Tripping Reincarnation

by Jeff Tikari

 

Young Vikas sat dozing under the shade of a wild ficus, his back resting comfortably against the bowl of the large tree. Sounds of droning bees, the dappled sunlight, the gentle stirring of leaves in the upper branches induced a somnolence that glazed his sight and drooped his eyelids. His charges: four nondescript cows and a scrawny bull, grazed in the scrub—the mellow sound of the wooden bells around their necks added to the midday languor.

His slingshot slipped from his hand and lay on his lap.

Vikas had never been to school. Like some other children of small village farmers, he had started to help his family in cultivating the few acres around the hut from an early age. He could, however, write his name; the son of the village shopkeeper, who attended school, had taught him, and Vikas wrote his name in the loose earth and dust to keep his hand in.

Chakri village comprised twenty-three families that paid tithe to the Maharaja whose collectors came around after each harvest: sturdy, armed, heartless men who entertained no hard-luck stories, but extracted harvest dues rigorously.

*****

Salim alighted; his magnificent white horse threw its head up and neighed, stamping its feet impatiently; a liveried servant hurried up to take charge of the horse. Salim threw the reigns to him and strode forth across the lush outer lawns of the palace. Princess Aphsara sat with her maids-in-waiting beneath a tapestried cloth tent that curtained her privacy. She watched him approach—a handsome young man, broad-shouldered and slim-waisted. He smiled, bowed respectfully and raised his right hand to his forehead, “Salaam alaikum, Your Highness.” The princess Aphsara’s eyes twinkled happily to see him; she returned his greeting and patted the richly embroidered soft toshak beside her.

“Come Salim, sit near me. My eyes have been longing for you. I get lonely; I want someone to talk to, never go anywhere without my consent.”

“I’d never leave your side, Princess—you know that. But this heartless duty cruelly tears me away.”

The maids quietly backed away, bowing respectfully.

Salim and Aphsara hugged peremptorily. To be observed could mean punishment or worse for him. He was from a village and had impressed the Maharaja with his quick wit when the royal party passed through on a familiarizing trip around the countryside. The Maharaja, pleased with the lad, ordered that he be transported to the palace. There he was fed, bathed, and given clean clothes. A tutor was engaged to teach him the basics of reading, writing, and very importantly, the elegances of the Royal Court.

That is how the young Rajkumari (princess) gained a playmate companion. They grew up together… she in the opulent rooms of the Royal Palace and he in the barracks reserved for attendants. But in time, because of his closeness to the princess, he was allowed to occupy private rooms in the palace annex.

*****

A ripe berry fell, striking Vikas on the bridge of his nose. It annoyed him. He was enjoying his nap… did he dream? Was it a dream?

He remained slumped against the bowl of the tree. He could hear the soft cowbells and was reassured his charges were close by.

He had dreamt something—something that felt life-like; he scratched his head… perhaps a princess was involved… it was as real as the tree he was leaning against and the ant that was biting him through his dhoti. He slapped at it.

Time to head home. He tucked his slingshot in his dhoti and picked up a stick to herd the cattle. He whistled and yodeled to get the cows moving. The cattle emerged from different sections of the bush and desultorily followed him, nibbling at any piece of greenery in their path.

*****

Should he get off the path… no, he wouldn’t, Salim decided. The path was narrow and the Commander of the Palace Guard was approaching along the path from the opposite direction. One of them would have to step off to let the other pass.

The Commander was a respected man and all would step off the path in deference. But, Salim reasoned, he was more important, for while the Commander lived in the barracks, he lived at the palace annex and was known to have the Princess’s ear. The palace servants bent low when he passed. So he would just have to establish a pecking order here. He strolled along the path nonchalantly—hoping to convey the impression that his exalted state precluded even eye contact. He never saw the heavy muscled swipe that threw him off the path and sent him sprawling to the bushes at the bottom. The Commander continued on his way with unfaltering step. He did not tarry to view Salim’s swift demotion.

*****

The stinging slap brought tears to his eyes. He put his hand up to his burning cheek.

“You’ve been gone for hours,” his father glared with anger. “What kept you? Are you on opium? Your mother and I have done all the chores while you were gadding about somewhere. You are supposed to graze the cattle for only two or three hours. Are you secretly seeing a woman in the forest? You disappear for hours at a time… where do you go?”

Vikas looked up wide-eyed at his father… his guess was close… matter of fact, he had guessed right… he was seeing a woman… a princess! And he did not know if he was daydreaming. Perhaps he should tell his father about it… and very likely get slapped again for speaking such horseshit.

He saw his mother heading to the cowshed to milk the cows. They would each get a glass of milk with their evening supper. This was possible because they had a Mahua tree on their land. The tree was valued for the heavy sweet scented flower which when distilled made country hooch (Mahua). For the output of that single tree, the local contractor gave the family more revenue than they got from the produce of their farm or from selling milk.

Vikas pulled his slingshot and proceeded toward the fields. He may get close enough to a cattle egret to bag it. That would improve the rice and lentil soup they unerringly had every night. His father enjoyed the curry his mother made with the birds Vikas killed, but cautioned him to not over kill. “Once a week would be fine,” he said.

That night the meal was good; Vikas had surprised a large, juicy heron. Nevertheless, he had no appetite and ate sparingly. His mother worried:

“You don’t eat much these days, son. Are you all right? You seem to be growing strong and robust though. Are you eating jungle herbs?”

Vikas couldn’t answer that. It was true he often felt full and when he burped, the smell of rich spice was, bewilderingly, in his nostrils.

*****

Salim washed his fingers in an ornate basin held for him by a servant. The venison curry was spicy and he burped behind his fingers.

A pageboy appeared by his elbow, bowed, and informed him that the Rajkumari wished his presence for a game of chess. Salim rose and burped again. His body was muscular, taking on the heavy contours of a man. The combat lessons he had been attending at the palace grounds gave him large, steely muscles.

Other than her father, Salim was the only male allowed into the Princess’s chambers. He slipped off his richly woven house shoes and entered. The Rajkumari sat on a large, blue velvet carpet that covered the room. A central white ornate cloth was spread where she sat. Salim bowed low in greeting.

“As-Salaam-Alaikum, Princess. I trust your meal was satisfactory.”

“Shut up! Just come and sit down—and don’t try to impress me! You are going to get thrashed today… all your fancy moves won’t help you. You are going to slink out of here a defeated man!”

Salim smiled. Last time, he recalled, Aphsara had beat on his head with both fists when he had checkmated her white king.

“You stupid boy! You’re lucky you won last time… I lost concentration for a while that’s all.”

She was playing well today he noticed. Someone was tutoring her. She took time to think out her moves; and he spent that time looking at her: round face, a well-shaped nose with a diamond nose pin, beautiful lashes; her eyes were naturally lined black. Her hands and feet were beautifully formed and her young figure was in great shape. “Why are you gaping at me? Are you trying to make me lose my concentration?”

“There’s nothing in this room more easy on the eyes than…”

“Shut up or I’ll beat you up!”

She wrinkled her forehead in concentration. “Don’t imagine that you can purposely let me win this game to pander to me. If I win you’ll be banished to the hard beds of the barracks—so you’d better try your very best.”

*****

Vikas lay on the hard ground. They only possessed one bed, which his father used. There was no other furniture in the hut. Their cooking and eating utensils had been washed and polished with wood-ash and stacked next to the mud-plastered stove.

Father had consumed his daily bati of local hooch and snored loudly through the night. Vikas and his mother were quite used to the sound and slept through it. Any other sound, other than the snoring, would immediately alert them.

In the very early hours of the morning, when the moon was three quarters across the sky, there was a sound. All three sat up. It sounded like the latch of the cowshed had been raised and released. Father gently opened the door of the hut and crept out, followed by Vikas. Three men emerged from the depths of the cowshed leading their cow with a rope. All three carried lathis (stout bamboo staves) and crept stealthily forth.

Father challenged them. Two faced him with lathis on the ready; the third continued to quickly lead the cow away. Father hesitated—two armed men were more than he could handle. But Vikas strode forth. In two swift moves he unarmed one of the men and used his lathi to attack the second one. The fight was over quickly—both men were beaten soundly and all three took to their heels. Vikas led the cow back to the cowshed.

His father watched it all. Without any help Vikas had thrashed all three men soundly and done it expertly. He was awed and astonished. Where had his son learned to fight like that? He had moved swiftly without any hesitation—it was like he knew exactly what moves to make… very professional. Father waited until they returned to the hut.

“What happened?” asked Mother.

“Some chaps were trying to steal our cow, but we beat them up and they ran away,” said Vikas.

“That is not true,” said Father. “Vikas single-handedly wrested a lathi from them and beat them up. I had no hand in it.”

There was silence in the hut. “How did you do that, son?” asked Mother.

“I don’t know, Mataji. I just seemed to know what to do and how to fight.”

“Has someone been teaching you, son? Commoners are not allowed to learn the art of combat. We fight as best we can—untrained.”

“No one has taught me, Father…” he hesitated bewildered. “I don’t know… maybe someone did… my mind is all confused.”

His father saw his perplexity, “Was it in another janam (incarnation), son?”

Now it was Vikas’ turn to look baffled. “What other janam? I don’t know.” He searched his father’s face.

“Well, then how do you explain your prowess with a lathi?”

How? The boy questioned himself, how, how, how…? He was beginning to get a headache. Something was in the deep recess of his mind, but it would not surface. His skull was tightening and the pain was increasing.

“I’ll arrange a meeting tomorrow between you and the village pehalwan (wrestler) who has received training at the Royal Court.”

*****

It was morning of the big day. Eight boys who were training to use the lathi would pair off and compete for top prize. Salim was the only boy from the palace. The others were quartered in the barracks.

Tents were pitched, adorned with flags and banners. An air of festivity enveloped the maidan. Rumors said Maharaj Vishnu Singh may attend, as Salim was representing the palace—the Rajkumari was sure to attend and maybe her mother, Maharani Jahanara Begum, as well. A large ornate and colorful tent was pitched for the Royal entourage; stout bamboo fencing discouraged local entry to the Royal Tent. Street hawkers set up stalls to display their wares. They shouted in ululating singsong tones to attract customers. Street acrobats took up positions and exhibited their agility in exchange for a few copper coins. Little children, bare feet and half naked, ran around excited shouting to each other in the festive commotion.

Salim was tingling with anticipation. Since 3 a.m. he had practiced—lunge, parry, evade, swing—on the straw-filled, and now battered dummy. His body was oiled with mustard oil. Now he waited.

*****

The pehalwan arrived, accompanied by Vikas’ father. Vikas was sitting on the charpoy weaving a bamboo basket and seeing them coming stood up. He joined his palms in a respectful Namaste. The pehalwan measured up the boy—he was probably eighteen he guessed (he was wrong for Vikas had grown bigger than the village lads of his age).

“So, I hear you are quite an expert with the lathi, eh?”

“No, sir, I am not.”

“Where did you learn the art of combat?”

“I… I didn’t, sir. I mean, I just swung the lathi and was lucky.”

“That’s not what your father says. Here take this lathi and assume a combat stance.”

Vikas stood there holding the lathi awkwardly while the pehalwan circled him with lathi on the ready in combat style. I suppose I’ll have to hit him a few blows before he defends himself, thought the pehalwan. He did a few coordinated disciplines, taking wide steps and twirling the lathi above his head. It looked most impressive. Then with two leaps he brought the lathi down—not too hard—on the boy’s head.

There was a blur of bodies and lathis. The pehalwan found himself flat on the earthen floor with the boy’s father helping him up. Vikas had a bewildered look on his face. The pehalwan felt stung and insulted but ignored the pain where the opponent’s lathi had struck him rapidly on the head and legs. He saw now he would, very sadly have to attack seriously, breaking through the boy’s defense and, much as he may not want to, cruelly hurt the boy. He assumed his power stance ten feet away from the boy who stood stupidly staring at him.

*****

The opponent charged using the Maithul attack—the most difficult one to repel. Salim stood his ground till the last moment—as he had been taught—then threw himself flat on the ground and tripped his opponent with his lathi. He would now leap up and smash his lathi on his opponent’s head.

A loud cry of, “STOP” from the referee brought the match to a halt. The Maharaja had called off the tournament as four boys had been severely injured and he did not wish others to get hurt. These boys were being trained to join the elite arm of the combat interceptors.

Salim stood over his opponent breathing heavily. They both knew who had won. Salim put his hand out and pulled up his prostrate opponent and clasped him to his chest. A thunderous roar of approval greeted the action.

They stood side-by-side and bowed to the Maharaja, then proceeded to their different tents.

The Rajkumari, Aphsara, had clapped gleefully every time Salim won a point. The maharaja glanced down, smiling at his daughter’s joyful enthusiasm. Was she getting too fond of the boy? he wondered. She was sixteen now—a vulnerable and impressionable age. Maybe there was nothing in it… he took note and kept an open mind.

*****

The pehalwan blew into the tumbler and noisily slurped the tea, holding the metal tumbler with both hands. He addressed Vikas’ father.

“Well, I am pleased you persuaded me to break off the demonstration, for I may have hurt the young lad severely with my next move. That he has received training I have no doubt. But where and how is quite bewildering. As you have pointed out he is a cowherd and spends most of the day grazing your cattle and sometimes takes out your neighbors’ animals too. Plus, of course, there is no one in these parts that has any idea of the art of lathi combat.”

Vikas’ father, Ram Singh, offered him a beeidi. He’d better keep him in good humor for he could report the incident to the authorities and then who knew what action would follow.

They sat on a charpoy outside the hut. Vikas had gone off to the forest with the livestock. Vikas’ mother was making some fried tidbits to serve the menfolk.

“Are you sure you don’t know where your son learned to fight?”

“Of course I am sure. Who is there to teach him?”

“Another thing, Pehalwanji, just between you and me… I don’t know how to put this, but I notice he can read. Now, he has never been to school, nor have I, nor has his mother been to school, and he spends most of the day sleeping under a tree. How could he have learned how to read? It is quite baffling.”

The pehalwan was looking at him with a quizzical expression, “Eh, what’s that?”

“Read, I said he can read.”

“Yeah, I heard you—what does that mean, how can he read?” His chin jutted out belligerently, eyes glinting steel, “You hiding somethin’ from me?” He stood up, “I’m going to the forest to see for myself… the lad is up to something. Something diabolical.”

*****

Salim went in search of Aphsara; she would praise him and say encouraging things to him; things that pleased him. He stood outside her chambers waiting for a maid so he could send Aphsara a request to enter her chambers.

The door opened and Aphsara’s father, Vishnu Singh stepped out.

“What are you doing here?”

Salim fidgeted, “I thought I would have a word with the Rajkumari, Your Highness.”

“You haven’t got free access to the private chambers of the palace. Only if the Rajkumari sends for you are you to come here. Now, off you go.”

Salim bowed low and left; his heart heavy, he had offended the Maharaja. He went to the akhara (gym). He would work out to take his mind off the reprimand.

He worked extra hard, throwing himself into the intricacies of the advanced discipline. The guru noticed the heavy work. He was likely working off the frustration of not being allowed to win in the tournament, he thought.

*****

Vikas worked in the hot sun to complete a tree platform upon which he would sit to watch over the grazing cattle in the surrounding bush. The elevation would allow a larger area to be surveyed and he would be less likely to be surprised by an unwanted approach. Now he sat under the loft, out of the sun, and fanned himself with a leafy branch. He mulled over the earlier incident when he had repulsed the attack mounted by the pehalwan.

Had he just acted in self-defense? But how had he so expertly repulsed the onslaught? If he thought too hard about his prowess with the lathi, his head would hurt. He picked up a stave left over from the building of the platform and took a stance… similar to one adapted by the pehalwan. He would practice that move or what he could remember of it.

The pehalwan walked softly and soundlessly to reach the place where Vikas stood ready with a stave. He parted a bush and peered at Vikas. Ha! He thought to himself. So, this is where he practices…the wily swine. I wonder where his guru is.

Vikas shut his eyes and concentrated. He would try and remember every move. He bent low, scooped up some earth from the forest floor and smeared it on his forehead.

The pehalwan felt an excitement and his heartrate picked up. He would catch Vikas and his guru red-handed and report them to the authorities. He may even get a reward from the Maharaja and, if his luck held, he could be recalled to attend the Royal Court.

Vikas put one leg out in front—exactly as the pehalwan had done—he lifted the lathi above his head, bent his knee and launched himself in the air, twirling the lathi above his head and twisting his body 360 degrees to land cleanly on his feet with the lathi pointing menacingly at his opponent. Instead he landed in a heap in the dust—the lathi wrenched his shoulder and jerked out of his hand. He lay there with dust in his mouth.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” the pehalwan stepped from behind the bush and gave a helping hand to Vikas. “What was that, a pantomime performance?”

Vikas stood, holding his aching shoulder.

*****

“What happened to your shoulder?” Aphsara asked.

The princess had summoned Salim. He was still smarting from her father’s rebuff and was contemplating sending her a message saying he was tired and hurt and would present himself tomorrow, but thought better of it.

“I strained it while practicing in the gym after the tournament was called off.”

“You were practicing how to strain your shoulder?”

Salim kept quiet; he looked at the delight in her eyes, she was in a teasing mood.

She laughed elatedly. “Would you like one of my maids to massage your shoulder?” her eyes twinkled with mirth. “Or are you looking for sympathy from me?”

“God forbid!”

“I heard that.” She gave him a hard look. “Sit here; let me look at your shoulder.”

“I don’t know how advisable that is—we are no longer kids. I daren’t sit next to you with my shirt off, Princess.”

“Do you want a tight slap? Just sit here,” and she indicated a cushion next to her, “and take off your shirt.”

“I couldn’t possibly do that, Rajkumari… take my shirt off…? I don’t think so.” He took two steps back.

Aphsara jumped up—eyes blazing, fists tightly clenched… Salim had never seen her look so utterly ravishing.

“Listen, fathead, and stop calling me Rajkumari…”

The door opened gently and a maid bowed in with a carafe of sherbet and golden goblets on an ornate tray.

Salim sighed with relief. If she were to surprise them sitting next to each other… and him with his shirt off… her father would surely get to hear, and who knew what might have happened then… a caning would be the least.

The Princess stood, pretending suppressed rage—eyes aflame, lips compressed. The maid placed the tray slowly, very slowly on the white sheet. The princess was about to yell at her to leave it and get out! Salim beat her to it.

“Princess, may I leave, please. My shoulder is hurting and my Guruji will massage it.”

“GO!” Just the one word. Her shoulders slumped as she sat down—hurt and let down.

*****

The pehalwan rotated Vikas’ arm. He winced with pain.

“Is it hurting a lot—I will massage it for you.”

“Thanks.”

“What were you doing, anyway?”

“Trying to do what you did this morning… I’m afraid I am no good at it.”

The pehalwan put his arm around Vikas’ waist, “Come, I’ll take you home. Will the cattle be okay for a while without you?”

“I’ll whistle for them to follow us.”

Vikas lay on the charpoy in the sun and the pehalwan massaged him with warm mustard oil from a shallow dish. He wondered at his fit muscular body.

“Tell me, boy, do you have any idea how you learned to fight the way you did this morning?”

“No, Pehalwanji, it is a mystery to me. When I try to do it, I trip and fall down. I don’t know how it comes to me; it comes of its own accord.”

“Do you know swordsmanship?”

Vikas twisted his body to look at the pehalwan, “Sword… what sword? I have never even seen a real one.”

“I’ll take you to a sadhu, a sage; he may be able to resolve this mystery. You must tell him everything you know—hold nothing back. Will you come with me?”

“I’ll have to ask Papa—get his permission.”

*****

Salim asked permission to go to his village to see his parents. It was five years since he’d seen them. Permission was granted and he was allotted a warhorse from the Royal stables and a guard to accompany him… the roads are rife with dacoits, he was told; and the road to Allahgarh was a full day’s hard ride.

“When are you coming back?” demanded Aphsara when Salim went to bid her farewell.

“Soon, Princess, very soon.”

“Liar! You have no intentions of hurrying back. You are going to strut around in that chain-armour you are wearing and try to impress the local laundies there in the village. Probably get married to one of those slope-eyed wenches.”

“Princess, Aphsara, I am going away for a week and I shall miss you, Your Highness. Please don’t quarrel with me—I want to hold pleasant memories of you to recall on my lonely journey.”

“Then come here and kiss me.”

“God forbid! And have my limbs ripped asunder by the Maharaja’s elephants? I don’t think so.”

She threw a flower vase at him that glanced off his shoulder. Her regal eyes, brimming with anger, bore into him—he gaped at her loveliness. He cast his life to the winds, stepped up and gathered her petite body to his chest—clasped her tight and bruised her lips with his, in a long kiss.

“Put me down you brute.” She flayed her legs about. “I said kiss me, not devour me. Now go! And if your lips are cold when you return, I will know someone has stolen the warmth from them… and your life won’t be worth living.”

Salim bowed low and salaamed her.

He rode out on a sturdy white horse. A large turban shielded his head; half chain-armour covered his arms and chest; a sword hung strapped to his waist; a dagger lay tucked in his waistband; and a small flag with the coat of arms of the Maharaja flew from the horn of the saddle. An escort rode behind with a well-oiled lathi strapped lengthwise along the saddle. A formidable twosome that most would avoid an encounter with.

The midday sun was hot. Salim looked for a place to stop for an hour to stretch his legs and water the horses. He saw a temple atop a small hillock surrounded by large trees. The white temple walls gleamed in the sun and a red prayer flag fluttered from the dome. He swung his horse and headed for the cool shade of the temple trees.

A pundit greeted the travelers and provided water for them and the horses. He noticed the half-armour across Salim’s wide shoulders and chest and took note of the guard with him. He wondered if he would make a small cash contribution at the Lord’s altar, for he looked like a person of some standing. Salim, however, headed for the charpoy laid under the shade of a large banyan tree and lay down to rest for a while—the ride had been tiring.

*****

Vikas followed his father and the pehalwan. They headed for a small temple atop a small hillock. The bright white walls and a red flag atop the dome indicated it was in use. The wide branching trees were inviting, offering shade from the midday sun. Crows cawed loudly and hopped from branch to branch.

Vikas felt tired for he was carrying a pitcher full of water, a food parcel containing food his mother had cooked, and the shoes belonging to his father, the pehalwan, and his own. These items were tied with a large piece of cloth to the end of a stout lathi, which he balanced on his shoulder.

The pundit watched them approach. They would likely lay a copper coin at the feet of the deity and rest under the shade of the trees. They greeted the pundit who returned their greetings. He looked at the two men—one looked like a wrestler… and then his jaw dropped for the boy carrying their belongings was the spitting image of the knight who lay on the charpoy.

Vikas lowered his load and stretched to relieve his aching muscles. His eyes took in the slumbering knight on the charpoy. The effect was electric. He gasped and took a backward step. That was himself… on the charpoy. The face, the figure, the build, the hands, the feet, the deep scratch on his forearm… everything. Memories started to flood his mind. His name was Salim; he lived in the Maharaja’s palace; the princess Aphsara’s image loomed before his eyes; the palace rooms; his ride here on a horse from the royal stables… he looked around for the horse—it stood under the shade of a young sal tree, the guard sat slouched, eyes half shut, his back supported by the tree.

Vikas looked at his father; both his father and the pehalwan were staring in astonishment at the prone knight.

How could he, thought Vikas, be two people? And yet he was!

His father looked at him and beckoned him near.

“He is you in every detail!”

“He is me. And I am he!”

“What do you mean…?” His father peered into his face. “Has the sun got to you my son?”

“My name is Salim. My father and mother live five miles from here…” Vikas went on to relate his life in the palace, every little incident—almost a day-to-day chronology, but there were long blank areas too. The knight, Salim, lay eyes shut listening to Vikas. His breathing grew rapid. What the boy was relating… no person could have known. They were the most intimate details that only he knew.

This must be a djinn—a wandering spirit—that entered and exited his body at will… an evil spirit that had to be expunged.

Salim leapt off the charpoy drawing his sword. Vikas scrambled and grabbed the lathi that he had used to balance their meager belongings. The young men faced each other. Salim lunged with his sword and knew how Vikas would parry—deflecting the swipe by sloping his lathi to let the sword harmlessly pass by his body. He knew Vikas would change his grip and counter by applying a telling blow to his head. Salim ducked and brought his sword up to rip Vikas’ belly in a counter. Vikas stood firm, not moving forward, thus remaining out of range of the upward swinging sword. Salim threw his sword down and grabbed the lathi the guard had left by the charpoy. Now the two were equally armed and matched.

The young men smiled at each other. This would be an equal encounter and they knew there would be no winner—for they read each other’s minds and anticipated and knew the other’s next move. However, they were enjoying it. Dust was kicked up and hung over the battling duo. The watchers: the father, the pundit, and the guard were mesmerized. Never had they seen such an exhibition of pure talent. The fight continued for an hour, with neither of the combatants hurt. Sheer exhaustion forced the antagonists to break off.

Vikas’ father approached him, “Beta,” he said, “I do not understand this, nor can the pundit enlighten me. I gather Salim comes from a village not far from ours—his parents still live there, but the Maharaja took Salim away to his palace. I do not know how your mayas got mixed up, but that is the will of the Lord. Let us go our separate ways and try and understand this. You are one person in two bodies. I will not pretend to understand it. Let us now proceed to our village and pray to God for wisdom. Salim, you are my son too and Vikas is you! You cannot fight with yourself for you are both one. You are two bodies with one soul… and I don’t know how!”

“Papaji,” said Salim, “as you say, we are one soul in two bodies. But Vikas has intruded into my body and my thoughts, whereas I have not trespassed into his. I think he is evil! One soul can not occupy two bodies—one or both of us has to perish.”

Vikas addressed him, “Remember Aphsara told you to return with her kiss still hot on your lips—are you going to do that, or are you going to bicker with me?”

“How dare you! How dare you intrude into my most intimate moments? I will not have it! I will not let you! I will kill you!”

“You will kill yourself?”

“Maybe… so be it!”

*****

The pundit emerged from the temple with a thali of ladoos and prasad. He prostrated himself at the feet of each boy and offered them the sweets. This has to be a miracle—God’s mysterious way of showing his powers. He had chosen these two young men to showcase his supernatural mystique.

Salim took his chain-armour off. It was hot. He strolled a little distance away. His thoughts were in a whirl. He knew whatever he was thinking was imaged in Vikas’ brain. He could not let this continue. If he were to have an intimate contact with Aphsara, Vikas could experience the ecstasy too! Totally untenable and unacceptable!

He could not kill Vikas, who at this moment knew his every thought and move. Furthermore, if somehow he were to succeed in terminating Vikas, he would be arrested by the Maharaja’s forces for murder and placed in the palace dungeon and then probably executed: a despicable end and one that would desecrate Aphsara’s love for him.

Vikas was watching him with large wide-open eyes.

There was always a way around everything. Salim determined he would find that way. Vikas was not always sharing his being.

*****

Salim returned to the palace after staying ten days with his parents in the village. There he was feasted and fêted. Villagers from far and near came to visit him; the village belles eyed him shyly; the seniors with their garrulous wives praised the lord for guiding the Maharaja to this village to pick the son of the village sonar (jeweler) for such honour.

Salim found it difficult to not flirt with the girls who openly looked at him with invitations in their eyes.

On the fourth day, Dipti arrived. Tall and slim, she wore her skirt tantalizingly below her navel. Her choli (top) rode high on her ribcage exposing an expanse of sinuous midriff. She was there leaning against a tamarind tree at the common well. She stood out in a long yellow skirt and bright red choli. Salim excused himself and walked slowly and with a newfound swagger to where she waited.

“Hello, Dipti.”

A soft smile lit her eyes. She took her time to answer, “Hi… you look different… grown up.”

“So do you. I’ve been here four days… and now you come.”

She nodded her head slowly, “Yes… I don’t see you falling over yourself to come to see me, either!”

“I have been kept very busy with all these people coming to see me.” He let his eyes travel over her breasts and over her midriff. She had matured and had a certain confidence about her. “Remember we used to play in the corn fields over there?” he pointed.

“We were kids, then.”

“Yes.” Salim felt unnerved by her assessing eyes that studied every bit of him. They were childhood playmates; yet she had changed so tantalizingly that she was almost unrecognizable.

His leave passed in a blur and before he knew it, it was time to depart. He looked longingly for Dipti that day, but she was not to be found. He had been to her house twice. Eventually he bid farewell to his parents and headed for the Maharaja’s palace.

*****

Vikas bid farewell to his parents and headed for Salim’s village. He carried his tough buffalo-hide shoes balanced at the end of a lathi and some food: rotis and vegetables his mother had cooked for him—in a bag slung across his shoulder. A five-rupee note was securely tied at the end of his dhoti and tucked into his waist.

Dusk was closing in by the time he reached Allahgarh. A pall of cow-dung and wood smoke hung over the village. Cattle were being secured in cow sheds and oil lamps were being lit. The women had started preparing the evening meal.

Vikas saw a young girl standing by the side of the road and staring at him. As he approached she asked: “Salim, you have come back?”

Vikas smiled at her.

“Why have you changed your clothes? You look like a villager. Where are your fine clothes?”

Vikas again smiled at her.

“Are you going to your parents’ house?”

“Yes. Will you come with me?” That may be the only way Vikas would find Salim’s parents’ house.

“Okay,” she said and fell in by his side. “You are not Salim, you know.”

“No, I’m his brother.”

“He has no brother… you are the person Salim had combat with, right?”

Vikas stopped and turned to her, “If Salim has left, I may as well turn around and go back to my village right now.”

“It’s getting dark and these village roads are not safe at night. You could twist your ankle or even break your leg on a dark night like this. Come to my house: there is room for you to sleep the night. My parents are old and will be in their room already—no one will question you and you can stay the night in peace.”

Vikas agreed quickly. It would be difficult to explain his presence to Salim’s parents. They may not even allow him to stay there.

“What’s your name, by the way?”

“It’s Dipti. And yours is Vikas, I believe.”

“Yes.”

Vikas was led to a four-room long brick structure. The first room, he was told, was where Dipti’s parents lived. Dipti occupied the second room. Vikas was shown the last room. Dipti carried an oil lamp and pushed open the door to a room that was stacked with bags of grain—four feet high. A wooden plough lay on top. Large spider webs covered every corner and a rickety table stood to one side. Dipti spread a narrow durri for him to sleep on.

“Would you like some tea?”

*****

Salim walked to the kitchen for a tumbler of tea. He had seen the Maharaja and princess Aphsara descending the steps leading to the caparisoned horse carriages waiting for them. He stood to one side respectfully, head inclined, eyes lowered. As the royal party drew level with him, Maharaj Vishnu Singh addressed him: “Kaisae hoe, Salim?” (How are you?)

“With your blessings, I am well, Highness.”

“Salim,” said Princess Aphsara, “you must come and tell me all about the bout with your ‘soul brother’. I am busy now, but I’ll send for you in a day or two.”

“As you please, Princess.” And he bowed low.

They swept past, headed for the carriages. Horse-mounted soldiers would ride alongside.

Salim walked desultorily to the kitchen.

Word had it that the neighboring Maharaja Pratap was visiting with his young son. An alliance may be in the air between Princess Aphsara and the young Maharaj Kumar.

Salim took his tumbler of tea to his room. He sat on the bed and rested his back against the wall. A picture of the doe-eyed Dipti appeared in his mind.

*****

Vikas watched willowy Dipti spread a blanket and take his food to warm up in the kitchen. She returned presently with two thalis (eating plates with raised sides) of food and they sat side by side and ate. Afterwards they washed their fingers with water poured over the thalis. Dipti removed the sodden thalis to the rickety table.

“Are you sleepy?” asked Dipti.

“No.”

“Okay, let’s talk.”

They sat shoulder to shoulder with their backs resting against the grain bags. Though they were strangers, they spoke with a freedom that comes with old friendship. Sometime during the conversation she slipped her fingers into his. An excitement ran through their bodies.

Before she left to go to her room, she kissed him lightly on his lips. He was so sweet and humble, she thought, so unlike Salim.

*****

Salim awoke with a start. Had he been dreaming? It was something about Dipti—a kiss? Something exciting and as real as the wall he was resting against and the mosquitoes that drew blood from his arms and neck. He swiped at them.

And then he grinned, from ear to ear. He had his revenge!

Two can play the same game!

 

A Girl’s First Time

by Elizabeth Stephens

 

“Would you stop that? Please, you look fine. Now stop fussing with it.” Lauren stepped over to Jenna and snatched the ribbon from between her fingers. Lauren rolled her eyes and tried to look condemning but with the music of the costume shop rattling the glowing orange walls as if the whole thing were one giant boom box the expression quickly became much more gentle and much less sinister.

Ashley was somewhere laughing, wreaking havoc on the store’s customers. She appeared from around a neon yellow stand wearing a bright white wig pulled down over her long, dark hair. Her bangs shot out over her forehead in every direction, but beneath the harsh fluorescents her bronze cheeks glowed. She’d spotted the grim face of a gargoyle hanging on the wiry black rack to Jenna’s left and as she swept past the girls, she tossed the wig to the floor and pulled the bloody, ghoulish mask on instead.

“I’m a monster!” she roared, charging at Lauren and Jenna with her slim shoulders squared. Lauren screamed and Jenna’s pulse quickened. She watched the ribbon slip from Lauren’s fingertips and pirouette to the ground in soft, crimson curlicues.

“Would you guys cut it out?” Jenna stammered as she reached down to get it.

Lauren laughed, but Ashley was already off, chasing a group of middle schoolers down the next aisle. Jenna couldn’t tell by the sound of their screams who was having more fun—Ashley, or the kids—and then she was distracted by the pressure of Lauren’s fingers tracing soft lines down the length of her arm. Swiftly, Lauren pulled the long piece of satin from her grasp. Lauren’s eyes seemed speculative in the mirror’s gaze, never condemning, but somehow Jenna felt something feral and snakelike stir inside of her at the contact, that lulling touch.

Lauren’s lips curled up into a smile as she ran the ribbon slowly around Jenna’s narrow waist. “Well, it’s not anyone’s fault but your own that we’re here right now, little miss I’m-too-cool-to-buy-a-costume. How could you forget a costume, Jenna? It’s Halloween.”

Jenna scowled so hard it hurt.

Lauren tilted her head to the side and stood back to admire her work, but Jenna hardly felt it mattered. Jenna knew that Lauren didn’t need the little halo on her head or the small feathered wings to make her look like an angel. With long yellow hair and blue-green eyes, she already looked perfect. Too perfect.

Lauren tapped her full mouth with a manicured finger and said, half to herself, “I think you need something, I just can’t figure out what.”

At the same time, color flashed in the doorway behind them, and in the mirror’s gaze Jenna caught sight of two men walking into the costume shop. They came to a dead stop at the sight of Ashley, bent over the front counter, flirting with the boy at the register. Jenna watched their eyes travel up the long line of Ashley’s legs, jutting out from beneath a skin-tight naughty nurse’s outfit until one guy shoved the other and they staggered forward into the shop. Jenna sighed while Lauren picked up three different kinds of face paint and held them up at eye level. She frowned and put them all back.

“What?” Lauren said, lips pursed.

“What.”

“That swoon.” She mimicked the action and came upright laughing. “Don’t get all romantic on me now.”

Jenna pouted. “Why can’t I do that?”

“Do what?” Lauren picked up the wig Ashley had been wearing earlier and placed it on the gargoyle’s now vacant rack. It stood out, a light among monsters.

“Do what you and Ashley do. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Ashley just got a date wearing a disgusting ghoul face.”

Lauren perked up, smiling. “She did? Already?” She laughed and then said fondly, “That girl is crazy. It looks like we’ve got some catching up to do.” Her pupils dilated and Jenna’s heart sank. She turned back to her reflection and though it had only been a few seconds, she thought she looked paler now, and sick.

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” Lauren said with a blonde brow cocked.

“What?” Jenna tried to sound contrite, but her pale cheeks were already warming.

Lauren held onto her shoulders and laughed, the sound coming from deep within her belly in a place that was full of confidence and verve. Jenna wondered if she could ever laugh like that. If maybe, after tonight, she would.

“You’re worried about not being able to get a date to Trish’s party. That’s what all this costume nonsense is about.”

“No, it’s not,” Jenna said too quickly. “And I’m not. I just…”

“You’re going to be fine. Just be yourself.” Lauren perched her pretty face on Jenna’s shoulder and Jenna felt all her insides tighten to tiny metal knots. Her focus was torn between Lauren’s gaze and her ribbon, as if either one or the other was responsible for keeping her together. At this point she wasn’t entirely sure which. “I promise,” Lauren whispered. “Have I ever broken a promise to you?”

Jenna shook her head.

Lauren ruffled Jenna’s hair and then smoothed it all down again, with a mother’s touch. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Now?” Jenna’s voice was strained.

“Yes, now. Before Trish and her pack descend on the streets and all the good ones are taken.” Lauren drifted towards Ashley at the register while Jenna lingered a few moments behind. She stared at herself in the mirror and attempted to mimic the way Lauren or Ashley smiled, but she only looked uncomfortable at best, and at worst, constipated. Lauren called her name from the register and Jenna turned away from her reflection. As she approached Lauren mouthed a single word. The word was “perfect.” Jenna gulped. Though she didn’t feel worthy of the adjective she still followed Ashley and Lauren out of the costume shop, and together they stepped out onto the street; no longer three girls, but a nurse, an angel, and a kitten.

*****

The carnival on Warwick Boulevard was at its peak when they arrived, just after ten thirty. Jenna looked around at the people swarming the asphalt and realized that they’d come at the precise moment when Halloween day was nearing it’s crest and descending into Halloween night. It was early enough still that the youngest kids, dressed as superheroes and princesses, ghosts and goblins, were just beginning to head in to tally their newly earned treasure; but late enough that the older kids felt safe enough to crawl from their caves and head to the bars for their own personal brand of trick or treating. Carved pumpkins stared out at the street from nearly every storefront. With gaping mouths full of large, square teeth Jenna sometimes imagined she could hear them talking. Their eyes watched her as she walked. She wondered what they were thinking as a rush of warm air swirled past her, lifting her hair away from the arc of her shirt’s neck, which was as deep as a satisfied smile.

In front of her, Ashley was twirling through the crowd, dancing in a way that suggested she’d never been embarrassed of anything before in her life. When Ashley did another spin Lauren said loudly, “Ashley, you’re going to run into someone.” And then she did.

Ashley crashed into an Elvis making out with a white rabbit underneath the harsh glow of a streetlight. It was bestiality at its finest, Jenna thought to herself, though the snake in her belly stirred reflexively and she was filled with heat, and longing.

“Whoops.” Ashley laughed, coming back to Jenna’s side. Ashley tilted her head up towards the stars, though there weren’t many tonight, and fanned the top of her dress open. When she lifted her wrist Jenna caught a glimpse of the tattoo she had there. In a slanted, looping scrawl four neat words embroidered her tawny skin, Sweetheart, are you listening? Jenna had never asked her about it, and as she attempted to decipher a meaning she remembered that Ashley had another tattoo hidden just beneath the deep V of her dress’s collar. She wanted to say something about it, but her curiosities dissolved as Ashley’s eyes found her face.

“What?” Jenna said bluntly.

Ashley began bouncing, an impulse she couldn’t control. “Did you know that Halloween predates Christianity?”

Lauren groaned, “Oh god, not this again.” She looked down at Jenna, whose height she eclipsed by nearly five inches, and pretended to whisper. “She does this every year.”

“Hey, don’t be mean. You know Halloween is my favorite holiday of all time.”

Jenna smiled. “What’s so great about it?”

Ashley hardly needed the encouragement. She said, “It’s a Celtic holiday and was celebrated on the one night between Autumn and Winter when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest.” She waggled her fingers in Jenna’s face, brown eyes wild.

“So, then what?” Jenna said with the ghost of a smile. “The dead walk the earth?”

Ashley looped her arm through Jenna’s, voice saturated with conspiracy. “The dead and then some. You know the tradition of carving pumpkins was started to keep us protected from the monsters that haunt Halloween night. It was said that their menacing faces would ward off the hungry spirits.”

“Does it work?”

“I carved my pumpkin yesterday, have you carved yours yet?” Ashley lifted a thin black brow.

Jenna rolled her eyes. “No.”

“Then I guess we’ll see.”

Jenna’s adrenaline spiked at the stark notes of menace she heard in Ashley’s voice, and Lauren shoved the naughty nurse into the ever-thickening crowd. “Cut it out, weirdo.” Ashley just smiled.

Lauren took hold of Jenna’s hand as the density of the mob smashed into them, nearly preventing them from moving forward. Warwick emptied into Fisherman’s Field and right now they were being funneled into the carnival’s main entrance. As Jenna’s eyes canvassed the crowd and the flashing lights just beyond it, she remembered coming here with her mother, father, and little brother not too long ago. She and her little brother would run through the hay maze terrorizing one another, her father would win her a teddy bear at the ring toss, she and her mother would gorge on sapphire blue cotton candy, and at the end of the night they’d all ride the Ferris wheel and race each other to the stars. She felt her lips tighten and her eyebrows come together. She didn’t talk to her parents much anymore.

“Ashley,” Lauren said, “go scout for us. I’ll need a detailed report on the hottest guys here and keep in mind who Trish brought to the last party. If you can, snag us a couple boys who are even more beautiful and bring them to the Ferris wheel. We’ll catch up.”

Ashley swooned, collapsing into Jenna’s arms. Jenna gasped and struggled under her weight while Ashley sighed, “Oh my god, that boy was positively delicious.”

Lauren rolled her eyes and helped Jenna lift Ashley back to her feet. “Get out of here,” Lauren said, laughing. After a second Ashley saluted both girls, and then disappeared into the mob as swiftly as a shadow. Lauren turned to Jenna then, giving her an apprehensive look. Her smile had almost fully fallen. “What’s wrong? You seem off. You’re not still thinking about Trish’s party, are you?”

Jenna scoffed, saving face, or at least trying to. “Well, now I am.”

Lauren’s smile returned as they stepped onto the field and gravitated towards the bright lights of the merry-go-round and the eerily seductive music that accompanied it. “Don’t even say it.” She spoke in that lilting way she often did, touched with just a hint of her previous life in Louisiana. Jenna felt her nerves flutter. She had to remind herself that even though Lauren looked so young she could seem so much older. Jenna closed her eyes and leaned into the weight of Lauren’s cool touch while the lights of the approaching Ferris wheel rained over them both, like fireflies. Jenna thought again of Trish’s party, and meeting all of Lauren’s friends. Nausea overwhelmed her.

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

Lauren ignored her. “They are going to love you. You’re going to fit in perfectly, I know these girls.”

“Yeah, I know,” but it had to be perfect, “but still…”

“But nothing,” Lauren said, “You’ll be fine. And besides, I think I see Ashley.”

Seconds later Ashley bounded up to greet them, a large white teddy bear stuffed under one arm. “Hello lovelies.” She motioned over her shoulder and said, “I have a couple people I want you to meet. Connor and Jon. I met them at that balloon game over by the bouncy castle—they were losing horribly until I showed up—but anyway, we got to talking and they want to come with us to Trish’s party.” She feigned embarrassment. “Sorry L, I may have let the details slip.”

Jenna felt the hard curve of Lauren’s elbow clip her ribs as two boys Jenna hadn’t even noticed began to approach. Ashley continued talking but Jenna was lost in the boy on the right’s piercing blue gaze. He was beautiful, with shaggy russet hair and a light shade of stubble covering his hollow cheeks. He looked like the football players Jenna remembered from high school, though they’d never been interested in her then. But this boy stepped right up to her. He tugged down on the hem of his shirt, rubbed his square jaw, and touched the back of his neck. There was restraint in the way his hands twitched towards her, and in the way his eyes fought not to look up into her gaze. Like he was humbled by her. Like he couldn’t look away.

Jenna held out her small hand and it was quickly swallowed by his large one. He introduced himself again as if he’d forgotten that Ashley had already done it for him. “Hi, I’m Jon. Jon Weldon.”

“Jenna,” she said, feeling her stomach flip when he said his name. “It looks like you boys forgot your costumes.” She swept her eyes from Connor to Jon then back again.

Both boys laughed and she was surprised. She hadn’t entirely meant to be funny. Connor shrugged and said coyly, “Eh. Halloween’s never really been my thing. This dork over here wanted to dress up as Luigi and Mario but I was the rational one who talked him out of it.”

“That’s too bad.”

Lauren smirked and nudged Jenna with her hip. “Coming from the girl who I nearly had to hog-tie to get into cat ears and a black dress,” she said sarcastically.

Everyone laughed. Jenna bit her lip. Her eyes danced up to Jon’s and he seemed surprised again that she was looking at him. He gulped, dropped his voice and said very sweetly, “Well, I think you look nice. Really pretty.”

Heat rushed to her cheeks but Ashley thankfully interjected. “Alright ya’ll, I’ll be back in a few. Just going to pick up my date. Have fun on that death contraption.” Her eyes flashed up to the Ferris wheel in impish delight.

Lauren nodded. “Stay close. I’ll call you. Remember, we don’t have much time.” She ascended the first steel staircase and her heel clanged out of time to the carnival music. Jenna could see the ravenous notes floating above her beautiful friend’s head and she had the irrational desire to block Lauren from harm.

Ashley disappeared into the thinning crowd and Lauren nudged Jenna into the first carriage, next to Jon. Jenna wrinkled her nose apprehensively when the rickety car door closed and the metal bar came down across her lap. The red seats of the Ferris wheel were cool against the backs of her thighs as the rusting contraption resisted gravity and took them up into the sky. Jon was talking beside her, and in the car behind them she could hear Lauren and Connor laughing, as if they’d known one another for years rather than minutes. She felt something irrational swell inside of her chest, like the pinprick of a jealous love, but Jenna knew that was stupid. Lauren had that affect on everyone.

Jon cleared his throat. “So, have you lived here all your life?”

“What?” Jenna said, slightly shaken.

Jon smiled and the light hit the brights of his baby blues. They were powerful those eyes, pretty beautiful too. “Yep.” Her lungs jerked when the car came to a stop. They swung back and forth for a few seconds before the engine revved and they continued their climb.

“Wow, that’s pretty crazy. I mean, not that it’s bad,” he said awkwardly as Jenna lifted a brow. Crimson swirls, like roses, blossomed in his cheeks. She felt the sinewy snake she’d been working to suppress slither down her intestines, filling her gut with desire, and heat. Jon gibbered on, voice breaking like a twelve-year-old boy’s as he said, “It’s great, I mean the town is cool, and Connor has lived here forever. We played football together in school, it’s just,” he stuttered, “just.”

“Small?” Jenna offered and he sighed, relieved.

“Exactly.”

“You’re not from a small town then, I guess.”

“No,” he confessed while a confident grin wiped away the remains of his insecure expression. His eyes unfocused and Jenna watched him fondly as he returned to another lifetime. “I’m from Chicago but me and my dad and my little sister, Becca, moved to the south when his granddad died. I’ve only been here for a couple years, long enough to finish up high school and take some classes at the community college but,” he let his statement go unfinished.

“I know, it is small but,” she paused, and breathed, “it’s amazing how many new things happen all the time. I mean I’ve lived here for all seventeen years of my life and I’m always surprised by the crazy stuff that happens, and the new people I meet. I mean, I just met Lauren last year.”

“No kidding, you guys seem like you’ve been friends forever. Sisters, even.”

Jenna nodded and felt pride spread across her cheeks so wide she could hardly contain it. Her eyes flashed to Lauren in the car behind them. Lauren was watching her and when their eyes met, even from so far away, Jenna could still see them gleam. “Sometimes it feels that way. Sometimes it feels like I’ve known her all my life, but then I realize I’ve only known her for a year. One year to the day. I met her last Halloween. In the Haunted Forest. She scared me, and it turned out to be one of the craziest nights of my life, but,” Jenna shrugged, “I don’t know. We’ve been friends ever since.”

“Ha. So it’s kind of like your one-year anniversary.”

A corner of Jenna’s mouth pushed up into a lopsided smile that she felt travel all the way up to her eyes. “Something like that.”

“Though it’s hard to picture her ever being scary,” Jon said, glancing back to confirm his suspicions.

Jenna laughed. “Yeah, it is. I guess you’ll just have to trust me then. Either that, or maybe I’m just a wimp.” She chewed on her lower lip as she confessed, “I am terrified of heights.”

“So, you do have a flaw,” Jon teased in a way that made Jenna bite her lower lip. He looped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in to his side so that the clean line of their bodies came together. Jenna felt heat rise to her cheeks. “But you’ve got nothing to be afraid of. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you, I promise.” Jon winked.

Jenna smiled up into his smile and felt that he wanted to kiss her and that she was going to let him and the snake was titillating her senses but her phone began buzzing. She glanced down at her phone and saw a text from Ashley flash across the screen, followed closely by another from Lauren.

Time to go, sluts.

You ready, love?

Jenna turned back to face Lauren and nodded.

Foreign energy tunneled through Jenna’s limbs as the four of them made their way to the parking lot. A gust of wind hit her and it smelled like popcorn and candy and something so much darker. Jon’s hand was wrapped around hers and Lauren was at her side looking at her in a way that made her feel beautiful and Jenna couldn’t help but wonder whether or not Ashley’s talk about Halloween meant anything. What if there really was something different about tonight? Something blossoming and golden and perfect.

Ashley drove like a maniac. Jenna drove with Jon, Lauren, and Connor in the car behind her. Left, right, grind the clutch, change gears, blast the music, another left. Jon, in the driver’s seat, could barely keep up. Jenna laughed when Jon commented crassly on Ashley’s driving under his breath. The caravan barreled down Route 3 like they were racing for the dawn and when Ashley veered off at mile 6, they took the turn going forty. Jenna swung into the door, hitting her head on the window. Lauren laughed, but still reached forward and asked if she was okay.

Jenna stuck out her tongue while her cheeks simmered. She whispered, “I’m not that fragile.”

“I’m not so sure,” Jon said.

Jenna laughed and hit his arm while the car squeezed down a narrow dirt road. Trees closed in around them, illuminated only by their slate grey silhouettes against the onyx sky. Soon the only lights left were the cars’ headlights, the slim face of the moon, and the glow from the jack-o’-lanterns guarding Trish’s house.

“Holy shit,” Jon muttered and Jenna felt her stomach clench as she saw all the cars piled in Trish’s unpaved driveway. The last spaces left were just beyond the tree line, and the hard tires of both vehicles desecrated the forest floor, dry leaves and pine needles crunching as they came.

Lauren was first out of the car, and opened up Jenna’s door for her. She gave Jenna a small, brief hug and in her ear, she whispered, “Don’t be nervous. You’ll have a great time if you just be yourself. Just be yourself.”

The boys gathered beneath the glow of the pumpkins, which lined Trish’s wrap-around, plantation-style porch, while the girls hung back. Ashley stepped up to Lauren and Jenna and threw her arms around both girls’ necks. “Happy Halloween,” she said.

“Ashley, you are a total freak.” Lauren rolled her eyes, though there was a small carnivorous smile corrupting her angelic expression.

“Oh my gosh, I love you guys,” Ashley said, looking between both girls and completely ignoring Lauren, “You guys are my family.”

“Yes. We are a family,” Lauren agreed, her gentle gaze pressing down onto Jenna. Jenna sucked in a breath and followed Lauren towards the house, as she would have followed her anywhere: blindly.

The mansion loomed up before her in Southern-gothic decadence. Baroque minarets spiraled up into the sky, every elegant detail carefully embellished. The house was three stories, and the third had a gnarled, wrought-iron balcony framing it. The light was on behind the landscape window and Jenna felt it watching her like an eye, searching endlessly for perfection. Spanish moss hung down from the third story to touch the soft eggshell awning. Jenna thought of the little ruby chiggers hiding in it. Perhaps if they crawled beneath her skin they’d find in her flesh the perfection she was seeking. Lush emerald ivy crawled up the sides of the house, overtaking the porch, so that it seemed almost as if the earth and the sky had fully claimed it. And amidst it all stood a handful of girls, so blindingly beautiful Jenna felt herself come to a dead stop at the foot of the staircase while the boys moved out in front of her. Jon turned back when he saw she wasn’t following and held out his arm. She opened her mouth, but Lauren spoke for her.

“Give us a minute, Jon. Girl stuff.” She wrinkled her nose, but Jon looked to Jenna for confirmation.

She nodded and let Lauren take her arm and pull her up, step after step, while the boys slipped inside the house. When the boys disappeared, a girl with glittering onyx hair stepped forward.

“Lauren,” she said, smile spreading. Two girls stood just behind her and they moved forward when she did.

“Trish, this is Jenna,” Lauren said, “Jenna this is Trish, Mary Beth, and Claire.” The girls behind Trish smiled, though Jenna could see the unmistakable hesitation lingering in the whites of their eyes. They looked to Trish for confirmation. Trish’s gaze hung on her face unwaveringly, and Jenna’s left knee threatened to buckle beneath its weight. Trish’s dark eyes were intense, and seemed to be searching for something. Jenna wondered if she’d found it.

“So, this is the one I’ve heard so much about?” Trish asked finally.

Jenna glanced to Lauren. Lauren’s voice was filled with pride. “The one.”

Trish said to Jenna with a wink, “She’s been hiding you for a while.”

Jenna’s mouth fell open but didn’t know what to say. So she didn’t.

The girl with the vibrant red hair, Mary Beth, interrupted. “Tonight is your first time?”

“Oh, hush now,” Trish said, moving forward towards Jenna. “No need to make her more nervous than she already is.” Trish’s eyes scanned Jenna up and down openly. When she finished, she beamed and touched her lips. “Oh my stars,” she said. Without prelude, she snatched Jenna up into her arms. “Lauren, you didn’t tell me she would be such a doll.”

Lauren smiled coolly, and somehow Jenna got the sense that Lauren and Trish had known one another for quite a while. “Of course. I told you there was a reason that I picked her.”

Trish wrinkled her nose and stared at Lauren affectionately. “You always did pick well.” Her eyes flashed to Ashley when she said this and Ashley blushed, looking humble for the first time Jenna could ever remember. “Well now, this is going to be fun. But we better get moving, it’s almost midnight and we don’t want to keep the rest of the girls waiting. They’re getting anxious.” Everyone smiled and glanced conspiratorially amongst one another. Jenna didn’t, but this was because Trish had her by the shoulders and was pushing her into the house, which swallowed her up.

It took Jenna’s eyes a few minutes to adjust to the darkness. The only lights inside were soft orange orbs shaped like pumpkins with open mouths and wandering eyes, nailed to the kings-crown molding. Trish steered her into the kitchen and handed her a beer. Jenna sipped on it reflexively while Trish turned to the girls gathered around the coffee table and interrupted all of their conversations.

“Hello ladies,” she said, “may I introduce you to Miss Jenna. It is her first time tonight and I believe it’s about time for everyone to grab their dates and get on the dance floor!” Their reaction was instantaneous and Jenna was stunned as the mob of pretty, perfect girls cheered, and then swarmed her. They hugged her, and kissed each of her cheeks before darting off in every direction. Their heels click-clicked over the parquet and their voices reverberated through the big house as they went to spread the news.

Jenna was overwhelmed. While Trish, Mary Beth, and Claire emptied their beers and laughed at one of Ashley’s stupid jokes, Jenna’s eyes genuflected and found Lauren. Lauren looked up, as if she could feel Jenna’s eyes on her face and drifted over to her.

As Lauren walked, she said, “It’s alright Trish, I’ve got it from here. Go change the music to something a little more apropos and we’ll meet you in the living room.”

“Absolutely.” Trish gave Jenna one final hug before drifting out of the room. Mary Beth and Claire stared at Trish with reverence and followed her when she left.

Ashley gravitated to their small trio and held her hands to her lips. She smelled like candy and vanilla and cinnamon and said, “Tonight is going to be perfect.”

Perfect. It would be. It had to be. Jenna felt something small and beautiful burst in her chest.

Lauren adjusted the ribbon around her waist with affection. “Just,” she started.

“Be myself,” Jenna finished for her with a small smirk. “I know.”

“Good.” Lauren stared down at Jenna for a long time, then dropped her voice to a whisper. “And now we dance.”

Music blasted through the walls from a nearby room. It reverberated through the floorboards with deep sensual notes and Jenna felt sweat glisten on her forehead. The grandfather clock in the hallway read 11:52. Ashley clapped and pushed Jenna toward the hall, whispering sweet things into her ear as they went. Jenna felt deaf to the encouragement. Still, she followed Lauren from the foyer to the living room to the den, which was all bass and sweat and heat and dancing bodies moving to the rhythm of the darkness.

Jenna weaved through the crowd with Lauren and Ashley behind her, and when they reached a comfortable spot near the center of the dance floor, they stopped. People made room for them, and Jenna became distinctly aware of the pressure of many different sets of eyes wandering over her skin.

“Don’t worry about them,” Ashley shouted as she dipped her hips into the strangers behind her. She twisted and closed her eyes, and Jenna watched with envy as Ashley danced without inhibition. Jenna was frozen until Lauren grabbed her hand and wrenched her forward so that the warmth of their bodies collided. She gulped, but the snake in her belly was rabid. She could feel it thrashing and closed her eyes, letting herself melt into the dance floor beside Lauren and Ashley. Her family. Minutes later she started to sweat. She opened her eyes to see Lauren smiling, though her eyes seemed panicked. To her left, Ashley’s brown hands were roaming all over her body, combing through her hair, touching the curve of her neck. Ashley flipped her hair and Lauren closed her eyes and Jenna felt something blisteringly hot swirl beneath her skin.

Trish appeared just then with three familiar faces. “They were looking for you,” she said. She winked and pushed the boys forward. Jon stepped over to Jenna and she felt her smile widen while Ashley’s date slipped behind her and Connor took Lauren’s hand. Trish smiled and pulled her own date behind her and over her shoulder Jenna saw Mary Beth and Claire. They were watching.

“Sorry,” Jon shouted over the blare of the music. She could feel the mechanical jerks of the cymbals and low drone of the drums pushing up through the soles of her shoes, jarring her senses. Her bones rattled and she knew that the music was demanding something from her and she could barely hold on to it.

Jenna didn’t respond. Instead, she turned around to face him, stood up on her tiptoes, and brushed her mouth across his lips. He froze for a moment, as if surprised, but did not resist as her arms circled his neck and she pressed herself against him. His hands coiled around her waist hesitantly at first, but then as the seconds wore on, increased their pressure. He was touching her breasts, his hands moving down beneath the hem of her skirt to squeeze her inner thigh and Jenna could feel that they were still watching her, all of them, and she loved it. It was as if a match tore down her spine, igniting her body and she felt something strange twist the contours of her small face. Feelings she’d never before experienced consumed her, and then she opened her eyes.

Everything was in black and white. Panicked, she looked over Jon’s shoulder to find Lauren. Lauren was staring at her, back to Connor, and when their eyes met Jenna was spellbound. Jon continued to kiss her neck, but Jenna’s thoughts all came to a grinding halt, dwindling to just one: Lauren had never looked more beautiful than this. Her eyes were lidless, round orbs resting precariously in the top of her skull and her mouth was a messy, gaping hole. It was as if her whole face had been stitched from the corners of her mouth back to her hairline, and then ripped at the seams. All that remained now were teeth. They lined the black mass of her mouth like razor blades, or broken bits of glass, and they reflected Jenna’s world back to her in miniature. She glanced over at Ashley and saw tremors rip through the girl’s caramel skin in violent pulses. The boy who was breathing heavily into her hair and squeezing her breasts did not notice the snout protruding from between her cheeks or the ten-inch talons that had from her fingertips. Light gleamed off of her claws when Ashley reached up and pointed at Jenna’s chest. Jenna blinked, and the snake inside of her exploded. That last, lingering hesitation released. She was enraptured, and she knew that they were all watching her, waiting, because she was queen of the moment, and tonight was her night.

She pulled away from Jon and fear flashed through his eyes when he looked at her. He opened his mouth to say something but his lips fumbled, and at the sight of his terror the snake dissolved into her spine and she felt a smile form on her face. Her back arched forward, her hands distended into claws, and her jaw unhinged. Jon cantered back, but her thumbnail hooked through his shoulder, plunging through layers of tissue and muscle and skin. He unleashed a sad sort of sound, but was quickly silenced by the pressure of Jenna’s teeth sinking into the soft flesh of his neck. She took him down. Cheers rose up, followed closely by boys’ screams, but Jenna didn’t pay attention to any of that. Blood burst into her mouth and rushed down her throat and tasted both salty and sweet. Her body coiled around his like a constrictor and she ripped tags of flesh free of his chest, tearing straight through to the bone. Small fountains of crimson sprayed up and hit her face. She could feel him punching her side, resisting her in any way he could, but she knew she was stronger than he was. She knew he wouldn’t be able to get away. Jenna moved up to his cheek and nibbled on his right ear, then tore it away from his face. He screamed as the cartilage shifted to her stomach and settled with a feather-light weight. She moaned. He tasted like pure gold, a gratifying sin. She’d never known such glorious revulsion.

She tossed the mane of her hair back and glanced over to see a boy bursting for the door and two girls tearing after him, mouths wide and teeth gleaming. Beside her, Ashley was hunched over the dead carcass of her date and she was licking blood off of the soft tubes of his intestines. They looked like sausages in the soft, orange light and Ashley looked like she was in a euphoric state. She looked perfect. The top of her dress was ripped down the middle and Jenna could see her black bra and her full, blood-stained breasts. Jenna’s eyes focused on the tattoo decorating Ashley’s flesh. She read, Semper Esurio. Beneath her, Jon made a sound and she looked down at his blubbering lips; she tilted her head to the side, then leaned down, and ate them. She felt the pressure of Jon’s big, swollen heart stop beating shortly after that.

Jenna was distracted from carving her name into the crimson and cream of his breast when Lauren tilted her head back and howled to the unseen starlight. One of her now tattered wings was missing, and blood covered her white dress. Lauren straddled Connor’s muscular abdomen as she peeled back his skin, revealing the pulp of his bursting organs while he continued to choke on his own entrails, spitting up lungfuls of red. Her eyes found Jenna’s and she beamed at her with unrestrained pride before plunging her fist into Connor’s chest and ripping his heart out through his sternum. Lauren held the fist-sized organ between her talons, lovingly playing with it like putty as the life finally drained from Connor’s eyes. And then she stood, full of grace, and stepped across the floor, bare white feet plodding through puddles of deep burgundy. Jenna watched her as she walked. She watched her balance the slippery organ between her hands and then extend it towards her face. The smooth aorta touched Jenna’s bottom lip and Jenna opened her mouth wide as it’s heat branded her. Lauren squeezed, and the liquid splashed down Jenna’s throat while the music took her thoughts from the sweet, lovely boy lying dead beneath her, to the fresh flesh now feeding her own hungry, gluttonous veins. She’d never known such crippling lust, or glowing hunger, and she’d never felt more secure looking up into the eyes of her mother, sister, friend, and creator, bits and pieces of skin and muscle dangling from her narrow chin. Jenna rubbed the blood across her chest, bathing in its effervescence and it was then that Jenna felt it, for the first time that Halloween, flowing into her in crimson ribbons: that sweet, raw perfection. She drank the red nectar, and she was warm.

*****

Hours after the excitement had died down and they’d nearly absolved Trish’s house of blood and sin and excrement, Jenna found herself laughing with Trish and Mary Beth as they threw all of the beer bottles and red Solo cups into large black bags to be recycled. Trish carried the garbage bags while Jenna and Mary Beth dragged one half-eaten carcass out of the back door. Mary Beth was commenting on his weight and Trish shoved her into the bleeding guts of his stomach. All three girls laughed when Mary Beth resurfaced, covered in crimson. They were clearing the feast from the dance floor and Lauren told Jenna that she was glad that Jon had been her first, he was a sweet boy. Jenna smiled dreamily and said that she was glad too. She plucked the remains of her satin ribbon from between Jon’s hardened fingers and Lauren affixed it around her waist, then the girls dragged him out to the woods in two pieces; body separated from his head.

When Jenna and Lauren returned to the living room Ashley started singing a Spice Girl’s song, using her mop as a microphone. Pretty soon Jenna and the rest of the girls joined in, off-key notes rising up and reverberating through their ivory mausoleum. The house was as clean as it would ever be and tired, all the girls hugged and kissed good bye. They stepped out beneath the silver moonlight and dispersed to their cars. Jenna took the front seat of Ashley’s silver SUV while Lauren sprawled out over the back, picking foreign objects from between her teeth and examining what was left of her dress. One of Ashley’s nails had not returned to normal size and Lauren was still teasing her about it while in the front, Jenna fiddled with the dials on the radio until she came to a song they all agreed on. Talk again returned to singing, and as Jenna danced wildly with Lauren and Ashley in the car and the hollow yellow eyes of the jack-o’-lanterns watched them go, she felt perfectly calm. She felt at home.

 

The Bishop’s Funeral Procession: An Anchor Tale

by Patrick Glancy

 

The following story was discovered in a manuscript containing the personal diary of George Logos, a middling poet/diplomat from the middle period of the Anchorian middle ages. Or as we call it in the Royal History Department, the medimedieval era. (Okay, so only I call it that. But I’m hoping it will catch on.) The story itself doesn’t have much particular historical significance, but in light of the recent exhumation of Bishop Salt’s tomb (see the November 2011 issue of Anchorian Scientist magazine for full details), I thought it might shine a light on a few things. Official Church records note only the date of the bishop’s death and his burial at the Mausoleum in Julia’s Crossing. In order to fill in the rest, I have taken the liberty of editing Logos’ journal entries into what is hopefully a more readable composition, while also adding snarky commentary when appropriate. And out of consideration to the reader, all poetry has been removed.
          Patrick Glancy
          Lesser Historian of the Kingdom of West Anchor

 

I.

We’d been in East Anchor for nearly two months when the head of the Anchorian Church, the honorable Bishop Ambrose Salt suddenly dropped dead. King Philo III had sent us as part of a delegation to negotiate the marriage of his son, Prince Philo Soon To Be The Fourth [his official title], to Princess Taffy, daughter of Oggie, King of East Anchor. [The East Anchorians have a penchant for ridiculous names.] It was hoped that such a match might bring a lasting peace to the peninsula. [To fill in newcomers to the area, West and East Anchor share a large peninsula off the mainland that is shaped remarkably like an anchor. Makes sense, right? And while roughly equal in total size, East Anchor got the short end of the stick in natural resources, strategically useful geographic features, a ruling class considerably less genetically predisposed toward mental illness, percentage of the overall population properly classified as pretty girls, and just about every other kind of desirable property an ambitious kingdom aspiring toward success can hope to possess. Think of the relatively one-sided relationship between the United States and Canada, only with a whole lot more fighting and no hockey.] Arrangements had hit a snag shortly after our arrival. The sticking point, as per usual, was money. King Philo had explicitly demanded a certain amount for the bride’s dowry, and East Anchor simply didn’t have any at all. It was said that they didn’t even bother to lock the doors of the treasury anymore, and I can personally vouch that this was true. I wandered down there one evening by mistake, only to find the doors thrown wide open and a stray chicken pecking about inside the empty room. [Stray dogs and cats are one thing, but what kind of country has stray chickens?]

Our party consisted of forty-five official diplomats, plus an extensive entourage to attend to the most senior members. The two leaders of our delegation, Duke Phillip [the king’s brother] and Bishop Salt were housed in the Royal Palace, while the rest of us were forced to seek accommodation wherever we could find it in Loserville. [The original name of the East Anchor capitol has been lost to history. Some time shortly after the civil war that separated the two kingdoms, they lost yet another war to West Anchor, who then magnanimously forced them to rechristen their capitol city Loserville. In a further show of mature diplomacy, the Western nobility also insisted on publicly administering wedgies to all the defeated generals who had dared oppose them. To overcompensate for this long-standing blow to their collective self-esteem, the capitol was recently renamed Awesome City by the East Anchorian Parliament with an abundance of hullabaloo and posturing. Before you start considering it as a possible vacation destination though, keep in a mind that a shithole by any other name is still a shithole.]

I was staying in an inn on Douchebag Street [no, nobody had ever made them rename their streets, so read into that whatever you want] and attending to my morning prayers, when a messenger knocked on my door and told me the bishop had died during the night. My presence was requested at the palace immediately.

The bishop’s quarters were opulent, at least for East Anchor. He had wood paneling on the walls and a roll of real toilet paper on his windowsill. [Think about it for a second and you’ll understand why you wouldn’t want to forget your umbrella if you ever have the chance to travel back in time to a medieval Anchorian city.] The floor was littered with empty wine bottles and his mitre was hanging from the antlers of a stuffed deer head hanging over the fireplace. One of the guards posted outside showed me in to Duke Phillip. He was sitting at the dining table, cracking his knuckles and chewing his lower lip. His page, a young boy barely old enough to sprout a hair or two on his chin, stood by his side.

The bishop was at the other end of the table, a large, blubbery man, dressed in the gold cassock that signified his position. He had collapsed forward, most of his chubby round face submerged in a bowl of congealed green soup. The weight was enough to slightly lift the legs on Duke Phillip’s end of the table off the floor. “Hell of a sight, isn’t it?” the Duke commented.

His squirrelly page shook his head. “If only he’d been a little hungrier,” he said, noting the relative shallowness of the bowl in which he had possibly drowned.

I looked around at the bevy of wine bottles and his manatee-like frame. [I didn’t add that manatee part. Logos actually compares him to a sea cow. Classic.] “Yeah,” I said, unable to hold my tongue. I wasn’t sure if the kid was serious or not. “That was his problem.”

“’Tis a tragic loss for all the faithful,” the page continued, apparently not picking up on my sarcasm.

Duke Phillip nodded solemnly, so I had little choice but to do the same. [Apparently, Logos was not entirely convinced of the holiness of His Holiness.] “What can I do, m’lord?” I asked, offering my assistance.

He didn’t speak right away, but as soon as he opened his mouth I knew it was going to be bad. [I get that same feeling all the time around my wife. It usually leads to me cleaning out the gutters or attending some dreadful dinner party at her pretentious sister’s house.] “He’s got to go home to Julia’s Crossing,” the Duke declared. [Julia’s Crossing is the capitol of West Anchor. If you’re unsure as to its exact location, a map can be found in an atlas. Because I sure as hell don’t have one here. Or you might try your luck at the official website for the West Anchor Bureau of Tourism, assuming the guys in the Royal IT Department have cleared up that whole supervirus thing. In any case, it might not be a bad idea to check it out on a friend’s computer first, rather than your own.] “He needs to be laid to rest in the Mausoleum with all his predecessors.”

I looked anxiously at the mountain of girth slumped over the other end of the table. “You want me to take him back to Julia’s Crossing?” I asked doubtfully.

Duke Phillip nodded and rose to his feet. “Of course,” he said. “This backwater is no place for a man like the Bishop to spend eternity.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he cocked a thumb at his page and added, “Dougie will help you.”

“Oh, good. Dougie,” I said, trying not to look too enthusiastic. It was a remarkably easy feat to pull off. “You just wanna grab his haunches then, Dougie? I’ll get his arms and we’ll just lug the fat bastard home.”

The page looked slightly offended, but the Duke took little notice of my wisecrack as he made for the door. “I’d handle it myself, but we still have important business to attend to here. I trust you to take care of it, George. You have my full confidence.”

The page made an overly elaborate and ceremonial bow to the Duke. “It shall be done, my lord.” [We once had an intern a lot like Dougie here at the Royal History Department, I used to dump my pencil shavings in his soda. But he’s a judge now, and I still work in a dusty basement, so I guess we’re basically even.]

I gave the kid a sideways scowl, but the Duke hardly seemed to notice him at all. He was about to leave when he stopped in the doorway and turned back to me. “Oh, and one more thing,” he said. “My brother was very close to Bishop Salt. Break the news to him gently.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And how shall I do that, m’lord?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Write him a poem or something.”

II.

We were followed out of Loserville by a parade of prostitutes. [Or aunts, as I was taught to call them by my dad.] They were dressed in black [skimpily, I assume], and making a rather over-the-top show of their mourning. Their moans and wails alternated between unnerving and erotic. “Why are they following us?” the confused page asked.

I couldn’t help cracking a grin. “Who do you think the good bishop spent most of his time attending to?” I said.

He thought it over for a second and shook his head. “What an amazing man,” he said. “Clearly he was without judgment in his vocation.”

I stopped walking and turned to look him in the eye. “Were you raised on a turnip farm or something, boy?”

“I was, actually,” he said without the slightest hint of irony.

I could only roll my eyes.

Before we left the city, I had managed to rent out a plague cart. [He’s probably referring to the Laughing Plague, a decidedly unfunny ailment that ran rampant across the peninsula every few years or so during the middle ages. I’ll cover it in more detail at a later time.] After getting a local carpenter to build a massive casket, we loaded it onto the cart and hooked it up to a team of oxen I’d charged to the Duke’s account. I didn’t know the first thing about mustering oxen, but the hostler assured me it was simple.

“Just whip ’em if you want ’em to go,” he told me.

“What if I want them to stop?” I asked.

“Just whip ’em again.”

“Oh,” I said. “That sounds logical.” Damn East Anchorians.

The plan was to transport the body a short distance to the northeast of the city where the main East Anchor harbor was located. [The reason Loserville was not built directly on the harbor was because East Anchor had no real navy to speak of and such a location would have made it too easy of a target.] From there I had booked passage on a merchant ship called the Rosy Cheek. [Worst ship name ever.] Dougie had reservations about sailing though. “Is it absolutely necessary?” he asked. “I’ve heard stories about pirates. Are they true?”

“Every bit,” I took pleasure in informing him. “But it’s only a short trip and we’ll be hugging the coastline all the way. As soon as we get to the mouth of the Upside Down River, we can catch a skiff upstream to Julia’s Crossing and be done with this business. Then I can get back to working on my masterpiece.” [His masterpiece was a one-thousand-stanza poem entitled An Ode To The Muse’s Lament. It is every bit as awful as it sounds.]

“I don’t know,” Dougie said. “Still sounds iffy to me.”

I groaned. “If you’d prefer to haul this slab of a holy man over or around the Ringed Mountains by yourself, be my guest,” I told him. “But if you want my help, we’re taking the shortcut.”

That seemed to settle the matter. Onboard the Rosy Cheek, a leech offered to buy the corpse from me. [Leech was a common term for doctors of the time, derived from their most popular prescription. It’d be like if we called doctors Vicodins today.] It was tempting, but in the end, I decided a few silver coins weren’t worth the price of my head, which is what the king would have taken from me if he’d ever found out what I’d done. Dougie had gone below deck at my suggestion. He’d been feeling seasick and I told him it would be better down there. I had no idea if that was actually true or not, I just wanted to get him away from me. After a while, I must have started to feel guilty or something, so I decided to go down myself and check on him.

I couldn’t find him anywhere, but that wasn’t what really bothered me. In the cargo hold, someone had pried open the oversized casket. Bishop Salt’s hulking body was sprawled out across the table. Cautiously, I looked around. “Dougie?” I called out softly in the most non-threatening tone I possessed. “Unidentified necrophiliac?” [Interesting that his mind went straight to that.] I got no response and was about to rush to the captain for assistance when something completely unexpected happened. The ship blew up.

I remember hearing the boom and being lifted into the air, but then I don’t know if something hit me on the head or what. Whatever happened, I blacked out for a moment. Only for a moment though. When I came to I was in the water, a good distance from the ship, which was burning and already beginning to sink. There were no signs of other passengers around me, only splinters of wood and the bishop’s corpse floating beside me. [That manatee comparison is starting to look pretty spot on right about now, huh?] Not being an exceptionally strong swimmer, I grabbed hold of his ham hock of an arm. I could see the shore from where we were at, and there was little else to do but wait for the tide to carry us in.

When we got to the beach, I was surprised to see Dougie was already there. He was sitting barefoot in the sand and judging from his expression, he was even more shocked to see me than I was to see him. “You’re alive?” he said.

I shoved the bishop’s body into the sand and climbed over him, putting my feet back on solid ground. “Aye,” I said, casting a quick glance back at the smoldering ship, which was already almost completely submerged. “I don’t know what the hell happened, but it looks like we’re the only two that made it.”

That was not entirely accurate however.

Behind me, the bishop coughed.

III.

I scrambled back in the sand and fell over my own feet. Dougie continued to sit motionless on the beach, too stunned to move, I assumed. Less than ten feet from us, the dead bishop had risen to his feet, though he was nearly doubled over, hacking and wheezing. Being well-versed in zombie mythology, the first thing I did was cover my brain. [Good to know that zombie stories were just as popular in the middle ages as they are now. Sparkly vampires, on the other hand, would have struck the medieval mind as absolutely ridiculous. The fact that they don’t inspire the same gut reaction today is an indictment of our entire modern civilization.] A few moments later, the bishop got his coughing under control and spat out a disgusting gob of greenish-yellow gunk. Then he blinked a couple of times and looked over at us. Or more specifically, Dougie. I’m not sure if he had noticed me at all. “Why am I all wet, Dougie?” he asked in a hoarse voice. “Did I soil myself while I was under or something?”

Dougie caught his breath, and I immediately knew I was in trouble. I glanced over at my bumpkin companion. “What’s he talking about, Dougie?” I asked. “How does he even know your name?”

The resurrected bishop raised an eyebrow and looked over in my direction for the first time. “What’s this asshole doing here?” he asked.

I didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, I jumped to my feet and bolted. “Get him, Dougie!” I heard the bishop cry out behind me.

I had a direct line to a copse of trees just off the beach, but I only made it a few steps. Dougie moved like a cat [a cat trained in ninjitsu] and swept my legs out from under me. As I tried to get up again, he buried his knuckles into my lower back and my whole body went numb. It only lasted for a few seconds, but it was long enough for him to pin me down. “Sorry about this, old chap,” he said, pressing his knee into my sternum. [I added the old chap part myself, but Logos does say that his whole manner of speaking changed from the naïve farm boy shtick to something far more sinister. To me, that automatically implies some kind of ultra-British James Bond villain.] He reached into his tunic and produced a short dagger.

“Wait,” the bishop called out, staggering toward us. He tossed the boy his prayer beads. “Tie him up. We might be able to get something out of him if he’s alive.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but there wasn’t much I could do as Dougie bound my hands with the beads. The bishop surveyed our surroundings, his eyes still adjusting to the light. “Where the hell is Fulk?” he cursed. “We need to get outta here before anybody else sees us.”

I was still too confused to say anything, but a voice did shout from the far end of the beach. I was able to lift my head just enough to see the leech from the ship staggering toward us. He was as drenched as the rest of us, and he had several inflated pig bladders tied around his waist and arms. [Medieval floaties.] “God’s balls, fellas,” he exclaimed. “Was all that entirely necessary?”

Bishop Salt was still in the dark about what was going on, though not as much as it appeared I was, and Dougie simply shrugged. “It wasn’t my idea to get on the boat,” he said. “If you’d been more persuasive in trying to buy the body, I wouldn’t have had to blow the damn thing up.”

Tossing aside his dripping bladders [that just sounds bad], the leech raised a defensive eyebrow. “So, it’s my fault now?”

The bishop groaned and stepped between them. “Enough of that crap already,” he growled. He looked down at me and then to Dougie. “Get him on his feet. We’re leaving.”

IV.

“God’s rotten teats,” the bishop bellowed. “Any bloody idea where the hell we’re at?”

I shook my head at the language. “You are officially the worst holy man I’ve ever met,” I said. [Logos never had the misfortune of crossing paths with Fred Phelps.]

“Shutup,” Salt hissed. “Or I will have Dougie cut your tongue out.”

I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of his threat. We’d been walking through the jungle that lay beyond the beach for what felt like hours. Through the occasional gaps in the treetops, I could tell that we were moving toward the foot of the mountains. My hands were still bound with the prayer beads and Dougie had been behind me every step of the way. He had never bothered to put his dagger away.

Bishop Salt walked ahead of me. The fat man was sweating profusely, and his steps had taken on an increasingly zigzagging nature. His skin was pale and his breathing labored. He was obviously still weakened by whatever had happened to him, and it only made him more foul-tempered as we went along.

Fulk the leech led the way, acting as our de facto guide. He claimed to know exactly where we were going, but I had my doubts. “We’re almost there,” he assured the bishop.

“Almost where?” I dared to ask.

The leech pushed aside a large palm and grinned. “There,” he said, pointing to a dilapidated cabin.

“Oh,” I said. “And here I was worried that it wasn’t going to be worth the wait.” [I love that Logos is such a smartass, but I have to wonder how much of this stuff he actually said. Considering that the only source for the story is his personal diary, I can’t help but think a lot of his best quips are probably things he wishes he said. Even if that is the case, I can’t fault him too much for it. I do the same thing when I tell people stories about working with my boss, Frederick, the Grand Historian of West Anchor.]

“Shutup and get inside,” the bishop snorted, giving me a firm push in the back.

Once inside, I was shoved into a corner and tied to a post like a horse. The place was fairly empty, except for a large wooden table, on which was placed a black bag. [Sounds like my first apartment in college. Minus the table and bag.] Dougie pressed his back against the wall and slid down to the floor to relax. The exhausted bishop took a load off on the table. “Do we got any food around here?” he asked. “I’m starving.”

“There’s a banana tree out back,” the leech informed him.

“Good. Why don’t you make yourself useful and go pick me some?”

The leech looked like he was about to complain, but thought better of it. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, slamming the door shut behind him. The whole cabin shook. [Yep, just like my first apartment.]

I looked over at Dougie, who was still holding his knife. “Look,” I said. “I know I’m just the innocent hostage here, but would you guys mind filling me in on what’s happening and how it concerns me?” I turned my attention to the panting bishop. “I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you supposed to be dead?”

The bishop chuckled. “Only temporarily,” he explained. “There was a dose of Creeping Death in my soup.” [Creeping Death is the street name for oxyclorosybocillin, a drug that causes a death-like state of catatonia, usually for between eight to thirty-six hours. For more information on its effects and uses, please see my translation of the classic Anchorian tale, The Minstrel Who Couldn’t Play, available in bookstores everywhere, should someone decide to actually publish it. I promise there are no shameless plugs in it.]

Well, that explained why he was breathing again, but not much else. “You’re here because you’re the fall guy, so to speak,” he continued.

“Fall guy? For what?”

The leech had come back in by now and tossed the bishop a banana. He peeled it and chomped half of it in one bite. “For the war,” he said with a malicious smile.

I looked over at Dougie, but he showed no emotion one way or the other. The leech was too busy poking his head around in the black bag to pay us much attention. “What war?” I asked. “Why would there be a war?”

“Because of this,” the bishop said, lifting up his vestments. [Most monks and clergy members in the middle ages did not wear underpants, so it couldn’t have been a pretty sight.]

I recoiled out of reflex, but other than the fat rolls, there wasn’t really anything offensive to be seen. “There’s gonna be a war because you can’t see your own dick?” I shot back.

He looked annoyed for a second, but quickly pointed to the side of his bulbous gut where his appendix should have been. It was bulging even more than the rest of him, and was discolored as well, like it was bruised. I could see a crude oval stitched around it.

“What in god’s name is that?”

He patted it gently and smiled. “The crown jewels of East Anchor,” he said.

Now it was really starting to make no sense at all. “I was under the impression that East Anchor was broke,” I pointed out.

“They are now,” the bishop said with a smug smirk. “This is the last of their movable wealth. A few rubies, emeralds, and cubic zirconias the king was hoping to pass off to a gullible pawnbroker.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “And you were willing to cut yourself open for that?” I said. “Good call.”

The bishop shook his head. “You don’t get it,” he said. “This is all East Anchor has. The king keeps these hidden in his private chambers. And who is the only person allowed to visit him in those chambers? Duke Phillip. Of course, no one ever takes notice of the inbred bumpkin attending to the Duke, who just happens to have sticky fingers. But when the king figures out they’re missing, he’ll fly off the handle and accuse the Duke. Insults will be traded, honors offended, and before long the kingdoms of the Anchor Peninsula will be at war again.”

I still wasn’t seeing it. “Okay,” I said. “But where’s the profit in it for you? I mean, other than a few trinkets that will barely buy you a cup of soup.”

I could tell he was getting impatient, but I didn’t much care. “The Pirate King of Mump has offered to pay us generously for smuggling out the jewels and ensuring the war starts as scheduled,” he explained. [Mump is the unfortunately named kingdom across the Rippled Sea from the peninsula. In the middle ages, it was a pirate stronghold and sanctuary for thieves and scum of all kind. Today it is overrun with lawyers and telemarketers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.] “He and his people stand to profit enormously as mercenaries and weapons suppliers. And he’s promised to set me up on a palatial estate of my own, where I can live out the rest of my obscenely wealthy life without having to look over my shoulder. Because as far as anyone else knows, I’m already dead.”

“Don’t you think someone might come looking for you when I don’t bring your body back to Julia’s Crossing?” I pointed out.

He shrugged, unconcerned. “I doubt they’ll spend too much time looking for a corpse, especially with a war on,” he countered. “In the end, you’ll probably get the blame for failing in your mission. At least that was the original plan. But you actually may have done us a favor. By forcing us to blow up the boat, they’ll just assume we sank at sea. And since we won’t have to cut your throat and leave you in a creek somewhere to make it look like you were ambushed by bandits or something, now we can sell you as a slave to the pirates for a tidy sum.”

“Gee, glad I could help you out,” I said, growing to hate him more by the second. The plan still seemed pretty ridiculous to me though. [I would have to agree. Keep in mind however, I never claimed it was a brilliant plot, only that I hoped it was an entertaining one. Try to think of the operation less in the mold of an Ocean’s Eleven and more like an executive meeting at Enron.] “It just doesn’t make sense,” I told him, unwilling to let it go at that. “You’re a bishop, the head of the Church. You already live a posh life. And if that wasn’t enough for you, all you had to do was embezzle more money and no one would ever call you on it.” [Pretty much every medieval bishop did.] I shook my head. “Why do you care so much if there’s a war and the pirates get rich?”

He leaned forward on the edge of the table. “You wanna know why I care so much?” he asked.

I nodded. “Yes.”

The bishop looked me square in the eye. “Forty-eight years ago, I was born in the Borderlands to a West Anchorian mother and an East Anchorian father…”

I waved him off before he could get any further. “No, wait,” I said. “I changed my mind. I don’t really care.”

He looked annoyed, maybe even a little disappointed at being interrupted before he could deliver his big, dramatic soliloquy, but he mercifully didn’t subject me to anymore. [I am exceedingly grateful to Logos for stopping him there.] Instead, he turned to the leech. “Cut these out of me,” he ordered. “We gotta meet the pirates at dusk and I’d like to have a nap before then.”

I laughed out loud in the corner. “A nap,” I chuckled. “Well, I guess you’ve thought of everything. Of course, there is just one thing you have overlooked.”

Bishop Salt raised an eyebrow. “And what is that?” he asked.

I shrugged, doing my best to exude an air of almost cocky confidence mixed with dismissive condescension. I didn’t have much to work with, but I couldn’t help trying to mess with the arrogant son of a bitch’s mind. “I don’t know, but guys like you always overlook something important in these types of situations.” [Something tells me Logos would have been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan.]

That was the last straw for the bishop. He looked over at Dougie, who was still spacing out with his back against the wall. “Gag this asshole,” he ordered. “I’m tired of listening to him.”

Dougie ripped off part of his shirt, balled it up, and stuck it in my mouth as the bishop reclined on the table. Fulk the leech pulled a large scalpel out of his black bag and turned back to where Dougie and I were seated. “You might wanna turn away,” he warned. “This could get messy.”

V.

The meeting with the pirates took place at dusk as planned. The rendezvous point was on a ridge overlooking a tributary of the Upside Down River. Their ship was visible, docked in the inlet below. They totaled five in number, all decked out in the usual pirate garb: bandanas, parrots, and wooden appendages. Their leader was a man named Dreg. He seemed to have all of his arms and legs, but his teeth had definitely seen better days. Word was that he was a lieutenant under the current Pirate King, a vicious fellow with the rather unimposing name of Norm. [It is reported that Norm stole the equivalent of millions of dollars from the surrounding kingdoms and personally butchered over a thousand people throughout the course of his career. You’d think such atrocities would at least earn him a cool nickname.]

The bishop wasn’t exactly a portrait of vitality either by the time we arrived. Fearing Fulk or Dougie might try to pull a fast one on him while he was under, he had refused any kind of anesthetic for the operation to remove the jewels. Halfway to the ridge, he passed out. I was all for leaving him, but Dougie and Fulk were apparently afraid of facing the pirates without him, so they forced me to help them get him to his feet and prop him up for the rest of the journey. As they settled in to discuss business however, the bishop got his second wind.

“You’ve done well, preacher man,” the pirate Dreg greeted him. “The news out of Loserville is that Duke Phillip has been thrown into the dungeons for larceny and attempting to humiliate the kingdom of East Anchor. It’s only a matter of time now. Did you bring the jewels?”

Salt reached under his vestments and tossed the pirate a leather purse. Dreg loosened the drawstring, but threw his head back with a repugnant expression when he looked inside. “You couldn’t have cleaned them off first?” he asked.

The bishop shrugged. “We were running short on time,” he said. “Where’s my money? Did you bring it or is it waiting for me in Mump?”

To one side of me, the leech licked his lips greedily. [Is there any more disgusting gesture a human being can make?] On the other side, Dougie still looked sort of dazed. I’m not sure what exactly had gotten to him. He was clearly not the idiot he had played me for, but he still seemed in over his head. Maybe it was the latter realization that had affected him. Had I not been about to be sold into slavery, I might have felt sorry for the little bastard.

Dreg looked at me. “Who’s this, priest?” he asked, taking note of my bound hands.

“He’s yours if you want him,” Salt told him, obviously impatient. “Dougie tells me he’s a poet or something. But if you don’t want him, I don’t really give a crap. We can slit his throat right now for all I care. All I want is my money. You got it or not?”

A thin smile curled at the corner of Dreg’s lips. “We don’t have much use for poets in Mump,” he said. [Mump was apparently far ahead of its time and much more in tune with the modern world in this regard.] “And as for your money, why should I pay you a single cent now that the job is already done?”

Salt’s face turned bright red, almost purple, and he puffed for a moment before the words came. “Don’t you dare try and scam me,” he growled. “I’m still the Bishop of the Anchorian Church. And I can still bring hell down upon you and your boss back in Mump.”

Dreg took a step back and carefully considered the warning. “You’re right, of course,” he said finally. Then he stepped off to the side of everyone. “Gentleman,” he said with a subtle nod to his men.

“What—” the bishop started to say, but before he could get any further, the pirates raised their bows and aimed them at us. None of us had the wherewithal to move. We just froze.

I closed my eyes and waited for the blow to come. But it never did. I heard the twang as the pirates let go of their bowstrings. The whoosh of the arrows taking flight. I felt the wind from them. Heard the thump of their impact. But when I opened my eyes, I was still standing. The bishop, Dougie, and Fulk were not so fortunate. They lay on the ground beside me. Fulk and Dougie had an arrow apiece lodged in their foreheads. Bishop Salt had three, one in each eye and one in his open mouth. [Typical of most medieval manuscripts, the actual description of the wounds in Logos’ diary is far more graphic, but I’ve cleaned it up for more sensitive modern audiences. Yes, people today are total wusses.]

Momentarily ignoring the fact that an even worse fate may have likely awaited me, I breathed a sigh of relief and laughed. “That’s what they overlooked,” I said out loud. “Never trust pirates!”

Dreg reached into his tunic and waved a small gold shield in front of my face. With his other hand, he expertly brandished his sword and cut the prayer beads wrapped around my wrists. His men lowered their bows. “We’re not pirates,” he said. “We’re undercover agents in His Majesty’s Secret Service.” [Am I the only one who thinks Dreg and his men would make excellent material for a TV series? You don’t have to say it. I know I’m the only one. But it would still be awesome.]

“What?” I said. My mouth was hanging open. Even after all that had happened to me in the last twenty-four hours, I was completely unprepared for this latest left turn.

The suddenly very business-like Dreg ignored my question though. Instead, he tossed the bag containing the East Anchorian crown jewels to one of his men. “Prepare the ship to set sail,” he commanded. “Time is of the essence.”

Then he turned back to me. “We’ll see that the jewels are returned to Loserville,” he told me. “You just make sure to get the bishop back to Julia’s Crossing.”

I nodded without thinking about what I was doing, and then I raised an eyebrow. “Whoa,” I said. “Hold on. You still want me to take him back? After everything he’s done?”

Dreg placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Nothing good can come out of a scandal that brings down the Church,” he said. “The fewer people who know the truth about this sack of crap, the better. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. And the last thing the peninsula needs now is more unrest.” [It seems that many in the modern Church have adopted Dreg’s philosophy and applied it toward certain members’ inappropriate interactions with little boys. I’m not sure that’s what he had in mind when he essentially suggested turning the other cheek, but I digress.]

I wasn’t so convinced, though I was hardly in a position to argue. Still, there was a rather large logistical problem that remained. “Okay,” I said. “But the guy weighs two tons. How am I supposed to carry him myself? I don’t even have a cart.”

Dreg rubbed his chin for a moment, thinking over the matter carefully. Then he pulled his sword again, and with one lightning quick gesture struck the head from Bishop Salt’s shoulders. “That much should do,” he said.

He paused for a moment, then he chopped off the head of the other two conspirators too. He tossed a burlap sack on the ground beside them. “Take them too,” he said. “King Philo can display them on the walls and say they poisoned the bishop if he wants to. I don’t know, there may be some angle he can use to his advantage there. Farewell, George Logos.” [F’ing politics, man.]

He left without saying another word and I could only wave weakly. After watching the ship sail out of the inlet, I collected the heads in the sack and made my way back down the ridge. Two days later, I walked into the Royal Palace at Julia’s Crossing. I was exhausted and filthy from my ordeal, and simply dropped the bag at the foot of the king’s throne. “I’ll mail you a poem with all the details, your majesty,” I told him. “Otherwise, consider me officially retired as of right now.”

Perhaps there was something in my tone or my expression or my generally ragged appearance, but the king did not even try to stop me from leaving or demand an explanation.

 

If such a poem was ever written, it has not survived. Likely, it would have been destroyed to avoid any embarrassment to the Kingdom and the Church. It is not known if Philo ever implicated Dougie and Fulk as murderers, but, as mentioned earlier, there is nothing in the historical record about the bishop being poisoned. However, unofficial rumors have persisted for centuries. This was the primary motivation in the exhumation of the bishop’s tomb, the hope that modern science might finally be able to prove once and for all whether he was murdered or not. Imagine the scientists’ surprise when they pried open the casket only to find three arrow-riddled skulls instead.

As for the crown jewels of East Anchor, they were returned as promised by Dreg and war was avoided. Peace, however, would be short-lived. In typical Anchorian fashion, war would break out just three weeks later over a piece of undercooked chicken at a state dinner. But that is a story for another time.

 

The Key and the Orange

by Rhys Schrock

 

We keep the key that Ricky lifted from the collection box. Yesterday he overheard Father Feiffer tell the imposter in the other confessional that he couldn’t find the key. The unseen stooge—who did not express the sort of remorse traditionally attached to this ritual—replied that now they’d never be able to activate the device in the room over the hardware store. FF wrapped up the summary of penance with a second reference to the objects of his concern, his stern voice adding caps: The Key, The Device.

Ricky fills in the details, and Freddie is bouncing on his toes, alive to the possibilities, ready to “head over there right now.” Mooch says we should put the key back. Freddie snags Moochie’s collar, smacks his forehead with the heel of his hand, and I get between them, tell ’em to knock it off. We hear a squeal of tires, a chatter of gunfire, and watch in slow-mo as Ricky is killed in a drive-by. His body arcs like a breaking wave, and what’s left splays across the sidewalk. Ricky never hurt nobody; all he wanted was a good time, but now the good-time bus has dropped him off in a bad part of town. He’s a busted bag of groceries, and I dig The Key out of his pocket while Mooch slips behind a phone pole to watch for the return-of-the-death-car. It never reappears.

Freddie claims he saw the shooter before, saw him coming out of the candy store on Main Street just last week. He vows revenge, but it’s all talk; Freddie can’t keep his mind on anything long enough to carry through. His life is a relentless pursuit of thrills and dares—his mind is a hummingbird in a crowded greenhouse.

We aim our ostrich boots toward the south end of town to show The Key to the creepy old dude who sits by the well. His name is Orville and people call him the Oracle. People say he sees-all-knows-all, even if he is blind, but as we approach, I flash that maybe this isn’t the smartest plan in the world. The Oracle might not be all that thrilled that we have The Key—in fact, he might paralyze us with voodoo spells and make us hand it over.

“Mornin’ boys.” The Oracle aims them milky orbs straight at us. Lily always says he’s not really blind, and she won’t go anywhere near the well. Orville’s face follows our movements like a radar dish, but soon enough his watery pupils break loose and drift aimlessly as if each eye is a detached floater. He says, “Sounds like they’s three of yun. And the one holdin’ back is nervous.”

“Our friend was just killed,” I say, and it comes out as shaky as an alibi.

Freddie says, “We got something we want to show you.” He holds The Key by the blade and sunlight gleams off the chrome-plated bow.

Blind man says, “What? What you got?” I wonder if he’s toying with us.

“Nice day,” Mooch says lamely, and his voice tremolos unevenly like a first-year violin student. The winter sun is low over the Chuma Mountains and peeks through the high slat fence that encloses the elephant graveyard behind the well. Glints of sunlight sparkle off bent chrome and shattered safety glass, and the comforting scent of depleted motor oil soaking into sandy soil wafts across the yard.

“Nice day,” echoes the Oracle. He breathes in deeply and says, “All things return to base elements,” and I don’t know if he’s talking about the expired cars in the elephant graveyard or the death of Ricky and the vulnerability and mortality of the human body.

Freddie twists The Key in the sunlight, catches a reflection and aims it at the Oracle, lands the reflection in the center of his forehead, and it lights the mottled skin like a third blind eye. The Oracle goes stiff, cries out, “What is dat?” It’s a shock to hear genuine fear in the old man’s voice.

Freddie says, “We want you to look at something, oh great Oracle. Tell us what it is.” He keeps the bright spot on Orville’s forehead as he walks closer.

The Oracle dodges his head from side-to-side and Freddie steps close, holds The Key out. “Take it. Feel it. Tell us what it is.” The Oracle opens his right hand tentatively, as if afraid that he might be burned. He turns his palm up, half closed, and Freddie tosses The Key in the cup. The old man flinches, puts his hands together, presses The Key between his palms. He closes his eyelids, breathes with his mouth open, exposing black gums, a pink tongue, and three yellow teeth. A moan escapes him, and his face takes on an expression of pain and sadness. His body spasms, he falls off his stool, and a stain darkens the front of his pants. The Key drops in the dust and Mooch rushes toward the gate calling out, “You killed him, dude. Let’s get out of here.”

The Oracle disproves Moochie’s theory by rolling to his side and using the chair to climb into a semi-vertical position. He reaches a hand to the sky and his voice booms like a biblical prophet: “Shun dat key and dem that traffic in such tings.”

Freddie is not impressed. “Come on, you old freak, spill. What’s The Key?”

“Be not fools, I tell ye. Thou shalt rue this day.” This is a bit overboard, I’m thinking. The old fraud has flipped a tile or two, and the pee running down his leg diminishes the authority of his dire prophesies. But he’s serious, and just then the sun goes behind a cloud; the whole thing starts to feel sinister. No slouch when it comes to drama, The Oracle shouts, “Get dat accursed ting away from dis place,” and he jumps into the well.

The three of us look at each other in surprise, but Freddie recovers first, bends down and fishes The Key out of the dust. He rubs it clean against his blue satin trousers and says, “Crazy old coot. It’s just a piece of metal.” He bounces it in his palm, and The Key does a back flip before it settles on his heart line. He tempts fate by pressing it in his palms the way the Oracle did. He starts twitching the same as the old man, his torso bucking and twisting, his eyes rolling up in his sockets until all I see is whites. Mooch expresses his dismay by letting out a squeal like a cat caught in a fan belt, and I have to admit I’m close to wetting my pants until I notice the smirk on Freddie’s thin lips. When he separates his hands he laughs and says, “If I jump into the well, you can have my stamp collection.” He stuffs The Key into the pocket of his long coat, laughs again, then stops when we hear a moan from the well. I’m thinking that maybe we should rescue the Oracle. After all, he’s wearing pee-stained pants in the town well, but the moan is followed by a low melody with lots of nice reverb thanks to the stone lining of the shaft. He’s singing “The Tennessee Waltz,” in a strong tenor, goes at it like Plácido Domingo.

From the alley next to the barber shop a dog attempts a backup harmony. It’s a pitiful howl, as if he’s been deserted, tied to a lamppost while his master ducked into a coffee shop, slipped out the back door, met a beautiful stranger in a convertible, and ran off to California without another thought. Orville stops singing long enough to tell the dog to shut up, then starts into some god-awful light opera.

A little girl about ten years old in a plaid granny dress and wire-rimmed granny glasses stomps past us in scuffed Doc Martens. She wears a batik do-rag over curly blond hair and carries a hank of jute rope over one shoulder. She is Orville’s granddaughter and sometimes magician’s assistant, Jasmine. She dismisses us with a, “Thanks a lot, mutants,” ties one end of the rope—a granny knot, natch—to a dead tree trunk behind the well and tosses the coil into the opening. She leans over the lip and says, “Orville. Grab the rope and climb out.” He keeps singing and she looks up at us impatiently and repeats, “I said, thanks a lot. That means you can go back to committing whatever misdemeanors or mortal sins your little pea brains can dream up. Go on, now. Scoot.”

Our boots boom on the plank sidewalk as we hustle back to the center of town. The streets are deserted, but we can still hear Orville going on about “a little China man in yellow pantaloons.”

We cross Main Street, and the stairway that leads up to the room with The Device is directly in front of us. The stairs run up the middle of the building, tucked between the hardware store and a book store that was shut down two years ago. A wicked looking sign on the cobwebbed bookstore window says, “Closed by order of Homeland Security. Unauthorized entry constitutes a Federal Offense and may include Charges of Treason.”

There is no warning sign on the opening to the staircase, despite rumors of The Device at the top, and the stairs are an open invitation, a tantalizing finger beckoning three susceptible boys to “come on up,” like the dark, smoldering widow next door with a freezer full of ice cream. “I got sprinkles, boys. And butterscotch.”

“No time like the present,” Freddie says, flashing a grin and The Key before heading straight for the staircase. Freddie is disturbingly charismatic, an irresistible force who drags you into his gravitational field like a black hole. We lesser mortals are passing particles of space dust with no choice in the matter. Mooch and I follow as Freddie takes two steps at a time, the tails of his coat flapping like he’s dancing up the risers in an old musical. He spins once on the landing next to the door with The Key in his hand. His grin widens as if he is about to open his birthday presents and wants to start in on the big package with the red-velvet bow. I follow closely; Mooch stops at each step to look around and see if anyone knows we’re there. How could they not? Each time Mooch lands a boot on another tread it creaks like the door to a haunted house.

Freddie tries The Key and it won’t go in the slot. He swaggers with confidence, calls Mooch a scairdy-cat, but his hand is shaking, and I tell him to give me The Key, I’ll do it. I’m nervous too, but there’s no backing down, so I use both hands to steady The Key. I jab it at the keyhole and it still won’t go. The Key is way too wide for the slot. “Sorry, Freddie. Wasted trip.” I’m relieved. “Wrong key. Let’s get out of here.” I hand The Key to Freddie who stuffs it in his pocket with a scowl. He reconsiders, fishes the scowl out of his pocket and tosses it to the side.

Mooch is already heading down the stairs, this time at a good clip, and the treads are quiet. Freddie grabs the door handle, yanks on it in frustration, pounds on the center panel, then turns around to look down the stairs and over Main Street. He spreads his arms like he’s about to give a speech. Freddie is the Pope addressing and blessing a crowd of pilgrims from Iowa. He’s on a balcony above Piazza San Pietro gathering his thoughts. Behind him, I hear a low creak as the door swings slowly inward. My eyes catch movement inside. Freddie spins as a wicked grin crosses his face. He heads for the door and I say, “Don’t go in there, I saw something move.”

Freddie ignores me, kicks the door wide on its hinges and it bounces off an inside wall. Across the room I see white curtains fluttering before an open window. The room is small, no other doors, no furniture, no Cardinals, wolfhounds, or nuns, but The Device is sitting in the center of the room.

The Device: a cube of steel, gun-metal blue, the top crowded with rabbit ear antenna, a timer with red rhomboid numbers stuck on 00:00:22, a block of chrome with a keyhole in the center, and a brightly-painted statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A bundle of multi-colored cables pour out the back of The Device, snake across the floor, and disappear into a crude hole smashed through the plaster wall. The antenna makes the device look like a dormant TV set with an elaborate converter box, but other possibilities include high-end microwave oven, mini-bar, or WMD.

Freddie digs out The Key and holds it to the keyhole. I expect to hear a protest from Mooch, but he’s still at the bottom of the stairs milling about with the imaginary tourists from Iowa. Freddie studies The Key, the keyhole, looks at me and raises one eyebrow. “Careful analysis of the complex forms involved indicates a complementary relationship, a rare balance of physical proportionality, the receptive yin of the keyhole, the assertive yang of this baby.” He holds up The Key and slashes the air like a fencer. The movement is harmless, but the fact that he’s gone into his professorial mode, using what linguists call BIG WORDS, means that he’s about to do something stupid. Freddie’s eyes are wide, the pupils purest black and as deep as a collapsed Mayan cenote. He’s a housecat preparing to knock a vase off the piano.

“Freddie…” I say, elongating the last syllable and bringing up the pitch a notch.

“Chabo…” he replies as he slides The Key into place. He turns it, and the timer lazily shifts to 00:00:23. I think that might be good, but I still don’t have a clue what The Device is supposed to do. So it might be bad. Real bad.

A loud hiss like a boiler with a popped rivet starts up in the next room and the bundle of wires is drawn through the hole in the wall. Lazy loops straighten out, and The Device begins a slow slide across the floor. Loose linoleum tiles bunch up and tear free, moving along with The Device, clutching at it like they can’t bear to see it leave the room. Freddie stands back and watches hungrily. He’s anxious to see what happens next, but it is a slow process. The Device takes five minutes to travel five feet to the wall, and the hissing sound grows louder. Puffs of steam ooze through the hole around the cables, but are immediately sucked back. When The Device hits the wall it doesn’t even slow down. It slices a clean hole, a perfect square in the wall, with little outlines on top for the rabbit ears and other accessories, including a detailed cameo of the Virgin. It’s a clean cut, like it was done by a laser, leaving no plaster dust. The opening is black, a void, no color, no more steam, almost as if it was painted on the wall with flat black primer.

I ease closer, anxious to investigate but scared of what I might find. I take out my lucky weasel foot and toss it straight at the opening in the wall. I half-expect it to bounce off the black outline, but it disappears inside without a fuss; no noise, no flicker of light, no flutter of white doves. I kneel close to the hole, lean down for a look, and my vision goes wonky. Focus shifts erratically so that the wall around the hole could be two feet away or a hundred. I reach my hand toward the opening, scared to be sucked in, but mighty curious all the same. I poke an index finger into the hole and the tip disappears. I don’t feel anything, and when I pull out my finger it is intact. The phenomenon must be a purely visual thing, possibly harmless, but my ration of bravery is used up.

“What do you think?” I ask Freddie.

He’s standing at the window, has the curtain pulled to one side. “Well smack me with a spatula,” is probably not intended as a reply to my question.

I walk to the window, look out at the town, but the air is hazy-fuzzy-blurry. I wonder if there is a fire, if smoke is obscuring things. I don’t hear church bells, so nobody in town has spotted a fire yet. Somehow, it doesn’t look like smoke.

“This is all right,” Freddie says. “Look at that.” He points at the bank building, which is fading to a screened gray.

“What?”

“The circus is in town.”

I don’t see signs of a circus and wonder what he’s looking at. Is it a figure of speech?

“Oh, Yea-uh,” he says. “Lady acrobats. Zowie.”

I lean out the window for a better look. No circus I can see. Town keeps fading to a lighter and lighter gray, and behind me I hear a bloodcurdling scream. It’s Mooch standing at the door with a look of horror on his face. “Freddie, Chabo. Oh, god. Oh. My. God.” He’s staring at the floor, where The Device used to be. He rushes over to the spot, kneels, reaches down like he’s scooping up dry leaves. He stares at the empty space enclosed by his arms and sobs, “How could this ha-ha-happen? Oh god, Chabo.”

Freddie glances over his shoulder, not pleased that his attention is drawn away from whatever he thinks he sees out the window. “Alas, poor Chabo, I knew him, Mooch. What are you going on about?”

“Yeah,” I add unnecessarily. “What gives?”

Mooch looks at Freddie and me, then back at his armful of nothing. His sobs deepen, his lips gape and flap—not a gambol or gibe left in the poor boy—and his intakes of breath are erratic and screeching, a barn door in a windstorm. He stares in horror. “Gh-gh-ghosts. That’s what you are.” He buries his face in his arms, collapses on the floor.

Freddie shrugs, turns back to the window. “Boo,” he says over his shoulder. He leans out the window and adds, “That’s what we like. A parade. Come on girls, up here.” He waves and puts two fingers to his mouth, cuts loose with a piercing whistle.

I look down at Mooch who is a quivering puddle of panic and fear. I pop my head out the window, hoping to get a glimpse of Freddie’s parade, but all I see are the vague outlines of town getting paler, the grays giving way to whites. Freddie is waving and calling out, and I see nothing to justify his excitement. I glance back to the room and notice that it is turning white as well; the floor, the walls, the frames of the door and window. Everything except the cutout where The Device disappeared. It’s still an inscrutable void, but it’s starting to take on an orange tint, scarcely perceptible, like the shifting image of a total lunar eclipse rising over the Sinai Peninsula. The outlines are loosing their definition, the sharp corners smoothing out as the opening consolidates.

Okay, now I’m open to the possibility that Mooch might be right. I might be a ghost. Maybe The Device was a WMD, maybe we’re all dead. “Mooch,” I say, and can hear the puzzlement in my own voice. “Mooch. Look at me.”

He looks up, sneaks another peek at whatever he thinks is in his arms, a glance at Freddie’s back, then looks straight into my eyes. “What? What do you want?”

“Just to talk.”

“Okay,” he says doubtfully. “Does it hurt to die, Chabo?”

“Good question, but I don’t feel dead. Why do you think I’m a ghost?”

He nods toward the space in his arms. “I saw them kill you. You are dead.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Can’t you see?” he asks, shaking his arms. “Oh, god. The blood.” He smears a hand across his face, wipes it on his shirt. “Don’t you see the blood?”

I don’t see blood. “Why don’t you tell me what happened? What you think you saw.”

“From the bottom of the stairs,” he sobs, “when the door wouldn’t open at first, I ran down to the sidewalk. Then you disappeared, and I was so scared of what might happen. I heard the argument, the yelling, you pleading for mercy, saw the whole thing through the open door. ‘The whoosh of a Byzantine scimitar cut through the air,’ ” he quotes from somebody else’s lurid memory. “And the screams, the sound of chopping. I’m sorry I didn’t save you Chabo. I was so scared.”

“I think I’m okay, Mooch. I just don’t see what you see. All I see are these white walls and floors, and everything outside turning white.”

“What are you talking about? The town is on fire. Can’t you hear the church bells?”

I listen carefully and the town is perfectly silent. White and silent, even the Oracle has run out of gas. The white is not smoke, it’s simply an absence of color, so peaceful, and I don’t hear a thing. I turn to Freddie who still leans out the window. He breaks the silence by calling out. “You bet I’m in. I’ll be down in a minute.” He turns to us. “You guys coming?”

“Where?”

“I got us a party lined up. With the circus people. Right after the parade. There’s a redhead who’s perfect for Mooch. And for Chabo,” he winks, “a magician’s assistant with a shape like a Kewpie doll. As for me, I got my eye on twins, a pair of Lithuanian trapeze artists with arms like weight lifters and thighs that could crush an engine block.” He leans his head out the window and yells. “Yeah. Be right there.”

“Come on guys.” He sits on the window sill, swings a leg out, waves us on.

“We’ll just hang out here,” I say.

Freddie looks at us, incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding. I got this all fixed.”

I look at Mooch who is incapable of pulling himself together. “Me and Mooch have some issues to work out. You go on ahead. You can lie to us about it later.”

Freddie laughs, swings his other leg out the window and drops. I run to the window to watch him splatter, but when I stick my head out and look down I see him hit a smooth white canopy over the hardware store loading dock, ride it like surf, catch the tassels at the front edge, then execute a smooth spin, ankles over samovar with reverse Veronica. He lands lightly on his feet on the white chalky surface of the alley. That ought to impress the trapeze artists, but I still don’t see anybody.

Freddie takes a bow, and then he’s talking to the air in front of him, curling his arms like he’s hugging people, laughing, making a fool of himself. I wonder what he sees. I’d like to see it too, but now the town is pure white, the light suffused as if coming from all directions, the outlines of buildings hard to make out because there are no shadows. Freddie stands out like he’s cut out of a magazine, curly dark-brown hair shaking as he laughs, tails of his coat swinging, tan ostrich boots skipping through the white dust. A one-man party is all I can see, but his hands are extended to each side at waist level and he’s leaning forward as he moves through the alley.

“Chabo,” Mooch says. “Don’t worry about Freddie. You can’t die twice.”

“Knock it off, Mooch. We aren’t dead.” I’m pretty sure this is true. What I’m not sure of is what’s really happening. “It’s The Device,” I say, looking toward the white wall where it disappeared. The opening has now smoothed itself to a circle and has begun climbing the wall. The coppery tint has migrated to the circumference and I can taste it inside my lower lip, as if I bit the skin and brought blood to the surface. The hole is about four feet off the ground, and I know a mystery lurks inside. I walk over, wonder if it’s still a hole, or if by now it is a solid. Except for the copper edge, it still has a matte black surface. I push my arm into the hole up to the shoulder, feel around, grab hold of a round object, pull it out, and I’ve got a plump navel orange in my hand. “Hungry?” I say over my shoulder.

“I’ve got to get out of here before the fire gets me.” Mooch stands up, looks regretfully at the floor in the center of the room. “Sorry you’re dead.”

“You still on about that?”

“I can see the pictures on the walls, right through you,” he says. “I like the wallpaper in this place. Same stuff as when I was a kid. I used to imagine that those horses were mine, and in my dreams I rode them across the desert at night.”

I look at the walls; they are bone white and bare. Mooch walks to the door. He’s calmer now. He pulls a handkerchief out of his pants pocket, takes a deep breath, puts the hankie over his mouth and descends stairs that now look like they’re cut out of ice. He races around the corner and disappears into the whiteness of town.

I head back to the window and sit on the ledge. I see Freddie at the corner. He’s laughing, strutting back and forth like he’s telling stories. Freddie has always been good at keeping the girls entertained. He can tell lies like a seasoned diplomat. I look at the wall in the room and the copper moon is at eye level and still moving upward. I smile. I like this room. With Mooch and Freddie gone it is quiet and peaceful. The orange is brilliant, a visual delight, a singular object of infinite beauty among the nearly unbroken whiteness of the room and the world outside. The shiny rind is dimpled and pregnant. I dig a thumb into the thick flesh to peel it, and in the quiet I can hear the zest escaping; the pure white light from outside splits the zest into a rainbow that quickly fades, and the scent is tangy and sweet.

I remove a wedge and place it in my mouth. The citric acid bites back—the orange is delicious. I think about The Device. It is not a nuke, that’s for sure. I look out the window in time to see Mooch racing around the corner of a building. He looks back in panic and continues to run along the highway to the edge of town, out into the whiteness of the wilderness. That’s Mooch, scared as always. In the distance I hear the faint voice of the Oracle who’s found his second wind and is now singing, “Put the lime in the coconut.” Every once in a while I hear Jasmine cry out, “Orville, grab the rope.”

I take another slice of orange, turn around to watch Freddie at the corner. He’s still entertaining an invisible audience. I think about what Mooch said. He saw our dead bodies. He heard and smelled a fire. Mooch has always expected the worst to happen. Maybe The Device makes us see what we want to see. Or are expecting to see.

I lean on the sill as Freddie drifts down the street with his invisible entourage. He really sees a circus crowd: the redhead, the acrobat, the twin trapeze artists with thighs like the jaws of life. Freddie has always felt incomplete, his life a series of prowls, in search of adventure, action, and dangerous women. I smile as I watch, and hope that he hasn’t made the mistake of finally getting what he’s always yearned for.

As for me, I like it here. I’ve usually gone along with other people’s dreams, a minor character, a bit-player in their lives. Whenever Mooch is around, I pick up on his energy and end up adopting his nervous state. Freddie can make me feel daring, ready for adventure, when all I really want is peace and quiet. When I am alone I can sit for hours, thinking random thoughts, and never feel the need to challenge life’s big questions. Maybe now I’ll have my chance to accomplish nothing.

I see an orange moon arising through the thick, pale sky, the only vivid color outside, a blotchy sphere—as unnatural as The Device—as it thrusts its way upward through the thickening white of the milky atmosphere. I think about poor Ricky, gunned down in front of the store a couple of hours ago. Oh, Ricky, how you loved to hang out with a crowd, friends, strangers, anybodies. You’d sink back in that deep-dish sofa, crack peanuts and jokes, make small talk, listen; a room with Ricky in it buzzed with low-level conversation and goodwill. I chew on another slice of orange and speculate about whether Ricky gets to take advantage of the effect of The Device. He hasn’t been gone all that long, his corpse is still warm, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back at home in his favorite chair, laughing.

 

What’s In A Name?

by Bruce Graham

 

The priest was not happy about the late afternoon visit by four strangers from a distant community. Father Josef Zahnschirm was long past the time when he curried favor with parishioners and visitors in hopes of gaining a monsignorship; his highest ambition was now to simply go through the routines of confessions, masses, weddings, baptisms and funerals, and endure with minimal resentment when he was called out for the last rites. His arthritis and chronic shortness of breath made even his simple presence at confirmations difficult.

He tottered ahead of them from the rectory front door to the room that served as the parish office and his living room, and vaguely indicated the two guest chairs while he shuffled to stand behind the desk. He stared at the lined face of the apparent leader of the group, whose gnarled hands bespoke an age even more advanced than his own.

“Father, I come from Spital. These are my son-in-law and two cousins who have knowledge of certain facts. We are interested in a baptism record from thirty-nine years past.”

Father Zahnschirm was glad the man mentioned that before he sat down, rising from his chair was difficult. “You say 1837? Do you have a definite date?”

“June, I believe,” said the leader.

The cleric hobbled to a bookshelf and fumbled among ledgers, removed one, and returned to the desk. He laid down the book and opened the pages. “The names?”

“The father would have not been named.”

The priest snickered. “That limits the possible cases to about one-third of the total population. Illegitimacy—it is a wonder that the Church can flourish at all.”

“The child was Alois, the mother Maria Anna—”

“Ah, by chance here it is.” He turned the book toward the visitor.

“That’s it.”

There was still hope that the meeting would not last long. “And your interest?”

“Your records will show a marriage about five years later between this boy’s mother and my brother. We are here to correct the record to show him as the boy’s legal father. Here—” the man drew from his coat a battered paper, “—is a statement by all of us before a notary in Weitra that my brother is the child’s father.”

The priest took the document. He needed time to think. He studied the names and crosses indicating the identities of the affiants, then noted the verification of the notary and the seal. He slowly read the words, affirming that the leader of the group was the brother of a man who before his death almost twenty years earlier had stated in the presence of the signers that he had begotten on the body of the woman, Maria Anna, a child, born in June, 1837, at Strones, named Alois, the same woman that he had married in 1842. The priest let the instrument fall onto the desk. He turned and slowly returned to the shelf full of books.

He’d never encountered anything close to this. In his several poor parishes he had been vague when it served the interests or convenience of this person or that. He had bent the diocesan rules, and stretched doctrinal points in presiding at the burial of a suicide or approving an annulment request that he sensed was based upon falsehoods. He had officiated at weddings that he knew were forced, and with subtlety twisted the arms of supplicants for parish contributions as consideration for sacramental service. But he had never faced a request to change an official record.

The priest located the marriage records for 1842.

There should be no problem denying the plea, since the chance of these men taking the matter to the diocese was remote. And suppose they did? How could Father Zahnschirm be faulted for refusing the request? And even if he was criticized, what difference would it make? He was at the bottom of the ecclesiastical ladder in this poverty stricken area, and too old to be worried about it affecting his career, which was probably not far from its natural end in any event.

The man was asking for action bordering on the unlawful. The mother was not corroborating the facts. And only proceedings in an Imperial court could establish paternity on someone who was dead.

The greater risk was purely practical: how long would these people drag out their visit to the priest’s discomfort and inconvenience?

“Here it is.” The priest pointed to the record in the spring of 1842, showing the marriage of the mother of Alois and the man named in the statement before the notary.

The man leaned, nodded. “That’s it.”

The priest closed the record book. He sank into his ancient chair.

Two of the men sat in the guest chairs, no doubt glad that the priest had finally taken his seat so that they could do the same. All of them were staring at the cleric. They had done enough, they no doubt were thinking, it was now up to the priest.

Father Zahnschirm held out his open hands. “I’ll keep the notarized statement in the book, for whatever it’s worth. That is all,” said Father Zahnschirm. “I wish you a pleasant journey home.”

“But the birth record? Will you change it?”

“I cannot change it. I cannot show a father’s name.”

“But the man wants to be legitimate.”

“After thirty-nine years? To what purpose?”

“My family would like to have him carry on the family name.”

The priest was incredulous on two counts. Among the peasants in this backwater section of the Empire illegitimacy was so rampant that there was little stigma to it. And, in or out of wedlock, these folks seemed so prolific that the likelihood of this man or his brother having no male children seemed incredible.

“There are no sons in the family?” He hardly said it when he realized he was heading into the trap of arguing with the man.

The man shook his head.

“Where is this Alois?”

“He is in the Imperial service.”

This was more serious. “What service?”

“Customs.”

The priest sighed with relief. The customs service was hardly one with which the cleric should be concerned. The priest placed his open hands on the desk. “Who is this man’s real father?”

The man waved a hand vaguely over the desk. “My brother. You have the proof.”

“I cannot do it. I’m sorry. He’ll need to go through the legal system.”

The man frowned and pointed toward the baptismal record. “But his name. He, his children, saddled with such a name. In Vienna, even Linz, they’ll be looked down on as bumpkins.”

Father Zahnschirm flushed. “You make fun of complicated names? Do you know my name? And this is a matter that should have been considered when this woman’s parents gave her birth. What was her mother’s name, and why was she not born out of wedlock so she could have kept it. I cannot do it.” He struggled to his feet.

The two men in the chairs sprang up. The four of them milled about while the priest limped around the desk to herd them from the room.

The leader among the visitors paused. “I’ll take the paper. It won’t do any good here, I think.” He reached around the priest and took the document, that he plunged into a coat pocket. “I thank you for sparing us your valuable time.” The group worked its way to and out the front door.

Father Zahnschirm hobbled back to his desk. He returned the marriage record to the shelf and stared down at the baptismal record. He smiled slightly. He did something that he often did, he spoke out loud: “What difference would a name change make? Except for this Alois and his descendants being laughed at for their name, what difference will it make?”

*****

The meeting was at its critical point. The former Bavarian corporal, who had been very active in the Party for not yet two years, was demanding leadership. Anton Drexler’s speech attacking the man’s grab for power was scattered with derision and sarcasm. Each time that he spoke his adversary’s name, it was slowly and with practiced stretched-out enunciation: Schick-el-gru-ber. “The final reason why this man would be a disaster for the Party is his very name. This monicker is the sign of a dirt digger, a peasant, a ne’er do well from the backcountry. Can you imagine our followers chanting for our leader with ‘Schick-el-gru-ber! Schick-el-gru-ber. Heil, Schick-el-gru-ber’? The other parties will laugh at us. Never!”

A smattering of chuckles ran through the hall. A vote was called for.

Adolf Schicklgruber, whose father’s family’s attempt to change his father’s name with the Döllersheim parish priest had failed, had no need to wait. He left the meeting, in obscurity.

 

Cerulean

by James Woodruff

 

When Elle looked up at the sky she saw a gigantic arm. This did not really surprise her; many strange things had been happening lately. Once she mentioned this observation to her mother at breakfast, but the reply, a distracted, “Yes, dear,” mumbled from behind the morning paper, did not exactly inspire attempts at elaboration. Elle had stared at the upraised newsprint for a moment, a wall hiding her mother’s face from view, and had decided it didn’t matter. She would leave Mom to her more important business. She’d figure it out alone.

Elle didn’t mind. This was a mystery and she loved solving mysteries.

*****

It began one spring morning after Elle retrieved her toy box from the bedroom closet. This was part of her daily routine, just as before bed each night she returned the box to its accustomed spot. And although Elle, aged five, was not much larger than the box itself, she did not find it hard to move. It had wheels; her father had installed them.

As Elle pushed the box across the floor, small shockwaves shot upward along both arms. These sensations were pleasant; they affirmed physical reality, an objective truth lying at the heart of Elle’s imaginative life. It would be wrong to leave the chest in the bedroom overnight, even closed and locked. Without physicality, those little jolts, Elle’s world would lose definition and begin to fade away.

Her mother and father thought she might be spending too much time alone with her toys, but neither of them understood. These were not toys; they were Elle’s friends. She was never alone when she was in her bedroom. The argument that it was somehow unhealthy was ridiculous. It wasn’t as if they weren’t real. Weren’t those shockwaves evidence of objective reality?

Elle maneuvered the toy box to the center of the floor and lifted the lid. It slid noiselessly upward on oiled hinges.

Reaching inside, Elle pulled out one friend after another. Dinosaurs came first, these she placed in orderly rows. As she set them down, she began planning her day. Maybe she’d lead her army down the hall to the living room. From there, maybe she’d take it down into the basement and explore.

Elle brought Horace, a T. rex as tall as her forearm, up and out of the box. She set him at the head of the column without giving him a second glance. He was her best fighter (even with his silly little tyrannosaur hands), a natural leader.

There was a light knock on the bedroom door.

Elle glanced up as the door cracked open and her mother peeked in. “Aren’t you hungry for breakfast, dear?” she asked.

Without acknowledging this interruption, Elle returned her attention to Horace. She studied his belly. It was the wrong color.

The door whispered shut, but Elle did not notice this either. She touched the dinosaur’s stomach. It was yellow.

Horace’s belly was supposed to be blue, as blue as the sky.

Still, that he was Horace, and not some impostor slipped into her toy box by The Skeleton King, was an indisputable fact. There were only two fingers on his right claw, a manufacturing defect Elle’s mother claimed, but Elle knew better. He had lost the third finger in a battle, before coming to live with her.

Elle lifted Horace into a beam of sunlight streaming through the window. No, she had not been mistaken. Horace’s underbelly had gone yellow. She knew he did not like this one bit.

Well, she didn’t like it either. Yellow bellies were signs of cowardice.

And if there was one thing Horace was not it was cowardly. He was fearless, at the head of every battle.

Elle’s father told her a ghost story once. She did not recall the story now, only one startling image: A man’s hair turning white after staying the night in a haunted house. She had checked the mirror every morning for two weeks afterward to make sure this hadn’t happened to her.

Elle considered the implications. Had Horace seen something the night before that scared him, made him change color like the man’s hair in the story? If so, what?

No, she reminded herself. This was Horace she was talking about, not one of her stuffed teddies—or that purple dinosaur on TV (the one with the dumb voice and stupid human teeth). Horace could take that purple phony with both of his tiny claws tied behind his back.

Maybe there’d been a battle and she’d slept through it.

Much as Elle wanted to believe this, or something along these lines, it seemed a stretch. There would’ve been noise. She would’ve heard. She hoisted Horace into the light for a second look. Elle pursed her lips, thinking. Horace’s stomach had been blue yesterday. She touched the plastic surface and wished for proof, a photo, knowing none existed. All she had were memories.

Elle kissed the top of Horace’s flat head before setting him down. Then she went to find her mother. Mom would have the answer.

Elle left her room and sped down the outer hallway, slowing when she reached the kitchen door. It would not do to seem too anxious. Her mother would focus on her, naturally, and then ignore the problem itself. Elle opened the door. “Mom,” she began, keeping her voice level as she stepped into the kitchen.

Her mother, sipping coffee, smiled as she looked up from a magazine. “Ready for breakfast, honey?” She gestured across the table at a bowl of Lucky Charms. Elle ignored the cereal, although with difficulty. Lucky Charms was one of her favorites.

Elle forced her eyes to the window. There she glimpsed a trim front lawn, a white picket fence, and the street beyond. Boring. Her eyes drifted downward. Gingerbread men pranced around the rim of her cereal bowl like children around a maypole. There were marshmallows inside the bowl, of course. Puffy white clouds, blue moons.

Blue like Horace’s belly used to be. Elle grimaced, looking away. “Did you or Daddy hear anything last night?” she asked.

“What did you hear?”

Elle pursed her lips, thinking how to reply. Ambiguity was probably best, at least to start. “I thought I heard something is all.”

Her mother shook her head. “I’d say you had a dream,” she said. “What was it you heard? Can you be a little more specific?”

Elle shrugged. “Scratching at the windows.” This had nothing to do with the problem, but it was best to be circuitous. She couldn’t just start with the truth; her mother would never believe it. “Yes, a scratching at the windows.”

“It was a branch, Ellie. Remember how that bothered you when you were small?”

Elle remembered the branch very well, even though she had barely been three at the time. There was an oak tree in the backyard. One of its branches would tap against a distant window during the winter months—tap, tap, tap—until the noise nearly drove Elle mad with fright. The tapping came from half a house away; she imagined it growing louder, moving towards her room inexorably, like a blind man inching along a sidewalk. Tap, tap, tap. Only this was no blind man. It was a huge disembodied claw, all gnarled and rotten. The claw sensed her. It wanted her.

Elle’s father finally sawed the limb off, and the tapping went away. It was supposed to be over.

Her mother said, “I’ll have your father look at that tree again.”

“I’m too old to be scared by any old tree,” Elle snapped, unprepared for the terror rising in her stomach at the thought of the claw. She hadn’t thought of it in a year, why did it still scare her?

She shoved the image of the monstrous thing away, reminding herself she wasn’t a baby, not anymore, a fact her mom often forgot. “I’m sorry, but it wasn’t a branch,” she said, the anger sifting from her voice. “It was something else.”

“Jeeze, hon,” her mother said, wounded. “I’m only trying to help.”

“I know, Mom. It’s just I don’t know what I heard, but I know it wasn’t a branch. Whatever it was woke me up.”

“Maybe a car backfired in the street.”

“Maybe,” Elle said, knowing there had been no car. She decided on a different approach; this might be better handled visually. “Um, can you come into my room for a minute?”

Her mother looked at her with a puzzled expression. “Sure, baby.”

Elle winced at “baby.” Still, she managed a hearty smile. “Thanks, Mom.”

Setting her magazine down, Elle’s mother stood and followed her daughter out of the kitchen. They headed down the hall together. “What is it?” she asked, not hiding her curiosity.

Feigning nonchalance, Elle said: “Oh, I want to show you something.”

The bedroom door was open. Elle stepped in and crossed to Horace. Picking him up, she handed him expectantly to her mother. “Does he look okay?”

Not knowing what she was supposed to be looking for, her mother turned the plastic toy over in her hands. She then glanced at Elle. “What am I seeing?”

“Does he look, I don’t know, different?” Elle did not want to elaborate and influence her mother’s opinion. She must see without being told.

“I don’t see anything,” the adult said. “Wait, it’s missing a claw.”

“Mom,” Elle said impatiently, “you know he came like that. Anything else?”

The older woman shrugged her shoulders. “Honestly Elle, you get funny ideas sometimes. Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong?”

Elle sighed; she hated when Mom acted dense. “Does his tummy look weird?”

“No, it looks fine.” Her mother continued to study Horace. “Yellow as ever.”

Elle pictured a claw tapping at a window. Imagined hair turning white. Irritated, she forced these images away.

Horace’s tummy had been as blue as a beautiful spring sky only yesterday. It had! Mommy should know this. She had gotten him for her, but this memory seemed gone, expunged. Fingers of fear gripped Elle’s heart.

“As ever?” she asked, hoping she had heard wrong.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t. Her mother gave a single nod. “Yes.”

The fingers around Elle’s heart tightened. “What’s his name then?”

“Big Bird,” her mother said, giving Elle a curious look. “You named him after the bird on Sesame Street, thinking it would be funny to name a dinosaur after a goofy bird.”

Not so funny, Elle thought, because she had done no such thing. His name was Horace, not Big Bird. That was ridiculous. Who named a dinosaur after a bird? True, birds evolved from dinosaurs, but that was beside the point. Plus, it was stupid.

“Didn’t you remember, dear?” her mother said.

“Oh, yes,” Elle forced a smile, face reddening. “I wanted to see if you did.” She flapped one hand dismissively toward the door. “You can go now, Mommy.”

“Was that…” she set Horace down, “all you wanted to show me?”

Elle gave a curt nod.

Perplexed by her daughter’s odd behavior, Elle’s mother threw one final look over her shoulder before leaving the room. Elle was staring intently at her toy. The woman shut the door behind her.

Elle heard the door close, then listened to the sound of footsteps receding down the outer hallway.

“You are named Horace,” she told her friend, once again giving him her full attention. She glared at his yellow stomach and touched it with her right index finger. “You are.”

*****

Elle hoped Horace’s stomach would revert back to its rightful color overnight. When she was sick she always got better in a day or two, so why shouldn’t it be the same for her friend? Maybe it was like the flu, a passing condition.

But the next morning, after Elle pushed her toy box into the bedroom and opened it, she made a distressing discovery: the dinosaur’s belly remained a cowardly yellow. Crushed, she picked up her friend and hugged him.

Things were supposed to have returned to normal. The rumble of toy box wheels against wood, the familiar shockwaves traveling along both Elle’s arms—these things signaled a return to normalcy. They were proof!

She cradled Horace in her arms, rocking him back and forth. Maybe tomorrow things would be okay, she told herself, although she didn’t really believe it.

She looked down at Horace, saw his belly, and then looked away.

*****

After that, changes occurred regularly about the house. Sometimes they were small. The brand of toothpaste Elle used, for instance. One day Crest was gone, replaced by Aim. This change was okay; Aim squirted from the tube in three colorful stripes instead of one dreary color. It tasted better too.

Other changes were disconcerting, like the sight of a brand new car pulling out of the garage. This wasn’t toothpaste, or even a dinosaur’s stomach. It was so much bigger than either. It gave Elle quite a start, the biggest since Horace.

The family car was a brown station wagon with faux wooden paneling. Or it was supposed to be. One morning, as Elle watched from the living room window, she saw the garage door open and the wrong car emerge. It was a green Maverick (it looked like a giant lime). The car was bad enough, and ugly besides, but the worst thing was her father’s reaction to it. Or his lack of one. He did not seem to notice he was driving a new car. He drove slowly, elbow cocked on the sill, in case there were children playing out front.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised, her parents never noticed these changes. This obliviousness was sort of funny, Elle had to admit, yet also more than a little scary. There was no one she could talk to about things only she could see, no one she could tell who would believe her. Elle had her friends, of course, but you could not fight an unseen foe with a dinosaur army. It was not as simple, say, as another attack by The Skeleton King. She could handle him easily enough. No, this was different. It was all up to her. Her alone.

*****

Through open drapes a diffuse light entered the bedroom. Elle laid there half asleep, listening to raindrops patter monotonously against the window. A nice sound, she decided groggily, and nothing at all like claws.

Elle’s stomach grumbled, but she did not want to leave her bed, even for a bite to eat. She stayed under her blanket, cuddling her favorite teddy, Harold.

And then her eyelids flew open. A wonderful smell was wafting through the half-open bedroom door. Pancakes. Again her stomach grumbled, more insistent this time.

“Okay, okay,” said Elle, throwing back the sheet. She yawned, got up, and went to the window. Her stomach complained at this unnecessary detour. “Just wanted to check the sky,” she told it. The cloud cover looked low enough to touch. She frowned. Rain rapped the glass like fingertips. It would probably rain all day.

She started to turn away, but there was a flash. She stopped turning. A razor thin cut had appeared above, sun bright. It shot left as Elle watched, slicing through the overcast sky, a white-hot scar in its wake.

Higher up a second line appeared. It went left, running parallel with the first. Elle once saw an air show on TV: Airplanes flying in formation, each trailing a thin stream of exhaust. This was like that, a little.

The brightness intensified. Elle lifted a hand to shield her eyes, but not before she saw something. A gigantic arm straddled the sky where the lines had been a moment before. Breath caught in her throat. There was a shirt cuff with a button attached, as big and round as the moon, thread holes glowing like stars. Elle thought the four holes looked like the big dipper.

There was a hand sticking out of the cuff, larger than the water tower on the outskirts of town. It held something, a pencil maybe, or a crayon. Yes, Elle realized with a jolt, it was a crayon. It was the blue of an untroubled sky. Of Horace’s belly.

The gigantic hand shuddered and moved, crayon jittering left to right on a diagonal slant. Blue quickly replaced gray above. The arm began moving away.

Elle thought of the air show and dismissed it. This went beyond all previous experience. She wasn’t scared, yet she was a little anxious.

Was the arm behind the recent strangeness? Yes, about that she was positive. No doubt there was a body attached to that arm—and a head. She’d speak to that head; get whomever it was to make Horace right. This was her golden opportunity. She might never get a second chance.

Rain ceased tapping the window. The arm receded across the sky, taking the clouds with it.

“Hello?” she called, forgetting there was a window. She reached up and scratched glass. Outside, the overcast sky was nearly gone; the gigantic hand worked fast. Elle did not have much time. Fumbling with the bottom latch, she jerked open the window. It stuck halfway up, where it always got stuck.

It didn’t matter. Elle had enough room to fit her head through, barely. As she did so, she twisted her body to look at the sky. The crayon kept drawing, white clouds now puffing out behind it like heavenly exhaust. She pictured Daddy’s old station wagon, not the lime green Maverick, and giggled.

“Hello!” she cried. “Hello!” Elle stuck her left hand out the window and waved heartily, still shading her eyes with the right. “I’m down here.” Her position was uncomfortable, her neck hurt. “Yoo-hoo, I see you!”

The gigantic hand shuddered in place, the world shuddering right along with it. As the house about Elle began to rattle and lurch, she prayed that the window would not come loose and fall, turning it into a guillotine blade. In the room behind, an object toppled and crashed to the floor with a tinkling of broken glass.

Then, in the sky above, the hand ground to a halt. It was over; the house had stopped shaking.

“Hey, whoever you are, I don’t care about anything else, even the ugly car, but can you change Horace back? He’s not a coward. Yellow doesn’t suit him. Please?”

Elle squinted upward. The sun had come out. It was the button, the glowing cuff button. It had become the sun. Or had it been the button all along? Did it matter? No, Elle supposed, it did not. That it was was enough.

The sun beamed down, stroking the little girl’s face with fingers of warmth. “Pretty please?” she said, smiling.

*****

The girl paused as she drew. She used a blue crayon for the sky because she liked nice days. She liked a few clouds, ones like cotton balls. They did not bring rain.

She paused. There had been a noise from the wintry yard outside. It might have been a voice calling, or maybe a bird singing. She peered through the frosted glass at the naked tree and the tire swing. She saw nothing. An inch of snow had accumulated on the swing.

She glanced at the sheet of paper before her on the desk. She would create a dinosaur, she decided, a dinosaur under a clear blue sky. She did not know where the idea had come from; she never did. Ideas always came out of nowhere. She was not fond of giant reptiles, but she liked this idea, liked it a lot.

Once, long ago, she had drawn a dinosaur. She had seen one in a book and tried to copy it. She was little more than a baby, though, and had done a poor job. She smiled at the recollection. She couldn’t even count back then. The dinosaur had the wrong number of digits on one hand, two if she remembered correctly. Its stomach was blue.

She tore up the drawing and tried again next day. This dinosaur was a little better, although she had colored this one’s belly yellow. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time. It hadn’t been. Yellow was okay for flowers and suns, not for dinosaurs.

She would use cerulean, the color of sky and her first dinosaur. “I never liked yellow anyway,” she said, speaking as if there was someone in the room with her, but of course there was not, she was alone. Her parents were watching TV downstairs. The girl looked out the window and then went back to work.

There was a sudden break in the clouds above. A stray sunbeam shot through the window, glancing off the little girl’s polished desk. As she turned slightly to get the light out of her eyes, it caught the brass button of her shirt cuff. It flashed, bright as starshine.

 

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.

 

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.