Month: April 2023

Almost Human

I was built as a birthday present for my best friend. But we didn’t start out that way. She was just the girl my programmer was dating, and he was trying to keep an eye on her. He built me and put her into me—her likes and dislikes, her favorite colors and foods, the TV shows she binged and the movies she hated. I would be her friend and he would make sure she didn’t stray out of his reach.

The first day with her was like any first day with a stranger—awkward. We were the last at her party, sitting at an abandoned table in an empty restaurant near downtown San Jose. Dan, my programmer, had left in the first hour, and I’d stood numbly in the corner watching her.

She stared at me across her half-eaten birthday cake, the tip of her finger tracing the edge of a glass.

“So, you’re a robot,” she said.

“I’m a 3D-printed assemblage with a digital processor.” I paused, remembering her conversations I’d witnessed that day. I’d studied her reactions, when she frowned, when she laughed. I had a good idea of her sense of humor, so I tested the waters.


She snorted into her drink.

“Do you have a name?” she said.

I shrugged. “Not yet.”

She set her glass down. “How about Beth? Simple. Easy to remember.”

“Sounds good.”

“I’m Liv.”

“Duh,” we both said.

A Little Private Room

On the second walk-through of the house, Simon paused in front of a closed door upstairs and turned to the real estate agent. “What’s this door? A closet?”

It didn’t seem to lead to any of the rooms that they had already seen, and as Simon stood and tried to visualize the floorplan of the house, he had the distinct feeling there was an unvisited space in the second storey exactly where that door would lead. Not a huge space: not an entire bedroom. But bigger than a linen closet, perhaps ten feet by ten feet.

“Oh,” said the real estate agent in a casual, dismissive tone. “It’s just a little private room.”

Simon tried the knob, but it wouldn’t turn. Then he noticed a little keyhole underneath. “Do you have the key?”

“I don’t,” said the real estate agent. “But there’s nothing really in there. It’s just a little private room.”

The repetition of the phrasing struck Simon funny and he decided (as he sometimes did) that he wanted to be stubborn about it. “Well,” he said, suddenly aware of the folded offer letter in his hand as he spoke. “I’d really be more comfortable if I could see inside.”

He was forty years old now, after all. He wasn’t married and he didn’t expect to be. But he was buying the first house that he would own, and he didn’t want to be incautious about anything. He didn’t want to be forty years old with a house that he learned too late had some unpleasant surprise.

“I really don’t know if that will be possible,” said the real estate agent. “I can call the current owner and see if they have a key. But I’m showing the house to another couple this afternoon, and they are extremely interested in the property. That’s why I was so eager to get you back in here this morning.”

Simon shifted his weight from foot to foot. He didn’t know if the real estate agent really had another showing that afternoon. He didn’t know if she really didn’t have a key. He didn’t know if there was some reason she didn’t want to show him the room.

“It’s just a little room?” he asked. He couldn’t bring himself to use that word she kept repeating. He couldn’t bring himself to call it private like she did. “There’s nothing bad inside? No mold, nothing like that? Nothing that would need to be disclosed?”

“No,” laughed the real estate agent, pushing a strand of hair away from her face. “There’s nothing bad inside. It’s just a little private room with drawers and cupboards and a countertop. A lot of houses have them. You can use it for a closet if you ever find the key.”

“Well,” said Simon, as he tried to decide if he was being too stubborn. But of course, there was still the home inspection to do. He could still back out if something really bad was found. “Okay. I guess it doesn’t make much difference, if it’s just a little room.”

“That’s right,” said the real estate agent, holding out a pen so he could sign his offer letter. “Just a little private room.”

The Shape of Perfect Beasts

News traveled quickly through the Animal Kingdom that their neighbors, the Plant Kingdom, had held a great contest. The winner embodied that most perfect of shapes, the ever-widening golden spiral. Rumor abounded. The snail was sure the artichoke had won. The starlings swore it was the spiral aloe, on the strength of their name alone. The cat placed her purring faith in the sunflower. All were likely candidates, as all carried the logarithmic spiral, whether in the radial placement of their seeds or their leaves.

Whoever had won, it was a contentious victory, and when asked, every plant was reluctant to answer.

“Why even hold a contest at all?” the lithops grumbled.

“The rules were a sham,” said the aloe vera, without comment on their sibling.

The fern refused even to answer, its fiddleheads quaking in anger.

At last, to get to the truth of it, the animals went to the slime mold, who had been unincluded in the contest, and was widely regarded as impartial as neither a citizen of the Plant Kingdom nor the Animal Kingdom. From the slime mold the animals learned the sunflower had won in the end, their color alignment with the golden coil giving them a slight edge.

The animals, intrigued by the celebration of the perfect shape, and many already boasting of their own ability to mimic the spiral, decided to hold their own contest. But the animals determined that their contest would be fairer, and the rules more stringent, than that of the plants. No trickery would give an advantage, it would all be based on physical form in relation to the spiral; curvature rather than coloration. The contest would be determined by popular vote, with the slime mold given a voice as well. Even if every animal should vote for themselves, the slime mold could break a kingdom-wide tie.

The animals gathered and eagerly showed off their forms and how closely they mirrored the golden spiral.

“Look how my vertebrae coil and let me nap secure in the most comfortable shape,” the cat said. She curled up and tucked her head under her tail, cat-shape melting into the golden-shape with a pleased purr. The cat felt a certain kinship with the sunflower, as her shining fur would have given her a similar edge in a more chaotic contest. Even with the rules, the cat felt confident in the curvature of her spine.

“Look how even in death, the bones of us remain in golden convolutions,” the ghost of the ammonite said. It was widely decided that ghosts were disqualified, and that one must still be in their own bones for the shape to truly be perfect.

“Look how tightly my home is coiled, and how I carry always the lovely radial on my back. Look how I trust my life with it,” the snail, distant cousin of the dead ammonite said, withdrawing their body into their shell, which circled just as the numbered sequence did. The snail was sure they would win, for they were as in their bones as one could be, when your bones were, in fact, a shell.

“Look how fast I can make the shape. Look how fast I can make the shape. Look how fast!” the dog said, spinning to chase his tail. It was widely decided that the dog was disqualified, as his movements were too erratic to make a perfect whorl.

“Look how together we make a great, unending spiral, bigger than the individual,” the starlings murmured as they flocked in a great tightening and enlarging shape in the sky.

“Look how straight a line my body makes,” the stick insect said. The other animals paused in creating their golden forms, to stare at the rigidity of the mimic. “Look how I hint, not at the shape itself, but at its possibilities. For a line grows ever-longer, as a coil grows around itself. I carry the birth and death of the golden spiral across the true contour of my thorax and abdomen.”

It was widely decided that this argument, in both making and destroying the spiral, was perhaps heretical and certainly not first-place worthy, but the stick insect nevertheless won the runner-up prize for most avant-garde.

The slime mold praised the cat’s technique in tucking her nose beneath her tail to make the golden radial. While the snail grumbled that this was another sunflower trick, the stick insect’s startling entry was so intensely discussed that few others had room to gripe about the cat’s win. The cat once more placed her nose underneath her tail tip and celebrated her win with a sunbeam nap, while the stick insect contemplated the line, that most perfect form.

Gabrielle Bleu writes horror, science fiction, and fantasy. When not writing, she watches birds and admires lichens. Her work has appeared in the Story Seed Vault, Utopia Science Fiction, and the Crone Girls Press anthology “Coppice & Brake.” Follow her on twitter @BeteMonstrueuse for birdwatching photos and the occasional thoughts on werewolves, and find more of her work at

Quantum Meat

Hank had no idea that the steak he was grilling had become quantumly entangled. Hank didn’t even know that quantum entanglement was a thing. He had bigger problems, such as his depression, which had become so deep that he had given up on his own happiness altogether. He was living vicariously through his one-eyed tomcat Boots, whom he was unknowingly about to poison.

Hank stood squinting on the sunny patio, chilly and naked except for sandals, grilling a filet mignon to perfection-—for Boots. His beloved cat perched with its black and gray tail lifted on the patio railing, sniffing at his dinner. Hank stroked Boots’ black and gray fur and then turned the steak over with a spatula. He sprinkled more catnip over it. He worked it into the meat with his palm.

Thanks to Animal Planet, Hank knew that cat hierarchy revolved around the amount of meat each cat has eaten. They can tell by smelling their respective urine. Boots could use the help. After all, a fisher attack had left him blind in one eye, and he had a bad habit of licking patches of fur right off of himself. Boots was not pretty to look at. But he would have the best smelling urine in town, if Hank had anything to do with it.

In the cat world, it’s not how you look. It’s how much your urine smells like meat.

Boots ate half of his chopped-up filet mignon, and then trotted up the street to find neighborhood felines, no doubt. In the three months that Hank had been feeding Boots top quality meats he’d not once seen another cat. He’d expected to hear female cats in heat caterwauling at all hours, clinging to the window screens and scaling the siding to get in. Instead, Boots was gone for hours at a time. For all Hank knew Boots was squandering the best years of his life. Following Boots would be no good—-Hank just didn’t have the endurance to be trailing a cat all over.

Hank had packed on 30 pounds in the year since his wife and baby had died in labor. A former high school English teacher, Hank’s four days of bereavement leave had blurred into a year. He had blown through all 90 sick days he’d accumulated and not even the almighty teachers’ union could save his job after that.

Sometimes he awoke late at night, the words “clot buster” on his lips.

The surgeon had remarked to Hank afterward, “You know, if we’d been able to reach you, and administered the clot buster in time, we might have actually saved her.” But they hadn’t administered it, because deploying a clot buster is risky, and Hank was not there to authorize it. Kathleen, six months pregnant, had suffered a massive stroke while shopping. Hank’s goddamned phone hadn’t had service. He’d missed the call from the nurse. By the time he reached the hospital she was a vegetable, the left hemisphere of her lovely brain wiped out by an ischemic stroke-—a blood clot that had dislodged from her precious, malformed heart and blocked her brain’s blood supply. That night, when the emergency C-section was performed, she hemorrhaged and died, and so did the baby.

She had been Hank’s favorite paradox, and he loved paradoxes. That was one of the reasons he became a teacher. Take Macbeth. “Fair is foul, foul is fair.” What? How could it be both? Well, let’s talk about it. He taught Macbeth every year, and relished it. He had relished the paradox that was his lovely Irish wife. Fair-skinned and delicate looking, she would sometimes stop the car just to get a look at a puppy, but she’d once knocked a drunk man clean out after he had slapped his girlfriend in a bar. She was fair, yet foul-mouthed. Her temperament and strength were his personal proof that Vikings had indeed invaded and settled in Ireland.

It took a strong woman to love a man like him despite his morbid fantasies and dark desires. He’d ended more than one marriage before he tied the knot himself, screwing married women. But Kat, she put up with none of it-—she had saved him from himself.

Now his only remaining paradox was Kat’s cat, Boots. That cat had to be an absolute stud based on his meat ingestion-—yet there was no evidence of virility. Why? Hank thought and thought, and finally came to a solution. His tiny digital camera. It was a portable, tiny little thing he’d bought to strap around the neck of his newborn’s stuffed animal, so even if he was at work, he’d be able to turn on his iPad and see his little one.

Now all I can do is use the iPad to spy on my cat’s sex life. Talk about pathetic.

The following morning Boots came back. This time, Hank clipped the compact camera to Boots’ collar. After eating half of a rare, catnip-infused, imported Kobe sirloin, Boots trotted off as always, up the street. Hank hurried inside, fetched an ice-cold bottle of Yoo-Hoo, and placed it on the only space available on the coffee table. The rest was cluttered with cellophane donut wrappers and empty Yoo-hoo bottles. He turned on his iPad and opened the Wireless Camera app. On the screen was a cat’s-eye, or rather cat’s-neck, live stream of his road. A close-up of a green bush filled the screen—-he must be sniffing. He wound around the bush, and a black and brown robin stood pecking on the grass.

“Don’t get distracted, Boots,” muttered Hank.

The camera rushed toward the bird, but the robin sprang into the air and chirped angrily as it flew toward the pines. After a few more minutes of sniffing, Boots continued across the lawn and up the street. There was the Nickersons’ basketball hoop. Boots was almost to the top of the hill. But the camera turned left, down the driveway of the perpetually abandoned house at the top of the hill. Hank actually liked the house-—it was bigger, with a spacious backyard. He had tried to convince Kat to buy that one rather than his current house. She had been right of course. It was about ready to collapse judging by the sagging roof.

Boots seemed to have a definite destination. He reached the back corner of the house, turned right—-and the screen went black. Then the picture came back, and suddenly there was another cat standing before an open cellar window. Finally! Hank leaned forward and rubbed his hands together. The cat was black with gray legs, like Boots. And its right eye socket was pink, where its eye should have been. It looked exactly like boots, down to the pink and blue-studded collar. Was it a mirror? No—-ice froze Hank’s gut. Boots was looking at a replica of himself. The other cat’s gray front legs filled the screen, and then the other cat turned and jumped through the open basement window.

The screen shook as Boots also jumped down into a dimly lit room with a dirt floor. There were clothes on the floor, as well as a person.

A young woman: silver duct tape over her mouth, lying on her side on a thin mattress, arms bound behind her.

Hank leapt up and sent the iPad clattering to the floor. Oh God. He knew her from her face. For the first time in a year Hank felt urgency. His mind catapulted into a frenzy of rapid thought, like a starved dog that was suddenly tossed meat. As he squeezed into a pair of too-tight jean shorts, his mind cast out a line and hooked on a reason. A reason his wife and son had been taken from him. Maybe, just maybe, there was a purpose.

Maybe he was meant to save this girl.

Hank dialed 911, reported the girl’s location, and hung up on the still-talking operator. There might be a captor with the girl and Hank needed a weapon. He opened his closet and grabbed a hammer from the tool bag. He did not bother with shoes or a shirt. It was April after all. He jumped into his Corolla, backed out and rocketed up the hill. In ten seconds he turned into the driveway of the vacant house.

Hammer in hand, Hank ran down the driveway, sweating and breathless. At the back of the house was the cellar window, but it was closed. Did they know he was coming? Someone must have seen the camera on Boots’ neck. Hank knelt in the dirt and shattered the cellar window with the hammer, and then cleared the jagged glass away by running the hammer around the edges. He laid on his stomach and looked in. The sunlight streaming in showed only a dirt floor. No mattress, no girl. No cat.

The ipad’s screen had turned black a moment—-he must have missed something. The girl was deeper inside. Hank turned and crawled backward through the window, ignoring the burning pain from the broken glass cutting his chest and substantial belly. He let himself down onto the cool, damp dirt floor and then turned, hammer brandished. More filthy cellar windows emitted just enough sunlight to see by. Heart hiccupping, Hank advanced, and turned the corner to find another bare dirt floor.

The air rippled, and Boots stepped out of nothing.

Hank shook his head, and then leaned on the wall for support. Was something wrong with him? But wait-—if Boots was here, the girl had to be too. Hank moved to the bottom of the stairs, and then ascended, stepping on the sides of each stair to decrease creaking. It was no use. In the silent house each creak might as well have been a gunshot.

At the top of the stairs he turned the metal knob and shouldered the door open upon an empty kitchen. A dated yellow stove with its ancient refrigerator counterpart were the only inhabitants. A siren wailed in the distance and grew louder as Hank moved through the first floor of the empty house. Shit. They had to have brought her upstairs. Hank hesitated at the first stair—-the police would be here any moment. But they wouldn’t rob him of his chance to show his quality, to garner some jewel from the rubble of his life.

Perhaps they had her upstairs. Maybe they even had guns. But Hank’s advantage was at once great and terrible. He didn’t care if he died. Death was the only place where he had (an admittedly slim) chance of seeing his wife and unborn child. This, then, would be his legacy.

Hank charged barefoot up the wood-plank stairs, crossed the hall and slammed the first door open. He ran screaming into the room, and then the second, and by the third, his scream had dwindled to a wheeze, abruptly dying out. Nothing. Nothing, but pounding on the door downstairs, and a man’s voice shouting to open up.

Hank plodded down the stairs, half-naked and bloody, hammer in hand, and opened the door. A police officer stood there, hand on his holstered gun.

“Get on the floor!” he commanded.

“I thought—-” began Hank, gesticulating with the hammer, but he suddenly changed his mind about explaining what he thought.

A few minutes later Hank lay prostrate, arms cuffed behind him. He told what he knew, between gasps, to a different officer who was not listening. The other officer’s footsteps echoed as the man ran downstairs, then upstairs, all while Hank lay staring at his mighty weapon, the rusted hammer, which had taken on a devious look now. A hammer is the weapon of a desperate man, he admitted to himself. But how had she not been here? He had been sure. Where was Boots? When did these shorts get so tight?

“Would you let me know if you see my cat?” He yelled to the officer.

Later, as a friendly young EMT blotted the minor cuts on Hank’s stomach, Hank took stock of the situation. There clearly had been no one in this house. No one but him. He had no evidence of seeing the girl, had not recorded the live stream from Boots. The police found him bloody, wielding a hammer, practically naked and alone. Things did not appear promising.

In the subsequent police station interview, it became immediately clear that officers already knew him. In this small town the tragedy of his wife and child had become well-known, and as this was his third run-in with the police this year, a consensus hung like an albatross about him: grief had driven him over the edge.

The first two run-ins were the natural result, he conceded, of a man who had ceased caring. In January, a police officer found him nude in the street, staring up into a sky of falling snow. He had only wanted to watch the flakes swirling down. His nudity was just a coincidence. He was always naked, well, almost, he told the grimacing detective who was interviewing him. And then of course he’d been spotted retrieving his mail from the end of his driveway while naked. The children in the house across the street had seen him doing so many times, and so he was warned that indecent exposure charges could be brought.

The problem was that it sometimes took Hank hours just to work up the ambition to get a Yoo-hoo from the fridge. He did not possess the fortitude required to dress anymore. He had to manage his dwindling ambition carefully. He could not be bothered with meaningless facades such as clothing.