Blood and Shadow

by Emile DeWeaver

 

The heat was a mask against Ransu’s copper skin when he staggered into the hell he defended. Peat smoke boiled slowly over the red-lit cavern, a quarry-turned-infirmary, and scraped Ransu’s throat as he breathed. In front of him, down a ramp, a gallery-shaped pit spanned two hundred feet where men had once bled beneath the lash as they excavated granite. Behind Ransu, distant rumbles from Dakahl Rock’s war drums beat against his back. The infirmary pulsed with the sound like a thing living, but it was a place of dead rock and dying men.

“Cheers to Death.” Ransu’s brothers greeted him and taunted the god Death in the same breath. Descending the quarry ramp, Ransu raised the two picks he’d tied together to fill his massive grip, saluting. Pain spiked from bite holes in his side, but Ransu—broken chains jingling from the slave shackles around his wrists—pushed his picks as high as his seven-foot frame would carry them.

As he weaved his way to a bench, midwives who served as healers paused their work to touch him. Ransu’s lips stirred, too tired to return their smiles, and he found a seat against a cratered wall which rose to a fractured, domed ceiling. When he sat, his chin hit his chest. His gaze dropped to his chain shirt. There, he stared at the trog blood that had congealed between his links.

“Child, must you wear them?” Mishe waded through the trog blood’s stench and, crinkling her flat nose, picked a jellied piece of trog from Ransu’s dreadlocks. They fell past ropes of muscles that tightened around shoulders three times as wide as Mishe.

“I see the toll it takes, killing trogs,” Mishe said, unlacing his mail. “Those children caged in their bellies, their souls hostage. You have to believe the gods will find a way to save them. They always find a way, child.”

“I know,” Ransu lied. The gods were gone, but Ransu lacked the heart to burden her, or anyone, with that secret.

“You know, but you come back looking like you bathed in trog guts. Maybe you think you can wash the toll away with their blood. Maybe all this blood heavies the price.”

“Maybe they’re just sticky inside and out.” Ransu didn’t smile. It was a black humor that had him, bitterness risen from a bottomless hole that swallowed prayers whispered to deaf gods over dying friends. The Age of Chaos had come, and with its arrival, the gods had their own battles to fight. Humanity would have to win theirs alone—or lose them. No amount of trog blood could wash that truth away, and Ransu didn’t care whether blood heavied the price. Dakahl’s fiends and blackhearts, the Fallen, had no gods to fear. So be it! Let these monsters die with the fear of Ransu booming through their hearts.

Mishe looked at him, and bright eyes strained against heavy wrinkles on her face. She slid her hand over his patchy beard until her thumb rested beside his large, hooded eyes. She smiled, gazing into another world. “You have a dreamer’s eyes, like my boy had. Half in this world, half in another. His father liked to say it was a wise man’s gaze, but he was just a boy. You’re tall as a god, but you’re just a boy.”

Mishe never treated him as if he raised mountains or parted seas, and he loved her for that respite. Ransu sighed and some of the tension rolled out of his shoulders.

“I’m okay, Mishe,” he said.

She blinked and pulled her hand back, apologizing as she left him. She limped to get an iron that roasted in one of the braziers marching in soot-stained pairs down the middle of the infirmary.

Holding the boiled linen that Mishe had left against the bite in his side, Ransu surveyed his brothers by peat’s red glow. A quarter of them glistened with fever on makeshift litters, their wounds smelling like poisonous, sweet lotus in a stagnant swamp. Another quarter howled, in turn, through clenched teeth as their weeping wounds sizzled beneath midwives’ red irons. Others cleaned and sharpened weapons, or they smiled grimly into shadow, waiting to return to the battlefront. Once, Dakahl had made them slaves, but they’d been reborn beneath their father’s heel, determined to unmake their maker. They were the Sons of Dakahl.

Clearing dreadlocks from his face, Ransu turned his survey to the breach in Dakahl—the Serpent’s stronghold in the desert beneath a mountain. Before the rebellion, Sons had tunneled two lanes along a granite outcrop for its removal. The outcrop ran for a mile, but Sons had continued digging, in secret, until they had reached the mountain’s natural tunnels that led to freedom.

Ransu couldn’t see the lanes because the rubble wall they’d constructed as the last defensive line blocked his view, but those lanes were hot lines through his awareness. Without them, the stronghold was impregnable. It was not only the one way out, it was the only feasible way in, so Ransu had to hold them until Anhor and her jinns arrived from fighting the army that Dakahl had sent south to intercept her. If he could, if Anhor’s army even survived to storm the fortress, Dakahl would be ruined and its remaining slaves would be freed.

Too many ifs, but Ransu held to them when Mishe returned with the searing iron. When strong arms braced him and the quarry disappeared in a white nova of agony, he pushed furrows through the hard dirt with his heels and held to them. Pain filled him until there wasn’t room for loss, rage, or despair; yet, Ransu filled the world with a scream and held to them.

*****

Ransu woke to the stink of his burnt flesh filling his mouth, startled by a boy’s battle cry. Waving a chipped dagger as he fought imaginary foes. Nefan skipped out of the lanes, leading the recently liberated iron miners and the Daughters of the Sun who’d remained. When news about Anhor’s army—outnumbered three to one by Dakahl’s soldiers—had reached the rebellion, most Daughters and fighting slaves raced to help Anhor. But knowing the Sons were too few to hold the tunnels, they’d promised to free the miners on the north end of the mountain before they left.

Ransu moved to greet the iron miners. The infirmary’s vault dropped to the low ceiling more characteristic of mining as Ransu neared the makeshift gate. The gate was an opening in the rubble wall shored up by sled-boards set between the rollers they’d used to haul granite. Nefan sped through the gate, slapping Ransu’s arm before another Son called the boy. Behind Nefan, Marhea rode in on an arrogant wind, victory’s light dancing in the Iibyan’s emerald eyes. She knew the gods were gone too, but she joked with her sisters about tall trees and tall boys.

Her cheer irked Ransu, but he swallowed the dust in his mouth and said nothing. Though once bed slaves and gladiators who’d enjoyed the most privilege among Dakahl’s slaves, the Daughters had been the first to rebel, and Marhea had been one of the first to lead them.

“Cheers to Death. I’m Kalis.” An ebon man with sagging flesh around one eye broke away from the newcomers. He offered a forearm forked with fat veins for Ransu to clasp. Kalis bore a soldier’s tattoo on his scalp, and when he spoke, Ransu imagined that before slavery, Kalis’ baritone had boomed across many battlefields.

“What can you tell us,” Kalis asked, “as far as tactics?”

“Kill the jinnlings,” Ransu said. “We’ve counted six.”

“Six dark jinns? World below,” he swore.

“Dark jinns marched south,” Ransu said. “Jinnlings are the apprentices they left behind. Mostly, they poison our minds and break bones, but one’s strong enough to conjure fire. An Atephan; ebon skin; scar, right here: we call him the Demon.”

Kalis nodded, repeating the Demon’s name. They continued to talk tactics while they crossed the infirmary toward the ramp: how to use a canine trog’s bite reflex to break its neck, the safest way to weather a rumy trog’s charge. When Marhea joined them, Ransu arched his brow at her spear arm which hung in a sling. Her back had been torn open to the shoulder blade, and though she hailed from a race of pale, desert warriors, Ransu didn’t imagine their one-armed fighters were any less a liability.

“I need one arm only, for throwing these,” she said, brutalizing Ransu’s language. She shouldered a tarred sack filled with canines’ chakrams, S-shaped throwing discs with keen, silvery edges.

“Help Mishe if you want to stay useful,” Ransu said.

“I’m able as any warrior.”

“Are you?” Ransu seized Marhea by her throat, spun her, and trapped her against his chest. “Were I a canine, you’d be breathing bubbles.”

“Release me,” Marhea hissed.

“You’re a liability.”

“Your point’s made, Ransu,” said Elise, the first Daughter to draw sai. They’d mastered the pronged blades in Dakahl’s gladiator rings. “Don’t make us make ours.”

Ransu released Marhea, but as he mounted the ramp, she shouted his name. He turned, cursed, and ducked before her chakram whistled over his dreads. He touched them, expecting one to fall off. Marhea stalked up the ramp and thrust her face near Ransu’s, her thin lips flattening over clenched teeth. When she glared up at him, short, brown hair fell back exposing freckles and proud cheeks shaped like saucers.

“I was warrior at ten. First man I killed, broke my ribs and cut my throat before I did it.” She raised her chin, showing a shiny scar just shy of the pulse visibly beating at her neck. “We’re over-numbered, and I am able. I go.”

Her breath cooled on Ransu’s throat while the infirmary waited. As haughty and irksome as he found her, Marhea’s certain demise wilted Ransu, and that angered him. He had no right to mourn her, not more than he mourned the Sons that Ransu had known would die when he convinced them to rebel.

“Cheers to Death, Iibyan.” Ransu tapped his picks against her chest and continued up the ramp. On the catwalk. Mishe stopped sweeping to cradle him with a look. Before she breathed a word, she froze.

Sentries cried alarm.

A part of Ransu denied the alarm, for Dakahl’s war drums still rumbled in the distance—the battle for Dakahl’s stone quarry couldn’t reach the infirmary this soon! They needed time, but when Ransu bolted into the tunnels, two Sons rounded the corner running. Dark clouds tumbled after them like a black sandstorm. From the strange clouds rolled the wet growls of the dog-headed trogs called canines. Ransu couldn’t see the bound faces, but as the billows swelled and the light waned, he could feel the children—like heat off a furnace—trapped in each trog’s stomach, their faces twisted in voiceless screams.

“They come in black clouds!”

As Ransu rushed back into the infirmary, Kalis barked order into a swarm of chaos, directing Sons to haul the wounded to the lanes behind the wall.

Mishe, grabbing at her bad leg, hobbled down the ramp.

Ransu scooped her under his arm, and they raced the clouds. The storm was faster. It crashed over them, snarling in his ears and clawing at his eyes. Stunned, blind, Ransu tripped.

Mishe slipped from his grasp, crying his name. Claws scraped the catwalk. Knowing the canines’ noses would guide them to their kill, Ransu felt doom settling over himself and Mishe like a smothering shroud.

He reached toward Mishe’s scream, but instead of getting a grip on her, he stubbed his finger on her head. Her hands fluttered like moths off Ransu’s elbow before they tightened desperately around his forearm. Then she was gone.

A canine snatched her, and the sound of Mishe’s bones crackling punched the breath from him. For a moment, Ransu couldn’t move. Canines blew by; they brushed him, yet they didn’t tear out his throat. Enraged by the reprieve, he roared and lunged. His picks missed, but he slammed into a speeding canine.

The two reeled. The ramp slipped from beneath Ransu’s toes, and his arms leapt around the only anchor there, the canine. The trog yelping, Ransu cursing, they tipped off the ramp and jarred against the ground.

Stars flared in Ransu’s head, warping the ringing dark. Hot jaws chomped on his armored forearm, and cool slobber splashed on his bare face. Ransu hugged the beast’s neck, groping with his free arm. The thing was hairless and slippery, but Ransu braced and broke its neck.

The snap seemed to signal the storm’s retreat, for clouds pulled back like a black sheet yanked off the infirmary, revealing carnage. Daughters and Sons lay chewed and contorted between splintered benches. Beneath overturned braziers, canines twitched and burned. They looked like hairless gorillas with odd, elongated torsos and the heads of thick-jawed dogs. Canines were fast on all fours, and they could butcher standing on two feet, so they could’ve easily overrun the infirmary in the dark if not for their inherent gluttony. From the ramp to the rubble wall, they’d abandoned their assault to feast.

Sons abandoned the wall, shouting and charging as they rushed through the gateway to avenge their brothers.

Ransu staggered to his feet, alone.

As one, six canines who’d straggled to feed dropped their meals and turned on him. Gray ears flattened above sickle teeth. As they rose to stand on two feet, sleek skins stretched across long trunks, and flat muscles rippled. They wore crescent blades on their backs, and the violence of drawing swords shook strings of bloody spit from hungry chops.

They were monsters, but Ransu killed monsters. The deformed faces caged beneath each trog’s ribs, however, ran his blood backward. The children tried to scream, but silence emptied from bloated lips.

Ransu tore his gaze from one whose eye swam in a swollen socket that leaked red tears. He steeled himself and charged. Bulling and dodging his way through, he blocked three blades and staved a canine’s skull.

The trog and the child trapped in it died.

Ransu hardened himself again. Bellowing a ragged challenge, shoving the dead canine like a shield to clear his way. Ransu vaulted a claw and raced down the corridor his archers opened. Chakrams glided after him, whining as they missed.

Ahead, Marhea raced with two Daughters to help. Yelling for Ransu to drop, Marhea cocked a chakram.

He dove, twisted to face a pouncing canine. Its fangs gleamed pink. They gnashed with a clunk when Marhea’s chakram thunked into its chest, and then the beast piled into Ransu’s swinging picks.

As Ransu lay pressed beneath softening flesh, horror galloped through him, for the bound child squirmed against Ransu’s belly. Its final breath sliced through his mail shirt; the child’s soul died with the trog. Ransu hardened himself—and shattered.

He shoved the trog aside and smashed its head again. His picks rose and dropped, dripped and crunched, over and over. It wasn’t enough. He punched to feel it squish. He drowned in its slaughter until someone yelled his name. Clawing his way out of the deep to see who, Ransu choked on his gasp when Marhea tackled him. A chakram whirred over their scalps.

Marhea flopped off him, moaning while clutching her bandages. Ransu raised and turned cold. The chakram meant for him had hit Elise in her throat. Blood spilled over and under the disc as Elise sank in one of her sister’s arms, gulping breath she couldn’t swallow.

She died before they could drag her behind the wall. Crouched in its shadow, Marhea reached over Elise’s corpse to shake Ransu’s gory mail. “For this, she died. So you could beat corpse.” She head-butted him, hauling on his links and breaking his nose.

“She died because they killed her, not me!” Ransu’s shout sprayed blood on Kalis who’d wedged himself between Ransu and Marhea. “What do you know—”

“I know.” Marhea shoved Kalis out of their way and tilted her face to Ransu’s, defiant. Her face hardened to speckled sandstone. Then her emerald eyes softened, and Ransu flinched from falling into them. They reminded him that she did know—the gods had abandoned the world.

“Blame them, then.” Ransu left her squatting over Elise, mounted the wall, and threw himself into the nearest clump of trogs. The war drums had arrived, and they boomed like world-ending thunder. Ransu shouted over them, cursing Death and then laughing at how little courage that required in this new age. The god of decay and destruction couldn’t hear him.

But few knew that. Sons flocked to his laughter and embraced Ransu’s battle call. They waded through rivers of heat and snarling flesh until the rumies—giant, ram-headed trogs with four arms—rampaged into the infirmary. They lowered their horns, charged, and the Sons of Dakahl buckled.

They counted less than a hundred when archers covered their retreat through the lanes.

Defeat thickened the dust where the lanes ended in a slump-floored cave. Daughters dropped with Sons to rest among the wounded, and Ransu, squatting before one of three tunnels, gazed past bowls of peat that lit the way to escape. While he stared, whispered prayers burned his ears. Closing his eyes, he wrung the shattered chains on his shackles until his hands ached. He wanted to tell them the truth about their faith, to scream at them to stop praying for what they had to do themselves. Ransu opened his eyes as Kalis knelt beside him and met the old soldier’s sagging eye.

“We should fall south and join Anhor,” Kalis suggested in a low rumble.

“No,” Ransu said.

“If we charge back,” Marhea said, “we get bottled in lanes and butchered. South, we have help. We start again, then.”

“Assume the Fallen scour the mountain for our exit,” Kalis said. “If we give them too much time, they’ll crush us between hammer and anvil.”

“And when time goes out, they’ve their cloud, now,” Marhea said. “They tested it with canines. Next, maybe they send krakes, and krakes won’t stop to feast.”

“Three real problems.” Ransu looked from the lit tunnel to the dark ones, grasping at solutions. “These tunnels lead somewhere. Maybe a thin wall to dig another way in.”

“For all we know, they lead to hell,” Kalis said. “The Fallen will find us already cooked.”

“Let them. That’s fewer hands to seal these lanes.” Ransu grasped Kalis’ nape and shook him, as brothers did to stir the spirit. “Kalis, we’re not going to hell. But if we do, we’ll bronze the Serpent’s tongue next to Death’s balls before we return.”

Several straightened and grinned.

“I want Anhor’s help, but she could be crushed beneath Dakahl’s armies, and we wouldn’t know until we marched into them. Salvation for the slaves trapped in Dakahl lies not in the heavens or in Anhor, but here.” Ransu swept his picks to include their weapons. Pounding a Sons’ chest, he said, “Dakahl’s destruction lies there.”

“Destruction and death, die and kill—that’s all you think,” Marhea said. “You’ll not burn us with your demons—”

“Dakahl will wall these lanes up with the bones of our dead! We’ve one shot—I feel it. We can slay this beast. This monster that stole your sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, and made them hate us.” Many of the jinnlings and soldiers had been culled from captives and turned against their families, Ransu’s little brother among them. “Our most innocent, they rape their souls…” Ransu rocked his head back to gaze at the ceiling. The gods were busy fighting their war; could they not at least send strength? “They tear the souls out of our children to make their trogs.

“Go south if your heart takes you. I don’t know where these tunnels lead or what to do, but I do know we can’t do anything from out there.” Ransu studied his brothers. They would follow him down strange tunnels or back through the lanes, wielding rocks if they didn’t have picks. He wished they wouldn’t follow, for he’d never lead them home.

“Bring a torch if you’re coming with me.”

*****

Ransu mulled it over as canines’ howls hurried them through tunnels of eroded quartz. Only the Demon commanded enough power to conjure the dark storm. He’d be in the rear, far from harm, so Ransu needed to get fighters behind the canines. Marhea suggested they use the dead-end side passages that veined their pebbly path, but Kalis insisted canines would smell anyone hiding in those narrows.

“Then what?” a gray-bearded Son named Tem grumbled. He glared with his good eye at his child, another Son, on a stretcher. “All hundred of us gonna wade through a thousand trogs, blackhearts, and krakes?”

“For now, we rest.” Ransu laid Nefan, who slept, in the daylight that slanted through natural vents in the ceiling. The rays whispered of a warmth few had felt in months. The canines’ howls, however, chorused a cold dirge, so that Ransu hovered near Nefan, as though the boy might be snatched away like Mishe. Worry for the boy conjured the canines’ pursuit in Ransu’s mind—their sleek bodies pumping in the dark, earth ripping beneath their thick claws.

He felt them shooting by him in the infirmary, cloaked in their black clouds, and he massaged his throat. How had he survived on the ramp when Mishe had died? It had been as if the canines hadn’t known he’d stood among them. Ransu froze—staring at the trog blood tightening on his skin. They hadn’t known he was there. “The blood.”

Kalis stopped talking with Marhea.

“They couldn”t smell me through their blood.”

“Get your head on together.” Marhea pounded Ransu’s chest, concern—possibly for his sanity—showing through her frown. Her scowl deepened when Ransu explained why he could hide in a side passage, and get behind the Fallen.

“You don’t know they’re not smelling you,” she said.

“He makes sense, though,” Kalis said.

“I hide with him, in case he’s wrong,” Marhea said.

If Ransu were wrong, he’d get her killed. If he were right, she’d get him killed. So they argued until Kalis pulled Ransu’s arm, his eyes rimmed with alarm. The howls had ceased.

Every eye turned, and behind them, ebon billows tumbled around a bend. Twenty fighters formed three lines, withdrawing slowly to check the canines’ advance. Marhea grabbed Nefan and ran with the rest to regroup as far away as the twenty’s blood would buy the next line of defenders. Ransu backed deep into a rocky narrow before the black swallowed him.

It shrieked and slapped at him as canines shot past the opening, snarls crackling in their throats. A woman screamed, and battle added its clamor to the storm while Ransu waited for a canine to catch his scent. Straining his ears against the storm, he listened for a careless chakram scraping rock, a creeping claw grinding dirt. He started to hope when he heard only the storm and battle.

He hoped, but he couldn’t relax. As battle grew distant, krakes—the Serpent’s reptilian spawn—sped by the opening. Ransu knew them by their stench, like curdled milk, but he didn’t know if trog blood mattered with them. Krakes had a cold intelligence that trogs lacked. The cunning reptiles, as a matter of course, might sweep the tunnel’s offshoots.

Ransu reversed the grip of his lead hand and turned sideways, so he had room to thrust his picks. His manacle banged rock, scraping.

A screech that pealed like fierce hawks and rusted hinges tore into the narrow as krakes rushed toward him.

*****

In the golden fields of the Undying Lands, gods died. While the Serpent’s Fallen prepared to subjugate men in the mortal world, ara’angeid boiled like tar from cracks in Entropy’s prison in heaven. Ara’angeid: it meant, in the First Tongue, the end.

When the end began, gods made swamps of smoking blood from their dead, but the ara’angeid were inexhaustible. Where one fell, two smaller rose; from two, rose four; then again—smaller and smaller until they were tinier than dust, until they rode the gods’ very breath to destroy them from their insides.

It was the Age of Chaos. Entropy would lay heaven to ruin and seal what gods survived in a prison beneath his throne.

One god, called many names, tended a white lotus. The flower waned in a pond choked with ash which fell from the sky so thickly it seemed air and light had broken out with blight. The Gardener slid the stem between the middle fingers of one hand, cupping the bulb, and it spread its petals rising to face its father. With his other hand, he stirred the pond’s sludge, and clean water bubbled up to relieve the lotus.

It offered its heady fragrance in thanks, a brief relief from the burnt, powdery smells of a dying realm, but the Father found no solace. He cast a resigned eye to the wheat field that surrounded his favorite clearing where once golden stalks as tall as trees now bowed and cracked beneath sooty drifts.

With a sigh, he returned to his work. Ash choked the pond once more.

“Time to go, brother,” came a voice from above. It rumbled like wildfire.

“Have you come to drag me off then?” The Creator, called many names, didn’t look up.

“Divest me? You’ll find that difficult.”

“Must I take your power? Will you not give obedience to your king and do your duty?”

“What is the duty of a father to all he’s created?”

“The age has turned. You cannot save this land.”

“There are lands that can be—”

“Enough!”

Heat washed over the Gardener who shielded the lotus with both hands.

“It’s no wonder young gods rebel when you profane my rule.”

The Father finally looked up from his work. Above, the sun-god shone like a star in the falling black, but the ashes drank his light, spilling more shadow. The flakes nearest his golden skin curled and flared red. It seemed the sky burned down around him.

“They rebel because we promised humankind we’d reward those who keep our commandments.”

“That age has passed.”

“And the last time that age passed there wasn’t a man or woman left the Serpent didn’t transform into something else. Krakes, foulings… worse things than trogs.

“I betrayed their faith. Not again.”

“The Halls hold ten-thousand,” the King said. “I gathered the Chosen; we’ve saved those we can—”

“We did not promise ten-thousand!”

“So what will you do? Pour the power we need to survive here into the mortal realm, for what? In ten millennia, they will have used it all, and they will curse you for abandoning them in five more, for their memories run short. Meanwhile, the shell of your godhood will watch here as even the Halls fall.

“Are you not the father of all you’ve created here too? If you do this, others will follow. It will truly be the end, here—for now, through the next age, and forever. You will trade one creation for another.”

The Creator’s hands trembled around the lotus, and he pulled them away lest they tear the bulb. Would there were ears to hear gods’ prayers! How could a father choose among his children who would live or die? The Chosen and ascended souls of eons deserved their promised reward as much as the mortals below. He wouldn’t assure their destruction for the guilt of another age.

The sun god alit on the pond’s bank. Dark eyes like collapsed stars drew the Father toward the King’s truth. “Come, brother. We would only torment them with false hope while sacrificing the hope of Eternity.”

The Father took a last look at his blighted land, turned to follow the King, and an idea, a chance to save heaven and men, stopped him. “No. Hope cannot be false while it lives.”

“I am your king.” Hot wind that moaned with men’s unanswered prayers wrapped around the sun-god, scattering ash and embers. Eleven more gods, the king’s cohort, appeared before landing in the clearing. “Do not force this.”

The Creator sealed his lips, and gathered his power. The land began to tremble.

*****

Screeching krakes rushed into Ransu’s narrow, and he immediately started climbing. Braced between walls, Ransu listened as krakes clawed at the rock beneath him, searching. They hissed and spat, seeming to conspire, and Ransu waited to hear them climb. They didn’t. A screech outside the narrow drew them, and their feet scrabbled over the rocky floor as they hurried to catch up to the battle.

Ransu finally exhaled when the storm vanished like a magician’s trick, relieved to find himself alone except he wasn’t alone. Slowly, to keep his chains quiet, he climbed down and prowled to the edge of his nook.

One way, three krakes guarded the way they’d come, sweeping the dirt impatiently with their tails. Dust covered their black scales, and frosted, crescent nails twitched at their sides. Behind two more krakes, a short sprint to Ransu’s left, a rumy thumped back and forth. It burst with muscles, so much so that its brawn ripped through the skin on its four arms in wet, pink clusters. Thankful to the shadows that hid the soul in the rumy’s belly, Ransu turned toward two jinnlings standing between the rumy and the krakes. His gaze settled on the boy with the scar down his forearm. The Demon.

The scar glistened like an asp against the Demon’s black skin as he gestured furiously, lost in the trance jinnlings entered to re-gather their power. His mate scrutinized everything that ticked and floated in the barren tunnel, poised to unleash his power should even a mote drift off kilter. Fear, joy, and lust charged Ransu’s skin.

Cheers to Death. Ransu hurled a rock and raced it to its target. The watchful jinnling lashed out with his hands, shadow warping around his fingers, but then he had to duck the rock. He recovered on the points of Ransu’s picks. Broken chains ringing like tomb bells, Ransu whirled to kill the Demon, but not before two krakes tackled Ransu, raking and hissing. He heaved them aside and dove clear of the rumy who charged.

It smacked the wall, horns-first. Ransu rushed the Demon, bowling a krake before the two he’d thrown pounced on his back. Their nails slipped through gaps in his mail while their feet raked his legs, slicing a gash in his thigh. Gasping through his teeth, Ransu hurled one into its friend. The other, he rammed against the wall and crushed.

The krakes who remained spread to protect the Demon whose gestures began to slow. Gristle popped between mammoth bones as the rumy got up and flexed its four arms, pink muscles ripping through more skin. Reaching behind its pauldrons, it hauled out a two-headed axe broad enough to crowd Ransu’s grave.

It swung twice; Ransu sidestepped and ducked. Pain lanced through his leg where a krake had opened Ransu’s thigh, and Ransu stumbled into the giant who caught him with its lower arms, snatching him into the air. When it snatched him. Ransu heaved with the momentum, catapulting his picks into its groin.

The rumy’s knees knocked and gave up. Braying as if it were on fire, the rumy hit the ground with Ransu’s picks wedged between its legs, scattering rocks with its impact.

Weaponless, Ransu looked up as the Demon finished gathering. The jinnling’s hands hovered before eyes still glazed with power. Ransu dragged the trog’s axe off the ground, and krakes halted to eye its vast curve. Ransu watched the Demon who’d soon add fire to the fray, cooking the flesh off Ransu’s bones. Swinging the axe in an orbit, Ransu hurled it with a prayer that just one god was listening.

Krakes tore at him as soon as the axe flew. The Demon blinked, free from his trance, and the axe hit him with its flat rather than its edge, knocking him over but not out. Prayer soured to a curse. Ransu cracked a krake’s head on a spike in the wall, and charged.

The Demon sat up, palm to his jaw. As his eyes cleared, his face smoothed with murder. His lip curled over a broken tooth, and his hands raced to conjure doom. The motes around him flared, transforming into swirling embers. Ransu leapt. He flew and landed his heels in the Demon’s chest. Bones cracked, and the boy tumbled like sparking coals hurled from a bucket. Before the Demon could wheeze in enough breath to groan, Ransu dropped on top of him and snapped the Demon’s neck.

Grabbing the axe, he lurched to his feet with a battle cry that sent the last two krakes running. They disappeared around a corner, and Ransu dropped back to the ground where he paused to ache, to feel the life that burned through his limbs. Before he climbed to his feet, he tried to staunch his wounds with dirt, but by the time he staggered after the krakes, past his dead friends, toward battle’s distant bells, Ransu’s blood painted his feet.

As he grew colder and weaker, the murmur of battle changed. More yelps and reptilian squeals than people’s cries echoed through the tunnel, and the noise grew louder—a retreat.

Ransu slumped inside an offshoot as the Fallen raced by and bled a while before Kalis found him. He helped Ransu out of the narrow where hands tugged and seated him, undressed and tended him.

Ransu commanded his eyes to focus after fading in and out a few times. “How many?”

“Thirty-three dead,” Kalis said. “Damn krakes slipped past us, slaughtered five midwives…

“But we have the blood,” Kalis said. “Now that we know it works, we’ll slip past them.”

Ransu looked from the midwife who had him tracking her finger to the Sons and Daughters who were smearing each other with trog blood. The blood would ruin the canines’ hunt, but it wouldn’t get anyone back inside Dakahl. With half the fifty left who were in fighting condition bleeding into fresh bandages, attrition would kill them. They needed Anhor to retake the infirmary. Ransu whispered when he voiced this, for it sounded too much like defeat.

“Then forget the infirmary,” Kalis said. “Humor me: the bulk of Dakahl fights Anhor in the south. Here, Dakahl strains between fortifying the infirmary against our return, hunting us, and policing the hundreds of slaves in Dakahl’s villages.”

“Dakahl’s spread thin.” Ransu perked.

“I think thin enough to knock on their front door and see who’s home. Push for a village, arm the slaves—”

“Ransu.” The midwife gaped, pointing.

Ransu looked at the gouges in his chest. Slowly, one unpuckered and closed, healing.

Ransu shot to his feet. Disbelief swept the crowd; they wanted to see it again, and so did Ransu. Light-headed, he marveled as a gash across his ribs healed.

“Gods,” Tem said. A tear dripped from his good eye. Ransu blinked tears too, for what else could it be but the gods? Light glowed in this dark age. A miracle.

Relief took Ransu by surprise. hitting him in a bowling flood. Arms caught him, embraced him; grown men kissed him.

“Kalis!” Ransu said.

The old soldier’s face surged from the crowd, roaring laughter.

“Let’s see who’s home,” Ransu crowed.

*****

They slipped into the desert, which surrounded the mountain, and entered Dakahl through the front entry that yawned in the rock. Past a warren drowning in the stink of empty krake nests, Ransu peeked around a bend in the tunnel. Above, the rock gave way to a grate that served as a ceiling for any who approached the iron gate beneath Dakahl’s gatehouse and a catwalk for the guards who manned the fortification. Behind Ransu, Nefan trembled as he smoothed the Demon’s black robes. Marhea rubbed Nefan’s hands, and then she passed them to Ransu who stared at the healthy skin on his own fingers before taking them.

It had taken an hour for Ransu’s wounds to heal, after which he’d cut his palm. He’d needed to know whether the miracle would repeat itself. Though he’d healed again, Ransu wondered about the limits of his gift. Would it suddenly end? Would enough abuse kill him? Did he want to live if everyone else died? If Nefan crumpled beneath crossbows’ fire because Ransu had asked him to play at manhood? Certainly, the boy had a man’s courage, but as Nefan moved toward the gate, foreboding hollowed Ransu’s gut.

“Lord Apprentice!” Shadows darkened murder holes in the ceiling where blackhearts scuffled to their feet. Nefan hesitated, and Ransu squeezed his picks, willing the boy on.

“The rebels fled south,” Nefan said, “I’ve come for reinforcements.”

“My Lord, we’ve no men to spare. Let the desert kill—”

“You dare direct me!” Nefan stepped forward. “Open this gate before I open it. Then I’ll float up there and… open you!”

Ransu flexed his toes for the coming sprint while a guard trampled the stairs to unbar the gate. The wait proved too long for Nefan’s nerve. The gate swung open, Nefan stumbled with his hand caught inside his robes. The hesitation was brief, but it was enough to alert the guard. Nefan untangled his dagger from his robes, thrust it, and crashed into the blackheart’s fist.

Alarm exploding overhead, Ransu flew for the gate.

Nefan hit the ground, wailed, and lunged, pinning the gateman’s leg. The guard ran Nefan through.

Ransu screamed.

He roared at the dead man who fumbled to get the gate closed. Before Ransu reached him, a bolt knocked Ransu sideways. He banged into the gate as the bar clanged into place, but the impact shoved the guard down. Falling, himself, Ransu jammed his picks between the grating and yanked the bar off its rack before he hit the ground. Three more bolts hammered into his back and side. The gate blew open before the Sons’ charging tide.

“Cheers…” Nefan said. His head lolled, and dirty blood stained his smile. Shielding Nefan with his body, Ransu nodded, but he fought the urge to scream, no.

Strong hands dragged them; Ransu bumped in and out of consciousness. In his waking moments pain, dust, and shouts confused him. He strained to see if he was healing, but nothing worked—his head wouldn’t move, his eyes wouldn’t focus.

Life dimmed then darkened. When he woke next, Marhea swam through his vision. She was bleeding and swollen and smiling.

“Anhor’s here,” she said. “We’ve won. Ransu, they’re here.”

*****

“Ransu.” Keara had said the night the krakes had come to Fig Village and stolen Ransu’s life. She traced the tops of his heavy eyelids before she spoke again, and he in turn caressed the freckles on her cinnamon cheeks. “Can I hear your poem again?” she asked. “ The one about my eyes.”

Ransu breathed in the sight of her a moment longer before he began. Her eyes were perfect for star-gazers to spend nights under, but his poem praised more than them. It revered the divine Sun that shined both in the sky and in her smile. It cherished the green life of spring that slumbered three seasons in her kisses.

“My gentle giant sees so much in me.” Keara laid against Ransu. She felt delicate in his embrace. Holding her, he felt fragile himself.

“I’ve a surprise for you.” Keara kissed his eyelids and climbed from the loft. When she returned, she posed inside the stable’s door, hiding something behind her back. “Ta-dah!” She spun a pirouette and waved a papyrus sheaf. “For your poems.”

Her grin slipped. Behind her in the night, the staccato of the village’s sentry drum shattered the Fig’s peace. The Fig hadn’t heard that alarm in a century, since Iibyan tribes had spilled from the desert with iron spears. Frowning, puzzled, Keara stepped to the edge of the lamplight by the door.

“Keara, get away from the door.” Ransu clambered down the ladder. He’d heard that Iibyans killed the women they didn’t rape, but when a screech rent the night, Ransu knew things worse than Iibyans lurked outside. With the dread lurking in his chest, Ransu again called her away from the door; but there she stood, transfixed.

A stench like curdled milk rolled into the stable—Ransu would never forget that stink. Then Keara cried Ransu’s name, and krakes flooded through the door in a tide of black scales. One snatched her, flexing its nails against her throat.

“Don’t—please! Don’t hurt her.” Ransu said. “What do you want?”

A krake thrust its curved nail at the ground, pointing. “Kneeeezs,” it hissed, and flickered its forked tongue over its blunt snout.

Ransu dropped to his knees. He let the monsters claw and kick him, prayed that if he howled loud enough, it would sate them—that he could die for both himself and Keara. But they’d beat him until his ears swelled shut and the ringing drowned out Keara’s screams.

They’d hurt him until his eyes had bruised shut and Ransu couldn’t see her. Though in his nightmares, Ransu always saw her. He always wept as the starlight died in her eyes.

*****

Ransu woke in one of the small quarries, healed. His eyes opened to rosy light and to peat smoke escaping through cracks in the ceiling like spirits rising to heaven. While he’d slept, someone had washed the blood from his skin and removed the manacles from his wrists. Straddling a low bench next to him, Marhea turned the broken shackles in her hands. She dropped them once he woke, and lamplight danced to the faint music of distant celebration, turning emerald pirouettes in Marhea’s eyes.

“Anhor’s jinns healed me,” she said, when Ransu frowned, confused by her smooth, freckled cheeks. The last time he’d seen her, bruises and cuts had puffed her face. “They healed everyone. Except you.”

“Nefan?”

“Alive,” Marhea said, ladling gritty water for Ransu. “Anhor came, and they rained forked fire that shook Dakahl.”

Just then, the quarry shuddered. “That’s them,” she said. “They raze Dakahl’s citadels and forges. Your monster is dead.”

Ransu waited for peace, but it didn’t come. Dakahl had been destroyed and its inmates freed. Satisfaction suffused him, but he sensed it would wane with the day.

“Sorry about Elise,” Ransu said. “I’ve always been sorry.”

Marhea shook her head, as if he hadn’t needed to apologize, but then she nodded in acceptance. The quarry shook again as a citadel or its like rumbled to ruin. The celebration swelled with cheers, and quiet grew around Marhea and Ransu until it burst.

“Who is Keara?” Marhea blurted. “You shouted her name while you dreamed.”

Ransu’s jaw tightened around the story.

“There’s too much hurt in you,” Marhea said. “Makes me feel stupid. People see you, and they fill with their hopes… when it’s quiet, I wish I could fill you.” She smiled tightly before she changed the subject.

“They’re calling you slave-king, you know,” she said. “King of hundreds who held against thousands.”

“We held, but we haven’t won.” That’s why peace eluded him. They’d won a battle in a war whose ashes would shadow the sky for millennia. The Age of Chaos. While gods battled for creation, fiends sowed the earth with flame and sorrow. Ransu’s miracle proved humanity wasn’t alone, but the gods no longer guarded human destiny.

“They celebrate out there because they think they’re going home,” Ransu said. “That I’ll lead them home. You know better than any, I’ll only lead them to Death.”

“Then cheers.” Marhea kissed him. Her cool lips were like peace.

 

An Element of Blank

by Brett Riley

 

As her father, Billy, drove the old LTD over the rutted dirt road, the two girls lay in the back seat, both of them covered in blood. River had found a ratty, ancient towel in the floorboard; she was pressing it hard onto Candy’s neck and trying to ignore the screams. Then the LTD’s back end fishtailed, tossing River to the floor and Candy into the driver’s-side door. Droplets of blood spattered the back windshield and the seats. Candy shrieked again, but it sounded weaker this time, more pain than terror, as if she were losing interest in her own mortality. River pushed herself up and grabbed the towel off the seat; it slapped wetly against her arm, leaving a bright red smear that resembled South America. She wrung out the towel, more blood pattering onto her bare feet, and pushed Candy back down on the seat. River pressed the towel to the wound again, trying to exert enough pressure to stem the bleeding but not enough to crush her best friend’s windpipe. The car hit another rut and the two of them were thrown nearly to the roof. They landed with Candy on top of River, who wrapped her legs around Candy’s waist. Somehow she kept the towel jammed against the gaping wound. Blood dripped onto River’s face.

Billy shouted, “We’re almost there! Keep the pressure on!”

“I’m tryin’!” cried River. “How far out are we?”

Billy said nothing as he yanked the wheel back and forth, avoiding the biggest ruts. The engine whined like a hive of angry bees. Candy looked pale and scared, but at least she had stopped screaming.

When the Plodders had come out of the woods between the three of them and the car, Billy had killed six with his axe while River and Candy tried to circle around. The girls had almost made it to the car when Candy tripped over a cypress knee and landed flat on her face. Before she could get up, a rogue Plodder staggered out from behind the tree and fell on her. River had seen that the thing was wearing ragged blue overalls and the remains of a once-white t-shirt before it sank its teeth into Candy’s neck, ripping out a three-inch chunk of flesh, blood geysering, spattering the cypress. The Plodder had missed Candy’s major arteries, but that mattered little. She had been bitten, which meant that she was as good as dead.

Suddenly Billy muttered, “Shit.”

River looked up. “What?”

“Runners behind us. Six or eight.”

“The patrols ain’t seen no Runners in two weeks.”

“Well, we’re seein’ ’em now. Most of em’s naked, but one of ’em’s fresh. Still wearin’ doctor’s scrubs. Hang on.” He reached into the seat beside him and picked up an old battery-powered walkie-talkie. Driving with one hand, he turned it on with the other. Static crackled over the tinny speaker. He pressed the talk button. “Jones. We’re comin’ in hot. Six to eight hostiles on my ass. We need coverin’ fire and a medic.”

From the speaker a gravelly voice said, “Roger. Be careful.”

River held the towel over the floorboard and squeezed it with her left hand. Blood dribbled over her fist and down her arm. She passed the cloth back to her right hand and pressed it against Candy’s throat. The initial gush had slowed to a trickle, but Candy lay still on top of her, a hundred pounds of dead weight. River wondered what she would do if Candy changed before they could get home, here in the back seat where there was nowhere to run and no room to fight. She tried to shove the thought out of her mind.

Her father glanced into the back seat. “Gate’s just ahead. Hold on.”

For a split second she heard inarticulate raised voices as the LTD barreled past the gate guards. Billy slammed on the brakes, the tires squealing as the rubber burned onto the asphalt. He threw the car into park and bolted out, yanked open the back door, and grabbed Candy under her arms, tugging her to the ground.

Marquis Fuqua, one of the medics, appeared at his side. Candy looked at the sky with bright and frightened eyes, her neck and upper torso soaked in gore. River scrambled out of the car and knelt beside her, brushing the hair away from her face as Marquis examined the wound. He frowned and then looked at Billy, shaking his head. River had seen him do that before and knew what it meant. Suddenly, the day seemed too hot, the air too thin; she felt as if she could not catch a full breath. Tears welled in her eyes. She blinked them away. She would not cry, not now, not when Candy needed her to be calm. She would do what she had always been taught—cut off the emotion, bottle it up and bury it. Empty the brain of everything save the information necessary to survive. From behind them she could hear snarls and growls and the slap of running feet on the road. She did not turn to look. After a moment, the guns roared, the deep booms of the shotguns and flat crack of rifles like voices arguing a point of great importance. Soon enough the guns fell silent, and the only sound she could hear was Candy’s shallow respiration.

Marquis sat back on the ground and peeled off his white latex gloves, tossing them onto the asphalt where they lay like shed snakeskin. He looked at Billy. “Runners did this?”

Billy shook his head. “Plodders. She was supposed to be our lookout, but she got to pickin’ flowers and let ’em sneak up on her. Next thing I knew, she was runnin’ like hell with twenty or more shufflin’ after her, smack dab between us and the car. We tried to get by ’em, but they was spread out pretty good. We got pinned against the river.”

“I reckon that current was still too fast to chance.”

“Yeah. I was clearin’ us a path, but she tripped at just the wrong time. Like somethin’ outta one of them bad movies we used to watch when we was kids.”

Marquis grunted and fished a tattered pack of Juicy Fruit from his pocket. He did not offer a piece to anyone else. Nobody was making Juicy Fruit anymore; the troubles had killed the whole idea of making anything, unless you counted weapons and shelters. He looked down at Candy. “Well, I don’t reckon she’ll have to worry about trippin’ no more. She’s lost enough blood to get a good jump on dyin’. Plodder’s bite’ll finish it quick.”

Billy scowled at Marquis and nodded at River. Marquis grimaced, but River did not hold it against him. He was only being honest, not treating her like a kid. If she were old enough to go out on patrol or gathering missions, then she was old enough to hear the truth. And if both Plodders and Runners had wandered back into this area, the colony would need every able-bodied hand it could get. They could not afford the luxury of watching children come of age over the years, not when knowing how to shoot or wield an ax might determine whether you grew up at all. The problem had nothing to do with the girls’ age; instead, it lay with the assignments. They never should have let Candy be their lookout. She loved plants and animals and always tried to bring more back to the colony. Once she had gathered so much Spanish moss from the nearby trees that half the compound had looked like a giant spider web. She tended to look everywhere but right in front of her, and so they should have known that she would get distracted. But River was stronger and could carry more wood, so she had gone with her father, leaving Candy alone on the dirt road. What harm could it do? they had thought. Stupid. That should have been the first clue that trouble was coming.

Now Candy would die, just like her parents had. And then something worse would happen.

River cradled Candy’s head in her lap. Candy’s eyes fluttered open; her lips moved as she tried to speak. Marquis handed River a canteen; she unscrewed it with her teeth and held it to Candy’s lips. Some of the water ran down the girl’s face, turning the drying blood into swirls and eddies of pale salmon pink. She turned her head and sputtered; River handed the canteen back to Marquis, trying not to get too angry when he held it out at arm’s length and tossed it in the nearest trash can. Dumb. He knew Candy’s saliva would be harmless until she turned.

Candy looked up at River and croaked, “How bad is it?”

River tried to smile, the muscles in her face twitching in protest as if they had forgotten how. “It’s bad.”

She would not lie to Candy. She never had, not even when she had seen a pack of Runners chase down Candy’s parents just outside the gates and rip them to pieces. When Candy had asked what had happened, River had told her, right down to the goriest detail. Candy had handled it all well, just as she was handling the news about herself. She had always been both flighty and brave.

Now she nodded at River. “Better get me to the kennels.”

River stroked her hair. “No. We can sit here a while. Ain’t no rush.”

“Bullshit. I ain’t gonna let you set here holdin’ me till I jump up and eat your face off. Help me to the kennel or shoot me right now.”

River sighed and nodded. She eased out from under Candy and squatted beside her, grasping her around the torso. Then River pulled herself up, lifting with her legs; Billy stepped over and grabbed Candy under the arms and tugged until she was on her feet, swaying like a sapling in a hard wind. River held her by one arm, afraid that she would tumble over on her face and tear open the clotting neck wound. After a moment, Candy nodded and River let her go. She did not fall.

Candy looked up at Billy. “I’m sorry. I almost got you two killed.”

Billy smiled and then patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry about that now. You want anything? Some more water or some jerky?”

“No. There’s only one thing I want. And we gotta hurry. I can already feel it. Wonder if I’ll be a Plodder, like that thing in them ugly-ass overalls.”

River and Billy said nothing. No one had ever discovered why some people became Plodders and others turned into Runners.

They all walked toward the kennels as fast as they could go, though Billy and River had to wait on Candy, who could only shuffle along like the Plodder that had bitten her. River felt her heart swell and ache as she watched; she bit her lower lip hard, relishing the pain that drove thought away. She had been through all of this before with her own mother, with Candy’s parents, with a dozen friends and acquaintances. It never stopped hurting when they changed, and it never got easier to put them down afterward. Her father had taught her to harden her heart against anything that plodded or ran after a colony member, but she had never been able to take that one last step. You can’t see ’em as the people they were anymore. You’ve gotta see ’em as the things they are. She always remembered who they had been. When they hurt or died, she hurt with them. And so for most of her life, she had dreaded her thirteenth birthday, when, according to the colony by-laws, she would be old enough to hunt, to gather, to patrol, to stand guard at the fences. To wait coldly until a Plodder or Runner wandered into range and pull the trigger. To hack off a head, to burn a body. She had done it many times over the last year and felt she could handle it all as long as she had not known the creature in life. But when she had to kill someone she had known, she always felt as if she were lopping off some crucial part of herself—her empathy, her ability to love, her dreams. She had to get past that, or she would die young.

A cloud moved across the sun. River looked at the sky, so blue it hurt her eyes. A gentle breeze played across her face, bringing with it the scent of frying meat from the mess hall. All around her, people came and went, all of them carefully averting their eyes from the little party headed to the kennels; word had spread already. Birds chirped at each other on the nearby roofs. The three of them passed the garage and the weapons storage buildings and the residences, all of the structures painted in green and brown patterns. Her father had explained that the compound used to be an army base, back before the troubles came. Now there was no army, nothing for one to protect. She had a hard time imagining a world dense with living people like ants flowing out of a mound, a world without Plodders or Runners. Every time she looked at her father, she thought of that world; he had lived there. He had seen nearly everyone he ever knew get torn apart or transform into something much worse than dead. What must his dreams be like?

They reached the kennels in back of the compound. The set of six ten-by-ten chain-link cages stood empty, each one festooned with barbed wire and windblown pieces of wilted Spanish moss, like a hellish version of the tattered garland her father hung from a sapling every December. The metal support posts had been secured in foot-thick concrete. Inside each cage, five iron bars had been driven into the slab. A thick chain had been welded to each bar; each chain terminated with a locking cuff. Candy would die here twice, chained down like a dog, as so many others had. River had never seen the kennels full; the colonists only used them when someone from the compound had been compromised. The occasion was always sad and violent, ending with splattered brains and the smell of burning flesh.

They reached the first empty cage and Candy walked inside, no hesitation. She about-faced and stood in the nest of iron bars.

“You wanna do it yourself?” Billy asked.

Candy said nothing for a moment. When she spoke, her voice shook. “I’m tryin’ to hold myself together, but the truth is I’m scared shitless. Can you do it for me?”

Billy nodded and entered the cage. He picked up one of the closest shackles and pulled a set of keys out of his pants pocket. He selected a key and stuck it in the shackle’s padlock. He removed the lock, and the shackle fell open. Candy held out her hand. He fastened the shackle around her wrist and replaced the padlock, clicking it shut. River saw Candy wince as the lock shot home, the metallic clink somehow final and damning. The cuff looked too big for Candy’s skinny wrist, but she could not pull her hand out without breaking her thumb at the very least. Billy grasped the chain with both hands and yanked on it; the post did not move. He nodded and dropped the chain. Then he repeated the process until Candy’s wrists and ankles had been secured. He picked up the cuff and chain fastened to the central post and unlocked it, fastening it around Candy’s neck. When the final lock clicked shut, he stuck the keys back in his pocket and stepped back. Candy’s long blonde hair had fallen over her eyes. She tried to lift her arm, perhaps to brush the hair away, but the chain stopped her short. She had to kneel in order to get any slack, and on her knees in that cage, concrete baking in the day’s dry heat, her bloodstained blouse rippling in the breeze, she looked like an animal headed for the slaughter.

Candy ran her fingers through her hair and tucked it behind her ears. She looked up at Billy. “Thanks. Now go. I don’t want you to see.”

He frowned. “I aim to put you down. I owe you that much.”

“When that happens, I won’t know who’s here and who ain’t. But I do now. So go. Please, Billy.”

A single tear welled up in her eye and slid down her dirty, blood-encrusted cheek. Billy stepped forward and knelt, throwing his arms around her; she patted him on the back, the chains tinkling like musical accompaniment. Then Billy let her go and stood up. He turned and walked out of the cage, heading for the barracks. River could have sworn he was crying, though she had never seen him weep, not even when her mother had turned. Perhaps a man could only take so much before he started crying late at night, surrounded by the chirping of crickets, the night watch’s soft conversations, and the low moans and growls from the things in the woods. Maybe it only started with the weeping, uncontrollable and violent, and then one day, he would wake up and put his pistol barrel in his mouth or walk out into the woods unarmed. And if it happened to her father, she supposed it would happen to her someday, too.

River had been young when her mother changed, too young to remember the woman as more than a pale moon face leaning over her at bedtime, a shock of black hair that frizzed out in even the dampest of weathers, and a voice like the tinkling of silver bells. Her name had been Courtney. River had often seen her looking out the barracks window at night when both of them should have been asleep, scraping at the wooden sill with the sharp end of an old screwdriver, but River herself had never bothered to look. People were always carving on something. Then, while on patrol one day, Courtney’s horse spooked and threw her right into the arms of a Plodder, who managed to bite off a chunk of her calf before she got away. River soon learned that the bites’ efficacy equated with their distance from the brain; if you were bitten on the leg, you changed slowly, and if you were bitten above the shoulders, you might as well chop off your own head, because within a couple of hours, you would become a growling horror. So Courtney had lingered for days, dropping deeper and deeper into lethargy, her speech becoming more and more slurred, her eyes red and watery. Finally Billy had taken her to the kennels. River had not gone with them, but she had heard the story of how her mother turned into a gibbering, slobbering Plodder who would have eaten the living flesh of anyone within reach if Billy had not put a bullet in her brain first. No one would let River near the kennels, so she had taken her mother’s old position at the barracks window, watching people drift by and wiping tears from her eyes. She had looked down at the sill and saw that her mother had carved something in uneven, childlike letters:

Pain has an element of blank
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not

River had no idea where the lines had come from, but she had read them often over the years. And she had always thought she understood them when she remembered how Billy had come home that day and sat quietly in his favorite chair, reading old books and grunting whenever River asked questions. He did not eat for three days. But he had never wept, not in her presence. And now the girl whom he thought of as his adopted daughter had been bitten, corrupted, and the bite was high. Another day had brought a fresh wound, not just in Candy’s flesh but inside them all, and she could honestly not remember a time when that had not been so.

River knew that Billy would come back to put Candy down, but if he respected her wishes, he would not reappear until after the change. He had not told River whether or not she should stay. Maybe the decision belonged to her; maybe that was part of growing up, deciding whom you could stand to stay with as they died, and came back, and died again.

She looked at Candy. The neck wound had stopped seeping. Candy had dropped the towel; it lay near her knees like a ritual sacrifice, and the wound, open to the elements, looked cavernous and raw. But it had stopped bleeding altogether, which meant that Candy’s systems were shutting down. Her face looked like old parchment; her hair strung out from her head like tufts of cornsilk. And her blue eyes appeared to be tinted with amber. Her dry lips had cracked. River felt a tug somewhere in her guts, as if she had been fish-hooked. She and Candy had planned to pull out her father’s old Scrabble game and make dirty words tonight. They had planned to sneak out and watch the dark parts of the fence, hoping a Plodder would come along so that they could throw rocks at it. They had planned to tell each other stories of the world that was, a place full of cars and people and something called television shows. But now they had no time left.

“Can I get you somethin’?” she asked. “A little more water, maybe?”

Candy shook her head, the chains rattling. “No. I don’t want nothin’ on my stomach. I’m scared it’d make everything worse. I ain’t never been so hungry in my life.”

Billy had left the cage door open. River had no idea why he had done that. She had seen him march as many as two dozen people to the kennels, and he always locked the cages. Just in case, he said. Them chains ain’t never broke, but there’s a first time for everything, he said. Maybe he had left it open because of the sound it made when it closed. One time when she was little, she had snuck out of their barracks at night and tried to get over the fence, chasing a lightning bug like it was the only creature moving on Earth. The guards had caught her and marched her right back to her Daddy, who whipped her ass with his belt and then took her down to what he called a stockade. It was a little room with a cot and a toilet and sink and steel bars for a door. He had locked her in there overnight and told her that if she ever tried to sneak over that fence again, he would leave her down there for a week. When he shut the gate, those bars had clanged like the toll of a deathwatch bell, and she had burst into tears. She imagined that when they locked the cage on one of the corrupted, it probably sounded final and cold, like that stockade door. That was probably why so many of the dying screamed and begged and insisted that they were not sick. Soon enough they would begin to curse and threaten and posture. And then they would just collapse on the concrete until they changed. Maybe Billy could not bear to hear Candy beg him for a life that would soon end either way.

River turned her face up to the sun, letting the day’s heat bake into her. She felt feverish. A rogue thought leaped to the forefront of her mind: what if she had been bitten and had not even felt it in the headlong rush from the water’s edge? She checked herself all over, pulling her clothing back even when she could see no spreading bloodstain, craning her neck back as far as she could, never able to see everything. She spun around and around like a wounded animal tramping down the grass in its den.

Candy watched silently. Her hair had fallen back over her face, but she did not bother to brush it away. Her eyes were twin pools of fire in her pallid face. She said, “Don’t worry. You ain’t bit. You’d know it if you was. It ain’t just pain. It’s like somebody’s took out your blood and filled you full of ice-water. I stopped feelin’ my feet before you got me to the car. Now I’m like one of them smooth, cold rocks you pull out of the river in February.”

River stopped searching herself. She sat down on the concrete just outside the cage door and looked at Candy, who had been her best friend ever since they were born. They had been inseparable even when all their parents were still alive. Some days, River had awakened to find Candy sitting on the bunk across from her, eyes closed, perhaps listening to the noises of the burgeoning day drifting in from the cracked barracks window. On other mornings, River would dash out the door as soon as she had eaten and sprint to Candy’s quarters, where she would leap on the bunk and bounce until Candy woke up giggling, begging for her to quit it. They had eaten together, learned to drive together by piloting an old jeep around the compound in second gear, cowered together in the barracks when their parents went out to defend the perimeter. When her mother turned, River had stayed with Candy’s family for a week. And when both of Candy’s parents were killed and eaten within twenty yards of the front gates while the horrified guards looked on, Billy had gone to their barracks and brought Candy back. He had raised her as a daughter ever since. And now this. River could tell that Billy blamed himself for all the deaths; out of all his family and best friends, only River would be left. And she had no idea how to live without Candy when every breath, every movement, every sound and texture would remind her of something they had done together.

“I’ll tell you this,” River said. “From now on, I’m not just huntin’ for food or those fuckers out there. I’m gonna take out every cypress root I see.”

Candy laughed, loud and long, but even that sound betrayed her advancing condition. Her laugh had always sounded deep and throaty, like an enormous bullfrog trying to hock up a hollow-point bullet. A bizarre sound, but one that made any joke seem funnier. Now the laugh dribbled out in a series of wheezes, like an asthmatic trying to chuckle after sprinting a hundred yards. River tried to smile at her, but the expression felt crooked and wrong. Still wheezing, Candy said, “Damn. You look constipated.”

Now River burst into laughter, a healthy guffaw that startled a bird off the top of Candy’s cage. Candy brushed her disheveled hair away from her face and smiled, and then River’s laughter died in her throat, because she noticed for the first time that Candy’s gums had turned gray. Her teeth looked as white and flat as the barracks walls. River stared at them, unable to help herself. Suddenly an image appeared in her mind—Candy’s faded-parchment face hovering over Billy’s wounded but living body, one of his arms raised in defense as Candy struck like a rattlesnake and sunk those white teeth into his flesh, blackish blood pooling around her mouth and dripping down her cheeks as she shook her head from side to side, ripping and tearing at the meat like a shark.

That’s what it will be like if we don’t do it. She won’t be Candy anymore. She’ll be one of them, a Plodder or a Runner, and if you give her half a chance, she’ll eat your guts for breakfast and your tongue for dessert.

As if reading her mind, Candy stopped smiling. “You know it’s gotta be done. Ain’t no choice. But you don’t gotta watch if you don’t wanna.”

River shook her head. “I’m gonna stick by you until the end.”

From behind them, Billy said, “Sure you can handle that?”

River turned to look at her father. His expression was blank, as if he had changed his emotions as quickly and efficiently as someone else might change shirts. His eyes looked flinty and cold. His steady hands held a .30-30 rifle. She knew he would have already loaded a shell into the chamber. So there it stood, Candy’s 7.8 millimeter death, ready to explode from the barrel and turn her brain to shapeless goo, much of which would fly right out the back of her head. The entry hole would look neat; the exit would be wide and chunky, not so different from a Plodder’s bite. And in spite of all that, River knew she would stand it. For Candy, but also for Billy. She had to stick by him at every turn from now on. Even inside a compound, surrounded by other people, no one survived for long without friends or family, something to keep you sane and grounded. Something to fight for.

“Yeah,” she said. “I can handle it.”

Billy nodded and walked over to her. They sat down together in front of the cage and watched Candy, who had closed her eyes. Her lips were moving. River knew she was probably praying. No one said anything for a long time; the sun dipped further toward the west, their shadows growing longer on the hard concrete. Candy never shifted positions; she remained on her knees, head bowed, lips moving soundlessly. The heat and the stillness lulled River into a semi-doze, while Billy sat beside her, holding the gun in both hands like a knight kneeling with his sword.

Finally River looked up. “Candy. Hey.”

But Candy did not answer. Billy was still holding the rifle in one hand. River burst into tears, but Billy did not even look at her. He was watching Candy carefully.

A volley of rifle fire from the direction of the gate made them both jump and turn away. The steady deep boom of shotgun blasts rolled over the compound like thunder. They could hear raised voices shouting at each other between shots. River looked at her father; he had raised his rifle instinctively, but now he was lowering it, some emotion rippling over his features. He glanced from the gate to the cage. Someone came running in their direction and he raised the rifle again until they saw that the figure was armed with a shotgun.

It was Marquis. He skidded to a stop in front of them. “We got hostiles at the gate! Two big packs of runners! One of ’em made it over the fence before we shot him! We need everybody there right now!”

“Where you goin’, then?” asked Billy.

“Gettin’ more ammo.”

“Bring another rifle for me. I’ll see you there in two minutes.” Marquis nodded and ran off toward the nearest armory. Billy shoved the .30-30 into River’s hands; she took it on instinct and then stared at it as if she had never seen a gun before. She looked up into Billy’s cold blue eyes. She shook her head hard from side to side, tears streaming down her dirty face. He said, “It ain’t fair, but this is the only way. It oughta be you anyway. You’re practically her sister.”

“I don’t wanna,” River whispered.

Billy kissed her forehead. “I’d spare you if I could. Maybe I’ll get back in time. If not, don’t let her live a minute as one of them things. Lock that gate right now, you hear?”

He hugged her, the gun caught between them. Then Billy let her go and dashed toward the gates, not looking back. River stood looking after him, the gun heavy in her hands. She wanted nothing more than to drop it and run after Billy, to face the Runners at the gate, to fight all the Runners in the world bare-handed, anything but take on the task that had been assigned to her. Behind her, the chains rustled and clinked. River turned slowly and looked at Candy, who was crouching on her knees. She had gone even paler than before; she might have been made out of fresh bedsheets. Even her hair had faded, looking like a centuries-old painting of blonde hair. Only her eyes shimmered with color; they were redder than before.

In a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “You remember when we was little and we used to play dolls? We’d make the boys kiss the girls, and then we’d make ’em do it, even though them dolls didn’t have no parts.”

River, her voice cracking, said, “I remember.”

Candy shook the hair out of her eyes. River saw the neck wound crack open again, but only a hair-thin trickle of blood flowed out. “I used to look forward to doin’ it. Sometimes I could hear my parents in the barracks, you know? They tried to be quiet, but them cinderblock walls—stuff echoes in there. It always sounded like work because they’d get so out of breath, like doin’ too many pushups or somethin’. But the way they’d talk to each other after… I could tell it was love. Pain too, but love all the same. I never knew you could hurt somebody and still love ’em. That love and pain might even be the same thing.”

River did not know what to say. She laid the gun against the fence, barrel up, and stood in the doorway.

“Now I’ll never get to try it,” Candy rasped. “Hell, I ain’t never even been kissed. What kinda way to die is that? Everybody oughta be kissed at least once.”

Candy burst into sobs, the sound deep and wracking, but no tears flowed. Apparently the ducts had already died, turned as cold as the rest of her body. River wanted to cry again too, but she would not lose control now. She could not. Candy deserved better than that.

“I’m sorry,” River said. “I ain’t got time to find you a boy.”

She stepped into the cage. Candy began to tremble. River rushed to her and knelt down, taking Candy’s face in her hands. It was like touching the belly of a catfish pulled from a deep riverbed, cold and somehow slimy. Candy’s blood-red eyes rolled back in her head and then snapped back in place. Her breath smelled like standing water and old moss.

River leaned in and kissed Candy, pressing their lips together, turning her head and opening her mouth just a little. Candy sucked in her breath and stiffened. Then she responded, flicking her tongue into River’s mouth, probing a moment, withdrawing as quick as a heartbeat. River held her mouth against Candy’s a moment longer; Candy slumped against her. River began to overbalance; she let go of Candy to catch herself.

Candy fell, the chains pulling her backward and rattling against the slab. Her head ricocheted off the central post and cracked on the concrete. She stared sightlessly at the blue sky. River stifled a moan and sat down, unable to move. Candy was dead. After everything they had been through, all the training and the raids and the nightmare images of teeth buried in flesh, she had been taken away by a cypress knee and one lone Plodder, a thing that walked as slowly as a baby could crawl. River felt the tears coming again and blinked hard. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hands against them.

When she opened them again, Candy was sitting up. Her mouth had fallen open, long strings of drool hanging from her slack lower lip. Her eyes were pools of blood. She growled low in her throat like a cornered dog.

River felt her lower lip trembling, her breath hitch in her chest. She said, “Aw, shit!”

Candy sprang at her, arms outstretched, hands hooked into talons. The slack in the chains played out and they held Candy back, tearing strips of flesh off her wrists, neck, and ankles. The red muscle beneath gleamed like raw salmon. But River had been sitting too close; Candy slashed at her face, dragging long claw marks down one cheek. Drool flew everywhere as Candy whipped her head about and gnashed her teeth, shrieking louder and louder like an air-raid claxon, and River thought, She’s a Runner, she’s turned into a goddam Runner, and if that spit gets in the cuts I’m as dead as she is.

River screamed and crawfished backward toward the gate as Candy leaped for her again. The chains yanked her backward; River heard something snap like a dry twig and saw Candy’s right hand hanging backward over the cuff. Candy sat down hard, a low moan escaping her, and for the first time, River wondered if these creatures felt pain. She stood up, her back against the cage, as Candy fought against the cuffs, ripping and tearing at the chains, her high-pitched shrieks like bats’ language.

River stepped outside of the cage and shut the door. Then she fed the chain through and locked it. She picked up the gun and raised it to her shoulder, setting the end of the barrel through the chain-link fence, using it as a prop. She fixed her sight on Candy’s wildly snapping forehead, hoping against hope that she could do it in one shot.

She swallowed hard and said, “This is the only thing left to do for you. I hope you’d do the same for me.”

Candy stopped yanking at the chains and looked toward the fence. Her face slackened as if melting in the summer heat. Her hands dropped to her sides, and River wondered, Is she still in there somewhere?

She hoped not. If hell existed, that would be as good a definition as any. The tears kept trying to come; River kept blinking them back. She would be strong, like her father. Like her mother had been. Like everyone had to be, if they wanted to survive.

Pain has an element of blank, she thought.

Candy snarled again. And River pulled the trigger.

 

“An Element of Blank” was previously published in The Evansville Review.

 

Permanent Detention

by Allen Coyle

 

I saw a woman recently. I mean a real woman; not a magazine clip-out or a poster. Honest to god, a real-life woman.

It’d been more than twelve years since I’d seen one.

It was Clancy who introduced us. He’s the captain of the guards. Over the years he seems to have taken a liking to me. I’m not sure why. I think maybe it’s because I’m soft-spoken and obedient, and not loud and rebellious like some of the others. I don’t give him any problems.

It was after dinner when, unannounced, Clancy asked me to accompany him to the fifth floor. Much of the area is restricted, but I’d been there before to clean—under a guard’s supervision, of course. They keep a sharp eye on you here.

I figured maybe he’d spilled some coffee and needed a trustee to clean it up. So I was surprised when he led me down the corridor and into a large, dark room filled with files. Along the far wall, nestled between two shelves, stood a tall, nondescript door. Clancy unlocked it and swung it open, revealing a room that was a mirror image of the one we were in.

And there she stood, as if she were waiting. I gasped, and froze.

She, too, was accompanied by a guard—an older woman. And like me, she wore the regulation uniform: white shirt, white pants, white sneakers, white socks. All white. She had a wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look—as I’m sure I did—and she stood with her knees slightly bent, as if she was prepared to scamper. She sort of reminded me of a young Scarlett Johansson, that actress from the old-time movies I liked to watch, before I came here. She had the deep, mature eyes; the red, parted lips. And her light, blonde hair flowed in waves well past her shoulders.

Clancy let out a laugh—a loud, whooping, bottom-of-the-belly laugh, which made his large gut quiver.

“Well,” he said, “don’t just stand there staring at each other. Say something! Introduce yourselves!”

But I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t. And neither, it seemed, could she. We both just gazed, awestruck, as if trying to comprehend one another’s existence.

“We wanted you to have the opportunity to meet,” Clancy said. “You’re both nearly thirty, and we thought you deserved a nice birthday present.”

He and the female guard shared a knowing smile. The girl and I remained speechless.

Clancy checked his watch. “We’ll give you both a half hour. The corridors will be clear. Introduce yourselves; get to know one another. Make the most of your time, because we can’t promise another opportunity like this. The risk is too great.

“And whatever you do,” he continued, “don’t talk too loudly. These rooms echo, and your voices might carry.”

He took a step toward me then and clasped my shoulder, almost in a reassuring way, like a father encouraging his son before a big date. He said nothing more; he simply squeezed and let go. He had a large, brawny hand, and I felt small under his grip.

Clancy and the female guard looked at each other, then both retreated to their own wings, like duelers marching in opposite directions. Clancy left through the door behind me; the female guard, through the door behind the girl. The latches clicked into place loudly, making me jump. More than anything, I hate the sound of doors closing—especially the barred door of my cell when it slams shut at night. Even after all these years, I’ve never gotten used to it.

We looked at each other, the young woman and I. My mouth and throat were dry. She tried to smile, but her lips were shaking. Her whole body, in fact, was shaking. Mine was, too. And the fifth floor was warm, especially on this particular summer evening.

I swallowed. “Hi,” I said.

She let out a nervous laugh. “Hi.”

“I, ah…” I let my voice trail off. “Do you know what this is all about?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I really… I don’t know.” She raised her shoulders, her head tilted. She forced a smile. It was awkward, almost like a wince, but nonetheless endearing.

I tried to smile back. I can only imagine how I looked. Grotesque, probably. “I’m Paul. I’m… it’s good to meet you.”

Another nervous laugh. “Hi Paul.” She smiled, though, and this time, it didn’t seem quite as forced.

I grinned. “Hi.”

All this stuttering and stammering, you’d have thought we were inexperienced teenagers.

Which made sense, in a way. The last time we’d interacted with members of the opposite sex, we’d both been in high school.

*****

I’d always known there was a women’s wing. All of us did. It was a place of legend: a mystical location we could only dream about, but never visit. I imagined it to be a mirror image of the men’s wing, with cells and a cafeteria and a library and classrooms, except with women inmates instead of men.

Not especially imaginative, but exciting nevertheless.

Others speculated it was a paradise filled with luxurious amenities, including a private deck for sunbathing, and a spa where the women could soak in mud. An oasis so close, and yet so far. Someone always would claim to have seen it—to have snuck in once, undetected—but when prodded for details, their elaborate story would sputter to snickers and a shaking of the head.

It was all bullshit, of course, but a way to pass the time. And when you’re dragging a rake across the dirt exercise yard, grooming the sand, or wiping spots off of hot trays that the dishwasher missed, you need a way to fill the void—the aching emptiness in your life. And if you’ve got nothing else, bullshit works quite nicely.

The conversations about the women’s wing made me feel young and immature, like a five-year-old and his buddies envisioning what it must be like in the girls’ restroom. Deep down, you suspect it’s nothing spectacular—probably no different from the boys’ restroom (except for the lack of urinals, of course)—but it’s nonetheless alluring because it’s off-limits and forbidden.

For all of us hard up male inmates, legends of the women’s wing became our grown-up version of the girls’ restroom.

I knew the main entrance to the women’s wing was from the lobby, the same as the men’s. I’d been to the lobby plenty of times—always with a guard escort, of course—sometimes to visit the warden’s office, but most often to mop the floors in the visitors’ area. I’d seen the entrance to the wing, but the double doors were always closed tight. I couldn’t get so much as a glimpse inside.

I’d never have guessed that the men’s and women’s wings connected from within, especially from a nondescript door in a random filing room on the fifth floor. Of course, if I’d have told any of the guys about the door, they’d have laughed me off; said I was full of shit. Thing was, though, I had no desire to tell. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep the secret to myself. It was that telling the guys would tarnish my memory of meeting the woman—cheapen the experience somehow. Because there was more to that encounter than simply getting a glimpse into the proverbial women’s wing.

That night, you see, for the first time in my life, I fell in love.

*****

The woman’s name was Pam. She was a couple of months younger than me—we both were twenty-nine—and she’d been in Permanent Detention since she was sixteen. Sixteen. Like me, she’d spent almost half of her life in this place.

She’d never even had the chance to get her driver’s license.

It took awhile for us to get over our nervousness, but once we got going, we talked and talked and talked. The conversation just flowed. I’d never known I had so much to say. I never was much of a talker to begin with, and over the years I found I spoke less and less. It seemed the longer you spent in Permanent Detention, the more difficult small talk became.

Mainly, we chatted about our present lives and our living conditions. Like most inmates, we spent our days working in the laundry (separate facilities, of course; you can imagine the kick male inmates would get sniffing female garments). We also pulled kitchen duty from time to time, and both of us liked to spend Sundays reading in our cells.

Like me, good behavior had helped elevate Pam to trustee status, which allowed her special library privileges and access to otherwise forbidden areas, such as the officers’ lounge. (Not to hang out, of course, but to clean—being the meek, obedient little servants we were.)

We didn’t touch at all throughout our conversation… except at one point I did clasp her hand. I’m not sure why; it felt right. She let me; she didn’t recoil. Her hand felt very soft, and very warm, and it filled my whole body with a tingling sensation I hadn’t felt for years, as if dead nerves were sparking to life.

I’d wanted to kiss her—in fact, I ached to kiss her—and it wasn’t because of any sexual urge, but rather a desire to get close to her, to meld with her—to become almost as a single living entity. I suddenly wanted to feel connected to someone—attached. I wanted to feel her warm skin pressed against mine; her soft hands clasped inside mine. I wanted to feel her head on my shoulder, her hair in my face… and I wanted to hold her and protect her from the world; from the pale gray walls of the institution; from the bleakness of our reality—from the harshness of our world.

But we didn’t kiss. Our hands, instead, slackened… and our fingers slid apart. Not because we didn’t want to hold hands, but rather, I sensed, from a tacit understanding that we were treading on forbidden territory… and that we only were setting ourselves up for a more painful goodbye.

That half hour flew faster than any time I’ve ever known. And when the door behind me clicked open and Clancy returned, I wanted to cry. But I somehow contained myself as he led me from the filing room and downstairs to the main cell block, accompanying me to 4D, fourth cell from the left—my home for the past dozen years. He called out to the operator, and the barred door slid shut behind me.

It was only when I was curled up in my bunk with my back to the corridor, facing the pale, gray wall, that I started crying. They were intense, guttural sobs, springing from a sadness buried so deep inside of me, I hadn’t realized it existed. Or maybe I did know it existed, but I’d grown so numb to it over the years that I no longer was aware of it, like the way you don’t think about your heart beating.

Thankfully, nobody heard me crying. You can’t let your emotions get the better of you in this place. The only way to live is to recede within yourself; to numb your soul and senses. It’s no way to live, but in here, it’s the only way to live.

I turned my pillow to the dry side and tried to fall asleep, but sleep was a long time coming that night. It was only a couple of hours before dawn when I finally dozed off, and then my dreams were bright and colorful and lifelike… and all of them featured Pam.

And then a loud buzzing was sounding, and my cell door was sliding open, and I was struggling out of my bunk, hurrying to get dressed before the morning count.

*****

I dream about women sometimes. Not as much as I used to, but occasionally.

Sometimes they’re sexual dreams, and I awake feeling all perverted and gross—and guilty somehow. More often, though, they’re romantic dreams—simple depictions of companionship—such as walking hand-in-hand in a park, or cuddling and watching a sunset, or sharing a laugh over a candlelit dinner. I often awake from these dreams with a warmth that stays with me the whole day, as if the woman will be waiting for me when I return to my cell—from a long, brutal day in the laundry—to hold me after lights-out.

I imagine it’s how a close relationship must feel: a warm, comforting sensation that stays with you all day, even in those moments when you can’t be with your partner.

I never did have a girlfriend; not really. Probably the closest was eighth grade, when I kissed the neighbor girl. She was my age and lived next door. We didn’t hang out often, and we weren’t great friends. However, she came over one morning and asked me to walk with her. She led me down the street to a home under construction. We snuck inside—there were no workers that afternoon—and she cuddled with me in a crook formed by two walls.

She started kissing me: deep, wet, gooey kisses that, to me, seemed gross and invasive. We quit after a couple of minutes; it didn’t feel right. She left me on my own, to wonder what had happened—to ponder on what I’d done wrong.

A month later, she moved away. We never even said goodbye. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, that experience was the closest I’d ever get to feeling true love.

Until now, that is.

A lot of the guys here had girlfriends in high school, and a few even got laid. That’s what they call it; they say it as if it were an accomplishment, a trophy. The way they describe it isn’t the way I imagine it. They talk in terms of thrusting, banging, fucking. I always envision it as more of a gentle thing, a sweet thing—something where you’re simply together, looking into each other’s eyes, loving each other.

Some of the romance books in the library depict it like that, but I wouldn’t want anyone to catch me reading those; not when I finally have some seniority and the respect that comes with it. That perk could disappear in an instant, and I’d be right back where I was when I first arrived: a timid seventeen-year-old condemned to a life behind bars, aching for death.

Though I suppose I’m not all that different now: I’m no longer seventeen, but I’m still timid and condemned to a life behind bars. And though I no longer ache for death, some days I don’t think I’d mind it that much.

*****

I was sentenced to Permanent Detention shortly after my seventeenth birthday. My crime? Possessing a book.

Not just any book, of course—an illegal book. And the sad part is, I didn’t even read it.

Well, I did read some of it; the first couple of chapters, anyway. It was a giant tome of a novel, and the print was microscopic. It had belonged to my father, and according to my mom, he’d always wanted me to have it. He said it was an important book: a book of ideas.

I remember it was called The Fountainhead and it had been written in my great, great grandfather’s time, when printed books were still available. I vaguely remember it had something to do with architecture, and a student talking to his dean. But that’s all. At the time, I thought it was boring and dense, and if it had any useful ideas, they were way over my head.

But that book was one of the few things I had to remember my father by. He’d proudly printed his name on the inside front cover, in big, block letters. In fact, it was the only part of the book I enjoyed reading. I’d often run my fingers along the penciled name, retracing each letter, as if trying to forge a connection to the dad I never really knew.

He was killed when I was seven, gunned down in a demonstration outside the capitol. It was an inevitable end, my mother said. He’d served time once for publishing seditious content, and he spoke often at underground anti-government rallies, which usually were infiltrated by undercover informants. He was a marked man, according to my mother, and he had been living on borrowed time for ages. If he hadn’t have been shot in that demonstration, then he probably would have been stabbed in a back alley somewhere, or taken to an underground detention center and never seen again.

She claimed agents watched our house and followed us wherever we went. I remember being a young child crouched in the backseat of the car, on the verge of hysteria as my parents tried to out-maneuver a van they claimed was following them.

Looking back, it’s no wonder I grew up to be so timid and anxious.

After my father’s death, agents raided our house, searching for seditious material. They confiscated my dad’s computers, file servers, notebooks, pamphlets—you name it. They also arrested my mother for conspiracy and put me in protective custody.

She claimed she didn’t agree with my father’s viewpoints (which wasn’t true; she simply was less vocal). The state’s case against her was weak. All of the confiscated materials belonged to my father, and none of the writings bore her name.

She’d also never demonstrated her treachery in public. The state claimed she was a traitor by the simple virtue of remaining married to my father. She countered that she remained married only for my sake, because she lacked the income to raise me on her own.

In the end, the tribunal decided to show leniency. Not because they didn’t have the proof (proof was only a convenience for these sorts of trials, not a necessity), but rather because it was an election year, and nobody wanted to look bad for imprisoning a young, widowed mother, even if she had been married to an enemy of the state.

The surveillance only got worse after my mother’s release. They were ready to pounce at the slightest perceived misstep. Black cars followed us wherever we went. Figures hid in darkness across the street, like silent, watching shadows. My mother never again mentioned my father, except to curse his name—convinced as she was that our home was riddled with bugs.

As the years passed, my memory of my father devolved to a shadow, then dissolved to a ghost.

The surveillance became less intrusive as time wore on, but whether seen or unseen, the government always was a constant presence—the uninvited white elephant in the room. I learned to accept fear as a normal part of my life: the fear of my mother being arrested; the fear of me being taken away from her. The fear instilled in me a rigid compliance to government dictates, and it snuffed out any rage that otherwise might have consumed my soul.

By the time I entered high school, I’d pretty much forgotten my father. So I was surprised when one evening, as I sat at the dining-room table doing algebra homework, my mother silently approached me, her index finger pressed against her lips. She handed me a handwritten note, as well as a tattered hardcover edition of The Fountainhead.

She tapped her lips with her finger, emphasizing the need for silence. Then, she pointed to the note, beckoning me to read it.

I unfolded the paper. In my mother’s tiny, neat script, she’d written: “This belonged to your father. He always wanted you to have it. He said it helped define him as a person, as an individual. He loved you more than anything, even freedom. It’s the only thing of his I have left, and I’m giving it to you.”

The note continued: “As a young man, you need to understand: this is a dangerous book. Not so much for the ideas it contains, but because so many people fear those ideas. The book’s also number six on the top-ten banned list, meaning anyone caught with it could be imprisoned—maybe for life. So whatever you do, keep it hidden. You’re old enough now to be trusted with it.”

I read the note twice. When I was done, I looked at my mother. She held out her hand, to take back the note. She stepped into the kitchen, then held the paper over the gas burner, setting the page on fire. She let the flames creep silently toward her fingers, then tossed the paper into the sink.

I looked down at the book, all worn and grubby and beat-up. Its pages were yellowed; its cover pockmarked. I opened it and immediately noticed my father’s name on the inside cover, scrawled in his erratic, blocky script.

It was the first time in eight years I’d seen his handwriting.

That book became my only link to my father. And for some reason I figured that if I could understand the book, I could come to understand him.

Unfortunately, like I mentioned, the writing was so dense, and the printing so small, that I made it through only the first couple of chapters—and even then, I understood none of it, which frustrated me. If the book had helped define my father, and I found it inaccessible, then what did that say about me? Was I even worthy of being called his son?

I kept the book carefully hidden under my bed, and I never took it out of the house. I looked at it only at night, with the door and blinds tightly closed, and even then I felt watched—haunted, almost. The fact that the book was banned—and that I could be imprisoned for owning it—filled me with a terror so intense, it made my stomach churn. In fact, it often felt more like a burden than a gift.

In the end, the book might have been too great a responsibility for a fifteen-year-old to bear. Even at the time, I wondered if my mother was naive to entrust me with it. I think on some level, she might have known I was too young. After all, I couldn’t help but notice how tightly she’d held her finger to her lips when she gave it to me, and also how quickly she’d reclaimed her handwritten note, to hold it over the fire.

*****

I feel like a lovestruck schoolchild.

Whether I’m stacking sheets or mopping the cell block or pulling weeds near the perimeter, my mind keeps drifting back to the fifth-floor filing room—to the wide, mature eyes taking me in; to the warm, soft hand clasped in mine.

To Pam.

I can’t get her out of my mind.

“Easy!” snaps Bruno, the lead cook, when I drop an empty casserole dish near his feet.

“Sorry,” I say, mumbling.

“Dammit, Paul.” Bruno waves his spatula at me. “You’ve had your head up your ass all day. You drop one more thing and I’ll smash your face against the goddamn grill. I swear I will.”

I want to tell him that my head’s not up my ass, but rather in the clouds… soaring high above this dreary compound, surveying the world. But he wouldn’t understand. Like everyone else, he’s tethered to the ground, mired in existence, with no thoughts or dreams to defy gravity—to launch him into flight.

I especially think about Pam after lights-out, as I lie awake, staring at the ceiling. I wonder if she thinks about me, too, during those long, drawn-out nights when you’re teetering toward madness, with only your thoughts and your dreams to keep you sane.

I wonder.

I start to think maybe Pam and I could be something—maybe friends, maybe more—if only we were a million miles away, with no bars to keep us confined; no walls to keep us contained. I imagine walking with her along a beach: the ice-cold waves splashing against our ankles… the blood-red sun sinking along the edge of the earth.

I imagine making love to her, the ocean’s roaring pulse resounding in the background, our breaths quick and hot against the chilly saltwater air.

But then I curse myself. It’s dangerous to play the “if only” game. Tottering down that path can lead only to lunacy. Pam and I never can be anything: not acquaintances, not friends, and certainly not lovers.

The truth is, we’ll probably never see each other again.

It’s a bleak, heartbreaking realization, but it’s a fact as cold and as hard and as impenetrable as the walls of my cell.

What I feel for Pam can’t be love. It can’t be. Even I know that love isn’t forged in an instant, but rather cultivated over time.

Which leads me to wonder: what if what I’m feeling isn’t really love, but rather lust in disguise?

After all, I hadn’t seen a woman for more than twelve years. What if it had been another female inmate that night, instead of Pam? Would I still have been swept away in the same lovestruck stupor?

It’s a question that haunts me at night, well after lights-out. Because, if true, it would mean the only genuine feelings I’ve felt in years aren’t really genuine after all.

It would mean that what I’m feeling for Pam, I could feel for any random woman.

It would mean that, in the end, I wasn’t in love with a person, per se, but rather with an idea—a fantasy.

So when I’m lying awake late at night, crying silently in my cell, it’s not because I know I’ll never see Pam again. I can live with that, I think.

What’s slowly killing me inside is the fear that my love for her might not be real.

And if that’s true, then maybe that was Clancy’s intention all along: a sort of psychological torture. If so, it would be the harshest, cruelest punishment I’ve ever endured in this place.

*****

Before we get into how I came here, a little about Permanent Detention:

It’s a relatively recent program. They started it twenty or so years ago to prevent young undesirables from joining society.

By “they,” I of course mean the government.

And by “young undesirables”… well, I suppose you’re looking at one.

I suppose.

According to the powers that be, sedition is the number-one problem facing our country. They say it’s a national-security issue. How can they effectively fight wars, they say, or protect the homeland, if their own citizens speak against them? For a nation to prosper, everyone must be beholden to the same philosophies—devoted to the same ideals.

And those who reject those philosophies and ideals need to be eradicated, like an organism rejecting a germ.

As I understand it, there was a time when you could disagree with the government openly, either in public, or in literature, or on the Internet. It’s hard to imagine. In my grandfather’s time the nation abided by what was known as the Constitution, which empowered individuals with certain rights. And though it was abolished long ago, its spirit still exists in the hearts and minds of many—including my father, who publicly advocated its reinstitution.

Of course, look how he ended up.

Hell, never mind that: look how I ended up. At least my father had a life before he died. I’m not sure you could call what I’ve got a life. I exist; that’s about it.

But at least I’m alive… so I suppose I should be grateful.

I suppose.

Permanent Detention started as an experimental program, but it proved to be so successful—and was looked upon so favorably by the population—that it became a cornerstone of the national agenda. The basic premise was simple: Identify potential nonconformists—those most likely to hold anti-government attitudes—and sentence them to life imprisonment, effectively cleansing society of its undesirables; the organism rejecting the germ.

And who better to target than high-school students?

After all, said the government, your basic philosophical foundations are laid during your youth. If you display treasonous tendencies as a young adult, chances are you’ll grow to become a rebel.

And if you were a rebel, there was no place for you in their fist-pumping, anthem-chanting, single-minded society.

High schools everywhere became a patriotic litmus test. If you obeyed, marched in line, said “yes sir” and “yes ma’am,” you generally were safe. Potential nonconformists, on the other hand—those who avoided sports and clubs, shunned cooperative learning, who ate alone and had few friends—these folks were hauled before a military-style tribunal. An administrator—most often a principal—presented evidence against the defendant. The defendant—most often a trembling, teary-eyed dweeb; you know, the quintessential menace to society—was given a chance to rebut; to claim how passionately he loved his country.

The tribunal, then, would render its verdict. Those deemed a danger to society were condemned to life imprisonment—to Permanent Detention. The gavel would slam down, and they’d be led away sniffing and sobbing… their lives effectively snuffed out before they began… and their parents would be watching in horror, knowing a raid likely was on the way, as well as additional arrests. After all, no child became rebellious in a vacuum. They had to acquire their attitudes from somewhere.

The program was a resounding success, and the senator who proposed it later won the presidency. According to government statistics, crime plummeted, national unity surged, and once again we became a great and prosperous nation, united by a common thread… beholden to the same philosophies… devoted to the same ideals.

A healthy, happy, germ-free organism.

Which, I suppose, was best for everyone.

I suppose.

*****

Looking back, I was probably on the fast-track to Permanent Detention all along. I had few friends; I didn’t play sports; I belonged to no clubs. I was quiet and kept to myself, which alarmed several of my teachers.

Plus, my father was a known radical.

My mother begged me to become more socially active. Begged me. Rather than to help me blend in, she said my meekness and timidity made me stand out.

“They’re going to peg you as a loner,” she said. “And once they do, you’re as good as done. Nothing upsets the establishment like obstinate individualism.”

I tried, but I couldn’t change my nature. Besides, I was weak and small, and if I wasn’t cowering in a corner, I was being confronted by bullies. Withdrawing was easier than asserting my presence, which usually resulted in my ass getting kicked.

But in the end, it was the book that did it. The book… coupled, of course, with my own stupidity.

I was sixteen then, and driving. I’d spent the previous summer working as a laborer on a prevailing-wage job, which allowed me to put a down payment on a used car. It was a total piece of shit—not exactly a chick magnet (not that I was, either)—but it ran, and it was mine.

The construction company I’d worked for had a yard-maintenance service, so for three hours after school I mowed lawns, pruned hedges, adjusted sprinklers. After work I’d head home for dinner, and then I’d do homework, which I always completed dutifully. Not that it scored me any points with my teachers, who all seemed to regard me with disdain.

That car gave me a freedom I’d never known before (or since, I might add). On a moment’s notice I could grab my keys and take off anywhere. My mother didn’t care, as long as I ensured I wasn’t followed.

By that time, though, my father had been gone for so long—and my mother and I had behaved so well—that the surveillance had trickled from constant to occasional. Only twice did I notice the familiar black SUVs in my rear-view mirror, trailing a few car lengths behind. Most often, they left me alone, to savor the solitude of the open road… to leave behind the burdens of school and society… to feel unconfined, unconstrained, unencumbered… free.

Free.

I especially enjoyed driving at night. I felt more shielded, somehow; less conspicuous, less visible. It was just me and my headlights cutting through the darkness, finding the way. Often, around 9:30 or so, after my homework was done, I’d grab my keys and dive into my car, to go cruising. Unlike most teenagers, though, I didn’t head to the city. In fact, I went in the opposite direction: into the wilderness; as far away as I could get from civilization, from people—from society.

I crawled along bumpy mountain roads—the ones I could navigate with a two-wheel drive, anyway. I explored some cool, seemingly untouched scenery. My favorite place was this dry, desert lakebed I discovered a couple miles off a windy stretch of utility-company right-of-way. I would park in the middle of it and lie on my warm hood… my fingers interlaced behind my head… and I’d stare into the deep, expansive night sky, letting my mind wander, my thoughts drifting toward the heavens, my dreams searching out the stars.

I’d return home around midnight, long after my mom was asleep. And as I slunk into bed and shifted on my mattress, I’d feel it—the book I’d hidden—its bulk pushing into my back, reminding me of its presence.

It always left me with an ache when I awoke: a sharp reminder of reality; a pain that dissolved my dreams.

*****

I’d always wanted to read the book, to understand the ideas it contained.

And, perhaps, to understand my father, and why he cherished those ideas.

I’d tried to read it at home, but I felt too uncomfortable—too compromised, somehow. I’d grown up hearing our house was bugged, so I’d spent my whole life feeling watched, spied upon. I never truly felt at ease in my own home. When I jerked off, I did it as quietly as I could, under the covers, and even then I felt like eyes were boring into my back, judging me. The only place where I felt any seclusion, any privacy, was at the dry, desert lakebed, surrounded only by the sky and the darkness.

And it hit me: Why not read the book there?

It made sense, and the risk seemed small. I visited the lakebed about three nights each week—including Saturdays—and I figured if I read half a chapter a night, I could get through the book in no time.

The hardest part, for me, was smuggling it from the house to the car. I shoved it in my backpack one morning, took a deep breath, then dashed from the front door to the driveway, scurrying like a rodent evading a cat. I prayed no agents were watching from across the street—ensconced in shadows, as I imagined them: smoking, squinty-eyed, suspicious.

Once I was safely away, I crammed the book under the front seat, along with the crumbs and loose change. It seemed a safe place—I’d never had my car searched at school, and I’d never been caught speeding. I figured it’d be fine there, at least for the month or two it’d take me to read it.

My progress was slow-going. For one, as I mentioned, the print was microscopic, and I had to hold the book close to make out the words. For another, I had only my car’s dim dome light to read by; it cast a sickening, piss-colored orange upon the pages.

But perhaps the biggest problem was that I simply wasn’t used to reading off paper. Up till that point, most everything I’d read had been on electronic tablets. The text I knew was fluid, adjustable. I was used to changing the text size and fiddling with the fonts.

Words on paper, on the other hand, seemed static and dead, as if engraved in stone. They were like viewing an unchangeable past: unadjustable, unmovable—mired in time.

I’d read while lying across the backseat, the windows down to let in the cool, evening air. The crickets chorused in time to my breathing, providing the perfect backdrop to the unfolding story.

It took me a few nights, but I reached the end of chapter two. I sat up, checked my watch, and saw it was after eleven. Not that I had to get home right away. As strict as life was, few communities enforced curfew ordinances. The fear of Permanent Detention kept most teenagers in line.

I rumbled over the rocky dirt road, headed back to town… the book carefully concealed under the front seat. And that’s when I saw it, about a mile up the road: several sets of headlights, barreling over the low brush… and the flashing red and blue lights, spinning like wild cyclones.

I froze, slamming to a halt. It looked like a big cluster of cars, haphazardly spaced. They were racing toward the road I was on, following a perpendicular line.

On instinct, I flicked off the headlights and steered the car off the road. Brush scraped at my side; the metal undercarriage ground against rock. I shut off the engine, my breathing strained, my muscles tight.

There were about ten cars, and they were racing across the desert landscape, bouncing over rocks pockmarking the ground; slamming through narrow gullies carved by rainwater.

And then a chopper appeared, casting a brilliant spotlight upon the scene.

I could see, then, that it was a pursuit. Three lumbering SUVs struggled to outpace seven or so patrol cars. Their front grills were mashed; their paint and sidings torn. The rough terrain was tearing them up so badly, I was surprised their tires and suspensions had remained intact.

As the cars approached, I held my breath, wondering if they would cross my road… or take a sharp turn toward me. It seemed likely they might turn; compared to the outlying terrain, my road was smooth and unobstructed.

And then, it happened: the frontmost SUV hit a hole—or maybe one of its tires blew out; I couldn’t tell—and in an instant it was flying in the air, turning on its side… and then it landed, hard, twisting into a heap of shattered glass and mangled metal, pushing up a pile of sand as it slid to a stop.

A handful of patrol cars screeched to a standstill, and officers emerged, guns drawn, screaming. I saw shadowy figures moving, running.

Then, gunshots… more yelling… and pained, anguished screams.

The other two SUVs kept going, and the remaining patrol cars followed.

And when they reached the dirt road, they took a sharp, right turn… and started soaring in the direction of the lakebed.

Right toward me.

*****

I remember watching the headlights as they rumbled toward me, bright and unblinking. And I remember the dazzling glare as the chopper cast its searchlight over the road, illuminating my car as if it were the focal point of an onstage display.

I remember hearing more gunshots… and a nearby zinging. And then I was cowering on the floor, hiding my head, the roar of the chopper deafening.

I remember the blue and red lights flashing before me… surrounding me; engulfing me. And I remember strong hands wrenching me through the door, dragging me onto the ground. And then there was a boot on my throat, and bright lights all around… and then more of the yelling: deep, primitive, indecipherable.

I remember gasping for air, my face pressed against the dirt, small puffs of sand billowing from my strained breaths. And I remember glimpsing an officer fishing through my car—most likely searching for weapons—as others leveled their rifles at my head, screaming at me.

He didn’t find any weapons. Instead, he emerged from the car holding the book.

I remember more of the yelling… and then a sharp, blinding flash of pain as someone slammed the butt of a rifle across my head, nearly knocking me out. After that, all I recall is a dreamy, spacey feeling, as if I were sinking underwater… and the warmth of the blood as it flowed down my face… pooling on the ground, staining the sand.

*****

Later on, I learned the men the police were chasing that night were members of an outlaw survivalist organization that took refuge in the desert, migrating from camp to camp. They were considered armed and dangerous—known enemies of the state.

That night, four were killed and six were captured.

Well, seven, I guess… if you included me. Which is what the headlines did. It was a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Though I was never charged with being a member of the group, the news portrayed me as a teenage malcontent, armed with a copy of The Fountainhead… the son of a known radical, captured in hostile territory near an enemy camp.

A camp, it turned out, with whom my father had associated once, eons ago.

That juicy fact emerged during the trial, a three-day public spectacle complete with reporters, cameras and jeering spectators. Most juvenile inquisitions were small, private affairs, but in my case, they wanted to make an example.

Teachers testified against me, as did my principal. Said they knew all along I was a rebel; apparently, they’d pegged me long ago as an antisocial malcontent.

I remember when the inquisitor raised The Fountainhead for the audience to see—all the murmurs and gasps that erupted from the crowd. That damning piece of evidence alone was enough to put me away for life—never mind the alleged connection to the survivalist group.

They ripped out the pages right there during the inquisition and threw them in a metal receptacle. The inquisitor lit a match, then let it sizzle between his fingers for a long, dramatic moment. Then, looking at me and grinning, he tossed it into the bin, setting the pages aflame.

The fire was bright, its flames fierce… but within moments it had petered out to a smoldering, useless clump of ashes.

*****

The verdict, of course, was inevitable: immediate, lifetime removal from society.

Permanent Detention.

My mother didn’t make the trial. I heard that after I was taken into custody, agents raided our house and arrested her for crimes against the state. I don’t know what became of her; no one’s ever told me. I don’t know if she’s in a detention center somewhere, like me… or if she’s even still alive.

If she’s alive, she’ll be turning fifty this year.

If she’s alive.

*****

Permanent Detention involves not only discipline, but re-education. Three days each week we take classes in national history, to learn the importance of patriotism and unity. We’re told these lessons will help us function in the event we rejoin society.

Not that anyone ever rejoins society—at least not that I know. At age thirty, we’re supposed to undergo an evaluation to determine whether we’re fit for release. What I’ve heard happens is that we stand in front of a board to plead our case. If you can convince them you’re no longer a nonconformist threat (and good luck with that), then you’re sent to a halfway house and placed in a low-end, menial job somewhere. Those who lack the charm to dazzle the board are transferred to a maximum-security prison, to finish their lives with society’s other scourges—including rapists, child-molesters, and murderers.

You know, real criminals.

That’s what scares me more than anything, especially as my birthday approaches. Permanent Detention is horrible—don’t get me wrong—but it’s a different sort of place than an everyday prison. For one, all of us inmates are of a similar mindset. Each of us lost our freedom for the unpardonable crime of offending the government. And though we’re all a little too individualistic to form groups or cliques, we’re all very much brethren, bonded by our ideals.

I wouldn’t call anyone here a criminal; not really. In fact, I’ve never encountered violence in Permanent Detention. There were initiations when I first arrived, but they were of the high-school variety, and they certainly didn’t involve beatings or rape. And though there is a pecking order delineated by seniority, I’d say for the most part, all of us treat each other respectfully.

So the idea of being integrated with real criminals terrifies me, because I know I won’t survive. I’m weak and timid… and any anger I’m capable of feeling I direct inward (this is what I’ve been told, anyway), so that when an external force oppresses me, my only defense is to self-destruct… which, essentially, is surrender.

Generations of inmates have matriculated since I joined Permanent Detention, and now I myself am inching toward the end. No one I know has ever been released. If they have, they’ve never written to report on the outside (unless, of course, their letters were intercepted by the powers that be; none of us knows for sure).

If I’m transferred from Permanent Detention, I’ll die. One way or another, I’ll die. I’m not a survivor. As fucked-up and cruel as this place is, it insulates me from life’s other horrors. And that’s what’s funny, if you think about it: the fact that my life depends on me remaining in an institution whose very purpose is to strip my life away from me, piece by excruciating piece.

So, in the end, I’m faced with an impossible question of what’s better: a quick, violent death… or a slow, agonizing one?

Not much of a choice, really.

*****

“You’re angry,” my counselor says.

“Huh?” I ask, looking up.

He smiles. “You’re angry. You may not think so, but you are.”

I meet with a counselor for an hour each week. It’s part of the re-education program. He’s supposed to help me understand the depravity of my individualism. So far, he’s been less than successful.

I shake my head. “I’m angry? I don’t think so.”

“I know so.” He leans forward. “The guards tell me you’ve been moping for weeks. You don’t eat much, and I can tell you’re not sleeping. Something’s making you angry.”

“I’m not angry,” I say. “Tired, maybe.”

“Tired?”

“Yeah. Tired.”

The counselor smiles. “Paul, when a patient exhibits symptoms of depression, it means deep down they’re angry about something. Depression is merely anger turned inside-out. Did you know that?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s true. Depression emerges when we’re unable to direct our anger outwards. Which, in your case, makes sense. As a prisoner, you’ve probably learned to bottle your emotions, for fear of punishment. So when you’re angry, you clam up, directing all those feelings inward.”

“And that means I’m angry?”

“It means your anger is manifesting itself as depression—yes.” He leans back and steeples his fingertips. “Anything happen to you lately that would arouse these emotions? A confrontation, perhaps, that I should be aware of?”

An image of Pam flashes through my mind. “No.”

“No?”

I shrug. “I can’t think of anything.”

The counselor tilts his head. “Perhaps you’re nervous about your upcoming evaluation?”

“My evaluation?”

“You’re turning thirty in about… what is it, a month?”

“Oh.” I shrug again. “Maybe.”

“Your anger might be rooted in a feeling of helplessness.”

“Helplessness?”

“You might be feeling you have no control over your future or your destiny.”

“Well, I don’t, do I?”

The counselor frowns. “You make choices each day that affect your circumstances. That’s why you ended up here.”

“It is?”

“You made a choice to flout rules. No one held a gun to your head. You alone made the choice to be disobedient—to disobey.”

“They did hold a gun to my head,” I say. “Literally. I’ll never forget that.”

“They only held a gun to your head because you broke the law.”

A stupid law, I want to say. But I don’t. I’m sure the counselor wouldn’t appreciate it, and I don’t need a black mark on my file, especially not this close to my thirtieth birthday evaluation.

The counselor takes a deep breath. “Paul, I think deep down, your feelings of helplessness anger you. You’re nervous you’ll fail your evaluation, and you’re angry that you’re being put in a situation where you have to defend yourself. But you’re unable to direct your anger outward, so you’re deflecting it inward, instead. Which is why you’re exhibiting symptoms of depression.”

“Oh. OK.” My mind wanders, and suddenly I’m thinking of Pam. She’s standing in the filing room doorway, her hair flowing past her shoulders, her eyes glinting like jewels in the dimness.

“Paul?”

I look up. “Yeah.”

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“What I’m thinking?”

“Yes, what you’re thinking—right now, at this very instant.”

I smile. “I’m thinking a beautiful thought.”

The ends of his lips twitch upward. “A beautiful thought?”

“Yeah.”

“Care to go into detail?”

“No.” I shake my head, slowly. “No, not really.”

He rests his pen on his clipboard. “For a second there, you seemed genuinely happy. That’s why I asked. You actually had a smile on your face.”

“I did?”

He nods, and a slight grin forms.

I think of Pam again—I see her smiling at me, holding my hand, telling me about herself, about her life… and suddenly it’s as if someone’s grabbed the back of my collar and is dragging me out of the room. Pam’s still standing there, but she’s growing farther away—she’s reaching out to me… and I’m digging my heels into the floor, to slow myself, but I can’t stop the force that’s yanking me backward. And suddenly Pam’s gone, and I’m back in my cell, staring at the brick wall… and then the daydream’s gone and I’m back in reality: I’m sitting in a hard, metal folding chair, my hands clasped in my lap… and I’m facing the counselor, who’s staring at me, a clipboard in front of him. There’s a window a few feet above his head, and the morning sun is pouring through it, casting the room in a golden glow.

Only the window is cloudy, opaque… and at least a foot thick. And though it’s letting the morning light through, I can’t see through it to the outside world.

*****

I jolt awake in my cell. It’s the middle of the night.

I’ve just had a dream; a terrible dream. Pam was in it. I’ve had several dreams with Pam, but none like this.

It starts out as usual, with the two of us in the filing room. She’s looking deep into my eyes, and she’s smiling. I smile back. We clasp hands, standing there, together, savoring the moment… a moment we know won’t last—can’t last—because in time we know we’ll be taken from each other, back to our individual wings… to our individual cells… to the lonely, tedious, individual grinds we call our lives.

But then the dream takes a different, unfamiliar turn. I’m reaching out to touch her face; I run my fingertips along her cheek. Pam rests her head on my shoulder, pressing her body against mine.

And then the scene accelerates. Suddenly, I’m pulling off her shirt—my heartbeat quickens—and Pam’s fumbling at my pants, trying to yank them off.

And in the next instant she’s naked, and she’s crouched on her hands and knees, her back to me. And I position myself behind her—I have to sort of squat—and she’s reaching between her legs, to guide me into her.

I place my hot hands on her buttocks, tilting my head back… and then I start thrusting, banging, fucking—I begin slowly and work up a rhythm. With each thrust Pam is moaning, grunting… and I’m moaning, too. My eyes are closed, and my hands are caressing her smooth hips, which she arches backward, to press against me.

My heart and my body are moving to the same hammering rhythm… and then I’m crying out, gasping, heaving… then my body’s slowing to a standstill, my breaths growing deeper, less strained.

I drape myself across Pam’s back, exhausted… and I bury my nose in her hair, which smells like sweat and the lilacs we used to have in our front yard.

Pam’s moaning, softly… and like mine, her breaths are deep and even. The two of us lie there, together, fingers intertwined, gazing into each other’s eyes.

The filing room door flies open then, and though I can’t see who’s entered I can feel them: a dark, hovering presence, which surrounds us—like a chilling mist—to break us apart.

And then Pam starts screaming, and screaming—her high-pitched wails echo across the darkness.

And I’m screaming, too, because the mist has encircled me… it’s cinched around my throat… and it’s pulling me away—out the door and down the hall… and Pam’s screams are growing fainter, and fainter.

That’s when I jolt awake. It takes me a moment to orient myself. The dream is still bright and vivid and alive; the last few moments replay themselves in an endless, terrifying loop.

I sit there for a few minutes, breathing heavily, the nighttime darkness seeping into my soul. Then, hesitantly, I reach under the blankets, my arm creeping like a snake, as if afraid of what I might find. I wince when I finally feel it, what I know has to be there: the hot, sticky pool of semen, some of which clings to the sheets, with the bulk covering my stomach like syrup.

And I start to cry, then—my body trembles with the familiar guttural sobs that lately have become a late-night ritual. Only this time, they’re much more intense—and much more profound—because I know I’ve forever tarnished my wholesome, unblemished memory of Pam. What we did in the dream wasn’t loving—it was primitive, mindless, and violent… with no depth, no sensuality—no meaning.

I fucked her as if she were a whore… and I enjoyed it.

I close my eyes, and I try desperately to revisit that night in the filing room, when Pam and I were holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes—and nothing more.

Only the perverted dream keeps returning in graphic snippets: the thrusting, the sweating, the gasping, the fucking.

And I start to cry harder—not for me, or even for the precious memory I’ve ruined—but for Pam.

I feel like I’ve violated her.

*****

I spend the following morning in the laundry, as always, sweating buckets in the hot, steamy enclosure. I speak to no one. At lunch I eat alone, sitting at a small table in the very back of the cafeteria. The food seems even more bland than usual. I take a few bites, then push the tray away, sighing.

After lunch, I sit on the dirt in the exercise yard, my back against the cafeteria wall. I fold my legs against my chest, resting my chin upon my knees.

It’s a warm, mid-summer day; the air is hot and still. I sigh and gaze at the sagebrush-covered mountains in the distance, draped in shadows in the afternoon sun. They’re so majestic, so imposing. I imagine myself lost in their wilderness, hiking up a narrow deer trail, pausing every so often to sip water from my canteen.

I love to gaze at the mountains. They give me a horizon to focus on: a dream upon which to set my sights. And if I hold my palm in front of me, I can almost block the twelve-foot-high perimeter fence, topped with gleaming barbed wire… as well as the twin guard towers, which stand like sentries on either corner of the yard.

Most people are milling around, loafing, waiting for the whistle to sound the beginning of the next shift. No one stops to talk. In the past weeks I’ve severed myself from the rest of the population, spending as much time alone as I can, either in the library or in my cell.

My only companion is Pam—she remains with me at every moment.

As I stare at the mountains, I glimpse Clancy walking toward me. He’s huffing with his heavy-footed gait, the brim of his cap pulled low over his eyes. He approaches me and leans against the wall, sucking in deep breaths.

“What’s up, Paul?” he asks.

I shrug, staring straight ahead. “Just enjoying the day, Clancy.”

“Yeah?” He pulls out a handkerchief and dabs his forehead. “Word is you’ve had your head up your ass the past couple of weeks.”

I swallow. I don’t say anything.

“Well?” Clancy says, glowering. “What’s the deal?”

“No deal,” I say, shrugging again. “Just tired, Clancy.”

“‘Just tired’—that’s bullshit. Something’s up… and I think I know what it is. You’re thinking of her, aren’t you?”

“Her?”

“Don’t be a smart ass, Paul—you know what I’m talking about. You’ve got to get that girl off your mind. You’ll go crazy daydreaming about her.”

I swallow. “Take me to see her again, Clancy. Please?” My voice cracks on “please,” and my face flushes with heat.

“Oh, shit.” He turns away and surveys the yard. “I knew it. I knew it was a mistake. Goddammit.”

“Please,” I say. “Even if it’s just for ten minutes. I won’t cause any trouble. It’s just… I think I’m in love with her.”

Clancy glares down at me, his lower lip protruding. “In love? Come on, Paul. That’s stupid. You barely know her.”

I sigh, staring down at my shoes. “It’s true.”

“Paul, listen to me.” Clancy hunkers down, his gut hanging over his knees. “You don’t know what love is. You have no idea. It’s not your fault; it’s just you’ve never learned. Love comes about through time; it don’t just happen just like that.”

I take a deep breath. I don’t say anything.

“I want to be clear on this,” Clancy says. “That was a one-time thing. You understand? Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t take you to see her again. I couldn’t. The risk is too damn big. Hell, do you know what would happen to me if they found out? I’d be right in here with you, spending my retirement staring through bars. No, actually, I take that back—I’d probably be executed for a stunt like that: for aiding and abetting a convicted enemy of the state. I only did it because the situation allowed for it… and because I wanted to do you a favor. I think you’re an all-right guy—I do. But I’m not going to risk my job and my freedom playing matchmaker to a couple of convicted felons. I won’t do it.”

I swallow again. My throat has gone dry, and my voice sounds raspy. “Please, Clancy.”

“Nope, no way. Not a chance.”

I turn away, blinking. Even though it’s a warm summer afternoon, my body’s trembling.

Clancy lays his hairy, brawny hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Paul. Enough of this. You’re a grown man, and you’ve got to face reality. You and her, you’re prisoners. That’s just the way it is. There’s some things in life you can’t control.”

“I’d be a good husband to her,” I say. “I know I would. I’d be so kind, so attentive. I’d hug her if she were sad. I’d stroke her hair if she were scared. I’d always be there for her. I would. I’d be a good man; the kind of man she deserves.”

“Paul,” Clancy says, nudging me, “that’s enough. Get up.”

I look at him. “You’re married, right Clancy? What’s it like? Having somebody, I mean?”

“I said get up.”

I take a long, deep breath and let it go, staring straight ahead. I remain seated.

“Paul.” Clancy squeezes my shoulder, digging his thumb into my flesh. “Don’t make me say it again.”

Slowly, I rise to my feet. Clancy does, too; his left knee pops like a gunshot.

“I’m going to have you pull weeds the rest of the afternoon, instead of working in the laundry,” he says. “You need the fresh air to get your mind out of the gutter. And I mean it:

I want you to forget about her. You’re never going to see her again—ever. Do you understand me?”

I take another deep breath, letting it out slowly.

“Paul, do you understand me?”

“Yeah,” I say, my throat dry. I give a small, imperceptible nod. “Yeah, I understand you.”

He rests his hand on my shoulder. “C’mon, you’re going to be all right. You’ll get over this; you’ll see. You’ll forget about her eventually.”

I don’t say anything.

Clancy grins. “You want to know what I think? And I’m only being honest here: I think you’re just hard up.”

I look at him. “Hard up?”

“Yeah. I mean, think about it: You hadn’t seen a woman for… well, how long have you been here? Ten years, right? So then you meet a woman, and all of a sudden you’re in love. C’mon. You know how pathetic that sounds? That’s like a guy who fucks a prostitute, then thinks he’s fallen in love.”

My eyes widen. “Pam’s not a prostitute!”

“Hey!” Clancy holds up his finger. “Don’t raise your voice to me. What I’m saying is that you’re mistaking lust for love. You, my friend, need to get laid big time. And why you didn’t seize the opportunity that night is beyond me. Hell, we gave you a half hour. I thought you would have been all over her. You missed your chance, bud. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you completely blew it.”

I stare at the ground, blinking. My shoes start to blur.

Clancy grins. “You know what would solve your problems? One of those handheld rubber cunts they sell in sex shops. I’ve seen them smuggled in from time to time. Maybe I’ll get you one for your birthday. A few nights alone with that, and you won’t have to daydream about that chick anymore.”

He nudges me again. “Get going to the tool shack. I’ll have Bernard meet you there. Go on—hoof it.”

I start walking, looking down at the hard, dry dirt. I can feel Clancy watching me as I walk, his eyes burning into me like branding irons.

I look up and turn, facing the mountains. God, they’re so beautiful: a picturesque image I only can reach for, ache for, but never touch, never feel.

And as I look, I have to squint against the sun hanging lower in the sky. I wince as it glints off the barbed-wire strands intertwined along the top of the fence, connected together like links of chain.

*****

I remember the last time I saw my mother. It was the night I got arrested.

She looked so tired—so worn-out and defeated. It was after dinner, and she was sitting in the living room recliner, the newsman prattling on in the background. She was looking at the screen, but I could tell her mind was somewhere else. She sat with her back slouched, her eyes unfocused and faraway.

“Mom?” I asked.

No answer.

“Mom?”

“Hmm?” She glanced over; her eyes seemed to look right through me.

“Is it all right if I go out driving later?”

A small shrug, a slight nod. “Sure. Yeah. Just be careful, hon.”

She turned back to the screen, letting out a small sigh.

I remember thinking she must have had a long day, or maybe she hadn’t slept well the previous night. It was only later, after I’d been in Permanent Detention for a while, that I came to understand that flaccid posture, that defeated look… because I recognized them both in me, in those rare times when I studied my reflection, looking hard at myself.

They came not from overworking, or from lack of sleep.

They came, I learned, from being alone.

From longing.

*****

Despite having only each other, my mom and I weren’t that close. After my father died, she sort of receded within herself. I recognized it later as a defense mechanism—the same one I adopted in Permanent Detention. As I said before, it’s no way to live, but sometimes, it’s the only way to live.

We spoke little. In the evenings we went our own ways—Mom to the television and me to my homework. Later, she would go to bed and I would go driving.

And that was our routine. We were virtual strangers living under the same roof.

At one time, my mother was as radical as my father. In fact, I think they met at a political rally. But while my father never lost his political fervor, over time my mother became less outspoken, less passionate. Not because she abandoned her beliefs, but rather, I think, because she grew up, faced reality… and recognized the futility of it all.

Plus, of course, she had me… which I think triggered a protective, nurturing instinct—an instinct that sought to preserve life, instead of endangering it by challenging authority.

I have few memories of my mother, and even those are beginning to fade. One time I’ll never forget, though, is when we took a week-long road trip to the California coast. It was summer, and I was out of school. I was about thirteen. The whole thing was Mom’s idea; she’d finally accumulated enough vacation to take off a whole week, and she wanted to go someplace special.

“I’m tired of living in a goddamn desert,” she’d said. “I want to see the ocean.”

And so we went to the ocean.

It was a gorgeous drive, filled with lush, green scenery. Giant, lumbering redwoods towered on either side of the road, grasping for the clouds. Mountainside springs coursed through brush and vines, pooling into slick, granite basins draped in moss. Claustrophobic forests gave way to sprawling green valleys patchworked by vineyards and fenced-off fields.

When we arrived at the coast, I pressed my face to the glass, staring at the scenery. I’d never seen the ocean before… so large and so sprawling… the white-tipped waves collapsing onto the shore, then grasping at the sand as gravity reeled them back.

It was late afternoon; the day was tapering to twilight. We parked along an empty beach to watch the blood-red sun melt into the turbulent water. Waves crashed and gasped… seagulls circled and squawked… and Mom and I cracked the windows to let in the cool, seawater air—so heavy and humid; so mist-tinged and sharp.

I glanced at her, and I saw her eyes—as usual—were unfocused and faraway. She stared at the ocean, her lips pursed.

We didn’t speak; not then. Instead, we watched as the sun descended into the horizon, its light dissolving along the waves; its fingers straining for the sky. Then, with a flicker, it slipped away and disappeared, retreating into the sea… plunging the world into an ashen, murky dusk.

Someone knocked on Mom’s window, then; she and I jumped. A cop stood outside, making a motion with his hands.

She rolled down the window. “Something wrong?”

“Your documents, please.”

Mom fished in her purse, handed him some papers. He snatched them and skimmed the information. “Thank you. Now your hand, please.”

Mom extended her left hand, palm-up. The officer unholstered a laser scanner, focusing the beam on the center of Mom’s palm—on the electronic chip embedded beneath the skin.

He scanned her as if she were a barcode on a cereal box.

I held my breath; my throat constricted. I couldn’t help staring at the officer’s gun dangling from his belt, along with a baton and a set of handcuffs.

Mom, I noticed, had retracted her hand and curled her fingers into a fist, which she clenched tightly alongside her lap.

“You’re from out of state,” the cop said, reading his electronic tablet. “You got a traveling permit?”

“Right here.” Mom tapped on an orange card affixed to the dashboard.

“Pick it up and hand it to me, please.”

Mom obeyed.

The officer scanned it, then handed back all the documents in one big clump. “You aware there’s a law against parking on this beach?”

“We were just leaving.”

“Can I ask what you’re doing here?”

“My son and I were watching the sunset—that’s all.” Mom’s voice sounded flat, tired—defeated.

The officer typed onto his electronic tablet. “Says here your husband was registered as a class B civil offender.”

“My husband’s been dead for six years.”

“May I ask your purpose for visiting the state of California?”

Mom sighed. “I went through all this already at the border. They granted me the permit.”

“I’m not a border agent; I’m a law-enforcement officer. And I asked you a question.”

“We’re taking a vacation. That’s all.”

“Is that so?” The officer hunkered down till his face was level with Mom’s. He wore large, mirrored sunglasses that masked his eyes. I could see my mother’s face reflected in them; her mouth was even, betraying no emotion. He glared at her, then looked at me. I swallowed.

“How old’s the boy?” the officer asked.

Mom took a long, slow breath. “What’s he got to do with anything?”

“I asked you a question.”

“You saw his documents, didn’t you? He’s thirteen.”

The officer turned to me; now it was my own face I saw reflected in his sunglasses: pale, timid—cowering. “What’s your name, kid?”

“What are you asking him that for?” Mom asked, her voice raised. “You saw his documents.”

“You just let him answer, now.” The officer’s voice remained even.

My mouth and throat felt parched all of a sudden. I struggled to breathe.

“I asked you your name.” The officer’s large, mirrored eyes burned into me like branding irons.

“Paul,” I finally managed to say, croaking. My heart seemed to hammer in my ears.

“Paul.” The officer continued to look at me, as if trying to read my mind. I knew I was quivering, and it made me ashamed, because I knew I wasn’t behaving like a man, but rather like a frightened schoolboy… leaving my mother to defend not only herself, but me, as well.

And I hated myself for that: for how small the man made me feel. It’s a memory I’ve dwelled on often; a feeling that’s haunted me my whole life.

“I wasn’t aware of the law,” Mom said. “I swear. We were just leaving, anyway.”

The cop stood. “You staying anywhere in particular?”

Mom hesitated. “We don’t know, yet. We were going to find a motel.”

The cop took a card out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Law requires us to monitor any out-of-state citizen our system flags as a potential threat. Once you know where you’re staying, you call that number and report your whereabouts. The same goes for any time you change motels, and also for when you head home.”

Mom raked her teeth along her lower lip. “I was tried once for sedition. They declared me innocent.”

“Don’t none of that matter: it’s the law. Someone with your background—and your husband—it’s automatic twenty-four-hour observation.”

“For god’s sake,” Mom said, her voice cracking. “We don’t deserve this. My son and I are loyal citizens. We haven’t done anything wrong.”

“It’s the law.” The cop turned to leave. “You be sure to call that number, now. If you fail to check in by 10 p.m., we’ll put an APB out on your vehicle. Failure to comply is a serious offense. Mandatory jail term is six months, I believe.” He tipped his hat and started walking away. “Have a nice day, now.”

“Yeah, right,” Mom said, rolling up her window. She flung his card on the floor.

We watched him climb into his car and speed off, his rear tires spewing sand. Mom started the engine, then backed out slowly. She didn’t say anything as we pulled onto the highway, merging with the heavy traffic.

I swallowed again. My heart was beginning to slow down, now that I knew we weren’t going to jail.

“Close call,” I said, trying to laugh. It came out as more of a hiccup.

Mom stared straight ahead, her eyes narrowed. She clenched the wheel tightly.

I took a deep breath. I wanted to say something to make Mom happy—to bring back the laughing, carefree person she’d become on the ride over; the person I suspected she’d been when she was younger, when Dad was alive.

The person I rarely got to see, and who I really wanted to get to know.

“That was a good idea, watching the sunset,” I said. “I thought it was awesome—thank you.”

Mom sucked in a deep, long breath, then expelled it slowly.

“The last time I saw the sun set over the ocean, I was a little girl,” she said, her voice soft. “I remember it so clearly, like a picture pressed upon my mind. Seeing it again, after all these years… it takes me to a better time, a better place.”

She huffed. “I just wish he hadn’t have showed up. He ruined it for me—he really did. Now, whenever I look back, all I’ll see is that smug, condescending face… and I’ll be flushed with the same anger I’m feeling now.” She sighed. “I hate the power they wield—I really do. It makes me feel so helpless, so hopeless… like I’m an inferior life form with no backbone who can be bent and twisted into any direction they choose. They have a way of doing that to you—of making you feel so little; so insignificant and small.”

She shook her head and gave me a sideways glance. “I’m sorry—I’m just a little shaken. I hate the way things are, sometimes.”

Shame surged through me then, and my guts bunched into a hard, tight knot. According to Mom, the cop had made her feel small, just as he had me… and yet she’d maintained her composure while I’d frozen like a startled deer.

Looking back, it probably shouldn’t have bothered me (I was only a child, after all, while Mom was emboldened by adulthood), but at the time I felt so emasculated, so little… and I hated myself for my cowardice—so much so that I wanted to die at that moment, in the most painful and violent way possible. I imagined the cop wrenching me from the car and slamming my face into the asphalt… then kicking me in the stomach, the chest, the face—repeatedly—till I was gasping for air and choking on blood. He’d slip out his baton and bludgeon my skull, walloping and wailing till bones split apart and my brains slid out in a gooey, bloody pool. Then he’d stand over me and piss on my corpse, as my mother screamed from the car, crying.

And as those cruel, sickening images flashed through my mind, hot tears stung my eyes… and yet I smiled. I smiled, because—strange though it might sound—it felt good for me to envision my own demise, as if it were a means of retreating within myself—of denying the cop the satisfaction of exposing my weakness, my cowardice.

Only later—much later—did I realize what I was feeling was inverted anger. I’ve always directed my emotions inward. It’s a reaction, I suppose, that comes from a lifetime of oppression; of withdrawing from the world. And when you lack the guts to stand up and fight, all you can do is envelop yourself in a snug blanket of self-destruction.

And it feels good.

It feels good, I guess, because it’s a feeling… and any sort of feeling is better than numbness—than nothing. Pinpricks sting, but when they’re all you feel, they feel downright orgasmic.

Mom glanced over at me. “You OK, hon?”

I blinked. “Huh? Yeah. I’m fine.”

“You sure?” She was looking at me, hard… and frowning.

I turned away to watch the scenery. I didn’t answer.

She reached over and touched my knee. “It’s OK, honey. It’s over—he’s gone. Nothing’s going to happen to us. We’re going to be OK.”

A sharp pang of sadness shot through me. The way she’d spoken—the quiet, toneless inflection of her voice—had such a forlorn, lonesome quality to it, like the notes of a harmonica drifting over the desert… and I realized then how alone we were, my mother and I; how fragile and delicate and helpless we were… especially in that moment, miles and miles away from home, with the gorgeous sunset now only a memory, and the impenetrable darkness closing in.

And I wanted to make my mother feel better—again, to make her the happy, carefree person I knew she could be—so I swallowed and tried to strike an optimistic note: “At least we didn’t get a ticket.”

“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “At least we didn’t get a ticket.”

She laughed—a dark, humorless laugh—and she looked at me and said: “You’re so young. Do me a favor, will you? When you look back on this day, try to think only of the sunset, and nothing else. I want you and I to share that one, unblemished moment. Life is bleak enough without the real world marring your memories.”

She gazed at the road then, at the scenery unspooling before us. The engine hummed with the rhythm of the road. Only a few other drivers had flicked on their headlights, to cast their beams upon the impending darkness.

“You know,” my mother said, after a couple of moments, “seeing that sunset reminded me: there’s still some sanctuary in the world. They can take a lot from you: your freedom, your self-worth, your dignity, your pride. And they can prevent you from reading certain books, or from expressing certain views. But one thing they can’t take—no matter what the threat, no matter what the punishment—is your ability to think beautiful thoughts. In the end, all we have is our mind, and if we use it to immerse ourselves in beauty, then we can always escape… no matter where we are.”

She looked at me and smiled. I smiled back. And as we continued driving the hot, vivid flashes of euphoria I’d felt envisioning my own destruction tapered away to a cool, calming peace, as my mind drifted back to the ocean, and to the sunset… and to the white, blinding beauty of the sun’s rays as they grasped for the sky, reaching for the heavens… before being swallowed by the sea.

*****

It’s after dinner, and I’m shuffling in a line with the other inmates to the cell block—to 4D, fourth cell from the left.

My home for the past dozen years.

As we round a corner, I see Clancy standing there. He motions me over.

“Paul,” he says, his voice quiet, “you’re coming with me. Don’t say nothing.”

My eyes widen, and my lips part, but no words emerge.

Clancy nods, as if in response to the question I was trying to ask.

The line of prisoners keeps marching, but I follow Clancy in the other direction. I’m thinking we’re heading to the elevator—to the fifth-floor filing room—so I’m surprised when we keep marching toward the exit.

A guard buzzes us through, and we emerge into the glistening white lobby.

The door slams shut behind us. Only a few feet beside it lies another door, a mirror image of the first.

The door to the women’s wing.

It remains tightly closed. I can’t get so much as a glimpse inside.

Clancy walks behind me now, following procedure. He guides me to a guard post near the prison’s entrance. Two guards immediately come out and frisk me. Then one cuffs my hands behind my back while the other secures chains around my ankles.

Clancy tells them he’s checking me out for off-campus detail—he gives them my name and number, then fills out a form.

“Open your mouth,” one of the guards says. He checks under my tongue and between my gums, prodding with a gloved finger.

Then they lead me outside, into a spacious parking lot, where a minivan is waiting. The chain between my legs is short, so I have to walk with a shuffle. The guards usher me into the van’s backseat, which has a cage separating it from the front. Steel mesh covers the windows.

Clancy climbs behind the wheel, huffing. He slams the door; the front windows are rolled down.

“See ya, Clancy.” One of the guards waves—he’s a young man, fresh-faced and eager, probably in his early twenties.

I wonder suddenly if he has a wife, or a girlfriend—if he’s ever fallen in love.

I glance, but I don’t see a ring on his finger.

Clancy fires up the engine, and we’re off. We drive toward the main gate, which lies at the end of a long, two-lane driveway. Tall fences stand on either side, affixed with bright, blinding lights.

My heart is beating fast. This will be my first time off the prison grounds in more than a decade. I remember my ride in here, along this very driveway, as I sat in the back of a rickety, stuffy bus. It seems like eons ago, when I didn’t qualify as a man.

I swallow, wondering if I even qualify now.

We approach the gate; Clancy slows to a stop. A trio of guards emerges from the shack to inspect the vehicle.

“Keep your yap shut,” Clancy says over his shoulder, his voice gruff. But he doesn’t have to worry about me—I’m too nervous and excited to say anything.

The guards shine flashlights in the vehicle, into my eyes. Clancy leans his head out the window, answers their questions. He’s the captain of the guards, so they mostly nod in obedience. Then they retreat to the shack, and the tall, double gates swing open… and then we’re driving along a narrow desert highway, in the middle of nowhere. The headlights sweep through the darkness as we drive around curves and bends.

I remember this road. It’s all coming back to me.

“You’re excited to see her again,” Clancy says. “I can tell.”

My breathing has quickened. “Where are we going?”

“Up the road a ways, into the desert. We figured it would be safer to do it away from the prison, where there’s no chance of you guys getting caught. You’ll be able to talk all you like, as loud as you like.

“And,” he continued, stealing a quick glance at me over his shoulder, “who knows—you might even get laid. Right?” He laughs.

“Is she already there?” I ask.

“Yeah, she should be. They got a half-hour head start. The story is we’re taking you to my mother-in-law’s party, to wait tables and do dishes. It’s not strictly procedure, but I’m the captain, and I get my perks, which includes state-provided slave labor.”

“Thank you, Clancy,” I say. “I really… I mean—”

“You don’t know what to say? You’re speechless?”

I smile. “Yeah. I don’t know what to say.”

He turns again, briefly. “Happy birthday, kiddo. Next week, right?”

“I guess,” I say, shrugging.

“You guess? You don’t even know when your own birthday is?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“‘It doesn’t matter,’” he mimics. “Fuck you; you’re turning thirty. When you’re an old codger like me, with one foot planted in the grave, then suddenly it’s going to matter. You’re going to look back and wonder where the hell your life disappeared to.”

I gaze out the window. I don’t say anything.

Clancy glances back at me and smiles. “This will be a better birthday present than a fake rubber snatch. Am I right?”

I only nod, closing my eyes. I don’t want to think in such sordid terms. All I want to think about is Pam—her beauty, her voice—and the way my stomach fluttered when she looked in my eyes. I don’t want to think about the seedy sexual overtones of runaway lust. I only want to think about love, and light, and the vision of myself in the embrace of my soulmate.

We continue driving; it feels like we’re going uphill. The van shifts down a gear, and the engine whines.

“She’s a good-looking girl,” Clancy says. “I picked her out for you myself. You and her, you seem alike. You’re both the quietest inmates we’ve got.”

“Why are you doing this for me?” I ask. “I mean, you’re putting yourself at risk, right?”

“You’re damn right I am,” Clancy says, nodding. “But I’ve always said, a man’s got to lay his eyes on female flesh once in awhile. You really do. You got to get laid every so often to keep your mind working right—to keep the cobwebs clear. You know what I mean?”

Before I can answer, he laughs and shakes his head. “No, you wouldn’t know what I mean; not really. Fuck that. What I’m saying is… well, you deserved a nice birthday present. Let’s just leave it at that.”

I stare out the window; the wide, desert flats stretch along on either side of the road like a dry, giant lakebed. The moon and stars gleam brightly in the cloudless sky.

I stare at the heavens, mesmerized. I haven’t seen the night sky like this since I was that lonely kid who went off driving at night. It seems so long ago. I’m used to the prison’s bright perimeter spotlights, which blot out the stars, as if to keep your thoughts and dreams from reaching too high.

We turn onto a rough, bumpy dirt road. We bounce over rocks, and I press myself against the door, to steady myself. My hands are cuffed behind me; I have them burrowed into my lower back, and by now my wrists and shoulders are burning with pain.

We continue driving. There are no trees out here; only rocks and sagebrush. The outlying terrain is rough and ripply, like a wavy, stormy sea. The air that drifts in through the open front windows is cool—much cooler than seems normal for a summer evening like this.

We approach a second minivan, which is parked on a hump alongside the narrow dirt road. Clancy eases next to it and kills the engine, plunging the world into an awkward, sterile silence. There aren’t even any crickets. All I can hear is my own breathing, along with Clancy’s labored wheezes.

“Well,” he says, finally, “this is it.”

He climbs out of the van and slides open the back door. Taking my elbow, he helps me step outside.

“Let’s get these off,” he says, motioning to the chains. He extracts a small, metal key and unlocks the cuffs—the ankles first, then the wrists.

I rub my arms; the chains left bright red indentations.

“This way,” Clancy says, motioning me. “You lead.”

I start walking, and Clancy falls in step behind me. My heart is pounding, and it’s hard for me to breathe. Even though the sky is bright, it’s difficult to see. I step over rocks and brush, but my shoe catches on a small gopher hole, and I almost trip.

“Easy!” Clancy says. “I hope you’re not this clumsy when you dance.”

I laugh. “I’ve never danced before.”

“Ever? Not even at a wedding?”

“I’ve never been to a wedding.”

“Damn,” Clancy says. “Ain’t done much in your life, have you?”

I don’t know how to answer that… so I continue walking.

There are small hills scattered about, some as large as haystacks; others, the size of tanks.

“To your left,” Clancy says. “They’re behind that hill, waiting. Don’t piss your pants now. You feeling up to this?”

“Yeah,” I say, my voice soft. I wring my hands.

“What’s that?”

“I’m up to this—yeah.”

Clancy laughs. “Nervous?”

We round the hill, and I think I see two figures standing against the rocky wall, but it’s dark, and I can’t quite make them out.

“Keep going,” Clancy says. “Don’t stop.”

“Is that them?” I ask, meaning Pam and the female guard.

“It’s them. Keep moving.”

I continue walking, but it’s difficult to see where I’m going. Unexpectedly, one of the figures switches on a flashlight and shines it in my eyes. I trip on a large rock, which causes me to stumble and scrape my shin.

“Hey!” Clancy calls out. “It’s us!”

I rub my shin; there’s a dirty mark on my white pants, and my shoes are covered with dust.

“Over here!” the figure calls, lowering the flashlight.

I pause, abruptly. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, as if electrified.

The figure’s voice was masculine.

Clancy pushes the end of his baton into my lower back. “Keep moving, Paul.”

“Clancy,” I say. “Who’s the —”

But I don’t get a chance to finish: my voice is cut off when Clancy slams the baton into the back of my head. I pitch forward, falling onto a stickery brush. Branches scrape my stomach.

I hear shuffling footsteps; then, a couple of strong arms are hauling me to my feet.

“This the guy?” someone asks.

“Yeah,” Clancy says. “Be gentle with him; he’s probably got a hard-on. He came out here thinking he was going to get laid.”

The men laugh. My vision is wavy, but I can make them out: they’re a couple of younger guards who work in the towers. I don’t know their names.

“Where is it?” Clancy asks.

One of the guards points. “Over there, by the hill.”

“Bring him, then. I want him to see.”

Clancy starts walking, and the guards drag me toward him, toward the hill. My head is aching; I’m almost sure it’s bleeding.

Clancy stops and stands with his arms folded. “Look, Paul.”

My head is tipped backward; my skull is throbbing in time to my pulse.

“I said look!”

I struggle to focus my eyes. I follow Clancy’s finger, which is pointing to the ground.

There’s a large pile of fresh dirt; two shovels protrude from it.

And beside the pile, carved from the earth, lies a long, deep hole.

My head pitches forward. I feel like I’m going to vomit.

“It’s nothing personal,” Clancy says. “I really do think you’re an all-right guy. That’s why I introduced you to the girl. I’ve never done that for no one else. But this is the way things are. This is the way things have to be.”

I take a deep breath. I try to say something, but it comes out as more of a moan.

“What’s that?” Clancy asks.

“Pam.”

“Pam?”

“Pam.” I swallow, feeling groggy.

“Not in this life, bud. I’m sorry. She’s already gone.”

I moan, softly.

“Well?” asks the guard to my left.

“Yeah,” Clancy nods. “Go ahead; take your time. I’m going to head back; I don’t need to be here.”

He reaches out and clasps my shoulder, almost in a reassuring way, like a father comforting a son.

“See you, Paul.”

And then he leaves. I hear his footsteps retreating into the darkness—shuffling through sand, crunching through brush.

The guards let me go. One pushes me back, and I stumble, trying to keep my balance. They extract their batons, slowly, as if their thoughts are synchronized. They stand and stare, their eyes steely and cold, their weapons held ready.

They look like snakes poised to strike.

The one on my right swings at me first: he whips the baton in a long, sweeping arc that catches me smack in the jaw.

I yelp and fall backward.

They’re both on top of me, then, walloping and wailing… the batons smash me in the face, the head, the stomach, the groin, the knees. The pain is sharp, and blinding—everything is white.

I hear them hollering—deep, primitive, indecipherable yells. One drives the toe of his boot deep into my stomach. I gasp, spitting out something—maybe blood, maybe the contents of my guts.

The batons slam into my arms, my chest, my back, my lower legs. I try rolling, but I succeed only in exposing my stomach—one guard strikes blows to my chest and belly; the other slams me alongside the cheek and in the mouth.

My eyes are squeezed shut—one of my sockets is gushing blood—and all I see is a hot, blinding whiteness, as if I’m staring into the sun.

And from the whiteness, a figure emerges, transparent and tinged with mist; it drifts toward me like a silent, sailing ship. I hold out my hand, as if to touch it, to greet it… but one of the guards grabs my fingers and bends them backward. The bones snap like twigs.

The figure is defined, now: it’s a woman. She has deep, mature eyes and red, parted lips. Her light, blonde hair flows in waves well past her shoulders.

It’s Pam.

She’s smiling at me, and she’s extending her hand, to hold mine.

We’re back in the filing room, and we’re looking into each other’s eyes.

And the guards are bashing my skull, my neck, my back. One gives me a smooth, swift kick in the ribs, and I’m falling, falling… and I land hard on my stomach; my mouth takes in dirt.

I cough, but my lips and tongue are coated with sand. I gag.

And then I’m back with Pam; her fingers are entwined with mine, and she’s telling me about her life, how she likes to read in her cell on Sundays. And I’m aching to kiss her, to hold her, but I don’t. Instead, I give her hand a gentle squeeze, and I listen: I take in everything she says, her lilting voice swinging me like a melody—like the soft, sweet notes of a long-forgotten song.

And then there’s a crushing, searing pain in my back: one the guards has dropped a rock on me. I gasp; the wind’s knocked out of my lungs, and I can’t breathe.

I vaguely hear their warbled laughter… but then again, the night dissolves, and I’m back in the filing room with Pam, and we’re sitting on the floor together, leaning against a shelf, sharing stories. I’m telling her how I once burned the brownies at lunch, and how Bruno, the head chef, threatened to smash my face against the grill—how he’s always threatening to smash my face against the grill, even for the slightest transgressions—although he never does, because he doesn’t have a violent bone in his body.

And I’m only faintly aware that the guards are tossing shovelfuls of dirt on me… but again, I’m back in the filing room, back with Pam, and the pain devolves to pinpricks… then, it dissolves away to nothing.

And I’m no longer numb; I’m feeling all there is to feel, but there’s no pain. There’s only beauty, and light, and love. And I’m immersed in all of it.

And I’m looking into Pam’s eyes… and she’s looking into mine, and whispering… and I know now more than ever that my heart was right—that all my tender, anguished yearning was not in vain—because right now I’m holding the girl of my dreams… the woman I want to be with, forever… because I love her so much. I love her so, so much.

She’s so sweet, so perfect, so pure.

And she’s so beautiful.

She’s so, so beautiful.

 

Black Eyes

by HJ Taylor

 

The coffee lady was very pretty, although she wasn’t quite a lady… not yet. The waitress probably couldn’t be much older then Beans’ big brother at college, maybe even the same age. But Beans couldn’t look away from her eyes. No matter her position or angle, those eyes looked black. Only the glare from the window reflected off them. The shine followed Beans like those eyes on the eerie museum paintings.

Beans watched her flow from one countertop to the other, more like a dancer then a waitress, not just working some dumb old job. Beans admired her precision and agility. First, she shot brown stuff into a narrow paper cup, then white stuff, next a little bit of powder, some syrup, and finally the steaming water. By the smile on every customer’s face, perfect every time.

Barista, her mother had corrected her so often that whenever she heard the fancy word it almost made her puke. Beans knew that barista was just a fancy term people used to make themselves sound more important than they really were. Once when Beans’ mother was lecturing her on the difference, the girl had overheard. After her mother had finished making her point and gone over to a shelf to examine some ceramic coffee cups, accompanying the most amazing smile, the girl had put her finger to her lips.

“You’re right, hon,” she whispered. “I’m just a waitress. Our secret.” She shushed Beans again with a polite blow of breath against that same finger, and busily got back to work.

On that day, Beans knew the girl had noticed her. More importantly, Beans had taken further notice of the girl’s eye color, too. An electricity ran between them in that instant, and with it, a lifelong familiarity. From that day on, they were both somehow connected.

The waitress was short, and very thin. Her long dark hair, as usual, was in a pony—loosely tied with a black hair band—two symmetric strands framed her little round face that was always full of life, as if she knew something that no one else did. But Beans was drawn to those eyes. They lived somewhere else with an aura all their own, blacker than a moonless night! They seemed to make holes that bore through to somewhere else.

Today Beans had decided to play a game called, “Don’t look at the coffee girl’s eyes.” But every time she came here, the game got harder and harder, as if some kind of magnetism kept her hooked. Yes, the lady smiled a lot, but it wasn’t her mouth that made her always look happy. The sensation came from some secret hidden in those deep black eyes. “Ahh!” she muttered and lightly stamped the shiny tile floor with her glittery silver sandals. She only lasted thirteen seconds today.

No customers ever complained when the black-eyed girl served them, which was quite odd because they always yelled at the other ones. No matter how long the line or how tense everyone was, as soon as they had their turn with the coffee girl, the customers seemed to relax. Not just most, but all of them, one after the other. Her tip jar was always full. Beans shook her head wondering if she was some sort of a witch. A good one for sure, she thought and giggled.

Like any other time, today the coffee girl wore black tights and a tight black sleeveless shirt with a turtleneck. A white and green checkered apron hung on her, awkwardly out of place with the emblem of the Main and Cox Java is Life coffee shop slapped directly in the upper center of it—a kangaroo forever smiling while holding a cup of steaming coffee in front of his own green and white checkered apron. Below the waitress’s neck hung a silver chain, and hanging from that chain was a round, shiny, black stone with silver metallic rays like the sun spraying out from the center. The silver chain jingled and the pendant jumped as she bent forward to greet the next customer. Why was she here, Beans wondered?

Then Beans tensed. Next in line was the dreaded, apple man. He was a nasty, skinny, frail looking old fart who always wore a Sherlock Holmes hat. Beans’ face wrinkled. His head jerked about like a snake ready to defend himself. Beans didn’t like this slouchy old guy. He was rude and grumpy, and always pushed his way in front of everyone else. How could anyone be so frustrated all the time was what she wanted to know? Sometimes he was absent minded, other times the bully, and if he didn’t get his way, he mumbled and moaned until the manager came out and did whatever he wanted. One day he even got a guy fired!

How could anyone be like that all the time? Beans could think of no such reason and she didn’t feel sorry for him at all. No one deserved to be that mean, not every second of every day, and Beans could imagine nothing to make such a person. Beans almost cringed when he waddled up to the smiling, always gracious, black-eyed waitress. “Not good,” she muttered. The girl glanced over the old man and gave Beans a reassuring wink. Beans’ eyes grew wide.

Gritting her teeth and every muscle tight in anticipation of the upcoming lopsided confrontation, Beans wrung her tiny fingers. Oh, what might happen? she wondered. The old man was looking at his shoes, those same old sandals he always wore no matter what the weather. The confrontation was about to begin and Beans was not at all sure she could bear it. Those in line had already pulled back as if an invisible barrier had sealed them both away from the rest of the world. Not having the coffee girl in her life would be horrible.

The young girl responded back to the man in a voice that nearly sang. Only the man could hear exactly what the girl had said, but despite his mutterings, the black-eyed waitress seemed not a hint flustered. She nodded, and politely waited for the man to lift his face.

Beans watched his skinny little turtle neck holding that wart-filled face jerk upwards. His expression was already filled with anger in anticipation to one upcoming problem or another. An odd flash made Beans blink and when she was able to focus again, she saw… no, more felt, a warm light connect the old man’s eyes to the barista’s black ones. His warped expression changed, first to curiosity, then to awe. For once his drawn cheeks didn’t turn red, and his shoulders didn’t shake. The apple guy wasn’t mad!

His mouth fell open in a dumbfounded circle. The tremor that determined his shaky body and wiggly hands stopped, even his breathing seemed to hesitate, as their eyes locked on to one another. The waitress said nothing, just tilted her head the slightest bit, as if doing so was the exactly proper angle to meet such a stubborn old man. There was a pause, just a short one, and then both people changed, as if the color around them had brightened. When the world started up again, the moment had passed, and life, once again, was pleasant and hurried.

Bean let go of her mother’s hand. Her jaw had dropped. “Holy cow,” she whispered, and as if the phrase was a cue, the black-eyed girl turned to Beans. Their eyes locked for a moment that seemed like hours, and not only couldn’t Beans turn away, but she wouldn’t have tried for anything in the world.

In one circular swoop, the young woman spun about the coffee shop kitchen and put the old man’s order together with not so much as a stammer or a stutter. Without changing pace or switching up direction, the waitress snapped the lid on and had a protective cardboard sleeve Beans’ knew was called a zarf on the steaming cup before the old man even spoke. With one hand the black-eyed girl put the cup on the counter, and with the other, she gingerly grasped his frail-looking slender fingers and led them to the zarf as if he were blind.

He smiled and Beans saw someone she didn’t recognize. Putting his other hand on top of the black-eyed girl’s, apple man gave her a few words of his own. She giggled and fiddled with her necklace as if smitten with his compliment. With not a sign of irritation from any of the patrons behind, the old man and the One True Barista exchanged a few more words before the old man said his farewells, and the next person stepped up.

Beans’ glanced up at his face. The guy wasn’t as old somehow, and he walked more upright. The corners of his mouth were more upturned, and his skin seemed less wrinkly. The age spots and ugly warts were still there if Beans looked close enough, but they were faded and certainly less noticeable. His jerky movements were more fluent, and his shakes and jaw clasping were gone. As he came closer to Beans, this time very close, not taking the time to veer away as he always did from anyone else, Beans could see what else had changed… his eyes! For once she didn’t back out of his way.

Beans felt dumb for gawking, but she couldn’t help it, couldn’t even blink! His eyes were a lovely, lively, sky blue, the color of a younger man’s. For a moment the world shimmered in that odd way it sometimes did just before Beans blinked out, and then she was gone. The old man changed before her very eyes. Like always when the world shimmered, Beans left.

 

The ceiling fan disappeared, and the space where it had rotated in that lazy way, was now blue sky with puffy white clouds. Beans clearly heard seagulls, and the happy giggles of little children. Then she saw the old man; his body appearing before her the way a reflection might after the disturbed water stopped shimmering. Although he was much younger, handsome even, Beans could tell it was him. Sure, he was still small and thin, but his muscles were tight and chiseled. He was happy and confident, not nasty and hateful. At his side was a small, brown-haired woman, neither pretty nor homely, but adoring of her three children that hung about them both like monkeys. The lady’s hair was drawn back in a tight bun, and her skin milky and soft. She wore a plain dress trimmed in a dull pink, and the five of them strolled along the beach together where they casually turned into the dry sand as if they had done so a million times. They all disappeared atop the porch of a wonderful beach house, giggles and laughter fading away with the sea breeze.

Beans understood this man wasn’t exactly the old man from the coffee shop… not really. This was a different version of that man. But this wasn’t the old man’s past, or a dream either. This was him, the old man’s soul anyway, somewhere else, in the area in between, in another world and place. As always, Beans watched the vision as a ghost that was looking in, invisible to them all, just watching as an uninvited observer of their life. Then the vision disappeared, and the slowly turning fan re-appeared.

 

For a few seconds Beans maintained a blank stare, unable to move. Then she snapped back just in time to realize the happy old man had spotted her. With a coordination and approach Beans thought would have been impossible coming from this person, he reached down and stroked her cheek. His eyes left Beans for a moment to send a respectful look to her mother, then he spoke.

“Such a lovely little girl, you are, little Miss. Certainly you are.” Then he began to whistle a tune Beans could not place, but which was pleasant all the same.

Beans felt a tight squeeze from a proud Mom. But the pressure from her mother’s hand was far away, as if it touched someone else. The world stayed fuzzy and surreal for a while longer as it always did after Beans faded out. When focus returned, her eyes were once again locked onto the coffee girl’s as if they had been patiently waiting for her return. They lingered, then pulled away playfully.

Awkwardly, Beans turned her attention to the glass panels that lay over the cabinets under the countertop. Inside were the usual things sold at a coffee shop: several types of gourmet coffees, mugs, a set of fancy wine glasses, recipe books, gourmet popcorn, desserts. On the ends of the case was an array of stuffed toys, all of the store’s mascot kangaroo in various positions and doing funny things. As her mind cleared, Beans saw her reflection.

Beans considered herself a fairly plain six-year-old girl with long dirty-blonde hair, and a blue headband with a tiny bow to the side. She had large eyes and a slightly upturned puggish nose that looked tiny and cartoonish in a favorable kind of way. She was small and thin, but agile and quick. Beans wore leopard tights, a blue dress full of green, orange, and yellow peace signs, and a white tee-shirt with butterflies scattered about. She often wondered why adults fussed over her so much. But Beans’ reflection wasn’t clear in the shadowed glass.

At first she thought that maybe she was still dazed from the little “mind trip” she had just taken, but after a second she realized that was not the case. The cabinets were poorly lit, which made her reverse-self look dull, so she moved closer, close enough that her nose nearly touched the glass. The background behind her reflection did not match the background of the coffee shop. Past the glass, Beans couldn’t make out the backboards of the cabinet either. The wall was gone and the space went on and on to somewhere else.

 

Where am I? she thought.

“In between,” a whisper told her, a familiar voice that she recognized. “An amazing place that helps me see why people are the way they are. How they’re supposed to be, which explains the frustration that makes them sad and sometimes mean.”

 

Beans snapped upwards to the countertop when she heard the coffee girl’s voice. Normal sounds and smells returned. Her mother busily chatted with a lady from her work.

“And how are you?” the black-eyed girl politely asked. Her voice was a bit raspy, but trustworthy. “There’s more to it than that,” she added.

It was her, Beans thought as she studied the girl, hesitant to admit what the waitress might be trying to get at. Then as if all perspective had disappeared, their faces came together, and where the young lady’s features should have been, was spiraling blackness. Like magnets, her dark swirling eyes drew Beans to them, and this time the glare from the coffee shop windows was gone. From a distance the girl’s eyes looked all black, but close up she could see an astounding distinction between the black of her pupil and the darkness that made up the iris.

Like dark gray smoke, the irises exploded and imploded within themselves as if they were angry thunderheads of a great storm. Moving constantly, they never maintained the same pattern for any length of time. The haze folded and unfolded, as if they reached outwards forever, but never really got to the outer part of the circumference. In the next moment they were slate gray smoke billowing out and twisting in. Beans’ focus was drawn inwards toward the center of that storm, and there she fell into the jet black holes that were the coffee girl’s pupils.

 

Beans felt her insides stretch, being sucked into a whirlpool of black. First, her head elongated and was sent through, then the rest of her body followed like a rubber band that had reached its ultimate length of elasticity. When the butterflies in her stomach settled down, she was somewhere else.

But not alone.

Gently caressing her hand was the coffee girl. Splendid fragrances filled her nose. Funny insect sounds, bird tweets she had never heard before, and animal howls filled the strange forest that now surrounded them both. The air was warm and moist, with the barest taste of salt.

“Hi, Beans,” the waitress said, then closed her eyes. Flaring her pretty nostrils, she inhaled deeply. “I’m Manna.”

The pretty name brought a smile to her face. “Where are we, Manna?” Beans asked, turning about a half circle in each direction, unwilling to let go of Manna’s anchoring grip in fear she might disappear and be lost forever.

“One of my favorite spots in the entire universe, Beans.”

Although Manna had not answered her question very specifically, Beans decided she didn’t need any more information than that just yet. She loosened her fingers and pulled away to grab a peculiar purple flower off the mossy ground. Sliding her last finger along Manna’s, Beans glanced back.

“That’s okay, Beans. You did this all by yourself. You can let go.”

“What did I… we do, Manna?”

“This is called slicing,” Manna announced.

“Slicing?” Beans questioned, and the world swam before her eyes again.

 

“On the house, young lady!” said the coffee girl as if nothing had happened, and she laughed out loud.

Beans’ mother laughed too and patted her hand. The coffee girl laid a huge slice of coffee cake she had removed from the platter within the glass cabinet that Beans was still dumbly staring at.

“You don’t have to do that, hon,” Beans’ mother protested. Then she noticed her daughter staring blankly at the space beyond the waitress. Not another one, she thought and her own anxiety kicked in. She looked behind, embarrassed, and then gave a weak and worried smile to the barista.

Beans’ mother snapped her fingers in front of her daughter several times and stabilized her shoulders by moving behind her. She lovingly kissed her little girl’s ear and whispered into it. She looked up briefly to the people nearby including Manna. “Petit mal,” she explained. “A minor type of seizure she’s had since she was very young. It will take just a moment and she’ll be alright.” Everyone shook his or her head in understanding and backed away slightly to give them room.

Manna smiled knowingly but said nothing. “I had them, too, when I was young.”

A moment later Beans widened and closed her eyes several times. Her pupils dilated then constricted and finally adjusted appropriately. As if she was seeing something else in her mind, a wide smile of amazement grew on her blank face. Briefly she scanned her surroundings and bobbled her head about trying to find Manna.

“There she is!” the waitress announced. She locked eyes with the young girl, nodded her head slightly back and forth, and made a shushing sound with her lips. “A good slice?” she asked and handed Beans her cake.

For only a moment Beans looked confused, but being a very bright and perceptive girl, the entire situation kicked in and made sense. “Amazing,” she said between front teeth that looked too big for her head.

“It’s just the beginning,” Manna said and put her hand comfortingly over top Beans’. She moved from behind the counter, bent down to her knee and hugged Beans securely. Adding a kiss on the cheek, she whispered so no one else could hear. “My eyes didn’t always look like this, you know. They were amber like yours. We’re going to have fun together, you and me.”

Beans’ eyes grew wide and she smiled ear to ear. Her mother beamed and wished every young adult was like the black-eyed coffee girl.

 

Fear

by Grant Flint

 

The old man entered the bedroom and closed the door. Just before the door clicked shut, he saw what had been concealed on the back of it—a white sheet of paper with one word in the middle. The word, composed of irregular letters cut from newspaper print, said: “TODAY.”

For a moment the old man stood perfectly still. Then he retreated slowly backward, staring at the word, his mind numb the way he had attempted to make it when seeking sleep during the night. He couldn’t think of any one thing definite, myriad thoughts swirling in upon him. Then as the rear of his legs bumped into the bed, the first line of the telegram returned to him: “Your time has come.” He shook his head slowly, staring at the word on the middle of his door. He found himself moving toward the door as though in a dream. As he came closer, the muscles in his face tightened, pulling his mouth open. Suddenly he reached out and tore at the word. His fingers ripped part of the glued sheet away, and then in a frenzy he clutched and ripped with both hands, shredding the letters on the white paper until only a formless mutilation of scraps remained glued to the door. Breathing hoarsely, the old man continued to scrape furiously at the shreds, and then in enraged frustration he yanked the door open and limped hurriedly past the frightened cleaning girl to the kitchen where he grabbed a paring knife.

“Mr. MacIver! Mr. MacIver!” the girl cried as he hurried back toward the door.

The old man stopped and glared wildly at her. “You! You did it!”

“No! Didn’t do nothing! Nothing!” the girl said, backing up with her hands in front of her. As the old man started toward her, the girl turned at once and ran to the open front door. She was nearly to the street when the old man came from the house.

Breathing heavily, face still contorted, the old man watched the girl until she turned the corner a block away. Then he looked about wildly on the ground, picked up the poker and with the knife in his other hand entered the house. Glaring to left and right, weapons ready, he searched through all the rooms on the first floor and then the second. He found nothing.

Gradually a heavy fatigue replaced the fevered activity of anger and frustration. The old man returned to the bedroom door and started to scrape with the knife on the bits of paper. Finally he sighed deeply and dropped the knife. He went to the bed, sat down a moment, thought of resting for awhile, then sighed again and began to dress. After he had his trousers on, he took the telegram from his pocket and read it again. “Your time has come. What you fear most. Terror of terrors.”

“Today,” he thought, looking at the door. Any time now. This was something specific anyway. Something a man could fight. No joke. Somebody meant it. Well, whatever it was, he thought, they were going to have a fight on their hands. Not scared of anything, living or dead.

But the old man knew he was going to the police now. He didn’t think about it, didn’t make up his mind, but he found himself leaving the house. He locked the front door and then looked for the cat.

“Cat!” he called. “Cat! Damn it, where are you? Cat!”

He walked to the street, looked back briefly at the tall, dead grass on either side of the house, then started slowly toward the pay phone eight blocks away.

“Gettin’ riled up for nothin’,” he muttered, thinking about his reactions of the morning. “Bad as Timmy.” He remembered the time a few months before when his grandson had been at the house and he’d played the ghost game with him, a game he’d played with many children, including his son, Timmy’s father, when he’d been about Timmy’s age. Simple thing. An uneven breeze coming in an open window causing a door, preferably a squeaky door, to close almost, then open, then nearly close. “Slowly, slowly, slowly,” he told Timmy, “the ghost slowly opens, slowly, slowly opens the door.” And Jimmy had stood there bug-eyed, watching the door in the flickering light from the fireplace.

Of course, Claire, the boy’s mother, had been upset when she heard about it, but… that was the way it was nowadays. The “younger generation” was so damn scared of everything, they couldn’t put up with a little old-fashioned spookin’.

Claire telling him that Timmy would end up hating him just like the boy’s father had. Well, hell, the boy’s father had been so damn pussy-footed like his mother, what could you expect? Even died pussy-footed, a stroke at thirty-four years of age. Now what kind of fool thing was that to do? Hard to ever believe he’d had a son like that, any blood of his in that quivering namby-pamby.

And now Claire coming around once a week—would be around tonight or tomorrow—to “look out for him.” Hell. What she was “looking out for” was for him to croak. So she could sell his house and lot for that big money them apartment house people were always putting up. She knew what that young punk of a so-called doctor had said. Warned him to get his pressure down. 185/115. So what? So his kid had had a stroke. So? He’d already outlived the kid by 42 years! Ha! He’d outlive Claire, too, outlive the whole damn bunch, just the way that bastard cat had outlived all the cats in the area. Weren’t nothing could knock off that damn cat!

The old man was more than halfway to the pay phone now, walking slowly, head down, when a teen-ager on a bicycle rode up behind him on the sidewalk, blew his horn, then sped by giggling.

The old man was so startled by the horn, he nearly fell. “Damn them! Damn them all!” he muttered in frustration as he watched the youth hurrying on.

He hesitated for a moment, feeling an unfamiliar numbing fatigue in his legs and the beginning of dizziness. “Ah, damn police wouldn’t do nothin’ anyway,” he mumbled. “Just think I was crazy or somethin’.”

The old man remembered the only time he had asked anything from the police. He had received no satisfaction. It was about the noise and rowdyism of youths returning home from high school in the afternoons. It seemed to the old man that they picked the sidewalk in front of his property to congregate, make wisecracks, and mock fight. One group would go on, then another would come along, stop, and repeat the scene.

The neighborhood had deteriorated fast in the past few years from the way the old man remembered it. The aged Victorian houses had been torn down to put up apartment houses. Although he’d received and continued to receive repeated offers from real estate developers—offers which were becoming increasingly insistent, almost belligerent—the old man refused to sell his house, which stood alone now on the huge weed-grown lot, an isolated reminder of the past.

Those kids, the old man thought. No respect for themselves or anybody else. Especially an old man. He’d run them off enough times, shook his fist at them. But it did no good. Youth. Damn youth. It was hard to say which was worse, those pesky developers, who would not give up, hounding him—acting almost crazy at times, as though he were the villain, and they were the good guys—or the damn kids. All of them, the whole mass of them, developers, kids—never letting up—and him just an old man, alone, just wanting to live where he’d lived, just wanting to live here till he died. Kids. Damn kids.

“Damn cops won’t help an old man.”

But he continued to hesitate, unable to decide whether to go on or return home. The newspapers on the rack at the corner made the decision for him. He placed the quarters he had intended to use for the pay phone into the slot, took a newspaper, and slowly trudged back to the house.

“Cat?” he called tiredly as he came into the front yard.

Before entering the house, he turned to look once more for the cat. “Where are you, damn it? Cat?”

Cat was as tough as he was. And old. Hind legs paralyzed, dragging itself around. Weren’t nothing could kill that cat. Dumb, but unbeatable.

The old man went in, locked the door, walked the final steps to the living room chair. He sat down and leaned back, feeling more fatigued than he could remember. He closed his eyes to rest a moment before reading the paper, not unwilling to fall asleep if it happened that way. But suddenly the word “TODAY” jumped into his thoughts and he jerked up, opened his eyes and saw his wife’s photo on the mantel. “TODAY.” He pushed it out of his mind, wouldn’t think about it. That cowed look, he thought, staring at the picture, those big sorrowful eyes. But there was something else there, too, he thought tiredly, something hidden, something he’d never seen there before. And it was as though she was maybe using a disguise and underneath, underneath that beaten, sad look, she was maybe mocking him, waiting for him to get soft, show a weak spot. A damn disguise.

She’d nearly got him, too, in those first months after they’d married. All innocent, naturally, least that’s the way she’d acted it. Nineteen years younger than him. Sure, maybe he’d had a weak spot once, scared of being made fun of. Like her laughing first time she saw him naked, saw he was a little bow-legged.

Ah, the old man remembered, but he got back control fast! Took her game and beat her to hell and back on it. Easy. Easiest thing in the world. Like that time he’d waited until she got home from a party he’d made her go to, and then told her that her slip had been showing all night. Ah, but the best one was that time she’d spent two hours, two days, if you consider the whole thing, getting ready for that first Sunday with his relatives, and then they’d been on the way, halfway there, and he’d told her, real kind like, nothing outright smart about it, that she had on way too much makeup and that dress she had on, the dress and the makeup, well, it kind of made her look exactly like a whore. And then afterwards, coming home from that first Sunday—been about a dozen of his relatives there—he’d told her they’d shamed him by telling him his wife was like a child, always hanging on him, a clinging vine. When actually what they’d said was how nice it was that he and she were so affectionate, holding hands and all that.

Well, he’d got her all right. Beat her silly at her own game. She never once after that, never dared again to make any fun of him.

“So go ahead and look, damn you,” the old man muttered, staring at his wife’s picture. “Think you’re laughing at me under that damn sheep look. But I got your number, got you down good, and you ain’t never goin’ to win nothin’.”

The old man felt better now. He reached down to pick up the newspaper, but then decided to close his eyes for a moment and rest a bit more.

*****

When the old man awoke, he felt chilled and clammy. He looked up at his wife’s clock. Nearly 2:30. Well, he thought, the day is going and that fool sign said “Today” and ain’t nothin’ happened.

He got up stiffly and went to the kitchen where he warmed up some left-overs, ate standing up, and then brought back some coffee to have with his paper.

He read the obituaries, the want ads, and then the personals. It was near the bottom of the personals: “S.M. tonight. Seven. Y.X.”

The sentence blurred as the old man stared at it. He tried to read the next personal below and then abruptly could think of nothing at all. His hands began to tremble, rustling the newspaper. He lifted his hands a moment as though they were independent agents, apart from him. Then he clutched the paper grimly and read the personal again.

His initials all right, but the initials of a thousand other people, he thought. Probably a love message. A meeting on the sly. Y.X. Probably phony. Nobody had initials like that. Besides, the sign had said today, not tonight. Seven.

The old man looked up at his wife’s clock. For a moment, the clock was blurred. As he stared at it, its vague outline appeared to move. The cherubs seemed to be sliding together at the top in obscene union. The old man sat up and squinted. Twenty after four. Three—no, two and a half hours until seven. A long time. Seven. It didn’t mean a thing. Seven tonight. The cat. Where was the cat?

Everything in the old man suddenly centered on the cat. He had to find the cat. Bring the cat in, have the cat lying there, start from that, everything would be all right.

The old man stood up abruptly and nearly fell as the unaccustomed dizziness came upon him again. He waited a moment, shook his head wearily, and then started for the door, concentrating on nothing but the cat.

He unlocked the door automatically, stepped out. The cat was in the middle of the sidewalk halfway to the street.

“Cat,” the old man called as he came near. “Wake up, you ol’ bastard.”

A few feet away, he sensed it but couldn’t see, and then he was on the other side of the cat and saw its eyes open and mouth open with the worn teeth exposed, and he saw the clean bone, naked white, protruding from its broken neck, and the light red blood glistening in the sun, the blood touching the neck and then extending out and down on the sidewalk forming a nearly perfect number SEVEN.

The old man cried out, a shrill unintelligible sound like a seagull, and staggered in a half circle, looking wildly, blindly about him. Then, quickly looking at and away from the cat, he moved to one side and toward the house, but he stopped abruptly and turned to hurry to the street. He saw the cat again, just as his foot was descending upon it. He twisted his body awkwardly to the left and felt his ankle collapse in the instant of consciousness before he fell heavily over the cat and struck the sidewalk face down.

*****

When the old man regained awareness it was twilight. He lay motionless, listening. He heard nothing. He moved his head slowly to one side. His nose was numb. He could feel the dried blood on it and knew it was broken. Very slowly, listening intently, he began to move. He was distantly aware that his ankle was broken. The sharp pain was there, unbearable if he thought about it.

He felt rather than saw the darkness as he inched along the sidewalk until he was turned toward the house. He saw the exposed white bone on the cat’s neck as he crawled by, pulling his way with his elbows.

As the old man came closer to the front door, his breathing grew louder through his open mouth and he choked briefly on his spittle. He crawled the last few feet in increasing terror as he heard the sounds of his body betraying him to the unseen enemy.

At the open door the old man half rose, then fell forward and sideways and attempted to close the door before his legs were completely in. Tears ran down his face as he got the door closed and lay gasping on the floor. Suddenly he cried out again and struggled upright against the door to put the bolt in the upper lock.

Holding on to the wall, he hobbled in the dark to the front room, and then crawled to his chair. He tried desperately to find the switch on the lamp by the chair, found it with shaking hands, turned on the light, then knocked the lamp over onto his lap. He held the lamp up to see the clock.

Twelve minutes until seven.

He quickly turned off the light, still holding the lamp in his lap. He listened. He could hear only the heavy ticking of the clock. He had never been so frightened in his life. He was alone. Everything outside the house, the house itself, was closing in. The enemy was listening, waiting, ready to strike. He could feel the enemy, he almost knew the enemy, he could sense it, almost remember. The crime, the guilt, the unspeakable, the horrible revenge. He felt it, could almost know it. It had him. There was no escape. The unthinkable would happen, it was coming, it had to be, he could almost know what it was. It would be terrible, the most terrible thing of all. The time, the time—

The old man feverishly switched the light on. Three minutes until seven. He left the light on and stared at the clock, listening to the seconds. He thought once of the cat as his pulse began beating louder in his head. He heard the sounds outside coming closer, and it was part of the throbbing near-explosion in his head. Not yet, his mind screamed. Not yet! Not yet!

The old man stared blindly at the clock. He heard the muffled sound at the door and cried, “Not yet!” And then as the pounding in his head reached explosion he fell forward, eyes protruding, face frozen, the old man knew the enemy who had come for revenge, and in the last seconds of his life, he heard the crash, the rushing steps, the giggles, the taunting onslaught of youth, the wicked life force pressing in on him, triumphant youth.

 

A Gift from Johnny Magemasher

by Hayley Noel Wallace

 

Hands down, the best gift I ever got was when Johnny Magemasher tried to assassinate Stupefying Stanley. Since then, I’ve had a few come close to topping it: one Christmas, I got a Nintendo 64 and my ungrateful twit of a sister got a cell phone; she ended up using her “year’s” worth of minutes in a week. The 64 lasted me five years. At fourteen, I got a little mongrel puppy that turned out to be half Dalmatian, half Great Dane; he’s been my constant companion ever since. I’m about to graduate and I can only imagine what kind of treasure I’ll come across then. Still, no present, no accidental discovery, has ever managed to outshine what I got from Johnny Magemasher, the day of my eighth birthday.

The morning started out hectic and stayed that way. When I went downstairs, my mother shoved a bowl of Raisin Bran in my general direction. She was wielding a two-handed pair of scissors through a series of cut-out cardboard circus animals with frightening intensity. I’d wanted an android-themed eighth birthday, but it had been vetoed.

“I don’t want Raisin Bran,” I told her. “I want Coco Puffs.”

“No, Bryan. You’re going to be having god knows how much sugar later.”

“But it’s my birthday. I want Coco Puffs.”

“No, Bryan.”

“You let Lacey have whatever cereal she wanted on her birthday.” Lacey was fourteen at the time. “You let her have four sodas.”

No, Bryan—”

“And I only want one bowl of Coco Puffs.”

“ALRIGHT, BRYAN, FINE!” she shouted, red-faced, and nearly lopped off a cardboard lion’s ear. “DON’T BLAME ME WHEN YOU COLLAPSE INTO A SUGAR-INDUCED COMA!”

So I got to eat my Coco Puffs. Lacey came downstairs five seconds later and my mother insisted she eat the Raisin Bran I had rejected. Which set Lacey off, since now it was too soggy and had no taste and she liked her raisins dry and her bran crunchy

My mother raised the scissors up and gave them a resounding snap. Lacey didn’t argue anymore after that.

“You’re so not getting a present from me, you little doosh,” she mumbled at me from a mouth full of soggy bran and wet raisins. “Not that I had one for you anyway.”

I was actually relieved to hear this, as my sister’s “presents” were always things even parents know not to give: metric rulers, packs of notebook paper, protractors—now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure every time my birthday or Christmas rolled around, Lacey just took a dig through her old school supplies.

Once we were done with cereal, I was told to go wait out in the front yard. “And don’t forget your birthday hat!” Mom exclaimed, as if I were heading into a NASCAR race without my helmet. My birthday hat was just the same stupid cone that everyone and their aunt’s cat wears on their birthday (well, my aunt’s cat wore one).

Once the hat was snapped on, I found my dad outside.

“Happy birthday! Eight years old! That’s ancient! Over the sand hill! Don’t go dying on us now!”

“It’s not so old,” I said.

“What’s your mother’s mood like this morning?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Is she still, er… cutting things?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm… well, guess I’ll just take another walk around the block.”

I wanted to go with him, but I had to stay and wait for guests that would not be there for another two hours. Luckily, my best friend and next-door neighbor, Chase Stephens, came out the front door after a few minutes.

“Man, you look stupid,” he said, in regards to my hat. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“I didn’t get you a present. Can I still come?”

“Let me play your Game Boy,” I said and he did. Your best friend, especially the kind that lives next door to you, doesn’t have to do much to get invited to your birthday party.

Me and Chase played the Game Boy for hours, and when guests actually did start to drive up, we were too distracted to greet, much less notice them. Besides, I didn’t even know half of these guests. Actually, to tell you the truth, I didn’t know any of them. It was my mother who had invited them, just like she invited them every year. If my birthday parties didn’t have a high attendance, she felt like she had failed me as a mother, when it was actually my fault for not making many friends. So I always ended up surrounded by all these blank, nameless faces (the majority of them girls) handing me presents, all of which had my name spelled wrong. Brian instead of Bryan. That’s okay though. Sometimes the presents were pretty good. You’d never know it, but some girls really know how to give a boy a good birthday present.

“Bryan!” my mother shouted out the front door. All the guests had piled into the house and out onto the back patio while me and Chase sat there playing Game Boy. “Get back here! It’s starting!”

The two of us went around the house and joined the crowd of little girls and their baby brothers. The mothers were already busy gossiping in the background. My mom had really gone all out in trying to make it look like a real circus. Unfortunately, that only meant it looked more flashy and foolish than I could have thought possible. Propped-up cardboard animals were scattered across the yard, along with a miniscule three ring and flags that made the animals look like they had gone under some kind of nuclear mutation.

“I thought you wanted an android party,” said Chase.

“I did.”

My mother suddenly strode out of the house with a large megaphone in hand, red-cheeked but bright-eyed. “WELCOME! WELCOME ONE AND ALL, TO BRYAN’S EIGHT-RING CIRCUS!” she boomed, and all the other mothers tittered. The randomly assorted children threw their hands over their ears.

Chase cupped his palms around his mouth. “There’s no such thing as an eight-ring circus!”

My mother gave him a murderous look, and I think she was about to say something inappropriate, but my dad quickly intervened, grabbing the megaphone.

“WELL, THERE IS NOW,” he boomed, “AND YOU’RE HERE TO SEE IT! THE ONLY EIGHT-RINGED CIRCUS IN THE WORLD!”

“I only see one three-ring! And you couldn’t fit a dog in it!” Chase has always been a bit of a smart-aleck.

Luckily, Lacey brought out the ice cream cups at that moment, so any further debate with Chase over the number of rings at my circus was forestalled. My mom stood over the children, screaming through the megaphone that they could only have one cup each. Me and Chase successfully managed to steal five and gorged ourselves behind the broad back of a cardboard elephant.

“Is anything good gonna happen at this party?” Chase asked, ripping the lid off our last cup, a strawberry, face already smeared with chocolate, vanilla, and fudge swirl.

“I dunno,” I said. “Mom’s got some guy called Stupefying Stanley coming.”

“What is he? A clown?”

“She couldn’t get a clown. He’s a magician.”

“Huh,” Chase grunted. “More like Stupefyingly Stupid. She should have at least got a monkey or something.”

“She couldn’t get a monkey,” I said.

“What all couldn’t she get—”

“BRYAN…!” my mom bellowed, swooping down on us and the elephant. An unbearable stream of static flooded into our ears. “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?! STUPEFYING STANLEY IS GOING TO BE HERE ANY SECOND!”

“More like Stupefyingly Stu—” Chase began, but mom had already grabbed us by our collars and yanked us away. I was told to wash Chase off with the backyard hose. By the time we rejoined the crowd, Chase was a sopping mess, so my mom made him sit in the back where my dad could keep an eye on him. I was bussed up to the front and told to stay put.

My mother ran back and forth between yards, even though she had Lacey on sentry duty upfront. Suddenly, we heard the megaphone trumpeting, “RIGHT HERE! RIGHT HERE, MR. STUPEFYING!”

I sighed.

“WE’RE SO GRATEFUL TO HAVE YOU, MR. STUPEFYING!” my mom was bellowing at Stupefying Stanley. “A MAGICIAN IS JUST WHAT THIS PARTY NEEDED!”

“Please, just call me Stanley,” I heard him reply, “and I’m not a magician. I’m a prestidigitator.”

“PRESENTER, GOT IT. IN ANY CASE, MY SON AND ALL HIS LITTLE FRIENDS JUST CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU!”

“These are my instruments. Might you assist me in carrying them, girl? Now… if you could please direct me to the stage.”

“IT’S NOT SO MUCH A STAGE AS A, UM… PATIO…”

This guy sounded like a world class jerk. If I was going to have to sit there and let someone pretend to find a quarter in my ear or chop my dad in half, I at least wanted them to be pleasant. He had the appearance of a world-class jerk too. He wore your typical magician’s apparel: black cape, penguin suit and shirt, with frilly cuffs and a tall top hat. His hair was black and patchy underneath the shadow of his hat; his mustache thin and dangling, like a pair of disgusting, furry ribbons drooping from a bike’s handlebars. He’d lined his sour, red-rimmed eyes with liner, for mysterious effect, I guess, but it only succeeded in making him look sloppy and stiff at the same time. He was thin, but not willowy—scrawny and breakable, a well-dressed twig. I was incredibly underwhelmed, and my expectations hadn’t been that high to begin with.

Stupefying Stanley raised his head up, as if he could see better looking through his nostrils, and his watery little rat eyes widened. Surely, my mother had told him he was going to be performing for a bunch of little kids? I thought. Who was he expecting to find in our backyard? The royal Hungarian family?

Lacey, wearing an expression not so far off from Stanley’s, stomped in behind him, lugging a bunch of heavy-looking boxes under her arms. He didn’t offer her even a nod of thanks, although that didn’t exactly make him any worse in my eyes. He continued to hold his nose up and give theatrical blinks, waiting for someone to explain us.

Several of Mom’s friends said hello. Stupefying Stanley didn’t acknowledge them. My dad came up to shake his hand. Stanley’s arm sprung up like it was run by a machine; I suddenly thought that maybe he would have made a good android.

“ALRIGHT, EVERYBODY,” Mom announced, striding back with the megaphone balanced on top of a few more boxes. “GIVE STUPEFYING STANLEY A BIG BRYAN EIGHT-RING CIRCUS WELCOME!”

A “Big Bryan Eight-Ring Circus Welcome” apparently consisted of my mom and dad and several middle-aged woman clapping and shouting “YAY” with varying amounts of enthusiasm, small children looking confused, and Chase, thankfully inaudible, shouting, “Stupefyingly stupid!”

Stanley was less than gracious of the welcome. He waited for it to abate, then impatiently flipped his cape back.

“If you’d all sit… down…” he said, each word snide and faintly trembling.

Everyone sat down. Stupefying Stanley gave a great sigh as my dad resettled himself next to Chase, then put a finger on the rim of his hat.

“Since the dawn of time,” he began to murmur, “there have always been two types of human beings: those that slave away at attempts to pin down miracles, classify them, like butterflies in binders, and those whose very existence is a living, breathing miracle in itself. I,” he gave a pretty unimpressive spin of his cape, “belong to the latter category.”

He waited, I don’t know what for. We all just stared. Eventually, he continued.

“What is the definition of a ‘miracle?’ One might say, any, unexplainable, inconceivable occurrence in this world. Or, perhaps you might say a miracle is a piece of evidence, a manifestation, of the divine acts of a god.”

Again, a pause.

“…I stand before you. Am I inconceivable? Am I a piece of proof that gives you faith in a Creator? How do you define the miracle that is me? Perhaps you don’t believe in miracles. Perhaps you put them in the same category as illusions, phantasies, cheap parlor show tricks. But I assure you, ladies and gentleman, I am no hollow fancy. I am not made up of whimsies and what ifs. What I do is what I am. And what I do… and what I am… are miracles. Is a miracle,” he added quickly.

Several of the other parents were looking at my mother as if she was insane, instead of doing the proper thing and looking at Stupefying Stanley, who was insane.

“It’d be a miracle if he shut up,” I heard Chase whisper in the silence, but Stanley didn’t notice. Once again, he was glaring down at me.

“Now I will begin… my first miracle of this miraculous hour,” he murmured, and turned around to open one of the boxes he had brought. He rummaged through it with nimble, precise movements, then brought out what, I’m almost a hundred percent sure to this day, was a real human skull.

“Ancient voices from the past…” whispered Stupefying Stanley, cradling the skull in his palm. “Let your whispers reach through the gate and pass from this dusty vessel to the soul that would be your retainer…”

“I thought he was supposed to make balloon animals or something,” one mother murmured.

“Yes… yes…” Stanley was hissing. He placed the skull onto the ground and reached back into the box. He then began extracting an abundance of crow feathers and a very large vial of red, murky liquid. “The barrier does not exist within, but is, your mind…”

At the very next second, three things happened. One, my mother started to stand up and stop Stupefying Stanley with her megaphone. Two, Chase had taken all that he could stand, and began to shout, “Stupefyingly STUPID!”

Three, time stopped for everyone but me and Stupefying Stanley.

It was just like you always see in the movies. The birds quit twittering, the trees quit shifting, because the wind quit blowing. All the people around me had their faces frozen like they’d been paused. The gate that had been creaking back and forth was still. The flies and mosquitoes, buzzing about for ice cream and blood respectively, were transfixed in mid-air.

I threw my head around, taking all this in, then looked back to Stupefying Stanley. He had dropped the feathers and vial, the contents of which now spread in sludge puddles over the patio. He squinted, then whirled around, scanning the frozen treetops. The sound of his cape swishing was a thunderclap, the only sound in a soundless world.

“Who are you?! Where are you hiding?!” he shouted and it was like the volume of my mother’s megaphone had been multiplied eight times. I think I might have let out a small whine of distress. Stupefying Stanley wilted over his own echo.

“Well now, there’s a stupid question.”

Even if time hadn’t been stopped, that voice sounded, and probably always will, like it belonged to the only man speaking in the world. It had a calm, fluid quality, disrupted only by the bitter bite and hint of hysteria dripping off the end.

Stupefying Stanley squinted at the roof, as did I.

“I’d have expected more from you, Stan.”

A figure dashed forward and flew off the roof in a white blur. When it landed, it had knocked the very dust out of the air it leapt through, leaving a man-shaped stain in the sky. Someone had jumped off my two-story house’s roof. He is the young man that made me forget all about androids, all about spaceships, dinosaurs, trucks, basketball, video games, you name it. He is the young man that made me a lifelong magician enthusiast.

He wore a clipped white cowboy hat over his wet and glistening golden hair. His ears were pierced with small jewels the same color as his glowing, scattershot eyes: royal purple. They had some kind of flame inside of them, one that crackled and burned a hole through everything they glimpsed. His little teeth, bared in a grin, were sharp and jagged, like they could bite a hand and tear it off too.

He wore a long white trench coat with golden buttons, currently undone and displaying a slender, but muscular chest, the kind Lacey had plastered all over her walls. I don’t know if she would have put him up; he also wore long white bell bottoms with matching white converse, and a drooping belt with a gaudy fake diamond in the center. Pretty tacky, even to an eight-year-old.

Contrasting with all that white was what he carried in his left hand: dangling by the ears was a fat, not in the least bit distressed, black bunny rabbit. In his right was the sort of wand you always expect magicians to have: a thin, cylindrical stick. This one was pure ivory with black tips.

“Surely you’ve heard the rumors, Stan.” The young man dropped the rabbit, which began hopping unenthusiastically off to the side. He took a few darting steps towards Stanley, the tail of his coat gliding above the ground, wand outstretched. “That Johnny Magemasher was coming to see you? Except they’re not rumors, Stan. I’m here. I’m here to make this forsaken place your grave!”

He made it sound pretty epic for a patio. In any case, before Stupefying Stanley could get a word in edgewise, Johnny Magemasher raised his wand and shot what can only be correctly recounted as five fat mauve tentacles, a’la octopus, covered in sticky pale suckers that dripped and bubbled with yellow acid. When I say he shot them out, I mean that they came from the tip of his wand; the tip of his wand having turned into a black hole about six feet long and filled with black fire, you see.

The tentacles snaked towards Stanley. I watched, expecting to see him crushed, sucked, and scalded, thinking that before they could squeeze the life from him, the acid would probably burn its way through his skin and disintegrate his heart.

Instead, Stanley pulled a wand out his own pocket, its colors the inverse of Johnny’s. Another portal, this one white, wispy, and a bit smaller, opened at the end. From it came a sea of yellow flame that jumped onto the octopus tentacles and devoured them.

Johnny Magemasher let out a low swear and pulled away. The tentacles were gone, charred ashes, but the black hole had not disappeared. Johnny snapped his handsome jaw from left to right, then made a dash for the backyard, where the cardboard circus lay.

“What do you think you’re doing, you half-wit?!” Stanley shouted and comically capered after him, the white hole remaining over his wand as well. I looked down at the fat bunny, who was sniffling my knees, then gathered it up. On an impulse, I carried him with me to the edge of the patio for a better view of the ensuing battle.

“I already told you, Stan! It’s payback time!” Johnny Magemasher dipped his left arm deep into the black hole, rummaging about as if were a very large purse.

“You’re using magic at a BIRTHDAY PARTY!”

“Your…” Johnny waited until he had drawn a very long, very sharp, shining steel blade with a crystal hilt out of the black hole to finish, “POINT?! HA HA HA!” Rockets went off in his eyes.

“Oh for…” Stanley dipped two fingers into his portal as well, a million times less enthusiastic. “You fool. Don’t you know anything about magic?”

“How to USE it, OBVIOUSLY!” Johnny Magemasher crowed, and over his black hole grew a shield made of oak wood, covered in twisting green vines and purple thorns. He raised his sword in a flashing arc, then came flying forward, tongue hanging from his open mouth.

“There are two types of people in this world that are unsusceptible to magic… those blessed with it, such as myself, and somehow, the likes of you…” Johnny was closing in on him, but Stanley hadn’t even broken a sweat, still fishing through his portal, “and those that are currently experiencing their day of birth!”

“Like I care!” Before Magemasher’s blade could lop off Stanley’s head, Stupefying plucked a small, square piece of glass out of the portal. He held it up between his middle and pointer fingers. In seconds, it expanded to the height and width of a meter on all sides. Stanley took a leap back as Johnny’s sword slammed into and shattered the glass.

“Let the brat watch!” Johnny continued, raising the shield over his head; he used it as an umbrella, still sneering and giving panting grins. “I didn’t freeze time so I wouldn’t have any witnesses, Stan. I did it so you’d be an easy target!”

“Oh excuse me, my mistake,” Stupefying sniffed, and held the cloudy portal straight over his head. Immediately it began to double, triple in size. “Let me offer you a few obstacles, so it won’t be too simple.”

“Thanks!” Johnny barked, the shield on top of his portal vanishing. He threw the sword forward, trying to impale Stupefying through the chest, but the leftover glass sprang up and assembled in a makeshift barrier. “I’ve been waiting ten long years for this! Might as well make it an experience!”

“You incorrigible brute…” Stanley muttered, a bead of sweat dripping down his nose and dangling on the tip of one end of his mustache. “I’ve never even seen you before!”

Something long, pink, and whip-like darted out of the giant portal.

“Yeah you have, Stan, you’re just not thinking hard enough.” Magemasher was letting his black hole grow too, straight in front of him, as opposed to letting it swirl above. “Why don’t you take a look at little Billy over there and tell me what you see?”

The forked tongue flicked out of Stupefying’s portal once more, then the hint of a white snout. Even though he was looking at me, I couldn’t meet his eyes, too riveted by the portal. Whatever it contained would emerge in seconds.

“Your average, garden variety bunny rabbit,” Stanley spat, and it burst through: a monstrous, porcelain white cobra, with beady red eyes and flared nostrils that could have sucked me up like a reptilian booger. Serenely, it slithered out of the portal and curled around Stupefying Stanley.

“That’s not a rabbit!” Magemasher yelled, and for the first time seemed to have anger mixed in with his aggression. “That’s my brother! You made him that way!”

“What?!”

A wet, whiskered pink nose burst forth from Johnny Magemasher’s portal. Stanley’s cobra let out a fearful hiss and unraveled so quickly that its scales skinned the grass out from under them. It stood itself up straight, straight as a snake can stand, and curled its skin around its skull, creating a hood that made its eyes glistening rubies.

“Don’t tell me you actually forgot! Come on! Johnny and Winston! The twins!”

A black mongoose, bigger than my house, came skulking out of Johnny’s black hole. It looked up at the white cobra and bared its fangs, back bristling, tapered tail raising. While the two snarled and hissed at each other, Johnny Magemasher and Stupefying Stanley stepped off to the sidelines.

“I don’t know of any Johnny and Winston twins.”

“Like hell you don’t!”

The cobra swept down to take a bite, but the mongoose was too quick. It darted to the side and collided with my dad’s shed, leaving an impossibly large dent.

“Listen, simpleton, why don’t you take a moment to explain this madness! If you can!” Stanley snapped, then gave a snort of disgust when a shower of mongoose spit rained over him, Magemasher, the rabbit, me, and all of the frozen party guests.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” Johnny whispered, shaking a few pieces of glass off his trench coat. He reached down and scooped up the rabbit by its ears, brandished it at Stanley. “Does this jog your memory?! Look into his eyes, Stan? Can’t you see it? His suffering? His despair? His rage?!”

The bunny wiggled its nose. In the background, the cobra let out a long stream of bubbling venom that missed the mongoose, but not my mom’s vegetable garden.

“Fine, let me reeducate you, Stan. Let me tell you the story of the two boys whose lives you ruined,” muttered Magemasher, taking the rabbit and setting it back on the ground. It hopped back over to me.

“One day, thirteen-year-old Johnny and Winston Humberg went to go see a show. A magic show. Stupendous Stan would be performing his world famous tricks in the town square. Free admission to anyone with ‘an open mind and an open heart!’ We were thrilled! A free magic show! Since when did anything like that happen in a small town like ours?”

The mongoose leaped and took a chunk out of the cobra’s upper body.

“We left the house at seven thirty sharp, just so we could get front row seats. The place was packed. Everyone in town, from the littlest brat to the oldest fart, had made their morning schedule clear, just so they could go see Stupendous Stan. Me and Winston got seats at the very edge of the front row. We were so excited that we couldn’t sit still.”

Two thick fangs raked over the mongoose’s body, leaving dual, bleeding rivers that wept over the cardboard animals my mom had made.

“You came on, Stan… and you were incredible! Right from the get go, we knew we were in for a real show. Do you remember what you wore? A big black coat and opaque white sunglasses. Your hair was white too, bleached that way. You had dark skin, a handsome tan, not the dorky farmer kind me and Winston had. Changed a lot since then, haven’t you? Thought you could play chameleon and avoid me, huh?”

“Apparently,” Stupefying Stanley sighed.

“You did all sorts of magic, Stan. You started with the usual stuff—gloves turning into doves, ribbons coming out of your sleeves, coins disappearing, kiddy stuff. Then it started to escalate… you turned your chair into a panther, the panther into a woman, with thick black hair and golden cat eyes. You took two cups, placed them on top of each other, then poured wine in. When you passed it into the crowd, the cup underneath was filled with wine too! Not only that, but another cup under that one appeared! Every time it was passed, there was another cup, magically filled with wine—plenty to go around! And not only THAT! Whenever it got to a kid, it turned into kool-aid! Pretty impressive, don’t ya think?!!”

There was a tremendous quake as the cobra toppled to the ground; the mongoose had climbed its sprawling body and dug its fangs straight through the snake’s skull. Its eyes glazed over with hate and bloodlust.

“Each act was more magical than the last. Everyone was so entranced that we let it go on late into the night. Strangers driving in wondered where everyone was, then found the square and got caught up in your tricks just like everybody else. Nobody left. Nobody could even think about leaving. You created clusters of fireflies to keep your show lighted. You fed and watered us so that we never got hungry or thirsty. And no one was about to go to the bathroom, when they could hold it in just a little longer, just until they saw one or two or three or all of your acts!”

Even as the cobra thrashed, the mongoose would not let go. It recognized that its nemesis was dying, so it kept itself latched on, fur matted with blood, claws skidding and sliding over dirt and snakeskin.

“At midnight you announced you would be starting your final act of the night. Everyone let out a sigh. We could have watched you forever, Stan. Still, everyone’s enthusiasm was rekindled when you announced that your last bit would be the night’s one and only interactive trick.”

The cobra let out one last burst of venom; its marble red eyes rolled up into its skull, white.

“It’d be a very simple trick, you warned everyone. One that we’d all seen before, sometime, somewhere. Still, we all screamed and shouted and waved our hands like our lives depended on being chosen. And you scanned the sea of townsfolk from behind your white sunglasses, your gaze impenetrable, your decision impossible to ascertain!”

The cobra spasmed. Still, the mongoose did not let go.

“And then, you said it. His name, like you’d known him all your life, like you were two old friends and it was time to do a boy a favor. ‘Winston Humberg,’ you said. ‘Ah, you lucky chump!’ I shouted, and so did everyone else, but we were happy for him, because we were happy about everything. You spread your arms and Winston dashed up on stage.

“‘Winston,’ you said, ‘would you be my assistant?’ And of course he said yes. His cheeks were flushed. He’d never been so excited. You placed your hand on his shoulder, then bent down and whispered things in his ear. While you were whispering, he looked at me. He smiled, real big, like he couldn’t wait to tell me something. That was the last time he ever looked at me, with those eyes.”

The cobra was long gone, but the black mongoose had not released it. Its eyes were still misty, its teeth still buried into the serpent’s neck, drawing cold blood.

“You took a cape—your average magician’s cape. You told Winston to close his eyes. You waved the cape one, two, three times. After the third wave, you threw it on top of him. It fell flat against the floor, and there was nothing underneath but a small, squirming lump. There it was: a black bunny rabbit.

“You apologized again for ending the show with such a stereotypical trick. We’d been a great audience. Now you had to pack your bags and go. Other towns waited. Good night folks! And of course, we all shouted good night back.”

That’s when I realized it; about the mongoose, I mean.

“I ran up to find Winston, but there was nothing but the rabbit. I searched everywhere, but I couldn’t find him. I called for you, Stan, but you weren’t there to answer. When I looked backstage, all your props, your panther-lady assistant, the big black van you had rolled in on, all of it was gone. Vanished. Kaput. Without a trace. Do I need to explain anymore, Stan?”

The venom had already worked its way into its veins. It had died from the poison. I wondered who on earth was going to be able to move the corpses of a gigantic cobra and mongoose from my backyard. Not my mom, that’s for sure, no matter how determined she was to make this the perfect birthday party.

“YOU TURNED MY BROTHER INTO A RABBIT! FOR TEN YEARS, HE’S HAD TO LIVE LIKE THIS!” He pointed at the fluffy creature sitting on top of my foot. “AND FOR TEN YEARS, I’VE HAD TO TRAIN MYSELF TO BECOME WHAT I HATE THE MOST! A MAGICIAN!”

“You trained yourself to be a magician?” Stupefying Stanley asked, faint admiration evident in his tone.

“That’s right. I taught myself the mindset, the spells, the movements… I’ve learned it all! And it all started with one little sentence… that’s all it took for me to get motivated! ‘Kill a magician, and every spell he’s ever cast will be broken!’”

At this point, he brought his wand forward and reached inside, but before he could yank out a chainsaw or a machine gun or who knows what, Stupefying Stanley shook his head.

“You fool. You’ve got the wrong man.”

Magemasher faltered. “What do you mean I’ve got the wrong man?!”

“I’m Stupefying Stanley! Not Stupendous Stan, you IDIOT! The differences between us are innumerable… our technique, our status, our breeding… Stupendous Stan is a morbid, sociopathic nightmare, with a fetish for metamorphosing! I am Stupefying Stanley, the miraculous—”

“You’re kidding.” Johnny Magemasher’s jaw dropped and his black hole swirled round until it dissipated, scattering in a thousand different directions. The wand fell from his hand. “You’re kidding me. You’re not Stan?”

“NO!”

Magemasher’s violet eyes flashed for a moment, then he closed them and put a finger to his temple. “I knew you looked different… still, I looked it up in the directory… Stan… Stanley… ARGH!” He suddenly plucked Winston off my sneaker, raised him up to eye level. “After all this time… looks like he’s still one step ahead of us, Winston.”

“He’s not one step ahead of you, you’re just one egg short of a full basket, my friend!”

“Don’t worry,” Johnny continued to reassure Winston the rabbit, “Just a minor detour. I’ll find the real Stan in no time.”

“You fool! You nincompoop! You insufferable moron! You nearly killed me for a crime I didn’t commit!”

Magemasher gave me a look, a “can you believe this guy?” droop of the eyes. He entrusted Winston into my arms, then glanced over his shoulder with a jagged grin.

“Ah, no. I’m still going to kill you.”

Stupefying froze. “What?”

“I only became a magician so I could do two things: one, get my brother back to normal. Two… make sure that I’m the only one left in the world!”

A burst of white lightning sizzled out from Magemasher’s wand; it crashed into Stanley and sent him staggering. His cape and cuffs crackled and fluffed out with electricity; his droopy mustache stood straight up.

Johnny chuckled, triggering the glowing black hole over his wand again. “Disguising your magic pocket as, well, nothing. Oldest trick in the book. Guess you didn’t think I’d read that far back.”

Stupefying tried to say something, but his words came out in useless wheezes and moans. I doubt he was trying to plead for his life. Probably just more insults.

Johnny Magemasher drew the crystal-hilted sword out again; he raised it over his head, and when he reached Stanley, started to bring it down.

“Hey, wait!” I said. A part of me wishes I hadn’t. Seeing Stupefying Stanley’s head getting sliced off would have been cool. Traumatizing, sure, but cool.

“Ahhhhhh, come on, kid,” Johnny growled, shooting me something between a snarl and a pout. “Don’t give me all that ‘You can’t kill him, it’s not right, you’ll never be able to live with yourself’ crap.”

“I’m not,” I said. “Still, I don’t want you to kill him.”

“Why the hell not?”

“He’s a really crappy birthday magician,” I said. “My mom’s already freaked out about that. If you kill him, I don’t know what she’ll do.”

“Oh, it’s your birthday? How old are you?” he asked, genuinely interested. One thing I definitely learned about Johnny Magemasher that day: he has a very limited attention span.

“Eight,” I said.

“That’s not so old.”

“No.”

“Still… seems like your mom did try real hard to make your party cool or whatever,” said Johnny, with a respectful nod towards the cardboard circus animals that formed a mourning circle around the dead cobra and mongoose. “Only mistake she made was inviting this idiot.”

Stupefying Stanley let out an indignant respiration.

Johnny Magemasher looked from Stanley to me, to the sword, to Winston, then to the sky. His white cowboy hat fell over his pierced ears as he searched it. Then he smiled, baring his pointy little teeth, and threw the hiltless sword over his shoulder.

“Fine, fine. Since it’s your birthday. That’ll be my present to you, kid: not killing this guy. Gotta say though, sounds like a rip off.”

“Could you get rid of all the… stuff, too?” I asked. Stuff meaning the sword, six-meter-long cobra, three-meter-long mongoose, broken glass, venom, spit, and rabbit crap.

“Sure thing, kid. Once time starts again, everything will be back to normal. Except you.” He gestured at me with one gloved hand. “You’re not going to be a basket case after all this, are ya?”

“No,” I told him, “I’ll be okay.”

“Alrighty then…” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a pair of mirrored sunglasses and slipped them on. He took Winston the rabbit by the ears, and grinned. “You just tell your mom, and all your little friends’ moms one thing: don’t ever hire a magician named Stupendous Stan. Heck, don’t even hire a magician at all. Get a pony or something.”

“She couldn’t get a pony,” I said.

Johnny Magemasher shrugged and took a step back. “Whatever. See ya kid.”

“I hope you get Winston back to normal soon!” I exclaimed, but I don’t know if he heard me. The very next second, three things happened.

First: “ALRIGHT, WHO’S READY FOR CAKE?” my mom shouted through the megaphone.

Second: my father let out a dramatic gasp, but only because he was the first to notice what had happened to the backyard. Johnny Magemasher had gotten rid of all the “stuff” like he promised, but he hadn’t put the grass back where it had been uprooted, fixed the apocalyptic ruin our vegetable garden had become, or undone the huge dent put into the storage shed by the mongoose.

Third: my best friend, Chase, yelled at the top of his lungs, “Stupefyingly STUPID!”

It worked out pretty well, all things considered. Stupefying Stanley was so, well, stupefied, by his near-death experience, that he actually conceded to do as my parents asked and put on cheap parlor show tricks. He wasn’t very good at them, but at least I got a quarter.

My father and mother were at a loss when it came to the backyard. Later on, after Stanley left, my father wondered out loud, in the ghost of a whisper, might it have been the spirits from beyond the gate? My mother protested that it was the new insecticide. How that also managed to explain the dent in the roof, I don’t know, but nobody argued with her.

I got some pretty good presents from the strangers. Not a single person spelled my name right, though—not even my parents. On the bicycle they gave me, it said, in big letters, BRIAN. Apparently it was Lacey’s fault, since they had asked her to write it. She didn’t even remember how to spell her own brother’s name. I wished Stupendous Stan would turn her into a rabbit. See if I would have cared.

Of course, as soon as Bryan’s Eight-Ring Circus was closed down for the night, I took Chase aside and told him the whole story. And he believed every word of it, because who doesn’t believe a story like that? Especially when it’s told to you by your next-door neighbor and best friend on the night of his eighth birthday. However, he noticed something that I hadn’t thought of.

“Yeah, but who’s to say that that really is Winston?”

“What?”

“Maybe Stupendous Stan just did what magicians usually do. Maybe he just made the real Winston fall through a trap door and replaced him with a rabbit real quick. Then he took Winston off with him—kidnapped him.”

“But that would mean, for ten whole years, Johnny’s been carrying around…”

“A rabbit? Yeah,” said Chase. “Guess he never thought about it.”

“Guess not.”

And that’s more or less where it ends. I never heard anything more about Johnny Magemasher or Winston. I did hear that Stupefying Stanley quit his job and went home to live with his mother. No big loss to the birthday world, I’m sure.

So that was it. The best birthday I ever had, and the greatest present I ever received. Johnny doesn’t know it, but what he gave me that day was a gift that silently continues to flavor my extraordinarily ordinary days, in all sorts of distant, enigmatically beautiful ways. The small piece of truth I carry with me, that magic is real, it’s my secret spice for life.

I think about Johnny Magemasher all the time… I wonder if he’s found Stupendous Stan and extracted revenge. I wonder if he’s been reunited with his brother. Most of all, I wonder if what Chase pointed out ever occurred to him. That all these years, he’s probably just been carrying around a plain old rabbit, thinking it’s his brother.

I kind of hope not. For the rabbit’s sake.

 

Patient Zero

by Stacy Neuberger-von Hoffman

 

There are some things that people just keep to themselves, secrets that never get told, and thoughts never shared. One doesn’t blurt out to their husband or wife that they are boffing their secretary or their pool boy. One also doesn’t tell their best friend that they have the ugliest baby ever seen on the planet, that in fact it is so ugly it should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. One should also make sure to compliment their mothers’ cooking, their wife’s clothing choices, or their boyfriends’ love for pizza, beer and football. That was the problem Baxter was facing right now, should he keep hiding the truth, or should he start telling people his secret?

Truth was Baxter was a zombie. He didn’t know how to tell people that he was one of the undead, especially since he was not the cool kind of undead. Plus, Baxter wasn’t a soulless monster, and he didn’t really want to be murdered because of what he had become. The idea that once he told people they would want to kill him made him a little uneasy, and he got this odd quivering feeling in the pit of his stomach, or the area of his body that used to be his stomach. Now he wasn’t sure what it contained, especially since he was unable to eat and feel sated.

Baxter believed that life would be better if he were a vampire rather than a zombie, even a werewolf would be a better supernatural being. For some reason vampires were cool, sexy; however, he was one of those people who didn’t understand the cult that the pale, blood-sucking undead had formed. Why would anyone want to be immortal and have a taste for sucking iron-tasting blood? The only problem he saw with being a werewolf was the excessive hairiness. Of course, it hadn’t been his choice, so he guessed that he couldn’t be too picky about which type of creature he was to be.

Death was the natural process of things. If he wasn’t so scared he would welcome death. He knew there had to be a reason he had become a zombie rather than a corpse, he just had to figure out what that reason was. The answer might never come. Quite possibly he had become a zombie because of his own mystical karma.

As far as he knew, Baxter was the only human zombie living. He might even be what the movies referred to as “patient zero.” Since he was the only one of his kind he knew he had to be extra careful. There were people out there, medical and government agencies, who would want to experiment on him, test him, find out why he was a zombie, and find out how much of a danger he was to others. In all honesty, he wasn’t a danger—at least not since he had become a zombie. Baxter believed that you were what you ate, and eating people would make him a cannibal.

Of course, before he became a zombie he had a nasty habit of raping and murdering prostitutes, although he didn’t consider it a horrible thing, just a thing that might have gotten him into trouble with his girlfriend, or the police, if he had been caught. He was sure his girlfriend wouldn’t have approved of him hacking a naked woman to bits and then throwing the dismembered corpse into the river, even though it was a family legacy. His father had been a Bible-thumping, whore murderer as well. Baxter was just following in his father’s footsteps. Except for Baxter, the electric chair was not an option. The problem, in this case, was if he hadn’t been a hooker-murdering businessman, he might never have become a zombie.

During one of his late night slash fests he was bitten by a cat. He should have been paying better attention to his surroundings. That night he was tired and just wanted to get through the bone and be done with it, so he could go home and have sex with his plain Jane girlfriend, whose name was actually Jane. Baxter was sure she would be waiting at his apartment, with some organic wine and organic berries in a vegan negligee. He tired of her clinginess and at times wished that he could kill her. She was weak, lived in a rent-controlled apartment, and liked to dine in.

Instead he was bitten on the right forearm by a scraggly orange tabby cat with one eye and a collar that jingled. The cat didn’t wear a nametag; Baxter guessed that at one point it did. Its name was probably something stupid like Twinkie, Buster, or Chuck Norris. Swearing, he turned to kill the cat, but it was gone, apparently it had not taken a liking to the taste of Baxter’s forearm and didn’t need a second taste. So he finished what he was doing, took care of the debris, cleaned himself up and went home. Having become a professional in the arena of murder, the clean-up only took him fifteen minutes. Killing in the nude had become habit, so there wasn’t much else to do besides push the body parts into the river. He was of course happy that the cat had not bitten him on his unprotected penis. Who would have guessed that there was a cat zombie roaming the world?

It wasn’t until two days later that he thought something was wrong. Antibiotic cream burned. In fact his arm had become swollen, also there was a weird, sickly smell that emanated from the wound. He was never a man with a tan, in fact his pale skin regularly seemed to reflect light, but he did seem paler than usual. Even his best friend and office mate, Toby, noticed. Toby commented on it one day, four days after he had been bitten.

“Man, Bax, you need to get out more in the daylight. You are so pale someone might mistake you for the StayPuft Marshmallow Man.” One of Toby’s favorite movies was Ghostbusters. He really loved watching the scenes with Sigourney Weaver, which was the reason he also like the Alien movies (even Alien Resurrection which was a horrible movie, but Sigourney Weaver was wet, so she was sexy).

Baxter had laughed it off, making a joke about Sigourney Weaver’s tits to distract Toby, but he wondered. He also worried and when he realized what had happened he began to use precautions. Formaldehyde became a staple of his daily skin care routine.

Baxter was forced to take two weeks off of work, the last three days of which he didn’t remember. When he woke up on the last day, he was covered in blood and there were several rat carcasses around his body. Apparently, while he slept the rats had decided he might taste like garbage, a favorite among the rat population, so they came in and nibbled on his feet. Thankfully they only got stuffing while they nibbled on his brown slippers. He wished they hadn’t come at all. The rats didn’t seem to bother him while he was sleeping, and from the looks of it he had gotten the best of them. There were easily fifteen dead rats, or at least the pieces of them, strewn about his pale green and yellow bedroom. Now his bedroom looked a little more like Christmas with the blood on the walls, carpet, and his body.

Jane had wanted to come over and bring him soup, or something to make him feel better. She wasn’t much of a cook and had gotten on a vegan kick, which was annoying since he was a rare steak and fries man. He didn’t care for miso soup, or tofu, or raw vegetables, or any of the other crap she brought by. So he told her no, don’t come over, and ignored the hurt and whiney voice on the other end of the line. Jane was beginning to bore him. She was too vanilla in her tastes, wanting to watch chick flicks and cry on his shoulder. Jane even begged to stick with the missionary position when they had sex. Baxter had begun to think about dumping her, yet it was so hard to find a simple, easy to maintain girlfriend.

Now, when he saw his pale face in the bathroom mirror he could see it all, could see what he had become, could see what he really was. He didn’t know how long he could hide the fact that he was a zombie. Baxter had to remember to breathe; if he didn’t breathe people would know what he was. A hard part was that he had to remember to eat, even though all the food he ate tasted like burnt hamburger. What he would have given for a bloody raw steak, or the raw flesh of something delicious, more savory than bloody rat. He had to remember to comb his receding blay (brown, blonde and gray) hair gently every day, so it didn’t all just fall out of his dead head. There was probably no possibility that hair grew back on zombie scalps.

When he walked into the office each day he knew he probably looked worse and worse. He would have stayed home, or quit, but he didn’t want people to figure out his secret, plus he needed the money.

His skin was becoming sallow, he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days, or even weeks, but he could pass off his more than unfortunate looks because he had just been out sick for a couple of weeks. However, just by the glimpses he had caught of himself in the urine-tainted men’s room he knew he wouldn’t be able continue blaming his mysterious illness for the way he looked. Baxter was surprised every day he walked into the office that no one noticed the slightly sweet smell that was beginning to emanate from his body. He knew from research that the smell was a beginning sign of decomposition, and he wasn’t sure how long he could keep himself together, literally.

“Hey, Mr. Kingsley, there is a meeting at ten in the main conference room. Mr. Derrwitaker wants to see you there,” said Ashley, the reception secretary.

She was always smiling her goofy bright smile. For some reason she thought that getting braces at the age of thirty was a good idea and might help her land a man. It was pretty silly of her to think that. A man wouldn’t want to kiss a mouth full of metal, unless he had a fetish for young schoolgirls. Maybe that was her hook, maybe she caught men by putting her hair in pigtails and offering them a little rub and tug. Ashley had tried to seduce him once. Jane had just become his serious girlfriend, so he had been forced to say no thank you. Maybe he should bite Ashley, make her his sexy zombie slave.

The smells that used to get him when he walked into the office weren’t as pleasant since he became a zombie. He used to love the smell of the freshly made coffee, the doughnuts from the mom and pop bakery down the street, the mix of perfumes that the ladies all wore. It was an intoxicating mix. The integration of smells made him want to eat and have anonymous sex all at once. Not a bad thing, sometimes he went home and masturbated to the remembrance of that mix of smells. Now he rarely masturbated. He was afraid that his penis would just fall off. Now the smells just made him want to vomit. The aromas that he liked more were the fragrant odors of the ladies—their skin, the blood pulsating through their bodies, and for some reason their heads smelled the best, a mix of sickly sweet shampoo and a butcher shop.

Baxter knew that today, almost a month after his transformation, was going to be another long day in acquisitions. It was a good thing that there were all these giant brains around here pretending to work. Meetings were the worst, always Mr. Derrwitaker talking, talking, talking, and nothing coming from it. Everyone knew big, fat Mr. Derrwitaker just liked to hear the sound of his own voice echo throughout the conference room, which was why he usually chose the main conference room to hold these meetings in; it was large and had pretty good acoustics.

When Baxter got to the room, four of the seven people were there already, he made five. Mr. Derrwitaker would arrive late, as per his usual routine. Hunger ached in Baxter’s newly transformed and forever-empty stomach. It often felt as if his stomach was eating itself. He knew that wasn’t possible, he assumed it was just the way things were when one became a zombie. What Baxter really wished was that he had found that cat instead of finishing with that stupid, heroin addicted hooker. She hadn’t even known who the sixteenth president was. Who didn’t know who the sixteenth president was?

When everyone finally arrived the hunger was overwhelming. While they were passing around the pink frosted doughnuts and the bear claws he was looking at each employees’ head wondering how hard it was to bite through bone (although he knew it was hard to cut through).

Reaching across the table for a bottle of water he instead grabbed the arm of his cubicle neighbor, Jeffery Darling, and took a toothy chunk out of his forearm.

“Son of a…” Jeffery screamed, grabbing his arm. “What the hell, Baxter?” Standing quickly, Jeffery grabbed his arm and watched as the blood flowed through his baby blue dress shirt, and pooled on the maroon carpet. That wouldn’t be too hard to hide later, blood mixed well with the color maroon.

“Hungry,” Baxter mumbled, blood dribbling down his hairless pale chin.

Screams echoed out in the hall as Jeffery stumbled out of the room holding his bleeding arm close to his chest. Girls screamed like girls, boys screamed like girls and everyone ran towards the room to find out what had happened.

Jeffery was quickly infected and almost immediately became a new species of zombie. Then it began.

Jeffery bit into Sally, the mail girl who just happened to be passing by, and she bit into Mark, her secret mail room lover who she liked to screw while sitting on the office mail in the mail cart. Mark bit Julie who he had wanted to bite for a long time but thought she was too beautiful with her large fake breasts, big blond hair, and bright blue eyes. Julie bit Anthony, her pool boy, when she got home—which is where she raced after being bitten by Mark. And Anthony, well he unfortunately bit his wife Alice and six-year-old daughter, Alyssa. Things just went downhill from there. Alyssa, being a child, was oooed and awwwed over and every person she came in contact with she bit. In fact she survived for three months, until Officer David Brennen found her—half her beautiful brown face missing, her left eye dangling out of its eye socket by a ligament. Everyone she ate wanted to help her, save her. Officer Brennen just shot her in the head and then shot her again, knowing that this was what you were supposed to do when you were going to kill a zombie.

Of course Baxter still knew how to survive, and his minor feeling of guilt at having started this whole zombie uprising thing, helped keep him hidden. He stayed low, didn’t go out if he didn’t have to, let his meals come to him, which they always did when stupid survivors were looking for a place to lay their weary heads. Baxter had moved three times since he had created the first zombie in Jeffery. After Jeffery he had eaten Toby because of all the stupid Sigourney Weaver comments he had been forced to listen to over the twenty years they had worked together. After finishing Toby he ran out of the building, screaming, “There is so much blood! Oh god, somebody help us!”

Currently Baxter lived in a nice three bedroom, two and one-half bathroom house. Formerly occupied by the Morris family, he had assumed control of the house after he had killed and eaten Mary, the mother, Steve, the father, and Seth, the teenage son.

Teenagers were especially meaty. The fat content in their bodies was almost as fresh as a chunky little babies’. Baxter couldn’t bring himself to eat a baby, and actually didn’t like the idea that he had been forced to become a cannibal. When he felt bad about eating a person he reminded himself again that you are what you eat and he was human so why not eat humans.

The good thing was that he realized he wasn’t the only zombie anymore; in fact he was the king of zombies. A god among zombies, the zombie maker, and he was sure that he could destroy both the humans and the zombies if he needed to.

Hearing a noise Baxter stood, wondering who would be coming in during the night, since everyone else had come in during the day, when they could open the forest green blinds and see the vast living room in the radiance of the sun. Tilting his head to the right, he was startled when his neck popped and wondered if it was a regular creak or if he had just snapped his neck by tilting it too hard.

Baxter heard a very audible click, and knew exactly what it was. There was nowhere for him to go, so he closed his eyes and waited. The blast wasn’t as loud as he thought it would be. Unfortunately a side effect of being dead was that his ears had also been dead for a few months now so they had lost some of their usefulness. His head ached as the birdshot exploded his face, he felt just a memory of pain, not actual pain. Falling to his knees he tried to smile, teeth fell from his mouth and tinkled on the floor, they sounded like the bells of a cat’s collar, the bell of that cat’s collar.

Looking up he saw the face of the person who had finally killed him, and he wanted to laugh. It was his girlfriend, Jane. Sweet Jane, the pathetic woman who would never hurt a fly, or an ant, or a spider. Boring Jane, who he had been planning to dump, and who he was thinking about possibly finding and eating. Plain Jane, now a beauty reflected in his cold dead eyes.

Patient Zero fell into a bloodless heap. Now a cure would never be found.

Let the zombie revolution begin.

 

More More More!

by Karen Albright Lin

 

Steamy walked in through the alley door of Billy Bob’s Big Jugs. Backstage she joined four other women who were preparing for their strip tease.

Cigar smoke filtered back to them as they pushed on layer after layer of shiny stick-ons, black zip-downs, and sequin Velcro tear-offs. Lacking the dignity of a dressing room, they could hear the catcalls beginning even before the stage was lit up and hurried introductions were made.

Billy Bob egged on the customers, “…a progressively erotic show featuring five dolls who will surpass your favorite wet dream.” Steamy sprinkled on the last powdered specks of glitter and checked her hair in a cracked mirror.

“Carnal Lace!” Billy Bob backed off the stage as Carnal glided on, hiding her black leotard body suit with two giant black feathers. The dull music began and the customary two bouncers moved next to the stage to bat men’s arms away from Carnal’s feathers. Billy Bob had paid too much, too many times to replace them.

Carnal floated to all corners of the tiny stage, undulating in and out of her feather cage until the music quickened and one feather was thrown behind the side curtain for Steamy to place in a prop trunk.

Steamy drew a pocketknife out of the trunk, afterward, and eased it into a slit in the back of her costume. She stopped watching Carnal’s act at this point. She didn’t like it. It only teased the howlers in the audience so they’d be hungrier for her act.

“Take it off!” a drunk man yelled through his cigar. But Carnal never removed her g-string. It wasn’t in her contract. Steamy was next.

Sweaty and clearly disgusted, Carnal ran past the footlights, brushed past the blood-red curtain, and threw the other feather away. “Tissue. Where’s the tissue?” she said past her frown.

Steamy’s cue, a rhythmic, groaning saxophone piece, crackled from the amplifiers. Automatically, just like every Friday and Saturday night, she placed one leg out onto the stage, a hint of things to come.

The roar from the smoky, dark room increased. Expectant men urged her onto center stage. She rhythmically slinked on, fully dressed in a shiny outfit that was about to become more provocative, more revealing.

Steamy slowly unzipped from her chest and stomach, down the contours of her crotch and around to her butt, the spandex, glittery costume. The stench of liquor blew at her from the howling audience. Steamy had on baby doll pajamas under the spandex. A g-string and pasties pinched under those. She took a deep breath as the music signaled her next move. She peeled off the PJs as the audience screamed, “Take it off!” Still attempting to swing elegantly in her spiked heels and uncomfortable pasties, she tried to stave off the nausea that always gripped her at that point. The men were getting restless and the bouncers could barely keep the beasts away.

“More more more!” In exchange for an extra twenty dollars, Steamy’s dance was a nude-follow up to Carnal’s tease; the caps would have to come off her nipples. Steamy pulled first one, then the other painfully off and threw them out to the audience. She rode the air as if on waves and tried to forget where she was, pretend she was rehearsing her moves in front of her mirror at home. Since the lights were in her eyes, she couldn’t see which morons caught the tiny nipple cups.

“More more more!” She pulled the pocketknife out from behind her back and made a few enticing circles with it around the fabric of the revealing g-string. “More more more!”

Grasping the warm knife, she snapped one thin string, leaving half of the symbolic cover dangling and half of her shaved flesh exposed. A wilder dance overtook her now. As she turned, it became obvious that the next step would be to cut the other side and move naked about the stage until the screams came for Wanton’s S&M act.

But “More more more!” rattled the stage. They wanted to see more. She had nothing on now. She was fully naked. What more could she expose?

“More more more!”

Dizzy, she peeked backstage where her boss waved a hand, motioning her to give them more. He wanted satisfied customers. Steamy’s stomach seized. She picked up the knife with which she’d cut the g-string and opened it.

“More more more!” Louder now.

Steamy did the only thing that came to mind. She clenched her teeth, shoved the knife into her abdomen, and cut a slit in her stomach.

Initially there was a hush as she smeared blood on herself.

Beginning with slow murmurs, the crowd’s noise began again.

Steamy’s foggy instinct, as she felt hands tugging her off the stage, was to pull out a strand of intestine for them to see. Instead, she passed out.

The next act in a cop suit, Wanton S&M, looked stunned, “Now how the hell am I going to follow that?”

 

Negotiating With Ants

by Kenneth Rutherford

 

Amber sits at her desk at work, reviewing a stack of purchase orders. She pushes a strand of her disheveled, platinum blonde hair behind her ear while frowning at Billy, who sits at a nearby desk. He winces as he rubs white cream all over his welt-ridden right hand.

Billy whines, “Amber, do we have any more Cortizone?”

“Try looking in the first aid kit,” she replies, rolling her eyes.

Amber tries to refocus her attention on her work but is unable to do so. Her thoughts wander to an encounter she had with Billy two days earlier.

* * * * *

She was sitting at her desk looking at an invoice when Billy peered over her shoulder.

“Okay, Amber. When US Foodservice comes tomorrow, there should be fifteen extra boxes of chicken carnitas, and I ordered ten boxes of parboiled rice yesterday evening to be shipped on the truck, too. Are you listening?”

Amber glares at him. “Yeah, I’m listening. I’m just waiting for you to take your hand off my thigh.”

“You mean that bothers you? I didn’t realize I’d struck a nerve.”

“Uh, yeah. I’d think after two sexual harassment complaints you’d realize that. But for some reason, the Office of Discipline Management has a habit of losing… Billy, why is your hand on my back?! Ugh.” Grabbing a pack of Marlboro Lights, Amber storms out of the office.

Billy yells after her, “The ODM office works for me, darlin’.”

* * * * *

Amber’s thoughts are interrupted as Craig, the supervisor, enters the office. “Okay, people. What are we going to do about our ant problem? They’re already eating through boxes and gorging themselves on our food. If I can’t eliminate this problem, I’m out of a job. I won’t lose my livelihood to a bunch of ornery ants!”

Amber replies, “We’ve tried everything. Two exterminators refuse to return, and Billy’s idea sure didn’t work.” She grins at him as he nurses his hand.

Billy exclaims, “I’ve never seen ants act like that! They were all over me in seconds. And fire ants… we don’t even have fire ants in this area. Where did they come from? Craig, why don’t we let Amber take a shot at it?”

Craig replies, “Okay, Amber. You’ve been drafted.”

“But…”

“No buts! Talk to your friend at EntoTech and report back to me.”

Her voice falters as she says, “Okay, but I’ll have to re-examine the entry site.”

“Fine. Do whatever it takes.”

* * * * *

Amber squats near a hole in the concrete floor. Boxes of twenty-four ounce cups tower above her. Struggling in the darkness, she presses a button on a lamp clamped to her clipboard. The light continuously flickers as it illuminates the clipboard, her pale, tired face, and the hole in the floor. She scribbles down a few notes on a clean piece of paper that reads “Distribution Center Report,” which sits on top of a two-inch stack of papers. Writing a report would be fruitless. The ants manage to elude all exterminators, leaving no sign of their whereabouts. As Amber peers into the opening, a pair of antennae emerge.

“Hello, human.”

Amber looks behind her to see where the voice is coming from. Seeing no one, she continues to fill out the report.

“Helllooooo, human! You aren’t dreaming. I thought human females were like their counterparts in the ant world, reasonably clever, and more intelligent than the males. Was I mistaken?”

Amber stares in disbelief at the ant who is talking through a megaphone. “What do you want?”

“Food.”

“Why our food? Can’t you find something to eat outside the warehouse and someone else to aggravate?”

“Ha! And miss out on terrorizing you humans? That one guy is particularly amusing.”

Her mouth shifts from a grimace into a grin, “Billy?”

“Yeah. What a schmuck! Typical male—convinced of his superiority and deserving of punishment.

Chuckling, she agrees, “I don’t deny that Billy is an arrogant schmuck. But why punish everyone because of one man? Your little occupation has wreaked havoc on our warehouse and cost us nearly a hundred dollars a week in food.”

One man?! He flooded our home with kerosene, killing all our male drones and a few female workers. How are we supposed to mate without males? We cannot mate if we cannot eat, so…”

“Okay, okay. I get the point. Hmmm…” Amber presses her pencil’s eraser against her lips, “Would providing a fifty-pound bag of sugar to your colony adequately sustain it until you emigrate?”

“You’re not listening. The only way our queen would move the colony would be if we avenged the death of our comrades.”

“Oh. Well, what if I locked him in the warehouse for you to do with him as you please? He is allergic to insect bites, after all.”

The ant’s antennae rise in interest. “Loosen the caps on six half-gallon jugs of honey, the third container from the left, and we have a deal pending approval from my queen. I’ll leave a sugar cube in the pencil mug on your desk if we get the go ahead. Do we have a deal?”

Amber’s eyebrows rise and she smirks, “Deal.”

* * * * *

Later that evening Amber stands by the door, waiting for Billy to lock it. He presses buttons on the security panel with a perplexed look on his face.

“It’s not accepting my pass code. What’s wrong with this thing?”

“Maybe you entered it incorrectly,” Amber suggests.

“No. I’m the assistant supervisor, damn it!” He makes an about-face, takes a deep breath, and turns back towards the panel to try again.

“Have a good evening, Billy,” Amber says, skirting out the door and slamming it behind her.

Click.

“Amber! Let me out of here!!”

Amber pops the sugar cube into her mouth as she walks through the parking lot to her hatchback. Revenge never tasted so sweet.

Soon, screams are heard from inside the warehouse. Covered in honey and fire ants Billy drops to the concrete floor, writhing in agony.

With his maroon Polo lying crumpled in a sticky heap, Billy fumbles with his belt. He unfastens the shiny, eagle head buckle; manages to unbutton and unzip his pants, chucking them half-way off; and rolls onto his forgotten glasses, crushing them. However, the ants seize the opportunity to migrate to his partially exposed legs. As the ants eat away at his skin, his body spasms and welts begin to form. They crawl into every hole and crevice, entering his ravaged body, knowing that their suicide mission will avenge their comrades.

A seemingly endless parade of ants streams into the room following a trail of pheromones and honey. Sweet revenge.

 

Freezeheads

by Andrew Hoffman

 

The bell on the door rang. Reynolds, the new manager of Blue Scoop, had installed them on his second day at the shop. His name was Jerome but he insisted they call him by his last name. The bells were put on the front door to alert employees of the entrance of a prospective customer. The shop was only twenty feet by twenty feet, with a full plate-glass front to it—it was hard not to notice customers, bell or no bell.

The bell was only one example, among many, which kept Kevin from liking his new boss, despite his best effort. Kevin had graduated from Western at the end of fall quarter with a degree in some forgettable field, which he had already almost forgotten. He had taken this ice cream job during his final two years in school, and now two months clear of academics, he had kept on. He liked being by Mt. Baker to snowboard and camp on. He liked his friends there. He had liked Leonard, the old man who owned the Blue Scoop, before a national ice cream chain had bought it. Now three scoops was the priority.

“Thanks,” Kevin said and smiled. A man and a little girl, probably the man’s daughter, exited the store.

“What happened there?” Reynolds asked, entering from the back room.

“I don’t know? What?”

Reynolds kept looking at him quizzically.

After a long moment, Kevin said, “I don’t think I understand the question.”

“How many scoops did they have on that cone?”

“Two,” Kevin said, matter-of-factly.

“What happened there?”

“That girl was probably forty pounds. As much as you would want her to try, she, I’m sure, couldn’t eat her weight in ice cream.”

“All I’m asking is that you ask. Everybody.”

“Alright,” Kevin reluctantly agreed.

“Three scoops is the focus this month.”

“It’s February.”

“I know the month. I know how to read a calendar, too. I know you don’t ask like you should. Like we pay you to do.”

Kevin frowned and nodded. Reynolds returned to the back room with an air of dignity only a middle-aged manager of a small ice cream shop can have after balling out an employee.

The bell rang again. Luckily it was Janisse. She stuck out her tongue at him.

“Gonna make it through today?” she asked, seeing the look of doom running down Kevin’s face.

“Maybe.”

“Is cow-nuts-for-brains riding your ass again?” she whispered as she passed.

“Yep.”

“Just think about tomorrow.”

Janisse was vacantly beautiful. She seemingly passed through life based on looks and flirting. Reynolds had hired her after only a five-minute interview. Kevin and Eli, another coworker, chalked it up to cleavage and gum chewing. Eli thought she was a very seductive gum chewer.

When Kevin asked him to clarify about the seductive gum chewing, Eli said, “you can’t explain something like that. But if that gum chewing were any closer to sex, newborn babies would be falling out of her mouth.”

So Janisse kept wearing her work polo with the buttons unbuttoned and kept chewing gum like a porn star—almost instantly she had fans and regulars. Kevin and Eli started blending into the background behind the new starlet, which was fine by them. Then, last week, Kevin was talking to Janisse about a solo snowboarding trip he was taking to Mt. Baker the following Tuesday and Wednesday.

“You’re going alone?” she asked, in disbelief.

“Sure. Why not?”

“Alone?”

Kevin held up his arms in why not formation.

“Take me,” she said.

Kevin knew for a fact she couldn’t ski or snowboard or even stand up on either based on previous conversations.

“My ex is being a raging dick lately. It would be fun to get away. I won’t bother you. Promise.”

Then she started chewing her gum. He noticed her unbuttoned buttons. Damnit, he thought to himself. “Sure.”

* * * * *

He picked her up as planned. She was wearing a bright pink ski suit. Kevin wondered what he had gotten himself into. They rode up to the mountain in his Toyota pickup truck on winding, uphill roads while keeping flat conversation. Exes this and party that and what a bitch, right? and so on. Kevin just looked straight ahead at the mountain and nodded at Janisse’s dissection of her twenty-year-old life.

The weather was getting bad that late morning. Thick flurries of snow and wind blew his truck around the road. Janisse’s conversation didn’t pause during any of it. She just kept on. They finally pulled into the lodge at 10:45. Kevin, being a gentleman, had splurged and rented two rooms there. He usually would just drive home late, but had wanted to make a real trip of it this time. He didn’t know why now that he was there. They checked in without a hitch, except for the moment when his heart nearly stopped at hearing the grand total for two rooms for one night at the lodge. He closed his eyes and handed over his Visa card that was closer to the limit than he would have liked it to be.

“There’s a lot of Chips here,” Janisse said while they wandered up to their rooms. Their rooms were next to each other on the third floor. The elevator was out of service, so they would be forced to use the stairs the next two days.

“What’s a Chip?”

“A Canadian.”

“Why do you call them Chips?”

“Because me and my friend Alison knew a Canadian named Chip. Ever since Chip we call them Chips.”

“How did you know Chip?”

Janisse just winked. Chip must have fallen for the gum chewing too.

“If I asked Alison about Chip, would she wink too?”

Janisse just winked again.

* * * * *

One hour later they met in the hallway in front of their rooms. Kevin would have preferred half an hour, but Janisse insisted that she needed a full hour. As they walked down the hall they saw a young man stretched out, lying across the floor a few feet in front of the staircase. Kevin looked over at the elevator. The out of order sign still hung from its closed door.

“You alive, or what?” Janisse blurted out.

The young man rolled over to look dead at the voice that had just spoken to him. He thoughtfully and deliberately said, “Yes.”

“Why don’t you get out of the way then?”

The young man continued looking at Janisse and Kevin, as if he was about to speak, the entire time he slowly moved aside. He didn’t say another word. He watched without blinking as they passed and descended the stairs. Janisse looked back over her shoulder—the young man was still watching them.

“He might have been cute if he wasn’t so weird.”

“He’s probably just a Chip,” Kevin said.

“Probably,” Janisse replied, sticking out her tongue at him.

* * * * *

After renting a snowboard for Janisse, they hit the mountain. Kevin patiently went up and down the beginner hill half a dozen times with Janisse before he could coax her onto the intermediate hill. He convinced her that she would be fine considering the fresh powdery layer that had fallen over the last forty-eight hours. Half-way down on the first intermediate attempt Janisse fell at a bad angle. Her left knee buckled and she shrieked. Kevin skidded to a stop and backtracked ten feet to the pink bundle that was holding its knee in the snow. She had lifted her goggles, and despite her best sniffling effort, tears were running her face.

“Can you move it alright?” Kevin asked after unbuckling her boot from the board.

She slowly extended her knee and winced. More tears ran.

Great, Kevin thought to himself. There goes a pleasant day of boarding.

“Do you want to try and stand up, or should I get the emergency team up here?”

Janisse shook her head, wiped the tears away. Just then a teenage boarder sliced by, yelling, “Get the hell outta the way!”

After getting to her feet, Kevin locked in her boot and slowly started loping down the hill holding her shoulders to steady her on their slow, coasting descent.

“Doing okay?” Kevin asked.

Janisse tried to clamp up her grimace and nodded resolutely.

“Maybe when we get down to the lodge we can get hot chocolate or something,” Kevin said.

Janisse nodded again, not hiding her balled-up expression as well this time.

Kevin nodded and smiled back.

They had about a quarter of the hill to go, and were going at a decent pace when, out of what seemed like nowhere, they were hit from behind dead on. It felt like being hit by a linebacker going full steam, not a snowboarder trying to avoid the injured girl in the pink snowsuit and the guy helping her down the run. The hit spun them in a half circle and they planted face first in the snow. Janisse plucked her goggled head from the white and screamed in frustration. Kevin turned and yelled, “HEY! ASSHOLE!” to the red-jacketed figure that had kept his footing and was still boarding down the hill without giving them a second glance. Kevin was turning his head back around to check on Janisse, but before he could do that he saw another red-jacketed boarder wearing a red balaclava coming straight at them at a blurring speed. Before the sight could even compute in Kevin’s head, the second boarder was on them, but swerved and avoided them at the last possible moment. As the second boarder careened around the just accosted duo sitting on the snow, he made a slashing motion with his hand, directly at the right shoulder of Kevin. The pain didn’t reach Kevin’s brain until the red balaclava-clad boarder was streaking down the hill twenty feet behind them. His shoulder suddenly exploded with heat. He touched his burning shoulder with his left hand and came away with a red smear of blood.

“That guy scratched me!” Kevin said, indignantly.

Janisse was crying to the point of hyperventilating. “That’s,” inhale, “more,” inhale, “than,” inhale, “a scratch.” She composed herself for a moment. “That guy cut you with something really sharp.” She inspected the wound a little more closely. “There’s actually two cuts. Right through your jacket and into your skin.”

Kevin disbelievingly looked closer for himself. He was so taken aback he couldn’t speak. His mind was racing through every filthy, degrading name that he could think of to call that guy, but his disbelieving mouth couldn’t function to form the words.

“Let’s get going,” Janisse said, with a sudden jolt of get-up-and-go. “We should turn that prick in.” Janisse seemed more composed now than she had since the lodge. The sudden attack had given her a greater threshold for her frustrations and hurt knee.

When they reached the bottom of the hill they both collapsed into a pile on the ground to rest. Kevin was breathing like he had just finished a marathon. With the combination of assisting Janisse, being steamrolled in the back, and then lightly slashed all in one run, his gas tank had run empty faster than normal. Skiers and snowboarders were looping around them and circling over to the chairlift. Some saying obscenities to them, others just avoiding them like every other obstacle to be avoided.

A worker skied over and said, “You look tired but you’re gonna have to move. You can’t just sit right here. It’s what those benches are for over there.”

“We were just attacked,” Kevin blurted out.

“Who?”

“We were,” Janisse seconded.

“By who?”

“I guy in a red jacket,” Kevin said. He started to look around, trying to locate the assailant. “He was wearing a red face thing.”

“Like a nasal breathing patch?”

“What? No. Like a mask thing,” Kevin said, running his hands over the length of his face.

“A nasal what?” Janisse asked, incredulously.

“Whoa-whoa-whoa,” The worker said, pointing to Kevin’s shoulder. Blood was running down the sleeve of his jacket, dripping from his elbow, and making a bloody flower in the snow. The worker seemed frantic, like the types who faint at the sight of blood. “We need to get you to our doctor.”

The worker helped Kevin to his feet. Janisse was left to get up on her own, bad knee and all. The worker picked up their two boards and ran them over to the ski stand. Kevin turned and surveyed the bottom of the hill one more time for red jackets. Suddenly he saw two. They had just sat on the ski lift not fifty feet from where Kevin and Janisse stood. The one pulled the balaclava from his head and smiled at Kevin. Then he began to lick his fingers. Just like you would lick barbecue sauce off. To his astonishment, he recognized the slasher. It was the young man who had been lying in the hallway of the lodge. The one Janisse said might be cute if he wasn’t so weird. Kevin turned to Janisse, who was rubbing her temples with her eyes closed. If she only knew how weird that guy was. Kevin looked back at the finger licker who was now laughing with his companion. He gave Kevin the PEACE sign but Kevin knew he wasn’t being wished any kind of peace by the maniac in red.

* * * * *

Kevin ended up getting four stitches on each laceration across his shoulder. The stitches hurt more than the birth of the cuts. Janisse all but forgot about the twisted knee she had sustained. She sat quietly by Kevin as the doctor worked on him, refusing to leave due to her paranoia of the boarders in red. Even though they hadn’t sliced into her, the knock down had shaken her, as well as the possibility of their return.

After a couple hours in the lodge emergency area, they made their way back to their rooms. Janisse shyly asked if she could stay in Kevin’s room a while. She was agitated by the idea of being alone, he could tell. He could also see there was no other motives in her request—simply the company of another at the end of a strange and singularly frightening day on the mountain.

They sat and watched television for a short time. They clicked through court shows, sit-coms, the obligatory Warren Miller documentary, and an array of other unwatchable and unnamable fodder. Kevin suddenly turned the T.V. off and jumped off the bed, then winced, as his shoulder screamed, reminding him of the injury he had momentarily forgotten.

“You hungry?”

Janisse nodded. “I didn’t think I would be, but I am.”

“How about I run down and grab some food and bring it back up. I’m not really in the mood for a restaurant or anything.”

“I’m not either.”

“Your order, ma’am,” Kevin asked with a slight bow, trying to bring a smile to Janisse’s beleaguered face.

She did smile—then stood and said, “Just a cheeseburger and a Coke please,” then held the sides of her imaginary dress and dipped into a curtsy.

“Coming right up,” he replied, and backed up to the door in his bowed down position, not turning his back on the queen of the room.

He closed the door behind him and proceeded to the stairs, passing the spot where the young man had been on the floor, stretched out, earlier that day. The memory of the young man did not escape him as he passed and his shoulder flared again. While in the emergency room they had filed a report about the incident, and they were assured it would be taken seriously, but that didn’t ease his thoughts of running into the weird young man again.

Just as he took the first step on the stairs Janisse stuck her head out into the hallway. “Kevin,” she pleasantly hollered. “Can I come with you?”

“Sure. Come on.”

She closed the door behind her and lightly ran to catch up. “Sorry if I’m being a pest,” she said. She didn’t seem to be able to make eye contact as she spoke but looked like she had sincerely tried.

“You’re not a pest. Just a slight nuisance,” he said, winking at her.

She stuck out her tongue in reply.

That was when Janisse heard footsteps behind them. She looked back over her shoulder. She tugged on Kevin’s shirt sleeve. He looked at her, saw she was looking back, and followed her gaze.

They both watched as the young man who had pulled the red balaclava from his head and had licked his fingers not four hours ago on the mountain was coming at a fast clip down the stairs in their direction. In his panic, not exactly knowing why, Kevin pulled on Janisse’s arm and guided her to the landing of the stairs the next floor down and ran toward a door that had an emergency exit sign. He wanted to get where people were. As many people as possible. This guy had really creeped them out and they didn’t want to be alone with him to learn any more.

The emergency exit door was locked. Kevin shoved at it one last time with all his energy. It didn’t budge. He turned around as the young man was making the corner toward them, maybe fifteen feet back.

“So much for an emergency,” Kevin mumbled. Janisse did not respond.

The young man slowed to a stop ten feet away.

“Hi,” the young man said.

Kevin and Janisse didn’t say anything back.

The young man’s jaw twitched. “Hi,” he repeated.

“What do you want?” Janisse asked in a genuine piss and vinegar voice.

The young man’s jaw twitched rapidly for a couple seconds. Then he smiled at them. He held up the peace sign that he had flashed at Kevin from the ski lift. Kevin was confused. Was this guy just mentally slow and dangerous?

“What do you want?” Janisse repeated more sternly.

“What I’ve wanted since I saw you,” the young man said thoughtfully. “I just wanted him to know he can’t protect you. I wanted him to understand that.”

The young man was staring directly at Kevin.

“Do you understand that?” The young man asked.

“Nope,” Kevin said. Janisse squeezed his arm at that answer.

The young man’s jaw twitched again. More harshly this time. He had been holding the peace sign up the entire time, never wavering. Then something unexpected happened. Something that neither Kevin nor Janisse could ever have imagined. The fingers that were signing peace to them grew. Then Kevin realized it wasn’t the fingers that were growing, it was his nails. They only grew a couple of inches, but the suddenness and unexpectedness of it made both Kevin and Janisse stop breathing. The young man stretched his hands. Only the pointer and middle fingers had extended nails, the others had stayed the same.

Then his jaw twitched harder, faster than it previously had. The effect the nails made on Kevin and Janisse almost overshadowed the strangeness of the increasingly rapid jaw tic. Until his jaw seemed to unhinge completely, and two fang-like teeth folded down from the roof of his mouth.

Kevin instinctively started to look for other routes of escape. The only option he saw was an unmarked door that was closed five feet from where he stood. He had no way to know if it was open, but there were no other outs. The young creature saw Kevin look at the door. All three darted for it.

The door was unlocked.

Kevin was through the door quickly, holding Janisse’s right hand as he sprinted. It had opened inward making entry quicker but closing the door behind them a little slower. They had just beat out the young fanged man by a heartbeat, and not much more. As Kevin turned to slam the door in the face of the young man, hopefully rattling around those too-large teeth in the process, Janisse jerked back. Kevin saw the young man had a hold of her left hand and was hacking at her wrist with his overgrown fingernails. And his nails were as sharp as Kevin’s shoulder remembered. In four swift rakes on her wrist, the young man had lopped her hand completely off. Just as the hand came free, the young man lost his balance very briefly in a backward direction, at which time Kevin helped him by giving him a boot to the chest and slammed the door. To Kevin’s amazement, the door had a lock. He locked themselves in.

Kevin fumbled around for a light switch. It took him a moment to find the string that hung from a bulb in the middle of the room. Janisse was sweating so much that she gleamed like George Washington’s face on a new quarter. She was hyperventilating. Kevin had never seen anything like a hand being chopped off, but he had seen plenty of broken bones on the slopes over the years and knew the onset of shock when he saw it. Blood was flowing out of her wrist at an Olympic swimmer’s pace. She was lightly banging her head against the wall it rested on. Kevin quickly took off his shirt and held it on Janiss’s stump. The light blue shirt was quickly turning dark blue.

He looked around at his surroundings. They were in a janitor’s closet, it seemed. Yellow bucket with a mop-handle sticking out of it. Assorted cleaners, cleansers, sponges, wet floor signs, and garbage bags lined the shelves. The room was probably eight feet by eight feet. He was looking for anything to help stop the bleeding and could see or think of nothing. Streak-free glass cleaner? Orange-scented sanitizers? The room was medically useless.

Sweat was dripping from Janisse’s chin and falling on Kevin’s arm, like rain from an awning. Now her breathing wasn’t so much hyperventilating as it was irregular he thought. Out of frustration and fatigue his body slumped down to the side. His skin hissed and he jerked back off of the radiator. He touched the hot coils with his fingers. They hissed too. The radiator was hot enough to cause a hospital-worthy burn. He looked over at Janisse. She was only breathing through her nose. Her mouth was wrenched up. She looked pale.

“I hate to do this,” Kevin said.

“What?” she whispered in a frail voice.

Kevin removed the soaked shirt from her sad wrist, threw it to the opposite corner with wet smack against the wall. He firmly pressed her wrist against the radiator. The blood cracked as it cooked—like bacon in a frying pan. Like cold glass that cracks on extreme summer days. All Janisse did was exhale loudly and slide over to the ground. Kevin almost felt sick. For reasons he could not explain, he felt like he had just put a horse with a broken leg out of its misery. Maybe it was just the lifeless way she slid to the floor of the janitor’s closet.

Kevin looked at her wrist. It was ugly but the bleeding had almost slowed to a stop. With Janisse out cold, and with his lack of medical wherewithal, he pressed her wrist against the radiator again, to cauterize it as well as a radiator could. It seemed to work. The little closet smelled like a horrific sunburn. Now Kevin’s breathing was irregular. He was sweating like a geyser. He lay his head down next to Janisse’s. Looked at her face. It was a face of repose. A gentle countenance. Then Kevin heard a light tap on the door.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you two,” said a young voice.

Kevin could hear the young man humming and the raspy in-out of Janisse’s breathing. He hadn’t responded to the crazy young man’s taunt. He just sat—thinking. His cell phone was back in his room. He checked Janisse’s pockets. Empty except for her room key and a pack of gum. She hadn’t brought her purse with her. The humming paused.

“I’m holding her hand,” the young man said, “like we’re on a date.”

Kevin’s heart started to beat harder.

“Not much blood, though,” the young man added.

Kevin couldn’t help but ask the dumbest sounding serious question he had ever asked. “What… are you a vampire or something?” The very question made his skin crawl, but what else could he ask after he had seen those needle-like teeth fold down and the blood comment.

“Vampires are myth and lore and for the movies. I’m real. I’m sitting outside your door.”

“Someone will walk by.”

“Let them. I can barely hear you through the door. I’m sure, twenty feet away, at the stairs, they wouldn’t even notice you yelling.”

“If you’re not a vampire, what are you?”

“Like I said, all I am is outside your door holding your girlfriend’s hand.”

“What’s with the sharp teeth, then?”

“Is that really what you’re curious about?”

“Why were you licking my blood off of your nails and why chop her hand off?”

“To be honest, I just wanted to get stoned.”

“What do you mean?”

“Does that mean more than one thing here in America? It sure as hell doesn’t mean I want to have rocks thrown at me.”

“You use blood to get stoned?”

“I’m getting bored with this conversation.”

“That can’t be true. You can’t be real.”

“God knows about me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I hope you’re not like this when you’re not panicking.”

“Like what?”

“Thick as a cedar stump.”

“God only knows about you as my hallucination.”

“No,” the young man said, “he knows about me for very different reasons.”

He started humming again.

Neither of them talked for the next ten minutes. Just humming that floated under the door like a poisonous gas. It rose up and dripped into Kevin’s ears. Do I know that tune? He wondered briefly at one point.

Janisse was still breathing like an old house sounds in a windstorm. A groan here. A creak there. All loose boards and rusty nails for lungs.

The small room with the warm radiator was starting to get muggy from the incessant sweating of Kevin and Janisse.

Kevin started to realize that they were not going to be saved from this Chip. If they were waiting to be rescued, they were apt to be waiting a good while. His eyes scanned the room in desperation. Cleansers and sanitizers and dusters yawned back at him, believing themselves to be useless to him. Then he saw something interesting, and a flint-spark idea came to him. He looked at the incapacitated body of Janisse, laying next to him, in an awkward position. He sat her up against the wall, next to the door. She sat limp like a forgotten ventriloquist’s puppet, jaw hanging by loose wires. Then he grabbed the replacement broom handle from the corner it was leaning in. He propped it against the wall, on the other side of the door from Janisse.

He shook her shoulder lightly. Nothing. She wasn’t waking up for awhile. Kevin sat a moment and took in the sight of her slack face. He gazed at her stumped arm. He put his hand on her knee.

“I need a sacrifice,” Kevin said, no louder than a light breath. Then he thought better of it. “I need a decoy,” he finished, more accurately.

Kevin looked at the door. He tried to look through it as much as he could. To the other side, where the young man sat holding Janisse’s severed hand.

“What are you going to do to us?” Kevin yelled.

“You ask boring questions.”

The voice sounded like it was a few feet back from the door. “What’re you going to do, huh?” Kevin yelled, again.

“I’m getting very…”

Kevin unlocked the door and threw it open quickly. He slid Janisse out across the hardwood floor away from both him and the young man. The young man stood frozen, looking at Kevin, glancing over at Janisse, then back at Kevin. The young man darted toward Janisse. Kevin grabbed the broom handle and sprinted after him. The young man arrived first, then turned to get his bearings on Kevin’s approach. That was when Kevin descended on him with the cleaning apparatus. A girl stepped down on the landing of the stairs, saw what was happening, and screamed.

* * * * *

Kevin sat on the floor, slouched against the wall. The bloody broom handle had just been confiscated by the police. The young man and Janisse had just been taken by the paramedics. Ski lodge management was standing by in horror. None of them could believe this had happened at their ski lodge. There were groups of snowboarders and skiers standing around gawking. Despite the shock of the display, the two factions had managed to separate themselves much like boys and girls at a middle school dance. An older cop walked up to Kevin.

“Gonna have to take you down to the station. You know that, right?”

Kevin nodded.

“I would categorize this as an abnormal display, son. Even among this group of partiers, and snowboarders, and snow-bunnies, and what-have-you’s.”

Kevin nodded.

“You beat the hell outta that boy. You realize that?”

“I told you already—he’s not some normal boy.”

“I know you said that. I heard your story, which just compounds the abnormality of this whole deal.”

“I know,” Kevin said, in defeat.

“We’ve yet to see signs of the nature you describe with that boy.”

“Keep looking.”

“We intend to do our job. No pep talk from you is going to change that.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kevin wiped a splotch of blood on his pants.

“Not to mention, that girl’s hand was hacked off.”

* * * * *

After a week of dealing with the police, Kevin finally was back at Blue Scoop. They had initially arrested him, but there were no charges brought against him by the young man. Then, Janisse finally came around and was able to talk, two days after the incident. She told the police the same far-fetched story that Kevin had. The police still could find no evidence of fangs or rapidly growing, razor-sharp fingernails on the young man. They released him but kept a close eye on him as they ruminated over what to charge him with if that day ever arrived.

Kevin went to see Janisse in the hospital. He waited in the hall until he saw her mother leave her room. He slipped inside.

“Hello,” he said, catching her by surprise. She had been looking out the window.

She smiled back at him. “They said I might’ve died if you hadn’t stopped the bleeding.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t die.”

She smiled again, but more sadly this time. “Me, too.”

“How do you feel?”

“I’m on painkillers most of the day. I don’t feel much—of anything. I just mostly feel like I’m in a dream.”

“Are you dreaming now?”

“I don’t think so.”

Kevin put his hands in his pockets. He looked out the window. There was a supermarket across the street. People were filing in and out. Loading their trunks and beds of their trucks with sacks of food.

“They can’t put my hand back on. They said there was probably never a good chance, but it’s impossible after you burned the wound closed. At least that’s what they said.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I lived.” She pulled her bandaged stump out from under the bed sheet. She moved it around in the air, trying to get a feel for the new sensation of weightlessness it gave her. “Just don’t stop being my friend. Okay?”

“Why would I?”

“My friends will be nice and supportive at the beginning. But with the types of friends I have, most of them probably won’t be around much longer.”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m looking forward to getting rid of some friends that were never really friends.”

Then a nurse walked in. They said their pleasant goodbyes and Kevin left.

* * * * *

Things seemed very different now that he was back at Blue Scoop. Reynolds went about the corporate business of ice cream as if nothing strange had happened the previous week. Three scoops! was still his battle cry. Eli worked with Kevin his first day back, although he didn’t ask too many questions. The rumors, some true, some not, were flooding through Bellingham. Eli had heard that Kevin had actually stabbed the Canadian with a Swiss Army knife. Eli would get the whole story eventually. He would just give Kevin some space at first.

Kevin had worked half of his first shift back in a daze. He thought maybe he was dreaming, like Janisse had felt on the painkillers. As he was looking around for clues of reality, a man with black hair walked through the door.

“How’s it going today?” Eli asked before the bell on the door had time to stop clanging.

“You Kevin?”

“No,” Eli said.

“Where’s Kevin?”

“I’m Kevin,” Kevin said, deciding this was reality after all.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

“About what?”

“About fucking up my girl’s life, is what,” the black-haired man said, as menacingly as he could.

“You must be Ben.”

“Must be.”

“The one who was fucking up her life before I came around.”

Ben pointed at him. “I catch you outside these doors I’m cuttin’ your hands off. You hear me? Both of ’em”

Kevin felt no fear at all. This threat was as deadly to him as a kitten. He had confronted something very like a vampire and come out on top a week ago. What was some ex-boyfriend with a big mouth to him now? Not much. Kevin turned and picked up a slicing knife from the counter that they cut bananas for splits with. He tossed it on the ground in front of Ben. “Let’s see about it,” Kevin said.

Astonished, Ben said, “See about what?”

Kevin walked around the counter. Eli’s pulse was skyrocketing. Even if this didn’t scare Kevin, it was frightening the living tar out of Eli. Kevin pulled up his sleeves to expose his wrists. “Let’s see about it,” Kevin repeated, directly in front of Ben.

Ben stood silent. Maybe even shaking a little. Kevin picked up the knife from the ground, grabbed Ben’s hand, and placed the knife in it. “Cuttin’ time,” Kevin said.

Ben’s silence continued. Kevin shook his head. “Ben, you’ve disappointed me.”

“Kevin, what’s going on?” Reynolds said, walking out of the back office.

“Ben just finished disappointing me,” Kevin said evenly. “I won’t return the favor.” Kevin turned quickly back to Ben and pushed him as hard as he could. Ben stumbled backwards into the glass front of the store and went right through the glass onto the sidewalk outside. The glass broke just like sugar-glass in the movies. Ben lay on the ground, writhing a little. He kept spitting glass out of his mouth. He looked confused. Reynolds ran out the door to go check on the ejected man. He hunkered down next to Ben and called 911 on his cell.

“What have you done?” Reynolds yelled at Kevin.

Kevin walked behind the counter, got a scoop of Blueberry ice cream, and threw it at Reynolds. It hit him squarely in the shoulder of his white button-down shirt. “There’s your third scoop, you son-of-a-bitch.”

Kevin walked out of the store, left his truck in the parking lot and walked home.

* * * * *

He arrived at his apartment two hours later. No police. He was surprised. He walked inside and sat on the couch. After a half-hour, or so, of waiting, he fell asleep.

Knocking woke him up. He had been sleeping three hours. He figured it was the police. When he opened the door he saw Janisse’s mother. She was frowning at him in a very motherly way.

“Hello,” Kevin said, politely.

“Hi, Kevin.”

“How did you know where I live?”

“Janisse told me. She wanted me to thank you. I don’t agree with how you handled it but she wanted me to come thank you.”

“Handled what?”

“Ben.”

“You heard?”

“She did. I think Eli called her.”

“Oh.” Kevin almost looked ashamed.

“Don’t feel too bad about it, he deserved it. But don’t repeat that.”

“I won’t,” Kevin said.

They both grinned.

“The cops never showed up. I thought they would.”

Janisse’s mother shrugged. Kevin noticed she was chewing gum. It was very seductive, as Eli would have said. Kevin could see where Janisse got it from.