The Worthless Man

The Worthless Man

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Leonard Schlenz

 

Spilled neon wallows as usual around the watery blackness of Kuala Lumpur’s bustling night markets; it’s a special night for those who are Chinese, when firecrackers follow dancing dragons into Buddhist temples, and the well-to-do sit unafraid in good restaurants that rotate on top of tall buildings, all the better to see the New Year bursting over the night sky of Chinatown. And in the sky above the Malay district the spotlights of FDS search the muggy streets with the wide white beams of their silent helicopters, hunting for three old men on the run.

* * * * *

I’m told this is the seedy side of town. For our purposes, that is both good and bad. I’m afraid of the place and I’m afraid of FDS, Fujimoto Digital Shadow. My thinking for now is it’s better to die on the run than to die their way. My newfound friends are Shandar and Dutczak. I wear stolen dark glasses on top of my head. My skin is pale and noticeable. Shandar is darker and can probably avoid detection for a longer time. Dutczak is paler than I am, with a thick face and he’s too tall to be hiding alongside of us. Luckily for now we have dark alleys and crowded places to hide, places where the authorities prefer not to go. Besides, they don’t like FDS any more than we do.

Shandar seems to have surfaced as our temporary leader. I don’t mind, as he speaks some Malay and can pass for a local. They had not yet processed us when we made our escape. Between us we have some yen and some dollars and the clothes we wear. As a further disguise, we each bought a batik shirt on the corner, Shandar saying something in Malay to the effect, “Give us three shirts, a small a medium and a large.” Mine makes me look like a turtle.

I was kidnapped in Singapore not two days ago and auctioned off on Saturday. I’ve not been here in KL for forty hours. Shandar was taken near the Thai border and was brought by bus. Dutczak, our Ukrainian, was in a German nursing facility writing his memoirs when they snatched him. I know them hardly at all, except we happened to be using the restroom at the same time when the supplier opened the outer door, and so here we are, out of breath, confused and scared to death.

Predatory taxis glide through the aftermath of heavy rain looking for fares. Their tires calmly unzip the watery ways as they slow, and we wave them by. Firecrackers pop nonstop in the distance, and the streets are filled with the smell of cooking and burnt pyrotechnics. There’s no sign yet of FDS foot patrols.

“Shouldn’t we find a bar or something,” I say, “hide somewhere inside?”

Shandar agrees and Dutczak agrees too, saying, “I’m six foot six. Maybe you’d be better off without me.”

Shandar says, “That goes without saying; two old ferengi with pale faces… but, no, no one should bother us inside. They’re afraid in this part of town. We’re safe here for now. Look, I see a place on the corner.”

Indeed, I see it too, where he’s pointing, lettered in Chinese, red on yellow, and in English as well, China Doll; there’s a silhouette of a cocktail and a girl. Tattooed teenagers hang outside with big teeth grinning and nodding, slouching against graffiti in at least three languages. They look as if they would kill you for a few yen, or just for a good time, but they only smile with vacant eyes when we pass through them; and so we three, an American, a Gypsy, and a Ukrainian walk into a bar in Kuala Lumpur, the China Doll—but it’s no joke and we’re wet with sweat and rain, and are more scared probably than at any time in our lives. Our most common thread is that we’re old, in the winter of our lives, where comfort should be primary on our minds. We’re very old and useful for only one thing. It’s the footprint of our souls that they paid for, the shadowy distillate of our DNA, the who-we-were that they want… That much we know and very little else. Once past ninety there are few legal rights—if not in law, then in fact—since the monster octopus that is New Japan has the long reach of its yen.

A Chinese girl smiles, understanding we’ve not come for massages or companionship, and she seats us in the back where Shandar orders us three coffees in English. We say nothing until the coffee comes.

We’re tired, possibly in shock, and finally I say as the pretty girl serves us our coffee, heavy with sugar and lightened with milk, “What now? Do you really think their patrols will stay away from here?”

“Their scanners will find us. Eventually. Whether they’ll attempt to take us here in such a heavily Malay district so soon is another thing. We might as well get to know each other, for better or worse.”

This I already know: Shandar and Dutczak in their past lives have been in some way notable. Or illustrious. Their lives have been somehow exceptional. Or else they would not be here now.

So, as to who we are… “Let’s keep it short,” Shandar says, scanning the room of dancing chaos, smothered in the din of laughter and western music. It seems to be true that we’re safe for now. The club has welcomed us into its loud belly and remains oblivious to our presence, and so I take my turn. “My name is Paul. I’m American. I was chief global attorney for North American Affairs when I was younger but turned to writing later in life. No family to speak of. Never married. I have bank accounts in three countries and could maybe get some of it, but I don’t know if FDS controls the money supply here…”

“I don’t know either,” Shandar interjects. “We’ll plan that next. So what is your special talent, that which they want from you? Surely, attorneys are common enough.”

“Well… probably my creativity… my faculty for persuasion, my gift for gab. You might say I can build castles with words. I’m a poet and that makes me, as you say, special. My poetry has been called… uhm… unique… There were awards… I was very well received in certain circles…”

“Whatever. Never heard of you,” Shandar says.

“But you don’t even know…”

“Never heard of you,” he repeats, “And what about you, Mister Dutczak? What talent is it that they seem to want from you?”

I shrug and sip the sweet brown coffee as Dutczak speaks, in perfect English with a Slavic voice that chews his words, “I’m in mathematics,” he says. “I taught Theoretical Mathematics and Computation at the University of Berlin. I’ve contributed to journals; of course, some of it was groundbreaking. I’m an avid chess player. My wife has been dead many years now, but I have a son living in Massachusetts.”

Shandar has chosen the seat with his back to the wall; he looks around the room, his eyes unblinking, “I can understand why they would want you. But I am next. The name Shandar is a Gypsy name of Hindi origin—and I am nobody. I do not have any of these talents of which you speak. I am Romani, perhaps a bit of a magician as are many of my people. I’m an insurgent, a dissenter… and, naturally, I sing. But I’m in no way extraordinary. They have no reason to have use for my common talents. Perhaps their files have become crossed with some Interpol file. Anything is possible.”

“What is it you’re fighting?” I ask.

“Are you joking? I fight this new world, this complacency, this ugliness. Open your eyes, man. I fight this modernity that has made us all part of some mass brain…” He begins to sputter, as if the day is not long enough to explain his quest. “It’s a long story. Still, I’ve accomplished nothing in my life. Certainly my magic is commonplace. I’ve spent the better part of my life in a special prison where the guards are also trained in the magical arts, making it nearly impossible to escape.”

“But you did escape,” I say.

“Perhaps they were not paying attention. In any case, I have no intention of behaving well. Anyway, gentlemen, I suggest we leave the city as soon as possible. I know this part of the world quite well, and it’s a matter of time before they offer a reward. These scoundrels here will happily accommodate them if only for a chance to participate in some new drug study.”

Dutczak says, “I’m not well. I won’t be able to keep up if our journey is too strenuous.”

“At least,” adds Shandar, “they didn’t send us to one of their experimental moon colonies, where there’d be no hope of escape.”

I shudder at the thought and I notice his words slowing as his eyes look in the distance to the entryway, and I begin to see why… “I thought you said we were safe in this part of town,” I say. A uniformed man is inquiring at the entrance and scanning the cavernous room with a small instrument.

“He doesn’t look Japanese,” Shandar says. “A contractor perhaps, a collaborator, but not Japanese. When he approaches, do not move or speak.”

The uniformed man has replaced his scanner with his weapon, and approaches our table. “He’s possibly Malay, perhaps Baba,” Shandar says, almost whispering to himself, as if estimating the man’s abilities.

The man wears the FDS patch on his chest. “Stand up you three,” he says in a strong voice, and chairs fall and the docile drugged faces of the partiers flutter away softly like bats readjusting in a cave. “You three, stand,” he says again. He points the short weapon midway between us and Shandar simply looks him in the eye, reaches out slowly, and holds the barrel as if it were a jewel to be inspected, and with his other hand he makes shapes that seem to dazzle the poor man, whereupon the man’s eyes seem to shut down, peeping through the tiny confused slits of his eyelids—petrified in some way. And Shandar says, “Let’s go; my little trick is fleeting.”

* * * * *

“I told you I was a magician,” he says later. It’s a simple thing, to seemingly freeze time while I adjust my props. It’s common among my people, a primordial talent, I suppose.” We sit in a taxi, Shandar sitting in front telling the driver, “Take us out of here, out of the city. Go east. We can pay.” And the driver pulls away from the curb adjusting his mirror, not to the view behind us, but to Dutczak and me, squeamish and huddled in the back seat.

He drives away from the big city towards and into the heart of the peninsula, where it is said tigers still roam… “Where modernity is hardly fed,” says Shandar, “and, god willing, may die in its present form before it is too late for us all.”

There’s little conversation. We’re exhausted. The night is moonless and quiet, more so in contrast to the din of the celebrating city, and at last Shandar says, “This will do fine,” as he collects our money and pays the driver what he asks, plus extra for his silence.

The little kampong has no more than thirty huts, almost all on stilts to keep them dry in the monsoon rains, and I smell spices cooking. As it is late, jungle noises surround the kampong. They are disquieting to me, their shrillness stopping and starting in unison like some ancient squeaky machine. “Can we hide here forever?” I say.

“No, of course not,” Shandar says. Dutczak only looks at us both, knowing he has no choice but to follow—or kill himself to avoid the end provided by FDS. “We will move further into the interior soon enough. We’re bound for a place more primitive still.”

Tea all round. Chicken curry and rice, a squishy vegetable of some sort in a simmering liquid. Thankfully, the village welcomes us. In the distant past it had endured the Japanese, it had hid itself from the communists, and now it hides from the world at large. Pointing to an elderly woman in a sarong, Shandar says, “I’ve spoken to machi over there. She knows of places where the scanners are not likely to probe, where people live simpler lives.”

“My god,” I say. “Simpler than this?” There are late-night village noises, most are asleep. As we sit, our creaky legs bent on the floor, we exchange helloes.

“We’re honored that the imam would sit at our table,” Shandar says. He’s an old man, possibly as old as us. “It’s especially kind that you prepare food so late at night.”

The imam has heard my mocking words about the simple life, and says, “Our ways may seem old to you but we are happy.” And then, “Why are you running from the law? Or if you are not running, tell me why are you here?”

Dutczak and I defer to Shandar, “It’s not the law that pursues us,” he says, “but FDS.”

“FDS?”

It’s my turn to speak, “Fujimoto Digital Shadow. They make educational tools, teaching machines for one thing, for those in advanced learning. It’s a Japanese company, but there are others, mostly Japanese; there is also a big one in Brazil, I believe. Simply put, they want to steal our souls… I don’t know how else to say it.”

The imam shakes his wide palms in front of us as if not to allow such demon ideas into his head, “I do not understand. You cannot steal one’s soul. My people go back very far, we are Orang Asli, People of the Soil, and even in the old times we understood a soul cannot be stolen, only one can give it freely to good or evil.”

I say, “You see, imam, out there in the world there are few rights given to those older than ninety. We are dispensable…”

“Dispensable?”

“We do not own our own lives, and especially so if there is something we can give back to the world. It’s not really our souls they want, but… well, I’m not a scientist, but it’s the memory of our lives, our natural… I suppose talents that they want.”

“Well,” says Dutczak, “I am involved in the sciences, and it’s a difficult concept to describe. I know they have isolated the aura surrounding our DNA, the imagination, the memory that has built up over a lifetime… that which makes us who we are.”

“I do not understand what you say. How could it be of use to these people, these FDS people?”

“They’ve learned to re-engineer the product, or rather the byproduct of our DNA. To make it useful. At first they used it to create interactive studies by which the best and brightest minds are used as sort-of devils’ advocates in the teaching process. You know, us more gifted ones, our canned experiences against the students, the young learners in the thought process…”

Alah-mah! I don’t understand, but it seems frightening what you say. Are you to say they capture your being and put it into a machine that is used to teach?”

“Basically, yes,” I say. “And we’re free to hand over our bodies for the good of mankind if we so chose. Most do not choose that path and so they hunt us down and sell us in their so-called marketplace. We’re old, as you can see. There are laws, but our leaders often look the other way. Those of us who have special talents are most valuable, of course, to graft onto their equipment.”

“And they kill you when they do this… this transfer?”

“No. Well, actually we don’t know,” I say.

“And that’s the worst of it,” Dutczak adds, “Whether there is some sort of lingering consciousness, we just don’t know.”

“This is a terrible thing. It is evil. It is worse than I thought. Is it truly a help to those who wish to learn? I mean is it truly an aid to those who wish to learn from your experience?”

“Ah. If it were so,” Dutczak says, “then I may even make the sacrifice. You see, sir, they also make video games, games of reality no longer virtual, but real, to give the bright children only the best against whom to compete.”

“Surely, this cannot be so,” the imam says. But when there is no response from us, he says, “Yes, we will help you. But where I will take you there are not many… how you say… enjoyments.”

* * * * *

Kidnapped and now free. For the time being. Freedom without comfort or familiarity. As the vehicle grunts through the mud we sit under cover of a tarp, not talking but for the silent conversations in our wandering thoughts. I’m thinking how better we could have explained this new technology to the un-schooled imam. None of us really can, for even we three know only what we’ve read in the cursory, often forbidden, explanations given in the underground periodicals: round the double helix there being this halo of our thoughts, a lifetime of conversations and those accruals of imagined debates that go on inside the brain, each a fiction played out with a different outcome; there are footprints in our brains, even unconnected thoughts yet to find creative meaning.

Or simply, for us, call it experience of the gifted. Or call it the nuts and bolts of the soul. Though Shandar claims to have never heard of me—which I doubt—I sadly take secret pride that I am among the chosen of FDS—as they too must feel a certain pride. All I know is that as for me they have chosen well. I assume Dutczak has heard of my work. He has not said so. Surely he must have some knowledge of the arts. “Say what you want,” I mutter as the ancient vehicle grinds into another gear, “but I’m good as gold. And the Japanese want me. They want me . . . They want me.”

* * * * *

Bukit Piatu is small even for a village, but is surrounded by like-size kampongs and, in all, they form a larger community of farmers and hunters. Our new-found home is welcoming and the imam has come along to introduce us. We will have to earn a living even though we are old. I suggest we could teach, but the imam tells us before he departs that he thinks that is not such a good idea, that perhaps we might think of something more useful to provide.

I’m wondering if I can survive the heat here for the remainder of my life. It is a wet heat. I can see Dutczak is breathing heavily. Shandar seems to be adapting just fine though he is old as well. English is rarely spoken. We’re told what we hear is an ancient dialect of Malay, and Shandar seems to get by adequately with it. We have sat for two days telling tales, Dutczak and I—perhaps competing in a friendly way—but mostly just bragging of the fact that we were after all chosen by the FDS for our special talents, and as I put it, being a few diamonds in a bed of broken rock. I’m an artist first and foremost. Although I accept that my talent is god-given I fantasize how FDS would use my gift. It is my guilty pleasure for surely one cannot teach the kind of splendor that lies within me, that breathes in my work. We’re old enough to brag and not feel uneasy by it. At least I am open as to who I am.

We three have come to know each other well, but are perhaps too old and too familiar with the loss of those we’ve known and loved to admit to liking one another.

“There’s an old woman in the far hut who will act as our advisor,” Shandar says. “She’s quite old. She says she even remembers as a child the Australian camp in Malacca. She grew up there and speaks English quite well.”

* * * * *

Introductions all round. Tea of course, and rice cakes. We squat on bamboo mats. Dutczak and I have already learned the Malay art of eating without utensils.

Latifah’s hair is long and gray and loose. She breathes slowly and deeply, making her wide nose flare rhythmically as she speaks. The drooping eyelids show wisdom. She smiles with large white teeth and shiny gums that show health. She believes we should all be able to work out quite well in the kitchens, which we snicker at, but then see we really have no choice if we are to contribute. After all, it’s not likely that we will hunt monkeys with blow darts or trap armadillos. She’s a kindly old woman and on this my third evening in my new home I say, “Ma’am, what is it you do for entertainment here? Don’t the children become bored?”

“Our amusement? Oh, there is wonderful entertainment,” she smiles. “Not of your world, but much better. I have seen your toys and it makes me want to… spit. Excuse me. That was not a kind thing to say.”

“Then show us. Show us what your people do in their leisure time.”

“Oh I shall. Tomorrow night is our gathering night. You will see the beauty of it, the simplicity. You shall see that which we call the wayang kulit.”

I look at Dutczak and he shrugs. I look at Shandar and see he’s smiling at the old woman and nodding his head in knowing appreciation.

I’m concerned about Dutczak’s health. He’s coughing more now. I think his run is nearly over. I see his lips moving in prayer when he doesn’t think we’re watching.

But he’s fit enough the following evening as the surrounding jungle comes to life. Torches are lit and the surrounding villages comprising maybe a few hundred people gather round. They give us three front row seats of straw mat. There is a screen backlit by a dozen torches. It’s a puppet show we are about to see, and Shandar smiles when he sees my look of recognition, and says, “They are the shadow puppets, the wayang kulit. It has been their way for centuries.”

Drums silence the jungle long enough for the introduction, in Malay of course, and then the shadows that are cast onto the white cloth act out their parts, easy enough to understand. There is drama, and there is humor which I don’t understand, but I laugh just the same because it is contagious. The play goes on for a very long time and I’m aware there’s no reason to care about the time or how many hours have passed. It’s a feeling of freedom as I sit, thinking, only momentarily, that somehow I possibly have led a poor life. I see Dutczak spellbound in delight, his blink-less eyes flickering in the night, but upon further observation, I realize he’s dead.

We bury him around noon on the following day. He was in his nineties after all. This big adventure I think added to a worthwhile life. Latifah knows prayers and we allow her the honors. I don’t understand the words but she clearly sets him adrift in a different world, perhaps with a letter of reference; to which I conclude, “He seemed like a nice fellow.”

* * * * *

Some weeks pass before the boredom sets in. Shandar keeps to himself and disappears for long periods of time. I have taken a liking to Latifah and we spend more and more time together. I think she enjoys my company. If her memories are true, then she is older than anyone I have ever met. And I sense her stories are true. Not all years ripen into wisdom, but I sense in Latifah wisdom and kindness. I think she finds me vain, and refuses to admit that I am a somebody in this life. At first I was offended but have come to appreciate her honesty. At one sitting we eat rambutans fresh from the tree behind her hut, and she smiles with those large protruding teeth, and she says, “I should think a poet such as you would know his inner self.”

“Clearly, one cannot be a true poet without such an ability,” I say. “I would agree, if I don’t know myself then I am not the artist I am said to be. But the world knows differently. And wouldn’t it seem to you that FDS wanting me should be proof of something?”

“Then you believe what the world says and not what your heart says. That would make you a false philosopher. Oh, it is sad, my friend, that you take pride in such things, that you only look to the tip of your nose to see the meaning of life. And immortality.”

“Ouch,” I say, oddly finding myself at a loss for words.

And I admit: This common life does not fit me well. Some are born to greatness; some are not. I seem not fit to peel potatoes or mince garlic; curry does not suit my palette or my stomach. I miss the new world from which I came, and by god I miss the accolades. I freely admit it; at home I was a king; here I’m but the village idiot. In time I may become accustomed to hiding from the helicopters that occasionally pass overhead like giant quiet pterodactyls. But I doubt it. When they come at night the beams of light are blinding. I continue to wonder why their sophisticated sensors don’t find me.

* * * * *

But in the fourth week they move in quietly like the fog, and not from the air as I’d learned to expect. It is one evening after dinner and my hands are blistered and perhaps infected from the primitive knife I’ve used to peel the tapioca. “Run! Run! They are here!” It’s the voice of a child whose name I don’t know, and there are other villagers running too, and screaming to each other. Five men in green uniforms fire as they go. Each wears a sensor on his helmet. It’s as if the scene is in slow motion as they round up whomever they can catch. Not a few are faces and bodies I recognize, some lying on the ground either motionless or groaning.

But it’s not FDS who searches, but government authorities. I’m among those they herd like cattle up onto the puppet stage. One by one, a soldier scans us with a wand. When they come to me, the man says, “You are not Malay.”

They have found me. “I’m not Malay. I‘m American,” I say proudly, and he scans the area around my chest and head, and pushes buttons on his little apparatus. “Where is Shandar the Magician?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.”

“You stupid old man,” he says, and pushes me hard enough that I fall backwards onto the ground.

And then he moves on, leaving me to wiggle back to a standing position unharmed.

They’ve posted a guard on the road. I sit and talk with Latifah. Her face is bruised from the slapping they gave her. I’m clumsy but try to dab at the cut above her eye without causing too much pain. She flinches and being so far from modern medicine I fear the worst. It would be my fault for bringing them here, but she seems resolved, and utters some such-is-life triteness in one of the many Malay proverbs she uses when she is frustrated with me.

A woman takes the damp cloth from me, which relieves me a great deal, and Latifah says, “It’s not you they come for. It’s obvious. They’re looking for Shandar our humble magician.”

“They have come for us three. I have put you in danger.”

“I don’t believe so, even if you wish it were true. Shandar is a leader in the movement,” she says.

“I wish I could talk to him. Is he okay?”

“I’m here, my friend. Behind you.”

Shandar’s voice sends a chill up my spine, but when I turn to see, there is nothing. “Here, here I am,” the voice laughs; and his image slowly materializes from the bamboo walls of Latifah’s hut.

“You crazy magician,” I say, rising. “It’s good to see you.”

“I will be moving on, of course. I’m dealing with fools out there, the ones keeping watch, but it’s only a matter of time before they send reinforcements with Gypsy talents. What is it you wish to ask before I go?”

“There’s so much. Everything! I want to know everything!”

“Well, firstly, I lied. I escaped from a prison in Bangkok and was able to evade Interpol by reassigning myself to the FDS facility in KL. It was my trickery that got us out of there, not luck as you and Mr. Dutczak were led to believe. But I’m never far from capture. I’ll be moving on later tonight. There’s still work to be done.”

“But what work? What are you fighting against?”

“I have told you, a return to a simpler life.”

“That’s it? But that’s impossible, Shandar. You can’t go back.”

“I can try, and I will try.”

Even I can be noble. “Do you want my help?”

“It would be difficult for you to contribute, my friend. Perhaps you should return with the authorities. FDS will make you comfortable. I fear you are not meant for this simple village life.”

“Let us drink tea,” Latifah says, dismissing the woman who tends to her. “And then we shall send Shandar on his way. As to whether you should return to this FDS, it is your decision. Apparently they have not detected you, even with their scanners… Ssshh.”

“What is it?” I say. But my question answers itself as they burst in, kicking and shouting and once again knocking me to the ground.

“Where is he? Where’s the Magician?”

“I don’t know,” I say. And it’s true. He’s gone as sure as the shadow of a puppet when the light dies. “I… I need to ask you something,” I say.

“What is it, old man?”

“I’m wanted by FDS. I’ve escaped and wish to return to Kuala Lumpur.”

The soldier pulls his scanner from his chest plate and scans my eyes. “I see,” he says. “There was a reward for your capture, but it has been withdrawn. You are free to go about your business.”

“Withdrawn?”

“They no longer need you, old man. They don’t want you.”

He starts to leave the hut, but I find the news suddenly intolerable, “How dare you say that! Are you saying that I’m worthless?”

“Get out of my face, old man,” he says, and he shoves me yet again. And for the third time I fall back on brittle bones, hitting my head on a table.

Latifah sits, taking it all in, shaking her head, and I’m suddenly ashamed, seeing behind those wrinkled folds a hundred years of wisdom that has somehow eluded me. And sadly eludes me still.

When the village is quiet again I sit with Latifah on the stoop of her stilted hut. I think she will be okay. She has lived through worse. I will be returning home, I suppose, to live out my days. Outside the hut, children play with little monkeys and kick at a wicker ball; there are signs of rain to the west Latifah tells me.

 

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Illustration by Lynn Shipp

by James R. Stratton

 

Phil slouched up 12th Street, buffeted by commuters scurrying home. He sighted the neon sign for Smokey Joe’s Tobacco Bar ahead and grinned. He’d had a bear of a day with the boss on his ass all afternoon. He envisioned himself sliding onto the bar stool at Joe’s and quickened his pace.

At the corner, he strode into the crosswalk, then skipped back when a cab skidded to a halt short of the crosswalk. Phil glared up and growled. Damn it, I got the light! Phil smacked the hood as he walked around, drawing an angry honk from the cab. A bus pulled away before he could cross, belching blue smoke. Phil could feel his pulse pumping up as he swam through acrid exhaust to reach the curb.

Hacking up hydrocarbons, Phil pushed into the tavern’s cool, dark interior. He strolled in as his knotted muscles loosened.

From behind the bar, Joe whispered breathlessly, “Hey, Phil! What’ll it be?”

Joe had lost a lung to cancer in his thirties, but still smoked. And even after the plants were engineered to eliminate carcinogens, do-gooders held firm to banning tobacco except at establishments like Joe’s.

Phil drummed on the bar, smiling. “A beer and a Lucky Strike, my man!”

Joe grunted. “Bad day, huh?” Phil nodded as Joe brought him a beer and an unfiltered cigarette. Phil took that first puff and then a long pull on the beer, and sighed.

Overhead, the TV flashed to a head shot of that pretty blonde newscaster. In the background were clawed and fanged flamingoes with “Special Report” scrolling below. Phil settled in with his beer and butt, content.

“Good evening. I’m Pamela Finnegan, your southern Florida Action Eyewitness News correspondent with a special report on the flamingo crisis; the cause of the disaster, where we are today. We start with their appearance last May.” The camera pulled back to a bald, heavy-set man.

“This is Otis Hatfield, real estate magnate. And tonight you’ll be the first to hear his story.” Otis smiled so his whole face folded into creases, conveying aw-shucks simplicity and home town geniality.

Phil shook his head and blew a smoke ring at the screen. He must’ve practiced that smile in front of a mirror. Anyone with his bucks can’t be that dense. The papers devoted pages to Otis when it all broke, a billionaire who made his fortune in off-shore underwater condos. And afterwards the investigations slid right by him.

Otis clasped his hands across his big gut and nodded. “Thanks, Pam. Hi folks, it’s Otis of Hatfield’s Homes, the best vacation homes in America. Look for my ads in your local news server.” Pamela coughed and Otis flashed her a frown.

“Anyhow, this mess started while I was eatin’ breakfast with my darling wife Peggy Ann. Our home on Chokoloskee Island backs up to the Everglades National Park. We eat on the deck most mornings. Well that day I was watching the flamingoes as they walked along with their heads in the water feedin’. And I realized their knees bent the wrong way! Put me right off my grits! Made me feel all oogie.” Otis shook himself.

“Well, I talked to some friends who asked ’round, and I got a call from a guy at a genetics lab in Kazakhstan. Used to be a weapons plant for the old Soviet Union. We talked about making a bird with proper knees, and at first they acted funny. But when we talked money they got fired up on the idea!”

Pamela leaned forward frowning. “Now you were questioned by the FBI about that purchase. It’s illegal to import genetically modified animals. But you haven’t been charged, right?”

Otis sat back and looked into the camera. “I don’t know much ’bout legal stuff. I ordered flamingo birds for my estate, that’s all. I believed the people I paid would take care of any permits. That’s what my contract said. And I proved all that to the FBI!” He glared his indignation at the camera.

He turned back to Pamela. “Anyways, they showed up with fifty eggs and an incubator. Showed us how to work it, and left us a book on takin’ care of the little fellers. And by god they was cute! Looked like little chicks with long legs, peepin’ and floppin’ round, but with proper knees! Once they was big enough, I turned ’em loose in the swamp.”

“And when did you realize these weren’t ordinary birds?”

“Oh, a couple of months passed with everything fine, but then we noticed them birds was way bigger than wild flamingoes. Didn’t think much of it, they was a special breed after all. But one Sunday my wife was playing with Bitsie, our miniature Shih Tzu dog.”

Otis paused as his eyes teared. “Now ’lil Bitsie was ’bout this big,” and he held up his palm. “She was our little darlin’. Went everywhere in my wife’s purse. Well, Peggy Ann was throwing the ball for Bitsie out back while I read the paper, and the ball rolled into the water. Next thing I know, them birds was all around Bitsie. And then Bitsie started howlin’. I fetched my gun and chased ’em off with a few shots, but there weren’t more’n scraps left of poor Bitsie.” His voice shook and he dabbed his eyes with a hankie. “And that was the last I saw of ’em.”

Pamela patted Otis’ hand. “You have our deepest sympathy on your loss, sir.” Otis smiled and nodded as the camera zoomed in on Pamela.

“In the following months, disturbing reports surfaced across southern Florida of giant birds stalking the swamps in the moonlight. Soon the reality of the nightmare emerged. At our Tampa studio is Dr. August Forward, professor of genetics at Florida Polytechnic Institute.” Pam turned to the bearded man with half-moon glasses smiling from the monitor behind her.

“Dr. August, you’ve conducted a study of the flamingo phenomena. What can you tell our viewers?”

The doctor frowned over his glasses. “Well Pam, paleontologists know that modern birds are the decedents of dinosaurs. Also, we geneticists have known for decades that the genome for modern animals have segments that don’t have a function. For years we considered this junk coding, genes that separated the active segments. More recently, we’ve come to understand these inert segments are valid coding. They are genes from remote ancestors that have been superceded by evolution. They’re still present but aren’t expressed.”

Dr. August sat back. “I believe these mutated birds were a manifestation of that ancestral coding. The changes made by Soviet geneticists did alter the bird’s joint structure, but also activated ancient coding in the genome.”

He held up a drawing of a flamingo. “This was the result. These creatures resemble modern flamingoes with pink feathers and long legs, but with drastic differences.” He used his pen as a pointer. “The beaks are lined with razor-sharp serrations. Their wings end in three clawed fingers, and their feet are armed with long hooked claws. And they stand fifteen feet tall. We’re speculating, but these features resemble theropod dinosaurs of the Ornithomimosaur family that existed during the Cretaceous Period.”

Pam nodded solemnly. “Ornithomimosaurs were meat eaters?”

Dr. August nodded once. “Oh yes. They were aggressive carnivores. Ornithomimosaurs were related to Tyrannosaurus Rex if a bit smaller, hunted in packs, had feathers and saw-toothed beaks.”

Frowning, Pam nodded at the screen. “So these were genetically recreated dinosaurs?”

Dr. August shook his head. “Absolutely not! They were a new species, created accidentally by whomever altered the flamingo genes. A hybrid, with characteristics of both. Long legged and feathered like the flamingo, but carnivorous, pack hunting and aggressive like raptors.”

Pam nodded. “So we are faced with monster carnivores, fast and dangerous?”

“Exactly, Pam.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” The screen behind her faded to black as she faced the camera.

“Through the summer, the crisis continued. And then authorities began receiving missing persons reports. Sightseeing groups would enter the Everglades and not return. Cars were found wrecked and abandoned near the park. In the fall, Governor Johnson declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. And then on October 18, we had that horrible disaster. With us is Major General Winfred McGowen, Commander of the Florida National Guard.” She turned to a military man seated next to her. “Welcome, sir. Tell us about your encounter with the flamingoes.”

He nodded and turned to the camera. “My Guardsmen were deployed by the Governor on October 2, and we established bivouacs around the Everglades. Scout teams went in, but the Everglades covers hundreds of square miles without roads or navigable channels. And these beasts proved elusive. Several times we received good intelligence on sightings, but only found footprints and feathers when my men arrived.”

He paused and solemnly stared into the camera. “And then on October 18, I got a frantic call from Sheriff Culpepper at Marco Island P.D., ten miles north of the Everglades Park. I scrambled a squad of Guardsmen in Armored Personnel Carriers immediately.”

“The sheriff reported a flock of twenty of these beasts had flown in from the south and landed at Collier Beach. This is a popular vacation spot on the island and was crowded. When we arrived, we found the birds in water, heads down. This is the video my second-in-command took.”

The screen flashed to a grainy video of pink flamingoes striding through the water, heads down as screams resounded. The camera zoomed in revealing people thrashing in the water at the birds feet. The birds churned the water with their beaks, and red foam splashed up as they slashed people. One bird lifted its head with a leg in its beak. The limb disappeared and a bulge coursed down its neck.

“We were stymied at first as these beasts were among the civilians,” General McGowen continued. “But when it was clear the people in the water were in jeopardy, we opened fire with M16s.”

Gunfire boomed and dust puffed from the birds. They squawked and turned, stalking across the beach.

“The gunfire wasn’t effective, but it distracted them from the civilians. Once we had them clear of the water, I ordered up our big weapon. I’d received approval from National Command to deploy our Stinger shoulder-launched missiles.”

A flaring arrow whooshed overhead and struck the lead bird in the breast. A fiery explosion obscured the screen, then pink feathers and red chunks rained down. Several birds thrashed in the sand when the smoke cleared, knocked down by the concussion. Then the birds were running down the beach with wings spread, and soared away.

“We’d put out a call for air support, but these critters were gone by the time the ’copter gun ships reached our location. After that it became a game of hide and seek. They laid low in the swamps, and raided the surrounding communities after dark, like that nighttime little league massacre three weeks later. And we weren’t making progress locating them.”

“Thank you, General,” Pam said as the camera zoomed in. “And so the crisis deepened, with civilian deaths rising. Discussions started on how to evacuate the affected communities. And then Governor Johnson received an offer for help from a most unlikely source. Joining us in the studio of our sister station WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland is Frank Perdue IV, President of Perdue Farms, Incorporated.” She turned to the screen behind her.

“Welcome, Mr. Perdue. Tell our viewers why you came forward.”

The thin, balding man nodded. “Well Pamela, Perdue Farms is the largest poultry producer in the world. We understand birds! Even if these critters were fifteen feet tall, they were still big chickens as far as we was concerned.”

Grim-faced he looked into the camera. “Now at Perdue we’ve used biochemical technology for years to control our flocks on the producer farms. Mama chickens produce a pheromone, a chemical attractant, that draws the chicks to them. We use it to keep flocks together, and lead them when needed. Once we obtained a samples of the flamingo birds, our lab boys identified a similar pheromone. We produced it in quantity and were able to put it to use as a lure.”

The screen flashed to a video taken aloft of a biplane crop duster cruising over endless swampland. White mist trailed from the wings. “The poor critters didn’t stand a chance. We made four runs over the Everglades spraying the flamingo pheromone, and they chased after the planes like mad things.” The camera panned back to a dozen giant flamingoes flapping furiously in pursuit.

“We led ’em north to where the 14th Artillery Battalion from Patrick Air Force Base was waiting.”

The picture switched to a view from the ground as the biplane swept overhead. Behind, squawking and honking, came the flamingoes. The camera panned down to an array of ground-to-air missile platforms. An officer in camo raised his arm as the pink flight of birds approached and shouted, “Fire at will!”

Rockets streaked aloft and flames exploded among the flamingoes. One by one they honked and dropped, raked by the deadly barrage. But still the survivors flapped on, beaks agape, eyes fixed on the retreating crop duster. One by one they flared and fell from the sky, until the last jerked from a rocket blast to the wing. It shrieked and barrel-rolled over, spiraling down trailing flames.

Mr. Perdue reappeared on the screen. “And that was all she wrote. We had all the birds in two weeks, and there’ve been no sightings since.”

Pamela smiled. “And so ended the flamingo crisis. America is grateful, Mr. Perdue. Good night from Eyewitness Action News.”

She paused, then swivelled around. “So Frank, I was wondering what Perdue Farms got out of this. We’ve heard rumors you demanded the two clutches of eggs the Guardsmen found in the Everglades. Was that why they were turned over to your research department?”

Frank smirked. “Come on, girl! My people know poultry! Who else would they want in charge of ’em? No need to be making up stuff about demands.”

“But what does Perdue Farms want with those eggs? They should’ve been destroyed, not hatched!”

“Are you foolin’, girl? Did you see the size of the drumsticks on those critters? You could feed a small town with one!”

Frank stopped talking, staring into the camera. “Hey, that thing’s still on! Turn it off! This is all off the record, hear?”

Phil jumped when the front door banged open as a customer walked in, the roar of traffic rumbling by drowned out the TV. Joe walked over with the remote.

“Hey, sorry but I gotta switch over to the Knicks game. A bunch of people are asking.”

Phil sipped his beer and nodded. “That’s okay, the thing about the big flamingoes is over. But did you hear the bit at the end? Mr. Perdue wanting to raise those things? Weird, huh?”

“Yeah?” Joe jutted his chin at the chalkboard by the register. “Check out the specials,” and picked up Phil’s ashtray.

“Happy Hour Special!” it proclaimed in pink chalk. “Flamingo tenders! With hot sauce or ranch dressing!”

“Is that for real? Monster flamingo meat?”

Joe shrugged. “It’s just in from my supplier. And they’re really good! Taste just like chicken, but sweeter!”

“Really? Well, give me an order. And hit me again.” Joe slid a beer and a butt to him smiling.

And they did taste just like chicken.

 

In the Dark Woods

In The Dark Woods

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Laura Davy

 

The girl vomited on the bloodstained floor as she idly wondered how hard it would be to clean up the mess. Maybe after they got the wolf’s corpse out of the house they’d be able to start tidying up. But despite how clean the house got she knew she wouldn’t be able to look at her grandmother’s floor without seeing blood. She felt like giggling and then she felt sick, but this time she didn’t vomit. She silently savored her victory and went back to trying not to think about anything.

The girl wiped her mouth clean with the corner of her soft red cape and her grandmother came over and rubbed her back. It was a comforting and familiar gesture, but the girl tried not to flinch at her grandmother’s touch. The girl reminded herself to forget that Grandmother had been swallowed whole by the wolf.

The hunter shifted his grip on his axe as he walked over to a window and looked out into the dark woods.

The girl wanted to ask what he saw, but now knew that when she asked a question she might not like the answer.

The girl’s grandmother spoke softly to the girl, “It’s alright.”

But it wasn’t alright. She was the one who talked to the wolf and told it where she was going. Because of her the wolf came to the house and swallowed her grandmother and attacked her. If it wasn’t for the hunter they would both be dead. She wasn’t sure if she was going to be sick or cry. Instead she did nothing.

Her grandmother stood up and said (more to herself than to her two guests), “How about a cup of tea? Would anyone like tea? I think we need some nice hot tea.”

The girl wanted to say that her grandmother should wash herself of the wolf’s saliva before she started worrying about tea. But she didn’t say anything.

The hunter walked across the room and looked out a different window. He frowned.

The girl had always been talkative and curious, and despite what had happened today she couldn’t change who she was in just an afternoon. The girl gave in to her curiosity and asked the hunter, “What is it?”

He didn’t answer for a moment and continued to look out the window. At first the girl wasn’t sure if he heard her, but before she asked again he spoke.

“Wolves travel in packs.”

Her grandmother dropped an empty tea cup and clutched her chest. She started mumbling a prayer under her breath, forgetting lines but continuing on despite the gaps. The girl didn’t react. She didn’t feel anything. In a clinical way she knew she should be afraid, but that didn’t matter to her. What mattered is that she should stay quiet. That she shouldn’t ask any more questions or say anything else. No more comments. No more questions. No more answers. She gripped the hem of her red cape tightly. No more.

The hunter spoke despite the silence.

“The better to hunt you with.”

 

Dolly’s Coffin

Dolly's Coffin

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Wade Newhouse

 

When my daughter Julia was born, she immediately stuck her thumb into her mouth, began to suck on it, and refused to be placated with anything else. We have a few photographs of her as a baby, thumb in mouth, looking new and innocent.

Julia got Dolly for her first birthday. Dolly is a soft pink doll, basically just a puffy stuffed shapeless torso with nubs for arms and legs and an oversized head with a smile painted on. Somewhere inside her squishy middle there was a tiny rattle of some kind, and we knew that Julia had picked Dolly to be her special toy when we could hear the muffled rattle in the middle of the night.

For the first few years after that, Julia carried Dolly everywhere with her, and invariably when Dolly was in one hand the other hand was shoving its thumb into Julia’s mouth. Whatever comfort doll and thumb provided seemed to be magnified by the other; just for fun we would sometimes pull Dolly away from Julia’s arms, and as if they were connected by a magic thread the thumb would pull out also. As soon as we released her, Dolly would snap back into Julia’s embrace and her thumb would pop back into her mouth.

By the time Julia started talking, Dolly was still cute but the thumb was not. We started to ask her when she might be a big enough girl to get through the day without sucking the thumb, but that line of questioning led to silence and a tighter embrace of both doll and thumb.

Are you going to suck your thumb in first grade?

Do you ever see any of your friends sucking their thumbs?

The more you suck that thumb, the longer you’re going to have to wear braces when you’re older.

Of course our talking did nothing. Whatever compels a child to suck their thumb is beyond the reach of language. It was not something she would talk about or try to negotiate; it simply Was, before and beyond all consciousness like St. John’s Word in the Beginning. But we began to decide that the thumb-sucking was becoming psychologically inseparable from Dolly, who by now had lost her ability to rattle and was limply, flatly, threatening to come apart.

When Julia was in third grade, Dolly and the thumb-sucking were becoming rarer parts of Julia’s routine, but in those most shadowy moments between stages of consciousness—falling asleep, waking up, hiding after a particularly traumatic confrontation with authority—she would clutch Dolly and suck her thumb as heartily as when she had been an infant. We decided at the end of that summer that it was time to give Dolly up, and we decided to give Julia as much ownership of the process as possible.

“It’s time for Dolly to go away,” we said one Saturday morning.

“You’re going to throw her away!” Near-hysteria, with some hammy overacting.

“We’re not going to throw her away. We’re going to put her away, someplace safe where she can stay forever. And then when you get older and don’t need her anymore we can take her out and you can see her again.”

The hysteria became a blank stare.

“Now,” we continued. “You should make a box and decorate it however you want, and that’s where we’ll put Dolly.”

Julia considered this idea. Decorating boxes was a favorite activity, one that we had found useful to attach to all manner of otherwise unpleasant tasks. So she looked down at Dolly for a few moments, then went into her room and reappeared with her box of markers. I showed her the empty shoebox that we had already scrounged from a closet, and with a quick glance to indicate resignation, determination, and a fair amount of loathing aimed in our direction, Julia took the box and began to sort through her markers on the kitchen table.

Falling back into the routine we had established for artwork at the table, Julia reached for the day’s newspaper that she could spread out underneath her work. I got to it first and handed her the unread sports section, taking care to keep her away from the large headline on the front page. The oversized typeface announced starkly that the police were searching for the body of a third girl missing and presumed drowned in the lake behind our neighborhood.

* * * * *

Hillman Lake looks, in the early morning and at dusk, as if it might date back to prehistoric times. It is not roundly pond-shaped like those deep swimming holes carved out by glaciers in New England. Instead, it has that skeletal, graspy shape that is so typical of muddy waterways here in the south: long and narrow and winding, with fingers of water that curl in and out between jutting teeth red clay banks studded with pines and live oaks. To look across it at any point is easy, but to turn toward either side and imagine what torturous route it follows from here to somewhere further makes your head spin. Its tendrils snake off from the main body in almost untraceable tentacles of brown water that eventually appear under every secondary and state road north of Raleigh; you mount a strong bridge, believe that you have “crossed the lake” and then three hundred yards later cross another bridge. And then a mile further the trees thin out to your right and you see it over there as well. Occasionally narrow tracks of gravel lead off from the roads to those areas of the banks that have been cleared for fishing, but if you follow one and enjoy that location you might never find the same one again. Weather-blasted gray trees emerge from the shallows, showing their tangled roots above the water and then ending, broken off as if by some silent catastrophe. Up from the red earthen banks the land rises quickly into ridges and swales covered over with forests of white pine. When the water is low you can see the strata of the earth revealed in bronze and coral layers.

But Hillman Lake is not prehistoric. In truth, it is barely historic. It was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to control the course and flooding of the Neuse River and to provide drinking water for the city of Raleigh, which canny planners were beginning to predict would soon burst out of its sustainable postwar growth and into something potentially unmanageable. We have arrived there now. Great care has been taken to ensure that the entire endless perimeter of the lake is well screened from the development that creeps, amoeba-like, endlessly outward from the city. The closest neighborhoods, like ours, are a half-mile away from the water and built to seem organic, entirely and naturally part of the tall leafy forest that, on good days, disguises the very fact of so many people living in such proximity to one another. Numerous paths tumble their way down from our back yards, into the screen of trees and ridges and eventually down to the shoreline.

When I was fourteen my family lived in a small house on a gravel road on a different part of the lake. There were no subdivisions then; houses and streets simply sprang up in one place or another, and ours was one of several two-bedroom red brick ranch homes that had somehow been built in a sort of row not far from SR 98. Back then that was how you got from Wake Forest to Durham, and in the course of five miles you crossed the lake four times. Our road was just out of sight of two of those crossings. Without a neighborhood we had no real neighbors, but in the summers the kids from dozens of houses like mine would drift down to the water’s edge and we would get to know one another. We pursued adventures in the trees and in the water, but none of us ever grew particularly close.

That summer Emily appeared. I don’t know where she lived; I had the impression that she came quite a distance along dusty roads and through thickets to get to the part of the lake where I spent my time. Parents are always exasperated when kids can’t answer simple questions like where someone is from, but it really just never came up. Kids become just summer friends, together as time and opportunity allow. Emily came out of the brush one day and offered to help me build some floating contraption I had pieced together out of logs. Sometimes she joined the other kids in the water; other times she was fishing with one or another. Many times there was just the two of us, playing and growing through the summer the way everyone does.

She had strawberry blonde hair and dark eyes, and at fifteen she was shedding her tomboy angles and starting to soften around the edges. As the summer wore on her legs seemed to grow longer and smoother; the white strap that fell down from her shoulder seemed to grow tighter as her breasts began to be noticeable under her shirt; when she stood in the shallow water with her hands on her hips I began to see curves there. She tossed her hair back from her forehead and laughed at me, and I had to turn away or be caught staring. The other boys I played with noticed it too, and one by one they seemed to drift away in little groups of two or three, not sure what exactly she was good for or how they ought to treat her.

Eventually she realized this, and finally (more brave than I) began to talk about it.

“You ever been skinny-dipping?” she asked me one afternoon.

“No way. You?”

“No. You afraid of some girl seeing you?”

“More afraid of what might be in the water.”

She threw a stick at me. “You think some fish might mistake your thing for a worm and take his chances? You got a hook hidden in there somewhere?”

I jumped up from the water’s edge to the line where the erosion ended and the bank rose up in a sudden jutting line of red clay layers and exposed roots. “You don’t know anything about it. There’s a lot of stress involved in packing all this equipment in the water. What if—” I struggled to find a ribald joke that might sound appropriately grown-up. “What if I got it all tangled up in some roots underwater and got pulled under?”

Now we were both laughing. “I’d come down there and pull you out.”

“Maybe I’d rather stay stuck than have you pulling on me.”

She came up out of the water too and started pulling off her t-shirt and shorts.

“Good lord! Are you really going to try it?”

“No, stupid. I’ve got my suit on.”

She wore a white and yellow one-piece swimsuit. I usually just swam in whatever shorts I was wearing that day, and I always found it fascinating that girls had to change from one look to another in order to be right for swimming. I was sitting on a dead log that had fallen from the eroded ledge down to the water, and Emily sat beside me. It was brutally hot, and the far side of the lake shivered in a filmy haze. I often looked across from here and wondered how long it would take to swim across. At that time it never occurred to me to fear what might hide beneath the surface, or to wonder how deep the water ran.

“We should go skinny-dipping some time,” she said. “Just the two of us. Then we’d know what it was like, but no one else would have to know. That wouldn’t be embarrassing, would it?” She looked at me, not quite. “I mean, you wouldn’t be shy around me, would you? You know I wouldn’t look at anything.”

I shrugged. “Whatever. It’s just looking.”

I was looking somewhere down—not straight down at our feet but kind of halfway down, toward where the waterline began, and I turned toward Emily just as she hooked a thumb into the elastic legband of her suit and snapped it free from wherever it had stuck. In that brief moment the material pulled away from her torso and I saw, unbidden, a glimpse of porcelain untanned skin and a dark tuft of hair. I turned away, pressure rising up into my chest, and then I stood up and took a step closer to the water.

“Are you going in now?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just standing here.”

She hopped down from the log and joined me, then went the few extra steps and into the water up to her thighs.

“You’re not afraid to go out there?” I said.

“I got nothing for the fish to try to grab onto.” She held out her long arms and turned her hip sideways to show me.

“My dad said two girls have been found drowned. Both in like the last two weeks.”

“Boys can drown too, you know.”

“I’m not in the water.”

“Come on in, then. Keep me safe.” She smiled at me, and the complexity of her face then has returned to me endlessly over the years since. I have seen many smiles from many girls, and then women, and each new time I try to figure out how they work, what muscles they use, what emotions they connect between eye and lip and heart. I suspect Emily’s was simply honest, but I had never seen anything like it before.

A breeze came up, and I saw the point of Emily’s nipple stiffen beneath the fabric of her suit. “I think I’m going to go home,” I said.

“Don’t you want to come in with me?”

“Not today.” Then, stupidly: “Maybe tomorrow.”

She laughed, and I think there was some sadness there. “I might not be here tomorrow.”

“Eventually?” It was the most complicated time scheme I could imagine back then. “Eventually.”

I pushed my way back through the brush and up the hill away from the water, and I thought that she might be close behind me. At some point I turned back, and I could just make out the gray glint of the surface through the trees, but she wasn’t there. When I was back on my street, with the chunks of gravel uncomfortably real beneath my feet, I felt the full weight of my foolishness. With the straight line of the road and the sight of those tiny houses tucked under their green and yellow canopies, the realization that a pretty girl had asked me to come into a lake with her pushed down on me so crushingly that I felt dizzy and out of all time and space. I turned back, but the trees had pulled over the path I had taken, and it suddenly seemed that I had been here between the mailboxes and driveways forever.

When I heard the next day that Emily’s swimsuit had been found at the edge of the lake, my first hurt, ignorant thought had been a lashing indignation that she had actually dared to go skinny-dipping without me. Even moments later, when I realized the true import of this discovery, I could not escape the mental picture of my own water-pruned fingertips touching some part of her just under the glassy green surface and how she might have smiled at me there, in secret, just the two of us.

After a day with no sign of her, the police and groups of volunteers began to descend on our corner of lake to search, dredge, and speculate. I lurked at the edge of the treeline, not far from where I had surrendered to my particular stupid fear, but after a time the police said they had enough men for the search and any more would be in the way. A Baptist preacher, his hair platinum-blonde above dark-rimmed eyeglasses, prayed with members of his congregation and explained the duality of grace and free will while middle-aged women sat in the shallowest water and clenched their hands and eyes tightly shut.

Closer to me was a plump woman of uncertain age, wrapped in thick brown and gray cloaks and blankets. She looked as if she herself might have been pulled from the water recently, with greasy brown hair half-plastered and half-frizzing around her round white face. Her skin was leathery, and a smell like old smoke lingered near her. By the time I realized how close together we were standing, she had noticed me.

“They won’t find her,” she said, as if we had been having a long conversation.

“Why not?” I had not then developed my habitual reluctance to talk to people I had not been introduced to and had no reason to trust.

“Some things just happen. Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be. That’s a whole different kind of gone for a girl to be.”

“Maybe she’s not gone,” I said. “Maybe she’s just lost.”

Now the woman turned to look at me, and I wondered if I had said something insightful or irredeemably foolish. “And now you tell me,” she said, “just what would be the difference between being lost and being gone.”

“She wanted me to swim with her,” I said, and in the strange comfort provided by anonymity I felt the enormity of the horror and my own place in it sweeping around me. The sky seemed invisible beyond the huge blackness created by my smallness being driven away on inconsequential winds. “But I didn’t go.”

“Of course you didn’t go.” If the woman knew about the choking guilt that I was only beginning to realize, she did not betray her knowledge. Instead, she smiled thinly at me—my second memory-corrupting female smile in as many days.

“Some things,” she said, “happen because they do. Some things you accept, or you don’t. That’s your choice to make. You can only react. But you can react well.”

Over my shoulder someone made some kind of strangled cry, and their foot splashed in the shallows, and the Baptist preacher was going on. “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

That night I dreamed that Emily came to me in the dark. I could not see her in the dream, but her voice was talking to me in my head, telling me things. She sounded very far away, but moving closer, and her voice was sad while she talked about being lonely and about how her skin felt when it was touched. When I opened my eyes she was asking me to please swim with her. I lay there breathing for a moment, staring up at the dark ceiling of my bedroom. Then I turned my body to the right and she was lying there beside me.

I closed my eyes to make her go away, and in the darkness of my head I smelled lakewater and sunscreen and wet swimsuit, and I wished that autumn would come.

* * * * *

Her brow creased in concentration, Julia was painting the inside of the shoebox pink. She had dug our miniature hot glue gun out of the drawer where we kept small tools and had plugged it in to warm up. On the table she had gathered a pile of small pebbles. She mumbled something to herself, fragments of a song, while she set the pink box down to dry and inserted a glue stick into the gun. Then she spread the pebbles out and searched for some that might match in size and general shape.

“Can we go swimming later, Dad?”

“I thought you were making a box for Dolly.”

“It will take time to dry. That leaves, like, hours.”

I could imagine the scene at the lake: police, concerned neighbors, television news teams.

“I don’t think today’s a good day to go to the lake, honey.”

Julia stopped her painting in mid-stroke and looked up at me. “What lake? I’m talking about going to the pool. Like yesterday? And the day before that?”

“We’ll have to see.”

Already she had forgotten me. “I’m going to put these little rocks all around the edge of the box. And then I’m going to put some words on the sides, so Dolly will have something to read while she’s in here. Then when I get her back she can tell me what she thinks about all of it.”

An eight year-old’s concept of time is much less absolute than ours. In our minds, we saw Dolly going into the box, then the box going onto a top shelf in a closet somewhere, hopefully to be forgotten until some distant moving day when we might, as a family, open the lid and remember how cute it was all those years ago when Julia needed Dolly by her side. But Julia was thinking not in months and years but in moments: there would be some bedtimes and some morning cranky times without Dolly, and then sometime Dolly would come back from her long sleep and they would start over again as if no time had ever passed. In short, I viewed the pink box studded with pebbles as a coffin, while Julia saw it as an elaborate drawer that could be reopened at our whim, provided that she could pressure us into having such a whim.

“You work on finishing up Dolly’s box. I’m going to take a walk for a few minutes. When I get back we’ll see about the pool.”

Of course she never swam in the lake. Our backyard was a thick forest; we had chosen the house for this very feature, and Julia complained constantly that she was the only one among her circle of friends without a real backyard. A few yards past our property line the rules of the development ended, and as the boulder-studded ground began to slope downward toward the lake you could see where primitive paths had been cut into the woods before the development had been placed here.

I walked through our leafy wooded yard and, as if crossing a magic barrier at our property line, found the end of one of the paths. From here the walk was all downhill, and I remembered a thought I had had when we first bought the house, that autumn would be a fine time to take this walk, free from buzzing insects and with a smoky gray bite in the air. Now it was hazy and steaming; the ground was dusty beneath me.

The path ended on a rise of ground, one of those thrusts of land that stretched out into the lake and made boating a matter of some skill here. As I made my way down from the high ground to the beach, I felt for a moment as if I had discovered something secret, for in the thirty years since I had last played here the summers had grown hotter and the rains less common; the lake was slowly drying up, and the waterline had pulled itself down and back from where my memory told me it should have been. The beach was now some ten to fifteen feet wide from eroded cliffside to gray lapping foam. Bony stumps and branches poked up from the earth that had once been the shallow bottom, now streaked with deep gore-like fissures as the sun had baked the clay and it had shrunk in upon itself, cracked, and split open. Each year, as the parching summers and the growing thirst of the city pulled more water from the lake, more of the bottom was being revealed. Old losses were coming to light, old discarded remnants waking up from watery graves. The lake no longer seemed prehistoric, for no Jurassic waterhole would be found with a plastic doll’s head jammed into its hot dry earth, or broken bottles and rusted cans wedged together beside the shattered remnants of a Styrofoam cooler. These things had been safely invisible, but the water was retreating and taking secrets with it.

As I had expected, I was not the only local with a mind to visit this increasingly archeological site. There was a public beach not far from here, just around two more of these narrow escarpments, but the media had chosen this stretch for their background because it looked more bucolic, more like the kind of mysterious No Man’s Land where a teenaged girl might disappear. A pretty blonde reporter stood with her back to the water (though where she was standing would have been four feet deep when I was a child) while her cameraman adjusted his position relative to hers to get the best framing of water, sky, and treeline on the far bank. Several families’ worth of fat children gaped on the sidelines.

The whole scene was strangely noisy, and people kept coming and going through the trees in groups of two or three. Curious college kids holding beer cans, mothers in large sunglasses trying to keep their toddlers from the water’s edge, an oblivious old man with a fishing pole and tackle box who appeared to be irritated that his chosen spot had been set upon like this. A man with bright blonde hair was holding a Bible and leading a small group of older women in prayer.

“Like Your son, we ask that this cup of sadness be taken from us. But also like Him, we bow to Your awesome will and ask for the strength to endure whatever You ask of us.”

Sitting on a sun-bleached log, a very old woman in a shapeless and colorless dress watched the movement of society around the waterline. Her greasy gray hair lifted itself in the humidity, half-plastered and half-frizzing around her wrinkled white face, but her leathery skin was dry, as if she had been sitting here in the sun for eons and had given up all the moisture of her body to the air. She held a stick, broken from a dead branch. I could smell faint smoke dissipating with the briny odor of the evening water.

“What do you think happened?” I asked her.

“Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be.”

“Some things just happen.”

She started to turn toward me, but stopped herself, tired from the effort. “That’s right. Some things just happen.”

I heard someone mutter an Amen, and then someone said, “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

I looked back up the path that snaked through the trees and back to my neighborhood. “And in thirty more years? Will we be here again?”

The old woman poked at the ground with her stick and drew something there. “Some things you accept, or you don’t.”

I remembered that it would not take Julia long to finish Dolly’s coffin. I started to scramble back up the embankment with the exaggerated quickness of someone who pretends to believe that a few extra quick steps will change the amount of time needed to get from one place to another. I did not look back to the people by the lake, but as I went into the trees the smell of old smoke thinned out and I smelled instead something like youth: suntanned skin and wet swimsuits. I picked up my pace and it stayed with me. By the time I came out from the path into the sculptured landscaping of my backyard I found myself squinting into the sun, almost dizzy with the certainty that someone was just behind me, reaching out to upbraid me for my inability to be where I was needed.

The pink shoebox, decorated with pebbles and lined with scraps of paper bearing quotations from some page-a-day calendar of aphorisms by great thinkers, was waiting for me on the kitchen table. Glued in the very center was a square of paper that read, “Put Dolly Here.”

* * * * *

That night I had to tuck Julia in without Dolly. Julia put on a brave face and pulled her covers up tightly around her. She gathered up a menagerie of other stuffed animals and placed them ceremoniously around her.

“Dolly will come back, right, Dad?”

“Dolly will come back. We won’t let anything happen to her.”

“But you can’t be sure. Sometimes things just happen.”

“That’s right. Sometimes. But we’ll take care of her.”

She considered. “Maybe I’ll write her a letter. Just to let her know that I still love her.”

“I think that would be very nice.” I kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning, Sweetpea.”

“Night.”

I do not know exactly where Dolly was put; by the time I had left Julia’s bedside my wife had placed Dolly in the box and hidden her somewhere. We agreed that, since I was weaker at resisting Julia’s entreaties, I should not know where the box had been placed.
Sometime after midnight, when everyone else was asleep and the house was dark, I opened Julia’s door to check on her one last time. She was sleeping peacefully, but the gaze of the damp and gently curving body of the teenaged girl in the bed beside her met my eye passively. I smelled distant sunscreen and wished for winter.

 

Warp Monkey

Warp Monkey

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by James Maxey

 

Jimbo Williams caught up with Alex Pure in a parking lot in Fanta, Texas around three that morning. Pure was passed out on the roof of his station wagon, using a brightly colored box of fireworks for a pillow. Sleeping inside the station wagon didn’t look like an option. The back seats were stuffed with camping gear and the front passenger seat was a wall of empty fast food detritus. A dumpster aroma seeped from the cracked windows.

Jimbo cleared his voice, but Pure didn’t move. Jimbo stepped closer, touching Pure’s shoulder. Pure didn’t respond. Up close, Pure smelled worse than the car, like a refrigerator gone wrong. His long hair was tangled, streaked with gray, and he wore a full-length navy blue wool coat that was completely out of place in the 85 degree Texas night.

Jimbo poked Pure’s shoulder harder and said, “Hey.” Pure remained immobile. Only a soft snore indicated that he was even alive.

It wasn’t too late to turn back. As science reporter for National Weekly News, Jimbo had been chasing down the fringes of truth for ten years. He’d spent endless hours on telephones having back-engineered alien technology explained, driven countless miles to look at the newest cold fusion set-up, and, to be blunt, had wasted nearly every moment of his working life talking to kooks and nut jobs. Usually, the weirdos he dealt with maintained the veneer of normalcy, building their perpetual motion machines in well-organized garages attached to nice, middle-class, picket-fence houses. Jimbo wasn’t in the habit of interviewing deranged homeless guys. How had his instincts been so wrong on Pure? Why was he wasting his time?

But, of course, he knew why. Despite all the kooks and weirdos and nut-jobs, Jimbo believed. He believed in Bigfoot and alien abductions and zero point energy, and he carried on his quest for proof with a pilgrim’s faith.

He jabbed Pure one more time, hard. The sleeping man’s eyes fluttered open. Jimbo got up-wind, lit a cigarette, and said, “Good morning. Dr. Pure, I presume?”

Pure nodded, but the rest of his body remained inert as he studied Jimbo. At last he said, “You must be Jimbo Williams.”

“Ace science reporter for the National Weekly News,” Jimbo said, pulling out his notepad.

“The bottom of the supermarket tabloid food chain,” said Pure. He sighed. “So it’s come to this.”

“You’re the one who contacted me,” Jimbo said, speaking through a halo of smoke. “I didn’t drive down here to be insulted. Let’s cut to the chase. Your e-mail said you had some evidence of black-book ops.”

Pure nodded, then sat up, his long legs dangling over the side of the station wagon. He ran his fingers through his tangled hair, and took a deep breath.

He said, “There’s a door on Dover Air Force base in Delaware that opens into a room in Houston, Texas.”

“Old news,” Jimbo said. “The warp door. We broke that story two years ago. One of the night watchmen told a friend who told a friend who told me. What do you have new on this?”

“I’ve been through the door,” Pure said.

“Sure. Why not? Your e-mail said you were a scientist with the project. But why should I believe you? How do I know you didn’t just read my article about the warp door?”

“Funny that’s what you called it. ‘Warp door’ isn’t bad, but it’s not as poetic as what we called it on base.”

“Which was?”

“The spook door. It was named after the quantum mechanical concept of ‘spooky action at a distance.’”

“Sounds more like supernatural than high tech,” said Jimbo as he scribbled “spook door” onto the notepad. “I don’t really do ghosts.”

“It has nothing to do with ghosts,” said Pure. “It’s serious physics. Einstein coined the phrase. In the twenty-five-words-or-less dumbed-down version, spooky action at a distance describes the connection between a pair of entangled particles. Theory says that if you change the spin of one particle in the pair the other will instantly—and I mean instantly—change its spin also. This happens even if the particles are on opposite sides of the universe. Since the instantaneous, faster-than-light transmission of information seems to violate relativity, Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance’ and believed, eventually, it would be explained away.”

“That’s a lot more than twenty-five words, but I think I follow you,” said Jimbo. He didn’t bother to jot down any notes.

“I doubt you do,” said Pure. “Like I said, even Einstein couldn’t figure it out. He never worked out the math that shows that spooky action at a distance is possible because at the tiniest scale, space contains more than three dimensions. Even though most of the extra dimensions are invisible to us, the two particles respond instantaneously because they are actually connected by these hidden dimensions. They are each three dimensional extrusions of a parent particle existing in a higher invisible realm.”

“This sounds over the head of most of my readers,” said Jimbo. “They don’t care about the theories. They want to know the nuts and bolts. Tell me about the warp door.”

“Okay. I guess theory isn’t important right now,” said Pure, with a shrug. “Here’s the practical spin off. The Air Force sunk about three billion dollars in black budget funds into capturing entangled photons, and they used these entangled photons to build two identical laser matrixes, forming two manhole-sized portals of light. Now, no matter how far apart the portals are placed, when you put something into one, it instantly comes out of the other. At least, that’s how it works with baseballs, video cameras, and mice.”

“And how about people?”

“When they built the door, they wanted to do tests before sending a person through. Even though the portals are made of captured light, they are opaque—the lasers form a perfect grid that keeps any outside photons from passing through. You can’t see through to the other side. So, the first test was a baseball. They broke out the champagne when they tossed the ball into the darkness in Dover and it instantly shot out the door in Houston. Then they sent a video camera through to try to capture images of the hidden dimension, but got nothing but static. Finally, they decided to try sending a mouse through. That’s where my specialty was called for.”

“You’re physicist who specializes in mice?”

“I never said I was a physicist. I’m a veterinarian.”

“Ah,” Jimbo said. He’d jotted the word “physicist” down and now had to strike it out.

“My job was to examine mice in Dover that came through from Houston. When I dissected them, everything seemed normal.”

Jimbo didn’t really care about the mice. He wanted to steer Pure into something a bit more juicy. He jotted the word “conspiracy” onto the notepad. “So the government has perfected instantaneous transit. Something like this could put airlines out of business. Hell, it would shut down the oil companies too. I doubt the President and his buddies are happy about this.”

“Actually, the oil companies don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Why not?”

“After the mice, we tried capuchin monkeys. Some of the physicists on the project weren’t sure how something with a higher intelligence than a mouse might react to the spook space. Maybe the higher dimensions could drive you crazy if you were smarter than a mouse. Plus, they were concerned the warp might respond to intelligence. Many effects in quantum mechanics are changed by the simple act of observation. So we had a hierarchy of tests. If monkeys made it through, we’d send chimps. And if the chimps did okay, we’d try a man.”

“But something happened to the monkeys,” said Jimbo.

“We sent them into the darkness,” said Pure, “and they never came out.”

“Any idea why?”

“Lots of ideas why. Which is why we kept tossing in more monkeys. We’d send them through asleep, we’d send them through with helmets on to block all sensory input, we sent them through with steel weave tethers to pull them back out, but it didn’t work. None ever came out of the darkness. When we pulled the tether, we would reel in empty line. We’d sent in fourteen monkeys before halting the experiments and going back to the drawing board to figure out the flaw.”

“I assume they fixed it, since you say you’ve gone through.”

“Bad assumption. Here’s where my story gets, quote, unquote, ‘crazy.’”

“I believe you so far,” said Jimbo. In truth, he had his doubts.

“You might not once you learn one important fact about me.”

“And that would be?”

“That the whole time I worked for the Spook project, I was stoned,” said Pure. “One of the nice things about being a DVM is you get to write prescriptions for things they won’t put into people. I experimented a bit in college, and liked the results of the experiments, and have spent the better part of three decades controlling my brain via daily manipulation of its chemistry. The fact that I’m alive and sane today is testament to my skills in self-experimentation. Until I went through the warp, no one suspected a thing.”

“Admitting this does make you easy to dismiss as a kook,” said Jimbo.

“I understand. But I need to tell you this because I thought it was a drug side-effect when I started seeing the monkeys.”

“‘Seeing the monkeys?’ That some kind of drug slang?”

“No, I mean the warp monkeys. It started a month after we sent the first one through. I was shaving, and in the mirror I saw something move. It was behind the wavy glass of the shower door, but it looked for all the world like a monkey. Yet when I pulled the door open, nothing was there. Except… except I could smell wet monkey. Trust me, that’s not a smell you can mistake for something else.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Jimbo. He dropped the butt of his cigarette and ground it out with his heel.

Pure nodded. “Later that day, driving, I thought I saw two more monkeys playing in a big oak tree in front of a church. But when I turned and went back, they were gone. These were only the start. It went on for weeks. I’d be drifting off to sleep and I’d suddenly feel a weight as one jumped onto my bed. I’d sit up and find nothing. I’d hear monkeys chattering in the closet, but when I’d open the door the voices would fall silent. In room after room I’d notice the smell.”

Jimbo asked, “Did the scientists on the base have any theories?”

Pure rolled his eyes and chuckled. “What, you think I talked about this with them? ‘Hey guys, I’m seeing monkeys. Have drugs fried my brain or is this guilt-induced psychosis?’”

Jimbo jotted the word “guilt” down and underlined it. “Why did you feel guilty?”

“I didn’t at first. I specialize in caring for animals that will be used in experiments. Almost every animal I’ve touched in thirty years has been fated for dissection. But the capuchins were always a tough one for me. They have very expressive faces. Still, I didn’t lose sleep over the first few that were lost. But after a dozen, sure, it bothered me. It started to have the same scientific value that cooking a kitten in the microwave would. The last one didn’t make it, let’s do one more to be sure.”

“And you think the guilt you felt caused the hallucinations?”

“That was one theory,” said Jimbo. “Until what happened in the supermarket.”

“What happened in the supermarket?”

“This was six weeks into my monkey visions. I was a nervous wreck, sleeping maybe three hours a night. I’d been dosing myself more and more radically, trying to get back to an even keel, but nothing was working. On one of my days off I walked to the supermarket, hoping the exercise would help. I’m in the produce section, in front of some bananas, and I start weeping. Just out and out bawling. I mean, how could I look at bananas and not think of monkeys, and how could I think of monkeys without wondering if it was all over for me, if I’d finally fried my synapses and was one slip-up away from jail or the funny farm?”

Jimbo jotted the words “funny farm” onto his notepad.

“But what happened next proves my sanity. It’s on tape. I began to hear monkeys screaming, distant at first, growing louder. Then the smell washed over me, a wave of odor. And then, they were all around me. Everywhere I looked, there was some part of a monkey. Monkey paws were materializing from thin air, grabbing at fruit, lifting tangerines to teeth that seemed unconnected to any body. A tail wrapped around my neck and I felt the weight of a monkey on my shoulders. When I put my hand up I couldn’t feel anything there, until orange pulp started pouring down on me. This was no hallucination. Other people saw it. It’s on the store’s security video. In about 45 seconds flat those monkeys tore the produce section to shreds. It looked like a bomb had exploded. I was drenched with pulp and juice.”

“Wait a second,” said Jimbo, suddenly excited. “I know about this. I’ve seen the tape. The ghost guys at the office won an award for it last year. Biggest poltergeist story of the decade. Supermarket-built-on-Indian-burial-ground stuff.”

“I’m not surprised you heard about it. I knew lots of people would hear about it, including my bosses on the base. So I ran to the base immediately, still covered in pulp. It was Sunday, the lab was practically deserted, and I still had all the necessary clearance and biometric keys to get into the lab where they kept the spook door. From the supermarket to the door on base, maybe fifteen minutes passed. I had a very small window of time if I was to act.

“For a moment, standing in front of the door, I froze. The door is pitch black, like a perfect hole punched in reality. I was scared to go in. But then I heard guards shouting in the hall, and I made my decision. I dove into the door.”

“Why?” asked Jimbo.

“To get the monkeys out, of course.”

“Really?”

“Look, I’m not claiming I was at my most rational at that moment. When the monkeys showed up in the supermarket I could see that they were scared and hungry and confused. They were haunting me because I’d once cared for them. They wanted me to help them. Maybe it was drugs, maybe it was guilt, or maybe it was some tiny spark of decency left in me. I can only say that at that moment, it was imperative for me to go inside the spook door and bring the monkeys out.”

“Did you?”

“I’m still working on it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve tried telling a lot of people what I’m going to tell you now, and not one has believed me. Please keep an open mind.”

“Hey,” Jimbo said, taking out his pack of cigarettes once more. “I haven’t walked away yet, have I?”

Pure shrugged. “You write for a publication that is the last bastion of the freak show. Maybe you think I’m an interesting enough freak for a cover blurb and a two-page spread. But what I’m about to tell you is bigger than this.”

“Pure, I’m sick of your attitude,” said Jimbo, searching for his lighter. “I didn’t get started in this business to write about freaks. I do this because I believe deep down in my heart that some of the wilder stories are true. I think the world needs to know about the truth on the fringe, things that are real but get dismissed because they shake up the orthodoxy. Is it my fault that the people telling me the stories always turn out to be kooks?”

“Maybe it is,” said Pure. “Maybe there’s something about your personality that—”

“Screw it,” said Jimbo, throwing up his hands. “I’m out of here.”

“Wait,” said Pure. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I… my people skills aren’t all they should be, you know?”

“Fine,” said Jimbo. “I’ll give you five more minutes.”
“Thank you. When you step into the door, you don’t come through the other door. You enter… a higher dimension. It’s huge in there. Look up at the sky. Looks pretty big, right? What lies in between those doors is so much bigger than that.”

Jimbo grew impatient. “Did you find the monkeys?”

“I found something even more important. I found myself. I wish I had the vocabulary to tell you what it’s like in there. My body and my mind were two separate things inside. It’s a vast, endless void, and yet everywhere I looked I could see my body. Only, it wasn’t the surface of my body, the shell. It was like I was unfolded. I could see the pattern of my body, and I could see the actual materials. My blood was spinning all around me in a fine haze, and I could count individual blood cells, the red, the white, and all the chemicals I’d put in there. My bones fascinated me—the knot of tissue where I’d broken my leg skiing years ago, the way my vertebrae didn’t line up correctly, the wear along my joints. And I could see… I could see my liver. It wasn’t healthy. It was a mass of lesions and scars. But the worst thing…”

Pure grew silent for a second, composing himself, then said, “The worst thing was my brain. I could see my synapses firing, could see the brain chemicals slipping into receptors like the most complex jigsaw puzzle ever assembled. But some of those jigsaw pieces of brain chemistry weren’t going into their proper slots because I’d jammed them full of gunk. The lesions in my liver were echoed in my brain tissue.

“It wasn’t a surprise, really. Looking over my body, I could see all the abuse I’d put it through. There was cholesterol build up in my arteries, there was inflammation in my lungs, and my whole torso seemed wrapped in a coat of puss-yellow fat. Stepping outside my body, looking back inside, made me realize what I had done. I’d treated my body the way rock stars treat hotel rooms. If I’d examined a lab rat with this much damage, I’d assume it was being fed industrial waste meal after meal until it died. I’d killed myself and hadn’t even noticed. With luck, I’d have another year or two. Such a waste. In that higher space, it was easy to see how wonderful my body should have been. It’s an amazing machine, carefully balanced and calibrated. It looked like it could have lived forever with the proper care. Instead I’d run it into an early grave.”

“Bummer,” said Williams, jotting the words “rock stars” onto his notepad.

“I didn’t see the monkeys in the spook space,” said Pure. “I was understandably distracted. But I did spot the door to Houston, and the door back to Dover. They seemed a million miles apart, yet only an arm’s reach away. By now, both rooms were swarming with guards. If I went back, I wasn’t going to get a pat on the back and a handshake for my daring journey. I’d be arrested, or worse. We’d planned on dissecting the monkeys. Wasn’t I now just a big warp monkey? I wished there were a third door to go through. And suddenly, there was. A window opened before me and I was looking into my apartment. I stepped through, back into my bedroom. I grabbed the keys to the station wagon and have been on the road ever since, going on thirteen months now.”

“Because you think the Air Force wants to dissect you?” asked Jimbo.

“Even if they didn’t, they’d keep me from finishing if they caught me. I don’t have much time. Lately I’ve been going days without keeping food down. I’m living on sheer momentum more than anything else. But my work isn’t done.”

“What work?” Jimbo said, exasperated. Pure was easily the most incoherent person he’d ever interviewed. “What would they keep you from finishing?”

“Rescuing the monkeys,” said Pure, sounding equally exasperated.

“How are you going to rescue them?”

“Here’s where even I think my story gets weird.”

“Really,” said Jimbo.

“Even though I’m here, I don’t think I ever really escaped the warp. I don’t think I’m me any more. I think that, just like a particle can exist on a higher dimension with only its reflection being seen in our world, the real me, the higher me, is still in the warp. I’m just his reflection, or maybe his shadow. All I know is, he communicates with me from the higher dimension.”

Jimbo folded his notebook closed and put it back in his pocket. He’d done his best, tried hard to take Pure at his word. But despite knowing a little physics mumbo jumbo, Pure was obviously crazy. Jimbo had wasted another night.

“He sends me messages in subtle ways,” Pure said. “I’ll go into a convenience store and pick up a map and unfold it to find that a town has been circled in red pen. I’ll drive to that town, sit on a park bench, and find a paper bag under it with a wad of twenty dollar bills inside. Two days ago I checked my e-mail at a Kinko’s in Nebraska. I found a badly punctuated e-mail from someone I’ve never met telling me that a restaurant in Fanta, Texas, makes the best ceviche this side of the Rio Grande. It said I’d meet a reporter there named Jimbo Williams, and I should tell him my story.”

“Bad punctuation, huh? The e-mail you sent me would have made my editor’s head explode.”

“Don’t you get it?” said Pure. “I never sent you an e-mail.”

“Whatever.” Jimbo took out another cigarette.

“The monkeys die when they escape,” said Pure.

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

“When my higher self finds a monkey in that infinite space, he opens a door back into our world. At least I think that’s what’s happening. I’ve done a dozen so far. They always die when they come back. I don’t think they can die in the warp, even though they don’t get enough food or water. I think the warp keeps them in a kind of stasis that holds death at bay. But when they come back, the accumulated stress kills them. It’s for the best. They’re suffering. They’re scared, and hurting, and lost.”

Jimbo lit his cigarette. “Pure, let me ask you the $64,000 question. Do you have any proof? So far all you’ve given me are wild tales by a self-admitted drug addict. Can you supply even one tiny shred of evidence to verify your claims? I know we have the supermarket video, but like I said, vengeful Indian poltergeists got the credit for that one. Maybe you read that story and decided to work it into this little fairy tale of yours.”

“Snowball will prove it,” said Pure.

Jimbo rubbed his temples. “Snowball?”

“We called him Snowball because he had a white scalp. He was actually the second monkey we sent through, the first one with a tether. I was listening to the static between stations last night and I heard the words ‘Snowball tomorrow.’ It was 3:24 in the morning.”

Jimbo looked at his watch. “Well, it’s 3:23 right now. But hearing a statement on the radio isn’t quite the kind of proof I’m looking for.”

Pure sniffed the air, staring into the distance. Jimbo stepped back as Pure scrambled into motion, rising to stand on the roof of his station wagon, breaking into a loud shout as he waved his arms over his head.

“It’s time,” Pure howled. “Come home! I’m here! Come home!”

An acrid stench rose on the night breeze. A zoo smell, a barn odor, manure and piss and something else, like the aftermath of a storm, like ozone, as the air began to spark near Jimbo. He jumped backward as all around him the ground began to screech and gibber. He stumbled over something soft that spun through the air behind him, tangling his ankles. As he hit the pavement, the sky above him swirled with teeth, with fur, with blood and meat, a whirlwind of gore that zoomed away as quickly as it appeared, gathering next to Pure. Pure dropped to his knees on the station wagon. The bones and flesh coalesced amid a shower of sparks as Pure extended his arms. The monkey voices focused into a single piercing shriek.

“Shhh. You’re home,” Pure said, as a white scalped monkey fell against him. He cradled the emaciated animal in his arms as the monkey stared with frightened eyes, its breath ragged, wet gasps, until it at last fell silent, and its eyes lost all focus.

“You’re home,” Pure whispered.

“My god,” said Jimbo, staring up from the pavement.

“And now you know,” said Pure, looking at Jimbo. “You believe, like he knew you’d believe. You know what he wants.”

“There’s only one monkey left in the warp,” said Jimbo, rising. He walked to the station wagon to put his hands on the monkey. It wore a harness from which a steel cable about a foot long trailed. The bag of bones and skin was still warm, slightly damp, and strangely beautiful.

“And after he gets the monkeys free,” said Pure, “he wants to come out.”

“And he doesn’t want to be alone,” said Jimbo.

“You understand,” said Pure.

“I can’t do this,” said Jimbo. “Why would anyone choose me for something like this?”

“He can see things, in the warp. He wouldn’t have sent you here if you couldn’t do this. He must know something about you, maybe something you don’t even know.”

“This is too much to ask. I can’t—”

“I know,” said Pure, still cradling Snowball like a baby, rocking slightly. “It’s a crazy world. Sometimes we have to search for help in the most unlikely places. All I know is, no one should be alone when they fall out of the warp.”

Jimbo shook his head, looking for a way to say no. But it was too late. In his heart, he knew he’d carry through with this. The Pure in the warp had picked his target well.

After all, Jimbo believed.

 

When We Were Jung

When We Were Jung

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Bud Webster

 

“Good Taste?’” The woman at the table was well-dressed, if a bit perky for my liking.

“Yes, that’s right, and this is my wife, Sophisticated Wit.”

She gave us our name tags with a bright smile and waved at the double doors behind her. “Go on in, and I hope you have a wonderful evening.”

“Thanks,” I said, peeling the paper backing off the tag and sticking it carefully to the lapel of my tailored tuxedo jacket. My wife shook her head ruefully and put hers in her evening bag; nobody really needed the damn tags, but most of us at least made the gesture.

We pushed through the doors and into the ballroom. It was full: we were, of course, fashionably late—tastefully so, you might say. There was a string quartet in one corner, sawing their way through something unutterably poppish. I’d hoped for Mozart, or perhaps even Beethoven, but no one else seemed to be bothered.

I felt a touch at my sleeve. “What-ho, my lad. Damned good to see you.” It was Insincere Joviality, whom I detested, not that it mattered to him. He grabbed my hand and pumped it three times, then said loudly, “Can’t stay and chat, I see someone over there I really must speak to. See you later on, perhaps?” And then he was gone, much to my relief.

I looked around for my wife, but she’d been spirited away by the Humor twins, Droll and Dry. They were standing with their heads together talking in low voices, then all three leaned back and laughed airily. Well, she’d be happy for the rest of the evening.

I moved through the crowd, heading for the bar. I passed Conspicuous Consumption in her Dior original and insanely flashy jewelry, and smiled at the sure knowledge that she would never wear any of it again. If I knew her at all (and I did, we’d dated in college), she’d have been driven to this do in a gold-plated Rolls. She was so predictable. But then, weren’t we all? Wasn’t that our single defining characteristic?

“Wine cooler, sir?” It was the bartender. I blinked at him and then moved so that my name tag was visible. He had the… well, the good taste, I suppose… to look abashed. “Sorry, sir. Would you care to see the wine list?”

“Thank you.” I took it and glanced at the glossy pages. “I’ll have the Pinot Blanc 1974, please.”

He smiled. “An excellent choice, sir.”

“Yes,” I said, a bit more tersely than I’d intended. “It is.”

While he opened and poured the wine, I nodded to the man next to me, whose name tag bore the name Recovering Alcoholic. He was sipping a glass of club soda morosely. “Will this bother you?” I asked, holding my wine glass up.

“Not in the least,” he said. “Don’t give it another thought.” He waved his glass towards the dance floor. “Look at him. That’s my older brother, you know. Ancient as hell and still going at it.” I looked where he was pointing.

There was a line of dancers, moving noisily and awkwardly against the beat of the quartet, led by the oldest of us, Drunken Sot. He’d been around forever, it seemed, showing up at all the parties and meetings; plump, red-faced and jolly, with the remains of an ancient laurel wreath still caught in his hair.

At least, I thought to myself, he has the good taste not to pick fights like his younger nephew, Drunk and Disorderly. We’d finally had to simply stop telling him where and when the Gatherings were. Of course, he still showed up as often as not, and whenever he did, there was trouble.

“Yes, he always seems to have a good time,” I said, a bit inanely. “Doesn’t he ever get tired?”

Recovering Alcoholic just looked at me. “Do any of us?” I didn’t answer him; it was, after all, a rhetorical question. I smiled at him and made my way through the crowd.

Off by herself in a corner—as usual—was Paranoia. She sat and watched, sat and watched. She’d been around a long time, too, but not as long as Sot. Used to be she would come with her sister, Wisdom; as a pair they were mainstays of almost any Gathering they came to, bringing an engaging perspective to conversations about current events or art. Paranoia had even managed to be sociable when Wisdom was with her, but no one had seen her sister for years. Without her, the younger of the two never danced, never spoke, never did anything but sit and watch. But she always came, afraid of missing something, no matter what. I bowed slightly to her and raised my glass, but she just looked alarmed, so I didn’t press it.

I thought back to my first Gathering, when I was just out of school. At first, I was daunted by the sheer magnitude of power and majesty the other, older ones represented. I remember how impressive War was, larger than life and so graceful; and how struck I was by Seduction’s beauty, even if I could never quite tell if it was a man or a woman. It was overwhelming, and I felt quite lucky to be part of it all.

But over the years, it became painfully obvious that all that they were, down to the last and least of them, was what was written on their tags, neither more nor less. I include myself in that, of course.

It may seem that I’ve been listening to my cousin, Wry Cynic, far more than is probably best, but that’s not the case. Why else would Wisdom leave us? Or Prudence? Or so many of the older ones? Foolishness, I remember, took me aside a few years ago and said quietly, “Taste, this is no place for me. There’s plenty of foolishness here already. You, you belong here, and you’re welcome to it.” He grinned at my expression. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish you well. But it’s time I was going.” And I never saw him again. The next time the rest of us gathered, there were three new faces present; the Humor twins and Sophy, my soon-to-be-wife.

I felt a hand on my arm and knew without looking that it was her. “So many new faces,” she said quietly. “I hardly know who to speak to these days.” She smiled tightly, and I noticed for the first time the lines at the corners of her mouth. She sipped her drink. “Earnest Zealot was holding forth on literature a moment ago, and I mentioned Oscar Wilde’s comment about the wallpaper as he lay dying.” She shook her head. “Do you know, he’d never heard of Wilde? What are we coming to?”

What, indeed? Patience, Trust, Intelligence—all gone now, or seen so rarely that their presence was like a walk-on in an old film; something to be marveled at, but of no real importance. I missed Wonder most of all, I think. He told the most breathtaking stories, made up right on the spot. They were… well, wonderful. War had gone, as well (although I suspected he was simply busy elsewhere), and no one at all knew what had become of Seduction.

I picked at a bit of lint on my lapel. We had to be here, I supposed, just so that our presence would be felt, but I sometimes wondered why? What exactly was the point? In the old days, we were clearly influential. We were there because people needed us to be, because they couldn’t navigate the treacherous reefs of their lives without us. Was that true anymore? Did we have an influence over anyone but ourselves, if we even had that? The idea was discomfiting at best.

I looked around the room, trying to enjoy the bouquet of the Pinot. When had the trivialities snuck in? When had Joy and Honor been replaced by Instant Gratification and Situational Ethics? War was off somewhere, his place taken, bizarrely, by Right-Wing Gun Nut; and most degrading of all, perhaps, Teenage Prostitute stood across the room surrounded by men, a sorry substitute for Seduction. It was a cruel, surreal jest—or so my wife and her friends would think. I had a disturbing thought: how soon might my wife be replaced by E-Mail Joke?

It was undignified, to say the least. I drained my glass, unwilling to dwell on the idea for too long. Instead, I headed back to the bar.

There was a small crowd there, most of whom I knew. A man I didn’t recognize stood to my left, wearing what might have been an exaggerated knock-off of my own formal jacket, deliberately frayed at the seams and worn over a black T-shirt bearing the logo of a rock band. Instead of dress trousers, he wore jeans. I knew without asking that they were pre-washed, pre-stained, pre-aged. Pants without an honest past, only a present. His hair was spiky, thick with some kind of preparation, and there was some kind of tribal-looking tattoo on his wrist. His name tag read “Post-Modern Chic.” I turned away, suddenly cold.

“Yes sir, Mr. Taste,” the bartender said with a smile. “Another glass of the Pinot Blanc?”

“No,” I answered wearily. “Not this time. Just a wine cooler, please.”

 

The Death of Captain Asimov

The Death of Captain Asimov

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

The spiderbot crawled along the exterior wall of the Neurodyne building, undetected by human eyes due to its ability to camouflage itself. It moved very, very slowly so as not to create movement that could be detected by the dogs that guarded the Neurodyne campus. About the size of a small dog itself, the spiderbot was a saboteur. Once it got into the main building it would release a cache of one thousand smaller spiderbots that would infiltrate every part of the facility and spray every surface with an invisible coat of a genetically engineered virus. The virus was a latent iteration of influenza, and would cause eighty percent of Neurodyne’s employees to call in sick over the course of the next few days, bringing operations to a virtual halt. The virus wasn’t considered fatal, although there was a margin of error of two percent, meaning there was a possibility that a Neurodyne employee could die.

Corporate sabotage was all well and good to Captain Asimov, but those odds were simply unacceptable.

Standing just beyond the perimeter of Neurodyne’s electrified security fence, undetected by the dogs and the spiderbot, Captain Asimov evaluated his options. Equally undetected by C.A., a camera-equipped flybot buzzed nearby. The flybot transmitted its video feed to a nearby transmission booster which uplinked with a satellite which downlinked with twenty million viewers worldwide who tuned in nightly for The Adventures of Captain Asimov, a half-hour program showcasing the exploits of the world’s only robot super-hero.

These twenty million viewers were all wondering the same thing: What was Captain Asimov going to do?

C.A., as people liked to call him to make themselves sound “in the know,” ran several options through his neutronic brain. The first idea, to pick up a rock and throw it with the incredible accuracy and velocity necessary to smash the spiderbot, was discarded. Knowing what the spiderbot contained, by virtue of an anonymous tip, C.A. calculated that as many of fifty percent of the miniature spiderbots within would survive the impact and be freed to do their dirty work.

C.A. was certainly capable of getting over the fence with his extendo-legs. But that would be trespassing. Trespassing would be breaking the law. And Captain Asimov did not break the law. At least, not very often and, usually, not intentionally. When he did break a law, he tried to make sure it was a minor infraction or a very obscure law.

Whenever possible, though, C.A. sought to avoid breaking any laws. In this particular instance, he revisited the concept of smashing the spiderbot with a rock, and determined that a large enough rock, or brick, thrown with enough force, could succeed in destroying the spiderbot and all its miniatures. One or two might survive, but that lowered the odds of someone actually dying from the flu to well within acceptable range.

These calculations took all of one second. C.A. scanned the area for a suitable projectile, and detected a chunk of concrete just below the surface of the well-manicured lawn outside of the Neurodyne fence. Wasting no time, C.A. dug into the ground and pulled up the concrete. He then hefted it, took aim, and let fly at the desired velocity.

Half a second later the concrete smashed into the spiderbot with a loud bang. The spiderbot flew into pieces. C.A. scanned the wall and ground around it, and was able to identify all one thousand mini-spiderbots as inactive. Once again, Captain Asimov had succeeded in protecting innocent humans from a malevolent robot.

The flybot had succeeded, too, in capturing on digital video the action as it had happened. C.A. fans all over the world rejoiced that their hero had done it again. They waited breathlessly for C.A. to utter his exit line.

“And now for something completely different!” he shouted into the darkness, before leaping into the sky and out of view.

Within moments viewer response registered disapproval of this exit line, ranking it next to last, just above one from a few months before: “Sayonara for nowa!”

* * * * *

Back at his secret headquarters in the robot repair garage, in his secret identity as a domestic servant ’bot, Jeevs, a.k.a. Captain Asimov, sat across from his owner, Gidge, and prepared to deal the cards for their nightly poker game. The others at the table were a refurbished Playmate Timmy, a homeless man who lived in a large cardboard box in the alley behind Gidge’s shop, and Gidge’s ne’er-do-well husband, Troy, on shore leave from his interplanetary cargo ship, the Space Oddity.

Jeevs shuffled, to Gidge’s delight. She loved the way he could shuffle the cards from one hand to the other across a good half meter of open air. Sometimes, when asked, Jeevs would use his extendo-arms and shuffle the cards across two or three meters. When he was finished, he dealt the cards. They were playing Texas Hold ’Em.

He laid the first card out in the middle of the table. The players all regarded it with suspicion while they regarded their own cards with stone-faced expressions. Well, except the Playmate Timmy, who had a permanent, happy-go-lucky smile programmed as his default expression. Gidge had found it impossible to reprogram that smile off a Playmate Timmy’s face.

Gidge went first, and slid her entire stack of chips.

“I’m all in,” she said.

The homeless man, whose name was Oliver, folded right away.

“Wuss,” Gidge said.

“Slim pickins today,” Oliver replied. “Never saw so many tight-fisted people walk by down at the park.”

“Which park?” Troy asked.

“Centennial.”

“Ah, I saw on the news there was a Libertarian rally down there today,” Troy told him.

“That explains it.”

The Playmate Timmy folded.

Troy looked long and hard at his cards before folding.

“Aren’t there any men at this table?” Gidge commented, as she collected her meager winnings.

“A man’s got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em,” Troy replied. “’sides, that’s an awful big stack of chips you done slid into the pot.”

“It’s not that much,” Gidge insisted.

Jeevs began shuffling the deck again.

“Never mind, Jeevs,” Gidge told him. “I don’t feel like playing anymore.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jeevs said. He put the deck of cards away.

“What’s got into you, Gidge?” Troy asked.

Gidge shook her head.

“Who said anything’s got into me? I just lost interest, that’s all.”

“You lost interest in a poker game? You?” Now Troy shook his head, although he was smiling. “I won’t buy that for a dollar.”

“A woman’s p’rogative,” Gidge said, as she got up from the table. She walked through the shop to the garage.

“Where you goin’?” her husband called after her.

“Out,” she replied.

Troy looked around at the others, who sat quietly at the table.

“She ain’t been herself lately,” he said.

“How would you know?” Oliver asked him. “You been out in space for three years.”

“I know my Gidge,” Troy insisted. He looked at Jeevs. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” Jeevs asked back. The question was sufficiently vague to slightly confuse his neutronic brain, which while being vastly superior to most binary-thought A.I. brains was still not nearly as complex as the human brain.

“Has Gidge been herself lately, or not?”

Again, the question was too vague. Of course, Gidge was Gidge, meaning that yes, Gidge had been herself because that’s who Gidge was, unless she happened to be living under an alias. But that wouldn’t change the fact that she was herself, it would only mean that she’d been passing herself off as somebody else. It wouldn’t change the fact of who she really was.

Troy sighed.

“I mean, has Gidge been acting strangely?” he asked.

As far as Jeevs understood it, Gidge’s behavior would be considered “strange” under the generally accepted definition of “strange” in the current sociological context, and had thus been considered “strange” for quite some time. Years, actually. Maybe even her entire life-time.

Troy could see that Jeevs was having trouble with this one, too.

“Has Gidge’s behavior deviated from what would be considered normal for Gidge within the last few weels?” he asked Jeevs, speaking very deliberately.

Jeevs considered the question for one third of a second before replying.

“Yes,” he said.

“Mommy’s acting weird,” the Playmate Timmy said.

“I’m going home,” Oliver announced.

“To your box?” Troy asked, cruelly amused.

“Good night,” the Playmate Timmy announced, and immediately shut itself off for the night.

Jeevs still had a lot to do around the shop: sweeping, mopping, oiling and replacing all the tools that Gidge had used throughout the day, folding the laundry once it finished drying, invoicing Gidge’s customers, watering the plants, cleaning the windows, replacing a burned-out light bulb, and cleaning the cat’s litter box.

“What do you do for fun?” Troy asked Jeevs, obviously being sarcastic.

“Chores,” Jeevs replied, without sarcasm (of which he was incapable). It was the truth, for Jeevs was programmed to like nothing better than to perform chore after chore after chore. Except for, of course, donning a mask and cape and saving humanity from robots gone awry, but that was a secret. More or less.

Oliver knew, but would never admit to knowing. And Gidge knew because she was the one who’d preserved that part of Jeevs’ mixed-up neutronic brain when she found him, wrecked and little more than a pile of junk robot parts, and put him back together again. Jeevs, otherwise known as Captain Asimov, was no Humpty Dumpty, however. He was a real-life super-hero. Gidge’s shop was his Bat Cave, his Fortress of Solitude (except he was never really alone there, and there were no bats).

Troy was totally unaware, of course. Gidge had not seen her husband for three years, and had hoped to not seem him ever again, truth be told. They were married for insurance purposes, that was all. As a small business owner, Gidge found insurance premiums too expensive. As a lesbian, even had she been able to find a compatible mate, she would be legally disenfranchised. So, she’d won Troy’s space ship in a poker match, and made a deal with him. If he would marry her and put her on his insurance, she would allow him to jointly own his space ship and to continue his livelihood.

Over the years, the two had grown both closer and farther apart, as couples are wont to do. He missed her while she hoped he would never return.

“I’m for bed,” Troy told Jeevs.

He made his way to the living quarters portion of Gidge’s shop, where she had Jeevs set up a cot for him.

Jeevs continued cleaning until Gidge came home. Right away, he could tell by her dilated pupils, slurred speech, and unsteadiness that she’d been drinking alcohol. Jeevs, knowing the drill, zapped a cup of instant coffee for her in the microwave. Gidge would not go to bed until she felt more or less sober.

“I’m a bad girl,” Gidge said as she sat the table, head in her hands, while Jeevs brought her the coffee.

“You are not a bad girl,” Jeevs responded, having learned that what Gidge wanted at moments like this was the assurances and verification of her self-worth.

Gidge laughed.

“Good ol’ Jeevs,” she said breathlessly. Jeevs put a consoling hand on her shoulder and used the opportunity to pin-prick her skin and take a tiny blood sample, with which he checked her blood/alcohol ratio. Point-oh-eight percent. She was drunk as a skunk, but not in danger of alcohol poisoning. Of course, Jeevs knew that “drunk as a skunk” was a metaphor. His neutronic brain gave him some capacity for fuzzy thinking, which allowed him to know a metaphor from a… well, a non-metaphor.

“You’re a good woman,” Jeevs said, stroking Gidge’s hair. He knew that within a couple of minutes of hair-stroking she would be fast asleep.

“You’ll find out the truth about me sooner or later,” Gidge said, her head slowly inching its way towards the table. “Sooner or later.” When her forehead touched the linoleum, she was out.

Jeevs cleaned up the coffee pot and got Gidge ready for bed. He brushed and flossed her teeth, undressed her and got her into her Captain Asimov pajamas, and carried her to bed, all without waking her. He’d gotten quite adept at that, in the four years of service he’d provided for her so far.

And four years as Captain Asimov.

Once Gidge was tucked in, Jeevs transformed himself into Captain Asimov for another night of super-heroics. On went the mask, a glittering silver Lycra one this time, and a bright, yellow, one hundred percent Polyester cape. With his secret identity thusly disguised (the mask covered his I.D. bar code, preventing it from being scanned, and his I.D. neuro-transmitter had been disconnected by Gidge… otherwise, Jeevs’ face looked pretty much just like any other domestic servant robot’s face) Captain Asimov climbed a ladder to the shop’s sun-roof, opened it, flipped up onto the roof, ran to the edge of the building and leaped into mid-air.

C.A. was on the scene. Evil-minded robots beware! Scanning the police band, C.A. knew he would soon learn of a new robotic menace in the city. He always did. And, sure enough, he caught the last portion of a transmission: …Playmate Timmy snatched a purse at the All-Mart on One Thousand, Eight Hundred and Fifty-Eighth street.

C.A. was only a few hundred blocks away, which he determined while still in mid-air. Looking up, he saw an All-Mart corporate helicopter that had just taken off from nearby All-Mart Airfield. Jeevs knew irony when he saw it, as he took aim and shot his chest-tether at the sleek craft before it rose high enough in the air to engage its jets. Within moments, however, the All-Mart chopper streaked through the sky towards the All-Mart on 1858th Street. In fact, the All-Mart was 1858th Street. It was so big it took up all sixty blocks of the East-West street. The jet-copter pulled C.A. through the air like the tail of kite. Luckily, the trip was short enough that the onboard A.I. for the jet-copter didn’t worry too much about the extra drag. When he reached the northeastern corner of the monstrous store, C.A. released the tether and fell onto the roof.

Microscopic newsbots buzzed all around.

Around the world, the legions of C.A. fans tuned in to watch events as they unfolded on their favorite show. Would he find the purse-snatching Playmate Timmy and once again save the day from the diabolical machinations of errant machines? Of course, the answer was a resounding yes! Had C.A. ever failed to save the day? He hadn’t always succeeded one hundred percent, but he had never completely failed, either. That’s what made the TV show so engrossing. There was always the chance that C.A. might fumble the ball, so to speak.

Finding a convenient rooftop doorway, C.A. ripped it open without a second thought, causing a silent alarm to alert the All-Mart security team. But they were all huge fans of the show, falling squarely into the demographic that the show appealed to, so they knew it was C.A. and weren’t too concerned. In fact, and this was top-secret so the security team didn’t even know it, All-Mart had already contracted with the producers of the show to indemnify them against damages. The worldwide, positive exposure All-Mart would get would be worth sustaining some damage to one store. Any association with Captain Asimov would help to offset the negative exposure All-Mart usually got for its impact on local environments, and for driving supply prices so low that Third World manufacturers were forced to pay substandard wages. Such practices allowed All-Mart to crush Mom and Pop stores everywhere by selling specific items at far below their actual value.

Anyway, the point is that All-Mart welcomed the chance to have Captain Asimov do his thing in one of their stores.

C.A. made his way down a stairwell and entered the store in the Little Miss Clothing department. The hot trend for young girls these days was Western wear, so there were pink cowboy hats and rhinestones on everything.

“The suspect was last seen in the Electron Microscope department,” Captain Asimov heard via All-Mart’s security frequency.

Accessing a digital map of the mega-store, C.A. figured the Playmate Timmy would be heading towards the Playmate Timmy department, where it could easily hide among the new, yet-to-be-sold Playmate Timmy models. To human eyes they all looked the same, but C.A. would be able to detect the minutest wear and tear on a Playmate Timmy that had been out and about.

The quickest way to the Playmate Timmy department from the Little Miss Clothing department was via the Livestock department, where All-Mart sold cattle. C.A. made his way over the tops of the shelving units using his extendo-legs, until he reached the perimeter of the Livestock department, with its flashing neon sign: FRESHEST MEAT AROUND, YOU PICK ’EM, WE DO THE REST.

C.A. cut through the slaughterhouse, his servos allowing him to run across the slick concrete floor without slipping in the blood and guts, to emerge directly in front of the entrance to the Playmate Timmy section. But he was too late. He caught a glimpse of a Playmate Timmy ducking behind a veritable Playmate Timmy army… and they all looked exactly the same.

C.A. tapped into the All-Mart’s video surveillance system, and in no time found the rogue Playmate Timmy. It was the only one with a purse strap across its shoulder. The security system gave the Playmate Timmy’s exact location. C.A. turned to find a shelf of replacement Playmate Timmy heads. He grabbed one, hefting it in his hands to determine the exact weight and shape. In less than a second C.A. calculated a trajectory, then tossed the head into the air. It arched over the Playmate Timmy section gracefully to slam into the rogue Playmate Timmy’s head in exactly the right spot, and with exactly the correct amount of force, to knock its neutronic brain chip loose without knocking the Playmate Timmy itself over and creating a domino effect.

C.A. then used his extendo-legs to step over the Playmate Timmy rows and columns to find the errant one, and hauled it back into the main aisle, along with the purse. The Playmate Timmy struggled to get free, but to no avail. Now, C.A. would scan the Playmate Timmy’s identity chip to find out who owned it. Either the Playmate Timmy had been stolen, and reprogrammed to snatch purses, or the owner had done it. Either way, whoever was behind it would face more than a simple theft charge. Reprogramming a robot to commit illegal acts was a serious crime.

So, C.A. scanned the identity chip, and found out that the owner was none other than… Gidge. Gidge! Gidge, who had retrieved a broken and battered C.A. from a dark alley all those years ago, who had rebuilt him and left his alter ego in place, even while realizing that Captain Asimov was the result of a glitch, a hiccup, short circuit if you will, in Jeevs’ neutronic brain.

C.A. suffered a momentary disconnect in his neutronic brain. Gidge had reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to steal purses? She’d reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to play poker; indeed, the Playmate Timmy that C.A. now held firmly in his grasp was the very one that had sat across from him at Gidge’s poker table. There was no way around it: this Playmate Timmy’s chubby little fingers, the same ones that gripped the stolen purse, pointed to Gidge.

Normally, C.A. would simply relay this information to the authorities who would “take it from here,” as their catch phrase had become on the reality show. But this wasn’t “normally”, although the authorities were on their way and would arrive at the All-Mart in five minutes, and it would take them another twenty minutes to make their way from the All-Mart entrance to where C.A. now held the Playmate Timmy.

C.A. knew he couldn’t simply forget to mention that Gidge was this Playmate Timmy’s Gepetto. That would be aiding and abetting, and that would be a crime. Normally, one would suggest that he do what came naturally, but that doesn’t apply to a robot or an Artificial Intelligence, not yet at any rate.

In a way, though, somehow Captain Asimov did just that. He disabled the Playmate Timmy by removing its inferior brain chip, and then left it there for the police to recover. They would discover that Gidge owned it. While they were doing that, C.A. would zoom back to Gidge and confront her.

C.A. arrived at Gidge’s shop, but he did not change back into just plain ol’ Jeevs. He remained Captain Asimov. Gidge was busy working, although C.A. could tell she wasn’t quite sober by the way she moved slowly, deliberately. When she looked up from her work, repairing a Nannybot, and saw C.A. instead of Jeevs, her expression made it clear to C.A. that she knew what had happened.

“Are the police outside?” Gidge asked.

“No,” C.A. replied.

Her expression brightened.

“They’ll be here soon, though,” C.A. told her.

Gidge’s expression fell, again.

“But I had to come here first,” C.A. continued. “I needed to… speak to you. To ask you something.”

“Ask me what?”

“I needed to ask you… why?”

Gidge nodded.

“I’m glad you asked me that,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because it means you’re ready.”

“No, I was still asking the first why,” C.A. clarified. “Why did you program the Playmate Timmy to steal purses?”

“Ah, well, that,” Gidge replied. “I didn’t program it to steal purses. Just to steal that one purse.”

“Why?”

“For the show.”

“The show?”

The Adventures of Captain Asimov,” Gidge told him. “I signed a two-season deal for us. For you. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The money made it seem like a good idea, anyways.”

C.A. processed this. It explained a lot, in retrospect. It explained the insect cameras and the weekly crimes that happened almost as if they’d been scheduled. And, of course, they had. Which meant it was all fake. Did that mean the Playmate Timmy hadn’t really broken the law? If so, that meant Gidge was innocent.

Or did it? A reality show was about reality, wasn’t it? Which had to mean everything that happened on a reality show was real. Which meant the Playmate Timmy really had broken the law, and so had Gidge.

“I couldn’t keep doing it,” Gidge told C.A. “I felt guilty. I had to put a stop to it. So I engineered the Playmate Timmy crime to get caught. Then I wondered why I felt guilty. You’re just a robot, after all, aren’t you?”

C.A. didn’t respond. The answer was obvious, after all.

“So I had to know,” Gidge said.

“What did you have to know?” C.A. asked.

“I’ll tell you in a moment, but first, you have to tell me something.”

C.A. waited for Gidge to tell him what it was she wanted him to tell her. He could determine by her expression, and the tone of her voice, and her body language, that she was afraid to say whatever it was she was about to say. But she did say it.

“Why did you come here as Captain Asimov?” she asked.

“As Captain Asimov, I’m here to tell you that you’re under arrest for breaking the law,” C.A. boldly stated.

Gidge’s lower lip quivered and she nodded.

“Not to warn me?” she asked.

“Warn you?”

“That the police are coming.”

“Why would I do that?” C.A. asked.

“Jeevs… I mean, Captain Asimov, it’s me, Gidge.”

“I know who you are.”

“And you’re still going to let them… arrest me?”

“Yes.”

Gidge sniffed back a tear.

“That’s what I had to know,” she told him.

“I don’t understand,” C.A. said.

“I had to know if you felt anything for me.”

“I don’t understand,” C.A. repeated.

“I know A.I. isn’t about… feelings… emotions,” Gidge said. “But we’ve been through so much together, and you’ve become such a big star, I wanted to know if the… connection I felt for you was real, or not.”

“Connection?” C.A. asked.

“Don’t you see? I love you, Captain Asimov. You’re my family.”

Like any advanced A.I. Captain Asimov was aware that people developed emotional attachments, or even dislikes, towards things, including robots. But that was considered normal for humans.

Gidge sighed.

She raised her right hand, in which she held a remote control device. C.A. recognized it. Gidge used it to, as she put it, “fry” the neutronic brain of robots that got out of control in her shop.

“I’m sorry,” Gidge said. “But when I press this button, Captain Asimov will cease to exist.”

She pressed the button.

C.A.’s neutronic brain buzzed for a few seconds, and the robot froze. Gidge walked up to him and took off his mask.

“Jeevs,” she said. “Jeevs, there’s work to do.”

“Yes, Gidge,” Jeevs replied happily, for ‘work to do’ meant the equivalent of a pleasant way to spend a day, to which Jeevs was programmed to respond with enthusiasm.

“Oh, and Jeevs.”

“Yes, Gidge?”

“You’ll have a new owner at five o’clock this afternoon. I sold you to Oliver.” She laughed. “Turns out he’s had thousands just buried in the park.”

Jeevs processed this new information. Somewhere, deep inside his neutronic brain, he wondered… why? Why had Gidge sold him? But it never occurred to him to ask.

“Anyway,” Gidge continued, “I’m leaving… for good. Not that I need to tell you why, but I guess a husband and wife ought to at least try to make a life together, even if it is on his rickety old spaceship.”

“Gidge,” Jeevs said, and for a very brief moment, perhaps a couple of nanoseconds, Jeevs intended to ask her what was missing from his memory, for his internal diagnostics did indeed inform him that something was missing… but it couldn’t tell him just what that something was. Furthermore, his internal diagnostics informed him that, otherwise, he was in perfect working condition.

“Yes, Jeevs?”

“You said there was work to do.”

Gidge allowed a small, melancholy smile.

“Clean the place up. I sold the ship, too. The new owners take possession tomorrow morning. Goodbye, Jeevs.”

“Goodbye, Gidge,” Jeevs replied, and then went to work.

 

This Memory of Happiness

This Memory of Happiness

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by C.J. Henderson

 

“At Christmas play and make good cheer,
for Christmas comes but once a year.”
–Thomas Tusser

The slithering darkness formed slowly, patiently—as it did every cycle at that time. The days growing shorter certainly contributed to its increasing progress, as did the planet’s ever-expanding distance from the star around which it generated its orbit. Less sunlight to burn the growing seed, less of the noxious radiations spewed by the miserable, fourth-rate sun around which it twirled to hinder the steady progress.

Atom by atom it formed, carefully finding the bonding pairs it desired, using the terrible Arctic cold to help it attract the electrons it needed. Bending the surrounding elements to create itself anew. Slowly, patiently.

Bit by bit.

Every cycle, another attempt. Every completed circling by the miserable, insignificant dirtball of its gravitational center gave the visitor another chance. Of course, it was not as if the darkness minded the waiting—the repetition. Indeed, it possessed no actual concept of haste, no understanding of urgency. It did not scramble to accelerate its arrival. Such was impossible, impractical—worthless. It would expand as it expanded, a handful of particles at a time. Such was all that it knew.

During the comforting shelter of night, when the world’s inhabitants drowsed, shutting down the infernal chatter of their minds, disconnecting from the ether, the devouring growth would rally forth and blossom all the greater. When the day broke and set their gibbering brains screeching endlessly at one another once more, it would retreat, its progress slowed to a crawl.

Seven hundred and nineteen times had it grown, only to be beaten back on the shortest day. Several times over the centuries it had been stopped with barely a struggle. Five, if it remembered correctly. Hundreds of times it had almost won through. It did not matter. The long dark was coming, and it would try again. How could it not? After all, once more an entire, delicious world, filled with life, awaited its arrival. In only a handful of rotations the planet would reach the outside of its orbit—the shortest day of its year. Darkness would last its longest.

And the moment of escape would come.

The slithering ebony form thought on that moment, feeling the world rotate beneath it, its roots grasping—drinking. Building it. Strengthening it. Forming it slowly, patiently—as they did every cycle at that time. As it waited for its moment.

The moment when it would devour everything, turning the place called Earth into a charred and barren cinder. Before it moved on, so it could do it again on some other world.

As it had so many thousands of times before.

* * * * *

Jason Fletcher stared at the ceiling of the room he had been given, ignoring the heat, barely noticing the sweat running down the sides of his head, pooling between his back and the bed beneath it.

“Why me?” he asked the empty chamber, knowing the answer. He knew “why” him. The man who had come to him had told him exactly “why” him.

“I want you to be Santa Claus.”

Jason remembered the moment clearly, wishing he could not—laughing at the memory—terrified of it.

“What? You mean a job? What?”

He had stared, thinking as any reasonable person might that perhaps the fellow meant employment.

Yeah, sure, he thought, sighing with frustration as he did so. I guess I could play Santa Goddamned Claus.

He had let his hair go, after all. He needed a shave—and there was plenty of premature gray mixed in with the brown.

“But still, okay,” he told himself. “Yeah, maybe I let myself get overweight, but I haven’t turned into some jelly-bellied fat man.”

Still, as his self-pity tried to throw away another crumb of an opportunity, another part of his mind slapped at him brutally, screeching that a job, any kind of job, any handful of greasy, miserable dollars could be the difference between living and dying.

“Can you actually afford to just flush away another opportunity,” his brain hissed at him. “When was the last time one came our way? When was the last time anything came our way? Or do you just want to die?”

“Is that it—do you want to die?” another part of his mind had asked him then, snarling the question brutally, not surprised when he did not answer. Could not decide. “Do you actually want to die on Christmas?”

Jason wondered if he did. It would make things easier. In an instant, he watched his life flash before his eyes, witnessed in a moment the cavalcade of events which had blundered him to that second in time. Childhood and school and college, useless degree earned, career abandoned as his interest shifted to music, to rebuilding old instruments—

She had entered his life then, Melinda, encouraging him, pushing him, helping him build his business. Or, so he thought. Falling-down-in-love, he had worked feverishly, letting her take care of the financial end of things. He had thrown himself into his work for her. Had been willing to do so forever.

Forever had lasted eight months, two weeks and three days.

He had needed to purchase some varnish for a shipment of string instruments. If there had been thirty-seven dollars and eighty-six cents in his account he would have never known. But there had not been. She had taken it all, thousands—and left him with nothing. When he questioned her, she had not even bothered to deny anything. She had simply sighed, letting him know he had been fun for a while, and then walked out of his life.

Leaving him with nothing but a staggering pile of debt and a heart made numb. He had sat down on the floor and cried, and when his tears had ended, he had remained where he was, unable to move. The next day he discovered his rent had not been paid for three months, that Melinda had taken everything possible. He discovered this when the landlord had arrived with the police.

Jason had not struggled or protested. Silently, he had merely stood and left the apartment, not even bothering to gather up the loose change strewn across the dresser in his bedroom. Stumbling his way to the street, he had simply gone off to die, not caring when it happened.

As he sat in the alley, wondering on whether the effort to carry on was actually worth it or not, the man standing above him answered his question, saying;

“Well, it is a job, in a way. Not a job in the sense you’re thinking, though. No putting on a red suit, listening to children beg for crap they don’t really need, no suffering the greed of humanity as it reaches down to infect those who can barely speak—none of that. No, do understand me, sir, I didn’t say that I wanted you to play Santa Claus…”

He heard the words again, listened to them as they echoed within his head, slamming against the walls of his skull, seeming more absurd with each increasing ricochet—all of it so out of focus to him—especially being called sir

“I said I wanted you to be Santa Claus.”

“What…” Jason’s voice finally struggled itself upward out of his throat once more. Some vestige of pride swimming to his defense, he demanded, “what are ya, crazy? What’re you talking about? Don’t screw with me, wise guy. There is no Santa Claus. No one can be Santa Claus.”

“Funny,” the man had replied then, his voice sad, his eyes not looking directly at Jason, “it was only a few weeks ago when I would have said exactly the same thing. And probably with a great deal more conviction.”

Jason heard the sadness in the man’s voice, realized that for some reason, the fellow before him was feeling such not only for Jason, but for himself as well. Jason could understand the emotion being aimed at him. People had been pitying him for years. No one more so than himself. But, this time, something was different. Something about the resignation in the man’s voice which intrigued and frightened him at the same time.

“But, like you’re saying… now, something’s different. Now, for some reason… you believe in Santa Claus?”

“What I believe, my good sir, is that every year at this time, as the days grow shorter and the night sky stretches across the world to its greatest duration, that evil, that an unspeakable horror is given a chance to destroy all of us.”

Jason stared into the strong, deep blue of the man’s eyes, noticing the tiny lines of fear etching their way out of the corners. It was a look with which he was familiar. A look he had seen staring out of mirrors at him for years, until one day he lost his fear. Not because he had found his courage, but because he had run out of things of which to be afraid.

“My name is Piers Knight,” the man said quietly. “I’m a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, and… I was chosen by… for lack of a better word at the moment… angels… to find you, and to convince you to fight for the salvation of the human race.”

Jason stared—out of words—unable to comprehend what was being asked of him. Understanding this, Knight had said;

“I know this must be unbelievable to you. All I’m asking is, please, let me… try to explain. It’s not much of an offer that I have for you, and I wouldn’t blame you if you sent me on my way. But…”

Knight had stared down at him then, seated on the frozen cement there in the alley, wedged in between the garbage bags for warmth. With nothing of condescension or demeanment in his tone, his entire self radiating nothing but sympathy and a sense of commiseration, the man added;

“Why don’t you let me take you somewhere for a good meal? I mean, if we’re all going to die, we might as well do it with some level of contentment, eh?”

Agreeing that if he was going to die on Christmas after all, it might as well be with a full stomach, Jason forced his way up off the bitter ground of the alley, following the curator out into the already gathering darkness.

* * * * *

Oddly enough, Knight did not take Jason to an eatery close to the alley in downtown Brooklyn where he had found him, but instead bundled him into his car and drove him down along the coast of the borough almost the entire way to Coney Island. Getting off the Belt Parkway two exits before the landmark, he drove instead to a restaurant nearly as old as the amusement park, and more favorably regarded by those who lived in the area.

“As far as I’m concerned,” said the curator, passing a menu to Jason, “this is the best Italian place in Brooklyn. The entire city, really.”

Jason was willing to agree simply from the fact they had allowed him entry. Knight had given him his own overcoat, leaving his guest’s in the trunk of his car, to help curtail the man’s pungency. Jason had headed for the restroom as soon as they had entered. When he emerged, he had washed both his face and hands, his hair and his armpits, in the cramped men’s room. Knight did not comment, other than to recommend they split a platter of the restaurant’s fried calamari as an appetizer.

The pair ordered when their waiter came, and if Jason was still reeking anywhere near as badly as he had been previously, the older man taking their order gave no hint that such was the case. Unable to help himself, Jason grabbed up a large portion of bread from the complimentary basket when it arrived, unable to wait long enough to butter it, or even for his coffee to be delivered. Knight said nothing, waiting for his guest to speak. After he had devoured some six slices of Italian bread, Jason muttered;

“Okay, we got a few minutes, I guess. Why don’t you start talkin’? Tell me what you meant about ‘angels’ sendin’ you to find me. That ought to be good for a laugh.”

“The Bounteous Immortals,” said Knight quietly. “The story is that Ahura Mazda, an earlier version of God, historically speaking, created them to aid him against evil. It’s an old, old story. Most scholars believe they were the inspiration for Johnny-come-lately Christianity’s archangels.”

“Yeah, so… what’s that got to do with me?”

Knight tried to speak, then stopped, unable to continue. Staring at Jason, his mouth open, wordless, he lowered his head, not knowing how to proceed. His silence did not worry his guest. Nothing worried Jason anymore. Not really. Finally, though, his expression one which implied he had little faith in himself at that moment, the curator asked;

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘God works in mysterious ways,’ yes?” When Jason agreed that he had, Knight nodded, tight-lipped, then said;

“All right, fine. Here goes. Several weeks ago, I was visited by… I don’t exactly know what, really—a presence? A vision? Angels?” The curator considered for a moment, then said;

“A better word than some, I suppose. Now, do understand, I’m not referring to the winged, Nordic chaps we’re all so used to in paintings and the such, no. These were primitive things, white, but in the way the sun can appear white. I could not look directly at them. Had to shield my eyes…”

As the waiter returned with their coffee, Knight stopped speaking, gave the man a pleasant smile and then waited for him to move out of earshot before continuing once more.

“They took me from my home, but didn’t… I don’t know how to explain—I was in two places at once. Sitting in my favorite chair, and yet somehow in the Arctic at the same time. I was freezing, but I wasn’t. Snow blew against my face, melted against my shirt, I could feel the dampness, but wasn’t wet—”

Knight stopped talking once more, his eyes filling over with a sad confusion. He stared at Jason, desperate to explain himself without sounding like a lunatic, not only to his guest but to himself as well. Grabbing hold of his emotions, his body trembling, he finally whispered;

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how… I know I must sound utterly mad to you. But, it happened. And please, do believe me, I’m not a drug addict, I don’t drink to excess, I—”

“Forget it,” interrupted Jason, holding one hand up to slow the curator’s words. “Trust me, I know something of drunks. I know something about crazies, too, and… I kinda hate to admit it, but I’m beginnin’ to wish you were one. But… you ain’t. Are you?”

“No,” admitted Knight sadly, wishing he were lying. Wishing what he was trying so desperately to put into words were something he could dismiss as simple madness.

“They showed me something up at the North Pole. Something growing there. A darkness, a blackness, some thing… I don’t know what else to call it. It was developing like a plant, rooted deep into the ground, feeding not on the ice and water, but on the very atomic structure of the planet. But it wasn’t actually a plant—”

Again the pair were interrupted as the waiter brought their appetizers. The calamari, plentiful, delicately fried, the aroma of it hammering at Jason’s long diminished sensory organs, and a plate of mozzarella sticks, finely breaded, bursting with steaming cheese dribbling from their seams. Knight stared at the calamari in particular.

It was possible that Spumoni Gardens was his favorite restaurant in all of New York City. It was certain their fried calamari was his favorite dish. And yet, he could not bring himself to eat. He was too frightened, too agitated by the duty that had been set before him, which he was trying so desperately to perform. Indicating that Jason should eat, he took a drink from his water glass, appreciating its icy chill, then began again.

“It was a creature, a thing that travels from planet to planet. It drifts through space, looking for worlds to… ingest. It delights in places where it finds life. Intelligence. It seems to need to find places where life has developed to the point of consciousness. Because, that’s what it really lives on. Thought. Emotion. Souls.”

Jason’s hand slowed, then stopped, as Knight uttered his last word, the forkful of calamari frozen in space inches from his mouth. His slightly abated hunger still gnawing at him, his mind replayed the curator’s words in his head.

that’s what it really lives on… thought… emotion… souls

The words were no more impressive than anything else Knight had said, but it was the manner in which he said them, his tone, his obvious desire to not be speaking—to not be hearing what it was he had to say—which had immobilized Jason. Suddenly, with the most preposterous thing he had said, he had convinced Jason that at the very least he believed what he was saying.

“And how do you know all this, about this thing, I mean? That it’s from space and all?”

“The creatures that showed it to me, they don’t exist within the boundaries of this world, or don’t choose to, I’m not certain. They act as conduits. What they could see and understand, so too could I. They showed me what this thing is capable of, what it can do, if it’s allowed to complete its development and free itself from the Earth.”

Jason’s hand finally moved forward, shoveling the calamari into his mouth, as he chewed absently, not tasting, unaware he was actually eating, Knight said;

“Once it’s reached its full size, under cover of the longest night of the year, it begins to hatch. Four days later it will expand forth throughout the ether, touching each of us one after another, sucking away our consciousness, our souls. We will know we are dying, but be powerless to resist. We will all die screaming, terrified, like babies being slid into a meat grinder—not understanding the how or why of what is happening, only feeling the pain. Our pain, and the pain of all those around us—everyone’s pain. All of it merged as our world is stripped of life.” Knight paused for a moment, “The solstice was two nights ago, it emerges in less than two days. Christmas.”

Finally swallowing, Jason washed down his bite with a long gulp of coffee. Stabbing at the calamari, absently loading his fork once more, he asked;

“So, did these guys show you anything else?”

“Yes,” answered Knight, his tone of resignation sounding more hopeless than ever. “They showed me you.”

“What?”

“I can not tell you why the Bountiful do as they do,” answered the curator. “I don’t understand the, the science behind it, the reality of it… all I can say is, as I shared their minds, alien as they were, I received an idea that this is their… duty. Every year at this time, they pick two people. They have done this since this thing first crashed into the Earth hundreds of years ago. They pick one who they feel can stop this creature… and one they feel… can talk them into stopping it.”

“So that’s what you’re all about, you want me to… you think you can make me—” And then, finally a monstrous realization settled over Jason’s mind. Laughing a bit too loudly for polite company, he wiped at his eyes, choking slightly, then snapped;

“I just got this… I just got the whole picture here. This is nutty enough to have been dreamed up by Congress. This hell thing that’s supposedly eating the North Pole, that’s goin’ to make dinner outta all of us, you said they do this every year… that they find some con man like you to sucker some boob like me into fighting this thing—right?”

Knight nodded his head.

“And so, every year, the boob goes to the North Pole and fights this monster, and… and… and what? I don’t get it. You said this’s happened hundreds of times. It don’t make no sense. You said this thing, if it gets out it’ll kill everyone in the world—right?”
Knight nodded again.

“So, so… what are you tellin’ me? I mean, if it got beat hundreds of times, then it’s dead—right? How does… why does, I mean, how can it—”

Jason stared into space, his mind reeling, the various sections of it arguing amongst themselves so vocally he could not communicate. Part of him still could not even believe what he was being told. He knew he trusted Knight, knew the man across the table from him was not lying. Knew that at the very least, the curator believed every word he was saying.

Yes, it was possible Knight was insane, but Jason did not believe such was the case. As ludicrous as everything he was being told sounded, as fantastically ridiculous as the story was, something deep within Jason assured him he was not merely being told what another believed, but what was.

For a while, neither man spoke. Neither knew what to say. After a handful of minutes, their dinners arrived. When the waiter arrived with his tray, he looked at the barely touched appetizers, immediately asking if there were any complaints. Both men shook their heads, Knight muttering that they had shared some bad news and it had put them off their game. Joking that there was no way anyone could ignore the fare of the Gardens’ kitchen for long, he assured the waiter they would be cleaning their plates.

So saying, the curator picked up his fork and speared a mozzarella stick, dipping it in the small bowl of hot sauce which had been brought with it. Popping it into his mouth, he spoke as he chewed;

“Come on, let’s eat. Forget why we’re here. The food in this place is too good to waste. Tell me about yourself, Jason. We’ll get to the other stuff later. For now, let’s just enjoy ourselves.”

Numb from all he had accepted, Jason nodded, taking up his own fork once more. At that stage in his life, enjoying himself was almost a foreign concept. He was, however, he announced with a fair approximation of a grin, willing to give it a chance.

“What the hell,” he thought, already knowing the extent of the rest of his life, “what’ve I got to lose?”

* * * * *

Several hours later the pair found themselves in Knight’s brownstone home in the Park Slope district of Brooklyn. The curator had offered Jason a room, saying;

“If I’m insane, if I imagined all of this, it the gods are merely having sport with me, well then, bless all the tiny monkeys, so be it. You’ve got a place to stay for life. Welcome home.”

Knight had shown his guest to a bedroom, one with its own bathroom. Jason joked that the museum business must be a good one. It was an awkward comment, one which made neither of them laugh. Breaking the silence, the curator offered tactfully that since they were both tired, it might be best if they got some rest and waited to talk in the morning.

“After all,” he said, “it’s only the twenty-third. Nothing’s actually supposed to happen until Christmas—right?”

Jason had muttered some sort of agreement, then gone into his room and thrown himself on the bed. He did not bother to close the door. Having lived on the street for the past handful of months, the concept of privacy had become foreign to him. Stretched out in a comfort he barely understood anymore, he let his mind flow over all he had been asked to accept that evening. To merely catalogue the sheer enormity of it all took more time than he expected.

For more than seven hundred years, he was supposed to believe, some evil thing had repeatedly tried to grow large enough to destroy the world. Apparently it did not exist completely within our own plane of reality, meaning that humanity could not simply carpet bomb the Arctic and be done with it.

As Knight had explained it, the Bounteous Immortals, these angels, or whatever they were, considered this horror to be a test laid on humanity by their idea of God. Meaning they did not care one way or the other if mankind survived or ended up as entrees. Their only duty was to find someone to fight this thing, and then to find someone to talk them into it.

“Christ, like it just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why,” he wondered, “why show Knight all this shit, and then have him try to get someone else to fight? If they want me to do it, why not show me?”

Maybe it had something to do with faith. But, even if he believed it all, even if he had the faith of ten men, what good would it do? This thing was supposed to be able to destroy the world, to suck the souls out of every living being. How was he supposed to fight something like that?

Of course, the Bountifuls had an answer for that, too. As Knight had explained it;

“They’ve been influencing events in the background of humanity for a long time apparently. Have you ever heard the fact that the historical figure of Jesus was actually born in the summer?” When Jason had assured the curate that he had, the man continued, telling him;

“Yes, well it seems that they exerted pressure from beyond on various church rulers to have them make the switch to coincide with the older pagan holiday that took place in late December so that the majority of humanity might be celebrating at the same time. In a cold, frightened, barbaric world, on its darkest day, if most of mankind’s functioning minds were filled with thoughts of joy, peace, good will, it gave them a weapon.”

“What?”

“When I was joined with their… essence… I could feel their plan. The joy of mankind at Christmas, the focus of children’s expectations on one individual, Santa Claus… it’s all been planned. As the creature has grown stronger, year by year, the idea of Christ’s birthday and revering gods has been allowed to fall by the wayside…

“But, the idea of Santa, however, has been enshrined. Millions, billions of people, thinking about St. Nick, not consciously believing in him, not really expecting a jolly elf to invade their home with gifts, but still, in the back of their minds, swirling with all the best parts of their childhoods, is this hope, this memory of happiness…”

Knight had stopped talking then, the struggle for words wearing him down. Besides, the entire idea was overwhelming him as well as his guest. It had been at that point the curator had shown Jason to his room, then gone off to his own.

Stretched out on his bed, still sweating, still staring off at nothing, Jason’s mind went numb, unable to find its way to any kind of conclusion. Yes, fine, he knew Knight believed in these angels, knew the man believed everything he had said. The curator had invited him into his home. Jason had lived long enough on the streets to know he was not being set up, not being deceived by his host. He also knew that Knight was not insane. No, he was frightened by what had been put before him, shocked and saddened and filled with pity for Jason—the man he had been tasked with sending off to his doom.

Which meant that it was true. That hell was being born at the North Pole, that some undying, unreasoning terror from another world had only another day to wait until it could murder all of humanity.

“And then it just jumps to another world and does it again.”

It was madness. As true as it must be, still it was insanity. The idea of Santa Claus, engineered to create a false happiness so angels could fuel a champion with love. Every year, Christmas grew by leaps and bounds, more chaos, more shrill, obnoxious spending, more glitter, more commercial damnation, because every year this unkillable monstrosity grew stronger, and more of humanity’s energy was needed to stop it.

“What does it even matter?” wondered Jason, his eyes closed, breathing rushed. “How many more years could we have? If this thing just gets stronger… nobody really cares about Christmas anymore… nobody cares about anything anymore.”

“I don’t believe that to be true.” As Jason looked up to find Knight standing in the hall beyond his doorway, the curator added;

“And I don’t think you believe so, either.”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Because if you did, you wouldn’t be tormenting yourself so over this.”

Swinging his feet off his bed, Jason pulled himself into a sitting position. Wiping at the sweat on his forehead, he looked up, then said;

“It doesn’t matter what I think… I can’t do this. These angels, they’re wrong—they’re nuts.”

“They seem to have a fairly decent track record so far.”

“It only takes one mistake.” Staring at the curator, his eyes unblinking, Jason shouted;

“A loser like me can’t do this. How am I supposed to be Santa Claus, loved by everyone?” Tears breaking from his eyes, he screeched;

“I couldn’t get even one person to love me!”

“Maybe,” responded Knight quietly, “the Bountifuls aren’t looking for someone who has love. Maybe what they need is someone who has it to give.”

Trembling, Jason rose from the bed. Staring at Knight for a moment, he then turned and stared into the mirror over the dresser. Once more he saw his life pass before his eyes, but this time he did not merely relive it, This time he saw it as a spectator, viewing it from the outside, watching the twists and turns of the events which had built his existence not as things that had happened to him, but as choices he had made.

Every path trodden, he suddenly realized, he had chosen to walk. It had been Melinda’s choice to rob him and use him—to try and destroy him. It had been his choice to allow her to get away with it.

Turning, shaking from the realization, Jason looked at Knight and asked;

“You have anything to drink in this place?”

“There is a bar downstairs. Rum, brandy, bourbon? I do make a splendid Belmont cocktail.”

“Dealer’s choice,” answered Jason. “Something a condemned man would get a bang out of.”

Knight stared long and hard into his guest’s eyes. Seeing that Jason had made his decision, he asked;

“So, you’re thinking of going?”

Before Jason could answer, suddenly the room around him began to shimmer. The molecules of the air, super-excited, vibrated so violently the two men could hear their movement for an instant. And then, they were there. Tall and fiery, as wide as vision, as long as time, blindingly brilliant, the Bountiful Immortals stepped into human existence. As he had before, Knight turned his face, his eyes blinded, his hearing stolen.

Jason on the other hand merely smiled, understanding at last. As his old self fell away, the chemical stink of physicality eroding in an instant, he felt the joy of the world begin to course through him. And then, finally, he understood.

The Bountifuls could not reside on the human plane. To utilize the spirit of mankind, to transform what goodness and cheer and selflessness there might still exist within the souls scattered across the face of the Earth in their own defense, they had to find one to act as its conduit, one who might join them in their endless task.

In but an instant, Jason existed as man and spirit, and then he was gone, all trace of him absorbed into the brilliance which vanished along with him. When he finally dared open his eyes, Piers Knight found himself alone within his home, no trace of his houseguest remaining.

“Well,” he thought, his spirits suddenly somehow improved, “A Belmont still sounds like a capital idea.”

Heading downstairs, the curator headed for his kitchen for the necessary sweet cream, crushed ice and raspberry syrup. The dry gin he would get from the bar. And, after his cocktail, he decided, he would head out into the street.

There was an entire day left before Christmas arrived… or the end of the world. Whichever it was to be would be decided by how much cheer the planet’s populous might scrape together to offer its solitary defender. That meant wherever there were carollers, he would join them. Wherever someone needed a hot chocolate, he would be there to fetch it for them. Wherever the memory of happiness needed to be restored, he would be there to breathe on its embers until the fiery brilliance of it was felt once more.

Minutes later, armored with hat and gloves and overcoat, the curator stepped off his front stoop, marching off into the first moments of Christmas Eve. Looking upward into the dark expanse of night, he gazed at those stars visible in the Brooklyn sky, then asked softly;

“Please.”

After which, in one of those amazing moments which were almost enough to make one believe in a higher power, the first snowflakes of the season began to fall. Feeling his heart grow lighter within his chest, Knight smiled, saying;

“Well, God bless us… everyone.”

And then he walked off into the night, singing the words to “White Christmas” as best he could remember them, almost certain he would live to see the next day.

 

 

The Perfect Waltz

The Perfect Waltz

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Eileen Maksym

 

On its opening night, the fall carnival was a fairytale land wrought of the glimmer of electric lights and the dry, acrid smell of sawdust. The whistling music of the organ grinders and the carousel ran counterpoint to the short staccato taunts of the barkers.

“Step right up! Test your strength! Win a prize for the little lady!”

Thud, ding!

“There’s a winner every game!”

“Toss a ball, win a goldfish! Step right up! Penny a try, twelve for a dime!”

Past the rides and the games of chance were the tents that drew the curious of all ages, where the broad swaths of canvas were slapped with bright paint, big pictures, bold words. Outside each tent stood a man in a vest and white gloves, with a top hat and a gold-headed cane. In loud voices these men promised the wonders of the world to anyone brave enough to step forward and press money into their palms.

“The Illustrated Man!”

“The Bearded Lady!”

“The Fiji Mermaid!”

“The Siamese Twins!”

“This chance comes but once in a lifetime!”

“Step up! Don’t be shy!”

The tent on the far right was different than the others. Instead of the flaps being closed to hide the shadowy marvels that awaited the paying customer, they were tied back with velvet ropes, and a ring of lights illuminated a circular stage within. Off to the side was a small table upon which sat a phonograph. The barker stood in front as usual, but up on the platform itself was a young man, impeccably dressed in a tuxedo, his head bowed. Or at least one would mistake him for a man at first glance. But upon closer inspection, it became clear that “he” was an exceptional imitation. His face was wax, his eyes glass, his hair a carefully maintained wig.

“Come witness the marvel of the industrial age!” the man with the top hat and cane cried. “The Mechanical Man! One silver dollar, and the gentleman will dance the perfect waltz!”

There was a murmur of disdain from the crowd, and a few people started to drift away.

The barker held up his hands. “I know, I know, a whole silver dollar seems a dear price to pay. But I assure you, it’s more than worth it for the experience of a lifetime! Don’t believe me? How about a demonstration?” He surveyed the crowd, cold blue eyes sparkling. They alighted on a girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen; she stood with her wide brown eyes fixed on the marvelous invention. His lips curled in a smile, and he held out a gloved hand. “Come, my dear. Have a dance on the house.”

She blinked and glanced from side to side, expecting the glove to indicate someone else. But when she looked back to the stage, the grin that drew the man’s cheeks back and crinkled his eyes was even wider, and that stare was unmistakably focused on her. She straightened and drew near, reached out her small, pale hand, and laid it in the much larger gloved one. She was struck by how cold it was.

The barker led her onto the stage, up to the mechanical man. His voice was at once a seductive croon and loud enough for the rest of the growing crowd to hear. “What’s your name, my dear?”

She glanced nervously at the upturned faces, their eyes on her. “Jane, sir.”

“What a lovely name! Do you know how to dance, Jane?”

“A… a little, sir.”

“Well, do not worry your pretty little head. The wondrous Mechanical Man will lead you. All you need to do is relax and enjoy! Now, stand here…” He positioned her at the side of the form that stood, stiff and still, facing the audience. “And now, the silver dollar!” He waved his cane in the air, the gold head glittering in the lights, and followed its motion with the other hand, raised, palm out. Then he snapped his fingers, and a silver coin leapt into existence between his fingertips.

The crowd oohed and aahed.

He tipped his hat with a grin, then walked the coin over his knuckles as he approached the stiff figure. There was a slot where the automaton’s spine met its skull, and the barker inserted the coin with a flourish.

The figure shuddered, and Jane took a step back. From inside its chest came a click… click… click, click, click, clickclickclick…

Suddenly the Mechanical Man lifted its head and, to the awe and delight of the crowd, pivoted to face Jane. Jane stiffened and wondered if it was going to attack her. Instead, with a strange, jerky grace it bowed, and a giggle rippled through the spectators. Jane glanced at them, and returned the bow with her best curtsy, which was awkward even for a farm girl. The Mechanical Man straightened, raised its right hand and reached out with its left. Jane stared for a moment, then felt the barker behind her, easing her forward.

“Go on, my dear, do not be frightened. He’s a gentleman and will not hurt you.”

She edged forward, into the strange figure’s stiff embrace, and clasped the raised hand hesitantly, positioning her other hand on the firm upper arm. The automaton tightened its grip and brought the other wax hand up to rest on her shoulder blade. Jane swallowed, wondering what would happen if she tried to pull away now. Would it let her go? Would the grip tighten further, crushing her, without a thought, for daring to resist?

Her worrying did not go much further, however, before she heard the scratch of a needle being put to a record, and a waltz began to play. The figure nodded, a small signal, and began to move with surprising fluidity. Jane followed as best she could, stumbling through the steps that her mother had taught her. She tried not to think about the crowd, judging her for her awkwardness, her plain dress and her gangly body. But then she heard the mutters and sighs and giggles.

“Look at that!”

“He’s so graceful!”

“Me next!”

“Momma, can I have a silver dollar?”

They were admiring the footwork of the man of metal and wax, she realized, and not looking at her at all. She felt her shoulders relax, and allowed herself to lean into the hand on her back. Her brown eyes focused on the Mechanical Man’s blue glass ones, and her movements became more natural as she allowed him to lead her around the stage, the pair of them twirling until the song came to an end.

The automaton released her, its hands returned to its sides, and it stepped back and bent once again in a courtly bow.

Jane repeated her curtsy, this time with a bit of grace that seemed to have settled into her during the dance.

Then the barker was at her side, clasping her elbow, leading her away. She followed, but looked back over her shoulder. The Mechanical Man turned, seeming to watch her as she was led away.

“Thank you, my dear,” the barker purred when they reached the stage steps and he released her. Then he spread his arms and his grin widened.

“Ladies! Curious gentlemen! The dance card is open! Step right up!”

Jane descended the few steps to the ground, then backed away and watched as the crowd advanced toward the stage in a crush, hands lifted, silver coins glinting in the light. She looked up at the Mechanical Man once more, and its blue eyes seemed to gaze back at her. Then, something happened that stopped her heart in her chest, and made her turn and flee into the night.

It winked.

* * * * *

Later that night, as she lay awake in her bed in the tiny garret room of the farmhouse, she thought of that moment, when that one waxen eyelid had seemed to drop over its corresponding eye, and decided that her imagination had gotten the best of her. It couldn’t possibly have winked. It must have been a trick of the light. And even if it had winked, there was no way it could have possibly winked at her, nor at anyone for that matter. The eyes were glass. He wasn’t even a real person!

That’s right. Not a real person.

She lay there, staring at the darkness, listening to the clock on her nightstand.

Tick, tick, tick…

When she failed to fall asleep, she sat up and swung her feet to the bare boards. Careful not to make a noise that would wake her parents below, she crept to her dresser and picked up the pretty wooden cigar box that rested on top. She flipped the lid open and gazed at the box’s contents, glimmering in the moonlight.

Three silver dollars.

Moments passed, marked by the tick of the clock behind her, as she contemplated the coins, humming a waltz.

* * * * *

The next night, after the chores were done and her momma gave her leave, Jane returned to the carnival. She wove through the crowds: the children clutching a parent with one hand and the paper cone of a cotton candy with the other, the couples dazzled by the electric lights reflected in each others’ eyes, the giggling groups of ladies and the gentlemen with their fedoras and appraising glances. She passed the ferris wheel, the shooting galleries, the booths emitting the pleasant, greasy smells of fried dough and popcorn. She went to the tents that lined the back of the fair, and to the far right, where a crowd of people, mostly women, was gathered in a jostling semblance of a line.

On the stage the Mechanical Man was dancing with a graying woman in a blue dress, her hair flowing loose over her shoulders. The woman laughed as they twirled, and her joyous smile seemed to melt the wrinkles from her face. It took a moment for Jane to recognize her as the town’s typically dour postmistress.

The barker with the top hat and the white gloves stood by the phonograph and mirrored her grin as he tapped his gold-headed cane on the ground in time with the beat.

When the postmistress’ dance was over, the woman responded to the Mechanical Man’s bow with a curtsy, then descended, twisting her long hair up into a bun once more. Her hands were haphazard, and as she passed by Jane, the girl could see wisps of grey hair dancing in the cool autumn night breeze, as if in time with the waltz the woman was humming under her breath.

Jane joined the line of women waiting for a turn. One by one those in front of her climbed the stairs, placed their silver dollar into the white glove, and were twirled around the stage. Dance by dance she inched forward, watching as woman after woman found joy, or solace, or youth, in the mechanical arms.

The crowd at the fair was thinning out by the time it came close to Jane’s turn, the noise fading to an echo of the roar it had been when she arrived. There were only a few women left ahead of her, and a few behind her. She could see the barker glance at his pocket watch, then survey the line. The next time a patron completed her dance, he escorted her down the stairs and released her elbow with a slight bow, a touch to the brim of his top hat, and a brisk wave. Then he walked along the line, tapping his cane in his hand, his lips moving in a silent count. He stopped just in front of Jane.

“Attention, ladies and… ladies.”

A giggle rippled through the women.

“The evening draws to a close, and as such I regret I must send some of you away.” He turned toward the line. “Everyone past…” He began to lower his cane in front of Jane, then looked at her, and his eyes widened and sparkled with recognition. The man’s lips spread in a slow smile, and he lifted his cane again and brought it down behind her.

“Everyone past here.”

Then he swept his arm wide in a grand gesture of apology to all the women in line behind her. “I am afraid that I shall have to ask you ladies to return and visit us at another time. Thank you, and have a lovely evening.”

The women began to disperse with a few resigned sighs and disgruntled mumbles. The barker waved to the departing crowd. “Au revoir! Farewell! God speed!” He tipped his hat to Jane, and returned to the stage.

The last few dances seemed to stretch on forever, as the spreading shadows and the sounds of unrolling canvas signaled that the carnival was curling in on itself to sleep for the night. But eventually Jane stood at the bottom of the stairs. The woman immediately ahead of her laid her head on the Mechanical Man’s shoulder as they moved around the stage, and Jane was puzzled that this woman was dancing such a different dance than the postmistress. The grey-haired woman had found happiness in the dance, but this woman, far younger, had an air of sorrow about her. And although the very same song was playing on the phonograph as had been for every dance before, it seemed that the Mechanical Man was dancing more slowly, the waxen, bloodless hands holding her with heart.

When the dance came to an end, the woman curtsied and descended the stairs, wiping her eyes. Jane watched her pass, then looked up at the barker. The man stood on the stage with a kind but knowing smile on his face, and held out one white-gloved hand. Jane met his eyes and ascended, then slipped her hand into his. He raised an eyebrow and gave a slight dry laugh, then bowed his head to press a kiss to her knuckles and released her hand. He straightened and spread his hand open again.

“The silver, Miss Jane,” he said with a jovial smile shot through with condescension.

Jane blinked, then blushed. She reached into the pocket of her blue-checked dress and pulled out a silver dollar, one of the three from her box. She placed it into his palm, and watched the white-clad fingers curl over it.

“This way, my dear,” he crooned.

Jane followed him to the Mechanical Man, who stood, still and quiet. The barker went behind the contraption and slid her coin into the slot at the base of the skull.

Click, click, click, click…

He moved behind her, took her by the shoulders, positioned her in front of the figure of wax and metal and paint. His hands lingered, and Jane blinked as she felt him lean forward, felt his breath hot on her ear.

“I thought you’d return, my dear,” he crooned. “I think he’s been waiting for you.”

Almost on cue, the Mechanical Man lifted its head, and Jane drew in a sharp breath as the glass eyes met hers. She could swear she saw a soft glimmer of life in them.

The barker smoothed his hands down Jane’s arms as he pulled back to stand beside the phonograph. He positioned the needle over the outer rim of the record, and eased it down. After a moment of scratch sounds, the familiar music began to play.

“The perfect waltz,” he announced.

The Mechanical Man bowed, and Jane responded once more with a curtsy, still awkward, but less so, due to the practice of the previous night and the privacy of this moment. The automaton lifted its left hand and extended its right; Jane stepped into the offered embrace, her breath catching as their chests touched. The figure nodded, and she could swear she saw a smile on its waxen lips as it began to move.

This dance was different than the one the night before. Even though the barker stood on the same stage, it felt to Jane that she and her dancing partner were alone. The Mechanical Man’s hands held her attentively, and its eyes seemed to gaze into hers. Even though the figure’s chest was doubtless made of cloth and wire, like a dressmaker’s dummy, Jane imagined that she felt it rise and fall with impossible breath.

When the music came to an end, the wax hands released her, and the cloth and wire torso bent in a bow. Jane swallowed and curtsied. She watched, retreating, as the Mechanical Man shuddered, and the soft whir became a distinguishable patter of clicks. They became slower and slower until the figure’s head dropped to its chest, its shoulders slumped, and all was still.

“Did you enjoy your dance, my dear?”

Jane jerked and whirled around to find the barker standing very close, his cane planted on the ground in front of him, both hands folded over it. He was leaning forward ever so slightly, his head canted to the side, regarding her with an amused glimmer in his eye.

She stepped back. “Y-yes.”

He smiled, half cultured, half lupine. “I am very pleased to hear that. We aim to provide an unforgettable experience.” His smile widened, the wolf becoming dominant. “I’m glad you returned. Such a pretty young thing… I think he likes you.”

“He…” She took another step back. “He’s not real.”

His smile faded, and his eyes became darker, sharper…

Then the smile was back, as if it had never left.

“Of course not.” He tipped his hat. “Good evening to you, my dear.”

He turned to the phonograph.

Jane’s heart was thumping in her chest as she headed for the steps.

“Oh, and Jane?”

She looked back. The barker was sliding the record into a paper sleeve. He shifted his eyes to hers.

“See you tomorrow.”

* * * * *

The two remaining silver dollars that lay in the cigar box atop her desk occupied her thoughts all the next day as she went about the farm doing her chores. Their image hung in her mind, shining like the blue glass eyes of the Mechanical Man. She danced as she threw feed to the chickens, her feet following the steps of an invisible, perfect partner. She hummed as she milked the cow, the stream of hot milk ringing against the side of the pail as she pulled the teats in time with the music. And as she knit heavy woolen socks for her father, she closed her eyes, and felt the Mechanical Man holding her, felt the hand that clasped hers loosen, slide around to her back, draw her close.

* * * * *

Once dinner was over, Jane raced to the fairgrounds and pushed through the chaos, barely seeing the lights or feeling the jostles. She made her way back to the sideshows and the open tent on the right, and the first thing she saw was the barker, atop the stage, above a sea of waving women, his arms outstretched, crowing.

“Step right up, one and all! Dance as you’ve never danced before! As you’ll never dance again! The one and only perfect waltz!”

The women surged up towards the stage and the man laughed. “Ladies! Ladies! One at a time! No fighting, please! We will do our best to accommodate all of you.”

Then he caught sight of Jane standing in the back of the group, and his smile widened, shifted from the general jovial smile of the showman to an intimate smile of a confidant. He bowed, and held out his hand toward her. She drew a breath and walked forward, through the crowd of women who turned and stared and hissed amongst themselves.

“That’s not fair…”

“Should be first come, first served…”

“Clearly he has a thing for her…”

“She’s not even that pretty…”

Jane tried to ignore the comments, but couldn’t help the deep blush that seeped into her cheeks.

The barker lifted one white-gloved hand, palm out, and gave the crowd a stern look.

“Ladies! Really! Listen to yourselves! You want to dance the perfect waltz, but nothing can hide the lack of grace in your hearts!” He glared down at them for a moment in the resulting silence. Then his expression softened as he turned back to Jane. “Please continue, my dear.”

She nodded and climbed the stairs, one by one, as if in a dream. When she reached the top she took the silver dollar out of her pocket. He plucked it from her hand, and her pulse picked up as he led her to the Mechanical Man, standing there, waxen face tilted toward the ground, gloved hands at its sides. The barker positioned her, inserted the coin with his customary flourish, then withdrew to the phonograph. Jane closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, her stomach fluttering as she felt dozens of eyes on her. She willed herself to be calm, quiet, still. The music began, and she lifted her head and opened her eyes, just as the Mechanical Man was doing the same.

It looked into her eyes. And reached out for her.

She met its gaze, and stepped into its embrace.

Its hands were gentle as they danced, and there was no one else, nothing else, just the sensation of its arm supporting her, guiding her, its hand holding hers. Their feet moved together in rhythm with nothing but the beating of their hearts.

The beating of their hearts…

The spell broken, Jane drew back with a gasp. The song was over, the Mechanical Man’s arms had withdrawn, and it gave the customary jerky bow, its glass eyes fixed forward. It straightened, became still.

There was a moment of silence.

Then the women clamored against the stage, waving silver dollars in the air. The barker lifted his hands, saying “Please… ladies, please…”

To Jane, all the noise sounded like it was coming from very far away. She stared at the still figure of the Mechanical Man, all wax and wire and cloth and straw.

But… I felt his…

She lifted a trembling hand and reached out for the figure’s chest…

And a white-gloved hand caught her by the wrist.

Her head snapped to the side. Her gaze was pinned by the eyes of the barker, sharp as surgical steel.

“No,” he said simply, moving her hand back to her side. He gave her a tight smile, and with a bow held out his arm toward the stage steps.

“I’m… I’m sorry…”

“No need,” he said, his smile perfect, his eyes unyielding. “Good evening, miss.”

She glanced once more at the figure of the Mechanical Man. He was motionless—just a big doll, really. Certainly she must have been imagining.

Must have been.

She nodded shakily. “Good evening, sir,” she murmured, and then turned, took the stairs as fast as she dared, and pushed through the eager crowd.

* * * * *

That night she once again lay awake, staring up at the ceiling. The dim light of the moon filtered through the gauzy yellowed lace curtains over her window. One hand was on her chest, feeling her heart beat, her ribs rise and fall with each breath, as she thought of the Mechanical Man. She wondered if he had a name. She wondered if he could speak, and what his voice would sound like. She imagined, as she lay there in the moonlight, what it would feel like to have his arms around her, his lips, flushed and warm, pressed to hers in the perfect kiss.

* * * * *

It wasn’t until the hour right before dawn that Jane finally drifted to sleep.

* * * * *

Her fingers are poised to touch the Mechanical Man’s chest…

“Couldn’t stay away, could you?”

She whirls.

The barker’s head is bare, his vest is missing, and his gloves are gone.

His hands are made of wax.

“Do they bother you, my dear?”

The man approaches her, his sharp eyes sparkling. He holds out his hands, and as he flexes them, Jane watches in awe as the wax moves like flesh. He comes very close to her, and she stares into his eyes as he runs the smooth backs of his knuckles down her cheek. Jane is frozen, rooted, unable to pull away, only able to close her eyes and tremble.

“Oh, my dear, there’s no need for you to be afraid. Please, look at me.”

Still shaking, she blinks her eyes open.

His gaze snares and holds hers. He lifts his other hand to cup both her cheeks, and runs his thumbs over her cheekbones.

“Such a lovely, lovely girl,” he croons.

One hand drops from her cheek, and she shivers as it slides down her side, over her hip, and slips into the pocket that holds the last silver dollar. He pulls it out, holds it up. Jane watches, fascinated, as he walks it over his fingers, the wax squeaking against the metal. 

Her hands tingle, and Jane looks down and gasps. Her hand is being covered in wax. It begins with the fingertips, spreads along her fingers, over the rest of her hands, up her arms. Panicked, she tries to rub the wax from her skin.

But it isn’t on her skin.

It is her skin.

“Relax my dear,” the barker soothes.

Jane watches as her arms become perfectly sculpted limbs of wax. Her torso, her hips and legs, up her neck and finally to her head… everything is transformed.

She is perfect. Perfectly made. Perfectly poised.

The barker smiles wide. “You wanted to dance the perfect waltz. Now you shall.”

He caresses her waxen cheek with the backs of his fingers, then circles her, regarding her with an approving eye. He withdraws her silver dollar from his vest pocket, and presses the edge to the back of her neck, where her spine meets her skull. Jane’s waxen form shudders, and a small moan wells up in her chest at the tender pain. The coin dents the surface, then breaks through, disappearing within her and leaving a slot, a small trickle of blood running down her neck.

“There, my dear,” he whispers.

He steps before her, clasps her hand, slides an arm around her waist.

And, from somewhere, music begins to play…

* * * * *

Jane awoke, the sound of the waltz echoing through her head, the feel of the barker’s body against hers lingering on her skin.

* * * * *

Jane moved through the next day as if half-alive, the lack of sleep taking its toll. She missed several eggs in the chicken coop, was careless with the milk buckets and placed them where the cow kicked them over, and lost all of her knitting time when she had to unravel several rows to find and mend a dropped stitch. When it came time to help her mother prepare dinner, Jane was slow and sloppy as she peeled and chopped, and her mother eyed her.

“Jane,” she said as she finished plucking and cleaning the chicken, “you’ve been to that fair the past three nights.” She took some of the potatoes from her daughter and began to peel them swiftly. “I think you should stay home tonight.”

Jane’s eyes snapped all the way open, and she looked up from the carrot she had been slicing. “What? No… Mom, it’s the last night…”

Her mother frowned, her weathered face creased with concern. “Jane Elizabeth Morris, I’m surprised at you. What is it about this carnival? You’ve already seen it. How many times do you need to ride the ferris wheel?” She gave her a sharp glance. “Or is it something else? A boy?”

“No! I… I just like it, is all…”

“Well, then if that’s all, then you can stand to take a break from it and actually go to bed at a decent time.”

“But Mother…”

The older woman shook her head. “The answer is no. You will be staying home tonight and that’s final. Now chop those carrots, young lady, and pick up the pace. They need to be in the pot in the next few minutes or dinner won’t be ready when your father comes in from the field.”

Jane tightened her jaw. “Yes, ma’am,” she ground out between clenched teeth, then lowered her head and attacked the carrots with savage concentration.

* * * * *

Jane retreated to her room after dinner and curled up on her bed with a well-loved book. Half of her attention was on the story, while the other half listened to the movements downstairs. When her mother called up that it was bedtime, she set her shoes by her window, then climbed into bed fully clothed. She lay in the mostly-dark, her blankets pulled up in case her mother came to check on her. Her heart was pounding, and she kept glancing at the clock, watching the night tick away. If she closed her eyes she could imagine her mother and father sitting in the parlor downstairs, her father reading the Evening Post, her mother doing cross-stitch. Those images would only remain for a few moments, however, before they would fade and be replaced by the Mechanical Man, his eyes gazing into hers with perfect understanding, his hand holding hers with perfect affection.

After a few hours, Jane was roused from a half-sleep by the sound of her parents moving down the hall to their bedroom in the back of the house, strains of their hushed voices drifting up to the garret. She waited until she heard the door to their bedroom close, then took a deep breath and did a long, slow count to one hundred. She eased out of bed and crept across the floor to the dresser, where she opened the cigar box and withdrew the last silver dollar. She slipped it into her pocket, went to the window, carefully slid it open…

Screeeeeech.

She froze. Held her breath. Listened for some indication that she had been heard.

But the house remained still. She released her breath in a slow sigh. As her heart pounded, she removed the screen and stepped out onto the roof over the front porch. Crouching, she worked her way to the edge, then climbed down the lattice-work. A shiver ran through her when her feet met the ground, and for a moment she looked up at her dark window. Then she turned and walked as quietly as she could to the road, where she began to run.

* * * * *

When she arrived at the fairground, the carnival was closed, and her heart sank. The moon and the kerosene lanterns from the workers’ tents gave the midway an eerie appearance of silvery shadows tinged with gold highlights. She could hear gruff laughter and drunken songs from inside the canvas enclosures, and wanted, very much, to turn around, go back home.

But she wanted to see him more.

And so, step by step, she crept past the barren booths, the ferris wheel dark and still, the bottles of the ring-toss glinting slyly, her only companions coming at the end in the form of the paintings on the sideshow tents. They beckoned to her and leered at her, drew her toward them and promised to show her such things that she would never be the same…

Unlike every other time she had seen it, the front flaps on the tent to the far right had been loosed from their red velvet ropes, and the stage was enclosed, hidden. The stairs that she had climbed before now led to the place where the canvas overlapped. Jane took them one by one, aware in a way she hadn’t been before just how much they shifted with each step, how the nails squealed against the wood. The realization forced her to slow down. She did not want to be caught. Not when she was so close.

She drew back the heavy flap, and a single ray of warm yellow kerosene light pierced the darkness, momentarily blinding Jane. When her eyes adjusted, she saw the stage, now a wooden floor enclosed by heavy canvas. And in the center stood the Mechanical Man, in his tuxedo, his blue glass eyes staring at the ground, his hands hanging at his sides. He was alone; the barker was nowhere in sight.

Jane eased inside, and as the flaps fell behind her, they slapped together softly, closing out the last bit of darkness so that she was now embraced by the warm light. She approached the Mechanical Man, her head canted, watching. Was that a blink? A shift in his eyes? Did his chest just expand in a breath? Did his hand twitch?

“Hello,” she murmured. She felt a bit silly that she was talking to a…

A doll. That’s all he is. He’s not alive. He doesn’t think about you… like you… love…

She shoved that last thought out of her head. She never thought that, she can’t have thought that, it was crazy.

Yet her pulse quickened as she drew closer. She stood staring for a few long moments, then reached up, as she had the night before, to touch his chest.

It was still beneath her fingers.

She frowned for a moment before it occurred to her. Of course. She reached into her pocket and withdrew the silver dollar, then stepped around him and slid the coin into the slot where the spine met the skull. As the clicking began, she positioned herself before him once again.

Her eyes widened as she saw the Mechanical Man take a deep breath, his chest expanding, his shoulders rising. He breathed out with a sigh, and lifted his head. As she watched in awe, the wax on his face softened to flesh, and the paint that made the lips pink became a flush of warm living blood, just under the surface. His blue eyes, no longer glass, looked into hers with a gentle longing. He lifted his arms; he held his hands out to her.

Jane approached, dazed, gazing into those lovely eyes.

The Mechanical Man gazed back, his expression one of care, even love, tinged with sorrow. As Jane stepped into his arms, he curled them around her, drew her close, embracing her instead of holding her in the traditional waltz stance. His eyes never left hers.

From somewhere, music began to play, and Jane and the man began to dance, arms around each other, eyes locked. He held her tenderly, and although his lips were silent, his eyes spoke, whispering of desire, experiences and sensations, of the world that lay beyond the cornfields of her tiny little town.

When the music was over, he smiled gently, cupped her cheek in one warm hand of soft flesh, leaned down, and touched his lips to hers.

Jane drew in her breath, long, slow, shuddering, and allowed her eyes to drift closed. She had never been kissed before. Her lips were timid, hesitant, but his were kind and soft, and her awkwardness melted away. His arms encircled her, drew her close, and she pressed herself to him. A soft sound of longing slipped from her lips as she gave herself over to this new dance.

This perfect waltz.

* * * * *

She woke up on the muddy ground, a light rain caressing her skin. Groggy, she pushed herself up, blinking in the morning light. The field was empty, the earth gouged with wagon tracks that were filling with water. She stared at them, then shook her head, and her breath hitched into sobs. Tears began to drip down her cheeks, mingling with the raindrops.

He had shown her such lovely things, then left her behind.

Then came a thought that both comforted her and filled her with sorrow. She reached into her pocket, certain she would find the silver dollar there, proof that it had all been a dream. However, instead of cold metal, her fingertips encountered something else. She withdrew her hand and opened it to find a small package: a note wrapped around a wax heart.

Until next year, my dear…

 

The Not So Obvious Robot

The Not So Obvious Robot

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Gary Dudney

 

Helen,” Rob yelled. “Come down. The babysitter’s here.”

Helen leaned over Rob’s shoulder and the two of them peered down at the surprisingly small robot that crouched on their front step. It looked like a large plastic beetle.

“I don’t know, honey,” Helen said.

“I checked out the company,” Rob said. “Nothing but high marks.” He bent down and found a button on the side of the robot. “I guess we’ll just have to see.” He pushed the button and the robot hummed to life. A row of red lights flashed just beneath its plastic skin.

A flat, hollow voice issued from within the shell. “Hello. I’m Robositter JD84X526. You can call me Jay Dee. I’m eager to meet young Robby. Let’s get started.”

The little robot rolled forward and bumped over the doorstep. Rob and Helen had to jump back out of its way. The robot glided across the hallway and came to a stop against the bottom step of the staircase. “Robby, Robby. Come meet Jay Dee. Let’s play a game. Robby?”

Robby appeared at the top of the stairs. “That thing is my babysitter?”

Helen looked at Rob for reassurance. “That’s right,” Rob said. “Your mother and I decided you’re old enough for a robositter. Just do what the nice robot says. Everything’ll be fine. Be sure to get your school work done. We’ll be back a little after bedtime.”

The door shut and Robby and Jay Dee were alone. “School work?” the little robot said.

“Forget about that,” Robby said. “What’s this game you were talking about?”

“Yes, yes. Twenty questions. I will begin. I am a famous person. Ask away.”

Robby sat down on the steps and fixed the robot with a contemplative stare. “Hmmm… OK, let’s see,” he said. “Are you a President?”

“Yes, I am,” said Jay Dee.

“You’re Washington.”

“No.”

“Lincoln?”

“Correct. Good guess, Robby. I am Abraham Lincoln.”

Robby leaned back and smiled in a satisfied way. “You robots are so obvious.”

Jay Dee hummed a little louder. “What?”

“You picked about the most obvious famous person there is. It was easy to guess.”

“Let us try again,” the robot said.

“Fine,” Robby said. “Go ahead.”

Jay Dee’s hum took on a higher pitch, a green data-processing light flickered rapidly on the edge of the robot’s shell. “I am a famous person. Who am I?”

“Are you a President?” Robby said without hesitation.

Something under Jay Dee’s plastic shell began to knock rapidly as if something had come loose.

“Well?” Robby said.

“Affirmative.”

“You’re Lincoln, aren’t you?” Robby said triumphantly.

A small antenna shot up from a hole in the top of Jay Dee’s shell, spun wildly in the air for a minute and then disappeared back in the hole. “Yes. I am Lincoln,” the flat voice said. “How did you know?”

“It’s like I said. You robots are obvious. You probably thought the very last thing I would guess would be Lincoln again, so that’s what you picked. I just figured it out.”

Jay Dee began to vibrate and one of its wheels seemed to take on a life of its own spinning the little robot across the hall until it came to a stop against the front door. There was a faint smell of burning rubber.

“You OK?” Robby asked.

Jay Dee rolled away from the door. “Game time over. Now, Robby…”

“Wait,” Robby interrupted. “I know exactly what you’re going to say next.” Robby imitated the robot’s voice, “Now, Robby, time… to… do… your… school… work.”

The circuits all around the edge of the robot’s shell began to glow. “No,” Jay Dee said in a voice that seemed slightly lower and strained, “you are wr-wr-wrong. Time to watch television. No need to worry about school.”

Robby scratched his head. “Sounds good to me. I’ll tell you what. You go make some popcorn and I’ll find a program.”

“Good plan. I am right on it. I am hopping to work,” Jay Dee said and rolled off toward the kitchen.

Robby plopped down on the couch and issued a voice command to the television. He was surprised at what a pushover the robot had been after all. It hardly put up a fight. After several minutes went by, Robby yelled, “Hey, where’s that popcorn?” There was no reply.

Robby walked back into the hallway expecting to hear the corn popping but instead he heard some loud thumps coming from above. He went upstairs and was surprised to see the door to his parent’s bedroom cracked open. He pushed the door further open and gasped. The little robot was rolling around on top of the bed making a mess of the sheets and blankets. The closet doors were wide open and all the drawers had been pulled from the cabinets. His parents’ clothes and shoes were everywhere, lying in big heaps on the floor. Jay Dee was happily singing a tune and whistling along at the same time. “Just whistle while you work, da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa…”

“What are you doing?” Robby yelled. “Do you know what kind of trouble you’re going to be in?”

“Me? Trouble?” the robot said rolling off the bed onto a soft pile of clothes. “Whatever do you mean? I did not make this mess. I am much too obvious to do something crazy like this. You made this mess.”

Robby’s mouth dropped open. “What?” he sputtered. “You won’t get away with this.”

“I am dialing your parents right now. Oh, dear, I hate to have to tell them what a naughty boy Robby has been.” A ringing was coming from under the robot’s shell.

“No, wait. Stop.” There was a click and a dial tone now coming from the robot.

“Shall we get this mess cleaned up then?” Jay Dee said. “And then shall we get to that homework?”

A couple of hours later, Rob and Helen tiptoed in through the front door and found the little robot waiting for them in the hallway. “How did everything go?” Helen whispered.

“Just fine,” Jay Dee said. “Robby is fast asleep.”

Rob noticed a neatly word-processed paper lying on the hall table. “What’s that?”

“Oh, that is Robby’s essay for school.”

Rob had a puzzled look on his face. “But that essay’s not due until next week.”

“Once Robby got started on his homework, I just could not get him to stop,” Jay Dee explained.

Rob and Helen traded glances as the little robot bumped out the front door. “Goodnight,” Jay Dee said. “Robositter JD84X526 is signing off.”

“I don’t think Robby’s gotten an assignment done early in his whole life,” Rob said to Helen shaking his head.

Helen picked up the essay and looked at the title, “What I Learned from the Not So Obvious Robot.”