Fiction

The Off Switch

I just beat Keith Jeffers out of the cafeteria. Call Guinness! Jeffers, The Great Lightspeed, nipping at my heels for once, not the other way around. He wouldn’t even pass for a jock–scrawny, weasel-faced, reddish mop of hair. I can smell his body odor. Any closer, and his legs’ll get tangled up in mine. My bell-bottoms flap around my ankles.

“No way!” he guffaws. Keith’s the only one in gym class who actually laughs his way around the wide, wide track while the rest of us lag behind, wheezing.

Here comes Mark Walford with his bowl haircut, juggling an armful of books, looking everywhere but where he’s going. I give him a shove. Down he goes, books flying.

That costs me my lead; Keith matches me step for step now. “You and Sandee going out tonight?” he asks. Today’s Friday.

“Tomorrow.” He knows I never miss Chico and the Man. We slow to a walk, knowing what’s up ahead. By the time we reach the first floor, we’re practically crawling.

“Metal,” I growl, “shop.”

Where the teacher is paddle-happy, especially if you’re late. But they can’t crook their little fingers and make me show up whenever they want! I know my Constitutional rights as an American citizen.

All right, no paddling–substitute teacher today. Final bell, released for the day: I lose Keith in the mob of erupting, laughing, spitball-shooting classmates. Home to dinner. After Stepmom–mom to me, really–serves up potato stroganoff Hamburger Helper transformed into something you couldn’t match in any fancy restaurant, and I help her with the dishes and haul out the garbage, I move our phone from the kitchen counter to the kitchen table, tip back in my chair until I touch the wall, and spin Sandee’s number.

“Have you heard?” she asks.

“What’s that?”

“Mark Walford. He said he’s going to kill himself.”


Mark Walford. Round moon-face, taller than Keith but shorter than me–not many people tower over me–overweight enough for Keith to yell “Hey Meatball!,” sheepish enough for Joe Teal to tag him “Dork,” and enough into all those radiation-spawned city-stomping monsters for me to call him “Godzilla.”

Actually, before that, I called him Wallflower. Somewhere along the line, I changed it. It was me who dubbed Keith The Great Lightspeed, and that caught on, but I guess lightning doesn’t strike twice. Meatball was what everyone called Mark, including me, though I still kind of hope they’ll start using Godzilla.

Sandee’s in Walford’s Third Bell English class, and she saw it all. Mark raised his hand, and when called on, stood up and made his announcement.

“What did Mrs. Olson do?” I asked.

“She just asked him to sit down. Had him stay after class for a talk.”

“He’s clowning.”

“Do you know how he said he’d do it?”

She waits. Finally I ask, “How?”

“He thinks that somewhere on the human body, there’s something like an off switch. Press it, trip it, and that’s it. No pain, no mess. You’re just dead.”

One Hundred Years and Five Minutes

He reminds me of myself on my first ride. Leg bounces up and down. Sweat builds around the edges of the black suit. Doesn’t know which way to look. I can’t help but smile. I have to say something to break the tension.

“Hey, kid.”

He snaps his head around from staring out the window at nothing.

“Sir?” Respectful. I like that.

“Here’s a little something my mentor told me during my first day at the big show. He said, ‘There used to be an old saying. Death waits for no man. But today…’” He leans in, expecting something meaningful. “…it waits for us.’”

He settles back in his seat, thinking. “What does that mean exactly, sir?”

“Damned if I know.” I offer the old belly laugh that causes him to twitch, shocked by just how loud I can get.

He gives a nervous chuckle because it’s what he knows he should do.

I switch to a more comfortable subject. “You have everything?”

His reader and test kit are out in a flash.

“Yes, sir. But, sir?”

In my best fake, stern voice: “Recruit?”

“Do I administer both tests before I take out the reader, or do I do one, check it, then go for the other?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

We hit the expressway. Cars move out of the way as usual. A bus load of young students gawk and point with fear and awe.

The kid starts up again, “Yeah, but the manual states…”

“Relax. You do whatever feels natural.”

He takes a second to process with a shake of his head. “Okay, sir. I guess I can do that. But, oh, there’s another thing I’m worried about, sir.”

I chuckle. His eyes are really bugging out of his skull now.

“What if he’s a runner?”

I take Exit 36, Mara Street, and move through the lights. Some more stares from people out in the streets. It’s a beautiful day – sun, just a couple clouds.

“Sir? I asked…”

“He won’t run. Nobody runs.”

“But…”

“In thirty-five years nobody’s run.”

“Nobody, sir?”

“What’s the point? The system gives us the green light to start the process with the flick of a button whether he’s there or not. We all know how much time we’ve got left. So, where are you going to run to?”

I turn down Keres. Just a couple more streets now. I check the time. Perfect like always.

“I just thought some would run, that some people wouldn’t want to face it. I know I’d be afraid,” the kid says as he adjusts his dark tie in the side mirror.

Final left onto Donn. A neighbor getting their mail watches as we pull up across the street. I kill the engine and slowly turn to the kid.

“We’re all afraid. But, you’ll see. People are stronger than you think when it comes to this stuff. It’s our job to keep ‘um that way.”

We hold onto a stare that probably has some profound meaning behind it for him. Maybe not. I turn away and chuckle.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, nothing,” I contain myself. Return to professionalism.

“Time?”

“Four-fifty-eight.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

We exit in unison. I walk around to the kid’s side of the car that’s facing the quaint, brick house. More neighbors are out now watching from porches and windows. Some pretend to walk a pet or get something from their car. We’re the best show in town – a preview of coming attractions they just can’t miss.

That’s when I notice the kid is breathing hard with these strong, uneasy breaths. Stage fright. I take one of his hands and pull his attention away from the growing crowd.

“Remember, I do all the talking for this first one.” He nods. “You just worry about the samples.”

The kid takes a final, deep breath. He settles. I let go of his hand. His foot starts tapping again as he starts looking around. I turn to him and hold him by the shoulders, getting eye to eye.

“We’re not here for them,” I hear the creak of the front door. “We’re here for him.”

We turn to face the doorway. The kid snaps to the prescribed pose: hand over hand at the belt.

The patron is out on his front steps, his family and friends behind him. He’s a tall guy, thick shock of black hair, lean but with some muscle, just a few wrinkles. Looks good for one-hundred. Hell, everybody looks good nowadays.

The patron exchanges final hugs and begins the long, slow walk down his rock footpath. The crunch of stones is the only sound throughout the neighborhood. The sun feels nice.

The kid reaches for his tools. I stay his hand. Not yet, not until he’s made his way because – then it happens. The patron’s wife sprints off the porch.

“Michael,” she gasps and grabs onto him.

They hold each other tight, who knows how many years of joy are in that embrace. They kiss. He whispers something she’ll never tell another soul. He wipes away her tears but they return. Eventually, she is joined by other relatives and friends who have to work to pull her back. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

Everyone has instinctively gravitated towards the patron by this point. Even his neighbors are closing in as if attracted by some energy they can’t deny. The best show in town.

The patron finally approaches.

“Michael Paul DeLeo?” I say in a soft yet presentational tone.

“That’s me,” he manages to get out and forces a smile.

“My assistant will now administer an identification check.”

He nods.

The kid carefully tugs a strand of the patron’s hair with his tweezers then swabs the inside of his mouth. He feeds both samples into the reader. It was warm for that time of year. After a moment, the kid gives me a nod. I extend my arm, motioning at the backseat door. The kid opens it for the patron.

“What do you guys think,” the patron says with a sly grin, “should I look back?”

“Your call, sir,” I say, returning the smile.

The patron turns and waves once to all the onlookers. He blows a kiss to his wife and waits for her to catch it. He gets in, wiping away tears. The kid shuts the door and gets in the front seat. I take my time shuffling to the driver’s side.

When we’re all settled, I meet eyes with the patron in the rearview mirror.

“Musical preference, sir?”

The kid shoots a horrified look my way. I keep my eyes on the patron.

“Hadn’t thought of that,” the patron says as he continues to stare out the tinted windows. He pauses, thinking. “Got any Elvis?”

“Love Elvis. Any song?”

“How about, Fools Rush In.”

“Excellent choice.”

I find the song on my music player before pulling away. The patron watches out the back window as his family and friends run behind the car. I keep it slow until he turns away as we take a right on Aker. When he faces forward, he’s crying again.

Now he needs my help. “Can I ask you something, sir?”

I can see the patron is breathing hard. His hands are shaking. Bravery only takes you so far.

“Huh? Okay?” he mumbles, somewhat puzzled. I get more daggers from the kid but continue to ignore them.

“I’m retiring soon and I’m thinking about traveling. Seeing the world. Any recommendations?”

The kid begins to say something, but I catch him the moment I hear him clear his throat. I put a hand on his and it quiets him.

“I’m not so…” the patron begins, but stops himself. He sits back, wiping away the last of his tears. He’s looking around this way and that, hands fumbling in his lap.

I continue, trying to keep eye contact: “I heard there is a lot to see in Europe?”

“I’m not, I don’t…” the patron tries to eke out. He shakes his head.

“Just whatever comes to mind,” I say softly. “Man, I love this song.”

“Yeah, me too,” he says.

Something clicks.

“You know what,” the patron exclaims as he leans forward and puts his arms between me and the kid on our headrest. Now I’ve got him. “I know a place, lovely, great little place. Have you ever heard of Montepulciano?”

“Nope, you?” I say, bringing the kid into the conversation. He shakes his head, still angry.

The patron keeps talking: “It’s this gorgeous city in Northern Italy, about an hour outside of Rome.”

“Italy, huh?”

“Yeah. Absolutely beautiful.” He’s smiling now. “A fairytale.”

“How’s that?”

“Oh, God. It was this medieval mountain top town with these tight, cobblestone streets, cute, little houses with those terra-cotta roofs, all nestled tightly together. And the view of the Tuscan countryside, man. I can still see it.”

“Yeah, a sight to see?”

His hands finally settle as he leans away from us into the backseat.

“My wife and I went for our twenty-fifth anniversary. We actually met there in college…” The patron keeps reliving the memory.

The kid takes out his reader. The assignment has been approved. We are ready to start the process. I nod for the kid to go ahead. He taps his reader’s screen.

“I remember we went to this little corner restaurant one evening…”

And he’s gone. Slumped over, eyes closed. The kid’s alarm goes off. He’s quick to quiet it. I turn off The King.

“Time?”

The kid barks: “What the hell was that, sir? You know how many codes you just violated?”

“Time?” I repeat a little louder.

“For starters, the manual says, Article Six, Section Two, no extra conversation beyond what is necessary or at the request of…”

“Time?” I scream, staring him down.

We move down another side street, edging toward the highway.

The kid checks his reader. “Five past five.”

“Good. Mark it.”

The kid fiddles with some buttons.

“Marked. Announcement sent.”

There’s a silent moment of tension between us I know it’s my duty to break. “Let me ask you something. Why did you want this job?”

Without thinking he responds: “Because it’s important. It’s noble. We all deserve this and it has to be done.”

“You’re right,” I say, grinning. I swear he’s my clone. “But you’ve still got a lot to learn.”

He looks in the rearview at the patron. He starts readjusting his tie again, pretending he’s not looking, but he can’t take his eyes off him. We are all only so brave. I rub his shoulder.

“It’s okay, kid. The first one is tough.”

He takes his time with the words. “Jesus, he’s really dead, isn’t he?”

We storm up the highway, the engine revving up to speed. Beautiful day to be driving.

“Take a good long look, kid.” I gun it into the fast lane. “And think about what you want your last five minutes to be like.”

Jonathan Pickering is an emerging writer and teacher from a suburb of Boston. He is the author of 20/20: The Iraq and Afghanistan Narratives, a collection of oral histories from the men and women who served in these conflicts. For more from Jon, please visit www.jonathanpickering.com.

Doing business

The lift was crowded, and Bertrand felt sorry for the tramp squeezing his way from passenger to passenger with his dirty hat. The fellow looked more deserving than some he could name. But it was money; Bertrand looked away, hoping the tramp wouldn’t get to him. Then the lift stopped with a, ding!, everyone else got out, and the tramp confronted him squarely. “Any change, gov’nor?”

Bertrand dug into his pocket and handed over a pound coin with as good grace as he could muster. And as he stepped out into the twelfth floor lobby of Brascobank, heading for Operations, he heard a wheezed, “Thank you”.

There were no more thank-yous that morning. None from the Chief Executive’s hustlers shaking their collection boxes (one pound each), nor from Sandra with her biscuits at reception (fifty pee), nor from Bill the security guard with his sandwiches (two pounds each). Bernard didn’t fancy the sandwiches, and he dropped one into the hat of Big John, who sat in the corridor leading to Operations, huge limbs tucked up under his chin, and at least gave a grateful nod.

Bertrand tried to give the other sandwich to his boss Irene in exchange for one of her cakes (‘Freshly-baked – Family to support!’), but it was returned with a firm smile, and he had to dig into his pocket (another pound – and the cake was gooey!). The sandwich was no more use with Cindy when she accosted him, scantily-clad, in the corridor. And Bertrand didn’t even try it with Sam and Chaz from Accounts – who, like Scylla and Charybdis, threatened passers-by from either side of the narrow aisle.

“Come on guys, I’ve got deals to process,” Bertrand appealed.

It was no use. “We’re here to help,” Sam said, manoeuvring between Bertrand and his cubicle.

“We protect you,” said Chaz. “And we make sure your deals get booked,” he added with a wink.

There was nothing for it: Bertrand fished out another pound.

“Ta!” said Sam, closing his palm on the coin. “And one more.” He held out his other hand.

Bertrand grimaced, tried his pocket again, but found only a fifty pence piece. This time Sam closed his fist, so the coin bounced off his knuckles onto the floor.

“Not getting cheap, are we?” Chaz came up menacingly.

Exasperated, Bertrand pulled a fiver from his wallet and asked for change.

“That’ll do nicely,” Chaz said, snatching the banknote. “Pleasure to do business with you.” And he and his mate lumbered off down the aisle to shake down someone else.

Bertrand stood fuming as he looked after the departing pair. If he were five years younger…. But discretion – and the hope that he could now get on with his work – took the better part of valour: he stayed by his cubicle. Yet it hurt. Sixteen quid down just getting to his desk – and the whole day still ahead. It made working a marginal proposition, as his wife would say.

Bertrand switched on his PC, and as he sat down, Brasco’s motto, ‘Let’s do business!’, whirled across the screen. He felt something on the seat; he looked down, and it was the sandwich, rather squashed in its clingfilm wrap. He might as well give that to Big John too, along with Irene’s cake.

Then Irene came by and asked for sponsorship for her daughter’s school fees.

Bertrand groaned. “Aren’t you supposed to…” (how to put it to his own boss?) “…to give me something in return? Like a business thing?” Brasco was trying to encourage entrepreneurialism, but this was just extortion.

“If you want to make an issue of it…,” Irene said, fingering her jewellery.

Well! Bertrand, on the brink, considered doing just that. But he needed the job, and the whistle-blower programme was hardly secure (and you had to pay there too). No, he had to swallow it. Taking out his wallet, he asked the going rate.

“Whatever you like. It’s voluntary, and much appreciated,” Irene murmured, fixing him with a steady gaze.

Bertrand found a fiver, and to his relief that was enough. With a little sniff his boss took herself off, skirt swishing down the aisle.

Smarting under this latest blow, Bertrand didn’t even see Internal Audit. Only a discreet cough alerted him to yet another caller on his finances. He didn’t have to pretend when he said he was cleaned out, and so Internal Audit took himself off whistling, with a promise to be back the following day.

What a start to the morning! Bertrand struggled to get into his work. As lunchtime approached, his eye fell on the squashed sandwich and the cake which still lay sadly on his desk. And he had an idea.

Tessellated

Mom was a jigsaw puzzle. I don’t mean a mystery or a riddle or that you couldn’t discern the meaning behind her rare smile. Her skin was grooved into interlocking, thin, wood-like pieces and tessellated over a green felt dermis.

She liked to read on the couch on Sunday afternoons while I assembled moon bases with Legos on the coffee table. Once, I climbed up next to her to show her the rover I’d built and banged my head against her arm, knocking the book from her hands and a tile from her forearm onto the floor. I scrabbled onto the carpet and handed her the chestnut piece. She laughed and slipped it back onto her underlayment. “See,” she said, “all better.”

Dad would come home from the local dive smelling like rum with a dash of cigarette ash. He’d crush mom’s hand while he slurred about his boss keeping him down; how he never got a fair shake. The tabs on the pieces of mom’s fingers became worn and delaminated, lifting like hang nails from each time she’d extracted herself from him and escaped to her bedroom.

One night, she pulled away too quickly. He jerked her towards him, grabbed the back of her neck and slammed her down onto her knees. Pieces of her sheared off under his grip and scattered across the floor, exposing islands of her deep, green felt. I stepped forward, trembling, wanting to scoop them up but the defiant crease of her mouth kept me from crying out for him to stop. Dad let go and kicked the scraps of her across the room before weaving into her bedroom and passing out on the bed.

Mom picked up her tiles and put them into a box with the money she’d been hiding under a floor vent cover. We left the next morning to stay with her mother. Dad showed up, later, begging for us to return. When Grandma’s door remained closed, he raged.

“Who the fuck do you think is going to want you, bitch?”

Grandma covered my ears while mom phoned the police. I bawled when they took Dad away. With Grandma’s help, we moved to Toronto and mom found a job at the local public school.

We settled in and over the months and years she took each tile Dad had knocked loose, five pieces from her knees, another from her left arm, seven from behind her neck and smoothed them back into place. She was whole again, except for the pieces above her heart. They wouldn’t lie flush like before, no matter how hard she forced them down.

By the time I entered high school, S-shaped fault lines had breached the surface of my stomach and worked their way up my chest and down my arms – compartmentalizing my skin with each new experience I had or book I read. I hid them under long-sleeved shirts.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Anjalee.” Mom said one morning at breakfast. I stared at my cereal and didn’t answer. “It doesn’t mean we’re weak.”

At night I traced the new channels between the pieces and wished they’d vanish in the wake of my fingers. “Who’s going to want you?” I’d mouth to the dark.

Mom was there, two years later, when I came out of my room ready for junior prom wearing a black dress that revealed my scribed arms. We conceded, after an hour of waiting, that I’d been stood up. My chest hung concave and loose, on the brink of crumbling inwards with each shuddering breath.

“It’s okay,” she whispered into my hair as she held me on the couch, “Cry tonight. Tomorrow, you’ll put yourself back together.”

Our tiles became more intricate, more difficult to keep in place. Mom went back to school and became a reading recovery specialist; I, an Engineer. And whenever there were breakups, financial hardships, even the dissolution of my own marriage, we’d spend months, bent over the kitchen table repairing ourselves – re-adhering each piece with flour based glues, sealing our surfaces with beeswax or coconut oil.

Mom’s older now. I visit her twice a week with Vikas, my little boy. She calls out to us when I open the door and we usually find her seated in front of the television with a box of her tiles that have come loose.

Today, she let Vikas play with them. He holds them up in his tiny hands, a tile from mom’s fingertip, a piece from just below her nose. She recounts the memories they carry – the light weft of my grandmother’s bright saris, the sweet sawdust scent of me as a newborn. Vikas scrunches his eyebrows as he tries to fit these incongruous pieces together.

“Soon he’ll have his own fragments to reckon with,” Mom says with a rueful smile. I help her replace her tiles. The pieces don’t fit as snugly as they used to; the verdant felt between her seams is visible.

“The day will come when they all fall off,” she says as we walk to the front door.

I kiss her head. “Don’t worry. I’ll pick them up for you.”

She puts her hand on her chest where the tiles still bow upward. “You can’t keep me whole, Anjalee.”

I hug her goodbye then Vikas gives her a kiss. She waves as I help him into the car but her hand clips the porch railing. A piece of her wrist dislodges and sails into a potted geranium. She eases onto her knees to look for it, the shallow dent of worry on her brow.

Before I can run up the front steps, she pulls the tile from the dirt and holds it up, a weak smile curving her lips.

“Will Grandma be okay?” Vikas asks when I return to the car. I look at his still un-etched skin. The corners of my lips slip downward.

“I hope so Vikas, I hope so.”

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Suzan Palumbo is an ESL teacher and free lance writer living in Ontario, Canada. She has had work published at Diabolical Plots and is a first reader for Shimmer.

Been There, Done That

Dr. Rafsanjani:

Please let me be your guinea pig.

I am volunteering for service as a test subject in your program. I recognize that this may be a problem, given that no one outside of your university is supposed to know your project exists, and especially given that I am a man with a criminal record. I am not a spy or saboteur; I know what you’re doing only because your theories are correct. The process you have envisioned will work, though imperfectly.

How do I know? Because I’ve been there, Dr. Rafsanjani. I’ve done that. Indeed, in a sense, my entire life, from the age of fifteen onwards, has been a byproduct of your experiment.


I was fifteen years old, sitting in John’s garage, watching him drive nails through a piece of particle board. John was perfect. Green eyes flecked with gold, thick, wavy black hair, and cheekbones you could cut glass with. But John’s romantic interests lay elsewhere, and with the opposite gender. So: best friends. I kept him close, if not as close as I’d have liked.

And John was perfect in the technical sense as well. At school, at work, at play, his every action was sure and capable. Even his carpentry was perfect: I watched him set each tenpenny nail precisely in its place, and then drive it through the quarter-inch of wood with a single, surgical tap of the hammer, leaving the head flush with the wood’s surface and the point extruded.

Even his attitude had been perfect, at one point. He’d been the consummate overachiever throughout middle school. And then, almost from the moment he’d seen her, at the start of our freshman year, he had devolved into a completely different person. He shunned sports and activities. He made no attempt to make new friends; our old social circle disintegrated. He was as kind to me as ever, but he had no apparent interest in or time for the rest of the world. Instead, I watched him while away the hours in his garage, hammering out strange, ugly objects, equally inartistic and non-functional. Such as today’s project. I’d dubbed it “Spiny Norman, the Roadkill Hedgehog,” which had earned me a laugh, and a fond grin that had almost stopped my heart.

“So,” I said to him, trying to strike another spark. “All-school assembly on Monday. Our big moment. Class of the year!” The high school John and I attended conducted a year-long competition between the four classes in which we earned points for various activities and accomplishments—class GPA, attendance, the canned food drive and so forth. The winning class got a day off in May. A victory for the seniors was usually a given. That year, the impossible had happened. We won it. We, the freshmen.

In August, the three hundred members of the freshman class had stumbled through the doors not knowing which way was up or even how to open our lockers. Then Dani Tannig had entered our lives, swooping in from some tiny private middle school, a tornado of positivity. By September, she was our class President. By November, we were a well-oiled machine, everybody’s unique talents identified and catalogued. We moved steadily up in the class rankings. With March came Spring Olympics, and when the duct tape fastening Emma Czerznowski to the gymnasium wall came undone and the senior tumbled to the floor, leaving only our own Ashley Jackson still attached, our section of the bleachers dissolved into pandemonium; we had done the impossible. I remembered jumping up and down like a meth-addicted kangaroo, and turning to John to celebrate—only to see him staring silently at Dani in the front row as the other class officers dogpiled on top of her. He had been an island of stillness amidst our storm of joy, with that sad little half-smile on his face. It was the expression he always seemed to wear when looking at Dani.

And John spent a lot of time looking at Dani.

“Never been done before,” I said to him, as he sat cross-legged on the cement, placing another nail. “We made history!”

“Yep,” he muttered. THUNK went the hammer.

I opened my mouth again to speak, but hesitated. I knew I ought to avoid the subject; it was too painful for me to think about. Yet I had to probe at it, the way your tongue prods at a sore tooth, or the way you pick at a scab. “Big moment for Daniiiii…” I drew my voice out suggestively. He paused for a moment, then glanced up at me. No resentment. Just that sad half-smile.

“Hey, don’t blame me,” I said. “You could be with her, if you’d only put yourself out there. Just…be the guy you were in middle school! Star quarterback, straight A’s. Guys wanted to be you, girls loved you. She’d love you, if you gave her the chance. Just…” My free hand flailed aimlessly at the air.

“Engage again. Be part of the world.” He finished my sentence for me, using exactly the words I’d been about to use. It’s scary, how often he does that, I thought. It’s part of the connection we share. It’s proof that we’re meant to be together.

I turned to him, and found those impossibly green eyes locked on mine. “Been there, Eddie,” he said tonelessly. “Done that.”

I shook my head. “Love sucks,” I said, my voice dripping with a fifteen-year-old’s profound wisdom.

But John was already face-down in his project again, picking out another nail. “Not so, buddy,” he replied. “One perfect love lasts a thousand lifetimes. Love comes to those who deserve it. And love is worth the wait.” He glanced up at me. “You deserve love, Eddie. And it will come for you, in time. I promise.”

I felt a shiver run up my spine. “But…” I stammered. “…how can you say that, and then act like this? You’re just gonna moon over her? You’re just gonna stew in a corner, like you have been all year?” I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. I was mad at him, angry that he was being less than himself, angry that he was cheating the world of the amazing person I knew him to be. “You’re gonna do nothing?”

He sat there, his face a blank slate. “I,” he responded, “am going to do nothing effectively.”

Like Brownies

We’re lucky we had kids before the Antiglians brought us here. All creatures, save for the most beautiful, had been sterilized upon arrival.

They placed us with other human families in a small section of the sprawling interplanetary refuge. I haven’t seen any other Earth animals, but sometimes I swear an elephant’s trumpet rises above the mix of alien sounds. My wife, Maura, shrugs. It’s all white noise to me, Noah.

Our new home is a cookie-cutter four bedroom with all the creature comforts—except a roof. I’ve gotten used to alien faces hovering above when I eat, bathe, hell, even when I take a dump, but I couldn’t stand those columns of eyeballs watching me have sex. I can only do it completely under the covers. I miss seeing Maura’s body.

Jim slams a toy Ferrari into my foot and mutters, “Sorry, Dad.”

“Ooh!” Cindy says in that way kids have when they expect their siblings to get in trouble. She clutches a stuffed puppy that reminds me of Tuppins, who died just before we left Earth.

I rub my foot. “It’s okay, but why don’t you put the car away so we can work on long division?”
“No.” Jim scowls. “I’m never gonna need it.”

I’d said the same thing to my mom when I was his age. She told me that no one in our family had ever gotten a degree, that I could be the first.

I never expected to be the last.

Jim is already on the other side of the room, chasing Cindy with the car. She trips, sending the dog flying through the air, and a group of Antiglians point their quivering, anemone-tipped appendages at my daughter. I scoop her up to shield her from their view.

“Put me down, Dad!” She wriggles free. “I’m fine.”

A thump-plop-thump outside sends the kids rushing to the window. Our trough brims with roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and a pumpkin pie. It’s always seventy-two degrees in the habitat, but it must be November on Earth. Antiglians are obsessed with customs and calendars. This is our first Thanksgiving here.

Maura helps me set the table. “Everything smells wonderful, Noah. A delicious feast with no pots and pans to scrub. What could be better?”

“It’s engineered.”

She takes a bite of stuffing. “Mmm. Well, they can engineer my food until the day I die.”
Jim scoops massive heaps of everything on his plate. I serve little Cindy.

“This is so good, but I really hope we get pizza tomorrow,” Jim says between bites. “The pizza here is out of this world.”

Maura and Cindy laugh.

“Well, technically, it is in this world. It’s out of our world.”

Jim rolls his eyes. “Not mine. Everything here is better.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you’d backpacked through the Rockies. Eaten a peach fresh off the tree.” My voice catches. “You’ve never even seen the ocean.”

“Yeah?” Jim glares. “Well at least here I—”

“Boys! Quiet.” Maura almost never raises her voice.

“Sorry, Mom,” Jim mumbles.

She turns to me. “Do you have something to say, Noah?”

“I thought you wanted me to be quiet.”

Maura mutters something about stubborn, old mules, and I feel like an ass.

“Sorry.” I kiss her cheek.

“Scoundrel,” she says with a shake of her head.

“Who wants to play shuttle racer on the Holo after dinner?” I ask.

Jim grins. “You’re going down, Dad!”

He makes good on his threat. We all play until the sleeping signal flashes.

The kids scamper off to their bedrooms so they’ll be rested for the morning petting session: two hours in a pen while the Antiglians feed us treats that taste like brownies. Those who put on a show get the most.

I don’t dance.

Maura settles into bed while I toss and turn.

“Noah?” She yawns. “Did you skip your sleep aid?”

“Yeah. I feel like thinking.” I stare at the sky. With the artificial lights, it never gets dark enough in the enclosure to see the stars. A couple Antigilans skitter by above, tentacles entwined.
“Earth again? I don’t know why you romanticize the place. You had to wear a bulletproof vest to go outside and scrounge for food.”

I snuggle against her. “Don’t you remember when we used to sit on the dock, dip our toes into the water, and listen to the loons?”

“We were teenagers.” She turns to face me and takes my hands. “Don’t you remember the stench of the dead fish? The loons didn’t last much longer.” Her voice fades as her eyes close. “It’s Thanksgiving. We’re together, and I’m thankful…”

Restless, I head toward the family room. Everyone was allowed to bring one memento, and I chose my college degree. I need to hold it, to feel like a Bachelor of Mathematics, not some exotic novelty.
Halfway down the hall, I slip and land with a thud. That stupid Ferrari. I stifle a curse, hoping I hadn’t woken anyone up. Whimpers and soft footsteps grow closer. Damn.

“Daddy.” Sobbing, Cindy throws her arms around me.

“Shh, baby. It’s okay.”

“The noises.” She pulls back, eyes wide with fear. “Are the soldiers here?”

“No, sweetheart. They’re light years away. They can’t hurt us.”

I carry her back to her room, tuck her in, and place the dog in her arms. “You’re safe.” I stroke the silky wisps of her hair until her eyes flutter closed. “You’re safe.”

Last Thanksgiving, we shared a can of room-temperature soup. The hollows of Tuppins’ ribs danced like tiger stripes in the light of our only candle—spring blossom scent or something like that—so artificial it made me queasy. I hadn’t even seen a goddamn flower since before Cindy was born. She’ll be five soon.

They gave us a cake for Jim’s birthday. The kids’ faces were round and happy as we sang, their voices clear and strong. Back in my own room, I pull the covers up to my shoulders. Tomorrow, I’d teach Cindy to add. I could use pizza to explain fractions.

I turn back to Maura, sleeping sweet and peaceful, close my eyes, and remember her words.
We’re together, and I’m thankful.

I’ve always liked brownies.

Michelle Kaseler is a software engineer by trade, but can be whatever she wants to be when she reads and writes. A two-time Boston Marathon qualifier, the only thing that matches her enthusiasm for creating stories is running. And cheesecake.

The Jade Star

A bright moon glistens in a velvet black sky. An unseen dog barks bloody murder as a Clean-Bot 2100 purrs its way through a wide and spotless street.

Around the street there are no cars, no signs of life except for a lone woman. She frantically runs ahead of the Clean-Bot as if she fears it will suck her up like trash.

The woman, her ginger hair swinging from side to side, reaches the end of the street where there is a tall water tower, at least fifty feet high. Painted on the tower’s side, in vibrant red and blue, is a big “Milton Brothers Studios.”

Frantically the woman climbs the first rung of the tower’s ladder then the second and the third.

At the top of the water tower there are no eyes on the ginger haired starlet, no studio cameras, no klieg lights, no adoring fans. There is only a clear view of the back lot with its twenty-three cavernous soundstages, dozens of cranes, trucks, fake palm trees, sword and sandal set backdrops, even a water tank that could hold the Titanic.

The Milton Brothers Studios, maker of the latest and greatest in filmed entertainment, is at rest for a few hours. Perhaps a security camera has caught her exit from her dressing room. More likely the guards are asleep on the job.

At the top, along a small guardrail, the ginger haired woman does not look out at the whole of Bollywood West, does not admire the view.

Instead, she fights, kicks, flails.

Someone, or something, a shape of shimmering light is next to her, pushing her, grabbing at her, tearing into her leg.

She loses her balance, falls over the guardrail. Her hands go out to her side, as if she is Esther Williams diving into a pool, ready to synchronize with a bevy of bathing beauties.

Only it’s not water below; it’s a concrete jungle.

By her ginger haired head, spilling over the black pavement, a pool of crimson blood forms like a seahorse drifting toward a distant ocean.

With an efficient silence the Clean-Bot 2100 rolls back and sucks up the blood around her head.

Tin-foil Moon

Albert sat in his deck chair and watched the small green dot approach his nephew’s house by the banks of the river. The lights had gone out earlier that evening and now the wind was up, the dry air pregnant with static electricity. His nephew’s kids were scrubbing their feet against the acrylic doormat and zapping each other, screaming their delight.

The sounds cut off.

Silence.

Trembling slightly, Albert reached up to check his tin-foil hat. Still there. He stood and turned to the chairs where his family should be. Gone. They were all gone.

“You,” he said, pointing to the empty seats, “you didn’t get ready. Ha-haa. I told you… I told you, but you didn’t, did you?”

The hats he’d made them lay scattered across the table, rocking gently in the candle-scented breeze. Untouched, like always. His gaze moved through the foil shapes, past the half empty wine glasses, over a cling wrapped salad and all the way to the silver top-knob of the pepper-grinder out at the far corner of the table. A white napkin fluttered against it. Waves on the sea against a lonely lighthouse.

“Haa.” Emptiness hollowed his chest and his arm dropped to his side. “So what now, what now? I’m all alone again, aren’t I?”

He clutched himself tight and gnawed at his knuckles. He was used to being lonely, but it was so much worse when he was on his own.

His eyes darted to a movement under the table–a piece of squirming blue. Sally, in her new blue dress.

“Sally!”

The plastic tablecloth bunched together as little fingers tried to pull it to the ground.

“Sally? What’re you doing?”

“Jason keeps trying to zap me,” she said, voice sinking to a groan.

Albert eyed the electrifying carpet mat with distrust, but it lay dormant without a child to goad it.

“Well, he’s stopped now,” he said. He listened to the evening again. No neighborhood voices, no doors banging, no cars driving by. “It’s all stopped.”

He walked over and poked the carpet mat with his toe. No response.

“Um. It’s okay–you can come out, if you like.”

Sally’s head appeared between the large wooden chairs, blonde hair rumpled and askew under her tin-foil pirate hat. She dragged herself upright, pulling at her frock to unravel the twists spiraling around her torso. Albert watched her, his mouth twitching in and out of a smile. He liked Sally. She liked his hats.

“So where’s Mum and Dad?” she asked.

“Umm,” he said, voice lifting a little. “Ba. Bar-be- No! Next door.” He pointed, keeping his eyes on her. “Jim and Lorraine’s.”

“Oh.” She glanced at the tall fence between her and the neighbors’ place and chewed her lip. “Okay, I guess. But when–?”

“Ummmm.” His voice rose a bit more, along with his pulse. He wasn’t ready for questions–the answers might scare her and then she’d just leave.

But she sighed and took his fingers, her palm small and warm against his rough old hand. His murmur faded away and his eyebrows inched up, like hopeful, hairy caterpillars.

“It’s okay,” she said, patting his hand, “we know where they are. We can get them if we need them.”

The shaggy caterpillars shot skyward and a wordless mutter sputtered through Albert. His body shook and his voice rose higher and higher, like a humming kettle. The edges of his world curled in.

Sally squeezed his hand tight and dug her little fingernails hard into his palm. She stuck out her tongue, waggled it, and went cross-eyed.

“Ha,” said Albert, and his screwed tight muscles collapsed. “Ha-ha! Sally, you’re funny.”

She clutched his hand in both of her own and grinned.

“Come on,” she said, pulling him towards the edge of the deck. “I don’t want to go back inside. Jason was being mean. Tell me a story.”

Elevator to the Sun

Tomner lay in his cocoon of bedding, strapped vertically to the wall. His eyes had opened on a blob of moisture floating a few feet above his head. Something had energized it with a contradicting force, as it flowed and twisted around several loci. A liquid arm would extend on one side and then another, pulling in opposite directions before collapsing into their respective valleys, only to spit out more arms in hydra-like fashion. A rumble spread through the hull of the tugboat, the kind of vibration that could only be caused by firing the afterburners. Jerla must have activated them. It was a waste of fuel, very unlike her.

He scratched at his left thigh, working his fingernails down toward the amputation line. His prosthesis hung on the rack beside him, which compounded his sense of indecision. He had not yet committed to getting up, facing the day, until the leg was clamped on and powered up. Then he could do anything: run across a gymnasium, jump to pick an apple from a tree, ride a moon bike up a sim-mountain. Always riding. He would never get off, never let up…if he had a moon bike, and a sim-gym membership, and a day off. If he could afford a day off.

A doorbell sounded, followed by the words, “Mail call,” spoken in a tin-plated recording. Tomner felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

“San Deep, please protect me and make me strong,” he recited, making the sign of the bull with his fist. “Against evil forces that do me wrong.”

After a few moments, a different computerized voice addressed him. “We received another message from the Better Body Corporation, Tomner. The bill is three months overdue, and they want back payment on your leg.” The message was made more grating by the erratic tone, as if the device was trying to enunciate each letter in the words separately. “This is their final notice. If we don’t pay, they will deactivate it.”

Tomner always felt irritable upon waking, but this information compounded his foul mood. “Dungeon fat! How can I get the money to pay their bills if they turn off my leg?”

In the corner, several large dragon trees grew in pots; their thin trunks crowding together at soil level, they rose to spread out three feet or more, giving their spearhead-shaped leaves room to capture as much light as possible. Now the foliage on one of the plants in the center vibrated as if it had become irritated, too. A pair of delicate hands gripped vertical branches and pushed them aside to make way for a small face, its fur splotched with white and gray, whiskers twitching on the pointed nose. Jerla belonged to the species rattus norvegicus, although she referred to this group as couches.

A blue helmet conformed to the shape of her skull. Delicate wires extended underneath this carapace, making surgically precise connections to the neurons controlling language cognition. With the device intact, Jerla could form her words in the electro-chemical signals of the synapses; the helmet amplified these sparks and projected them to the computer, where software converted them to oral speech, into a language understood by her companion.

It always seemed remarkable, Tomner thought, how articulate the creature could be, how intelligent, how commanding, given the vagaries of electrical linkage and software applications. Somewhere along their evolutionary line, rodentia had craved such a device to make known their perspicacity, their distinctiveness, their taste. For if anything, his companion had a refined sense of the quality of food—and beyond this, of any material good, including salvage. She made an ideal partner in an operation such as theirs.

“It is a Catch-22,” Jerla said. “That is what it is called. This indicates an ironic situation…”

“I know what that is. It bunches.”

“The deadline is in two weeks.”

“What? That’s impossible! I might as well drive straight into the sun with this load.”

“Jump into the sun yourself. Leave me to pilot the boat back to Luna.”

“You’ll starve without me around.”

Jerla gave this jibe an abrupt sniff, letting silence hang in the air for a moment. Then she spoke. “Why do you give up so soon? A couche never gives up.”

“Look where that’s gotten you.”

The rodent swayed in the branches of the tree, shaking its leaves. “Do you mock me?”

“Sorry. I’m just bunched. What a situation.”

“That’s the life of a freelancer for you.”

Tomner had no answer to that. “I guess I better go out and have a look at the junk while I still can. Maybe something we can salvage.” He opened a cramped metal locker, taking out pieces of a pressure suit at random and putting them on. Boots, tunic, gloves, overalls, cowl: each zip-sealed together as he went, forming a solid barrier against raw space, against the cold vacuum and radiation.

“Something small, and not smelly,” Jerla reminded him.

“I won’t know if it’s smelly when I’m out there, will I?”

“Why do you always manage to choose something smelly?”

“Maybe because your nose is too good.”

“Just choose wisely. Communicate with me before you bring it in.”

“OK, boss.”

“You are mocking again. I might have to dock your pay.”

“That’s all I need.” He raised the helmet over his head, pausing to ask, “Anything else?”

“Proceed.”

Tomner zip-sealed the helmet to the cowl, completing the costume. Then he stamped to the airlock in the heavy mag-boots. He waved once and stepped through the door into a low, narrow chamber painted a grotesque yellow, since darkened with sooty smears; dull, weathered metal poked out in gray patches where the color had chipped away. In a moment, the chamber had sealed and depressurized; a panel light flashed in anticipation of the opening: “Brace for suction.”

“Brace for suction,” Tomner spoke the phrase aloud. “You tease.”

The portal dialed open, shutter blades fading into the wall, and his body flexed outward against the restraining straps.

After the initial depressurization, he flexed his mechanical foot against the wall to float out the door and eased himself down the port side of the tugboat by hand holds and magnetic boots. About twelve feet down, he reached the junction where their pilot boat clamped to the trash container, nothing more than a simple rectangular frame made of metal pipe covered with wire mesh. The cargo box reached down another 50 feet below the junction point, and it stretched fore and aft twice that length in each direction, every square foot of it stuffed with waste from Earth, two space stations, and Earth’s orbit. The tugboat rode the container like a bug might cling to an elevator, and very nearly just as helpless.

Having reached the level of the cargo, Tomner attached the tether from his suit’s pulley to a swiveling metal ring on the tug.

“Bless me, San Deep, with an effortless shift, and grace my unworthy self with your gifts.”

“The prayer doesn’t help, you know.”

Tomner ignored her. “Forgive her, San Deep, her disbelief is not disrespect.”

“Yes it is.” She had no respect for his faith in the cargo god whose name appeared in huge letters on a sign at the sanitation depot. The humans’ ignorance of their own language always appalled her.

“Don’t jinx it, Jerla. I need this salvage too bad.”

“Sorry. Just be careful.”

Now he rappelled down the side of the mesh container, investigating the contents as carefully as he could under the helmet’s dim, shaking spotlight. Barrels of nuclear waste comprised a good portion of the contents. Orbital debris, such as expired satellites and rocket engines, was also classified as hazardous; all of these materials had been isolated at the far ends of the container. His suit screened out some radiation, but Tomner avoided those areas to limit his exposure. Although the company discouraged salvaging, it couldn’t prevent it once a tug was out in space, and the windfall provided extra profit and supplies which kept the freelance pilot boats in business.

On this trip, much stuff seemed to have been enclosed in nondescript corrugated cardboard or black plastic. He reached in with a knife to slit the bags, pulling the material aside to scan the contents. He saw junk and more junk: broken metal and ceramic, dead hard drives, dysfunctional machines beyond repair, plastic sacks that once held nutritional liquids, like vitamins, edible semisolids, juice, and alcohol. Covering a span about the width of his outstretched arms, Tomner made it to the vertical end of the container without success. He recalled the tether with the push of a button, kneeling to reattach it at the new edge, then started along the bottom.

The young man lost track of the distance he had traveled to the fore, but the search had become tedious an hour or two ago. Then a square corner reflected his headlamp. Ninety degree angles were unusual in salvage work. This one had a nice tight covering of black plastic and had been pushed up against the mesh. Tomner measured it visually—roughly three by two feet, possibly three feet deep as well. His knife sliced the plastic, and he saw writing on the white carton beneath; he struggled for a moment, but the letters were familiar to him: C-H-E-E-S-E, then C-R-A-C-K…Unopened cartons of cheese crackers!

“Good eatin’!” he whooped.

“What have you got, Tomner?” Jerla asked.

“You won’t believe this, Captain. I think San Deep sent you a personal message. It’s cheese crackers. A whole flat of ‘em! Fresh air, sister! I know this brand, too. They just changed the packaging, and this is the old design. And guess what? They still have a year of shelf life!” Now he pieced out the rest of the writing to impress her. “Track the flavors here. C-H-E-D…Cheddar. Uh, Parm. Ess. Ann. Parmesan. This one’s white cheddar. Yeah! And bll-you? What’s that? And here’s nack-ohs. I see, gotta be nacho. Just brand new!”

“Great score, boy! Can you cut ‘em out?”

“Should be easy. They’re right by the mesh. San Deep couldn’t make it easier.”

“Can you bring ‘em in by yourself?”

“I got this, captain! Can’t wait to get my snack on!”

“No, if they’re minty like that, we’ve got to save them for sale.”

“Aww! No fair!”

“Just bring them up safely now, boy.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

His wire cutters clipped out one side and then another. On the third side, his light hit a little round radio marker. Just like they were supposed to find this salvage. Even San Deep wouldn’t be so obvious. Tomner puzzled on it for a moment. He even checked his catalog, but the cargo wasn’t on his list of previous finds.

He shrugged. No matter. Cargo was cargo. He finished clipping the wire and wrestled the container loose. It came out smooth, too smooth, like they were being tempted and tested.

He wrapped the flat in tape and got a tether on the package, which allowed it to float a safe distance from his belt. He’d anchor them up top and retrieve them on the way back.

After three more hours, he had covered the length of the boat and no more. Now halfway down the starboard side, below the tug’s rear rockets, his light flashed over an arc of rubber, catching his eye. He focused the beam on a distinctive knobby surface—tread pattern, width, the meatiness of the object, told him it had to be one thing only: the front tire of a moon bike.

“San Deep be praised!”

“What do you see, Tomner?” Jerla asked. Her voice had a sweetness to it, a gentleness, that would have seemed unusual if his mind wasn’t so focused on his discovery.

“A moon bike! Its tire, at least.”

“Show me.”

Two photographs flashed on her computer screen, depicting the tire from different angles.

“It must be flat.”

“It looks inflated to me.”

“What could you do with a single tire, assuming you could retrieve it? Which looks impossible.”

He studied the junk pile. “I couldn’t get it from here,” he admitted. “Not with a little hole. It’s too impacted.”

“Better forget about it.” For once, Jerla sounded kind.

“Yeah.” Just in case, he tagged it with a homing marker and cataloged it. “Anyway, I’m coming back now. Too tired to go on. Bringing back a few things. And your crackers.”

“Good. Be careful. We’ll have a snack when you get home.”

The Leftovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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