountains, hundreds of miles of peaks so sheer and unforgiving that not even druids went there. To the south and east, the fast waters of the Thalthemin River cut the area off from the rest of the world. To the west was the city of Industry, growing rapidly along the shores of Lake Phalheen. Its inhabitants numbered in the tens of thousands, but for a druid like Bril, a legion of merchants was the loneliest prospect of all.
Mount Storm is a perfect place for a man to go mad, Tiernan thought. And I left him alone here, for all these years.
An animal padded through the snow just outside the light of the fire. Tiernan looked until he saw the faint outline of a snow ferret. As the animal watched him, Tiernan knew that Bril was seeing though its eyes.
“No one wanted things to come to this,” he said.
The animal stiffened momentarily, but remained.
“You know why I am here, just as you know that I cannot leave until my task is done.”
The ferret turned and bolted off into the darkness.
“Please do not make this any harder than it already is,” Tiernan said, to the darkness, or to himself.
Autumn nights were long in those northern reaches, but that night, he knew, would be even longer than most. He had gone there hoping to rescue his friend before it was too late, but found the mountain already stained with blood.
And I fear that before my task is done, much more will be shed.
A pall of mist hung over the mountain as he set off the next morning to find his friend. Tiernan knew Bril would be observing him, so he made no effort to mask his approach, and he was not surprised when the boughs of the trees at the forest’s edge bent back to create a pathway for him to follow.
The crisp smell of pine in the cold air struck him with boyhood memories of playing in the woods around his father’s iron shops and warehouses. He had been in the south so long that he had almost forgotten the scent, and found himself smiling. Shaking his head against the pleasant reverie, he clenched his jaw and marched forward. His business on Mount Storm was not of the smiling kind.
The path led him to a grotto where Bril kneeled upon a broad, flat stone as he looked into a pool of water. His emaciated form was covered only by a sackcloth too thin for the cold, feet bluish in his sandals, yet he smiled when he looked over his shoulder. In that moment, despite the knotted beard full of twigs and moss, despite the face wizened and chapped by frigid winds, his cobalt eyes radiated with such innocent joy that Tiernan recognized the boy he had known so many years ago.
Tiernan walked up and looked over his friend’s shoulder to see a sinuous fish swimming in slow circles in the pool. Multicolored spirals and whorls decorated the animal’s flanks, swirling as they sent arcs of purple and orange and green spinning out through the water.
Tiernan spoke softly. “What manner of fish is that?”
“I have never seen the likes of it before,” Bril said, shaking his head and laughing. “If I had one hundred lifetimes to tend this mountain, it still would not be enough for me to discover all the secrets and beauties hidden here. This place alone could teach me everything the world has to teach.”
There were few joys greater than seeing a wild place through the eyes of its assigned Steward. Tiernan knew he needed to say something before his emotions distracted him from his task.
“Why did you kill the trappers, Bril?”
The fish turned and swam downstream, as though the druid’s words had broken the idyllic spell that had been keeping it there.
Bril’s smile disappeared. “They were destroying the forest.”
“And their dogs?”
“The men turned those animals into something else, something that did not belong in the wild any more than their owners did.”
“You have no right to make that appraisal, or that decision.”
“I was sent here to protect this place.” Bril looked up at his friend. “So, I protected it.”
“It is part of our duty to balance the good of the forest with the good of civilization. You know that as well as I do.”
Bril stood and looked down into the water, or perhaps at his reflection in the water. “I know what I was taught,” he said, “but those things do not work in this world, anymore. The rules have changed.”
“Do not lecture me,” Tiernan snapped. He wanted Bril to yell back, to fight. It would make the task at hand much easier to carry out.
Instead, Bril shook his head sadly. “I remember the man you were. You did not take on the responsibilities of a druid so that you could play at politics. You were better than that.”
“And you were better than a murderer,” Tiernan said coldly. Bril flinched under the words, but said nothing in return. “You left a home of comfort and wealth to serve the Circle.”
“Not to serve the Circle.” Bril shook his head. “To serve nature.”
“Humans are part of nature, too.”
“They were once,” Bril said. “Somehow, I do not believe that they are, anymore. Somehow, the pact has been broken.”
“You know what I have been sent here to do.”
“I know,” Bril said. “I do not intend to fight you. I merely want you to understand.” He nodded towards the direction of the trapper’s camp. “They used to come once a year, for a month, maybe two. Lately, they have been coming more and more often. Barely a day goes by when I do not hear the foxes crying in their snares. They will not rest until every one of the animals, and the trees, are dead and gone. ” He rested a hand on Tiernan’s shoulder. “The old ways do not work anymore, my friend, if they ever did.”
Tiernan pulled away from Bril’s touch. “You can explain all of this to the Circle. It is time to go. We have a long journey ahead of us.”
“I will not leave my mountain.”
“I cannot allow you to hold this land, anymore. You have spent too many years out here alone. You have lost perspective.”
“If there is one thing I have gained in my time here, it is perspective.” Bril walked northward, away from the direction Tiernan intended to take him. “You cannot kill me,” he said over his shoulder. “You think you can, but you cannot. Your heart is too good.”
“Do not do this.”
Bril stopped by a tree branch upon which a sparrow rested. He held out his hand. The bird hopped onto his finger and perched there, singing. “It saddens me to no end that the world drives us to this position. Before I do what must be done, I ask that you walk with me, as we once did.”
Tiernan hesitated. “What must be done?”
Bril lifted his hand and sent the sparrow fluttering into the air. He smiled and headed deeper into the forest.
“What must be done?” Tiernan asked again. He received no answer.
Part of him wanted to attack Bril, and part of him wanted to set his friend free. Eventually, he knew, he would have to do one of those things. When his legs started moving, however, he did not know which it would be. He merely followed.
No matter how hard Tiernan tried to steer the conversation towards the dilemma they faced, Bril only talked about the trees. He addressed each fir, each birch, each oak, as an individual friend. He smiled as he discussed the ways he had tended each one, and fondly recounted afternoons sitting in their shade and listening to the advice they gave.
“Patience,” Bril chuckled. “Their answer is always patience.”
It had been generations since any druid had entered deep enough into Communion to speak with flora. Such a connection was thought to be a thing of legend, and Tiernan had a hard time believing it was anything more than another symptom of his friend’s madness.
“They speak in words?”
“No. They speak in something more like emotion.” Bril bugged out his eyes comically. “Trees do not know words, Tiernan. You would have to be a lunatic to think that.”
Despite his best efforts, Tiernan could not help but laugh. “Why did you do it, Bril? It was not merely wrong, it was stupid. Nothing will be accomplished by it. The cities will continue to spread. The trappers will keep coming. You cannot kill them all.”
Bril stopped to examine a tree of blue frost roses in full bloom. He propped up a branch to show the flower’s intricate folds. “This beauty was achieved over vast stretches of time, through countless generations of forebears. It is perfect.” He bent over and breathed in the scent. “It is worth fighting for.”
“There are other ways to fight. The Circle is trying to adapt.”
“You mean ways to compromise.” Bril breathed the scent again. “Death knows no compromise. Only a fool tries to bargain with it.”
Tiernan stepped closer, to force his friend to look at him. “Last spring, a merchant from Industry came to the Circle to tell us that you had been harassing trappers. He said you destroyed their traps and set their catches free. He wanted you removed, but he did not want violence. You took it down that road. Not them.”
Bril’s voice came out low and tense. “They no longer take what they need. Now, they take what they want, and their want is endless. It has no aim or object anymore. Their want is everything.”
They walked deeper into the forest, reaching the edge of a broad clearing laced with the thin ribbons of streams meandering through the snow. Tiernan knew the inevitable was drawing near.
Bril could not win a fight between them. Tiernan was a Steward of a different sort than most druids, for his role was to maintain the order itself. As such, he had been trained in a different kind of power. He was unafraid of defeat, but he knew that his friend would not surrender. Once the confrontation began, there would be no turning back.
Bril stopped abruptly, gazing forward like a hunting cat that had spotted prey.
Tiernan followed his gaze down the long slope. First he saw streaks of blood staining the snow. Next, he saw the carcasses. Dozens of crag deer lay in heaps, stacked at the edge of the trees.
Bril ran to the scene. Tiernan called for him to stop, but when his friend ignored the plea, he followed.
Only pedicles remained on the heads of the deer, rough shallow cavities where the precious antlers for which they were so well known had been forcibly removed. Each animal had a hole blasted through its side, indicative of the new weapons that had been popping up in the cities.
Bril uttered a single, tense word. “Muskets.”
For the first time, Tiernan saw in his friend’s eyes a killer capable of butchering a whole crew of trappers and their dogs.
Tiernan spoke softly, the way he would to a frightened animal. “I promise that I will find out what happened here.”
“I will not leave this site,” Bril said, barely above a whisper.
Voices came from the woods. Three men emerged, each one tugging violently at a rope tethered to the head of a mule laden with sacks full of antlers.
“Come on,” one of the men barked, pulling forcefully and stretching the animal’s neck taut.
Tiernan felt the air grow thin around him, and knew Bril was summoning energy for an attack. He stepped towards his friend. “Stop.”
The newcomers looked up. The figure standing at the lead, a blockish man with dim eyes and brown hair jutting out from under his furred cap, spit a mouthful of black leaf into the snow. Squinting suspiciously at the druids, he nodded a greeting.
“Did you murder these deer?” Bril’s words were a question, but his voice a threat.
The hunter spit again. “I hunted those deer, yes,” he said. “Is there a problem?” There was no apparent malice in his voice, only curiosity.
“You butchered them for their antlers,” Bril said.
The man’s eyes narrowed as he seemed to realize that he was not being confronted for his actions. “We’ll take some of the meat,” he said. “But the antlers get the highest price.”
Tiernan stepped between them. “These woods are under druidic protection,” he said. “As such, they fall under the Hunt Laws.”
“We talked to the law people,” the man said, eyes still fixed on Bril. “We have full permission for this venture.” As if sensing that his defense sounded inadequate, he added, “I have a family to feed, just like any man.”
One of the hunter’s allies, a scrawny character with an enormous, misshapen nose, stepped forward and pointed his musket at Bril. “We don’t want any trouble. It’s been a hard winter. We have people to care for.”
Bril’s eyes went wide and his hair stood up…too slightly for others to notice, perhaps, but enough to tell Tiernan that he was charged with energy and ready to strike.
“We don’t want any trouble,” the smaller man said again, voice quivering.
Tiernan moved to restrain Bril. As he did, musket shot exploded behind him, and a terrific force threw him forward. He landed face first in the snow, pain burning through his back like fire. He lifted his head to talk Bril down, but no words would come.
Blue light emanated from Bril’s crazed eyes. “You come to my woods,” he said. “My home. And you murder my friends.”
Tiernan tried to speak again, but his lungs would not work. Just before he fell unconscious, he heard the sound of hornets. Thousands of the insects flew out of the forest in a black cloud, their buzzing so loud that it drowned out all other sounds, except for the screaming.
Tiernan woke beside a fire in the night with a bandage wrapped around his back. The wound still burned.
“I covered the dressing with healing salve,” Bril said from his place beside the fire. “It hurts, but you will recover in a few days. By tomorrow, you will be well enough to start your journey back to the Circle.”
Tiernan opened his mouth to chastise Bril for escalating the situation with the hunters, but then closed it again without saying anything. He was tired of politics. He was tired of debate. He just wanted to talk to his friend.
“What if the hunters were speaking the truth, Bril? What if they had permission to be here?”
Bril shrugged. “It does not matter.”
“It means you killed three more innocent men.”
“Innocent.” Bril chuckled. He tossed some new branches into the fire. The moisture in the wood sizzled and popped, and the scent of evergreen wafted through the cold air. The reflected fire danced wildly in Bril’s eyes as he stared intensely into the embers. Though he knew it was not true, Tiernan could not help but imagine that the sight was really a revelation of the inferno raging inside his friend’s mind.
Bril looked up and grinned, as though sensing the other’s thoughts. “I am not mad,” he said. “Though perhaps I have done mad things.” He picked up a branch and poked around in the fire. “I regret killing the trapper’s dogs.”
Tiernan forced himself to sit up, wincing against the pain that seared through his body. “You cannot win this war, Bril. There are too many of them.”
Bril pushed an ember over with his stick and sent a cloud of orange sparks dancing into the air like fireflies. “I cannot win it alone,” he said.
Silence hung over the scene as Tiernan considered the unspoken proposal behind Bril’s words. “I am not a murderer,” he said, reminding himself as much as Bril. “I cannot do the things you have done.”
“You do not have to. Every army needs soldiers, but every army also needs diplomats. You have seen what they are doing to the world, and the world is not only theirs. Lines have already been drawn. No matter which side you stand on, you have blood on your hands.”
Tiernan reached back to feel along the bandage. He hissed as his fingers lighted upon the holes that had been blasted through his back. “Your mountain is the only place I’ve seen in a long time that still feels like a mountain,” he said. “All through the south, there is no place one can go that is silent of human industry. Somewhere, a balance seems to have been lost.” He was hesitant to utter the words, feeling himself crossing over some kind of mental boundary. But, once he spoke, he felt a deep burden lifted from within.
“I need you,” Bril said. “Without you, I will merely fight for some time and eventually die. There are too many of them and their weapons are becoming too powerful. But together, we can start a campaign. We can restore sanity to the world before it is too late.”
Tiernan’s hands stung with cold. He pulled the elk hide over his shoulders and blew into his fists to warm them. Have I been in the meeting halls and out of the wilderness for too long to understand what is happening? He wondered. Have things gotten so bad? Images of rivers choked with dead fish and forests of stumps and burning plains rushed through his mind. No, he realized. They were already there for me to see. I just did not want to look, anymore. Bril is right. I have already chosen a side. I already have blood on my hands.
The words came out low at first, as though uncertain if they wanted to be said. “If we hide ourselves out here, then the city and the Circle can easily dismiss us and dispose of us accordingly.”
Did I just say we? I suppose my mind is made up. So be it, then.
“I will go to the Circle and make our cause known. There will be those who will join our cause and those who will align against us.” He blew into his hands again. “But it will be in the open, and no matter what follows, they will not be able to keep it silent.”
“So, you are with me?”
“I am,” Tiernan said. “But I hope to prevent further killing, Bril. On both sides.”
“I would like nothing more than for you to succeed at that.” Bril pulled the poker from the fire and examined the flame dancing on the end of the stick. “But things rarely proceed as easily as our mind’s foresee them.”
“I know that,” Tiernan said. He moved to sit closer to the fire. “I have no way to know to where this will go. But, I have made my choice.” He looked up at Bril and saw the reflected fire dancing again in his friend’s eyes. He could not help but wonder if his own eyes now danced with the same reflected fire.
By Dusty Cooper
Phil surveyed the hazard area left by the previous tenants.
They’d made the place a rat’s nest of freshly used women’s hygiene products, kitty litter, and dirty dishes. The house was no more than a spider hole: one room for living and cooking, one for showering and sleeping. Phil tried renting to single occupants, but the kind of trash that answered his ads weren’t the kind to follow rules. They’d move their families in, or their friends’ visits would turn into extended stays. The last tenant let a woman and her two kids live with him. How they fit without sleeping on top of each other, Phil couldn’t imagine. The guy hadn’t paid rent for the last two months. Phil used everything but a crowbar to get them out of there.
“They suck you dry,” he said to his friend, Gus. “Drain you until you’ve got no option but kick’em out.”
“Yep,” Gus said, studying a section of the wall where someone’s fist had broken through. Frayed fibers fringed the dark hole. A piece of sheetrock dangled from a strip of wallpaper. He tried folding it back in place, but it didn’t fit. “Told you this landlord business was no fun.”
“It ain’t so bad,” Phil said. “Every year or two I got to do some renovations, but it’s a monthly supplement to my Social check.” Phil amended, “When the trash pays.”
Gus let the chunk of sheetrock drop, and it crumbled at his feet. “You ever have one leave without having to kick’em out for not paying?”
“Not in awhile,” Phil said. Carolyn, his late wife, used to handle the interviewing. She read people. Tenants weren’t as much trouble when she was making the calls.
He turned in the doorway, scanned the yard, all mud holes and tire trenches, and beyond that acres of woods. That’s why he’d bought the place as a young man. Cheap land, and he just needed enough room to rest when he got off work. The square-footage provided plenty of space until he met Carolyn.
“I’ll just raise the rent this time. Get somebody that’ll take care of the place,” Phil said.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” Gus said and began tearing down the battered wall. “You’re going to have to replace at least two panels.”
Once Phil got the place clean and protected from the weather, he placed an ad. 1br/1ba, Single Occupant Only NO MORE, Private Property, No Neighbors, 800mo. The ad cost more than others he’d run, but it got his point across. He more than doubled the rent, and two months passed before he got the first call.
“I’m calling about the place for rent,” the caller said. He had a raspy, high-pitched voice, thin, not effeminate.
“Yes, sir, got some questions for you,” Phil said. “Got a wife or girlfriend?”
“What about family members?”
“We haven’t seen each other in a long time. Our kind likes to keep our own territory.”
That stuck a tack in Phil’s nose. “You ain’t part of a gang or something?”
“No, I just need a place to sleep and eat.”
“No long term visitors?”
“I get a lot of visitors, but you will never know they were there.”
“Well, we might be able to do business,” Phil said. “What’s your name?”
They made an appointment, the caller asked for landmarks instead of street directions. “It’s west, a few miles outside of town. Look for the rusted-out blue water tower. There’s a narrow gravel road shrouded by trees that runs right behind it.”
Phil though of calling Gus, but didn’t want to jinx it. Gus and him had been friends since Carolyn had begun her decline. Her dementia took hold fast, and Phil resorted to placing her in a home. He visited twice a day. In the mornings he’d stop at the breakfast diner in town where all the old men and utility guys began their day. That’s where he met Gus.
He’d kept Phil company through Carolyn’s last years, checked-in on him, and helped him with the property and new tenants. Having a young person around sure made things easier, even being alone, but there was no replacing his Carolyn.
That night, he laid his hand on her empty pillow, the way he’d done every night for the past five years. “Might have a good one this time,” he said. “Wish you were here to tell me for sure.” He stroked the coarse, threadbare pillowcase, and it pulled him down into sleep.
Phil sat on a desk chair the last tenants had tossed in the yard. The wind blew just enough to make it chilly. It was quiet. The only car he could hear from this spot would be coming down the gravel road. He listened for one, but it was twenty minutes late.
A noise came from deep in the woods. Something was approaching. He figured a deer galloped by, but the noise was getting louder, like a storm kicking-up. The sky looked mostly clear. The treetops in the distance moved in a single line toward him. He stood and headed for his truck. Something moved in the darkness on the threshold of the forest.
Two tallow trees bent forward and a giant spider emerged. Phil clenched up like a crimp on a pipe.
“Mr. Kemp,” the spider said in the same raspy, high-pitched voice from the phone.
Phil’s hose crimp failed and filled his pants. He backed against the door to the house, and felt for the knob. Locked. The spider’s deep red body absorbed the light around it. Thick grey hairs sprouted down its legs and back.
“Don’t be afraid,” it said and crawled forward until it’s full size was out of the woods. “I won’t hurt you, as long as you work with me on this place.”
Phil could see his reflection in the beast’s eight black orbs, each as big as his head. He thought about reaching for his keys. If it was anything like the spiders he’d killed in his kitchen sink, it would move too fast for him to get in the house.
“What do you want?” Phil said.
“Just a place to sleep and eat,” the spider said. Its pincers twitched just a few feet from Phil’s head. It sank its fat abdomen to the ground.
“You’ll get your rent every month. Just have to keep the ad running.”
“What if I say no?”
“I could eat you,” it said, its pincers moving rapidly. “I would prefer to keep you involved, though.”
When it came to saying no, Phil couldn’t even fight humans. He always felt powerless, weak. Tenants seemed bigger, more important, like Phil should feel bad for owning the property. How dare he charge someone money to live there? But the spider added on that last bit. Involved.
Phil didn’t want to be involved with anything the spider had going on. Bullied again. He couldn’t do much about it. Maybe he’d be able to get rid of the spider later. Killing seemed as impossible as the creature’s existence had five minutes ago. There wasn’t a shoe big enough for the job.
“Why do I have to keep running the ad?”
Clicking came from somewhere in the darkness under the spider’s eyes.
“You’ll never have to know or worry about it.”
Phil thought about Carolyn, how she could see through people’s ruse: dressed in their best, wearing a sincere smile, making promises about keeping the place clean, and never being any trouble. “Rent will never be a problem.” Until it was. “I’ll always be on time.” Until they weren’t. Carolyn knew the lies under the surface. She could pick out their sales tags stuck under collars or up sleeves so clothes could be returned later. But here was this beast, no Sunday-best or mouth to fake a smile. It had nothing to hide behind. Phil didn’t have much choice.
For once he was thankful for Carolyn’s absence. She wouldn’t have to watch him make a deal with a monster.
That night, Phil took a long shower while thinking about setting the place on fire, but he figured the creature would escape. Even if he just ignored the place, didn’t keep the ad, he had a feeling the spider would find him. Phil crawled in bed and laid his hand on Carolyn’s pillow. The rough fabric didn’t provide any comfort. “It would have killed me,” he said. “What could I do?”
The following week he called the newspaper to lower the rent and change the contact number. He had to get a phone installed for the spider.
“I’ll handle the calls,” it had said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time.” The less he had to do with it the better, but the thought of it all shook him up. That the spider knew how to approach it all, its confidence it wouldn’t get caught, made Phil wonder what else in the world he didn’t know about. He thought back to their phone conversation. The spider said he had family all over the globe. Phil couldn’t fathom it.
He reconciled with himself that the spider served a purpose. All those people that had come before, the ones who’d taken advantage of him and left him messes to clean up, he was sending that trash for the spider to take care of. It was a public service for other landlords.
For two years Phil kept up with the newspaper ad. Every month, he’d park his truck by the mailbox at the main road. He worried the spider would mistake him for a stranger. He’d cleanout the junk mail posted to tenants who hadn’t lived there in years. The spider left the rent in a web cocoon under the mailbox. He kept the money in a shoebox under his bed. The cocoon’s coarse, sticky sinews, like cotton candy mixed with sand, rubbed his fingers raw. The stain on his skin lasted for days.
Each time it hurt worse, as though wearing down his defenses. He’d long since stopped stroking Carolyn’s pillow. It no longer brought him comfort. The frayed fabric reminded him too much of the web. Carolyn wouldn’t want him touching her anyway.
Only once, Gus called and asked if the place was still available.
“Naw, I gave-up on that place,” Phil said.
“My cousin’s daughter is looking for a place,” Gus said.
“I’m done with it.” Phil said. “Just let it be.”
“I’ll take care of it if she makes a mess.”
“Stay out of it, damn it,” Phil said, getting angry. Gus wouldn’t understand any other way, and he couldn’t tell him the truth. “I’m done worrying about that place.”
“Alright, Phil,” Gus said. His voice had changed, as though Phil could hear their age difference. “Just trying to help.”
“Thank you,” Phil said. He’d never yelled, or even raised his voice to Gus. It hurt. “I’m just getting too old to deal with any of it and I won’t be depending on anyone else to deal with it either.”
“I understand ya, Phil,” Gus said, clearing his throat. “She’ll have to find another place. She’d probably wreck it anyhow.”
After that call, Phil worked on plans to rid himself of the creature.
He’d thought about cutting through the water tower’s legs, let it fall on the house, but the spider would probably hear him working. Sometimes he settled on fire, again, but couldn’t bring himself to try. It was funny, not in any comical way, that he wanted the spider gone. He’d been looking for a single occupant, someone that would pay the rent on time.
The spider never bothered him, paid every month, but the state of the cash worked on Phil the most. Crumpled, tacky, and smelling awful, the bills looked like they’d been decaying: a reminder of why the spider lived there, and what Phil played a part in.
Phil lost track of how long the spider had been there crouched in its hovel, attacking unsuspecting victims. He couldn’t remember what the house looked like anymore. How ever long the spider had been there, what ever amount of time had passed since he’d yelled at Gus, they’d never discussed it again.
Near the end of fall, Gus visited Phil with a friend. They didn’t stay long, and just shot the shit. Phil had heard the man’s name before, but couldn’t remember from where.
Two days later, Gus’s wife called. “You seen Gus, Phil?
“Yeah, he came by yesterday with some fellow.”
“You’re the last person I could think to call. You might be the last one to see him and that real estate guy,” she said.
Phil’s body went limp and cold; he could barely keep a grip on the phone. “I see, did he say what they were doing that day?” he said.
“No, his secretary said his calendar says Kent property, but they don’t have any Kent’s with property on the books.”
He saw the spider first coming from the forest, and remembered how just about everything in his body had evacuated like a flood. Phil knew it should have said Kemp Property. “I’m sorry, Pam,” he said and hung-up the phone.
Right now his best friend hung, wrapped-up in a cocoon, the spider’s fat, hairy body hunched over him, feeding. If only he’d let that fiend take him that first day, he’d be the one in the cocoon being bled dry.
He wondered if the spider kept the people alive, or if they died after one bite. It must be a painful process. Long, drawn-out, like wasting away in a demented state. The way Carolyn had wilted, first her mind, then her body. His time had come.
He gasped for air, fighting to keep his heart pumping. He had one last thing to do.
Without leaving a note, Phil made his way out to the gravel road. He stopped in town for a can of spray paint. His hands shook as he paid the cashier, couldn’t look the kid in the eyes, or return his “Have a good day.”
Phil drove down the dirt road a bit, and parked his truck diagonally across the road. Moving his arms in wide sweeps, he painted KEEP OUT from bumper to bumper.
His feet fought every step. He said, “It’ll be like touching Carolyn’s pillow.”
By Nyki Blatchley
The spell to start my car didn’t work that evening, so I contacted the repair service and walked home from the office through darkening drizzle, rather than being ripped off by the Instant Transportation System. Rain insinuated itself inside my upturned collar. Typical: they spend a fortune on improving the fireballs and blasting spells, but nothing on controlling the weather.
“Can I see your papers, sir?” said a voice behind me.
I turned with the practiced air of having nothing to hide, but my mind was racing. Had he heard my thoughts, and would he consider them disloyal? I’d always doubted the rumours of the police using mind-reading devices, but I wasn’t so sure at that moment.
It was reassuring that his fireball-thrower was still in its holster, although his hand rested on it, but his face was blank and unreadable as they always were. I fumbled the papers from my inside pocket and tried to stand calmly while he scanned them. Everyone feels paranoid in this situation. Or maybe just me. It’s not as if anyone discusses it.
He looked up at last. “Seen any of the damned, sir?”
The question threw me, as was no doubt the intention, but I was able to answer truthfully, “Of course not. I’d have reported it if I had.”
The policeman nodded, pushing his face into a smile that didn’t suit it. “I’m sure you would, sir. Sooner there’s not a damned left, the better. Evening.”
I nodded vigorously as he hand my papers back, though his words disturbed me. The damned were abominations, to be sure, but there were rumours of them being fed alive into furnaces when caught. Probably just propaganda by the damned-lovers, I reminded myself. The government knew best.
I glanced about as I trudged through the dreary streets, searching out subtle signs of the damned. There are ways they can pass for normal, but it’s said you can always feel the difference. That man there, wearing dark glasses in the evening? No, I didn’t get a sense of wrongness from him. Perhaps I should have followed him, but it was cold, and I was probably mistaken.
It’s not just the physical differences that make the damned revolting. All of us use magic, and some are talented enough to manipulate it, making and repairing the devices we rely on and the spells that drive them. The damned, though, live within magic and use it to interfere with our minds and souls, bewildering decent people into their foul clutches. There’s nothing natural about them.
It wasn’t till I’d spoken the spell to turn on the light in my hallway that I saw the vagrant girl clearly, though I could make out little of her, swathed in a shapeless, threadbare coat and a hat pulled down, shadowing her face. She’d been sitting against the wall of my block, soaking and miserable, and had asked for my help. The shelters were all full, she’d claimed, and she offered to make it worth my while if I let her stay the night.
Why did I agree? Maybe I felt a little sorry for her, but her suggestion aroused me too. It was a long time since I’d been with a woman, and the delicious trace of huskiness in her voice had its effect on me.
“You can hang those things here,” I told her. “I’ll make you a hot drink.”
The girl hesitated a moment before nodding. She took off the battered coat to reveal torn, stained clothes and soft curves that sent anticipation coursing through me. She paused a moment more, before removing the hat and facing me. She swallowed.
My guts turned over.
She had a heart-shaped face, with a sweet mouth and short, dark hair, but it was dominated by the elongated eyes with irises of burnished gold. Even though the eyes were frightened, they looked deep into me.
She was one of the damned.
“Keep away from me.” My voice rasped in my throat. I didn’t realise I’d backed away till I collided with the wall. I was almost too scared – almost – to notice that my arousal had increased.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” Her voice was huskier than ever, seduction wrapped in honey, as she approached me. “I’m lonely. Just let me spend tonight with you. Show you I’m no different from you. I promise, you won’t regret it.”
Reaching down, she brushed her hand over my crotch, and desire surged through me as if by magic. For that moment, I didn’t care who she was. I pulled her, unresisting, into the bedroom.
I was too aroused to be gentle or subtle, but she met me in the same spirit. If she were only doing this to get a bed for the night, she hid it well. Holding her afterwards, floating together down to the caverns of sleep, the last thing I heard was her crooned whisper, “You’re different, I know. I love you.”
I wanted to ask what she meant, but the insistent current drew me down into oblivion.
I stood beside the girl, holding her hand, in a meadow sloping down to a quiet, winding river. A couple of trees waved over us, and a wood stretched from the far bank. Sun and blue sky were offset by a ripple of breeze fanning my hair. Every colour was more vivid, more beautiful, cleaner than I’d ever seen before.
She nestled against me, her head resting against my chest. She was small, like many of her kind – her kind? what did that mean? – just the perfect size. I’d never been so happy.
“Isn’t this better?” she murmured, glancing up at me. Her lovely, golden eyes gleamed. “You’re so beautiful inside. I felt it as soon as you came near me.”
“Beautiful?” It must be true if she said so, but I didn’t remember anyone calling me that before.
“Come and see.” She pulled playfully on my hand, and I followed her down to the river. The water rippled and shimmered a little, but her reflection was clear and as lovely as the reality. Beside her stood a splendid figure, with a face of compassion and love, and…
I jerked awake. A dream? No, it had been too vivid. She’d enchanted me, trying to make me believe…What? That I was too loving to betray her?
Her breathing was even beside me, and I slipped out of bed, panic rising. I had to get away. Grabbing a dressing-gown, I fled into the living-room, and my terror took me to the message-globe. I spoke the spell to link with the police.
I’d been sitting for a while, numb and mindless, after the call was over, when I looked up to see her standing in the doorway, a sheet wrapped hastily around her. There was a stunned look in those weird eyes.
“What have you done?” she whispered.
“You tricked me.” I pushed my confusion away by yelling at her. “You used your magic to bewitch me and make me dream…that.”
She stared at me, her eyes a little glazed, and slumped down onto the floor. “I was trying to show you what you really are. I didn’t bewitch you. I thought…”
“I’ve called the police. They’ll be here soon.” Was I threatening or warning? Perhaps she’d have time to get away. They wouldn’t throw her into a furnace, surely: that was all lies. Though why should I care?
She tried to get up, but collapsed again, despair in her eyes. “No, no, you’re not like that. I know you…”
She still hadn’t moved, though there were tears in her eyes, when the police broke the door open.
They left me alone at last, after several sessions of questioning about why I was consorting with the damned, though I think they’re still watching me. I convinced them she’d bewitched me into letting her in, but I don’t believe that. At least, the magic she used was older and more natural than the tricks of her kind.
Why didn’t she run? Maybe what she did to me exhausted her. It almost seemed, though, that she’d no will to resist. Because I’d betrayed her.
I hope she’s all right. The government assures us that the damned are sent to institutions where they’re taught the evil of their ways, to be turned into obedient servants of society, but I dream every night of fire and screaming, and it’s as if I’m surrounded all day by ashes and blood. As if I’m damned.
By Damien Krsteski
I stare at the gap between the mountain peaks of data. There’s been a break-in.
“Backups?” I say. Fresh snow crunches under our steps.
“Checked. Same gap everywhere.”
I picture the satellites containing the data of the Truth Banks, the supercomputers buried deep underground with backups and revision history, the top-secret security systems. If there’s one heist impossible to pull it’s this one, and yet the fifteen millisecond gap is right before me like a splinter in the holograms.
“Have you sent agents to verify?”
He flips the holo-generator’s lid back on and pockets the device. “Of course, Marcus.”
We turn right in a side-street. As a warning, he’s brought Lilly. She rushes ahead of us, spinning in the falling snow.
He says, “There’s a timer in the code, counting down. To what, we don’t know, but it’s unstoppable. You have until sunrise to find them.”
Lilly gathers snow with her purple gloves, throws the snowball at me.
“And after this?” I say.
Toothy grin. “You do this right, Marcus, and you get her back.”
Fists in my pockets. I nod.
Crouching to give Lilly a kiss on the cheek. “I am your daddy and I will always love you,” I say.
She giggles. “You are funny,” she says.
The agent pats her on the head, still grinning. “I think you’re right, Lilly. He is funny.”
I wipe my tears off with a sleeve, and fixing him a look of utter contempt, start my stopwatch.
The stairs lead down to a basement I know all too well. On the cement wall, in white paint, the name Gibson.
He’s hunched over his desk, a pair of goggles on his face. He touches a circuit with the electronic pencil in his hand and a buzz echoes in the workshop.
He looks up. With measured steps I approach.
I can see my doubled reflection in his onyx goggles. My face is expressionless. A mask. He goes back to his tinkering. “What do you want?” His voice is steady, no trace of fear.
“Banks were hit.” Slowly, I circle around him, breathing in the stale air of the workshop, taking in all the details. A pile of half-rotten ersatz-flesh robots in one corner. A calendar with a naked Asian babe, cracks snaking out of the wall spot where it’s been nailed. Cardboard boxes, duct-taped all over, scattered around. “All of them. Backup servers, too.” I swipe a finger on his work desk, examine the dust on my fingertip. “Nobody hacks into UN satellites, least of all the Truth Banks, without consulting the expert first.”
He sets the pencil tool down, lifts the goggles to his forehead. “You know Marcus, sometimes you’re a real pain in the ass.”
“UN’s got you in their pocket, huh? What is it this time? Caught you pirating virtuals? You swapped jail time by ratting old friends out–”
His nose breaks with my punch. Blood sprays all over my jacket. He barely has time to scream out when my left fist connects with his jaw.
I catch him by his collar.
“You have one minute. Make calls. Think. Pray. I don’t care. If you don’t give me names inside of a minute your skin will be a bag of shattered bones.”
Bloodied, he examines me, looks me straight in the eyes. “I used to work for the Agency too, you know?”
Closer to his face. “Fifty-nine seconds.”
But his eyes are searching for something, and I know he knows. “They got you transmitting to UN’s private servers, right?” He laughs. “Hey, pals.” Looking straight into my eyes. “Still the same rotten fuckers you were back in the day, I see.”
He spits blood in my face, but he’s spitting at them, really.
With sudden clarity, like a mirror unbreaking before me, I know he’s a danger. Worse, he’s all that’s bad with the world, the cause and root of all evil. I wrap my hands around his neck. Squeezing tight, I choke him, exorcising the world of evil, until his eyes roll back and he slumps to the ground, motionless.
A step back.
As suddenly as it came the knowledge dissipates, and I’m left staring at Les Gibson in his gray overalls, electronic pencil clutched in his fist. Les Gibson, who’s never truly hurt anyone besides a few corporations’ bottom lines.
Terror creeps up my body like a swarm of spiders. What did I just do?
Altering truth so blatantly is another warning of theirs, another reminder that they own me. I kick through the pile of fleshy robots and electric body parts scatter all over the floor, a thick, blue substance oozing out of them. I punch walls, venting out anger, disgusted with myself. Then I remember Lilly and regain my composure.
I rummage through Gibson’s desks, drawers, cardboard boxes, for a clue, a hint that he was somehow involved, but find nothing.
On my way out, something catches my eye. I approach the naked and kneeling Asian model. The dates. Numbers are scrambled, out of order. I tap the calendar’s screen twice but the picture doesn’t refresh. I flick through the other months where the days, under naked ladies of various ethnicities, are ordered normally.
Scanners switched on, I notice a network field around it. The calendar is receiving data.
Walking through Les’ neighborhood, I watch a throng of people shuffling about in the evening snow. Couples holding hands, friends laughing, parents with children, woolen hats and gloves and boots and scarves. I no longer consider them human. Instead, I see the eyes and ears of the Truth Banks, witnessing and recording every sound and motion. I see everyone who wouldn’t believe a single thing I say because the great gig in the sky tells them otherwise. I see obstacles, standing between me and my daughter.
My head buzzes with knowledge. The Agency bastards have cracked the calendar. The data it’s getting for its content comes from a location nearby.
I quicken my pace, knowing where to go.
The dilapidated house looks like it won’t survive another winter. Precariously, I climb up the creaking porch steps, and push open the lockless door. Walls, pissed and written on, hardly hold the structure up, and I have a horrible feeling in my gut that the roof’s just about to crumble down and bury me. Through a tight hallway, my Whisperer in hand, finger on the trigger, I sidle up to what must’ve been a living room.
Sprawled on the floor is a pale-faced junkie, needle stuck in one arm. I kick him, my Whisperer pointed at his heart.
He moans, and there’s a flicker of movement under his eyelids.
“Better sober up quick.” My grip on the gun is steady. “Anyone else in this house?”
But he turns his head, smiles, and nods off.
When I step into the adjacent room, I hear a clicking sound, followed by a blinding flutter. A nondescript body appears before me, shaped out of light and dust motes.
“Hello, Marcus,” says the hologram.
My name comes like a bucket of ice cold water.
“Who are you?”
In the center of the decimated room the faceless shape looks haunting.
“We are the Undoing,” it says. “The Tint of Optimism. The Collective. Call us what you wish. We are nameless.”
Despite its utter futility my gun’s pointed at the hologram. “You broke in the Truth Banks.”
“What do you want?” I wave my Whisperer at it. “Money? Release of prisoners?”
Even though it has no mouth I can sense it’s smiling. “No, Marcus. We want to restore order, give Truth back to the people.”
The shape flickers and gestures, but remains rooted to the spot. There’s probably a holo-generator on the floor and cameras embedded in the walls. They must’ve seen my face and ran a pattern-matching search for my name. I better keep them talking while Agency traces the signal.
“The world ain’t ordered to your tastes?”
It pauses for a moment, then says, “The Truth Banks were a brilliant idea, Marcus. Give everyone access to all the world’s knowledge, to every fact and action and you’ll have no more lies, no more wars. But humans always find ways to cheat the system for their own selfish benefit.”
“You’ve proven you can break in,” I say, packing my Whisperer in its holster. “Now go get yourself a nice scholarship, a job, a family.”
It laughs, voice sharp as crystal.
“What good would a family be in a world where it can be taken from you at the flip of a switch, in a world where a daughter can’t recognize her father because an organization has its iron grip on truth?”
Lilly. They can’t have pattern-matched that. I gape at the hologram, scraping for words. “How do you know?”
The light is out for a second and my heart sinks, thinking they’ve left, but it soon comes back like an apparition. “We are everywhere, Marcus. Even in the servers of the UN Intelligence Agency.”
My mouth dry, I say, “What do you want?”
“In ten hours the Truth Banks are going offline forever, backups irreparably destroyed,” it says. “You have that much time to prepare society for a world without absolute truth.”
It bows its head slightly, and I get the uncomfortable sensation that it pities me. In a flash, it disappears, leaving me alone on the creaking urine-soaked floor.
Agency activates operatives in Minsk at a moment’s notice, and sends them to the decoded address. I borrow their eyes and ears to monitor the action from the safety of my flat.
I see them walk across a grassy field, assemble at the bottom of an old commie block. I see them climb up a fire ladder into a claustrophobic hallway, where one foot after the other they crawl, silent as cockroaches, only to unleash their fury on a flaking door, kicking it to the ground and pouring themselves like a flood into the tiny apartment.
They spread to the rooms. Check under every table and behind every mirror. Nothing. The place is empty.
I switch off the consoles, put my coat on, and gun tucked in its holster I head out into the cold.
My neighborhood is calm, the snow untrodden. On a pixelated billboard, right above a soda drink advert, the four zeros of midnight.
Agency had the hologram’s signal analyzed thoroughly by advanced decryption software. The majority of it led to Minsk in Belarus, but it was split many ways, through many local routers, to mask its source. One of the routing spots was a children’s playground. I recognized the coords when I saw them.
It takes me fifteen minutes to get to it, the icy wind biting at my cheeks all the way.
One gloved hand on the gun’s grip as I approach the unused see-saws, the squealing merry-go-round. Snow flakes thick as cotton fall from the dark sky, glinting in the lamp light like diamonds. I make a tentative step towards the benches. That’s where I always sat, watching Lilly play with the other children. Emotion surges through my body, stops in my throat like a lump of coal. I swallow, gun pointing straight ahead.
But there’s nobody, so I activate the scanners with an eye blink. Foraging through drifting nanotech for network traffic logs, they download all data.
A fluttering sheet of paper carried by the wind sticks against my leg. I pick it up.
It’s a drawing. A little girl holding a boy’s hand, their grins like watermelon slices, her hair curly and golden, his short and brown. As I hold the drawing, the smart paper transmutes the crayon colors and shapes into letters. Never Alone, it says.
I let go of the drawing. The wind reclaims it, carrying it away into the sky.
Back home the nanotech in my head transfers the scanner data to my local console.
A whirlpool pulls me down, spinning, and spits me out into the depths of the Net. I see giant strings representing the Minsk signal. I pluck them. The transmission replays, the strings curl around each other like spaghetti, and I chase after them, twisting as they do, watching the intricacies of each separate thread, until the signal ends, and the strings grow taut and silent again.
My decrypting software splices the signal from the ruined house with the networking data from Minsk and the playground. The strings triple in numbers, and we’re spinning again, me and them.
Embedded within, I discover seven different codes, different locations.
This time I decide to go there myself. Without wasting any time I ping body rental shops in the separate cities, wire them the necessary money, and split myself seven ways.
I open my eyes. All fourteen of them. No longer in my virtual system, it takes me a moment to adapt to the different levels of brightness. In Osaka the sun may be shining, but in Trento it’s as dark and cold as in the apartment where my real, flesh-and-bones body is slumped in virtual slumber.
I take a step forward, and the robots obey. My vision’s kaleidoscopic, the sound a composition of seven competing symphonies.
On separate channels I observe the robots’ every step. I trot along a snow-free sidewalk in Baltimore. The light-rail train rushing by, the passengers’ eyes all hazed out, their minds off to their favorite virtuals. From a corner, blinding rays of sunshine. Sydney, Australia. People walking about, dressed scantly, wearing sunglasses and straw hats.
Red compasses point me in the right directions, and I orchestrate my bodies to follow. In Saint-Malo the location is a mussels restaurant, probably closed at this hour, lodged between a pancake shop and a souvenir stand. Istanbul’s transmission origin is an abandoned warehouse near the harbor. Krakow’s is St. Adalbert’s church, in the old town.
“Watch it.” A tanned, shirtless man gesticulates before me. Seems like I walked into him and his red-haired girlfriend. I backpedal, and hurry down the Sydney boardwalk.
I jog along an upward slope in Saint-Malo, raindrops in my vision, the static noise of the ocean in my ears. Wind flaps the canvas of an awning. On the sign beneath it: La Creperie d’Auguste. Right next to that, the restaurant. The compass arrow in that part of my vision spins in a circle. I’m at the right place.
An equally dark, though much quieter sea in Istanbul. Warmer climate. A drunken homeless man stops to look at me while I’m examining the warehouse. In my fish-lens view I see him coming up from behind. My metallic body turns swiftly. Voice volume dialed up to max, I yell out, “Get lost.” His eyes widen with fear, he drops his bottle and runs off. The entrance to the warehouse is on the northern side. Compass arrow spins in a circle. Two out of seven.
Sydney’s location is right at the end of the boardwalk, so I run, planks barely making a sound under the weight of my carbon-nanotube legs. My torso twists, the sun glinting off it, making other people raise their hands to shield their eyes.
A patchwork sky. Like a quilt stitched up of moons, stars, and a sun which appears only in certain corners.
The ramen place in Osaka is open, and I push open the door. Two men in business suits at the counter, gulping down their meals, and a couple in a booth, waiting for their order. Nobody looks up. There’s one other robot there, powering itself, perched against the red brick wall. My compass points me towards the bathroom.
On the bus, on my way to the old town, in Krakow.
There’s snow in Trento, too. The river Adige is livelier than ever, the snow pouring strength and life into it. Along its left bank, under a bridge, is my location. Three out of seven.
The bus stops. I hop off. Market Square is empty, save for a few drunken tourists. Getting near the church gets the compass spinning.
Osaka. The women’s bathroom. I hesitate for a second, check that there’s no one there, and push open the door.
Disabling the alarm, I walk into the dark and empty restaurant. Inside, a tiled floor, the upturned chairs and tables, and the blackboard with Moules Frites and prices and the Soup du Jour written on it in chalk.
Baltimore’s location is a light-rail station one block away from the city center. There’s only one other person, smoking a cigarette, tapping his foot impatiently, waiting for the train.
At the end of the boardwalk, in Sydney, with the sun right on top of me. Spinning compass.
I notice a window on the east side, moonlight reflected in it. I place a hand firmly on the drainpipe, and slowly, one foot after the other, I climb up, and break into the warehouse.
Seven out of seven.
Compasses dissolve out of sight, no longer needed. With the equipment built into the robot bodies I analyze the locations for transmissions, for nanotech routers. Colored bars fill up.
I download all network data into my console.
“Oh, excuse me, I didn’t–”
It takes me a second to figure out the voice’s origin, but once I do, all six other locations collapse, blanked out of my mind. A robotic face stares straight into mine, and neither of us moves, not even a bit. In the bathroom mirrors another pair of robots, staring at each other.
“Who are you?” he says at last.
He’s Agency, has to be. Knowing I ripped the seven locations off the routing tables they must’ve sent other men too. “I got this, you can go back home now.”
But he says nothing, face unflinching.
“Who are you?” he repeats, making it obvious he’s not them, because they got nothing to hide, they don’t need to act. The realization fills my real body, thousands of miles away, with terror.
Noticing scanning activity from his body I say, “You’re not Agency?”
“I’m not.” He takes a step forward. “I mean I am, but just this one job. You’re here, so I guess you too, right?”
“To my utmost pleasure,” I say.
He approaches by another step. “They took someone from you too?”
I raise my hand to stop him. Stop him from coming closer, from saying another word. I hiss, “None of your business,” though the speech synthesizer softens my voice back to normality.
He waves his arms around. “Got my little sister. She doesn’t recognize my name. You don’t understand what they’ve put me through. I got a few hours to catch them, and all I’ve found is that calendar in Philly.”
My mind races. I have to be the first to find the hackers, otherwise Agency might keep Lilly from me forever. I have to squeeze more out of him, get what I can, then feed him false information in return.
But as I open my mouth Agency alters my truth and I know this robot face is my most trustworthy ally.
I smile. Makes sense. We don’t have much time so they need us cooperating. They don’t care who catches those who broke in as long as the job’s done.
So here, in the women’s restroom of an Osaka ramen bar, we tell each other everything.
The locations are hops. Points on the map through which they route network traffic, stops for small fragments of unidentifiable data. Once the routing information from the seven locations is spliced together, the hops triple. I’ve no intention on wasting any more time by going to these places, because I know that all I’ll find are more routers, leading to more locations.
So I send an AI to do it for me. Rent bodies, find locations, analyze traffic.
To Philadelphia I go in my real body though, because I need to see for myself, because robots are incapacitated by law to do the things I intend on doing.
Downtown Philly. Dark, cold, no snow.
This little place, like a garage, where these hackers gather, to share knowledge or program stuff or what have you. Raymond’s words, in the Osaka bathroom. Fucking insane what they’re doing, like teaching themselves to do stuff, without knowing what they’re doing, or something, just to avoid the Banks.
I stand before the closed garage from Raymond’s coordinates. I knock twice with the tip of my Whisperer.
Kids knew nothing, he told me truthfully, but that bugged calendar led me here.
It takes me half a minute to hack the padlock. Lifting the garage door carefully, until there’s just enough room for me to slip through.
Inside, on a mattress on the ground, two boys, barely above sixteen, asleep. The place seems to be made up only of computer terminals, linked-up in a network of phosphorescent nanobots which halo the machines. From the wall, above the mixed up dates, the naked Asian model smiles down at me. I pull out a chair to sit down, and an empty soda can drops to the floor.
One of the boys stirs, looks up at me. “What the–” He sees my gun. Shuts up. He shakes the other one, not taking his eyes off the Whisperer.
“Explain everything to me,” I say.
They stand up.
“We already told everything we know,” says the one who woke up first. He’s wearing a Rest In Pus t-shirt and a beanie.
“Unlike the last guy you spoke to, I’m not afraid to kill.” A smile. “Now tell me everything. Start with what you’re doing here.”
They stare at me. “We live here.”
“Just the two of you?”
“No, there are others.”
“Where are they?”
“Work. School,” says the other one, with the scarf wrapped around his neck.
“Show me what you do with all this?” Waving my gun at the equipment.
He turns to the beanie. “Spike?”
Spike hesitates for a moment, then he shrugs and walks over to the calendar. “Twenty-seven. A Monday,” he says, staring at the dates.
The scarf starts up the machines near him, the nanobot halo lights up, and I’m observing the two of them, confused.
“Twenty-seven,” repeats the scarf, typing something on the air before the machine. “A Monday.”
I approach the projected screen. Code flies from top to bottom.
Spike’s still gaping at the calendar. “Then there’s a Wednesday. Four hundred and forty five.”
“Four hundred and forty five. Wednesday.” More typing. More computer code.
“What are you doing?” I say.
He turns towards me while typing up numbers and days into a program which morphs them into code. “I don’t know.”
I hiss, “You’re typing code. What’s the code for? Are you hacking?”
He looks me straight in the eyes, his fingers dancing on the invisible keyboard, and then he stops. They both stop.
“What was that?”
Both of them sit down on the mattress. “Something we do every day.”
“Who told you to?”
“A friend,” says Spike. “Said it was some sort of hacking tradition. But he honestly knew nothing about it, said he’d been doing it for a while, reading off calendars, or posters, or book pages, that somehow found their way to him, typing code, and that many people before him had done the same.”
“But why are you doing it?”
They shrug. “It’s tradition.”
I threaten to kill or torture them if they don’t tell me everything, but they swear that they just did. After a while, I start to believe them.
Outside, in the cold Philadelphia air, I gather my thoughts. Should I chase after their friend? And then after those before him? The chain is bound to end somewhere, but I fear I’ll never reach it in time.
Somehow, I’m reminded of ants, where each colony member carries food, moves matter piece by piece, not knowing what it’s building exactly, but building something nonetheless.
That’s when I remember Les Gibson’s workshop.
Running down the basement stairs, past the white paint. In the darkened basement, the robot bodies scattered all around as I’ve kicked them, the scrambled calendar on the wall, Les’ body, face down, in one corner.
I hurry to his desk, to the thing he was working on. I toss the microchip from hand to hand, analyze the writing on it. TYPE LI, it says. A robot brain.
I pick up the closest ersatz-flesh robot from the ground, its limbs limp. Behind its gray non-differentiated head, a panel. I flip it open.
Once the microchip is put in its place I let go, and the robot drops to the floor. A luminescence appears. A nanobot halo, connecting all scattered bodies, and like magnets they pull each other up, until they’re made whole again.
The robots stand in a circle, twist their necks to face me.
“Hello, Marcus,” they say. “Did you prepare society?”
“You’re controlling people.” I spit on the ground. “You’re no better than those abusing the Truth Banks.”
They smile crooked smiles, shake their little heads. “No, no, no, Marcus. You have it all wrong. We are the people, getting our Truth back.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. I saw kids do stuff automatically. Countless others as well, I bet.”
“True,” they say, their voices strangely innocent. “But don’t you see that that’s what they wanted? To fight a system which monitors you constantly you have to figure out a way to destroy it without it knowing, without you knowing. Little by little, the tricks spread, everyone started doing small fragments of a job without being aware of its goal, not knowing the whole puzzle.”
“And so you were made,” I say. “You’re no people. You’re an AI, aren’t you?”
The gray, genderless robotic children giggle, a collage of different laughing tracks. “We consider ourselves an extension of humanity. Its helping hand. The Tint of Optimism. The Undoing.”
“The Collective,” I add, raising my gun. “Now call it off.”
“No,” they say. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“I have to stop you, I have to. Need to get my daughter back.”
“Poor, poor Marcus. Always at the service of Truth, even when that Truth is twisted, bent, and broken.” Their heads turn towards each other, nodding. “Truth broken, but Marcus is never alone, is he? Never alone.”
Suddenly I become conscious of the dead body in the room.
“Tell me one thing,” I say. “Was Les the one who started it all?” And if so, did he plan and orchestrate his own death, or was it an act of patricide?
A wave of shrugs. “We don’t know, don’t remember.”
I fire my Whisperer at one of their heads. It bursts open, spraying blue goo. They don’t say a word.
I shoot the others, one by one.
I’m walking fast, aimlessly, thinking what to do.
Reports from my robots come back, and all they’re saying is that there are more locations routing data all over the world, but I already know that. I’ll never trace all of them in time.
Panic mounts as my stopwatch seems to go faster and faster.
Even if I find all of these little workshops where people unknowingly contribute to the fall of the Truth Banks, there’s absolutely no way anyone would know enough about what they’re doing to tell me. It’s the perfectly distributed system. The ultimate pyramid scheme.
I picture the data, small chunks of it, added day after day by unsuspecting people, hopping from router to router as it circles the globe, assembling into the AI.
I will Agency to send me more knowledge, perhaps from some of their other hunters, but receive nothing. All I feel is hurt and love for my little Lilly.
Somewhere in the distance, behind a cluster of skyscrapers, the sun’s peeking above the horizon.
The changes come in waves. First, my memory unwinds like tape, and my brain starts to weed out the inconsistencies.
To alter your Truth, the Banks plant a small nugget in your brain, a tiny memory of something being said or done, and then your brain changes its structure, sticks memories around the nugget, adds to the stability of the fact. Now, I’m peeling off layer after layer.
A lightning flash in the sky.
I see myself in seven different cities, in the playground, in the ruined house, I see the operatives in Minsk, Raymond, all of us scanning the nanotech routers for traffic data, and consequently altering the traffic logs, muddying them with our presence. All of us manipulated by the AI to clean its tracks.
Another flash from above.
Sitting on the bench at the playground I see children. I see a boy playing with its robotic companion. Up and down on the see-saw, he laughs, and she laughs too, the newest type being capable of laughter. Type LI. Lilly, as they call them.
Lilly, Your Child’s New Best Friend.
A sheet of paper carried by the wind. Your Child. Never Alone. With the specifications and pricing for the latest model.
The lights are blinding my eyes. I’m in Les’ neighborhood as far as I can tell. There are people all around. Not sure what’s real and what’s memory, I let my brain sort everything out itself.
My stomach hurts. I’m going crazy and getting sane at the same time. My legs buckle and I slump to the ground.
Lilly. My daughter. But I know that’s no longer true, I know I’ve been lied to, and I feel betrayed, hurt. Like waking from a beautiful dream, sad that it’s over and sad that it’s never really begun.
I cry out, tears running down my cheeks. I shout, pull my hair out, stomp my feet on the ground, angry at my loss. I’m waiting for a comforting buzz in my head from someone, from anyone, but the presence is gone.
With tears in my eyes I look up at the flashes, high above. From the blue, morning sky, the satellites rain down like balls of fire.
By Iulian Ionescu
Ritha unfolded a square piece of red cloth on the table, caressing it with her palm to get rid of the wrinkles. She pulled a candle closer and lit another one to brighten the room.
Today she couldn’t hate Mr. Pierre more even if the bastard were to walk in through the door right now and spit in her face. One day, she thought, one day…
“Good for nothin’,” she mumbled under her breath and picked a needle from the sewing kit.
Ritha stuck the thread through the needle’s ear in one shot, just like her mama taught her. She chuckled. Mama… If she were here, all those bastards would be screaming in pain right now.
But mama was dead and Ritha was out of job and short on rent.
Where is that picture? She rummaged through her pocket and took out a pack of photographs kept together by a rubber band. She shuffled through the stack, pulled one photo out, and leaned it against her teacup.
Pierre–you dirty piece of–. Ritha slapped herself over the mouth. ‘We don’t use those words,’ mama used to say. ‘If we do, we ain’t better than the rest o’them.’
Ritha grabbed a handful of yarn and arranged it in a ball over the red cloth.
She glanced at the photo– not that she had to, but that’s how mama had taught her. ‘Always look,’ she used to say. ‘Through your eyes the power flows. Let the image seep inside your head, Ritha, and the energy will come through. From your eyes it will flow into your fingers and into the needle.’
She grabbed the corners of the cloth and pulled them together over the yarn. She held them tight with her fingertips and stuck the needle through.
Ritha used to make one in about twenty minutes, but today there wasn’t a lot of time. She glimpsed at the crib, hidden in the darkest corner of the room. She needed this one, she needed it badly. Nobody gave a damn about the little one, especially Mr. Pierre.
Ritha clenched her teeth and continued to sew.
At the end of fifteen minutes she put the red doll next to Mr. Pierre’s picture and smiled. Mama would’ve been so proud.
The clock ticked louder, signaling the top of the hour. 8PM. Only fifteen minutes left.
She grabbed the doll and the photo and ran into the enchanting room. She put them both gently in the center of a circle made from colored salts, on top of a metallic tray. She dropped a few locks of hair on the sides and lit the sands from a match.
As the salts burned slowly, releasing a sweet smell of burned sugar, Ritha closed her eyes and recited the magic poem, the one passed to her by her mama. She waved her hand through the smoke and sprinkled drops of oil through the air.
Ten minutes later, Ritha was exhausted. Her chest was heavy and her breath bitter. The salts had burned completely and the doll lay there unmoving, like a dead man in the middle of a forest fire.
She took the doll and ran back. 8:15.
The phone rang and she grabbed it after the first chime. She glanced at the crib, biting her lip. The baby was still sleeping.
“Hello?” a voice said in the receiver.
“Yes, I am here.”
“Yes, Mr. Pierre, I am. How much today?”
Her heart thudded in her chest. How much humiliation today, she wondered. Enough for milk, at least?
“Ten dollars,” the man said.
She lifted her brows. That wasn’t half bad.
“Oh, thank you–”
“Cut it out, Ritha. I’m in a good mood. Don’t ruin it.”
She bowed, instinctively. “I understand, sir.”
“Did you fix it? Last time–”
“It’s brand new, sir, brand new.”
Silence on the other side.
“Okay, then. Go ahead, the usual. Shoulders, neck and lower back.”
Ritha pressed the speaker button and put the receiver on the table. She grabbed the red doll and turned it face down. With her fingers, she began to massage the doll’s shoulders and lower back.
Pleasure grunts came out of the phone. “Oh, that’s good, Ritha, keep going.”
She continued to massage the doll, her eyes fixated on the kitchen knife, only ten inches away from the doll’s head.
Her heart pounded a few times, pumping hot blood through her temples. She extended one hand toward the knife…
The baby giggled in the crib and turned on one side, his sleepy face pressed against the crib’s bars. Ritha looked at him, startled, her hand suspended in the air.
“What’s going on there?” Mr. Pierre screamed. “I am paying for two hands, dammit!”
Ritha grabbed the knife and threw it far away from her reach.
She gestured a kiss toward the crib and put both her hands on the doll.
“I am here, Mr. Pierre, I am here,” she said, tears dripping down her cheeks.
Mr. Pierre responded with a long moan.
The baby giggled gently in his sleep, and Ritha continued to cry in silence. ‘Be happy when there’s reason to be happy,’ her mama once said.
And Ritha was happy because tomorrow the baby gets to eat the good milk.
By J.A. Becker
A cold shudder runs through me as I look through the one-way mirror at the psycho in the orange jumpsuit who’s handcuffed to the table. What I’ll see in his head, what I’ll feel and experience first hand will be like living nightmares. I don’t know if I can handle them. I’ve seen some terrible things, but nothing like what he’s done.
The psycho raises a styrofoam cup of hot coffee to his mouth, but the chain connecting his handcuffs to the table is too short, so when he gets the cup halfway up, his arm jerks to a stop and the coffee spills onto the lap of his bright orange coveralls. He swears and frantically squirms in his seat to stop the coffee from scalding him. The pained look on his face tells me that he isn’t succeeding.
Good, I think. He deserves that. That’s fitting for a guy like him. That’s perfect.
He plunks the cup down in front of him and shakes the hot brown liquid from his hands, which sends his chains rattling and clanking over the table’s black metal top.
He doesn’t look like much sitting there, coke-bottle glasses, short salt and pepper hair, and so skinny he seems lost in those orange overalls. With what they told me about him, I imagined some beefy guy with tattoos of little spiders at the corner of his eyes and pipes the size of my head–not somebody who could have been my grade 9 science teacher.
Let someone else do this, my inner voice tells me. Don’t they have people trained to do stuff this? Why the hell does it have to be me?
Then I remind myself of the deal I made, a deal I’ll find nowhere else: get what the authorities need from this lunatic and then the agency goes back to working out how to shut off this mechanism in my head.
Life will be worth living again without it.
“Doctor Brown,” I say as I step into the interrogation room. The overhead lights wash over me, making me pause and blink stupidly as my eyes adjust. Considering I was trying to look like I know what I’m doing, I’m off to a cracking start.
“How long have you been in the dark on the other side of the mirror watching me?” he asks.
I ignore him and skirt the room to keep out of his reach. I pull out the metal folding chair on the opposite side of the table and sit. The chair groans under the pressure of my considerable bulk.
Appear confident and don’t directly engage him, they told me during the prep. There is no need to talk to him. Just tune in, get what we need, and then get out.
I open his packed vanilla folder on the table and pretend to read over some of the details. I give the papers a little nod like I’m agreeing to some tidbit I read and then I look up at him.
His coke-bottle lenses engorge his pale grey eyes. A thin smile splits his lips.
I break eye contact and look down at the papers.
“You’re pretty fat for an agent,” he says suddenly. “Don’t you guys have to keep fit?”
His comment catches me off guard and I snap my head up to look at him.
His eyes are leveled straight at mine and I don’t think he’s blinked since I last looked away. He’s baiting me I realize, and I look back down at the folder. I pretend I’ve finished reading the page and turn it over.
“Congratulations,” he says. “You finally got through that page. That took some doing.”
I keep my head down and focus on the next page. I don’t need to talk to him to do this, I remind myself. I just need to be sitting close and my mind will automatically tune in to his. For the first time in my life, I’m grateful it’s automatic–I wouldn’t have the stones to do it intentionally with him.
“You are interesting,” he says and then I hear his seat shift and his chains clack. A jolt of fear rips through me. He’s gotten free! I think and I nearly leap out of my seat and scream. But when I look up, I see he hasn’t. The sounds were caused by him straightening out his chair and rattling the chains on the table as he clapsed his hands together.
He smiles, revealing a bright wall of teeth. He seems quite pleased with himself for scaring the hell out of me.
I notice there’s something different about him now, he seems bigger to me. When I saw him through the mirror, he was lost in his orange coveralls, but now it’s like he’s grown to fill them. He seems taller too. He must have been slouching when I came in and now that he’s sat up straight he towers over me.
“Clearly, you’re not an agent,” he says. “Nor are you a caseworker, policeman, psychologist, or anything that would make sense in this situation. You are interesting.”
“Great,” I say sarcastically, then I regret it because I remember that–no matter what–I wasn’t supposed to engage him. But he continues as though he didn’t hear me.
“They prepped me for you. Didn’t let me sleep, didn’t let me eat, and drove me round and round to disorient me. And then you’d think with all that build up, somebody important would come in and finish me off. But imagine my surprise when you walk in–you who doesn’t seem like anybody at all.”
His words bite deep and I pop off before I have a chance to think.
“You don’t seem like anything to me either,” I say defensively. “Just some skinny shit in handcuffs. Nothing special.”
“John Smith,” he says, leaning in and reading the name off the glossy white tag pinned to my black sweater. “That’s what I find so interesting. All this deception to bring in a fat little man who practically crept into this room and slunk along the walls to get away from me. And then he sits down across from me and there’s nothing–not a word or a peep out of you. That’s what I find so interesting.”
I’m not even pretending to read the papers anymore. I’m just going to sit here and wait for it to happen. I’m not engaging him.
“John…” he says slowly as though he doesn’t quite believe that’s my name. “Can I call you John? I have a couple questions John. First off, I’m an excellent judge of people, so don’t lie to me because I can pretty much see straight through you.”
I can’t help it, but my eyes flicker up at him when he says that.
“John, even when you’re not talking to me–you’re talking to me. Now my first question is: who are you really?”
And then it starts, a whoosh of static, like a radio without a signal, crackles in my ears.
“John! You surprise me. There’s a little sparkle in your eyes and you’re smiling now. What’s so funny?”
“Nothing’s funny,” I say, smiling and grinding my teeth together, trying not to show the discomfort I’m in. “It’s just that we’re almost finished and then I get to leave here while you go back to your cell and rot.”
“How can we be finished? We haven’t even started.”
Pain stabs through my left eye. Something hot and sharp is in my head and is digging its way out through my left temple. It’s already up to the skin now, about to breach, when the thing starts to track across my brow. It feels like a fat June bug is merrily making its way across the frontal plate of my skull. The pain is unbearable. I look at my reflection, expecting to see a thick lump inching across my forehead, but there’s nothing there but a fat plane of pale white flesh. As the pain creeps towards my right temple, the static gets louder and a high-pitched whine screams in my ear. Tiny dots of white light dance like fireflies at the edges of my vision and I’m just near passing out. Then amongst the popping static I hear something that sounds like a word and the pain starts to crawl back the other way.
“Good Lord,” he says and leans in to get a better look at my face. “Are you well? You look like you’re having a heart attack. Have all those donuts finally done you in?”
I’m huffing and puffing now because I can’t seem to get enough air.
Trickles of sweat run down my spine and dive into the valley of my butt crack. The crackling static is like a dull roar in my ears, then suddenly the agony dissapates and the little white fireflies start to wink out one by one. All of which means I’m close. Just another frequency or two and I’m there.
“The pain has lessened now it seems,” he says. “And your fat head is cocked to one side as though you’re listening for something. John I have to say, this has definitely been worth the trip out here. What’s next I wonder?”
I hit his station and my ears pop as the pressure in them release.
Relief floods through me like an orgasm as the static dies down, and a film, of sorts, plays in my mind. I’m standing on a raised platform, overlooking a small crowd. A man in a grey business suit hands me a giant golden key. I take it and proudly raise it above my head. The crowd begins to cheer.
Then I’m back in the interrogation room, looking straight into his googly eyes.
Damn, I think. I got garbage. I hoped to get lucky and nail it the first time so I could get the hell out of here. I suck in a deep breath and pray it’s the next one.
A smile crosses his face and my jaw drops in astonishment.
“John,” he says. “I told you. You are interesting.”
This can’t be, I think as I shift uncomfortably in my seat. No one has ever been so calm before. How is this possible? I just painfully sucked a memory out of his head and at the same time one of my memories was pumped into him. How can anybody be so calm after experiencing something like that for the first time?
“John, I saw you arguing with some woman that I’m guessing was your wife. You were screaming and she was crying. She wanted you to make love to her, but you wouldn’t. That was awfully mean of you. She just wanted a little love John.”
“Shut up,” I say, remembering the fight and the decade-old wound rips open afresh like she and I were just arguing moments ago. Why is it that people only see the deepest, darkest, most personal secrets in my head? It’s never anything but those. It’s like they’re all bubbling right at the surface of my mind, just waiting to burst into somebody else’s head.
“John, you wanted to though. I could feel it in your heart. I could hear it in your thoughts. You wanted to do it with her, but you didn’t want the closeness of it. Why is that? That’s the whole point of it isn’t it?”
“Shut up,” I say.
“John,” he says and laughs. “You need a better poker face. I can see straight through you big guy. This is too easy.”
Before I can even think, another of his memories pops into my head. I’m in the backseat of a Cadillac now. It’s a convertible and the top is down. We’re driving down a long road that’s lined with people. The sky is full of confetti streamers and everyone along the road is waving and cheering for me. Then the memory fades.
What the hell was that? I wonder. I’m not seeing anything I need.
Where’s the blood? Where’s the twisted faces of the victims?
From across the table, he leans in and gently takes my hands in his. I jump back from his touch and accidentally knock the folder off the table and send it sprawling on the floor.
“John, we really need to talk. I’ve seen some terrible things in your head. You need help big guy.”
I push back from the table and stand. This isn’t right, I think. He can’t be taking this so well–it’s impossible. Nobody can be this cool after seeing into somebody else’s mind. Nobody.
“John, what’s the matter?”
I make my way to the door, keeping close to the mirror and as far away from him as possible.
“John, buddy. Where are you going? We haven’t even started.”
Another memory of his bursts into my head. I see a General with a chest full of medals and big cob pipe hanging out of the corner of his mouth. An aide rushes up and hands a small bronze star to the General who then takes the medal and pins it to my chest. The General steps back, snaps a stiff salute to me, and then the memory fades.
What the hell was that garbage? I think as I twist the doorknob in my hand. To my surprise, it’s locked. I rap my fist on the door. When nobody answers, I start to pound on it.
“John, I told you we are just getting started.”
“Why is this locked!” I yell. “Who the hell locked this?” I stand at the mirror and flail my hands back and forth. I look like a frantic fat man, trying to wave down an ambulance. “Unlock this!” I yell to whoever’s behind the glass and then I point at the door. I lean in and try to peer through the mirror, but all I see is my chubby cheeks and my plump hands hooded over my face.
“Tell me about your wife,” he says. “What happened to her?”
I snap my head around and glare at him. I try to read his face to see what he meant by that, but he’s sitting there with his hands clasped together, smiling pleasantly as can be and I can’t tell anything.
“Take a seat,” he says. “We may be here for some time John.”
“How the hell would you know that?” I growl.
“Just call it a hunch.” He replies.
There’s something wrong with this whole situation and he’s a part of it–I can feel it in the pit of my big stomach. I look at his huge grin and then back at the locked door. I’m trapped in here with him, I realize. Where the hell are they? On a coffee break? Didn’t I tell them–didn’t I specifically say–I can’t turn it off once it’s started?
Goddammit, open the fucking door before I lose my mind.
Suddenly a scene, his memory, plays in my head. It’s the same one of him getting the key to the city.
When the memory ends and I’m looking through my eyes again, I see him smile and nod at me. “Ahhh..,” he says like he’s just found the last elusive piece to a puzzle. “I understand now,” he says. “I understand you John.”
I know he wants me to ask him what it is he understands, but I’m not playing his game and responding. All I want is for this damn door to open so I can get the hell out of here.
“John,” he says. “What did you do with all of them?”
I freeze. My heart stops and I can barely breath.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say and I turn around and try the door again.
“Don’t lie to me John. I can see straight through you–straight through you like you’re not even there.”
His words knife into me and I spin around and face him.
“How many people did you kill to get your bronze star?” I snap at him.
I watch his reaction, but his smile doesn’t crack and those googly eyes don’t waver.
“Was it lots?” I continue. “Did you kill kids? Did you enjoy that?”
Static crackles in my head and suddenly I see the same scene of him being driven down the road in the Cadillac. The crowds are cheering and the sky rains confetti. Then the scene ends and I’m back in the room.
How is it possible to get the same crap from him every time? It’s like I’m watching looping stock footage. And meanwhile, he plumbs the depths of my mind and sees my deepest, darkest secrets.
God, I hate this thing in my head. Strangers who just happen to be in the same room as me will learn my most personal, most secret, most unthinkable things, and all my masks are stripped away, laying bare my innermost self for them to see. Nothing is my own. Everything, every part of my life, is on display for the fucking world to see.
“John, you’re so alone. What I’ve seen in your head, you living in the gutters, bumming for spare change, keeping as far as you can from people…you’re so alone.”
“Stay out of my head!” I shout.
“John, it’s you who’s doing this,” he replies.
Rage flushes through me and I walk towards him with my fat fists bunched together. He’s so cocky and sure of himself that he doesn’t even flinch when I get near him. I want to sock this smug, smiling son of a bitch in the jaw and rain blows down on his head till blood runs out of his ears.
“That would land you in trouble,” he says. “They’re probably right behind the mirror you know.”
I look at the mirror and I see my fat self with my hands poised like two hammers above his head.
He’s right, I realize, and I lower my fists and step back from him.
“John, I saw you as a skinny little boy of seventeen. You were in a dark room on a couch kissing some girl. Naughty. Naughty.”
“Shut up!” I say, and I instantly remember the girl and the situation.
“I could hear her name in your head. Sarah, lovely Sarah. And you were thinking: first base, finally first base.”
“Be quiet!” I shout.
“Then that thing in your mind, that wondrous mechanism you hate so much, kicked in. You thought the pain burning in your brow was because you were all hot and bothered, but it was you dialing in and a memory of her kissing some other boy popped into your head. That must have been quite upsetting: it’s your first kiss, she’s thinking about kissing someone else, and her memory is so real you can taste the other boy’s lips and feel his tongue rooting around in your mouth. Then she was screaming. She must have seen something terrible in your head because she was just screeching.”
His head snaps back as I punch him smack in the center of his flapping mouth. Somehow, by some miracle, his glasses stay on. But he’s not smiling anymore now though. His big eyes are watering and blood runs out of a split in his swelling purple lip. I look at my hand and see a small puncture hole between the fat of my knuckles where his tooth went in.
“And then I saw you much older and much fatter,” he continues as though two seconds ago I hadn’t punched him square in the face. “You were in a seedy hotel room with a prostitute whose face was plastered mess of makeup and you were doing what you could to get your business over with as quickly as possible before it could happen. But then, right in the middle of it, you tuned in and she was in your head and you were in hers. Good lord, the things you saw in that woman’s mind; felt them too…in a way you lived them.”
I raise my fist to punch him in the face again.
“Let me ask you one question,” he says and lifts his hands up to protect himself. “Do you see a pattern here?”
“Pattern?” I ask. “What pattern? What are you talking about?”
“The pattern of your life. You, women, and this thing in your head.
Think of it. Just calm down and think of it for one second.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I say. “I just want you to shut up.”
“I understand your frustrations, but try to think of it. All these things, these watershed moments in your life have built you into the person you are today.”
“Don’t analyze what you see in my head. Those are my memories! Mine!”
“I can’t help it John. I’m trained to think this way. I can’t help it as much as you can’t help tuning in.”
“Stay out of my head!” I yell as sobs wrack my big body.
“John, I’m trying to help you.”
“Fuck off,” I say.
I feel dizzy now. The floor sways beneath my feet like I’m aboard a ship. I can’t breathe either, it’s like all the air has gone out of the room. I need to sit down before I collapse, so I stumble over and take a seat in the empty chair.
“John, I thought this thing was a blessing, but I see how wrong I was. I see what it has done to you…what it’s turned you into.”
“Please stop,” I mumble.
I’m so exhausted from all this that I can barely raise my head up from the table to look at him. When I do, I see he’s neither smiling nor frowning; he actually has a look of concern for me on his face.
“John, this thing has weighed on you. Pressed you down and formed you into the person you are now. It’s the reason you are the way you are.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I choke out through mumbled sobs.
“Because I want you to know that it’s not your fault. All this was forced on you. What other life could you have led with this thing in your head? In my practice, I usually tell people all their problems are caused by themselves. But not you. You’re the victim here.”
I nod. He’s right. This was put on me. I never wanted it. I didn’t do anything to deserve this.
“John, what did you do with them?”
I stare through a veil of tears at the swimming tabletop. My emotions have drained out of me and now all I am is tired.
“John. All those women I saw in your head. The ones that got too close. What did you do with them?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I understand John. It was the only way to shut it off. The only way to stop them from seeing into you and you into them. It’s not your fault. It’s this thing in your head.”
“I never wanted this,” I blubber. “I never wanted any of this.”
“I know. I know.” he says and takes my hands in his. This time I don’t pull back. His hands are warm and I welcome his touch.
“John. Where did you put them?”
The Master’s Voice
By Todd Thorne
Jeff yawned at Allison through the storm door and scrubbed a hand over his shaggy salt and pepper locks. A mahogany bathrobe draped around his ex-jock physique, a body she adored and anticipated great delight in watching him whip back into its former glory.
“Am I bothering you?”
“Never,” he muttered, letting her in.
With the front door sealing off prying eyes, Allison tasted his stale mouth and gummy lips. “Have I ever mentioned how utterly dashing you are in the morning?”
“Sorry.” He yawned again. “Boudica kept going out all night. Driving me nuts. This is a nice wake-up call though.”
“Normally I wouldn’t risk dropping by. Today is extra special. I knew you’d be particularly happy to see me.”
“I’m already way past happy.” He drew her up against him.
A woman’s voice droned from the kitchen. “In. In. In.”
“‘Scuse me,” Jeff mumbled, sliding from her embrace.
Seconds later the back door squealed.
“Eat. Eat,” came the woman’s voice again, followed shortly by the can opener’s dutiful grind. “Eat. Eat,” the voice repeated in lifeless monotone as blobs of wetness sucked loose and splattered.
Allison strolled into the living room to wait, senses tingling from this, her first time inside the Lang residence, though her second actual visit. Six months ago, she’d dropped off contract originals for Jeff’s records–a cordial, professional, totally innocuous appointment, at least to any prying eyes watching at the time. Now the house wove an enticing tale through her casual observations. She absorbed impressions like a thirsty sponge slurping up a puddle.
Dust and dirt accumulated on every available surface–the sign of a mind too preoccupied with matters far beyond mundane concerns like basic house cleaning. Books, magazines and papers lay sprawled, several of the latter bearing the logo of her company and some of those were adorned with hasty scribbles and crossed-out notes. Unopened mail peeked like Easter eggs nestled in stray places: between empty beer bottles, atop grease-stained pizza boxes, on the marble coffee table, beside the Sony plasma, amidst scattered throw pillows and the occasional sock. Allison drank in the trappings of a life she knew to be normally quite tidy and efficient, now screeched to a crawl in a tight holding pattern.
And she approved.
“Sorry I didn’t clean up.” Jeff shuffled in, this time bearing a cheery grin for her instead of a yawn.
“Your maid needs a pep talk.”
“Or maybe a pink slip–wait a minute–I guess that would be me. Anyway, where were–”
The phone whistled, snatching away his smile.
Jeff palmed the handset. “Hello? Who? Lieutenant Fischer…” Twin furrows gouged into his brow. “It’s Saturday, right? You’ve got either really good news or very bad. So which is it?”
A fly’s pesky buzz escaped the handset, the only part of the detective’s report Allison overheard. Behind the whine lurked a paunchy middle-aged cop, a man that, five seconds upon meeting, she’d dismissed in summary order as seasoned but moronic; just another stereotypical male unable to break eye contact off a high-dollar pair of sculpted boobs. Unfortunately her one true dream–not to mention she, herself–remained unfulfilled until Fischer managed to just do his job. No more or less.
Which was really odd.
Here she stood silently cheering on the oafish turd that could actually stink up her whole life forever, should divine intervention somehow inspire the cop to overachieve. Not likely though. Fischer was that stupid.
“Oh my God!” Jeff choked.
Could it be? Heart thudding, Allison drifted over to him, mentally crossing her fingers as she did before every traumatic moment she faced.
“B-burned? Where?” A pause. “No… not where was the car burned. Where was it found? In Brownsville? But no sign of her. Uhhhmm… uhhh. Well, w-what do you think it means?”
She laid hands over his shoulders and began massaging the tense sinews wound tightly under the robe. His muscles rippled some, hinting of the hardness they longed for. Soon, apparently. Thank God the insufferable wait was nearly over.
“No, no. No! You’re wrong about that. I’m certain. She– Huh? P-p-probable homicide? No way. I don’t believe it. She’s just missing that’s all. Not even for that long. Only a few weeks. Little kids run away all the time and turn up much later, unharmed. My wife is very capable of taking care of herself. So, you’ll find her, right? I mean… alive?”
Martin Scorsese, eat your heart out.
Her hands drifted lower and discovered more rising tension, awaiting her touch. She obliged, stifling bubbles of joy brewing up the back of her throat. The annoying fly’s whine went forgotten.
“This is too much, Lieutenant. I’m sorry.” He sucked in deeply at her bolder groping. “I have to… I really need to go now. You’ll call if you learn anything else?”
She pressed up against his back, continuing her stroking. This was the second best news for them. The first still burned within her, itching to be shared.
“I understand. Goodbye, Lieutenant.” The phone beeped.
“They found the car?”
“Finally. Those idiots. I was beginning to think they couldn’t find the sun on a cloudless day. Cynthia’s now a ‘probable homicide’ and you are an evil vixen.”
A Border Collie trotted into the living room, licking its matted chops. Allison watched Boudica sit and stare, its ebony-tufted ears angling at them, two triangular radar dishes set atop twin marbles of shiny midnight. The collie froze in place, silent, looking like a taxidermist’s best work.
“Vixen? You call the woman, who’s going to make you filthy rich, names?”
He spun, snatching up her hands. “You got it through?”
“Let’s just say the policy is arranged, appropriately back-dated and clean. Upon Cynthia’s officially declared death, five hundred thousand goes to your daughter and absolutely zip to the poor, grieving widower. That should make a splendid looking headline if it ever showed up on CNN. Very magnanimous on your part too, I might add. Your daughter should lack nothing her last two years at Stanford and well afterwards.”
“Just how Cynthia would want it.”
“Too bad she wouldn’t much care for the five million that goes quietly to Geneva one month later.”
“No, but that’s how I want it.”
“We aim to please every customer.”
“Really? Here I thought I might be somewhat–what did you say?–extra special.”
“Play. Play.” A woman’s voice, matching the one in the kitchen, spoke from a small, white box on the coffee table.
“Not now, Boo,” Jeff said, bringing his lips to Allison’s. “So am I?”
“Not n… on second thought.” His grin spoke volumes. He tugged her toward the master suite. “Go ahead. Please me. We’ve got something to celebrate after all.”
“I can’t. I have appointments… clients to see, Jeff.”
“First the cop, now you. What’s this working on weekends shit? Besides, this particular client has a lot more he wants to share with you. In private.”
“We’re taking big risks, you know, the more time we spend together. I really should go.”
He stopped at the foot of the king-sized pedestal bed and fumbled open her top blouse button. “You’re worth the risk. Five million times over, actually.”
“Walk. Walk.” A white box on the dresser spoke. “Walk. Walk.”
Allison rolled her eyes. “Don’t you get sick of that?”
She inclined her head at the dresser.
“The Petalator? It’s just what Cynthia recorded during Boudica’s training. No biggie. I hardly notice it anymore.”
“You don’t notice a talking dog?”
“Boo doesn’t talk. Not really. She’s interpreted, somehow, through her collar. Brain waves associated with behavioral conditioning–crap like that.” He finished the blouse and started on her skirt. “Way too technical for me. Cynthia was pretty anxious to dive in, so I let her handle it all. But I gotta say, dealing with a five word doggy vocabulary or actually–” He looked at the ceiling, pondering. “Did she say something about Boo knowing six now? Right before….” He shook off the unpleasant thought. “Anyway, putting up with just a few unambiguous words instead of suffering any other doggy noises is a pretty sweet deal. Don’t you think?”
“Like that.” He waved his hand. “No guessing what Boo wants. Right?”
“But it’s her voice. Look, if we’re going to do this here, now, at least shut it off.”
He sighed. “Get in bed. I’ll mute the other stations and turn down this one.” He fiddled with the box on the dresser before leaving.
Allison discovered the still warm spot under the percale sheet and down comforter, a cozy present he’d unknowingly left her. A minute later the bedroom door clicked shut on just the two of them, Allison was happy to see. Jeff hung his robe beside her business suit and eagerly snuggled up to her. She hoped within her heart he’d be anxious for a few more kids, something they would start on in earnest once they got settled in Europe–something she begrudged Cynthia having done with him even just the one time.
Until then though, practice makes perfect.
“Walk,” came Cynthia’s soft flat voice.
His fingertips glided across her cheek, shadowed by his longing face. He shared a breathtaking kiss, the kind she’d become addicted to years ago in their first of many hotel encounters.
“It’s really annoying.”
“Think of it this way.” He propped up on one elbow and eyed her. “Maintaining status quo minimizes those risks you mentioned. It won’t be long. There’s the other half of the bottle in the garage waiting for Boo when this is all done and the cops don’t care anymore.”
“I mean right now. I can’t stand it.”
“What if Boo has to pee? It’s the only way she can tell me.”
“Then let the damn thing piss on the floor!”
Grimacing, he pinched the bridge of his nose before sliding toward the edge of the bed.
It was maddening, him enduring that voice daily until they could be together. Leftover photos and personal effects were one thing, but Cynthia had established a legitimate reason to keep uttering one-word demands of Jeff from morning till night. It was an infuriating, almost-perfect haunting. Down-right inspired. The damn woman must have had Nostradamus’ genes to have arranged it so. How could she have known? They’d taken every precaution.
Allison ground her teeth as Jeff seemed to slog his way over to the dresser.
Here she’d finally found him: The One. Mister Right, after years of hopeless Wrongs had paraded through her life. But her white knight was possessed–caught in a tenacious specter’s stranglehold.
She wanted Cynthia exorcised. Forever.
“Walk. Out. Out. Out.”
She squeezed her eyes tight. “SHUT UP, CYNTHIA!”
“O–” Cynthia’s voice died as Jeff reached for the Petalator.
He frowned and thumbed a button. “It’s off. Happy now?” Almost immediately, the button began blinking.
“What’s that light?”
“I muted the volume, not the dog.”
“It’s still talking?”
“Do you hear anything?”
A soft thump rattled the bedroom door. A light scratch followed.
“I thought you said the dog didn’t make other noises.”
“No, Boo! Go lay down.”
Multiple scratches raked the wood, banging it against the latch. Jeff stormed over.
“I… said… NO!” He yanked the door open.
A mass of fur sprung from the floor and smashed into his chest. As Jeff tumbled backward, Boudica’s muzzle clamped over his throat. Gurgling erupted from him before the pair hit the carpet. A sickly snap echoed in the room as Allison rolled away to the far side of the bed.
But he didn’t.
A five word vocabulary. Plus one… a new one.
She thought back to her arrival, the kitchen, the living room. Each succinct word replayed in Allison’s mind, expressed again in Cynthia’s lifeless voice. Frantic winking on the Petalator betrayed the sixth, as yet unheard, but easy enough to guess.
Keeping the bed between herself and the carnage, she stood on tiptoe and craned her neck in time to watch Jeff’s feet settle slowly back and grow still.
How wrong she’d been. Cynthia was no apparition; her vengeful form crouched mere feet away, all too real, all too ready, with the proper cues now provided, to exact retribution.
It was me, Allison sobbed with the realization. I told her to shut up. Jeff never would’ve. Mentally she crossed her fingers as she reached for the bed.
When the dog’s expected leap came, she jammed a pillow into the flailing teeth and ducked, flinging its speeding torso over her shoulder. It crashed somewhere behind her as she bolted past Jeff’s body and out of the bedroom. Naked, she ran to the front door, hurled it open and snatched at the storm door latch just as pain sizzled through her calf. She whirled and had time for one scream before the ripping, choking pressure stole it away and slammed her back into the glass.
The one time he’d met her, Lieutenant Raymond Fischer felt Allison Webber could straighten any man’s queer eye. From the tips of her lavender tinted toenails through the peaks of her perfect fake tits, the woman was built to ignite the male libido. Fischer’s pants shrank two sizes until he forced himself to stare at the shredded trachea and severed carotids that had spilled all their precious content onto the entryway berber carpet.
“What do you suppose set the dog off?” a detective video-recording the living room asked.
“How should I know?” Fischer replied. “Maybe it didn’t like the hubby poking the insurance lady.” He stood and let the stained sheet drape back over tarnished perfection. “Or maybe it suspected none of the policy money would be spent on doggy treats.”
A dusty, occasional table stood against the wall holding a pair of house keys and six recent 5×7 photos of a plain, chunky brunette kneeling, sitting and tussling with a Border Collie. Cynthia Lang might have been called pretty some time ago, but now her best photo asset would likely be summed up as a warm personality. Not that it would bother her regarding these images. The broad smiles she bore in the photos betrayed the immense happiness she shared with her animal companion. In all of the shots, the collie almost seemed to grin back at her. A true bonded pair. Living a dream.
Fischer cocked his head and listened to the sounds of crime scene processing about him. “Where’s the dog now?”
“Laundry room. Off the kitchen. Animal Control’s on its way.”
“Any troubles with it?”
“I’m gonna take a look.”
“Bad idea, Lieutenant, unless you’re wanting a new hole to breathe through.”
He nodded at the camera as he passed the detective. “Go shoot something.”
The laundry room door stood shut and silent. On the wall beside the door, a big oval button on the intercom flickered faster than a strobe light. Fischer frowned. His gloved finger stabbed the button.
“Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill,” a woman’s dull voice repeated nonstop.
Inside the laundry room, something stirred. Fischer drew his 9mm and held it at the ready as he twisted the knob. The door swung open. He snapped up the pistol.
“K– Out. Out. Out,” the intercom droned.
He glanced from the collie huddling on the blood-smeared tile to the gun to the voice emerging from the intercom, the box labeled Petalator. A thought struck him.
“Outside?” he asked.
The dog rose at the word and edged toward him. He eased back into the kitchen center, his index finger keeping a steady pressure on the trigger, ready to squeeze. Instead of leaping for his throat though, the animal angled over to the back door and waited.
“Out. Out,” the Petalator repeated.
Taking a deep breath, Fischer stretched out his free hand for the latch half a foot above the killer’s head.
The back door squealed. Nails clicked on the cedar deck. The collie took off around the pool, trotting away from the only square of immaculate turf set aside in the manicured landscape.
“Out. Kill. Out. Kill. Out. Ki….” The signal drifted out of range.
“Lieutenant, you okay in there?”
“Still breathing normally.”
“Who was talking?”
“Cynthia Lang, I think.” The collie circled back, slowing. “Hang on. She might have something else to say.”
In the garden the dog settled amidst a new bed of brilliant Gloriosa Daisies, looking like some black and white monument, stark and somber, floating within a pool of living gold rippled lightly by the hot summer breeze.
Thus the dream had ended. Not before Mrs. Lang had arranged her own unique, insurance policy though. He wished he knew how she’d pulled it off. Likely, the Petalator people would be very interested in knowing that too, he thought, glancing at the silent box while tired, old jokes came to mind about parrots cluing crime solutions.
The dog’s head sank and came to rest between two outstretched paws. Witness had become weapon of retribution as well as giver of the final epitaph. How fitting, particularly in this case. Try that with your parrot.
“Go find a shovel,” Fischer called, wondering, not for the first time, about true bonds between souls, human or otherwise.