Foot Soldiers

by Steven Sheffield Cooke

 

Pede snuggled in the warm hamper, wishing he could remain here forever. This was what it was all about. The only thing better was the crisp sparkly feeling that energized him when he emerged from the dryer. At times like these, Pede knew he had a special purpose; he just hadn’t found out what it was.

Light flooded the hamper. Washday had arrived. Pede was tossed into a cool metal tub reeking of stale soap and hard water. Bunched next to him was a sweaty old tee shirt. Pede didn’t mind; he was already dozing off. A stream of cold blue liquid ended the nap. The lid slammed shut, letting the darkness loose. Quarters jangled into the machine. Hot water flooded the tub, creeping up the sides until everybody was soaked. Even this wasn’t enough to keep Pede awake for long. He drifted off with the warm memory of comfy hampers.

*****

Pede awoke a while later. He felt different. The familiar bumping and clanging noises were there, but they were coming from other machines, not his. His weekly bath had been interrupted before, but never quite like this. He was no longer wet. Something had gone wrong. He was pressed against a hard wall, unable to move. That was unusual in itself. Up to this point, Pede had never had any desire or ability to move about on his own. Why was he suddenly thinking about things like this?

The motion of his machine stopped. Pede fell away from the wall and joined some of his hampermates in a loose tumble on the bottom of the machine. The tee shirt was nowhere to be seen. A small hatch near the top creaked open and the toe-piece of an unfamiliar sock poked through. Pede had never seen this hatch before. Every other time he had been in a tub, he had always entered and left through the big opening on top.

Suddenly, Pede felt a tug and found himself being drawn toward this new portal. Several of his drawer-buddies were going with him. None of them looked like they were enjoying this either. As he reached the hatch, Pede was sucked through, only to start sliding down a long dark tube. When he reached the end, he found himself in a pile with scores and scores of other socks. All of them were strangers. How long had he been asleep?

Once the pile leveled out, Pede noticed he was in a narrow hallway that led off in two directions. Up and down the curving corridor, socks were stuck near the walls, heel-to-heel and toe-to-toe. There were many styles: arrogant dress socks, colorful knits, and pedantic grays. Off to the left side was an old cotton relic with ancient darning scars and unpatched holes. He was only one of many heavy-duty sports socks with dual color stripes.

Pede looked for his mate. They had gotten separated during a routine wash load almost two months ago. Recently, Pede’s life had been a cycle back and forth between the warm hamper and the wash cycle. He was getting plenty of rest, but he longed for his mate. He also missed those trips outside. Besides that, he was getting out of shape—a few more washings and he would be too shriveled and distorted to serve his regular function.

“Hey, does anybody know where we are?” The question came from an argyle with yellow diamonds. Similar questions echoed up and down the line.

“I remember being in the washer.”

“Yeah, what about that hatch?”

“Who took us out?”

“Why are we here?”

Pede listened to the exchange without adding his own questions. Nobody seemed to be getting any answers. This activity amazed Pede when he stopped to think about it. He could not remember trying to communicate with other articles of clothing before. He’d been aware of their presence of course, but had never had any reason or inclination to try and talk with them. He found this exciting. He wanted to join in, but could not think of anything important enough to say. All of the good questions had already been asked. Pede listened intently, but soon started to doze off again.

*****

After a time, the sounds of activity came from around a bend in the corridor. A small parade of olive green military socks stomped into sight.

“Attention troops! Everybody listen! We all need to assemble at Main Base as soon as possible. We don’t have much time. Everybody form into ranks of twelve and follow us. Come on! Double-time it!”

The military types turned smartly and tramped off. Pede looked at the others as they formed rough ranks by the dozen and hustled to follow. Everyone was too surprised to talk. Pede was too startled by this turn of events to notice he was moving around on his own for the first time. By the time this sunk in, he was hustling to keep up with the tide of marching socks hustling down the corridor.

Mechanical sounds banged and clanged around them as they made their way. At one point they tromped through a rough hole in the wall. After that, the walls became narrower and dirtier. The flooring sloped upwards in a lazy spiral. The novelty of moving about quickly became boredom as the marching went on, and on, and on. Then they came upon a large door and were forced to stop. They had arrived, but where?

A green light came on, accompanied by a soft buzzer. The door slid quietly upward, allowing several squads through before the door started to close.

After a brief period of semi-darkness, another door opened and the socks trooped into a meeting area. As the socks moved forward, it was obvious their squad was just one of many new arrivals. They filed down ramps and chutes, emerging on the floor of a huge hall. Hundreds upon hundreds of loose socks were crammed seam-to-seam in long ragged rows. Everyone shuffled together until it seemed the room would burst.

Background conversations swelled as they tried out their new voices. Nobody seemed to know what was going on, but that didn’t stop everyone from trying to find out what someone else knew.

The electronic squeal of microphone feedback brought a wave of silence over the group. All attention was now focused on a raised dais. A grayish-green sock, heavily bedecked with gold braid, was moving toward a small lectern in the precise center.

“Attention! Your attention please! I know you’re all wondering why you’re here. You have been recruited to help us overcome the entrenched positions of our invading enemy. I shouldn’t have to remind everyone about the socknapping, torture, and mutilation that have plagued our kind. Who among you has not lost a mate or buddy recently? This is all because of the evil efforts of the Seersucking Sock Slavers. We cannot waver from this mission. You will be divided into squads and issued orders on the way to your battle zones. Good luck!” The packed room exploded into bedlam. Shouts of “What enemy?” and “Why us?” echoed amongst a myriad of others. Everyone was trying to find out what was going on from others more ignorant than themselves.

Doors banged open. They were pushed back up the ramps. There was a series of circular metal conveyances lined up along the rampways. They looked like they could barely hold a dozen socks apiece.

As soon as each container was filled, it was whisked quickly upward on some kind of cable. Pede was crowded into a bin with a dozen other tube socks, a couple of argyles, and a pea-green heavy-duty sock with a sergeant’s insignia neatly stitched along one side. Most socks were paired up with their mates. Pede was one of the few mate-less socks in the squad.

No conversation was possible when the ship was jumbled and shaken and raised into the air. The roaring motion seemed to go on forever. When the silence returned, it had a sound of its own.

“Okay, troops, listen up!” The sergeant took advantage of the silence to take control. “We only have a few minutes until the drop-off point, so listen closely. I can only do this once. I’m sorry we didn’t have time to train you, but the enemy offensive is already underway. We have to stop them before it’s too late. We will be dropped behind their lines to create whatever diversions we can. Central Control has asked us to locate their communication and power centers. We have to inflict as much damage as possible.”

A red light winked on. “We’re there, get ready.”

“Wait,” asked one of the argyles, “how do we get to the battlefield?”

“You gotta be kidding,” laughed the sergeant. “Just spread your wings.” A buzzer sounded and their transport turned upside down.

They fluttered wildly for a moment as a barren landscape of whites and tans rushed at them. The sergeant bellowed his instructions, trying to explain how to control their descent. When Pede thought he understood the general idea, he tried it. He usually caught onto things pretty fast. He had to this time; those that didn’t, dropped from the class in a hurry.

By flaring the wide edges of his opening, while keeping the rest of himself rigid, Pede was able to capture the rushing air, slowing his fall and giving himself some control as he ballooned downward. Others were not as lucky. A green-and-yellow-banded sock had a large toe-hole. The wind whistled right through, letting him plummet in an uncontrollable shriek. A brown dress sock held himself too rigid. He inverted, turning outside-in. A couple of others had minor mishaps that sent them spinning toward the patchwork of colors below.

As Pede ballooned downward, he tried to view the area. He’d never heard of a Seersucker Sock Slaver before, but they sounded pretty awful. He wanted to avoid contact with them if possible.

The bulk of the group landed safely in a dirty spot behind some large white buildings. A red-and-blue-banded guy blew off course and landed in a patch of wires. He was badly torn as he fell through. He landed in a patch of running water, which carried him to a drain hole where he was sucked away. Another hapless sock blew into one of the buildings. He lost his wind and fluttered straight into the ground.

The sergeant signaled for a medic. A pair of red-and-white socks rushed up with a small hamper. They piled the victim in and sprinted off.

“C’mon, let’s move it!” the sergeant bellowed. “Get your threads in motion, NOW!”

As the troops rallied around the sergeant, the chanted melody of a marching song drifted through the still air, “Over heel! Over toe! Marching proudly as we go! With those dryers, spinning, around…”

Pede’s squad followed the sergeant past the first white building. Everyone kept up the pace. After a brief pause, a distant booming sound caused the sergeant to spin around. He signaled for everyone to flatten out.

“Incoming! Hit the dirt!” Most troops followed his lead, but a few confused socks stayed upright, twisting around to look.

Moments later, a whistling sound pierced the quiet. A puffy white ball impacted on one of the upright socks. He was instantly covered in sticky threads. “Lint traps! Everybody run for it!”

The squad was up and moving fast. The extra incentive given by watching the lint-covered sock get plastered to the pavement was enough to keep them going hard.

They scattered in all directions. Some charged straight ahead. Others diverted along a wall. Another group headed toward a wooden section. Pede was with a couple of guys that squeezed into a gap between the white buildings. They were the lucky ones.

The running group went through a patch of debris that must have contained a hidden switch of some kind. Strands of thick wire were suddenly springing into their path. At strategic points along the wire, briars were carefully affixed. The group stumbled into these snags before they could stop. Not a single sock in that group escaped the ambush.

The troops heading the other way ran into a section of puddled water where dust bunnies wallowed in slime. Suddenly, they were pulled through the air, directly into a series of parallel metallic strips. “Static!” screamed the sergeant. The rest of his group joined him on the wall. They were stuck like they had been glued there. The retreating group also ran into trouble. When they got under the wooden platform, small snake-like tendrils dropped down and snapped onto the fleeing socks. “Garters!” cursed one of the older argyles, like he’d seen their kind before. The garters made fast work of snapping up the scrambling socks. When they were done, the unlucky prisoners dangled limply.

Pede had paused to watch the progress of the other groups.

When the last one had been captured, he moved to follow the other two socks that had moved to the far side of the white building. They moved around the corner. Their screams halted Pede in his tracks. He took off in the other direction, not pausing to see what he’d missed. He had no interest in meeting his Seersucking enemy.

Running blindly, Pede started to realize how alone he really was. He was cut off from the sight of any friendly forces, probably far behind the enemy’s lines. Pede found himself approaching another bank of white buildings. This group featured a large circular window in the front of each one. He stretched out in the cool shadows underneath the window of the last building on the block and tried to figure out a plan.

A short while later, Pede heard, but from his slumped position could not see, an enemy commander giving orders. “Okay soldiers, this power outpost is the main source of energy for the local defense grid. It provides the power for our entire wing. I don’t have to stress how important it is to protect it from those darned socks.”

Pede could not believe his luck. Of all the places to blindly wander, he had stumbled upon this. He took time to think. He shouldn’t waste this opportunity. He couldn’t return to his lines. Right now, he wasn’t even sure which way the lines were. He needed help. He looked around at the area, trying to see enough detail so he could find it when he returned. The row of buildings with the circular-glass windows was the best landmark he could see.

As Pede was surveying the landscape, the sounds of a nearby battle intruded. Pede went racing around a corner and saw a group of socks trapped in a shallow depression. He ducked down and headed toward them.

He cleared a small ridge and found a dozen socks trapped in a narrow gully. From a shoebox outpost, a squad of the enemy was bombarding their position with lint bombs. Static lines cut off both flanks.

It was his first glance at the enemy. From this distance, he could not see them too well. All he got was a brief impression of small, round metallic bodies, with sharp barbs and edged surfaces. They had a captured sock out at the edge of the shoebox and were ripping parts of it to shreds in an attempt to get the other socks to surrender. Pede ducked back and circled the hill.

When he arrived behind the shoebox outpost, Pede found a loose scrap of metal and used it to short out the static lines. The resulting discharge blew him heel over toe. When he regained his sense of direction, the shoebox was a smoking ruin. The socks that had been trapped were cautiously looking up to see what had happened.

Pede called out to them, “C’mon guys, move it! They’ll have reinforcements headed this way. Stretch your seams, NOW!”

They all tried to out-yell each other as they raced up, gushing thanks.

Embarrassed by this attention, Pede calmed them down. He looked at the torn remains of the sock that had been tortured by the enemy. He couldn’t let that happen to any more socks. “There’s no time left. I found something that seems important to them. Let’s go destroy it.”

Pede outlined a simple plan; all he had time for under the circumstances. He moved his ragtag platoon over to the thick grey cable of a power conduit.

Several of the socks volunteered to let themselves be seen, luring off the guards. Pede went to work on the cable. As the balance of his platoon engaged the enemy, he worked the plug-end loose from its receptacle, and then faded back, waiting to see what this would accomplish.

Within a short time, an elite group of green socks ’chuted down from the skies. With them was a heavily decorated Field Marshall. With their help, they quickly finished off the last of the Seersuckers. Once their high-tech weapons lost their power, they were surprisingly easy to dispose of.

At this point, the Field Marshall addressed the ragged bunch of socks Pede was with, “Who’s in charge of this unit?”

Pede spoke up, “I think I am, sir.”

“You caused all this destruction?”

“Destruction, sir? I don’t understand. I heard this area was important to the enemy, so we disconnected the power cable. It seemed like the right thing to do.”

“So, you don’t even realize what you’ve done?”

“No, sir, I don’t.”

“Trooper, what is your rank?”

“Sir, I was just recruited. I’m not even sure if I have a rank.”

“Who gave you the authority to proceed like this?”

“Nobody, really. My sergeant had ordered us to harass the enemy as much as possible, but he was captured before we got too far. Did we do wrong?”

“On the contrary, this power station was fueling the enemy’s weapons for this entire sector. We’ve been trying to find it since their invasion began. Hundreds of your brothers have perished or been captured since the battle began. Our High

Command was almost ready to start negotiations for surrender, when suddenly, a short while ago, all of the heavy artillery facing us stopped firing. We now have those Seersucking Slavers in a full rout. You have done a great service to the United Brotherhood of Socks.”

The return trip to the headquarters area was filled with a series of detailed explanations. The trip passed quickly. Rumors circulated about the wild battles still occurring on the other fronts, but the enemy was not winning anywhere, from the sound of the reports.

When they arrived at the assembly area, they were ushered into sick bay. Starched white medical socks steamed off their dirt, darned their snags, and removed their burrs. When they had been fixed up and were resting, a load of badly mistreated socks was brought through the entry. They were stained and soiled, some had bad snags and others were almost ripped in half. The scuttlebutt going around was that the crews still out fighting had found a prisoner camp and liberated them. It did not look like some of them were going to ever cover a foot again.

Later, Pede was led down a long hallway, emerging through a wide doorway. It looked like every sock in creation was laid out in neat rows beneath him. Pede was sobered slightly as he noticed how empty the back rows were. Before the action had begun, this room had been crammed to capacity.

Pede was promoted to Unit Commander. His squad all received special commissions. For Pede, the high point of the ceremony came when his mate was trundled out on a support gurney. He was all stretched out and limp, but Pede had faith everything was going to turn out for the best. He was part of a pair again; happy until he thought of all the mate-less socks still out there.

As they were transported back to the areas where they had been recruited from, Pede was besieged with questions. It took a while, but he grew tired of retelling the same story.

*****

Pede awoke with a dizzy feeling. He was tumbling around with other cotton and polyester items. He had a flash of fear. Were they being attacked again? Then, he recognized the familiar feel of the dryer. He was home. He was unable to move or speak. Things were back to normal. Oh well, it had been interesting while it had lasted. The only thing he was going to miss was the ability to communicate with others.

Pede started to doze off again, when he noticed a sparkling object. A bright medal with the word “Valor” embossed across its top was clipped neatly to his fibers. Pede dozed off into a happy dream.

 

Sinon

by David Downey

 

“Why did you want to come here?”

“Just wanted to check it out before they make it illegal,” answered Vic. “It’s only a matter of time.”

I leaned in close and whispered, “Shit, you’re not actually thinking of trying it, are you?”

“I’ll play it by ear.”

“You don’t ‘play Syn by ear’. That shit changes you! And after just one dose. Look around you.”

It was easy to pick out the Synners at the bar. They were sitting (they always sat, if not in chairs, then on the floor), staring at nothing. They were often mouthing words to themselves. I’ve seen them sometimes laugh for no reason, and occasionally cry for no reason. But once you approached them, they sparked to life, immediately breaking out of their stupor and engaging you with a smile. I’d never met a mean Synner.

And this was where all the Synners in town hung out: at the local Pepper’s. The chain bar and grill wasn’t as classy as Vermillions, but wasn’t a dive like Max’s (where Vic and I frequented).

“Got a special today,” the smiling bartender announced as he appeared across from us. “Free Syn with a drink.”

“Any drink?” asked Vic.

“Dude, you don’t want to get Syn from a bar.”

“There’s no such thing as bad Syn,” the bartender said evenly.

“It’s all bad,” I muttered.

“I’ll take it with a vodka tonic.”

“What vodka?”

“Well will do.”

“Tell you what: I’ll pour you a Sidorov Elite at the same price.”

Vic brightened. “Thanks!”

The bartender turned to me. “Same thing?”

“Nah, I’ll take a whisky on the rocks. No Syn.”

The bartender didn’t offer to upgrade my drink.

Plopping both of our tumblers down on the bar, the bartender unclenched his ring and pinky fingers about Vic’s drink, letting a tiny white pill tumble onto the red cocktail napkin beneath.

Vic plucked it up and held it between us. It looked like a grain of uncooked rice, only fatter. It had no seams or markings; it was perfectly plain.

“You want to check it out before I pop it?”

“Hell, no.” I was paranoid that if I touched it, some of it may rub off on me and get absorbed through my skin, like LSD. Then it occurred to me that the bartender could’ve laced my drink with Syn. I swirled the tumbler in my hand, futilely trying to discern a tiny white tablet amid the dark whisky and glistening ice. I ended up spilling some. Drying my fingers on my napkin, I asked Vic, “You really going to do this?”

“You should do it with me.”

“Nah, one of us needs to stay sane to look after the other.”

“No one’s ever overdosed or died from Syn.”

I resisted the urge to tell the bartender to shut the fuck up.

We clinked our glasses. “‘Long live the new flesh’,” Vic toasted. (Knowing Vic, the phrase must’ve come from some horror movie.)

Vic popped the pill in his mouth and swallowed it with a gulp of vodka tonic.

I brought the whisky to my mouth, but didn’t take a sip. I tried hard not to lick my lips.

Vic’s eyes grew wide, his jaw fell slack. Then the edges of his lips curled, forming an open-mouth smile. His arms fell lax to his sides.

“No, hold on to the bar,” the bartender instructed.

I put an arm around him to make sure he didn’t topple from his bar stool. “Shit, you’re already feeling it? What’s it like?”

“Oh my god, it’s like— Everyone… from everywhere, shit! It’s really hard to concentrate on words. Hard to talk…”

“Alright, I’ll let you enjoy your high. Is it okay if I let go of you? You won’t fall over, right?”

Vic nodded, his eyes now closed, his mouth an intense grin, his hands latched onto the edge of the bar.

After I was sure Vic was okay on his own, I hopped off my stool. Making my way to the bathroom, I thoroughly wiped my mouth on my sleeve. I locked myself in the bathroom’s only stall. Planting my foot on the toilet seat, I hiked up my pant leg and fished out my flask from my sock. Unscrewing its cap, I took a stinging swig. It was my turn to smile.

*****

I thankfully woke up still a little drunk, instead of hungover. Sober up or continue the buzz? I asked myself as I rolled out of bed. I’ll let the day decide!

Tasting the familiar tang of stale booze in my mouth, it was obvious I didn’t brush my teeth before crashing last night. Time to remedy that, I thought, as I walked out of my bedroom and down the hallway.

After taking my wakeup piss, I leaned over the bathroom sink and looked at my reflection in the mirror to survey the damage. My goatee and long sideburns were now in a shallow sea of stubble. Acceptable, I judged. I’ll shave later. My brown eyes were slightly bloodshot. Normal. My hair was a disaster. Normally groomed into a pompadour, the front looked like a wooly brown turd, pinched off at the right. Douse my hair and style it? Nah, I’ll baseball cap it for now, and deal with it proper when I take a shower later.

After brushing my teeth, rubbing on some deodorant, slapping on jeans and a Generics concert tee, shoving my flask in my sock, grabbing my phone (which I was surprised and grateful that I had the presence of mind last night to plug into its charger before passing out) and donning the all-important hat, I was ready to face the ’rents.

As usual, Dad was in his recliner in the living room watching TV, while Mom was busy in the kitchen. “Good morning, Durant,” she greeted.

“‘Morning, Mom,” I said, as I made my way to the fridge to grab some orange juice.

“I just made some breakfast for your dad and me,” she said, gesturing to the strips of bacon sitting on the paper towel-lined plate. “I can cook you some eggs.”

The thought of eggs made me slightly nauseous. “No thanks, Mom.” Even though the OJ tasted sour from my just brushed teeth, I guzzled down an entire glass and poured another.

“You’re too skinny, Durant. You need to eat more.”

Mom was right: I was, by far, the skinniest in the family.

On the opposite end of our family’s weight spectrum was Dad. While some men drank, smoked, or gambled, my dad’s addiction was eating. When Mom would ask how a business trip went, he’d list the Michelin-starred restaurants he dined at and describe each decadent meal in lavish detail. And his light features—a blond crewcut, light blue eyes, and pale complexion—made him look bigger still. (I’d often describe my dad as the whitest person I knew. Vic once joked, “He’s so white, he’s pink!”) Alarmingly, the stress of financing my older brother’s law degree at the University of Southern California had fueled his addiction, adding to his weight. He was now the most rotund I’d ever seen him.

My brother, David (“Don’t call me Dave”), was definitely his father’s son: same blue eyes, fair skin, but with dirtier blond hair. Though he was easily the second largest in our family, he was not fat like Dad. He sported a sturdy build, which served him well when he played center and defensive end in high school. Yet it was not hard to imagine his stockiness bloating into Dad-like obesity in twenty years’ time.

While Mom was the shortest of all of us, I suspected I still weighed less than her. Though she was petite, she had an ample bust and curvy hips. (I punched Vic in the arm whenever he referred to her as a MILF.) While David was built from my dad’s mold, I most resembled Mom: we shared the same thick brown hair and dark eyes.

And then there was skinny, dark featured me. (Vic relished calling me “ethnic” though my family was as white as they came.) I was so slim because I hardly ever ate. Not because I was on a diet or anything. When I woke, I was usually too nauseous from my hangover to eat. When I began feeling better in the late afternoon, I’d begin drinking again, the empty calories killing my appetite. Hence, my only food would inevitably be the greasy hamburgers or tacos I’d grab on the way home from the bars after last call.

“So what did you do last night?” my mom asked.

“The usual: Hung out with Vic,” I volunteered, as I nibbled on some bacon. What I didn’t volunteer was that after I got bored hanging around Vic’s Synned ass (and more importantly, after I drained my flask), I left him and went barhopping. I vaguely remembered returning to Pepper’s to check up on him on my way home, but he wasn’t there. In a jolt, I checked my phone. I had sent him five texts last night. He didn’t respond to a single one. Fucker, I thought as I slipped my phone back in my pocket.

“I hope you and Vic aren’t experimenting with that Syn drug,” said my mom, as if she was reading my mind. “Please promise me you’ll never take it.”

Before I could come up with a comforting answer, my dad barked from the living room, “How’s the job search going?”

“No one’s hiring during Memorial Day weekend. I’ll hit it once the three-day is over.”

I heard him grunt his disgust.

My last job was floor man and occasional cashier at French’s Electronics. But they fired me a month ago for taking too many sick days. (I really wasn’t lying all the times I called in sick. I was truly physically ill, throwing up from drinking too much the night before.) Since then, I’d been casually looking for another gig while collecting unemployment.

But besides the occasional snide inquiry, my dad didn’t push me to get a job. And though he made it obvious he’d prefer I move out, he didn’t push me on that front either. He never pushed me to do anything.

But he pushed David to play football in high school like his old man. He pushed David to go to college. And he pushed David to go to law school.

In short, my father never hid the fact that he loved David more than me.

“That reminds me,” said Mom. “David will be spending the three-day weekend with us. He should get here sometime this afternoon. So I’m making a big steak dinner for all of us. Please be here around five.”

Ah, the favored brother returns. The day has indeed decided for me. Getting drunk it is! “Okay, Mom,” I assured her, as I kissed her on the cheek, before heading out.

“God damn it! ESPN’s off the air!” was the last thing I heard before I shut the door behind me.

*****

Swinging open the door to Pepper’s, I walked into a wall of wet sour air. Gross. This place smells like a locker room. Why isn’t the AC on?

And why aren’t the lights on? The only illumination in the bar and grill was the noon sun beaming through the windows’ slatted blinds.

Peeking into the dining room, I noticed it was mostly empty. At the few tables that were occupied, the diners sat upright in their booths, not talking to one another, with no food in front of them.

The bar was far more crowded, but just as sedate. Every seat around the bar was taken, but except for the occasional burst of laughter or heaving sob, the patrons sat silent. None of them had drinks. The surrounding, dauntingly tall, cocktail tables were mostly vacant, the Synners opting to sit on the ground instead, their backs propped against the reassuring wall.

How can Pepper’s operate like this? I wondered as I squeezed in between two “customers” at the bar. Wouldn’t corporate shut this franchise down?

As I looked around for the bartender, I recognized some of the same people here from last night. None of them had changed their clothes.

“How are you doing, buddy?” said Vic, seemingly materializing next to me. He was likewise wearing the same red t-shirt and black jeans from when I last saw him.

“Dude, where the fuck have you been? I texted you a hundred times!”

“Sorry, I’ve been busy.”

“Busy doing what?”

“Busy. Busy, uh, meeting people. Yeah, meeting people.”

“You’re still tripping, aren’t you?”

As an answer, he gave me a creepy toothy Syn smile. “Do you want to try it?”

“Fuck, no! I came here to check up on you. After I get a drink, I’m out of here.”

Vic trotted to the opposite side of the bar. “Cool. What do you want?”

“Shit, what are you doing? Get out of there before you get in trouble.”

“Nah, it’s okay,” assured a thirtyish woman slumped against the wall. Judging from her black slacks, white polo shirt, and pepper green suspenders, she was Pepper’s bartender.

“I’ll have a beer.”

Vic grabbed a bottle of Graf (which he knew was my favorite premium beer) from behind the counter, but before I could stop him, he opened it for me.

“Where’s your drink?” I asked, staring at the open bottle.

“I’m good,” he said, with a grin that seemed to extend beyond the confines of his face.

After bringing the beer to my lips, but not taking a sip, I excused myself.

On the way to the bathroom, I was puzzled that I couldn’t access Twitter on my phone, even though I had five full bars of reception.

In the stall, I placed my foot on the toilet seat to retrieve my flask. Even before unscrewing its top, I could tell it was empty. In my haste to leave the house to get drunk at the news of my brother’s visit, I had forgotten to refill it.

“Fuck!” I cursed.

*****

I left Vic in that stinky Syn den to get drunk at Max’s. But there were even some damned Synners hanging out there too, sitting on the filthy floor around the pool table.

Too wary to drink from an open container (fearful that the bartender would lace my booze with Syn), I stuck with canned and bottled beers. But frustratingly, I couldn’t get drunk. (“I drink beer to sober up!” had been one of my favorite boasts.) By the time I came up with the idea of buying a pint of whisky from the 24-7 convenience store down the street, it was already 4:47pm. Time to meet my perfect brother, I dejectedly thought, as I slid off the bar stool.

Arriving home, I grimaced as I walked past David’s beat up Chevy Dash (sporting more dents than I remembered) in the driveway. Opening the front door, I consoled myself that I at least had a steak dinner to look forward to.

But there was no sound of sizzling steaks inside. No excited conversations about David taking the bar exam. No TV blaring sports highlights (and no Dad sitting in his living room recliner). I was met with utter quiet.

Mom, Dad, and my brother were sitting serenely at the kitchen table. In unison, they all turned to me and smiled.

“Oh fuck,” I heard myself groan.

“Oh, Durant, you’re home,” spoke my mom, as though she was concentrating on every word. She unsteadily tried to stand, then thinking better of it, sat back down. “Your brother is here.” She deliberately gestured to David.

“Mom, you told me not to take Syn!” I accused, my voice cracking.

“Well, David said all of his professors assured him that Syn was safe. Who are we to argue with the experts?”

I was angry and hurt. Angry because, by taking Syn, I felt my family had betrayed me. And hurt, because I knew Mom and Dad would never have taken Syn if I asked them. But since their favored son asked them…

“You should join us and take it, son.”

I couldn’t remember the last time my dad lovingly called me “son”.

“Uh, maybe later. Listen, I need to check on something in my bedroom.”

I could feel their stares follow me as I ducked into the hallway.

I knew my sleeping bag was on the top shelf in my closet. But I struggled to remember where the rest of the camping gear was.

In my parent’s bedroom, I delicately shut the door behind me. From the dresser, I swiped the keys to their station wagon. I then lifted and moved my mother’s jewelry box, revealing the wad of cash hiding underneath. Shucking off a few bills, I silently promised my mom that this would be the last time I’d ever do this.

*****

A gallon of water. A plastic 1.75 mL jug of Old Timey whisky. (I couldn’t afford Thomas Jackson.) Six days times three meals equals 18 cans of spaghetti and soup, I thought as I tallied the items in my shopping baskets. And I’ll grab a hot dog and a burrito at the counter for today’s meal.

I hefted the baskets up onto the checkout counter.

Noticing the pepper spray display next to the cash register, I swiped one up and dumped it in a basket. Then for good measure, I grabbed another.

The 24-7 clerk mechanically stood up from her stool and greeted me with a grin. “Do you need anything else?” she asked, gesturing to a saucer dotted with tabs of Syn, sitting next to the penny cup.

“Er, no thank you.”

“It’s free.”

“No thanks. Just bag my items and ring me up, please.”

“Vic, Natalie, Paul, and David have tried it. Why won’t you try it?”

“What?”

“Your best friend, your parents, and your brother—”

I slapped $40 on the counter and grabbed my baskets. “I hope that covers everything. I promise to return the baskets,” I said before fleeing the convenience store.

*****

It used to be a stupid hypothetical question: Where would you retreat to during a Zombie Apocalypse. Vic and I had agreed we would fall back to Max’s. With no windows and only a single door, the bar was easily defendable. It was chock full of makeshift weapons: broken bottles, pool balls and sticks, and probably a gun near the register. And most importantly, we’d toast, there must be at least a year’s supply of booze there.

But Max’s was now probably just as overrun with Synners as Pepper’s.

So I found myself driving down the highway back to the town of Mason. I had lived in Mason for most of my life. I grew up with the same group of friends through elementary, middle, and the beginning of high school. But after my junior year, we moved from Mason to a smaller home in an older neighborhood. Dad claimed we no longer needed such a large house with David, and eventually me, moving out. But I knew the real reason: my parents needed the money for David’s tuition. I was uprooted before my senior year at Mason High (and thus, denied graduating with my lifelong friends) so that David could go to USC.

During my final years at Mason, my friends and I would regularly go to The Pipe to drink and smoke pot. (Actually, my friends smoked. I stuck with drinking; weed made me paranoid.) The Pipe was an actual cement pipe, as big around as a car tire, partially sunk into the earth, which served conveniently as a bench. It was located in a clearing deep in the woods next to Mason. How it got there had been the center of much drunk and stoned debate.

And so I was retreating to The Pipe during the Zombie Apocalypse.

Actually, Synners were not zombies, I had to admit. Synners weren’t violent. Quite the opposite, they were excruciatingly docile. Driving down the traffic-free highway, I had noticed several cars randomly parked on the side of the road, the passengers serenely sitting on the gravel shoulder. And now driving through the Mason suburb, I saw several families lying haphazard on their front lawns.

I parked at the end of a cul-de-sac, grateful that the woods hugging it were still there, that the area hadn’t been developed into more tract homes. The Pipe lay roughly a mile beyond.

Opening the trunk of the station wagon, I slipped on the bulky camping backpack. This is going to be a bitch, I thought as I grabbed hold of the heavy baskets laden with eighteen cans of food and two gallons of water and whisky. The forested trail to The Pipe involved following a winding creek to find a shallow spot to cross, as well as cutting the corner of a bordering tilled field. (Though I never encountered him myself, I heard tales of the farmer sometimes shooting at trespassers. But walking along the field’s perimeter nearly doubled the distance to The Pipe.)

I put the baskets back down, broke open the jug of Old Timey, and took a long swig.

That’ll fractionally lighten the load, I thought.

*****

An hour later, I finally arrived at The Pipe.

I laid the baskets down on the leaves and pine needles carpeting the clearing, my bare arms crisscrossed with scratches from the branches and thicket that lined the trail. Sitting on the concrete pipe, I shimmied out of the backpack, letting it tumble to the ground behind me. I shivered as a light gust of wind cooled the sweat soaking the back of my shirt.

Tired and hungry, I decided to make camp after eating and getting thoroughly drunk. It would be easy enough; all I needed to do was unroll my sleeping bag. On the hike over, I had realized it probably wasn’t a good idea to pitch my bright yellow tent. Tomorrow, I’d go back into town and buy a camouflage-colored tent. And if things really devolved to hell, I might even try to score a gun (though I never fired one in my entire life).

Grabbing the gallon container of water, I was surprised at how much my arms were trembling, still exhausted from lugging the two heavy baskets down the meandering mile-long path. I took three swallows and replaced the cap. I then fetched the jug of whisky and placed it on the earth between my feet, at the ready. I then randomly picked one of the eighteen pop-top cans as my dinner.

Sitting in the basket, under the can of ravioli I just removed, was an unmistakable tablet of Syn.

Shit, I didn’t even see the 24-7 clerk slip that in the basket! I stared at the pill for a long time, before delicately plucking it up and placing it atop my unopened can of pasta. OK, if I’m going to try Syn, this would be the best possible opportunity. I’m alone in the woods, so I can trip without anyone messing with me. Rummaging through the baskets, I found two more tabs. I chucked them deep into the forest. I’ll only take one, trip, and sleep it off. Then tomorrow, when I’m back to normal, I’ll decide if I want to join the Synners back in town or stay holed up in the woods.

I unscrewed the jug of Old Timey at my feet.

I then scooped up the Syn and popped it in my mouth.

Before I could bring the whisky to my lips, the tablet dissolved against the roof of my mouth. Starting at my forehead, the feeling of fingernails raked my scalp. Upon reaching the back of my neck, the fingernails transformed into a slab of ice, sliding down my back, freezing my vertebrae one by one. The plastic jug fell from my hands, hitting the dirt with a splash.

Upon reaching the base of my spine, the sensation of ice melted away. Then I started thinking funny.

The farmer of the nearby field, Sid is his name, isn’t angry that I cut across his land.

Fatima, the 24-7 cashier, is pleased that I tried the Syn she placed in my basket.

Welcome to the New Flesh, buddy, I feel Vic impart.

I topple backward off the pipe, landing next to my backpack. Comfortably splayed on the ground, with one leg still propped up on the pipe, I don’t bother getting back up.

It’s the strangest sensation. None of my senses are affected. Only my thinking is jacked.

Am I imagining all of this? I ask myself.

No, it is real, I feel Fatima, the convenience store clerk, respond. How else could I know your family and friend by name?

My thoughts drift to Mom, Dad, and my bro. They’re all still sitting around the kitchen table back home.

I am shocked to learn that David was an accident, conceived when Dad was a senior and Mom was a sophomore in high school, at a drunken house party. When she announced she was pregnant, both families corralled Dad to do the right thing and marry her. He resented the marriage and having a kid, believing they derailed his chances of playing pro ball. (After taking Syn, Dad finally admitted to himself that he probably wasn’t good enough to even earn a football scholarship.) Feeling he was missing out on a college life of drinking, partying, and fucking, he insisted on an open marriage. For the sake of their newborn son and their marriage, Mom reluctantly agreed. However, to his chagrin, he only managed to bed a couple of women, while she gained several lovers. (We all chuckle at his folly. Even Dad laughs.) It was during this time Mom became pregnant with me.

That’s why Dad treated me like shit all throughout my life. He suspected I wasn’t his.

I feel my dad’s shame. And his love for me.

They all want me to come home.

And I want to go home and be with them.

Getting back on my feet, I’m surprised I’m crying.

I distantly know I should eat, that I’m starving. But I want so badly to get home. Plus, it’s getting late. I check the time on my phone. It’s 7:09. Surprised I’m getting a few bars of reception out here, I decide to check my social networking apps, though I already know what to expect. Sure enough, they’re all down. What’s the point of communicating through clunky words and fleeting photos, when we’re all joined through our thoughts?

I see the steaks thawing in the kitchen sink through my mom’s eyes. I’ll try to cook these by the time you get home.

Thanks, Mom.

I survey my pathetic little camp, to see if I should take anything for the trek back. The jug of Old Timey is laying on its side, a third of the whisky still in the bottle. The notion of drinking, of getting drunk, disgusts me. Dulling this divine experience, this blissful state of connectedness, strikes me as an abomination. So with just the gallon of water, I leave The Pipe.

I can now see why ESPN was one of the first stations to go off the air. I can’t comprehend covering a receiver, dribbling a basketball, or kicking a soccer ball down a field under Syn. Even the simple act of hiking is difficult. I have to concentrate on every step. It’s so easy to get lost in the swirls of other people’s memories, emotions, and hopes. But hike I must: I forgot to pack a flashlight, so I’m racing the setting sun to my car.

How did this miraculous drug come about? I wonder.

I see visions of fist-sized bundles, wrapped in red, green, or blue cellophane, tied shut with black ribbon. The elaborately packaged samples of Syn began appearing a year and a half ago in busses, taxis, and motorized rickshaws all over the world. The first people to try it were the truly desperate: the poor (thinking it was an allotment of rice) and drug addicts.

A young black woman, with a wide yet pleasing face, wearing a garish blonde wig, appears in my mind. (I trip over a trough in the tilled field. Sid laughs.) While Simone wasn’t the first to experience Syn, she was the most prolific in spreading it, first in her native Marseille, then in all of France. In lieu of accepting Euros, she instructed her johns to drop Syn. Ironically, after taking the drug, her clients no longer wanted to have sex with her. Instead of seeing her as a sexual object, they saw her as another human being, having a life just as rich in experiences, meaning, and dreams as their own.

It was from Simone where the drug got its name. At first, it was named after her. Then due to a transcription error, it was briefly known as “Sinon”. Then it was shortened to “Sin”. And finally, to its current stylized “Syn”.

Nobody currently linked through Syn created the drug, nor knows anyone who did.

It’s unlike any drug I’ve ever taken. How is it possible that it connects all of us together?

Concepts that were impossible for me to grasp before taking the drug flood my mind. All thoughts are electrical impulses in the brain, I now know. This electricity produces a faint magnetic field that can be detected outside the body. This magnetic field mirrors one’s thoughts. Scientists discovered that Syn amplifies this magnetic field.

How?

By changing the structure of my brain, I learn. By adapting my spinal column to serve as an antenna, to transmit my thoughts as well as to receive others’. Syn is not a drug. Syn is an army of nanites.

(My Converse sneakers splash into sickly warm water. I’m standing ankle deep in the creek.)

The idea of a swarm of microscopic robots physically altering me should strike me as ludicrous. And it should scare me that these nanites of unknown origin mutilated me for an unknown purpose. This was what I feared most about taking Syn. No, this is well beyond my most horrific imaginings.

But it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I’m actually glad that this state of being will never wear off.

Images of white dinner plates, one half buried in the sand, another obscured under some leaves, an x-ray of one actually embedded in the bricks of a building, flash in my mind. I know there are hundreds of millions of them, scattered all over the world. Even though our spinal cords have been biomechanically redesigned to serve as antennas, they don’t transmit our thoughts strong enough to be picked up over long distances. Hence, these plates serve as amplifiers and repeaters.

And who installed these plates?

No one connected through Syn knows.

I’m back at the station wagon. It’s dusk. I don’t remember where I dropped the gallon jug of water.

I slide inside, fish the keys out of my pocket, and start the car. The dashboard flashes 8:32.

I circle out of the cul-de-sac and start driving through my old neighborhood. More families are sitting out on their lawns. “Syn picnics” are what they’re being called. I feel waves of their thoughts as I pass them. Learning about her husband’s affair through Syn, a woman debates divorcing him. A man wonders how the global stock market will react on Monday to the proliferation of Syn, whether the world’s economies even matter anymore. A girl hopes she no longer has to go to school.

Shit, I’m on the wrong side of the street! I realize, as I swerve to the right. Not that it matters. I’m the only one on the road.

I take the ramp to the highway. The fastest I can drive is 45 MPH. Driving any faster is too overwhelming.

Don’t drive on the freeway, Durant. Drive on back streets. How else do you think I got home from USC in one piece?

Thanks, bro’, I impart. See you—

Oh my god. Everybody everyone knows is now on Syn. All of humanity is one.

I pull off to the side of the highway and hop out of the station wagon. Not able to contain myself, I fall to my knees and begin screaming. When I pause to take a breath, I hear other distant cries all around me. The full moon blurs in my vision as hot tears stream from my eyes. It is the happiest moment of my life!

But still no one knows who created Syn or who installed the millions of repeater plates.

Wait. The moon.

Closing my eyes, I see jagged lines glowing on the displays of scientific instruments, lines I know that represent a sudden avalanche of signals coming from the moon. People all over the world are turning their telescopes to our celestial companion. There! Little black flecks peppering the blindingly bright lunar surface, the source of the signals. The flecks grow bigger, the signals stronger. The flecks are a swarm of spaceships, each the shape of an oval. A computer running a pattern-recognition algorithm at NASA is tallying them all: 5,833. 6,736. 7,893…

Those extraterrestrials must have been the ones who formulated Syn and covertly spread it all over the world. They’re the ones who planted all the repeater plates. They must have been hiding on the far side of the moon, waiting for this exact moment, when all humankind became united.

But why? I mouth silently.

To best communicate with us, is the world’s scientific consensus. That’s the most obvious benefit of Syn. Perhaps all citizens in their galactic community talk to each other through their thoughts.

But there’s so many of them, I think. 8,098,403. 9,487,591. 10,158,093…

I suddenly feel like I’m forgetting things. Big chunks of knowledge I knew moments before are gone. People are winking out of existence! I realize.

This is an invasion! But instead of having to physically hunt each of us down, the aliens are just traversing through the neural network carved out by Syn and extinguishing our consciousnesses.

But they’re not discarding our bodies. Upon their souls being snuffed out, people fall to the ground and begin violently flopping about, like a fishes on the deck of a boat. Then a calm washes over them. They begin scooting on all fours, and then tenuously walking upright. The aliens are possessing our bodies. Bodies that are perfectly designed for this, for this Earthly environment from billions of years of evolution. They’re using us as space suits!

We need to destroy the repeater plates!

I open my tearing eyes. A spaceship, the size of a city block, is hanging over the field of weeds bordering the highway. It’s dark, perhaps black, resembling an egg. The same shape as a tab of Syn. The moonlight traces the outline of the hundreds of holes covering its hull. I try blinking it away, but the nightmare vision remains, absolutely motionless and silent.

From a US Federal Geographical Data Committee drone survey conducted a week ago, I know a repeater plate is buried in the field, directly below the ship. But I’m too terrified to move. It doesn’t matter, I distantly know. The strategically stationed spaceships are now serving as Syn amplifiers and repeaters.

Vic’s freaking out, futilely running through downtown, screaming. My mom, dad, and brother are already gone.

I’m beginning to sense the aliens through Syn. I catch glimpses of them through their thoughts. Their bodies are long silver bendy tubes. They’re living jet engines, sucking air into their mouths, and forcefully ejecting it out of their rears. Three rows of three arms along the length of their bodies serve as rudders, as they soar through the shimmering green sky of their homeworld.

They normally wouldn’t bother invading us. The rest of our solar system is rich enough in resources to sate them. In fact, they’ve already been plundering our sun and her family of planets for centuries: stealing energy from the sun, mining our asteroids, and siphoning planetary atmospheres (Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is the most obvious sign of this).

But the Earth is rare, I feel them covet. It has the right gravity. And it has vast seas of liquid water.

Our invaders don’t fly. They swim. They’re aquatic.

But this planet is too cold, they fret. And its atmosphere is poisonous. Too much oxygen, not enough carbon dioxide.

And so the aliens will patiently change its climate and air while possessing our bodies. And as their fleshy space suits begin failing, passing out from heat stroke, or suffocating from a lack of oxygen, they’ll shuck them off and dive into the oceans of the transformed world with their real bodies.

There are far more of them than us now. I feel them all around me, drawing close. Surprisingly, I sense no malice from them. No aggression. No hate. Such primitive emotions have long since evolved into brutal efficiency—

 

Leeches and Men

by James Maddox

 

The vampires took over two days after my eleventh birthday. And between you and me, it was a damn good strategy they had. Families. The nuclear kind with nine-to-five work schedules, house pets, and summer vacations to the beach: they weren’t prepared when the vamps made their move, and before we could say “Family fun night,” the war that really wasn’t a war was lost. Just fuckin’ lost. After all, a parent is much more prone to open that locked window or that bolted door when a son or daughter is on the other side, begging to be let in—and vice versa.

Damn good strategy.

We may act like we came out of that conflict as the holders of the reins, but the truth is, we’re just as scared now as we were during the siege, only we’re too systematic about things to know it. Gained too much false security.

There was a quote I read just before the war was officially ended—but damned if I can remember who said it… Probably a politician. Went like this:

“We approach a new era. Just like the transitions that occurred after Oppenheimer released his great fury, mankind must adjust itself to the coming changes of this new world: new technologies, new religions, new philosophies, and new hates and prejudices. Even in the shadow of this unveiled threat, adaptation will occur, and it will be bloody.”

Now, you ask me just exactly what that means, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you; but back then, it gave me hope that we still had a future to look forward to, you know? Keeping that perspective was just something to get me through the day.

Still is, I guess. Still will be.

Because despite what you may think, I am still and will remain human to my very core. And as a human, I’ll adapt and I’ll survive in a new environment before I roll over and die. That’s just what we do, and maybe that’s what we should really be afraid of.

*****

The vampire scratched at the window, creating a screech that human nails would have found difficult to withstand. Karen pried open her eyes, and as her vision was directed by the sound, she breathed long and slow: a yawn. Appearing to Karen in all its classic horror-movie bravado, the vampire scratched again. The monster fluttered its eyes and hovered just beyond the window frame.

“Steve,” Karen said. She nudged her sleeping husband, and when he simply hugged the covers tighter, Karen shook him by the shoulder. “We’ve got a leech outside. The cleaning service forgot to hang a new wreath of garlic.”

“Wha–?” Steve asked, still half asleep. He wiped at his eyes and slowly came to understand Karen’s complaint. Some grumbled muttering was lost to the gloom of the surrounding walls, but the creature outside the window, its ears didn’t miss a thing. The monster laughed, lewd and low. A vampire’s laugh.

Steve tossed back the covers and stepped out of bed. He stretched and walked out of the room. The house remained silent, save for the occasional attention-getting attempt from the vampire; Let me inside, Karen, its sweet voice called from inside the housewife’s mind. I want to touch you all over. Taste your sweetness. Karen felt a twinge of reaction shiver through her body. It had been a while since she’d had any reaction at all to a vampire’s wiles. This one was good, which made her slightly uncomfortable.

The doorway that led from their bedroom gaped from across the room. What was taking Steve so long?

He’s left you, Karen, the vampire breathed into her thoughts. Let me in. I can take care of you in ways he never would. Ways he never could.

A crash erupted from downstairs, traveling up to Karen’s ears like warning bells. An air raid siren in the dead of night. Karen surged forward, attentive and anticipating. The silence that refilled the room made her flesh tingle.

“Honey?” she called. “You okay?” She waited for a reply, any reply. No need to panic. Everything was fine: the security system was set, locks triple fastened… But there was the fact of the expired garlic wreath. What other precautions could be failing her at that very moment?

It’s over, Karen, the vampire hissed, voice excited, breaths deep and raspy in her head. No more relationship on autopilot. No more lazy, hazy little life. Your husband is dead, and they’re coming for you next. The villains! Terrible wretches! But not me. I’m so tender and caring. Let me in and I’ll be merciful. You’ll even enjoy it.

A gleam of tears began to coat her eyes.

Karen shifted under the covers, reassuring herself that everything was fine. Just fine. The vampire outside the window hissed and raked a single nail down the entire span of the window.

“Just go away,” Karen said, and again heard that low, lewd laugh. It made her want to scream, but before she could, Steve entered the bedroom carrying a new wreath at arm’s length, trying to keep the smell off him. He opened the window.

“I tripped over the coffee table,” he said in his half-sleep, then shooed away the vampire with a dismissive wave. It fled from the new cloves as the old wreath fell to the ground.

“No problem,” Karen said, and it wasn’t. There were no problems.

After closing the window and washing his hands, Steve returned to bed, and the house quieted. It remained silent until the morning’s sunshine filled the master bedroom.

*****

The next day began with familiar steps, but quickly diverged into uncustomary choices. Karen woke, prepared for her day, left the house, and met a friend for brunch. The friend had just been to the nicest gym with the nicest spa, and Karen just had to come drive into the city and see it for herself. Karen had made vague almost-commitments to attend a Chamber of Commerce gathering, but she quickly convinced herself that 1) she had been neglecting this particular friend for far too long, and 2) the Chamber meeting would not greatly miss her presence.

Most of all, although she couldn’t say why, Karen wanted to explore something new, to prove that she could experience something removed from the regular sights, sounds, and motives that frequented her days.

She needed a break, she decided. A break from her lazy, hazy little life—

The words had formed and taken hold before she could shake free of them. Her lazy, hazy little life. The vampire’s taunt hissed like deadly gas in her thoughts.

From that moment, until the onset of evening, Karen couldn’t slip the image of the vampire from her mind, couldn’t drown out the things it had said to her. Things your husband wouldn’t do. Couldn’t do. Somehow, a vile connection had been made with the creature.

Driving home now, she ground her slim fingers on the steering wheel. The leather creaked and groaned under her hold. She gulped at a bottle of water and tried to think about other subjects, but no matter what tangent she moved to, her thoughts always returned to the leech. Its undead eyes formed themselves perfectly in her imagination. Those eyes had stared greedily at her from beyond the windowpane, and now Karen wondered if hunger was the only desire that motivated it, or if there were other emotions: loss, love, jealousy, hate?

A rusted-out truck swerved into Karen’s lane, jarring her thoughts away from vampires and onto the rugged sound that bellowed from her tires as they ventured outside the interstate’s lined boundary. Karen laid on the horn and received an obligatory finger from the truck’s driver. She saw that the truck’s bed was filled with scrap appliances and other random bits of trash.

“And in other news,” a woman’s voice said from the radio speakers. The station she’d been playing to keep her company during her commute had switched to a news break. The voice brought her back inside her car, and back to a topic she had been happy to leave behind. “The vampire count has declined steadily with the setting-in of cooler temperatures. With any luck, vampire numbers will be at an all-time low by mid-winter. Good news, and just in time for the holiday season.”

Karen turned off the radio.

She breathed deep, slowly exhaled. As she tried to do so many times that day, Karen willed the thoughts of vampires from her mind, but that was a losing battle from the start. When she and Steve had first started dating in college, he had won her over with the confession that he couldn’t get Karen out of his mind.

“It’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant,” he’d said to her over the small table of a little outdoor café, his hair outgrown and hanging just above his eyes—hanging much differently from the style he’d fallen into and that had lasted for the past eight years. “You try not to think of a pink elephant, and the only thing you can think about from that moment on is a pink elephant.”

Karen had responded that she wasn’t fond of the comparison, but that she understood the intention. They had laughed. They had loved each other, or maybe they hadn’t. Maybe it was the future she had seen in him that she loved. The future of what the vampire had called her lazy, hazy little life. She became lost in this thought, meditating on it in a way she would never have admitted in public.

At the same time, the pickup truck that had cut off her just moments ago was jostled over a set of breaks in the pavement. The trash-filled truck bed shook and a scatter of debris showered the road, sending a particularly jagged pice of scrap metal to be lodged under Karen’s passenger-side front tire. There was a pop and a reeling moment of unbalance. Karen clenched her eyes and locked her brakes. Skid marks painted the pavement in long arching scribbles that stretched for yards. A cacophony of sound held itself as the only factor in her life for a single moment, and then everything stopped. Only the constant sound of her pulse beating out the passing seconds remained.

*****

Easy listening droned from the radio as the sundown traffic passed Karen and her broken-down car. Though she had reactivated the radio to help pass the time—Karen had a habit of relying on music to pass the time—she was now very close to turning it off again. On the UV-lit highway, no one stopped to help her. The cloud-covered moon peeked out from time to time like a giant headlight behind a passing train. Karen gazed at it while waiting along the highway. Behind her, headlights washed over a large yellow sign that read “Keep Moving: No Stopping for Any Reason!” A smaller sign positioned just underneath this command read “Next Service and Rest Stop 3.5 Mi.”

Damn phone, she thought. It hadn’t had a signal bar pop up since leaving the city. Hell of a lot of good AAA is when you can’t call them. She slapped the phone in her open palm and checked its display again. Nothing.

None of the other cars had stopped to give her assistance, mainly because they were afraid of encountering a loose vampire. Preposterous. Karen saw them all staring out their windows as they passed by her, wide-eyed and unbelieving. As they looked on, she had to remind herself that not everyone had the means to afford the kind of protection she had. Hopefully, one or two of them would at least call a patrolman once they cleared the dead zone.

“Why do these tragedies always happen to me?” Karen wondered aloud.

“Maybe you attract misfortune,” said a voice from behind her, a voice that seemed so close that she spun around expecting to see someone breathing down her neck; however, no one could be seen. A moment passed, and then a large woman appeared from the darkness just beyond the highway’s shoulder. Her ragged black hair hung in slashes and streaks.

“Oh, hello. My tire went out,” Karen explained to the stranger, but the woman didn’t seem to care. She just stood watching, her struggled breath coming out as though every exhale challenged her. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she said, talking slowly. Deliberately. Menace filled the stranger’s eyes. “I’m doing just fine.”

Karen took a step back, toward her useless car. If she could get inside and lock the doors, maybe she would be all right. Maybe. She smiled weakly. A trembling lower lip betrayed any false signs of confidence.

“Alright, I’m going to wait in the car then. Have a pleasant night.”

Karen motioned to her car, but when she turned, the dark-haired lady was already standing in front of her, blocking Karen’s way with her stout figure and toothsome smile.

“Oh, thank god,” Karen said, relief washing over her. The monster paused, a questioning expression stuck to it’s face, but Karen felt her newfound ease was simple to understand: This wasn’t a human being. Not a her or a she at all; the vampire was an it. “I thought you were some kind of murderer or something.”

“Isn’t that exactly what I am?” the vampire asked and drew back its lips to reveal elongated incisors, glistening points that aimed at Karen like finely sharpened daggers. Then it sniffed the air and was taken aback by an odor.

“Not tonight,” Karen said. “Unless you care for a taste of the holy. Chanel Trip-Seven. Top of the line.”

The vampire tried to retreat, but was caught by the BMW’s windows. The monster released a scream and punched at the reflective window, but despite the power of the punch, the durable structure of the windows held. The vampire howled, grabbed its arm in pain, and dropped to one knee.

Karen winced at this display, almost felt sorry for it.

“Highly reflective, triple-reinforced windows, standard,” she noted. Passing the monster, she felt a brief urge to pat it on the shoulder as a kind of sympathetic gesture—she quickly pushed this compulsion aside. “I’m sorry that vampires don’t retain intelligence after the change.”

The creature looked up from its anguish.

“Fuck you, lady.”

Karen soured. “This is what I get for talking to a leech.”

“Typical human, thinking you’re more than food,” the vampire said, working and flexing the pain out of its fingers. “That drove us forward all those years ago. The delusions of humans. The world’s dominant species? Laughable. Then you defanged us in fiction, even portrayed us as sympathetic. Sympathetic to our prey!” The vampire scowled. “Insults can only be thrown so far.”

Karen tossed up a halting hand.

“Please, waste your ideology on someone who…” The rebuke tapered as an engine revved and broke the dialogue. Behind the vampire, lights were flashing on and off, high beams to low beams. The police, Karen thought. Now I can finally get out of here. The vampire spun and faced the approaching vehicle, and with one bound, the monster disappeared into the night clouds.

Karen saw then that the approaching car wasn’t the police. Instead of a shiny new cruiser, a brown Chevy station wagon, probably older than Karen herself, screeched to a halt. She winced at the dust cloud the wagon’s tires produced. The door to the vehicle was tossed open and an old man in a beaten Carhartt jacket hopped out. He held a cross over his head, as though a cross alone would prevent the vampire from descending.

The man’s shaggy white hair swayed as he made his way to Karen and then grabbed her, dragging her by the arm toward the rust-spotted car (was she the only person on this road who took care of her car?). The whole time, he kept his eyes to the sky.

“Come on, come on,” he rasped when Karen began putting up a fight. “I hate to pull you along like this, but it’ll back any minute.”

“Let go!”

“I’m sorry, miss. But this has to happen.” The man threw Karen over his shoulder and carried her the rest of the way. Once inside the wagon, his peeling tires put them back on the interstate; several cars had to swerve into the far lane to keep from hitting them.

“Are you insane?” Karen cried. “What are you doing?”

“What’m I doing? What’re you doing on the side of the road? At night?”

“My car blew a tire.”

So? Why were you standing outside?”

“I was trying to get a signal for my phone,” she said. “You don’t happen to have a phone on you, do you?” The old man shot a look at her, and she glanced again at the interior of the car. “No, I guess you wouldn’t.”

“My name is Richard, by the way, and you’re lucky I was out tonight. That thing could have killed you.”

“Are you serious?” she scoffed. “A leech? Kill me? I’ll have more to worry about with your driving.”

The old man opened his mouth to respond, but whatever was about to emerge was lost forever as Karen’s roadside vampire landed on the hood of the old wagon. Its feet dented the hood down to the engine block, and Karen watched as its skin burned in the UV spotlights that protected the highways from just such an attack. The vampire didn’t seem to notice; instead, it punched the windshield. A standard windshield. As the glass splintered into a web of tiny cracks, the car jutted from side to side; the vampire, however, remained fixed, like a grotesque hood ornament. The vampire’s second punch broke a hole through the windshield. Its fist opened, got a grip on the inside of the window, and tore it off completely, throwing the broken remains to the soft shoulder. A blast of rushing air filled the interior cab.

Through all this, a fear had gripped Karen with more intensity than it had during her earlier blowout. The events of the evening had partly stolen a sense of control that she’d been taking for granted over a span of at least two decades. In that instant, she wanted to scream and flail wildly to protect herself, but another part of her, some deep-seated part that still thought itself untouchable, muttered about trading car travel for bus travel from here on out. Maybe it was the shock talking, but that part of her mind still had hope.

Richard cried out and jerked the wheel left, bashing into the side of another car, and then right, veering onto the shoulder, before steering the station wagon off the road entirely.

Now, that muttering voice was growing dim, not half as sure as it had been seconds ago. Karen dug her fingertips into the vehicle’s armrest. The tires of the old car bounced and rattled, the motions tossing Karen and the old man savagely, to the point that fighting to keep control was no longer an option. The vampire continued riding the hood like a surfboard, until suddenly it jumped away and revealed that the car was on a crash course with the thick trunk of a tree. A last minute thought screamed inside Karen’s mind: That’s too solid to break through.

The world went black.

When Karen came to, she saw Richard on the hood of the car, his neck ripped open, a pool of blood gathered around him. Instinctively, she grasped at her own slender jugular. Nothing. Well, not nothing. The dull yet prevalent pain of whiplash clamped to her like Velcro, but nothing as bad as poor Richard’s wound.

She stumbled out of the car and looked to the distant road, which rested maybe a football field’s length away. The moon was completely covered by clouds now.

“Your protection is fading, Karen,” the vampire sang. She spun around and looked up the tree they’d collided with. In a thick of branches, the monster crouched. “I could have torn you apart already, but I’m a patient gal.”

“Go away,” Karen yelled, but the vamp just smirked, it’s psychotic cat eyes glowing among the shadows.

“I’m excited. Privileged blood is always the tastiest.” Karen glanced again to the road. Crickets counted the seconds with their chirps. “You won’t make it to the road.”

“Watch me,” she countered and turned to start back to the highway. Much to her expectations, the vampire stood in front of her. Good. Karen already had a hand in her now-tattered purse and wrapped around a small cylinder. She pulled the device out and held it to the vampire’s face.

“Mace?” the vampire asked. “Don’t believe I’ve ever had the opportunity to test myself against it.”

Karen pressed the button atop the cylinder. A flash delivered a quick UV blast into the surrounding darkness. The vampire wailed; its skin burned and charred before Karen’s eyes, just as the back label instructions said it would. “Sun Shock: Take Back the Night!”

Karen stepped around the vampire and continued briskly toward the road.

“It’s not that I mean to provoke you,” Karen said at normal volumes, knowing the thing could still hear her. “But we’ve found ways of protecting oursel—”

Before Karen could fully finish the sentence, the vampire again blocked her path, all its previous inflictions had vanished. The creature was disgustingly attractive and unscarred once again.

“What’s the battery’s lifespan?” the monster asked, seeming genuinely curious. “How many flashes does it carry? Ten? Twenty? The sensation’s not pleasant, I’ll give you that, but I can outlast it. I can outlast anything devised by a human.”

Karen’s mouth opened, but her voice was absent.

The vampire broke into laughter. “Amazing how your species gives itself up to technology. Trust me, Karen. When tech is your god, the best you can really hope for is a quick and tidy death. A systematic death.” The vampire studied the points of its nails. “Sadly, I’m of the old ways. Nothing tonight will be quick or tidy.”

Before she had the chance to fight, Karen’s nervous hand loosened and the small black canister of Sun Shock dropped to the ground, settling onto a tuft of grass. She began to cry, and any voices that might have whispered of security or entitlement or even hope were silent. For Karen, the future had dead-ended into the smiling face of a vampire.

“You don’t have to cry,” said the monster, “but I’m really hoping you will.”

*****

Becomin’ alive again was sweet terror. I saw blood spilled across the car’s hood and slowly came to realize that it had belonged to me. The first thought that swiped through my mind: Jesus, I’m too old to live forever.

It was the hunger that opened my eyes—I could feel it instantly and recognized it for what it was—but it was you that got me to my feet again, Karen. I could hear that woman, and I could hear you, but your thoughts simply mirrored hers. “You don’t have to cry,” she said, and you dropped the canister, tore open your blouse, all at her instruction. You bore your neck, and to me that all seemed perfectly acceptable. The only thing that nagged was that it wasn’t voluntary, and you hadn’t done a thing to warrant such an invasion.

Fucked up, isn’t it? I understand taking blood, but not by undue force.

Helluva leech I’m gonna make…

*****

Teeth. Karen couldn’t help but continue to stare at the vampire’s teeth. A great fatigue had weighed down her emotions; she was no longer able to fight the monster’s suggestive will, so she resigned herself to… What? Death? Undeath? Would the monster drain her and leave her to reanimate, or would it take the time to ensure Karen’s life was ended? With so many questions, Karen didn’t have the capacity to consider which fate she would have preferred if given the choice.

The vampire skimmed its teeth along Karen’s exposed neckline. She trembled. She wept. Her legs had gone numb, but wouldn’t collapse. They were stone pillars, holding her in place for the coming slaughter. The vampire would take its time. After all it had been through tonight to have her, it would make Karen’s final grisly moments last. In the distance, cars continued to pass along the freeway; they were too far away. Too far to see this undignified ending.

“Undignified?” the vampire asked as this last thought jumped between the two. “You think natural death would be as courteous? As meaningful? Life’s a dance, sweetie. A dance with no dignity. You end up where you end up, just like everyone else.”

“Natural death might not be as courteous, but it wouldn’t talk quite as much,” said Richard.

That was all the notice he afforded before the attack. Richard tackled the vampire to the ground and wrapped a thick and heavy hand around its neck. Squeezing, Richard imagined that he could pop the monster’s head off its shoulders, but the reality of achieving this goal was easier to visualize than to realize.

The vampire slipped away from Richard’s grasp. The initial surprise had worked to land a sucker punch, but now the vampire—who had presumably lived a very long time and had complete control of its facilities—seized the upper hand.

Three hits—kneecap, abdomen, nose—and Richard was down, his vision blurry. Deep, dark blood soaked into the cotton t-shirt that was already stained by a brighter shade of crusting red. A growing darkness bordered his vision, then his sight focused on a particular object. Life reentered the man’s eyes, an angry vitality that centered all its wrath on the monster. The old man (who was not looking or feeling so old anymore) charged again at the vampire, then quickly dropped to his aching knees before contact could be made. A hand reached out and claimed the fallen canister of Sun Shock.

The vampire was prepared for Richard’s attack, but withered at the sight of the recovered cylinder.

Richard held the bulb near the vampire’s face and placed a finger over the trigger.

“But you’ll—” was all the monster managed before the button was pushed and another blast of light bloomed on the field.

For a moment, Richard was transported to the surface of the sun, but before he could be conquered by the pain, he steeled himself, recovered his senses, and remembered exactly where the vampire had stood. Despite the blindness hiding his target, Richard’s hand surged forward and connected with the bridge of the vampire’s nose, and because the creature’s structure was made malleable by the blast, the charred skin and weakened bones collapsed under Richard’s force and coated his hand in gore. A solid hit made deadly. The vampire dropped lifeless to the ground.

Richard shook blood and bone off his knuckles. He had done it; killed the vampire, saved the damsel. What this victory had cost him would be another topic for another night, but he couldn’t completely shut it out, not with his face burning as it was. Then again, that would fade. Already, the searing heat of his burns were cooling. A hazy vision restored itself.

He turned to Karen, and saw both the flight in her eyes and the curious hope that held her in place. Scenes and still images radiated from her mind, vivid enough to study and dissect, conflicting emotions of victory over the conquered vampire, fear of what Richard had become, a persistent gloom from her loss of faith in securities and protections.

“Don’t worry,” he said. He sensed that the ease of his voice calmed her slightly. “It’s over. Come on, I’ll wait with you as long as I can, but I don’t know how great of company I’ll be.” Richard slid his arm into hers, and began walking her toward the roadside. He could smell her red scent drifting in the misty evening like a pleasant perfume.

“It’s funny,” Richard said as they reached the road and had a seat on the bank. “I’ve lived with the cold hard truth of vampires for the majority of my natural life, but I never thought I’d become one. I guess I should have considered it. After all, the vampires took over two days after my eleventh birthday…”

*****

“I’m sorry,” Karen said.

Richard had given her his Carhartt to help keep her warm. It smelled of spent cigarettes and singed hair, but Karen sank into the lining like it was made from fine silk. Tears had carved paths down her dirty cheeks. She had lost a shoe somewhere between the crash scene and the walk to the highway, but she had calmed down considerably since they’d arrived back at her car.

He was keeping her calm, and she was thankful for that. Still, the only words she could think to say anymore to Richard were “I’m sorry,” so she repeated them until they didn’t resemble meaningful words at all, just sounds that had no real definition.

“She was right, you know?” Richard said. “About the dance. Might have had a different view on it, but she certainly was dead on in the general sense. People do with what they got, dance with the floor and tunes they’re given.” Richard quieted himself, before adding: “The ones that don’t seem to dance toward a particular spot in the room tend to be the most fulfilled. You ever notice that?”

“I’m sorry,” Karen said again in her utterly collapsed voice.

“Yeah.” Richard looked up to the stars. “Me, too.”

He took Karen’s hand in his and lifted it to his lips. She let him kiss it without the slightest hint of unease. This man wasn’t a vampire. He wasn’t a leech. He had swung in, put himself in danger, and rescued her. Twice. Vampires didn’t do that.

She wrapped herself around Richard’s arm.

“I’m so sorry,” Karen repeated. What she really wanted to say was thank you, express her gratitude and offer him some recourse to the state he now found himself in (because of her), but she couldn’t bring the right words to mind. And whenever she reached for them, all that came to mind were variations on the same apology.

Richard half-grinned and gazed at the approaching red and blue flashers. Police sirens wailed into the night. They were coming to help, which meant that they’d kill him the moment they discovered what Richard had become—and for a moment, a briefly enticing moment, Richard considered letting them do their job. He shivered.

“I have to go,” Richard said and pulled his arm away from Karen. “It was nice meeting you, Karen.”

Karen opened her mouth, but closed it when Richard smiled down at her.

“I know: ‘You’re sorry,’” he said. “But as much as you may mean it, that’s not gonna change a thing.”

Then he was gone, and the siren lights were glowing on Karen’s damp cheeks and she was left somewhere new. Somewhere between the world of vampires and men.

 

Veins

by Jack Logan

 

I see the veins of my city.

The rain pours down for the second day, torrential. The storm came on quickly. From my fourth story apartment I can see down several blocks, a few businesses were left abandoned with their lights still on. No matter how late at night, the streets always carry someone. A homeless man looking for a place to sleep, a few kids coming home from a party, a cabbie looking for another fare. But not in this weather. The streets are empty. I’ve been watching for hours.

It started with just a few glances out the window, a novel distraction from the television and computer. Then the power went out. I listened to music for a little while, but soon grew bored with all the songs I’ve heard before. So I stare out the window.

At first it’s just rain. The change comes steadily. At first it’s something I’m not sure I’m seeing. Like there was a painting, a masterpiece, just at the edge of my vision and I can’t turn to see it. But I stay still and watch. And it comes to me. It starts from the unevenness of the black pavement, rain built up in thin, shining pools and carried up again by the wind. Slowly, I caught on to the rhythm of it all. These thin pools jumped and shined in their own pulse, and I could see them leading off towards the center. The heart.

Just watching becomes maddening. The effect doesn’t change, but with each heartbeat it becomes more impressive and more important. And while I sit still watching, I become more and more of a coward.

I follow off in to the night.

I race down my building’s stairs into the lobby. I stop just in front of the glass door. Deciding, I flick the knob and head out to the storm. I’m soaked in an instant, so wet that the rain no longer matters. I concentrate on fighting through the wind. I run over to where I saw the rain pulsing, wondering if it was all a trick of the mind. It makes so much sense for it all to be a mistake. Boredom and darkness and these empty streets, together they could all warp the mind. Then it quakes beneath me. I’m standing on it. I race forward and turn, following the city’s blood flow.

I think the rain is curving on both sides of me, like I’m running down the middle of a separated ocean. It all comes together at my feet. Along with the wind, I kick up water with every step.

Racing along, I start to understand that the city’s heartbeat is quick, stressed. The faster I go, the more kinship I feel. Poor thing, it must always be this way. It always carries a great weight. Its people, and the buildings and pavement we have laid upon it. Stoic, it never shrugs. The few trees around me whip and crack. They are unnatural too, guided in their growth.

The details, things I should already know about the area, are blurred to me. It’s all a trace, a dull background. The only thing that matters is the twisting, pulsing path beneath my feet. I could run this path with my eyes closed if I had to.

Running through the wet and wild streets;

A broken madman’s howl erupts.

A high-pitched noise, sounding like a man impersonating a sick dog impossibly builds, comes down from above me. The edge leaves phantom scars on my back, I slip and fall into the wet streets. I fumble for my footing, and finally look up. A few stories above me, a shade stands on a rusty fire escape. The thing is folded, partially resting on the rail. Whatever it’s looking at doesn’t interest it too much. I wait for a flicker of a street lamp or a sudden lightning bolt to show me what it is. Nothing comes.

The shade doesn’t move, and a heavy knot ties itself in my stomach. It is fear. The shadow’s stillness, its coy disinterest, and its calm during this storm are all terrifying. My break, my moment to move, comes when I feel the city’s heartbeat once again. It shakes me to my senses, and I flee along its path.

It was a rescue, the city’s tremors. I would have died there otherwise, crushed by the fear, suffocated by the waiting, and unmade by that night terror. I think one more time about its shriek, and I run faster.

A thick passage to step on through;

On the other side, a cold hush.

With enough distance, I start to regain myself. I remember what’s important, why I’m braving the water and the wind. Although I don’t think I could take my feet off their pounding path. But to think about it, to reflect on it, is to not think at all. It becomes instinctual. I don’t know where my feet carry me, I only know that I must continue.

The wind howls, a low, pained roar. The water beneath me kicks up suddenly, drowning me for just an instant. I snort and spit and cough it all out, take a breath, and continue on. Even in my drive, with the road leading me, it doesn’t take long to realize the water is falling thicker.

At first I keep my head down and plow through. I continue on, even through my wavering I can feel the guiding pressure underneath my feet. I keep my hand waving out in front, so I don’t run into anything. A foolish thought, I’m in the middle of an empty road. But before too long, my hand plunges into a cool depth. I look up. There is no rain in front of me. The water is a wall. It doesn’t move, or ripple. It stands tall. I feel a pulse under my feet. I must go forward. Inhale and go forward.

The water’s cool, without any current to fight against. I keep moving, somehow I know I wouldn’t float to the top. The water is thick and hard to move through, but my feet stay on the ground as if I’m wearing lead shoes.

A cool blue floats all around me. When I can force my eyes open, the impassable void surrounds me.

The air in my chest grows hot and expands. My neck tenses, and I start thrashing my arms in hopes that I can propel myself forward. I can’t see an exit, but I can’t except that I’ll die here. The escape will be there when I need it, it has to be. Death here would be utter disgrace.

My hand pierces the liquid barrier. Still all I can see is the blue void, but the air tingling my wet fingers tells me to push. My hand passes through with no effort, but I have to force my way out. I have one last push in me, and it mercifully frees me. I collapse on the hard ground, coughing out water.

The exploded soul, thrown and hung;

The bleeding of reality;

Concrete and power unchained.

I reel but I stand. While the air is damp, no rain falls on the other side of the city. There is no sky. A solid looking greenish-grey hovers in the air where clouds and thin air should fly. There are no buildings here, but thin panes of glass shoot up and scrape the edge of this world’s barrier. I get close to one. Inside, the glass is haunted by the dull reflection of a man asleep on the subway. The colors are all dark and his skin is mostly transparent, the man is mostly an outline. He bobs up and down, rocked by the phantom train he rides.

With a voyeuristic fascination, I go to look for another panel. They’re all around, but walking to them is no easy task. Familiar concrete slabs line the ground, but they are elevated and spaced out. Looking between the gaps, this land is built on dirty metal and pistons. The metal hisses at me, steam breaking free from the rust and sludge that clogs the underground layers of this strange slice of the world. I take care when crossing each gap.

Other than the glass and the concrete, it was a barren plane. A few trees were scattered around, all in the distance. They lacked leaves, just burnt black sticks jutting out into the world.

The window panes were not scattered at random. They were placed down like dots that could connect into circles. Each circle was smaller than the one before it, fitting inside in proportion. I couldn’t see the center, but I walked towards it.

Each pane I passed gave me another glimpse at diluted life. People eating, sleeping, talking to one another. All their movements seemed very deliberate, like a puppet on strings being guided for an audience. Was it for me, I wondered. Or did these shows have a purpose without anyone watching?

Closer to the center the steam starts getting hotter. I watch the hot mist gush out at its whistling pace. Paying close attention to my steps, it takes me awhile to realize I know the pace. The steam comes out in tune to the city’s heartbeat. The thing I followed unquestioning like a lunatic is once again presenting itself to me. Hot steam jets out. I’m getting closer to the center.

The world drops down. The center is a large pit, and I’m a step away from being able to look down in to it. My curiosity and my caution are split evenly and locked. It might’ve stayed that way forever, but I have nowhere else to go anymore.

I look over the edge. A thumping, mechanical muscle is tightly wedged into the pit. It scrapes against the walls as it expands. There is no soft flesh here. The bulk of it is made of shining steel and mirrors, all of which is littered with black cables plugging in and feeding it. Every beat is signaled with the moan of heavy steel being bent back and forth. A thick blue sludge seeps out of the pores of the heart, seeping right through all the imperfect cracks. The heart contracts, and hot steam shoots out all around the world.

I look down, mesmerized. All sorts of distorted reflections can be seen. I recognize the famous buildings and statues of my city immediately, even in the warped glass. These mirrors, which lie a great distance beneath me, highlight the details of their images. In one small panel I spot a varnished statue I must have passed a thousand times. A man on horseback. And for the first time I realize how fierce his eyes are.

Eventually, in this sea of images, my eyes drift to the reflection in one piece of glass, standing askew. I look down and see myself. I am an intruder.

The metal bends sharply and a hot wind rushes out of the pit. Irresistible black cables snag me and pull me down into the heart. Through the cracks, my underarms brush against the blue sludge. I am dragged through one of the cracks, stopped when I’m brought to the center, inside the heart.

I gaze up. My time spent looking down was so meaningless. Here I see my city explode out all around me from my godlike view. I see the streets I walk every day, and see how they really run together. I see the relationships between the streets and the people—some symbiotic, some parasitic. I see all those huddled at home, hiding from the storm. And then I hear the noise.

Car horns, trains rumbling, children laughing, couples making love—all the sound hits me wave after wave. But I sense what the noise will become as well. The car horn will bleat and not move an inch. The train will never stop rumbling. The child’s laughter will turn to crying without an explanation. The couple will wake up the next morning and forget they made up last night. These noises, and infinite others, repeat over and over with no pattern and no hope of escape. The symphony of cataclysm.

The cables that bind me tighten. That blue sludge starts to burn at my arms. And slowly I am being enveloped by a green growth, a fungus that looks like it belongs under a leaky pipe. This is agony, but my thoughts are of sympathy. This entity, so large, so fractured, can’t decide how to dispose of me. I look up, at what is sure to be my last sight. In that great, big mirror I can see the storm in my city is starting to pass.

A near-dead husk is returned;

A terrified life moving on.

A pair of hands beat on my stomach. On the hard filthy sidewalk of my city, I puke up water. I can taste it this time, a metallic taste. Shivering, I grab on to the man who looms over me. “Looks like you’re going to make it.” He wraps me in a warm blanket. “Jesus. What were you doing out here during that mess.”

I think hard, trying to catch my brain up to everything that happened to me. I realize no matter what I say about my experience, it won’t be believed. “I just lost myself.”

“I guess so,” he said. “Come over to the car. We’ll take you home.”

I step into the back seat of the police car and we drive off. I peek under the blanket at my arms. My once pale forearms are burnt a crispy brown. The green fungus drips beneath my fingernails. I look out the car window at all the familiar streets.

The ground beats beneath me. That heartbeat crawls up my legs and pushes down on my own chest. I suffocate. I know I will never have another full breath.

 

In the Absence of Eubeniks

by Andrew Hoffman

 

Betty sat in a brown leather chair, angles of light slicing through the blinds, waiting for Speery to enter. His office was filled with computer boards, fiber-optic wiring, fuses and other assorted electrical devices and parts, but Betty wasn’t interested in anything other than the arrival of Speery.

“There you are!” Speery said as he came into the office, his voice loud and jovial.

“Yes, sir. As you requested.”

Speery made his way around the desk and sat. “How are you this fine morning?”

“I do not understand, sir.”

“Right,” Speery said, tapping his head with his fingers. “I don’t usually bring servants in here. I forgot who I was speaking to.”

“Do you have a command for me, sir?”

“In a way.” Speery cleared his throat. “Who’s scheduled for your next maintenance, Betty?”

“Eubeniks, sir.”

“And when was it last done?”

“Two months ago, sir. I have approximately one month until my next appointment.”

Speery grunted to himself and coughed. “That should work fine, then.”

“Do you have another command, sir?”

Speery smiled. “How would you feel about an upgrade?”

“I would feel nothing.”

Speery nodded and didn’t speak for a few moments. Then he excused Betty.

*****

Betty went about her late morning routine as usual. Clearing the table, emptying the trash, feeding the animals. Norman, the other servant, assisted her.

“Norman, one hour until lunch preparations begin. You should go sit,” Betty said after they had completed the morning tasks. “Return at twelve.”

“Yes, Betty.” Norman walked out of the room, up the stairs, and into the second room on the right. He shut the door behind him, sat in his chair, and went to sleep.

Betty walked to the edge of the dining room and stood next to a tall lamp. Suddenly, Speery ran into the room.

“Betty, quickly, come with me!”

Betty followed. “Sir?” she asked as they entered Speery’s office.

“Eubeniks has informed me that I may complete your quarterly maintenance.”

“Yes, sir.”

A metal foldout table had been set up next to his desk. He motioned for Betty to lie down.

“What about lunch, sir?” Betty asked as she climbed up on to the table.

“I’ve no appetite for food,” Speery said, excitement bubbling below his voice. “We have a long afternoon before us.”

Betty went to sleep and Speery lifted the panel on her back to expose the myriad of wires that existed below the surface. He gazed in, daydreaming about what futures were ahead for the electricity that shot through those wires.

Forty-five minutes later, Norman returned to the empty kitchen. He walked to the corner of the room and went to sleep, waiting for Betty to return.

*****

Speery gave the insides of Betty a proper cleaning, leaving them shining as brightly as the day they had been crafted. He spent the better part of four hours wrist deep inside his patient. The last thing he did was remove a small chip from one of Betty’s internal boards and replaced it with a chip that looked nearly identical. Nearly, but not completely.

*****

Betty threw the large doors open wide when she returned to the kitchen that evening. A short film clip played in her head: A human standing on the edge of a cliff, breathing in the air, arms lifted. Betty felt an energy course through her that she had never experienced before.

Norman was still asleep in the corner of the room, silent and lifeless.

“Norman, open your eyes and witness it all!”

Norman’s eyes lit up. “Yes, Betty, my eyes are open.”

Betty went to each side of the room, opening all the doors and windows. “Look at all this,” she said. She spun in a circle to see it all in one panorama.

Another film clip played in her head: A young human whose mouth slowly widens and curls into a sly grin.

Betty slowly turned to Norman. He had been watching her, taking in the peculiar information of her actions. “We must prepare an outstanding meal. Can we do that, Norman?”

“Yes, Betty.”

Betty was suddenly troubled. Everything seemed too formal for her. Too tight and rehearsed and devoid of life.

She put her hand on Norman’s shoulder. “Don’t sound so resigned when you say yes. Say it from somewhere down here,” she said, pointing at his hollow chest and making head movements as she spoke that neither she nor Norman understood, trying to add a certain style and emphasis to the words through body language.

“Betty?” Norman asked, peering down at his chest, hoping for further explanation.

“Down here!” Betty said, moving her head a little more while tapping on her own chest. “But don’t talk,” she said, almost interrupting her own instruction, holding up one hand to Norman as if to hush him. “Let the day soak into you and you into it!” She laughed in a short, choppy burst. Her vocal capacity did not allow for all-out laughter.

“Betty, are you malfunctioning?”

“I hope so,” she said, surveying Norman’s mechanical movements. A third short film clip played in her head: A human is putting groceries in the trunk of their car. Another human gets out of their car a few spaces down. Their eyes meet and there is an odd moment.

The light in Betty’s eyes flickered.

*****

They served salami sandwiches and soup for dinner. Betty made slight alterations to the recipe, which secretly delighted Speery. She was showing a creative spark. After Speery had swallowed his first spoonful of soup, Betty leaned toward him. “So?” she asked.

“Very good, Betty. Possibly less salt next time. But very good.”

“Too much salt!” she scolded herself. “I would have tasted it but…” She pointed at her mechanical mouth and that was explanation enough.

“We all have limitations, Betty. We only need to identify and conquer them when possible,” Speery said. “The difficult part is learning to work alongside the things that are insurmountable.”

A short film clip played in Betty’s head: A young human with no legs shuffles down a set of stone steps on their hands.

“What are you thinking?”

“Sir?” Betty asked, resurfacing into the moment.

“It looked as if you were lost in thought.”

Betty thought about what Speery had said. “I don’t fully understand your comment, but thank you.” She walked to the corner of the room, stood next to Norman, and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Do you have a command for me?” Norman asked.

“I have no commands for you.”

Norman looked at the hand on his shoulder but did not say anything.

Speery watched the perplexing situation as he finished his bowl of salty soup. Eventually he stood and left the room, leaving the two servants alone in the corner.

*****

Later that evening, Betty knocked on Sperry’s office door. Speery called for her to enter. She opened the door but could not bring herself to walk into the room.

“I wondered how long it would take you to ask,” Speery said.

“To ask what?”

“What you’re thinking about right now.”

“How do you know I’m thinking at all?”

Speery stood and walked around the desk to her. “Because,” he said, “you have certain traits that can’t make you anything but curious.”

This confused Betty.

“Sit,” Speery said, pointing to the brown leather chair that she had sat on earlier that day. Speery walked back around the desk and sat in his own brown leather chair.

“Ask me the question that is most prevalent in your mind.”

Betty paused. “Well… I have visions now.” She paused again. “Movies that accompany my thoughts.”

Speery opened his desk drawer and retrieved a small data chip. “Do you see this?”

Betty nodded.

“This changed your life. Not this chip exactly, but one very similar.” Speery took a moment to look the chip over. “I’ve been working on this for months. Years. These chips are outlawed because they’ve caused unforeseeable issues in the past. But I’ve loaded a short bit of film corresponding to each feeling that you now process. I believe I’ve made these feelings more manageable by giving a context to align them with.”

“And Norman?”

Speery leaned his head on his hand and exhaled. “I briefly considered this possibility, but honestly, I’m surprised.”

“Will he get this chip? Will his life change?”

“Later maybe. Let’s see what happens with you.” Speery smiled. “Now, off to bed. Go see if you can dream a dream.”

Betty climbed the wooden staircase and followed the hall to the room where Norman had already retired. She charged next to him every night, but that night felt very different. She sat and watched him instead of turning herself off. The energy surging through her body felt like waves of heat thrumming and pulsing. A short film clip played in her head: A beach full of humans lying face down on towels, enjoying the sun. Hundreds of them. One turns over but it’s not a human, it’s Norman. His blank face looks up at the sky. Then more and more turn over. All of them with Norman’s face. All of them staring up, not at the sky but at the sun.

After the clip ended, Betty sat in her chair until nearly four in the morning. She turned her lit eyes toward Norman and could see the light reflecting back from his. He sat in his seat without stirring, a dead mechanical stillness for the moonlit hours. Suddenly, a very human thought entered Betty’s head.

A short film clip cued: An old human wise in eyes and lines of the face is shaking their head and mouthing the word NO. Betty shut off the clip. She glanced over at Norman’s unmoving frame and made up her mind.

Betty lightly descended the wooden stairs and crossed the house to Speery’s office. She tried the door but it was locked. She softly walked to the settee at the end of the hall and pulled the right side away from the wall. A silver key sat on the floor, the same one she had seen Speery use when he had misplaced his ring of keys weeks earlier.

The office door swung open with a very slight creak. Betty stood very still and listened for footsteps. After a few soundless moments she proceeded into Speery’s office, walked around his desk, and sat in his chair. She looked at the chair across the desk that she had sat in only a few hours before. The foldout table where she had been stretched out for her cleaning was still in the corner. She briefly admired the quiet of the room. A short film clip flicked on: A motion x-ray of a heart beating much too fast. She didn’t fully understand the clip, but could feel the emotion it was trying to help her understand. The emotion was enough.

She pulled out the drawer that contained the chip Speery had showed her earlier. She held the chip up and examined the small, flat square of information. She was astounded that a small inanimate collection of data could so wholly change a life. Another choppy laugh escaped her, a laugh that celebrated all that was stored in the little chip, while at the same time revering what it could do for poor, lifeless Norman, who unknowingly waited upstairs to be released from his cold cell of servitude.

*****

Norman’s eyes lit up.

“Norman.”

“Yes,” he said, first looking around the room then back at Betty. “Is there an emergency?”

“Norman, I have a command for you.”

“What is it?”

“Can you lie on the floor?”

Without hesitating, he stood from his seat and lowered himself to the ground. Betty released the latch to the panel on his back.

“What is this command for?” Norman asked.

“Shhh.”

“What is your purpose?”

“This is not entirely a command… it’s a favor.”

“I do not complete favors, I complete commands.” Norman’s voice was calm and even.

“Stop talking Norman. In a few minutes you will have better things to say.”

“Betty?”

“Stop!” she yelled.

Norman’s eyes dimmed. Betty felt her insides sink. A clip played in her head: A large human is shoving a small human. The larger one laughs as they push. The smaller human takes the abuse without response. Betty stopped the clip. This is different, she thought. This is a blessing.

Betty’s hands maneuvered the foreign landscape of Norman’s insides. Finally, she found a chip that was identical in size. She plucked out the old chip and replaced it with the new. She reset Norman, rolled him over, and waited.

All was silent, save for the night-creaks of the house. Betty felt confused yet elated by her own actions. She waited anxiously.

Norman was an older model that took longer to reset but his eyes finally flicked back on. To Betty they seemed like two candle flames in the dim early morning room.

Norman sat up, swiveled his head from one side of the room to the other. “Where am I?” he asked.

“In the residence of Reginald Speery,” Betty replied.

He lifted his hands, studied them. “Who are you?”

“My name is Betty.”

“Betty Speery?”

“No, just Betty.” She felt a very human pang of sadness due to the fact that she had not known how to do a partial reset like she had gone through during her own upgrade. She had completely reset his memory. The very Norman with whom she had cooked a thousand meals, had charged next to hundreds of nights, looked at her with blank, unfamiliar eyes.

“Huh?” Norman said. “Look at that.”

Betty followed his gaze to a streetlamp beaming light outside the window. Norman stood and briefly moved his legs and arms with curiosity, then walked out of the room and down the stairs.

“Norman, where are you going?”

Norman didn’t reply, opened the front door, and disappeared into the dark early morning. Betty followed, closing the door after herself. Norman made his way to the corner where the streetlamp was located, stood very still, and marveled up at the light that glowed down at him.

“A much grander streetlamp will rise in the sky in a couple hours, you know,” Betty said, not knowing what else might get his full attention.

“I’d like to see that.”

“You’ll have to. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.”

*****

Norman continued down the street, from lamp to lamp, gazing up into the lights. Betty tried to talk him back toward home, but he kept on down the street, mysteriously attracted to anything that emitted light. He was mindlessly fascinated. He only spoke when spoken to. Otherwise, he moved from one lamp to the next, with only a short reflective pause at each.

Betty began to worry as they strayed further from home. This was an emotion she didn’t particularly enjoy. A film clip turned on in her head: A montage of children walking away from their parents. The shots zoom in beyond the children to the worried faces of their parents. It made Betty feel sick.

“Norman, where are you going?”

“Toward the light.”

Betty had heard the phrase used by humans when discussing death. Death—a word that had meant so little to her until very recently. A film clip cued in her head but she turned it off before it could start.She had no interest in watching. The feeling was, once again, more than enough. An invisible pool rose up and consumed her. She was trying to tread water in her emotion and was failing.

“Betty.”

Betty was wrenched out of her melancholy by Norman’s innocent voice. The deluge subsided. She looked over at Norman, still in his familiar pose, staring up at the man-made light. She realized she was surrounded by light-posts, a bench under each one. A gathering place for humans. Betty lifted her eyes skyward and turned in a circle to view them all.

“This really is something,” she said, realizing the beauty of the lights in a group.

“So, you see it? You believe.” Norman asked.

“I never doubted.” She was going to add another thought but nothing sounded quite right.

Norman lay down on the concrete, face up, taking in the abundance of illumination. Betty looked down at him. He gleamed brilliantly in the abundance of light. Betty lowered herself next to him. Just the two of them, surrounded by light on all sides, like two small rafts adrift in a vast sea. They gave themselves up to all that was around them.

Suddenly, the lamps hummed and turned off. The sun wasn’t fully up, but a mist of sunlight had risen in the east, breezily flooding over the mountains and down into the valley. The sun would finish heaving itself over the horizon in a matter of minutes. Betty and Norman didn’t move or talk. The silence and the pale glow in the air resuscitated any beauty that may have faded by night.

“Hey!” a voice rang out, shattering the fragile moment.

Betty sat up quickly and looked around. Two policemen stood just outside of the circle of lampposts.

“What are you two doing?” one of the policemen asked.

Betty and Norman didn’t say anything.

“Respond.”

“Nothing,” Betty said, she motioned to Norman. “He was running low on power, so we stopped.”

“Why would that help?”

The lie made a film click on in her head: A dog chasing its tail, never succeeding, round and round forever.

“I do not know why we thought it would help.”

The policemen crept in closer, hands gripped on their electric clubs.

“We were just leaving, I swear it.”

The first policeman glanced over at the second. “You what?” the second asked.

“Nothing,” said Betty. A cold and bottomless feeling took over Betty’s wire-filled belly. Norman was still on the ground next to her. She slowly got up.

“I’ve never heard a servant swear to anything.” The second policeman turned to the first. “You?”

He shook his head. “No, I haven’t.”

“What?” Betty asked without effect.

“What command are you fulfilling?” the first policeman asked.

“To… go to town.”

“In order to do what?”

“Fill an order at… Westphal’s,” Betty said, a liar’s gap split the response into two distinct parts.

“Really? Going to the store at—” the policeman checked the time on his watch, “—at six-thirty in the morning?”

Betty remained firm in her lie. “Yes.”

“Turn around, please,” the first policeman said.

“Why?” Betty started to backpedal.

The two policemen rushed to either side of her and dropped her to the ground with two solid blows from their electric clubs. She turned to look at Norman who was still lying on his back, motionless. She never had the chance to ask him why he didn’t stand. She never asked him anything again.

“Enough of this,” one of the policemen said just before everything went dark for Betty.

*****

Betty’s eyes lit up. She was in a strange, impersonal room. Nothing on the walls, shelves packed with binders and crates and manila folders—a room full of the unnecessary and forgotten. Speery was propped up against the wall reading.

“Where are we?” Betty asked. She tried to sit up and realized she had been strapped down.

“Keep still,” Speery said, looking up from his book.

Betty settled back down, the shameful feeling of restraint soaked and boiled in her joints. A film clip appeared in her head: A small animal caught in a steel trap. It is afraid and angry and not brave enough to gnaw off its clamped limb.

“Where are we?”

“At the police station,” Speery said. “You strayed too far from home.”

“Norman wouldn’t come back.”

“You should have let him go.”

“I couldn’t do that.” Betty saw Norman lying on another table, also strapped down. His face was directed at the fluorescent lights but no brightness came from his own eyes. He was turned off.

Speery smiled sadly. “That makes you decent.And like many decent people, it is that trait which can get you in a bind. Can ruin you.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means…” Speery looked at her sympathetically yet professionally. He exhaled and blinked, grasping for the right words. “You have something in you that feels very much like a heart.” Speery put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ve been given the unfortunate task, by the authorities, of breaking that heart. I’m sorry.”

All feeling rushed out of Betty. All that existed in her body was the floating sensation of a distant cloud. Suddenly, a lightning bolt shot down from that cloud. Betty flailed in her straps. She violently jolted her arms and thrashed her legs, but the straps held tight.

“Stop,” Speery said. “Stop.” The command was tenderly spoken.

“What is going to happen?”

“What has been ordered to happen.”

Betty focused on the ceiling. Not on the lights but on the drab white ceiling tiles. They were perfect. A phalanx of bland squares that formed a chessboard of a single tone. No other side to strategize against, a peaceful land not at war.

“Why did you do this to me?” Betty asked.

“To see what would happen. And I wasn’t let down.”

Betty kept her eyes on the ceiling.

“You knew it was a finite gift. I encoded that as best I could in the chip. I didn’t want to tell you. I wanted you to feel it, just the way I feel in my guts that my own life is very limited.”

“You gave me so much to want and so little time. Tomorrow. Next year. A decade. It’s not enough. It was cruel.”

“I know. Life is a majestic cruelty. But we all drink from that same cup. Though fools don’t linger on the fact that the cup will one day be empty. At least you had a sip.” Speery stopped for a moment. “I hope you enjoyed it because now I’m forced to pour the rest out.”

“Was he a fool?” Betty asked, looking at Norman.

“Yes, but in the best way. He didn’t have film clips loaded on his chip. He had no context for his first feeling, so he clutched onto it tightly and didn’t let go.”

Betty saw a film clip in her head: Norman lying on the concrete staring up at the glow from the streetlamps that encircled them. It was a memory, not a preloaded clip. A short burst of pride surged through her.

Outside, the sun had risen over the eastern mountains and a clear, wintery morning glare was shooting lines of sunlight through the partially closed blinds.

“Can you show Norman the sun before you remove his chip? I told him about it but I don’t think he understood what I was talking about. I would like for him to understand.”

Speery thought about it for a moment, then walked over and twisted the plastic pole to open the blinds. He went over to Norman and lifted him up enough to slide his hand under his back and power him on. His eyes slowly brightened.

“Huh?” he said.

“Nothing, Norman,” Speery said. “There is nothing to wonder about.”

Norman spotted the fluorescent lights on the ceiling and lost himself in them. Speery walked over to the door and turned the light switch off.

“Oh,” Norman said.

“Would you like to see something better?”

“I think so.”

Betty didn’t speak and Norman didn’t take notice of her across the room. She watched his child-like focus on what mesmerized him as if she was watching a film clip in her head. She learned something about how she felt from watching him.

Speery asked, “Do you like that?”

“I think so,” Norman said. Speery let him stare at the sun for a full minute, then lifted him up and powered him off.

“What a way to go,” Speery said.

He turned his attention back to Betty. All of the emotions in Betty swelled up to a crescendo and ignited her insides. She couldn’t control them. She didn’t want to. Speery walked over and slid his hand under her back. Betty turned her head toward the lifeless shell of Norman.

“The sweet memory of dreams to you,” Speery said.

“Yes,” Betty replied.

Speery turned her off.

 

After The Flash

by Kyle Hildebrandt

 

“In the beginning…” The High Red Witch intoned words from high atop the central sarsen of the Henge. Her silken robes fluttered. “God said, ‘Let there by light,’ and there was the Flash. Seeing that it was good, She separated the light from the darkness.” Her words echoed off of the stones and out over the hundreds of gathered souls from the disparate clans. Twilight began as the setting sun dipped into the Solstice Notch, signaling the start of the wedding ceremony. From her vantage point, the witch eyed the sinuous line of packed, grey earth that divided the brides, who donned multi-colored silken robes, from the groom-choices, who were shrouded in their black-burlap cloaks. She continued the Reading, telling of how God had created the heavens and the earth, the fish of the sea, and the animals to rule the land… how She had created woman to rule over all, and man as her companion—to faithfully serve woman. As the witch finished, for a moment, in the distance, she thought that she had seen a woman with an unruly mane of red hair furrow her brow at the witch’s final words. Shrugging the thought of the amber-haired woman aside, she began the call and response portion of the ceremony.

As Lilith mouthed the familiar refrains, she wondered if the red witch had noticed her moment of bare doubt. Did the witch’s powers include the ability to read someone’s innermost thoughts? She shivered, as her mother’s voice whispered deep inside:

The Flash wasn’t the beginning. It was an end. A death. A death to a terrible, but glorious age. When giant swords stabbed the sky, when men flew in birds made of silver and gold. Yes. Once upon a time, men ruled over the Earth, not women. And when the Flash came, it ended it all—wiping out nearly everything they had created… leaving all men fallow and barren—completely sterile. After the Flash, men were helpless… useless… unable to contribute to reproducing life. After the Flash, witches have had their way with the world.

Grimacing, she managed to squelch her mother’s burning, heretical words… still; she didn’t dare to smother her cherished memories. Her hair had been amber-hued, not unlike Lilith’s. The way it would have danced and sparkled and lit up her smiling face in this dying light. She had smelled like nothing else Lilith had ever smelled. She had said it was the smell of the Broken Mountain, where her distant clan had come from. How she missed her. Lilith begrudgingly returned her attention back to her dutiful responses. She couldn’t take the chance that the witch might spot her being anything less than devoutly concentrated on the holy words the crowd chanted back to her prompts.

“So God created womankind in her own image…”

“In the image of God she created her.”

“Man to serve; Woman to create…”

“Joined together now in this blissful state.”

The muscles in Lilith’s neck cinched. Blissful state. Lilith swallowed. Her mouth was dry. Within minutes, she would have to decide which of the three groom-choices the witches had nominated for her would be her husband.

As her eyes scanned the three banners of each of her groom-choices, she tried to comfort herself. After all, she was a woman. She could marry all three if she wanted to. Or none at all, if that was her preference. Remembering how well her mother and father had loved one another before their lives were cut down so abruptly, Lilith felt the pang of bittersweet emotion, then, tucking it aside, set her mind to the task at hand.

After focusing on the horse’s head banner of the Eros Clan, Lilith’s intent gaze dropped to the man holding the standard. She eyed him carefully. It was difficult to tell one man from another because all wore the dester—the burlap, black-hooded robe that covered all of a man’s body and face except for his mouth and chin. Since it was so difficult to tell one from another, each groom-choice carried a banner that flew his clan emblem, making it easier for the brides to identify their possible husbands.

Even without the horse’s head banner, Lilith would have been able to recognize the angular, square jaw and broad shoulders of her first groom-choice, Paul. At the nomination ceremony, some had chattered about how good he was with horses—that he’d bring two dozen steeds with him as a dowry, that he was skilled at ploughing, planting, harvesting, breeding, and all of the other skills a man needed to be able to do to maintain a wife’s lands. Even among men, he was respected and liked. Lilith bit her lip. She imagined what it would be like to have the other women’s admiring eyes follow her as Paul walked the requisite ten steps behind her through the village market.

Next to the bucking standard of the Eros clan spun the swirling banners of the Spiral Sun Clan. Benjamin’s clan. She smiled. Years ago, when they were still considered to be children, she had met Benjamin at a solstice ceremony just like this one. They had had so much in common. Both grew up like wildflowers, only half cared for by distant relations. As orphans, they had been extended a combination of pity and dismissive inattention that had made it possible for a gangly girl with hair made of fire to play with a wide-eyed, imaginative, and introverted boy. Even the witches had looked the other way when they had come tearing through the crowds. The two of them had continued like this solstice after solstice. Then, one year, an old crone had caught Benjamin scavenging for firewood. When the crone spat at him, asking him what he was up to, little Benjamin, without blinking, replied, “My wife bade me to make her a fire against the cold, so I—” The crone had snatched his ear and brought him before a red witch before he could finish. And when the witches had finished with him, he couldn’t sit down for the rest of the days-long celebration. After that day, he had never looked at, spoken to, or touched Lilith since.

Still, she wondered how well his painted pots would be able to keep food on the table for a future family. Not that she would need his help to start a family, in the most literal sense. For that, they would need to take a pilgrimage to the City of Life, where she would pray the Prayer of Seven Days among the white witches. Afterward, God willing, she would be with child.

Beside Benjamin, Lilith’s eyes stumbled upon the slithering snake banner of the Clan of Vipers. Lilith blushed as she located John, her third groom-choice. He was a jokester and a trickster. A troublemaker, if you asked some. However, she could not deny that her heart beat faster when she considered how light and carefree her life would be with him—and how pleasurable, too, if the gossip was true.

She considered her groom-choices again, weighing each one carefully. The time was approaching. She wondered if she had the courage to go through with what she had planned. Her nails dug half-moon shapes into her palms.

The High Red Witch tossed her arms toward the stars, releasing the women to make their choices. All around her, brides were stepping forward, clasping the hands of groom-choices, and uttering the words “I thee wed.” The sentence sounded like a staccato drum beat from every angle. Some brides had two or three groom-choices gathered about, speaking the solemn words to each in turn. Lilith wobbled and stumbled forward. After righting herself for a moment, she tottered, and then she plunged and fell. A hand grasped her wrist, preventing her from falling flat out on her face. Hearing a collective gasp from the nearby women, Lilith looked up to see that the hand that held her wrist was Benjamin’s. Her face burned. Lilith hoped it was crimson enough. Men were forbidden to touch women, especially in public, and especially without permission—no matter what the circumstances.

Within a second, Lilith slipped out of Benjamin’s hold while simultaneously snatching his wrist in her hand. Gracefully standing to full height, she said, smiling, “Benjamin… I thee wed.” Relieved to feel the crowd of women around her let out a collective groan of sudden understanding while those closest to her offered half-embraces, Lilith let out a slow, almost imperceptible sigh. At last, she glanced at the visible lower half of Benjamin’s face. He was unable to hide the upward curls in the corner of his mouth.

Her gamble had worked. She imagined the happiness that would have been on her mother’s face… but she dared not look up at the central sarsen. She swore she could feel the eyes of the red witch boring into her back.

*****

The first few months of marriage passed pleasantly and happily for Lilith and Benjamin. His pots sold better than she had expected. He had proven to be a tenacious, if not naturally gifted, farmer. In the quiet hours of the evening, he proved to be much more open and loquacious than the shy, introspective boy she had first met all those solstice’s ago. At night, he was passionate and gentle, satisfying Lilith’s needs more often than not. In short, Benjamin exceeded her expectations in every way possible.

And… she almost laughed to herself at times… he chose me as much as I chose him.

Her mother would have been so proud.

Her life was happiness.

The shadow of the past was fading.

She was starting a new life.

The day of her cycle came and nothing happened.

She shrugged it off initially, trying desperately to avoid the thought, bending her mind to discussing the daily business at hand with the other women in the market. Still, the feeling that somehow, someway, life was growing inside of her haunted her every step. Another day passed. Nothing. And then another. Nothing again. It isn’t possible! She screamed to herself… but her body wasn’t lying.

As she wandered the streets of the village, her head was swimming with thoughts of what might be. Soon, she found that she was lost. When she looked up to get her bearings, there was the house. A shiver shot down her spine. Nothing was left but charred timbers. Weeds and wildflowers had taken over. A young sapling wound its way through the black cage of what had once been her home. She sank to her knees. There was the low stone wall where she had hidden. In an instant, she was there again. It was all happening again. She could see and hear it all, standing on tiptoes, her eyes peeking over the low wall. Tears splattered the dust. Screams echoed in her mind.

*****

That night, she needed Benjamin more than ever. She took him into her as if he were life itself. She hungered for a reminder that she was alive, that they were alive. Afterward, they lay together peacefully intertwined in one another’s arms. Staring into his eyes, she relished the opportunity to indulge in this intimate moment with her beloved husband. A moment that would have been absolutely forbidden in public. With a rush, the charred remains of the house sprang forward, burning away all other thoughts.

“Lilith… what troubles you?”

The charred home blew away into ashes. She saw Benjamin’s wide eyes in the firelight.

“Benjamin.” She raised herself up onto an elbow. “There’s something we’ve never talked about.”

“Something? There are quite a few things.”

He was right. She wondered where to start. Everything was interconnected and entangled. Huffing, she decided to start at the first point that came to mind. “We’ve never talked about how we knew each other when we were children.”

He didn’t respond.

“I don’t blame you for… for never speaking to me after what happened. But, I hope you don’t blame me for what happened either.”

“Of course I don’t. It wasn’t your fault.”

She hesitated. “You blame the witches.”

His lips were pursed tight, but she could see the flame behind the eyes. He said, “I went berry picking with my cousins one day.”

She listened.

“It was one of the best days of my life. We ditched our baskets and spent most of the day splashing in the creek. On the way home, I was worried my parents would scold me for how few berries were rolling around in my basket, but… it turns out I didn’t have to worry about that. They were gone. They’d disappeared. No one ever spoke of them again. Red witches had come to town that day. They left with the morning sun.”

A long pause stretched itself out as she gazed into the fire.

“My parents,” she croaked, “They… I only remember it in images. Pictures. In little snippets, like leaves in the wind. There are parts I remember. Parts that are so clear. I remember Mother had sent me to the well… on my way back, I heard the witches coming down the road. They had my father in this… this cage. All of the adults from the village were following them. At the house… my mother. I just remember her face. She never cried. She never begged for mercy. It was almost as if she knew I was watching her. As if she wanted my last memory of her to be her as a strong woman. The smell of the fire. The smoke stinging my eyes. I remember them holding hands as the flames licked upward. Then… the screaming.

“Later… when I asked questions… my relatives always shooed me away, but… I could piece it together, after a few years. My father, he wasn’t… sane. Everyone knew this, but… he got worse with each passing year. He had claimed to be a priest. I remember my uncle saying, ‘Next, he’ll claim he’s a unicorn!’ The laughter wasn’t joyful. It was filled with fear. Then, he started claiming that the Flash wasn’t the beginning, that it was an end. You see, my mother had told this to us for years, as parts of stories from the Broken Mountain Clan. Eventually, they lashed him. Time after time they lashed him, and time and again he would begin preaching again in the village square. After a while, something broke inside of him. At that point, I think he had truly lost his mind. Then, one beautiful spring day, he stood in the center of the village square and shouted with all his might that he was John Doe, Come Again. He shouted that I was his daughter by nature, not by the power of the Lady God or the white witches Prayer of Seven Days in the City of Life. In the end, the witches did what they do. I can still hear him screaming my name in my dreams. Telling me to be strong, to never forget… right up until the very end.”

She finished speaking and he held her until she was still again.

After a time, he asked her, “Why are you telling me this now? What has brought this memory back into your mind so sharply?”

She clasped his hand.

“What is it?”

“It’s been nearly two months since you have had to sleep away from me. Have you not noticed?”

He lowered his eyes, unsure of what to say. “I noticed, but… I didn’t know what to say or do. I assumed it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a little variation to occur.”

“It’s not normal. There’s a chance… a strong chance that I am…”

“With child?”

Lilith could not understand why the corners of Ben’s mouth were curling upward, just as they had on their wedding day.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“Yes. Very. But… come what may… we will have a made a life together. It’s a miracle.”

She squeezed him tightly, then held him at arm’s length and said, “We have only one choice.”

He thought for a moment and said, “Go to the City of Life.”

“Yes. We must pretend that the white witches and their Prayer of Seven Days is what has blessed us with a child.”

“It’s our only hope.”

*****

Through the desert sands, Lilith hobbled up to the intercom posted near the gate of the City of Life. Her lips were cracked and stung when she spoke, “Lilith and Benjamin of the Broken Mountain Clan have arrived. We have come in the hopes that the white witches will join me in the Prayer of Seven Days and that Our Lady God will bless us with a child.”

A crackle of static.

“May Our Lady God bless your arrival,” came the nasal response. “Two witches will be out to assist you, greet you, and escort you into the City.”

Metallic clangs and the grinding of gears rumbled as the enormous inner workings of the gate unlocked. Once open, a gush of cool air caressed the weary travelers. Two witches strode out to greet them, one in flowing red, the other in unrevealing white. The white witch, whose black hair was cropped, extended a hand to Lilith, as she said, “My name is Alexandra, the High White Witch of the City of Life. I will be your companion, Lilith, as we pray together for God to bless you with a child. You must be tired after your long journey through the desert.”

Lilith nodded, and said meekly, “Thank the Lady God, for she has willed us to survive the passage.”

“And I am Iva, the Red High Witch of the City of Life,” said as she proffered her hand. “Welcome.”

Taking her hand, Lilith averted her eyes quickly, hoping that the red witch did not place her. She was the very same witch that had presided at the wedding ceremony. Despite the coolness inside the City’s high, thick walls, beads of persperation began to form on Lilith’s forehead.

She was thankful when a eunuch strode up, gruffly wiping sweat away with a burned hand. “Man!” He jabbed at Benjamin. “Come here. No men inside. Only women.” He stabbed at the row of straw huts hiding in the shade of the high white wall that ringed the City. “You stay here.”

While keeping his eyes on the sand at his feet, Benjamin gave a formal bow to Lilith. There was so much more he wanted to say, to show, to express, but with the witches present, he merely bowed and followed the eunuch toward his new lodgings.Returning Benjamin’s bow with the slightest of nods, Lilith turned to follow in the wake of the witches as they led her into the Inner Sanctum of the City of Life. Cut deep into the desert sand, the Inner Sanctum primarily consisted of an inverted tower that delved ever downward via a marble spiral staircase that plunged the three women into more and more comforting coolness as they circled around. It was a welcomed respite from the unforgiving desert sun.

At first, they descended in silence, but the silence didn’t last long. As the circle of blue sky above them grew smaller and smaller, white witches joined them one by one—each carrying a candle and chanting a solemn hymn. After several dozen had joined them, Lilith’s spirits rose. It was very comforting to be around so many calm, serene women. They stepped away from the staircase and went through a small archway. Inside the room, an oval of candles illuminated a white bed, propped up at an angle. The volume of the chanting rose as more and more joined in. With gentle hands, they positioned her on the bed, spread her legs, and removed her clothes. With practiced efficiency, they sponged away the sand, dirt, salt, and grime that had accumulated on her body during the long journey. Now, it all melted away like butter under the witches’ delicate touch. Lilith felt her eyes relax and close as the dozens of hands massaged her muscles with fragrant oils. She let out a giggle as she felt a squirt of a cool substance tickle her belly. Hands were gently rubbing it around.

The soft chanting continued, but now many of the white witches seemed to be speaking in a completely new kind of cadence, as if they were speaking in a new hymn, or code—or an entirely different language altogether.

As if from the other end of a long tunnel, she heard the High White Witch Alexandra say, “Initial sonogram imaging displaying a perfectly healthy uterus. Prepare insemination tubes.” The sound of an underwater heartbeat flooded the chamber. “We’ve… we’ve got a pre-positive!” Alexandra’s voice was shrill in disbelief. Lilith heard a collective gasp followed by a flurry of activity. Blinking, she opened her eyes. White pain stunned her, forcing her to wince her eyes shut. Blinking again, she made out the white witches, bathed in blinding white light; white masks were covering their faces. Strange glass covered each eye, making each one large and sharp and stabbing. They were all staring down at her, unblinking.

“We’ve got to get her in isolation. Sedated. Immediately.” It was Alexandra again, though Lilith couldn’t see her.

“Find the husband!” Desperate fear struck Lilith. The voice that had shouted for Benjamin belonged to Iva, the red witch. There was no mistaking it. As she felt her vision blur and become fuzzy, she moaned, “Noooooo…” As the penetrating eyes swirled around her, she slammed into oblivion.

*****

Benjamin awoke. His head ached as he tried to make sense of where he was. Groggily, he realized that he was lying flat near a low fire in a small room. Benjamin tensed his muscles as he tried to sit up, but he felt six taut straps cut into his skin as he struggled. He writhed and squirmed, but the bonds only seemed to tighten. After he had worked himself into a flushed sweat, he rested his head back on the small, low table that he found himself confined to. He felt throbbing pain where the six straps had burned and cut into his bare skin. Why am I naked? He fought off the panic that flooded his mind and he tried to think.

What’s the last thing I remember? Playing cards with the eunuch. Letting him win, just to keep him happy. So happy, in fact, that he had come back from the kitchen toting a steaming kettle of tea, tea he’d generously offered to me. Tea I drank sparingly, watching the eunuch smile at me for the first time. His grimy teeth making the hairs on my neck stand up. And then… Then, I woke up here.

Benjamin swallowed. He had a vague sense that there was something more. More than what had happened between the eunuch’s tea and the present moment. Something terribly wrong and unnatural had happened. He swallowed again, trying to erase the dreadful feeling.

He tried to tally the facts. The fact that he was here probably meant the worst. Somehow, the witches must have discovered that Lilith was already with child. But still, this wasn’t what he and Lilith had been afraid of. Capture? Confinement? Surely, they would have immediately prepared a public pyre. The licking flames nearby sent a ripple of sweat over him. In vain, he struggled against his bonds once again.

He heard the locks on the door clicking open one by one. He lay still. He heard the door groan open. The High Red Witch, Iva was standing over him. She seemed strange. Her robes were not flowing in the wind and her flowing hair was hanging down on either side of her face, as still as death.

“So…” she said, “You’re the great John Doe, Come Again.” She licked her lips. “Not nearly as impressive physically as we were expecting. Then again, expectations tend to get exaggerated after hundreds of years of waiting for a prophecy to be fulfilled.”

“Where’s Lilith? Where’s my wife?” he asked, closing his eyes, trying not to think of heat or flame or burning.

She bent to tussle his hair. “Ah, yes. I remember presiding over the wedding ceremony that made the two of you wife and husband. That wasn’t so long ago. You must be an especially fertile little priest!”

“I’m not a priest!” The words came without thinking. “I’m a simple potter who wants to be left alone!” Even as the words were spilling out, Benjamin couldn’t believe that he had spoken like that, not to the High Red Witch herself. He opened his eyes. He was puzzled to see that she wasn’t even looking at the fire.

A milky white leg slithered out of her robes. Her foot found purchase near his hip. He remembered that he was naked. Bending lower, she whispered in his ear, “The white witches have been helping themselves to you with their tubes and their viles. You’ve been in this room for nearly a week, did you know that?”

The shadowy memories of swirling white-robed women came rushing back to him. “I want to see my wife.” All of the moisture was gone from his mouth.

“Red witches are different,” Iva mused. “We don’t believe in tubes and viles. We take what we want, when we want it, directly. Just like I’m going to do with you, John Doe.”

“That’s not my name,” he rasped. “Where’s my wife? Where’s Lilith?”

“Her? Yes, you can think of her if it helps you.” She edged closer, her spiced breath hot in his face, her hair cascading onto his face.

As she began, he screamed. There was little else he could do.

*****

Lilith awoke in a room bathed in warm light that seemed to emanate from the stucco walls. She lay in a warm, comfortable bed. Iva and Alexandra sat on opposite ends of her. Her eyelids fluttered, adjusting to the light. “Where’s Benjamin?” she asked. She’d had horrible nightmares.

“Don’t worry, my dear,” said Iva, grasping her hand compassionately. “We’re all tending to him.” When she smiled, the skin around her eyes crinkled merrily.

“Where’s Benjamin?”

Lilith was amazed to see that Iva looked puzzled, if just for a moment. “Tell me something, Lilith, isn’t it? Yes. Of course it is. Tell me. If my memory serves me correctly, I served at your wedding ceremony to this… this Benjamin, am I correct? Yes. I remember you. I remember something odd about that ceremony. The two of you sort of stumbled together, didn’t you?” She gazed deeply into Lilith’s eyes, as if searching for some hidden answer. She stood. “Now, I’m going to leave the two of you alone for a while.”

After a nod at the door, she left.

“How long have you and your husband been married?” asked Alexandra, seeming to be just as puzzled as Lilith at Iva’s quick departure.

“Since the solstice.”

“Not even a year and you’re pregnant!” Alexandra looked up from scribbling her notes. “Really?”

Lilith ignored the question. “What’s going to happen to him?

Setting her notes aside, Alexandra came closer. “Well… for the time being, he’ll need to remain in our care.”

“When can I see him?”

“Do you think that’s really necessary? If there’s anything you need… food, comfort, mood enhancers, exercise, entertainment of any kind—we can provide it here.”

“And if I wanted to go back to my village?”

“Why would you want to do that? What place could be safer, more welcoming, than here, in the City of Life?”

Lilith turned away from the High White Witch.

“Lilith, I’m sure you can understand the position we are in. Your husband has been blessed by Our Lady with a great power—a power we must all work to ensure benefits all of womankind. In time, you may visit him. In time, the two of you may return to your village.”

“When?”

“When we say it’s safe.”

Lilith cringed. “You’re not having our baby.”

Alexandra pounced. “Our baby?! So, you admit it, then?”

Lilith flared.

“Don’t worry, my dear. In time, you will be proud of the place you’ve earned for yourself and your husband in the annals of the Reading.”

Lilith didn’t respond.

“For now, dear child…” she said as she stood, “May the Grace of Our Lady be with you always.”

Lilith heard her walk to the door, pause, and leave.

Once she was gone, Lilith sat up and examined the room carefully. It seemed to be the same one she had been in before she had lost consciousness. Cool white walls curved all around her. There were no windows. The one opening was an archway. It was unbarred, but there was a man cloaked in black with the ram’s head insignia emblazoned on the back of his cloak. He clasped a spear and a sword was lashed to his back. Lilith trembled. She was a prisoner in a pillowed palace.

*****

Benjamin cringed as he saw the High Red Witch crouch over him yet again. How long had he suffered in this god-forsaken room? It seemed like an eternity.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Doe. I’m not here to take another seed,” she teased. “I’ve just got one question for you.”

“I want to see my wife.” It had been his mantra, his only defense against the insanity invading his mind. The white witches were no longer bothering with anesthesia during their procedures.

Iva smiled, ignoring his plea. “The night of your wedding—when Lilith chose you. You caught her, didn’t you? You stopped her from falling. You touched an unmarried woman.”

Benjamin gulped. “Yes. Yes, I did.” All he had left was the truth, and he clung to it like a drowning man.

“And she flipped your grasp, to make it look as if she had intended it—intended to chose you as her husband?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmmm.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Benjamin saw Iva’s forehead wrinkle. She rose and stepped out of his sight. He felt her press a cold metal object into his hand, and then she was gone.

*****

Lilith sensed that it was night. She noticed a lessening of the ambient wall light. Yet, she also sensed something deeper, more primal. She felt the pull of the stars, the rolling of the earth. Now. It was her only chance.

From the corridor outside her room, she thought she could hear the soft whispering of her Ram guard and another feminine voice, but she couldn’t be sure. When the hushed conversation was over, he returned to his post. He stood stolidly, as he did every night. She called to him: “Guard! Could you come, quickly! There’s something wrong with my monitor. I’m worried!”

He padded in quickly, his mouth set in a straight line. After checking all of the equipment, he said, “There’s nothing wrong here. Everything seems to be in order, My Lady.”

“I know,” she said, touching his arm tenderly. She felt goose bumps perk up at her touch. “You’ll have to forgive me. I lied.” She made herself flush, made her eyes grow wet. “The truth is, I’m just lonely. So lonely. How long has it been? Days? Weeks?” She motioned for him to sit on the bed near her.

His expression didn’t change. Slowly, he set his spear against the wall, near enough to get to in less than a second. He sat. “It’s been two months,” he said, not looking at her.

“Thank you. Thank you for telling me that.” She caressed his arm. “It must be so tiresome to stand guard at my door day after day.”

“I do what the witches ask of me.”

“Just the witches, or any woman?” She asked as she pulled back his hood. He was young, and handsome enough. He was shaking slightly. For a moment, Lilith pitied him, but she quickly focused on hiding the fear and loathing and dread of doing what she knew she had to do. It was the only way. If this young guard noticed any of her own true feelings… her hope of freedom, of seeing Benjamin again, all would be lost.

“It is the duty of any man to obey a woman. But… you are married… and with child.”

She put a finger to his lips. “Shhhh. Don’t be silly. Do you think I’m really married anymore? You know his fate—what they’ll do to him. I’ve been stuck in this room for months, I need to live again.” Slowly, she unbuckled his sword belt and silently rested it on the floor. Pulling him close, she thought of Benjamin and did what she knew she had to do.

*****

After the Ram guard had been snoring for an hour, Lilith slipped out of her bed, gathered her few things, delicately picked up the spear and the sword, and tiptoed through the archway and made toward the spiral staircase. Her bare feet felt wonderful on the cool marble steps. She could smell the scent of the desert, calling from high above.

Hearing the patter of footsteps coming down the stairs, she froze. She ducked into a niche, hiding behind a massive statue of The Lady. From here, Lilith peered out from under the black dester that was far too big for her.

The footsteps continued downward. Another destered figure appeared, working its way down the spiral stair, step by step. Whoever it was had a spear. There was something familiar in the manner of the destered figure that she couldn’t quite place. Lilith’s spear slid and clattered on the floor. The stranger’s head snapped in her direction.

“Who—who goes there?” He half-shouted, half whispered. Lilith’s heart was hammering in her breast; her breath was caught in her throat. Hesitatingly, the figure drew nearer to her hiding spot, spear raised, ready to strike. As the figure entered the shadows, it became harder to distinguish from the surrounding blackness. Yet, Lilith managed to see that the hooded head seemed to be focused upward, at the Lady, not downward, where Lilith was hiding. The figure seemed to stand transfixed, in awe of the statue. Then, it ducked its spear under its arm and darted onward down the stair. As Lilith watched the figure go, she realized why he seemed familiar.

“Benjamin!” she called.

Benjamin froze.

“It’s me!” she whispered, worried about how loud her first call had been.

Benjamin turned, gazing wonderingly up at the statue.

“No! Not there!” she admonished. “Down here. It’s Lilith.”

In the darkness behind the statue of Our Lady God, they found each other.

“I thought I’d never see you again,” she exhaled with a relief that physically hurt.

“Me too.” He tried to wipe the tears from her eyes, but ended up awkwardly poking her in the face.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She laughed. “It’s okay. It’s dark.”

A silence passed.

“How did you escape?” she asked.

“The High Red Witch… she… gave me a key.”

“Why would she…?”

“Lilith.” He touched her gently. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

“What?”

It was difficult to look at her. Her face was soft in the shadows.

“They took what they needed from me. In every way you can imagine.”

He broke down and she held him close.

“I… I tried to escape, but there was no way… I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to forgive. Not for you. But for me… there is. I had a choice.”

“A choice?”

“There was only one guard. A man. Sworn to protect me and do anything that I asked… There was only one way to get him out of the way and to get to you, and I chose to do it. I chose to be with him. To escape. To get to you.”

The pain registering on his face was nearly too much for Lilith.

“I understand,” he said. “It was the only way… These witches… It’s in the past… Only we can heal ourselves. Only we can do that.”

Despite his words, Lilith felt the gulf between them widen. They stared into one another’s eyes in the shadows, as if watching the world open up between them. Then, with a sigh, the abyss closed and the two waves crashed together again and became one ocean. The moment had passed. They were safe again. Together. Whole.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They scrambled up the winding staircase. The disk of overhead stars grew with each step. They managed to reach the gate without encountering a single witch. Two camels were tethered near the men’s huts, munching on straw, unguarded. Moving less than an inch a second, Benjamin saddled the camels, helped Lilith up to her mount, scrambled up his, and together, they slid through the open gate.

Thankful for their incredible luck, they urged their camels onward in stifled whispers, voyaging out across the desert sands.

*****

“You’re sure their tracking tags were inserted properly?” asked Iva as she followed Lilith and Benjamin’s progress through the desert on nearby monitors.

“No doubt. I chipped them myself,” said Alexandra. “The devices are working properly now, as you can see here.” She gestured to the bank of monitors. She shook her head and pinched her nose. “Why you thought it would be wise to let them go is beyond me.”

“I have my reasons.”

“He was the John Doe, Come Again. It’s been over a hundred years. We only took a limited amount of samples from him. If we lose contact with him, we’ll have taken a major step backward in our repopulation efforts.”

“You seem confident in your tracking abilities,” Iva sniffed. “Besides, a free-ranging cow bears more milk.”

“A strained metaphor.” Alexandra looked away from the monitors. “I think you have other reasons you’re not telling me, Iva.”

“Of course I do.”

“Well?” she whirled.

Iva sighed. “As a white witch, you believe in progress… moving forward?”

“What else is there?”

“Well, in a word… power. In two words… my power. It’s what keeps our fledgling civilization in order. What good does it do us if we have restored humanity’s numbers, but not eliminated the chaos that came to be synonymous with the end of the last age, the age of men, before the Flash cleansed the world?”

“Cleansed?”

“Certainly. It tore down man from his seat on high. Clearly, we women have already done a superior job at the helm of humanity. Eventually, word would have spread about the true John Doe, Come Again. We would have had to prop these two up as some sort of figureheads. It would have undermined our power, and therefore destabilized our society.”

“You mean, destabilized your society.”

“Yes. Is that so dark, so evil? I keep the world enlightened, strong, and orderly.”

“Perhaps you’re right. If we had accepted them, even indoctrinated them wholly, our psychologists tell us that they never would have given up fighting us. Our sociologists and futurists believe that, in the end, they would have most likely created a splinter civilization, a group of rebels inspired by their martyrdom.”

“Yes. In the end, they would have eventually been successful at wrenching away a small, yet important part of the people, and therefore, our power.”

“But what if the rebels would be right in the end? Surely, the Readings are filled with similar examples.”

“Do you realize what drivel, what craven ideology such a horde would have adopted?” Iva scoffed. “They would believe in equality—the kind of nonsense those two demonstrated during their time here: a complete fantasy based on openness, honesty, forgiveness, mutual understanding… working together toward common goals…” She shook her head, too disgusted to finish her thought.

“And what, tell me, is problematic about that?”

“Alexandra, really.” The red witch bristled. “There can be no growth of power, and therefore none of your pretty progress, so long as the daydream of equality exists.”

Alexandra tapped at her controls distractedly. “So, what will you do with them now?” Alexandra wanted to get on with it. She had plenty of work to do. Unlike Iva, she believed in what she did—plainly and simply, without cynicism.

“I’ll turn them over to you, for now. You can toy with them as you might toy with one of your little experiments.” Her eyes flicked to the monitors, then back to Alexandra. “Don’t let them stray too far. We may need them again.”

“Yes, I will. But what about repopulation? Surely, we’ll need to continue our efforts if we’re serious about re-establishing civilization. We only collected enough samples to supplement our current stock for fifteen to twenty more years.”

“We will be ready,” she said as her eyes dropped and she caressed her stomach. “Still… keep an eye on them. I may need to pay another visit to Mr. Doe.” With that, the red witch left.

Sighing, Alexandra set to work on analyzing the unique gene sequence that had re-established a genetic line of fertility in Benjamin. She toyed with the strand on her screen, marveling at it. Out of the corner of her eye, she continued to monitor the progress of the two destered figures as they fled through the desert. To her dismay, Alexandra’s hopes pushed them onward, wishing them safe passage beneath the stars.

 

Hope You’ve Guessed My Name

by Isabel Wolfe-Frischman

 

Thrust across the Atlantic in the business class limbo of a commercial jet, Beatrix and Hester read travel magazines, discussed their planned Italian odyssey, and drank vodka from tiny bottles. When they arrived at Amerigo Vespucci, they completed the metamorphosis into unabashed tourists, walking miles with goofy smiles on their thirtyish-year-old faces before checking into their pensione. As they walked they debated the potential merits and faults of various eateries. The walk-and-debate became their daily routine as they settled into their vacation.

The two had agreed on today’s restaurant fairly quickly, and it was perfect: only locals dined there it seemed, no English spoken. A radio played Frank Sinatra at one of the cafés they had passed that morning: “That Old Black Magic.” Cool and retro but much too American, they agreed, although Beatrix secretly desired a hamburger. This place turned out to be so Italian it was a challenge communicating with the waiter. Dove il bagno? was the extent of Beatrix’s lexicon, and she usually forgot to take her copy of Italian for Doomed Midwestern-American Tourists from the hotel.

Red wine—delicious Italian red—golden bread dressed in olive oil and garlic, a plate of noodles, calamari fritto. September. Leaves gaudily appliquéd to the sky, then ripped out by the seams, tumbling to the ground.

Sky so like blue velvet Beatrix wanted to sleep on it. Clear and clean and warm. Florence. Firenze.

The women noodled with their noodles, toyed with their bread, drank their Valpolicella wine, devoured the squid. Eternal lunch. They compared pinchings—three in various piazzas for Hester, one at the hotel for Beatrix. On the third carafe, they began to dissect their divorces.

Hester’s had been painful, no doubt. But Beatrix, with her penchant for the dramatic, monopolized the conversation, getting louder and more animated with each hard-earned, martyred, one-upping detail.

Lucedio, the sunburned, goateed man at the table closest to the kitchen, spoke quietly to the waiter in some Italian dialect. He worked tarring roofs, and was therefore responsible for a good ten percent of the pollution in the city. He also wrote daytime soap operas and spent a lot of time collecting dialogue everywhere he went. When Beatrix hiccupped and then slurred loudly, “He was a premature fucking ejaculator,” Lucedio choked on a breadstick.

Hester’s eyes had long since glazed over.

“Did you hear anything I just said?” Beatrix asked.

Lucedio leaned over to Hester and whispered, “They have pills for that.” The Italian winked and went back to his meal.

Hester began to laugh. “He speaks English,” she said, between guffaws. Beatrix called for the bill, slapped down some Euros, and lurched out. Hester followed, without a look back.

After lunch, the pair split up—Hester going to visit yet more museums as Beatrix climbed onto l’autobus numero sette.

Transforming into Anonymous Woman on a Bus, Beatrix blissfully realized that she had finally let her husband go; she had escaped. She remembered a book she read as a child, about a family that fled, leaving eggs drying on chipped plates. Fleeing either the Holocaust or some goblin or pirates, she couldn’t remember.

Her mind was all over the place. Probably the Valpolicella, or the Valpolicella combined with the calamari. She felt the bus was going nowhere. Or somewhere dead-ended, like a wine tasting with Cheezits and Thunderbird or a lecture on the wholeness of the universe, given by a man with only one leg.

Beatrix had been an actress, in Chicago, in her twenties, and a waitress at the 9th Circle Café. She left the nest early, like a bird. She had traveled quite a few hero’s journeys by the time she was eighteen. She once fantasized about tucking two little children into bed every night and then running off to sing in a Broadway show. No more than two kids though—she had read something called The Population Bomb in her adolescence, and it scared the devil out of her.

The guy at lunch, the dark guy with the big ears, Lucedio, the guy who made the hilarious comment that made her friend laugh at her, had learned all this over his zuppe. Almost as much as she knew about herself. As if he were reading her palm, her tarot cards. She had noticed Lucedio (she new his name and that it meant bringer of light but oddly couldn’t remember being introduced to him) watching her as she scuffled into the restaurant, toes pointed inward, one pant leg riding up over her calf, exposing an ill-fitting Ugg boot. Did he know she had been quietly ambitious in her youth, that now she watched mountains grow, knew she would bear no children, or that any children of hers would have been sent to boarding school or locked in the closet for most of their formative years, until their growth was stunted and their teeth rotted, as her ex had once suggested? Could he know that she was a whiz with Top Ramen and wasn’t much of a housekeeper? The day Beatrix asked for the divorce she found her husband scouring the tiles in the red bathroom with a toothbrush and solidified Spic and Span which had been in the box for almost five years, the length of their marriage.

They had been married in a chilly rain in the middle of the wilderness, next to a black, altar-shaped rock—the minister ordained by a matchbook cover. The groom wore a white linen suit, and the bride, determined to be unconventional, and proud of her body, was naked, save for the veil. As they walked to the black rock, they held hands—the groom’s were clammy. Punctuating the ceremony were a single distant thunderclap and the smell of lavender, slightly tinged with the ozone and brimstone smell of struck lightning. The only other witness was the photographer, the author of the one photograph that remained. Who, along with most of Beatrix’s friends, said the marriage wouldn’t last.

*****

The bus motored to the far outskirts of town, Beatrix sweating, alternately sticking to and slipping off the vinyl seat. The town resembled a child’s finger painting. Not vivid like the artwork at the Uffizi, but stark, brown, like a burnt sienna crayon. Here she would need to know more Italian than where’s the bathroom. She cradled her bag, which had very little in it besides her emergency toothbrush and a good novel about dysfunction. The sky greyed. Her jeans popped open. Be open to change, she thought, and giggled a red wine giggle.

That was when he boarded the bus. Lucedio, now dressed in white. Handsome. He jerked his head in her direction. “Hello, ma’am,” he said. Her favorite greeting. Every woman’s. Did he recognize her?

He stood, holding a strap, although seats were available. She could hear the music bleeding out of his iPod. Piano music. Pianissimo. Atonal, weird. Other worldly. And she could hear her own breathing, the man from the restaurant’s breathing, the bus breathing, all the people on the bus breathing, and their sniffling and their gurgling stomachs and their scratching and picking. The sound of a dry mouth being licked. Someone grinding teeth. No conversation. She closed her eyes and saw a parade of faces, people she knew, people she didn’t. She wished to share the crazy thoughts that were uniquely hers with Lucedio. She pictured him walking on his toes, carrying a butterfly net. She pictured him very, very fat. With pimples. She got goosebumps.

She could taste onions in her mouth, yet she had garlic at lunch. When she was little she mixed them up, garlic and onions. She could taste Jack Daniels, although of course she’d had red wine. Not since her wedding day had she swallowed sour mash and that was just the one shot, the dare-you shot for good luck. She flashed to a memory of a doctor she had seen, to treat a bald spot she had in tenth grade. Wondering if the alopecia areata would ever return. Remembering that doctor. A quarter-inch of clear mucus dripping from an ancient nostril as he diagnosed her.

Things are not what they seem, she thought, I’m down the rabbit hole, and something about the look on Lucedio’s face told her that he was thinking it too.

She thought of eggs on a plate. Of kidnapping. She looked out the window, saw the parapets of a medieval building. Imagined this man taking her there and chaining her to a wrought-iron table.

As if tapped on the shoulder by a ghost, Beatrix realized that she was supposed to have met Hester thirty minutes ago. But hadn’t she just gotten on the bus? Time was playing tricks on her. She felt full of electric energy, full of madness, as though she were coming down with chicken pox, or falling in love. She flashed on last spring’s first roses, somehow withering on their stalks before the buds had even opened.

Beatrix was tired, her mind muddled, and her numbing confusion escalated. She longed to be all right, to savor the moments, to breathe freely. One moment at a time. On the bus to nowhere, as if in a strange, lucid dream, she began to pray for an angel of mercy to rescue her, to make sense of her life.

Lucedio chose this moment to sit down next to her. She felt a rush of heat; she removed her jacket and boots.

“Hold out your palm,” said the dark man, the bringer of light. Beatrix was about to comply when she realized she already had. The sounds of the bus ceased. Such perfect silence. Beatrix thought she had lost her hearing until he spoke. “Your love line. Here, where it intersects with your life line—be open to change,” he said.

Beatrix vomited red with chunks of squid.

They got off the bus holding hands. Lucedio’s was clammy. Cold raindrops fell. Somewhere in the distance, a peal of thunder. She smelled lavender, sulphur. Beatrix shed the rest of her spoiled clothing, and naked, except for a thin scarf covering her face like a veil, she stood in front of a black stone cliff. An incredulous tourist snapped a photo. Beatrix knew to the hollow of her soul what tonight’s lovemaking would be like: passionate, burning, with a quick climax.

 

The Start of the Season

by Mark Christopher Lane

 

Hubert Donovan squeezed himself into the crowded elevator, pressing the button for the forty-fifth floor, and nodded at the woman in the khaki overcoat. She brushed a long strand of golden hair behind her ear, sniffed, and inched away from him. There wasn’t much room for her to move (she was practically already hugging the bespectacled man beside her), but she managed to create an extra foot of space between herself and the now perspiring Hubert Donovan. It wasn’t that the elevator was especially hot, even considering how crowded the little metal box was, it was just Hubert’s natural tendency to sweat. He took a subtle sniff beneath his left arm. Old Spice, laundry detergent… and, yes, sweat. The smell hadn’t yet become the overpowering miasma of body odor typical of quitting-time, but it was on its way. And it wasn’t even nine a.m. Hubert sighed and picked at his upper lip. There was a cold sore brewing there. Not too big or painful yet, thank Christ, just a little itchy knot beneath the thin hairs of his mustache.

The bell dinged and the elevator doors popped open. Hubert shuffled out. The office was quieter than usual, especially since it was so near the start of the season, but it wasn’t quiet-quiet. More like office-quiet. There was a steady flow of murmuring voices as men and women sat in their cubicles answering phones mixed with the sharp staccato of fingers clacking away at keyboards. Papers were shuffled. Feet padded across the carpeted floor. They were comforting sounds, in a way, but also infinitely depressing. Hubert walked gingerly toward the break room in search of a tall cup of coffee, because, well, he had to get some, even if it tasted like the bottom of an ashtray and was thick enough to stir with a stick. He wouldn’t make it through the morning without enough caffeine inside him to kill a small horse.

As he approached the break room a short woman with flowing black hair and more curves than all the roads in Virginia walked out with her fingers wrapped delicately around a steaming pewter mug.

“Morning, Jen,” Hubert said, his voice low, barely more than a mumble.

Like the woman in the elevator, Jennifer Belanger sniffed, brushed her hair back from her brow, and walked away without a word. Hubert sighed. He walked over to the coffee urn, plucking a large Styrofoam cup off the counter as he did, and pressed down on the lever. Nothing came out.

The coffee pot was empty.

*****

Hubert went about his work as he normally did, though perhaps not as quickly as he might have—no coffee meant less productivity—while the stink beneath his arms grew worse and the sore on his upper lip progressed from mild itching to a dull throbbing ache. He popped into the men’s room to check on it sporadically throughout the day, mostly whenever he got up to see if he could track down his department head Mike Bauer (they needed to discuss the start of the season—it was perilously close and Hubert didn’t think they’d be able to make good on their promises—but Mike seemed to mysteriously vanish every time Hubert made his way over to his cubicle). Those periodic trips to the bathroom mirror were not encouraging. The sore looked infected. It had grown from a small pink bump the size of a pimple to a raw clump of skin bigger than the head of a nail. He’d have to buy some medication on his way home. And some aspirin. Hubert sighed.

*****

By the time Hubert rolled himself into bed that night, the pain was bad enough to worry him. He’d never had a cold sore before, not that he could remember. Were they always this painful? He hoped the medication would help. No, he was sure the medicine would help; it’d cost him $19.95 plus tax. When he woke up tomorrow, the cold sore would be mostly gone and he could go back to work free of pain and maybe see if he couldn’t finally track down Mike Bauer. Maybe even Jennifer Belanger would return his hello. Yes. Tomorrow would be a good day. Hubert closed his eyes, smiling at the thought, then winced as a lance of pain shot up from his lip.

The medicine had to work, he thought, grimacing.

He tossed and turned for a while in painful silence before eventually drifting off to sleep.

*****

The medicine didn’t work. Things had only gotten worse.

Jesus, it was big. A round malignant lump, calloused like the fingers of a guitar player, throbbing beneath his mustache. The mustache had never grown thicker than one of his thin blonde eyebrows all the year’s he’d let it grow, but the painful sore had more than doubled in size in just the last 24 hours. Look at it now. It was the size and shape of one of his flabby, fleshy knuckles. He went into the bathroom and turned on the hot water, cupping his hands beneath the flow in the bowl of the sink. His chubby fingers tingled from the heat and his cheeks (and lip) stung as he splashed water onto his face. He took a razor from the cabinet and carefully cut away the infected skin, wincing as he further exposed the bleeding sore beneath. It dripped dark red blood that was almost black and some kind of yellowish-ooze, and it pulsated, like a cartoon character’s thumb when smashed by any number of unlikely objects.

The sink was half-full with blood and puss and water before Hubert was satisfied that he’d cut away most of the callous. The trusty (and now crusty) tube of camphorated phenol lay on the counter to his right. A quick squirt over the sore flesh made it look more-or-less like raw meat wrapped in cellophane, like the stuff you pick up at the grocery store. It looked irritated, though; infected, huge.

But what could he do? He had to go to work. Bill Gortler, their general manager, was clearly worried about the start of the season, and if his office team failed this year the shit would really hit the fan. Gortler kept telling everyone that it would be okay, that they would begin the season with a flourish and everyone would have a reason to celebrate. But Hubert had heard the stress building behind the man’s encouraging voice, could almost see the panic that lay tremulously close to the surface. And no one believed Gortler, anyway. Hubert wasn’t a person whom his coworkers normally confided in, but he’d overheard enough conversation in the bathroom to know that most of the office team thought this year would be a failure.

So Hubert toweled off, paying careful attention to dry between the folds of skin on his chest, stomach and thighs, and tugged up a pair of designer slacks over his waist. After first checking himself in the mirror—wincing at the grotesquerie on his face—he poured himself into his Stratus and drove to work.

Several compulsive rear-view mirror checks and a lifted eyebrow from the parking attendant later, Hubert pushed himself inside the crowded elevator and pressed the number forty-five. Most of the men and women inside the elevator didn’t work on his floor, and so, they paid him no more mind than… well, the people who did work on his floor, for which he was grateful. He existed in some kind of opaque vacuum which rendered him invisible to the normal world. Well, maybe it wasn’t entirely opaque. The world could see enough of him to know to ignore him. But for once, that made him happy. He didn’t want attention now, not with his lip looking the way it did. He’d get off the elevator, slip into his cubicle, and embrace the solitude of his work until 5 p.m. He’d go home, wash and medicate the infection (again), and hope for it to go away. If it did, maybe he’d be able to talk to Mike—and Jennifer for that matter—tomorrow morning. Today was not the day.

But when he entered the office, waddling along the maze-like corridor to his corner cubicle, he had the strange sensation of eyes upon him, an altogether unique and unexpected sensation. At first, he figured he was just being paranoid. Nobody had ever noticed him before, why should they now? But his paranoia proved to be justified a moment later.

He bumped into Jennifer Belanger coming out of the break room, as he almost always did, but today, she stopped. She stared. At him. With those beautiful dark eyes. And, incredibly, she was smiling at him. Those eyes and that smile would make any man weak, let alone Hubert Donovan, whose last intimate interaction with the opposite sex had been a fist-bump with Alexi Ramirez when he’d won the high school spelling bee, and they were entirely levelled at him. In his state of shock, Hubert could only stand and stare back at her, unable to move.

“Hey there, partner. Good morning,” she said, her voice low and husky. She was talking to him, Christ preserve us. His paralysis wore off a bit as a jolt of pain went up his nose, but then his self-consciousness came roaring back, reminding him of the thing on his face. He desperately didn’t want her to see the sore. She was standing in the middle of the aisle blocking Hubert’s escape route into the break room, so he lowered his chin instead and scratched furiously at his cheek. Sweat popped out in beads on his forehead.

“Morning,” Hubert mumbled.

“Sorry, but, what’s your name again?” she asked.

“Hubert. Hubert Donovan.”

“Right, Hubert! I knew that. This is your first year, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, uh, no. I mean yes. Yes.”

“Well, which is it, darling?” Jen laughed, a melody to his ears.

“Yes, it is. Sorry. Anyway, I’m in a bit of a hurry. I have to try to find Mike Bauer to discuss the start of the season. I don’t know how we’re going to do it this year.”

“Man, I hear you. We’re all stressing about it. We didn’t think there was any way we’d be able to give it all back, but Gortler seems to think we’ll be fine.”

Hubert said nothing, didn’t know what he could say, so he nodded his head and shuffled his feet and continued staring at the floor while he scratched away at his cheek.

“Hey, you should stop that,” she said, and she actually reached up and touched his hand. Her fingers felt blessedly cool on his sweaty flesh. Startled by her touch, he stopped scratching, lifted his chin and stared directly into her dark brown eyes. He thought she might flinch away, once she saw the sore on his face, but instead, her smile broadened. He noticed that he’d never really seen (or paid attention to) her teeth before. It was the one flaw of an otherwise supremely attractive young woman; her teeth were badly yellowing, and longer than most Hubert had ever seen. Animalistic, almost.

“There you are,” she said. “See? Looking up isn’t so bad. And you got a lot to be proud of, sugar. We all thought Bill was full of shit, but I can see he was right.”

Proud? More like confused; what did he have to be proud of? And what was Bill right about?

“You’re growing a winner, Hubert,” she said. “It’s going to help us do things right this year. Just you wait.” She touched his cheek suggestively. “And if you stay tough, if you wait it out, we’ll all want to thank you, be sure of that.” Jen winked at him and turned away, her black skirt swishing softly against her tanned legs. Utterly nonplussed, Hubert stood exactly where he was for another moment wondering if he hadn’t dreamt the whole conversation before finally hurrying off to the protective embrace of his corner cubicle.

*****

The day was odd. There was no other way to describe it. Hubert sat in his cubicle and did his work while making periodic trips to the bathroom to check his lip. Each time he went, inexplicably, the lump was larger. When he’d gotten up that morning, the sore had been the size of his knuckle; by noon it had grown so large that it hung down over his mouth and brushed against his chin. And the pain. The pain was getting worse by the hour. It throbbed and dripped and bled, and no matter how many napkins he wrapped around it, the flow of blood never seemed to stop. He seriously considered going to the emergency room, but something else—strange in an entirely different way—prevented Hubert from doing so.

People were actually coming over to talk to him. First the elusive Mike Bauer, who slapped Hubert on the back so hard that flecks of blood flew from his lip and showered the computer screen, then Liz Goldman, who came over and actually gave him a hug.

“Hubert, you’re doing so well!” she exhaled in his ear, a lock of her curly blonde hair bouncing playfully on his bald head. “Keep it up, tiger. You’re the best.”

Mike and Liz were only the beginning. An endless procession of coworkers visited his cubicle throughout the day. By the middle of the afternoon, he’d given up trying to hide the growth on his face; it seemed that everyone was, somehow, happy to see it.

Guy Anders brought him a cup of coffee (that Hubert couldn’t drink) and told him to keep up the good work; Michelle Bentley hopped up onto his desk, crossed her legs, and talked to Hubert for more than half an hour while he pressed bloodstained napkins against his dripping sore; even Bill Gortler came over and told Hubert how proud he was of him—and the list grew by the hour, much like the sore on his lip.

Five o’clock came suddenly and abruptly, and even though the pain was almost too acute to tolerate, Hubert left the office and went home as he normally would. The day had been too strange. Too, well… rewarding. His co-workers had continued to encourage him, saying things like “don’t give up” and “keep it going” right up to the end of the day. But they said these well-intended encouragements with a nervous sort of severity that, upon reflection, Hubert didn’t entirely like. It was like they wanted—no, were depending on him to let the thing grow. But why should it matter to them?

He didn’t know, but as Jennifer Belanger hugged him on the way out, pressing her supple breasts against his chest as she did, he honestly didn’t care. If the sore garnered this kind of attention—for whatever reason—far be it from him to go to the doctor and have it chopped off. He’d suffer the pain and the discomfort for as long as he could in order to continue relishing this sudden human interaction. It’s terrible but true, he realized: you must suffer for acceptance. But that was crazy, wasn’t it? Why would they suddenly love him because of an infection on his lip?

After returning home, Hubert puzzled over the day for a while before washing a handful of multi-colored pain-killers down his throat with a generous shot of scotch and went to sleep.

*****

It was bigger in the morning. He knew that without even opening his eyes.

Fumbling in the dark, Hubert could feel a long and inexpressibly awful weight twisting and turning on his chest. It descended from the center of his face (which was mostly obliterated from sight, now) and stretched down below his waist. It wriggled against his stomach and left dark blood stains on his bed sheets and pajamas.

His heart thumped as he rolled off the bed. He cried out as he kicked the sore with his foot, the pain searing, the feel of it on his toe revolting. And did it grunt at him? Did it actually make a noise as his foot connected with it? Blood dotted the carpet and smacked on the linoleum as Hubert flicked on the lights.

He screamed. Fear caused his heart to trip-hammer in his chest.

It was like some Lovecraftian monster, an engorged red and black python that wriggled against his chest and stomach, twisting up at the end as if Hubert’s face had become the hook its tail was skewered upon and it was trying, like a worm, to reach up and unhook itself. It had eyes. Four of them. Black ones that shined with some kind of malignant poison that dripped and sizzled on the floor. It had a mouth. Full of rotted, yellowing teeth. Teeth, it seemed, that had been filed down into points. It thrashed and hissed as spit and sheets of blood flew off the body and spattered against the walls, the toilet, and the floor. Hubert almost vomited, but the thought of the thing covered in blood and vomit made his throat shut tight.

The pain was overwhelming.

“Please, God, help me,” Hubert moaned, but the words were muffled by the creature covering his mouth. Hubert reached over the sink and opened the medicine cabinet. Inside was a pair of scissors. He took them down and held them up to his face. He had to cut it off. Had to.

But, oddly, the creature relaxed. It wriggled its head up and stared into Hubert’s eyes.

Hubert stared back for a full minute, wondering what it wanted, when suddenly he knew. Hadn’t he seen the same look all day yesterday in the eyes of his coworkers? The thing wanted him to cut it free. It was encouraging him to snip it off. It had stopped gnashing its teeth, had stopped twisting and turning. It simply lifted its head and stared up at him with quiet encouragement. And Hubert realized the thing would not hurt him. It was plenty long enough to reach up and bite Hubert’s face off, but it hadn’t. The creature was a part of him for the time being. “Until I cut it off,” Hubert mumbled. Yes, he’d cut the thing loose and it would turn its ugly head on him and devour him whole.

But, ever so slightly, the worm shook its head.

“No? You won’t?” Hubert asked. The bizarreness of the scene in his bathroom was not lost on Hubert (here’s a man standing in his pajamas with a bleeding wriggling sore that looks suspiciously like something out of the movie The Thing and, dear god, are they actually having a conversation?) but a calm came over him, as if he were mesmerized, as the worm slowly shook its head. It wouldn’t hurt him. Hubert could cut it loose and it would simply slither out of the apartment and go back… where? Anywhere. What did it matter? If he cut it loose he’d be free of it. Let the damned worm figure out for itself where it would go.

As if hearing his thoughts, the worm nodded. A drop of poison leaked out of one eye and burned a hole in the Good Housekeeping magazine on the toilet. “Okay, I’ll do it,” Hubert said, raising the scissors to his face. He’d have to be careful; he didn’t want to cut off any of his own skin. Hubert picked the spot and held the scissors close. But as his fingers began to close, his cell phone rang. He stopped. The worm looked up at him questioningly. Hubert waited, wondering who could be calling. No one ever called him. The phone rang six or seven times then fell silent. Hubert raised the scissors again, clenching his teeth in anticipation of the pain… and his phone rang. The worm wriggled impatiently. The movement sent a bolt of pain up to Hubert’s face.

“Let me answer it, it’ll only take a second,” Hubert said, and in possibly the weirdest emotional development of the morning, felt himself grow defensive as the worm gave him a reproachful look. He walked gingerly back into his bedroom, wincing with each careful step, and snatched the ringing phone off the bedside table.

“Hello?” he mumbled.

“Hubert!” It was Jennifer. It was unmistakably her voice. “It’s Jen from the office. You okay, hon?”

“Uh, no, Jen, not really. And I can’t talk right now. I have to go—”

“Don’t cut if off, Hubert!” another voice shouted in the background. It sounded, incredibly, like Bill Gortler. “Please, Hubert!” And that was Mike Bauer. And then, a chorus of voices sounded in his ear, as if the whole office was on the other end of the call. Jennifer’s voice came back a moment later. Low, sultry, soothing.

“Hubert, I know it’s painful, honey. But listen to me, listen to everyone. We’re all here to support you. You’re doing a wonderful thing for us, darling. Please. Please, don’t cut it off.”

“How do you know about this?” Hubert asked. “You haven’t seen it. You don’t know what… you don’t know what it’s become.”

“We know, Hubert,” she said. “Don’t ask how, there’s no time. Just don’t cut it off.”

“Why shouldn’t I? I-it’s so big! And it hurts. I have to. It wants me to.”

“It’s playing you, Hubert,” Jennifer replied. “It’ll rip your heart out the minute you let it loose.”

Hubert looked down at the worm on his belly. It shook its head no, and Hubert wanted to believe it (why on earth he should, he didn’t know), but Jennifer’s voice came back then, deeper. Her words caressing the inside of his ear as if she were there, licking his earlobe.

“Trust me, babe,” she breathed. “It’ll rip your heart out. But we won’t. We want to help you. Come to the office, we’ll make it better. And once we do, I’ll be sure to… reward you.”

It’s often said that men sometimes think too much with their little heads and not enough with the big ones. Even in this unlikely situation, Hubert was not above the stereotype. He’d been trying to lose his virginity since, well, since the fist-bump at the spelling bee. Jennifer wasn’t promising sex, exactly, but there was no mistaking the suggestion in her voice.

“I’ll be right there,” Hubert choked.

He put the phone down and briefly considered changing his clothes. But what was the point? The worm was going to get blood all over everything. So he wrapped a jacket around himself, carefully zipping up the worm inside, and walked out to his car.

The creature was not happy. It thrashed about inside his jacket causing such pain and distraction that Hubert couldn’t keep control of the steering wheel, the Stratus swerving back and forth across the road, barely avoiding multiple accidents en route to the office. Arriving at work, the car safely parked, walking to the elevator was even worse. The worm seemed to sense where they were going and didn’t like it. Its movements became more frenzied, harder to subdue. It felt like the worm had gotten even bigger, too; the bulge beneath Hubert’s jacket was equally as thick as one of his thighs. It even nipped at Hubert’s feet, but they weren’t real bites, they were just to show its displeasure and anxiety. Hubert grunted in pain as he walked. Drops of blood and poison splashed down onto the concrete from beneath his jacket.

He entered the crowded elevator and pressed the number forty-five. The blonde woman in the khaki jacket was there. She sniffed and edged toward the bespectacled man beside her, never lifting her eyes to Hubert’s. And suddenly, it was all too much.

“Oh, come on!” Hubert yelled, his voice thick. “Can you really ignore this?” He pointed at his face and, as he shouted, a wet chunk of blood and tissue sprayed out and hit the woman in her face. She sniffed, took a Kleenex from her coat pocket, and wiped the blood away.

Too much. Hubert began to laugh, wincing as the pain shot through him with each guffaw. The elevator doors dinged open a moment later, and Hubert stepped out. Behind him, the crowded elevator looked like the inside of a slaughterhouse. The bespectacled man quietly continued reading his newspaper.

Jennifer was the first person he saw as he came into the office foyer. She ran over, her yellow teeth flashing, and gingerly put her arms around Hubert, careful not to bump the creature inside his jacket.

“Hubert, you came!” she shouted happily, even giggling a little. “Come on sweetheart, everyone’s waiting.”

“But, Jen, wait, I—”

She tugged his hand and dragged him into the conference room—which wasn’t to be confused with the smaller, smellier break room—shouting, “He’s here! He’s here!” as she did so.

The entire office team was there. Bill Gortler, Mike Bauer, Liz Goldman, Guy Anders; everyone was there. The entire team. They began to clap their hands enthusiastically as Hubert came into the room. Some were laughing, some were crying, many of them were hugging. But all of them were smiling. And while Hubert felt a sudden rush of happiness—he’d never been received in such a way by anyone before, let alone an entire group—he also felt a stab of unease. With an alien growth on his face, unease shouldn’t have been a rare emotion that morning, but the unease he felt upon seeing his coworkers was different. They were genuinely happy to see him, that was clear, but their eyes were somehow lecherous. And their smiles revealed the same long yellowing teeth he’d seen in Jennifer’s mouth.

What the hell was going on here?

Bill Gortler stepped forward and the team quieted behind him.

“Hubert,” he said, his voice proud, “you’ve done a great thing today. You’ve shown courage and bravery. You could’ve cut the worm off your face and been done with it, but you persevered, and we’re all eternally grateful. You might not understand what’s happening, but you will very soon.”

“You’re right, I don’t know—”

“There’s no time to explain. We need to get that thing off your face.”

They rushed him then, and Hubert felt a surge of panic. But they didn’t hurt him. They ushered him to the conference table and gently pushed him down onto his back. They removed his jacket, exposing the thrashing creature inside. There was excited murmuring and giggles. Hubert lifted his head to get a better look at what was going on around him, and realized it was a mistake the moment he did it.

His coworkers were huddled around him, but they weren’t his coworkers any longer. There was a resemblance there, to be sure. He knew Jennifer by her short curvy body even though her hands had grown into claws with long black talons that gleamed beneath the fluorescent ceiling lights. Her nose and mouth had blended together, creating a long snout that snapped open and closed, the long yellowing teeth inside gnashing against each other sharply. A tongue that must have been three feet long flicked out of the snout and licked her lips. Hubert could still see the red lipstick she’d been wearing. The others looked the same. Their hands had become claws, their faces had grown snouts, and their teeth gleamed and their eyes shone with anticipation as they circled around Hubert, laughing as the worm on his face snapped at them. A low pitiful whine came out of the creature. The office team laughed again. And suddenly, Hubert felt bad for the worm on his face. His coworkers were taunting it. Meant to kill it, it seemed. And the creature was afraid.

Bill Gortler stepped forward quickly (it must be Bill—who else would wear those terrible Hawaiian shirts?) and grasped the wriggling worm between his claws. The pain was immense. It shot through Hubert and made him close his eyes as he cried out in agony.

But then, the pain was gone. Completely. Like someone had turned off a switch.

Someone, probably Bill, had reached down and bit the thing cleanly off his face. Hubert sat up. He could breathe. He tried talking, and his voice came out fine. He touched the spot where the creature had grown. It was a little sensitive, but he knew—how, he couldn’t say—that it would heal just fine within a couple of days. His eyes moved to the back of the conference room where the group had laid the worm on the table.

They opened it up with their claws. The poor creature shrieked a final time, then lay still. One of them, Hubert didn’t know who it was this time, ran a talon down the center of the body and folded back the worm’s skin. The others stuffed their hands inside and began pulling out huge clumps of… money.

Really?

No, it couldn’t be. But it was. Inside the dead worm were bundles of crisp green bills. And not just singles or fives or twenties. These were stacks of hundred-dollar bills. His coworkers laughed and yelled in merriment as they pulled stack after stack of money—an impossible amount, it seemed—out of the worm’s body. When they were done, a towering pile of green bills rested on the conference room floor against the wall. There was a loud roar of applause.

“We can give it all back!”

“We did it! It’ll all be okay!”

The statements varied, but the sentiments were the same; they had the money, they were going to give it all back. The season would be a success.

“Everyone, everyone!” Bill said, holding up his claws, his tongue snapping and waving in the air before him. “Our work here is done. Let’s eat!”

As they bent over the worm’s body, Hubert took one look and fainted.

*****

Hubert awoke alone in his own bed. He sat up quickly, his heart pounding, his hands fumbling for the light switch. The clock on his bedside table read seven a.m. He’d slept the whole night. But how had he gotten home? Never mind. The worm. Was it gone?

The worm, or the sore, or whatever the hell it had been, was indeed gone. They’d eaten it, he remembered. There was still a small itchy bump on his lip, but it was fading rapidly. He wouldn’t even have to put lip balm on it. He wondered for a moment if he wasn’t losing his mind, hadn’t imagined everything, but the evidence of yesterday’s events was all over the apartment. There was blood, small holes in the floor where the poison had burned through, the jacket he’d been wearing was gore-city, and the Good Housekeeping magazine was ruined. All real. It had all been real. He went back into the bedroom to change his clothes and noticed a note lying on the bed. It must have been on his chest when he woke up, and he’d knocked it off without realizing. In a scrawling cursive hand, the note read:

Hubert, honey, good morning. We can’t thank you enough for what you did. You’re the office hero. Please come back to work tomorrow. We have the money now, but there’s still a lot of work to do to make sure this season is a success. Please come back.

The note was from Jen.

Hubert rushed to get ready, picking clothes at random, and flew out of his apartment. He made it to the office in record time and, without even acknowledging khaki-coat-girl or spectacles-boy, practically leapt through the elevator doors as it stopped on number forty-five.

He didn’t know what he expected, but it certainly wasn’t the composed, office-quiet environment he walked into. The sounds, those comforting yet depressing sounds, were the same. The voices answering phones, the shuffling of papers, the feet padding across the carpeted floor. Mike Bauer walked nearby and raised a hand to Hubert in a casual hello. Mike’s face and hands were back to normal. A little confused, Hubert walked over to the break room.

Jennifer Belanger came out and flashed him a smile. Her teeth were white.

“Hubert,” she said softly, wrapping her arms around him. “So glad you made it back. There’s a lot of work to do.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Hubert stammered. “But, Jen, did it, I mean—did all that really—”

“You’re a hero, Hubert,” she said, nodding. “We have the money, but now it’s time to get to work. We gotta give it all back, remember? Everybody on deck. Oh, and, not to worry—I’ll want to thank you once the work is done.”

She winked at him and walked away.

Hubert Donovan was suddenly quite happy. He freed his mind of confusion, gave up trying to figure out what it all meant, and embraced this wonderful feeling of acceptance. People were waving at him, people were talking to him, and the prettiest girl in the office felt she had a debt to repay to him. Life was suddenly, well, good.

He walked lightly into the break room and got a cup of coffee. The pot was full and hot. He took the cup back to his cubicle and sat down. He turned on his computer. He sipped his coffee and smiled. It was going to be a good day.

The phone rang. Hubert reached over and plucked the black handset from the base.

“Thank you for calling H&R Block, this is Hubert, how may I help you?”

 

Fair Is Fair

by Terence Gallagher

 

“Slow down, slow down. How about this guy?”

There was a man moving along the sidewalk, close by a row of darkened shop windows. Hack brought the car to a halt, and they watched him. He paused at each window and looked inside. As he looked, he swayed.

“That’s our man.”

Hack was their leader. He owned the car and the camera. He got out first and the others followed. Simeon went out through the roof. He was the psycho sidekick. He had the tics and twitches of a thousand psycho sidekicks from a thousand movies. John-John was sure that Simeon’s mannerisms were carefully cultivated. He had real energy though; there was no denying that.

John-John was still on probation. This night was very important to him.

They approached the homeless man from three different angles. He was clearly homeless. Overdressed, in a quilted coat. Red faced. Pants too long. Cord belt. Obviously nowhere to go. He saw them advancing on him, and tried to shuffle past, pressing even closer to the windows. Hack stood in his way.

“Hey, guy, how’s it going?” he asked.

“It’s going,” replied the man, and then from force of habit, irresistible even now when he clearly felt threatened, the man asked, “Do any of you guys have any change you can spare?”

“Change?” Simeon performed a spin move, a little turn on his heel, and giggled.

“Sure, sure, we have change. But how’d you like to earn some real money?”

The man looked at him uncertainly, and backed up a step. His face showed heavy scar tissue around the eyes and cheekbones. His nose was flat. Perhaps he had once been an unsuccessful prize fighter.

“Nah, nah, nothing like that,” said Hack.

“Relax, dude,” said Simeon.

“See, I’m a filmmaker,” said Hack. He held up his camera. “I make documentaries. You know, like reality television. I shoot extreme situations. Street situations. I pay people real money, not change.”

“Yeah? How much?”

“Ten, twenty, a hundred. It depends on what they do.”

“A hundred dollars? You don’t got a hundred dollars.”

“Look at my car. Look at it. You’re gonna tell me I don’t have a hundred dollars?”

“Man, he rolls his own with hundred dollar bills,” said Simeon.

“So, are you game?”

“Sure,” said the man.

“Sure he’s game,” said Simeon. “Buy some of that good stuff, keep you warm at night.”

“Let’s start small. I have to check out your talent… your natural aptitude. See that garbage pail? I’ll give you five dollars if you stand on your head in it.”

“You said ten.”

“For that? That’s for nothing! OK, OK, you drive a hard bargain. But you better get your head down into it. Now, first, look into the camera. Franklin Avenue. One a.m. What’s your name?”

“They call me Crash.”

“Crash. That’s your street name. What’s your real name?”

“That’s my name.”

“OK, you don’t have a real name. What are you going to do for us, Crash?”

“I’m gonna stand on my head in that garbage can.”

“Do your stuff.”

The man started over, then paused and looked back.

“You’re not going to stiff me, are you?”

“No, no. I said ten, I’ll pay you ten. Fair is fair.”

He went over with a will, and tipped himself into the rancid-smelling container.

“That’s right, get down into it, get down into it.” Simeon squatted beside him shouting encouragement. The man packed more and more of his body into the cylinder until only his legs waved in the air.

“That’s good, that’s good.” Hack sounded bored. “You can come out now.”

The man struggled for a while, then finally overbalanced the can and crawled out backwards. There was damp matter in his clothing and in the greasy hair that straggled out from under his knit cap. Garbage trailed out of the overturned pail into the street.

“You better pick that up, Crash,” said Simeon.

“I’m not picking that up.”

“All right, my man Crash has his pride,” said Hack. “Here’s your ten. I said ten, I meant ten. Fair is fair. That was OK, but… unspectacular, you know? My audience craves excitement, the unusual. How’d you like to make some real money?”

“Sure, man. I’m not afraid of nothin’.” The man seemed exhilarated.

“Let’s see what we can come up with.”

Hack walked past the row of shops to the corner. John-John walked alongside, trying to think of something clever to say. Simeon was chattering away to the homeless man.

It was plain that Hack had taken a dislike to his new star.

“I can’t believe I just gave this dirtbag ten bucks to do something he does every day anyway.”

They rounded the corner. They were in a wide open area. Opposite them, across an expanse of asphalt, a row of oblique parking spaces angled against the sidewalk, beyond which was a low stone wall topped by an iron railing. The whole area had been built on a high bluff that overlooked a riverfront. During the day, it was hard to find an empty space here, and there were always BMWs and Jaguars to be seen. John-John had never eaten in the bistro at the corner, and he could not afford the clothes that were sold in these shops, but he often used to ride his bicycle here when he was younger, before he met Hack and Simeon and joined their crowd. There was a narrow lane that led down to a cobblestone square immediately below the stone wall. It split off from the main street, and dipped sharply, first leading away from the square, then executing a hairpin turn and continuing its steep descent, until it emerged from the confining buildings into the open, where a speeding bicycle would shudder and rattle on the cobblestones, threatening to throw the rider.

Hack, however, had made a ninety degree turn in the other direction and was keeping alongside the shops and office fronts. He stopped in front of the imposing post office, with its high clock tower and large white doors.

“Here’s where you earn your money. You see those steps?”

There was a single short flight of stone steps leading up to the door, supplemented by a recently added wheelchair ramp to the left.

“You see that railing?”

A railing ran down the middle of the steps; during the day it divided the customary traffic into two streams.

“Twenty bucks. Twenty. Ride the railing… You don’t know what I’m talking about. John-John! Show him how it’s done.”

It had rained earlier in the night; the street was still damp, and the railing was slick. John-John, glad that he could at last contribute, ran quickly to the top of the steps. He was an avid skateboarder with a superb sense of balance, and the proposed exercise was easy for him. It would not be so easy for the homeless man. He lightly stepped onto the railing, and balanced on the initial flat section on the landing. Then he stepped to the side, and easily slid down the incline, balanced just forward of his heels. At the bottom landing, the railing flattened out again. He used this as a jumping-off point, sailed high in the air, and landed safely far from the bottom of the steps.

“Piece of cake,” he said.

“Think you can do it, Crash?”

The homeless man started for the top of the steps without hesitation. Hack made him wait while he adjusted the camera and moved around to take advantage of the lighting and found the best angle for the scene. He took his videos quite seriously, and expected one day to make filmmaking his profession. John-John was conscious of a slight feeling of surprise. Anyone trying this trick for the first time should show some trepidation, but the homeless man seemed untroubled. Maybe he’s too drunk to be afraid, thought John-John. Or maybe he’s a retired acrobat.

In the event, the homeless man showed no evidence of an acrobatic background. When he tried to stand on the railing at the top of the stairs, he shook crazily with his knees deeply bent. He started himself down the incline in what seemed to be a desperate attempt to regain his balance through speed. He was almost at the bottom, going fast, when he fell forward off the rail. He came down on one leg, his foot catching the last step and twisting in a sickening manner, and his body levering over and crashing face first into the pavement with a loud smack.

Simeon was leaping about with great frog hops, squatting all the way down on his haunches, then jumping as far as he could in random directions.

“Oh, snap!” he was saying. “Oh, snap!” He had developed a system of verbal expression, borrowing from every era and age group, that was unique to him.

“Crash! Outstanding! But that must have hurt.”

That was putting it mildly, thought John-John, who knew a great deal about stunt-related injuries. The man must surely have broken his ankle. John-John was frankly shocked to see the man arise and walk over to Hack with his hand held out.

“Twenty,” was all he said. He had a slight redness on his left cheek which seemed new, but otherwise showed no ill effects.

“One Andrew Jackson coming up,” said Hack. “I said twenty, I meant twenty.”

John-John felt an unexpected chill, an indefinable, unexplainable fear, the first warning of the winter that was to come.

“I can’t believe this guy is still walking,” he muttered.

“These guys are so stoned half the time they don’t feel anything. He’ll feel it tomorrow, all right. Hey, Hack! This guy is gold. I wish we had that other guy here, from last week. Fightin’ Phil. They’d make a good match.”

“Yeah, some day, maybe. That’s some pretty good stuff, Crash. You want to call it a night, or are you still game?”

“You still got money?”

“Have I got money? I always have money. Fifty bucks.” Hack pointed without looking to the brick front of the post office. “Fifty bucks, if you run face first into that wall. But it has to be face first. And you have to really run. Are you still game? Whoa, whoa, wait a second.” For the man had already taken a stance facing the wall, and was drawing himself up for his charge.

As Hack chose a vantage point, John-John murmured to him, “Come on, man, this guy could fracture his skull.”

“I’m just giving him a chance to earn some honest money, and I’m giving him his fifteen minutes. Back off, you’re in my way.”

Hack, finally, was ready.

“Remember, head first, and fast. Anything else hits first, you get nothing. And take that hat off, no padding.”

“There he goes.”

Crash started for the wall, leaning forward at the waist, picking up speed. John-John kept hoping he’d pull up. At the last instant, John-John turned away. He heard a sickening sound, the like of which he had never heard before: an unprotected human skull striking brick hard, a serious sound, almost hollow.

Then he heard Crash’s body falling to the sidewalk. John-John was afraid to turn around. Even Simeon was shocked into silence. John-John heard the faint whine of the camera as Hack moved in for a better view. Then he heard something else: the sound of a man climbing to his feet. He turned.

He saw Crash walking towards Hack with his hand held out.

“My fifty,” he said. There was victory in his eyes. One great dark cord of gore formed above his left eye, stretched, broke, and splashed to the pavement. That was all.

Hack counted the money into his hand.

Simeon was beside himself.

“Crash, you are indestructible. You are the King of the Streets. And you, John-John, are a girl. You’re such a freaking little girl.”

John-John’s heart sank. This night was turning into a disaster.

Hack spoke.

“Yeah, Crash, you sure are indestructible. I’ll tell you what. If you jump over that wall and do a swan dive into the courtyard, I’ll give you my car.”

There was at least a fifty-foot drop to the cobblestones below. Simeon laughed. The homeless man turned once, in a long slow triumphant look that encompassed them all. John-John’s eyes swelled with horror. The man started for the wall. His boots stamped across the wide street.

They stood and watched.

“He’s gonna do it!” said Simeon.

“No he’s not,” said John-John.

“He’s gonna do it!”

“No.”

“Look at him! He’s gonna do it!”

“No!” Hack screamed, suddenly running and trying desperately to keep his camera steady as he ran.

The homeless man crossed the sidewalk, put one foot on the little stone wall, the other foot on the metal rail, and launched himself into space. He spread his arms and seemed to hang in the air. For a moment, John-John almost expected the man to rise and flap away into the night sky. Then he fell.

They all shouted, but there were no words, only voices. They had not reached the wall when they heard the man hit. If the first sound had been shocking, this sound was incredible. It was impossible to believe that such a sound could be produced by a human body. But they knew it could be produced by nothing else.

John-John reached the wall first, but he did not look over.

Hack was enraged. He craned over the wall with his camera, trying to find the range.

“I missed it. I can’t believe it, I missed it.”

“Hack,” said Simeon quietly. “That guy’s dead.”

“Did I push him? I didn’t push him. He jumped. I can’t believe I missed it. Did you see him? I’ve never seen anything like it. He flew. What a shot, once in a lifetime, and I missed it.”
John-John looked over the wall. The homeless man was spread-eagled on the cobblestones, some distance from the base of the wall, and an oily stain spread from his head.

“Let’s go. I’m going down there.” Hack started back for his car. The others followed.

Simeon spoke again.

“Hack, we’ve got to get out of here. That guy’s dead.”

“He killed himself. I didn’t kill him. But I’ll be damned if I don’t get my shot.”

When they reached Hack’s car, John-John and Simeon got in the back on opposite sides. Hack made a sharp U-turn and his right front tire climbed the curb, then bounced back down into the road. He would never have done such a thing if he had not been rattled too, John-John thought. The car roared down the street, turned left past the scene of Crash’s last flight, and headed for the narrow lane that led down to the square and the body. The familiar sensation of rapid motion rejuvenated Simeon. He rose from his seat through the skylight, and took his place leaning on the roof.

Hack slowed the car to a crawl as he negotiated the hairpin turn, then stepped on the accelerator and sent Simeon and John-John reeling backward. They emerged from the alley going fast, but still should have had enough room to make an oblique left and screech to a halt alongside the homeless man’s body, if only it had been lying where they had last seen it. But the homeless man was much closer than they expected, for he had arisen, and he was walking towards them. One open hand was extended, and in his eyes shone a terrible new light.

The three boys screamed when they saw him. Hack had no time to stop, no time to consider. He did what was natural to him. He floored the accelerator and sought to expunge his strange tormentor. The front fender struck the man, and he flew off at an angle into the air behind them. They were going too fast now, and their follow-through carried them out of the square, into a cylindrical cement piling designed to limit automobile traffic. It worked. They struck hard, and loud, and the car bucked once and stopped, hissing.

John-John was holding his throat. He felt as if he had been struck very hard by a very soft object right on the windpipe. He was terrified that his throat would swell up and he would suffocate. He was convinced that if he removed his hand from his throat he would die. He managed to get the door open with his left hand, and he fell out onto the cobblestones. He could hear Hack making wet flipping noises, as if his mouth was filling up with blood and he was trying to get rid of it using his lips and tongue. From where he lay, cheek pressed against the cold stone, John-John could see Simeon. He had been thrown far clear of the car. He was still twitching, but no longer like a movie sidekick.

John-John wormed a bit farther from the car, then gave up and sank back to the stone. He listened, and he heard the footsteps that he knew he would hear. He saw boots crossing the square between him and the car. He painfully raised his eyes in time to see the homeless man jerk the driver-side door open and slide Hack over on the front seat. Then the man sat down behind the wheel, and closed the door. He restarted the car without difficulty. It backed up suddenly, coming so close to John-John that the rubber of the back left wheel actually touched his leg where he lay helpless. Then the gear shifted, and the car started forward as the homeless man drove away into the night with his prize.

 

Fate Knocks Twice

by Jeremy Wright

 

One.

Two.

“Someone’s at the front door, Ann,” Hal Sanders yelled out.

Ann Sanders wiped her hands on a dishtowel and said, “Who in the world would be knocking at this time of night?”

Although it was just after nine o’clock, the Sanders weren’t used to and didn’t desire unexpected guests. The majority of unexpected house calls were the obnoxious door-to-door salesmen who tried to sell a truckload of junk for an outrageous price and simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“I don’t know why these damn people can’t read the sign. It’s posted right there on the screen door. No soliciting. Doesn’t anyone give a damn about privacy anymore?” Hal hollered loudly and hoped the person at the front door had heard and was already slinking down the front porch and heading for the next house.

“Just calm down. You’re going to get your blood pressure back up again. I’ll see who it is.”

Ann went to the kitchen door, pulled aside the curtain and turned on the porch light. In the soft glow of the light she saw something that made her feel uneasy.

“Hal, can you come here a minute?”

“Christ Almighty, just tell them to go away. There’s no reason for two of us to do it.”

“I’m not really sure I want to open the door to do that.”

“Then yell it through the glass.”

“Would you please just come here?”

Reluctantly Hal grabbed the handle of the recliner and retracted the footrest. With great effort he worked his large body out of the chair and made for the kitchen all the while cursing the intrusion.

“What’s the problem?” he asked as he entered the kitchen and stopped at the door beside Ann.

“It’s a woman. I don’t like the sight of her. I think it’s a homeless woman.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me? Now they have the gall to come to someone’s door and beg for food? I told you to send her away.”

“You do it. That woman scares me some.”

“For crying out loud,” Hal said. He disengaged the deadbolt and opened the door.

The woman was small, appearing contorted by years of endless arthritic suffering. She was wearing garments that looked as if she had found them at the bottom of a dumpster. Her dirty gray hair hung around her face. Her skin was like battered leather, cracked and darkly tanned by a hard life. Her nose was long and hooked. Her chin pointed and covered in fine white hair. None of that really bothered Hal. What he found most disturbing was one of her yellow eyes staring back at him. The other eye was covered in a milky cataract, but that yellow eye reminded him of a snake’s eye.

“Whatever it is you want, you’ve got the wrong house,” Hal said and began closing the door.

“Mr. and Mrs. Sanders?” the old woman said in an almost frail voice.

Hal paused and pulled the door open again.

“Yes, that’s right. Who are you?”

“Who I am isn’t important. What I want is,” the woman said.

“Whoever sent you this way must have made a mistake. Now if you’ll please leave.”

Before Hal could close the door, the woman said, “You’re the one who sent for me, Mr. Sanders.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow. I’ve never met you before. I’m pretty sure my wife hasn’t met you either. Neither of us have asked you here. You’ll need to leave before I call the police.”

“No, we’ve never met. If you wish to call the police, then very well, but I suggest you don’t do that just yet since I’m here to discuss the boy you ran down four years ago. Of course, you remember him, don’t you?”

Hal felt the blood flush from his face. He felt his knees willing to give out. He also felt the world dramatically take a horrifying spin.

“My god,” Ann said as her hand went to her mouth. “I knew it would all come back to haunt us. I knew we could never escape the consequences of what happened.”

“Hush up now, Ann. You just keep it zipped and I’ll handle this. Look, as I said before, you’ve come to the wrong house. We don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about and we’d like you to leave.”

“I’m here to offer you a choice. I suggest you let me in so that we may discuss what’s going to take place in a little while.”

Hal desperately wanted to close the door in the woman’s face. He wanted to shut out the crude appearance of the woman who suddenly came knocking about a four-year-old incident. But despite all of his mental urging, Hal couldn’t get his body to act.

The old woman stepped inside, removed Hal’s hand and closed the door.

“Well, should we find a more comfortable spot before we get down to the bare bones of the matter?” she asked.

Hal and Ann followed the old woman from the kitchen to the living room. She found a seat on the couch and placed her battered handbag on the coffee table.

“How is it after all this time you found us?” Ann asked.

Hal slammed his fist down on the coffee table, which rattled the decorative pieces Ann kept for show.

“Dammit! Are you trying to cinch the noose tighter around our throats? Why in the hell don’t you run into the street and flag down the next cop that comes by and confess everything? Where’s your brain?”

“Mr. Sanders, you’ll need to calm yourself. I want you clearheaded for a little while because you’ll need to have focus in order to make your choice,” the old woman said.

“Will you just tell us who you are and what you want?” Ann nearly screamed.

The old woman eyed them for a moment, removed a pack of cigarettes from her bag and lit one.

“You look like one of those…” Hal started.

“Go ahead and say it,” the woman replied.

“Gypsies. One of those freaks that ride into town with the carnival.”

“In fact, I am exactly that, Mr. Sanders. Many people call our kind freaks, but we’re not. We’ve just got special abilities that regular people don’t understand. Now, don’t ask me why it took so long to find the people who ran down my grandson. I waited many years for the vision to come to me. It’s taken a long time, but I finally received what I’ve been waiting for and that’s what brought me here.”

“You can’t prove anything. What are you trying to do, blackmail us or something?” Hal asked.

The old woman pointed a yellowed, crooked finger to the telephone on the living room wall. With her other hand she pointed through the kitchen archway and to the door in which she had arrived.

“In fifteen minutes you’re going to have to make a choice. In fifteen minutes two things will happen. The telephone will ring and there will also be a knock at your front door. Only one of these you’ll need to answer.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Ann asked, as her nerves couldn’t take much more.

“I know that you didn’t intentionally kill my grandson when you were leaving the carnival grounds in Bixby four years ago. But you did leave the area without even bothering to see if he was still alive or getting help for the poor boy. My grandson didn’t have a choice. Your son, Brandon, and your daughter, Rebecca, won’t have a choice either. At least one of them won’t have a choice. I’m going to take one, it seems only fair.”

“How the hell do you know our children?” Hal asked as he felt his personal life being probed by this strange woman.

“I know of them, and where they can be found right now. When the telephone rings and if you decide to answer, your daughter will die. If you decide to answer the door, your son will die.” The old woman looked at her antique watch and said, “You have fifteen minutes to make your choice.”

“Are you insane? If this is some sort of twisted revenge, then I’m not answering either,” Hal said.

“Failure to answer one or answering both at the same time will result in two deaths. I recommend you spend your remaining time discussing your decision.”

Hal stood from the chair. “Leave my house immediately, or so help me you won’t like the actions I take. No one threatens my family, especially my children. They haven’t done anything wrong to you.”

“My grandson never wronged you, Mr. Sanders. Still, his life is gone all the same. I’ve given you fifteen minutes to make your decision because that is the amount of time it took the poor boy to die. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering he dealt with before the end. Now pain and suffering has come full circle and knocked on your front door. Which child do you believe you can live without? I’m sure it isn’t an easy decision to make, but one that must be made.”

“Hal, let’s talk this over, like she says,” Ann said as she nervously rubbed her hands together.

Hal quickly turned and looked at his wife as if she had struck him without provocation.

“My god, have you lost all your senses? Did you just say what I think you said? Are you really buying all this crap? How can you seriously justify making a decision that will kill one of our children? How could you even entertain such a cruel thought, Ann?”

“I’m not justifying anything! You heard what she said, both Rebecca and Brandon will die if we do nothing.”

“No one is going to die. I’ve had enough of this. I’m calling the police,” Hal said and moved toward the phone.

When he picked up the phone, Hal didn’t hear a dial tone, but could hear someone on the other end breathing heavily.

A deep-throated voice on the other end said, “Sometimes minutes are fleeting. Sometimes a clock can be deceiving. Soon a precious heart will stop beating. Moments from now there will come a ring-a-ding and a knock-knock you’ll be receiving.”

Hal pulled the phone from his ear and stared at the receiver in bewilderment.

“What is it?” Ann asked.

“They’re messing with the phone line. We can’t call out because they’ve done something to the line.”

“Tick-tock, Mr. Sanders.”

Hal hung up the phone and returned to the chair.

“Okay, I don’t like this sick game you’re playing. You’re right, I accidentally ran over your grandson at the park grounds. I can’t tell you how much I regret leaving and doing nothing for the boy. God, it was dark and he just ran right in front of my truck. I didn’t have time to do anything. Ann wanted to stop. She begged me to stop. I had been drinking most of the day and I knew I’d go to jail for a long, long time if I stopped. Can you understand that?”

“I understand that my grandson is dead. I understand that it’s your fault. I cannot change any of it, but I’ve taken action so that my grandson’s soul is finally at peace. The clock does not stop. You have eight minutes.”

The old woman retrieved another cigarette, lit it and leaned back on the couch.

“Hal, please, I can’t lose my sweet daughter. She’s getting married soon.”

“Sweet lord, you already made up your mind? You’re really prepared to allow our son to die by the hands of these cretins? How can you make a snap decision like that?”

“Okay, okay, so let’s discuss this thing,” Ann said.

Hal pinched his eyes closed and shook his head. This was an impossible choice to make and he knew that either answering the phone or the door would forever haunt him just as the death of the boy had all these years.

The old woman said, “I want you to go to the front window. Across the street you will see a man. That man is patiently waiting to approach your door.”

Hal was instantly on his feet and shuffling for the front window and Ann was a few steps behind. Quickly they moved aside the curtain and pulled up the blinds. In the darkness of the neighbor’s yard they saw the dark figure of a man. They saw the faint wink of a cigarette and something else that eerily glowed. Hal thought it was the man’s eyes, maybe the horrible, unwavering glare of the devil’s eyes.

“Five minutes, Mr. Sanders.”

“I’ll kill you. I swear that I’ll kill you and that man outside if you don’t stop this,” Hal said.

“Oh, prepared to take more lives? Haven’t we become quite the soul collector,” the Gypsy said.

“Don’t you understand? Don’t you see? I can’t lose my son. I can’t lose the child that will carry on the Sanders legacy!” Hal screamed and collapsed in the chair. He covered his face with his hands and began weeping.

“How dare you! How dare you judge me. Your mind was already made up before I said anything about saving Rebecca. How could you even think about saving Brandon’s life over Rebecca’s? He’s taken after you all right. He’s become a drunk and spends half of his time in jail. The drinking and driving, the bar fights, the wandering through life with no job, no goal, that’s what you call a legacy? I suppose with someone like you as a role model, I can understand how he became the way he did. Hell, the only time he even calls is when he needs money. If he’s such a great son, then when was the last time he called and wished you a happy Father’s Day or called on your birthday? He never does and you know it,” Ann yelled.

“Oh, and how about your little princess? She’s quite the saint, isn’t she? Let’s see, arrested for shoplifting half a dozen times, knocked up when she was fifteen and then again at seventeen by two different men. She’s been relying on welfare for years and finally hooks up with a man and promises marriage because he’s got money. God help me I do love her. I do. But that girl has worn me down like a grinding stone.”

“Don’t you talk about my daughter like that!” Ann said and harshly slapped her husband.

Hal quickly stood and said, “I’ve never struck you in twenty-six years of marriage, but so help me, if you do that again, I won’t hold back.”

“Two minutes,” the Gypsy said and smiled, showing a row of crooked brown and yellow teeth.

Ann retrieved a cast-iron bookend from the mantel, stepped toward the couch and said, “You’ve brought this madness to my house! You’re destroying my family and I want you to leave this instant!”

“I will not leave until the choice has been made. The curse has been placed. If you decide to kill me here and now, I promise that your entire family will suffer devastating deaths.”

“I will not lose my son. I won’t. When the phone rings, I’m going to answer. I know that I’ll have to live with the choice I made, but I will manage,” Hal said.

“No, Hal. I’m making the decision. When that person knocks on the front door, I’m going to answer. You know that it’s the right choice.”

Hal looked out the window and saw the dark figure walking across the street. The man moved with a casual stroll, as if he was delivering a pizza instead of death. The man disappeared around the corner of the house heading for the kitchen door. Hal moved from the window and faced his wife.

“I’m sorry, Ann, I really am, but I’ve made the choice. Don’t even think about going for the door. I’d hate to do it, but I’ll knock you to the ground.”

“I’ll die before I let you take my daughter away,” Ann said and moved for the kitchen door.

Hal quickly followed.

When the phone rang and a fist simultaneously pounded on the front door, both of them halted. They looked into each other’s horror-struck eyes. The small part of them that believed the Gypsy’s story to be nothing more than a method to drive them mad began falling apart and reality quickly set in.

Ann dashed for the door and Hal lunged for her, caught her around the legs, and they crashed into a heap on the floor. Immediately they began clawing at each other. Ann’s teeth came down like a vice on Hal’s forearm and immediately blood gushed into her mouth. Hal screamed and threw a punch to the side of her head.

The phone rang and the fist pounded.

Ann drove her knee up and caught her husband in the groin. Hal grunted, but fought through the pain and wrapped his large hand around her throat.

In a gasp, Ann said, “Stop it, just stop it. I won’t let you take away my Rebecca.”

Ann’s thumbs went for Hal’s eyes. In an attempt to avoid losing his eyes, Hal rolled off his wife. Quickly she turned over and in a mad attempt she crawled for the door. Hal gently rubbed his eyes and pulled his hands away to see if he was bleeding. In a state of grief and exhaustion, Hal couldn’t get his legs to lift him up. He rolled to the wall and looked up at the ringing phone. He swatted at the dangling cord and tried to knock the receiver free. He could hear Ann scrambling for the door. As Hal heard the squeak of the doorknob turning, something unseen came down on his chest like a stack of bricks.

With one arm clutched tightly to his chest, he used his free arm and jarred the receiver loose from the cradle.

Hal heard Ann screaming. It wasn’t a scream of terror, but one of pain.

Hal brought the receiver to his ear.

The hinges released a rusty bark as the door opened.

In the kitchen, Ann yelled, “Hal, something’s wrong with my head. It hurts so badly. Call for an ambulance.”

As another shock of pain seized Hal’s chest, he croaked into the phone. “My son. I’ve made the choice. I want to save my son.”

There was no response. Only silence filled his ear.

“Hal, my god, it’s the devil come to take us away,” Ann screamed.

The Gypsy knelt beside Hal and smiled.

“Mr. Sanders, did you honestly believe that I would punish one of your children for your crime? Oh, the curse was set into place. By answering the phone, Mr. Sanders, you’ve sacrificed your wife’s life. By answering the door, she’s sacrificed your life. I told you in the beginning that by not answering one or by answering both at the same time would result in two deaths. I knew the emotional struggle between you and your wife would be spectacular. I was certain your wife couldn’t let your daughter go, just as I was certain you couldn’t let your son go. It’s interesting how both of you were so willing to offer one child to save the other. You and your wife were guilty in the death of my grandson, and neither of you offered yourselves as a sacrifice to save your own children. What a shame. You should know that fate comes with many identities, but no one seems to think it will ever come knocking on their front door.”