The Shed

The Shed

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bud Webster

 

Martin had always hated the shed. As far back as he could remember, he’d hated it. It was dark, musty, dank; the walls were lined with peg-board and rusted tools hung here and there on hooks like broken teeth. There were spiders and ancient wasp nests, filth in every corner, and there was an evil smell, like time gone bad.

What glass had once been in the windows had long ago been lost to rocks thrown by anonymous boys goaded on by their equally anonymous friends. The shed stared at him, sightless and terrible, beckoning.

Worse were the memories. The shed was full to bursting with them, razor-sharp in his mind even after thirty years. They came at him now, like sand whipped by a hot desert wind; his mother, face drawn and gaunt, meeting him at the door as he came in from school and saying, “Your father’s waiting for you in the shed.” The hopelessness of her voice—she’d had her turns in the shed, too—the long walk through the back yard, grass hissing against his feet; the shadow inside the door waiting, waiting. “Your father is waiting in the shed.” Are there any more dreadful words in a child’s experience?

Then the beatings, usually with a belt, but sometimes (if the sin had been grievous enough) with a stick of firewood that left him bruised and not infrequently bloody. The shame was part of it, too, and the heat and the grit of dirt under his shoes as he stood crying in the aftermath, his father’s breath washing over him in waves of rage and whiskey. A bad report card. A chore undone. Farting in church. The reasons didn’t matter; there was always a reason. It was the thing itself, the agony of humiliation, sharp as a carpet-tack hammered into the center of his soul.

Last night was the first time he’d been in the shed since leaving home at seventeen. Tonight would be the final time. Looking at it now, he knew that going in there again would be like pissing on a live wire, but he had no choice if he was ever to be whole again.

He’d run from home as soon as he’d graduated from high school, desperate to leave it all behind, knowing deep inside himself that it would never be far from him. He’d gone alone, with his mother’s blessing. “One of us should get away,” she’d said as she pressed $134 in dingy, tattered bills into his hand. She’d hoarded it, hiding it from his father under a loose window sill. “I can’t. Not no more. Go to Roanoke, or Richmond and find work. Try to get some college.” Then she smiled, and it almost broke him to remember it. “I’ll be fine, boy. Just go before he wakes up.” He had, and a part of him still bled that he hadn’t found a way to take her with him.

The wind blew an empty soda can across the top of the driveway where he stood. He looked at the label as it rolled: Black Cat Cherry Cola. He smiled a little at the irony. After last night, bad luck was the least of his worries.

His mother had simply given up when he was twenty-three, stealing pills from a co-worker’s purse and swallowing them methodically, one at a time. She’d passed out at the table in the break room and just never woke up. At her funeral, his father had been drunk in the chapel, drunk at the gravesite, loudly proclaiming his grief and her worthlessness. Few others were there to mourn her.

It was a month now since they’d buried his father, dead after years of solitary drunkenness in his cheap trailer up in the Amherst woods. There were no mourners; Martin saw his father into the ground alone. The service had been short and perfunctory, led by a minister supplied by the mortuary who kept mispronouncing his father’s name. Martin didn’t bother to correct him. It didn’t matter, not even the Pope could keep his father out of Hell.

It had taken Martin that entire month to work up the courage to come back, to do what he had to do. There was no estate to pay for maintenance, so the grave was already becoming overgrown and weedy. The staff of the little boneyard had better things to do with their time than to look after a plot stuck off in a corner.

The house was gone, gutted by fire a year after his mother’s passing. The fire department came, but only because a neighbor spotted the smoke and called. His father had stopped paying his phone bills long before.

The land was his as the only surviving heir. There was no nostalgia here, though, no attachment, no sense of ownership. What value the land might have was far outweighed by the vileness that saturated it like blood in dirt.

He would be done with it soon enough, in any case.

He closed his eyes against another memory, flinching at the intensity of it. He was eleven, already in a perpetual state of terror. The three of them sat at the dinner table: his father with bottle at hand, sly and furtive, staring at his wife and son through piggish eyes as the two of them ate slowly and warily. Suddenly he lashed out, slapping her across the side of her head and knocking her glasses into a bowl of potatoes. She slowly turned her head back around, not looking at anything but the table in front of her, and fumbled her glasses out of the bowl. With trembling hands she wiped them on her apron, then put them back on, her face already swollen and red. “That’s what you get,” his father had said. “Just you don’t forget it, neither of you.” There had been too many other meals like that one.

The light was beginning to turn now, deepening towards dusk, and it was time. He stretched his back, still sore from the night before. It had been hard work, and foul, and he was certain that at some point he’d crossed the line into madness because of it, but it was done. Now he would put paid to all.

Tomorrow, he’d burn the shed and all the hateful poison it held. There was still work to do tonight, though, and he was as ready as he’d ever be. He took the baseball bat from where it leaned against his car in hands that were still raw and blistered from digging, glorying in the pain, letting it flash through him and carry him on. He began the long walk, the grass hissing against his feet for the last time.

His father was waiting for him in the shed.

 

The Moment

The Moment

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Lawrence M. Schoen

 

Four tiny, cerulean lozenges winked in and out of phase for a moment, twinkling like silvery fish, sardines really, as they shimmied into position and formed the corners of a tetrahedron above the lunar surface. On cue, Cwaliheema—the highest rated archaeocaster across seventeen star clusters—flared into existence at the center of the pyramid, a lifeform that to human senses would have registered as a ball of golden light, a sense of longing for one’s first love, and the memory of comfort food gone bad. Cwaliheema rotated upon first one axis then another, and locked onto the object of her intention by whatever perceptual system her kind possessed.

Despite her appearance, when she addressed her audience the archaeocaster spoke in English. “Friends and lovers, this is an exclusive quantacast! I’m coming to you live via timeslow, and using authentic, reconstructed linguistic systems because this is a rare moment, my darlings. Mere pico-seconds have passed since my producer Gilly sacrificed his own consciousness to jury-rig the lockout mechanism to get me here. My location has been kept under interdict by forces that refused to acknowledge our queries, let alone be interviewed. Even stretching this instant as we are, there isn’t much time before those selfsame curmudgeons break through what remains of Gilly’s potential memories and bounce me, so pay attention while you can. I’m hovering mere sklues—pardon the slip, I meant to say “inches”—above the only surviving Mark! Yes, you know what I’m talking about, and why I’m doing so in a language whose speakers are long gone. How better to honor them? Below me is the sole remaining artifact of a once proud people who cast their entertainments into space for the benefit of us all. Burn and then freeze this image into your receptors, you’ll likely never get another chance. This is all we have, the last remnant of any of the Marks, and even this has been denied our experiencing until now. Experts disagree, speculation runs rampant, but it is this reporter’s opinion that we are experiencing Groucho. Note the depth of the indentations, the comical pattern of their relief. Night and Day, Opera and Races, this is not the work of Gummo. I know, I know, the silent vacuum of the locale begs the question for many, blatantly insisting that this Mark is Harpo, but I’m here and they’re not, and I’m telling you that I’m glocklerizing an undeniable sense of Groucho here.”

One of the sardine-like corners blackened, shriveled, and slurred. Another followed suit, and then a third. The blur of Cwaliheema lost cohesion and flickered out of existence as the curmudgeons in question shattered the last bits of unrealized recollections and secured the site once again, annihilating the archaeocaster in the process.

* * * * *

The generation ship of Krenn frantically dumped velocity as it splooched from the fuel-efficient but mind-numbing slowness of intramolecular phasetransit back into the normal time-space continuum, less than a cubit above the moon. The ship crashed into the middle of the heelprint. Its immaculate hull that had withstood the flailings of phasetransit for a quarter million years without so much as a ding, shattered itself against the unyielding bulk of a grain of lunar dust. Of the six thousand seventeen Krenn onboard at the time, a scant several hundred survived the crash. Nearly all of these recovered from their injuries and disembarked over the next month.

None of the first generation of Krenn had lived long enough to reach the site, though none had expected to. The very first Krenn had conceived of this journey in the distant past, dedicating his life and his posterity to the pilgrimage with an ever recycling population of clones. Like their clonefather, each was an optimized collection of smart matter no bigger than a speck. Hundreds of generations of Krenn had lived and died during the voyage, their remains enshrined into niches in the very walls of the vessel that now lay shattered at its destination.

The survivors flooded out upon the steppes of the heel, rejoicing despite the crushing weight that gravity forced upon them. They settled in, constructing mansions of haze and shadow, and waited for enlightenment to come. The mission and purpose of the first Krenn remained with each of them. This place had been the site of the greatest triumph of the greatest archaeocaster in all of history. Before the beginning of the quest, Krenn—the original Krenn—had felt drawn to it. He had cultivated the tales, sifted myth from coincidence, mastered the lost language of the interview-eschewing, spatial curmudgeons of the ancient dark times, and recreated the route through dimensional puzzles to this theoretical location. The odds of success had been so absurd not a single entelechy of Krenn’s crèche dared invest time or expense in the project. And yet, here they were, nearly three hundred unique individuals sharing the template of Krenn.

They waited. Enlightenment did not come. The Krenn diverged from one another, much more so than they had upon the voyage here. No longer held together by the dream of basking in the dead essence of a nigh mystical archaeocaster, they found little in common despite their shared Krenness. Over time, they disagreed. As the years passed, the disagreements became arguments. Soon after, arguments begat fights. Fights acquired weight and number and expanded into battles. By the time the Krenn population doubled—for the cloning had continued after landfall—their homesteads had spread beyond the heel and across the sole. Some few hearty adventurers had dared to venture beyond the cliff heights at the toes’ edge, but none had returned with any tales of what lay beyond. Nor would they.

The battles turned into war, a vast conflagration of violence, Krenn against Krenn, that defied all sense, and did not end until every last speck had been slaughtered. In its final moment, perhaps the last of the Krenn found an ironic enlightenment in the situation. Perhaps not.

* * * * *

After the better part of another half million years, Seela, heir apparent to the Vegetable Worlds that were all that remained of the folly of short-lived, meat-based intelligence in that part of space, came to the moon and the end of another sort of quest. He—using a very loose definition of the gender—resembled a ten-meter stalk of articulated broccoli. After a moment’s glance, he ignored the imprint before him. It did not occur to him to wonder how it had survived for so long when the rest of the barren surface lay pitted and random. Nor did he know anything of the pilgrimage of the Krenn, save that the minuscule and sentient specks had indeed ended their existence upon this barren worldlet, the last spheroid that species had settled. Ages earlier, several of Seela’s closest florets had confirmed the details. They had rummaged through that race’s long dead worlds, part scavenger hunt part morbid feast, as they had cracked open every last reliquary and steamed random memories from the shriveled remains of trillions of specks. After consuming their fill, they had flash-frozen themselves and returned to the royal court. Once they had thawed and quickened, still bloated on alien thoughts, they stumbled before their prince. Seela had delighted in their accounts, and then snipped their stems and sucked up the disturbing memories second hand. Cannibalism, though infrequent, was a tradition among the royal lines of the Vegetable Worlds, and one must suppose that the hangers-on that orbited Seela, fawning upon his buds and proclaiming his fractals, had to have known the risks. After draining the last of his stunned nearest and dearest, he found himself still cognitively peckish. No matter. The morsels he’d consumed provided the knowledge to track down the tiny lost colonies that had quit their world of origin and never looked back.

Seela sought them, the relatively large and the disappointingly small. None of the colonies still survived, but the dreams and imaginings of their tiny lives lingered in the desiccated flesh of each speck. One by one, Seela sucked them dry, gorging palate and mind, and in this way, he arrived at the moon, and the last of the lostlings. He gathered up some from the dusty surface, while others had to be carefully peeled out of tombs built into the walls of a quaint vessel scarcely the size of a mote. He steamed them open, restoring their nigh microscopic minds to the fullness of episodic memory, then slurped their petty feuds and pointless arguments. Despite the tastiness of their thoughts, Seela failed to comprehend the lingering history of purpose that had brought them hither.

The ingestion of dead thoughts from this last remnant of the species disagreed with Seela. He experienced an allergic reaction to the concentration of Krenn. The resulting indigestion proved terminal. With barely a realization of his own demise, Seela wilted and passed from this plane of existence, ending his family’s line, and indirectly dooming the Vegetable worlds that would have been his domain. In the years that followed, without the guidance of an undisputed ruler, they fell into anarchy brought about by revolutionary molds and rebel fungi, and passed into history.

* * * * *

A peer review chorus from the Trindle Journal of Medical Profundities convened to hold forth on a particularly truculent cantata by a novice gastroforensiologist. In itself this failed to impress—truculence being a common feature of digestive music, particularly among the newly initiated—but this specific alimentarian had sung the ironies of the scion of vegetable royalty succumbing to a fatal ingestion of long dead mnemonic ephemerals during a period of obscure history. The combination of extremes, while the very heartbeat of irony, required investigation. It wouldn’t be the first time some junior coloratura tried to pull a fast one in pursuit of a publication in the most prestigious journal to which a Trind could aspire.

The remains of the royal victim had presumably long since been retrieved by its vegetable kin, succumbed to the passage of time, or otherwise vanished from this place, but that was as the review choir expected. And yet they’d been drawn to the scene, seeking a lingering vibration of the original atopic syndrome, as the novice gastroforensiologist had evoked in his article and composition.

The choir gathered in loose formation around the footprint. Though they failed to recognize what it was, they intuited some significance to the location in relation to the cantata, the vegetable prince, and the primitive dots of memory it had consumed. They communed, allowing both the music and the medical narrative to take shape among them. Astonishingly, the combination sustained the gastroforensiologist’s arguments. The irony rang out, cruel in its finality, leaving a diagnosis that suggested an expensive course of treatment, one which would prove pointless but might lead to future papers, promotion, and even grants in support of pure research. With one voice, the choir burst into a spontaneous motet of adoration, acknowledging their privilege to have reviewed such artistry, and sending a unanimous approval of the article to the editor of the journal.

Having discharged their duty, the chorus abandoned its unity, retreating to the anonymity of the disparate identity of its membership of Trindle physicians, medical researchers, and choral directors. After they vanished, a few lingering notes of the novice’s composition clung to the edges of the footprint, like blue photons enmeshed in the syrup of a solar wind, but only for an instant, and then these too faded.

* * * * *

A library protocol, the sort of officious and untiring bit of code that kept the great machine at the heart of the galaxy from winding down, had been seeking the mysterious and inspiring mark referenced in a footnote from a member of the peer review that had signed off on the piece of antigen consequence art that sparked a revolution among aesthetes for several million years. Like most algorithms, this particular library protocol had eschewed heuristics that might have allowed it to eliminate ninety percent of the false loci reported as containing the desired mark, preferring to investigate each one, chugging along strings of folded vacuum, exhausting sufficient conceptual fuel to power the dreaming of at least three medium stars. Library protocols are dogmatically thorough that way.

It had reassembled the academic lineage of each member of the review chorus and evaluated their descendants’ genetic dispositions, musical tendencies, and medical proclivities. Beginning at the galactic core, it had proceeded through its list of loci in an ever-widening spiral, rejecting locus after locus, until at last arriving at a cold and airless moon orbiting a lifeless world. Here it found some seventy-seven points of corroboration, fifty-three more than the next best locus. It immediately sent a signal back to the great machine with a single message glyph: Success!

After each of its previous stops the library protocol had been free to move on, squirting a glyph core-ward to update the great machine of its status. Now, having achieved its goal, it had no choice but to settle in and wait. In time the great machine would respond with new directives. Perhaps, now that the lost locus had been found, a renaissance of research would result and scholars and music lovers would swarm to this obscure place. Perhaps an academic institute would be established in the name of the Trind artist, though a quick review of library systems revealed not a single citation of that worthy in the past six hundred thousand years. In fact, even among historical synthesists, interest in antigen consequence art had faded from academic interest since the protocol had begun its quest. Barely a terabyte of new journal articles had been generated on even tangential topics.

Caught up in the frenzy of its quest, the library protocol had failed to keep current with the relevant literature. Only now, as it waited amidst the dust did it begin to explore—via judicious use of quantum-level info-squirts—the new directions of information that had entered the galaxy’s libraries in lieu of the field that had defined its purpose.

Many regimes of servitors of the great machine had come and gone in the time the library protocol had been about its business. Organic, inorganic, phantasmal, even conceptual support staff had cycled from probation through retirement, caring for the vast records complex of the great machine. It was unlikely any individual among them had the slightest awareness of the trillions of library protocols that had been released on their specific missions throughout the galaxy, let alone this one in particular. It was only when a protocol accomplished its task and reported in that anyone might become aware, and be dazzled at the outcome and the influx of long-sought knowledge. Or not.

A terse two-glyph message, “budget exceeded,” was the only reply from the great machine. To even a simple creation as the library protocol it spoke volumes. There would be no renaissance, no institute. The entire area of research had long since been discredited and forgotten. New budget priorities dictated new agenda, and these did not include the expense of revamping a far-off protocol. The reply, witnessed in passing by some unknown servitor of the great machine, decommissioned the library protocol and snuffed out its algorithms, leaving only a momentary flicker of recursive data that had once been self-aware.

* * * * *

A paradigm shift of planetary consciousnesses brought on a terrible backlash of fiduciary compliance inquiries that not even the galaxy’s most gargantuan—let alone those that were merely great—machines could survive unscathed. Cometary particulates were harvested, imbued with low animal cunning and accounting skills, and unleashed upon the trails of flagrant misuse of data funds. The process was slow, even by civil service standards.

By the time the auditing particulates reached Luna, the galaxy had lost any recollection of any record of any individual that had ever known that the former great machine of the galaxy had permitted an investigation. The trail itself would have been lost to even the most ardent of temporal sniffers had the obscurity of its location not caused it to stand out, the only data point flagged for possible fraud or abuse in a dully average arm of the galaxy.

Like most audits, this one took far longer than required, yielded nothing of interest, and had been completely unnecessary. And yet… the particulates remained. They attempted to resurrect the pathetic strands of pseudo consciousness that had been a wastefully expensive library protocol, but failed. That caused no surprise, though there were signs that the thing had lingered, maintaining some fragment of existence far beyond its specifications, though how or why could not be discerned.

This portion of the galactic audit completed, these particulates should have discorporated, per standard procedure. Instead they rejoined their brethren, the tale of their mundane audit becoming a bit of lore among their kind that perseverated as a regulatory fable passed from generation to generation, unremarkable yet nonetheless somehow compelling.

* * * * *

A coterie of proto-godlings transitioned into reality at the site, their manifestations as ephemeral as ghosts, constantly shifting through the archetypal forms of past sapients of the galaxy. A tutor accompanied them, a docent to service their yearning for insight and understanding to better guide them in their impending deocracy. She took a form of an ever-cycling rain of liquid hydrogen, speaking to her pupils in a language that used the position and speed and orientation and shape of droplets as you might use sound and pitch and the shape of your lips to form words. Her very existence was an unending discussion conveying many simultaneous topics, all interwoven in complexities of time and meaning beyond human understanding but well within the grasp of the young beings in her charge.

“What do you sense here?” she rained, a portion of herself beginning a new line of conversation. “Tell me why I have brought you to this place.”

Though each could ignite stars or bring entire eco-systems into existence, the proto-godlings had long since learned not to answer in haste. After a decade, one of the younger and most precocious said, “Something happened here.”

The cascade of hydrogen contracted, casting the equivalent of a withering gaze upon her students. “Something is always happening, everywhere, at every instant. If nothing is happening, that very absence is significant, and thus may be considered as happening.”

“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” said the proto-godling, its appearance flickering at greater speed through a range of lifeforms, each more distraught than the one before it. “Something happened here that made a difference—I know, everything makes a difference, somehow, to something—but this mattered to the galaxy. This was a Moment.”

“Good. We have studied Moments. What can you tell me of this one?”

“It is like the Face of Netteya,” said a second student. “Though it has long since been destroyed, its locus fills all who occupy that place with a sense of peace. All sapience is drawn to it, and those who encounter it go to war to claim it.”

“It is nothing like that,” said the precocious one. “It’s… different?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“I… I’m telling you. It’s not like the other Moments you’ve shown us. The significance of this locus is unlabeled and not apparent. But it impinges upon the mind even so.”

“Exactly,” said the tutor. As one the proto-godlings sighed with relief. “Unlabeled Moments are rare, and this is one of the oldest of them. Intelligent beings find themselves pulled here. The fabric of the galaxy causes this to happen, but does not explain itself. Not knowing the real reason, they look around and latch onto whatever explanation seems plausible. They routinely err in their theories, reifying their mistakes, and leaving them for others to build upon. Open your perceptions to this place, sort through the stories and confusions. Who can tell me when this Moment really began, and why?”

A century passed, and then another. The proto-godlings conferred, and as a group thrust their youngest member forward with an answer.

“The mark on the surface,” he said. “A physical being stood there, long ago.”

“That’s right,” said their tutor. “And the galaxy has chosen to preserve that imprint. But why? Of all the races that have grown to sapience and entered space, why is this one significant?”

The proto-godlings conferred again. They allocated resources among themselves, exploring the intervening ages an instant at a time. Such was their power that they relived the communications, the delusions, the misperceptions of every sapient mind that had occupied this locus back to the very beginning of the Moment. They concluded nothing and once again pushed the youngest forward.

“I don’t know,” he said, trembling in anticipation of the tutor’s wrath.

“And you cannot inherit this galaxy until you do,” she said. “Now pay close attention.

“When the galaxy was young, an intelligent species evolved on one of this solar system’s planets. They developed the means to leave their world. This standing place that you have identified, is where they paused. Who they were, whatever else they accomplished is lost to us.”

The youngest, the most precocious of them, manifested an image that might have been a child of the species that had first stood here. “Tutor, I do not understand. There are other lost species. Many others left their worlds before another species came to them first. What is so special about this one that it caused a Moment to occur?”

“They believed themselves alone in the universe, and yet set forth to prove themselves wrong,” she said. “They turned away from everything they knew, to experience what they could not know. This Moment is not because they stood here.”

“What then?”

“When one takes a step, it is possible to step back. In fact, it is a common occurrence.” She paused to draw their attention. “That’s not what happened here.”

The proto-godlings peered at the footprint, tunneling past the perceptions and experiences of all the other beings that the Moment had drawn to this locus.

“I still do not understand, Tutor. Why then is this a Moment?”

With a sprinkling of light rain the tutor gathered her charges around her, smiling through the hydrogen of her words.

“This is where they jumped off.”

 

Originally published in Footprints, edited by Jay Lake and Eric T. Reynolds, from Hadley Rille Books.

Ode to Humanity

Ode to Humanity

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

“You’re crazy,” said Jenna, my sister. “Don’t do it.”

“What else can I do? I don’t feel like I have a choice in the matter,” I replied.

“They give everyone a choice,” Jenna pointed out. “You just have to make the right one is all.”

They, meaning the aliens, didn’t make it quite as simple as that. As far as anyone could tell their idea of “right” versus “wrong” was completely arbitrary.

“I’m sorry,” I told Jenna. “I’ve made up my mind.”

She sighed. “Mom always said you were the stubbornest person ever born.”

“Let’s hope she was right.”

I thought of something that might ease her mind, if just a little.

“Remember the puppies?” I asked.

Jenna frowned, then smiled.

“You remember,” I said.

“Yes, I remember.” She sighed. “But this is different.”

“Not to me, it isn’t,” I said. “At the time, there was nothing more important to me than those puppies. Nothing. So…”

* * * * *

Everywhere I go I’m followed by a huge, impenetrable, invulnerable alien spaceship that hovers over me. I’m used to it now. It’s been so long now that it sometimes seems as if people have forgotten the terror the alien craft imbued in people wherever it appeared, all around the globe. Having your own personal pet alien spaceship makes life interesting. Everyone knows who I am now, but I’ve gotten used to that, too. For a while people avoided me, not that it would have necessarily protected them. But now, even though it is a curiosity, people just accept it and get on with their lives, and allow me to get on with mine.

* * * * *

Ten years ago, on a bright and clear, but cold, morning the aliens zapped the Mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee. One moment he was there, and the next… zap! He disappeared in a flash. Needless to say, this struck fear into the hearts of civic leaders everywhere, and here’s why:

No one could touch the aliens. Nothing worked against their ships, not bombs, not bullets, not lasers, not sonic beams, not kamikaze attacks, not prayer, not nuclear missiles, not eternal optimism, not brass balled guts-n-glory tough guy attitude, not chanting, not late night talk show humor… nothing. The aliens could go anywhere and do whatever they wanted, to whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Humanity as a whole was being treated like a dog by an abusive owner, one minute being rewarded and treated kindly, the next being kicked hard in the ribs for no reason whatsoever. It was exceedingly stressful. Prescriptions for anxiety and depression shot through the roof.

* * * * *

So that’s the setting for this recounting of one moment during the darkest of dark ages in our history. We all saw how some survived and others didn’t, apparently by pure, random chance.

* * * * *

The aliens gave each of us a choice, but not always the same choice. Senator Lackley (D-Montana) had to choose between himself and a puppy. He chose himself and nothing happened to either him or the puppy. Following that example, Chattanooga’s Mayor Jackson, asked to choose between himself and an old man, chose himself and we know what happened to him. Then it was that African warlord’s turn to decide between himself and one of his wives. Of course he chose the wife and the aliens obliterated her and him.

It happened all over the world and no one could stop it; no one could do anything about it. Everyone agreed we were being tested, but no one could figure out what the test meant. World leaders pleaded live on the air, on the radio and television from mountain tops and the marble steps of official buildings, asking them why. They got no response, and the testing didn’t stop.

A CEO of an oil company was told to choose between his wife and his twin sister. He agonized over it for days before replying with a bullet to his own brain. The alien zapped the twin sister, but allowed the wife to live. The message was clear: killing yourself was not a way out.

That one got me thinking, though.

* * * * *

Somehow, I knew they’d get to me. Don’t ask me why. I just knew. It was a feeling that built and built inside me until one day I stepped out of my office and saw the ship hovering overhead. My first thought was, why me? They’d done it to tribal chiefs with less than three hundred followers as well as religious leaders with millions. But me, I was just the CEO of a small start-up with five employees, zero sales, and a high burn rate.

* * * * *

“It’s not just you,” Jenna said. “It’s me, too.”

I nodded.

“I know that, but think about it… if I say, ‘zap me’ they’re just as likely to zap you or even someone else. There’s no rhyme or reason to it at all, you know that.”

Now she nodded. She remembered Colombia’s President, who chose himself to die (this was right after the South African President did the same, and the aliens zapped South Africa’s Prime Minister instead; some theorized it was because he happened to be standing next to the President at that moment). In Colombia, the aliens zapped all the children under the age of five. Colombia descended into chaos, the President was lynched, and very little news has come out of that country since.

“I know, I just… I’m just scared is all.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“You don’t seem scared,” she said.

“Well, I am. I’m terrified. I mean, I think I have it figured out, but I could be wrong. There are a lot of people out there who are a lot smarter than me who haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Yeah, but… do you think… can you really do it?”

I scratched my chin, narrowed my eyes and grinned, all a put-on to make her laugh, ease her mind.

“If anyone can do this, I can.” I knew my own mind well enough to believe that.

* * * * *

See, the aliens, apparently, could read minds. That was the scary part. Some people thought that explained why they did what they did, why they zapped who they zapped. Maybe the President of Colombia secretly hated small children and the aliens simply tapped into his true feelings.

But I had that covered.

* * * * *

“It’s time,” I told Jenna. She looked tired. Neither one of us had slept a wink, but she had been worrying herself sick all night.

“Just in case,” she said, “I wanted to tell you… I’ve always been proud to have you as my brother.”

“I know,” I said. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better big sis.”

“If this doesn’t work, I’m still proud of you for at least trying.”

We hugged, and went out to stand before the lights and cameras of the media, beneath the silent, hovering alien craft.

* * * * *

Two days later, nothing had changed. The media still huddled outside, the alien ship still hovered overhead, and my sister and I were still alive.

“I think it’s working,” Jenna said, smiling nervously as she pushed aside the curtains to peer up at the spaceship. She let the curtains fall and looked at me, concerned. “You think you can really do it?”

“You know me as well as anyone,” I said. “What do you think?”

Her nervous smile turned into a grin as she remembered an incident from our childhood.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked.

“The puppies,” she replied.

I had to smile. I had been given a choice between two puppies, a lab mix and a husky. I didn’t want to choose because I was afraid of what might happen to the one I didn’t pick. So I simply refused to choose. I didn’t beg for both, my father had expressly forbidden that.

Finally, someone else adopted them, and they both wound up in a happy home together just a few blocks from our house. I used to ride my bike over and play with them before we moved away.

“I wonder,” Jenna said, looking out the window, up at the alien ship again.

“What about?”

“I wonder if they’ll ever go away; and if they don’t… will we ever get used to them?”

 

Promise

Promise

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Dave Hebden

 

Eli was walking well ahead of Betsy down the wide path through the forest when he looked back.

“Come on now, girl,” Eli said to his little sister as she struggled to keep up with him. “Gosh darn, you’re slow.”

“I only got little legs, Eli,” Betsy said.

“Well, you’re almost nine years old, now. You ain’t no little girl no more.”

“Yeah, well, we been out here for two days and my nine-year-old legs is real tired. And don’t tell me your ’leven-year-old legs ain’t, too.”

“Sure they are but I wanna get to the lookout. Don’t you?”

“Sure I do. We still got time, Eli.”

“Well, not much,” said Eli, stopping to look at his wristwatch and letting his sister catch up. “Only ’bout nine hours and a few minutes and we still got eleven or twelve miles to go.”

Eli adjusted the heavy pack on his back and started walking again, now side-by-side with his sister.

“Ain’t it beautiful out here, Betsy?”

“Sure is. Real nice day.”

“Well, it’s the very last one so that’s how it should be.”

“How is everybody so sure about that, Eli?”

“Pa said every real smart person in the world tried to think of somethin’ to stop it and nobody could. Now it’s a sure thing and no mistake.”

“But you said when it happens, it ain’t gonna hurt none, right?” said Betsy, reaching out and holding her brother’s hand.

“You won’t feel nothin’, Betsy. I promise. I told ya that a million times,” Eli said looking at her and squeezing her hand.

Betsy smiled and the two of them kept walking.

* * * * *

“What’s it gonna be like in heaven, Eli?” asked Betsy.

“Well, Pa says it’s likely different for everybody. He says ya can’t listen to them old stories about clouds and angels floatin’ around or nothin’. Might be heaven is just that we get to have Ma back again and we can all sit down for Sunday dinner. I sure wouldn’t mind if that’s what it was.”

“Me, neither. Fact, I wouldn’t even mind havin’ old weird Uncle Wyatt there again, a-scratchin’ himself in front of everybody.”

Eli snickered, and then laughed out loud. Betsy laughed along with him.

As they walked along the path, it began to climb steadily through the forest.

“How come I don’t feel sad, Eli?” asked Betsy, a little out of breath.

Eli stopped ahead of Betsy and turned. He took her by both hands.

“Remember when Ma died, Bets? ’Member how sad we all were? Heck, the whole town was bawlin’ for a week. Everybody loved Ma, ’specially us. That’s who’s sad when someone dies, right? The folks that’s left behind, like we were. Well, mighty soon there ain’t gonna be no one left to be sad. I won’t be sad for losin’ you and you won’t be sad for losin’ me. Even better, maybe we won’t lose each other at all. Maybe we’ll be havin’ that Sunday dinner tomorrow, even though it’s only Thursday.”

Eli smiled down at his sister. He let go of one of her hands and tapped her on the nose.

“Now, let’s git!” he said, turning and climbing up the path again.

* * * * *

Eli dug through his backpack as he and Betsy sat on the ground with their backs against the trunk of a large oak tree.

“Here it is,” he said as he pulled out a candy bar and handed it to his sister.

“Mmm, Butterfinger! My favorite in the whole world,” she said as she tore off the wrapper and took a big bite.

“I know. That’s why I grabbed it in that store this morning,” said Eli, continuing to rummage through his backpack.

Betsy stopped chewing and frowned.

“Did ya have to shoot that guy, Eli?”

“Look, Bets, ’fore we left the house I promised Pa that I wouldn’t let you get hurt by nothin’ or nobody. That guy had a bad mind. Soon as I saw him comin’ near you with that look, I knew what he was fixin’ to do.”

“He sure looked surprised when that bullet hit him,” said Betsy with a mouthful of chocolate, looking at the ground and still not chewing.

“Yeah, he wasn’t expectin’ a kid to have a gun, I guess,” said Eli, finally digging a snack of his own out of his backpack. “That’s why Pa gave it to me when we left. He knew there’d be folks runnin’ ’round with bad minds. Ya gotta remember, Betsy. There’s folks that don’t believe in the hereafter, so they figure they don’t got no one to answer to no more. Some’ll do what they please while they can.”

“I saw it on TV that there’s lots of trouble all over the place,” said Betsy as she started to eat her candy bar again. “There was lots of folks just sittin’ in church, too.”

“Yeah, like Pa. That’s where he is right now, I’ll wager.”

“How come he didn’t have us stay with him?” Betsy asked and put the last of the candy bar in her mouth.

“Pa said he wanted us to do whatever we wanted. He said we’re kids and kids don’t like sittin’ in church much. I reckon he’s right about that.”

“Yeah, he sure is.”

“Well, we’ve always wanted to see that lookout by the river that Ma painted, right, Betsy? Since Pa never wanted to go back there after Ma passed, this is our chance.”

“They drove out in a car when they went, right?” asked Betsy.

“Yup. And I’ll tell ya, if I was a little bigger, Pa probably would have let me drive his truck out there. But we both love campin’ and bein’ in the woods and all. I got a compass and a map so I’m pretty sure there’ll be no gettin’ lost. And it’s been fun so far, right, Bets?”

“I guess. Kinda tired, though. And sometimes I get scared at night.”

“Well, ya got me with ya, girl. And I got this here gun. Pa said he thought we’d be safe anyways ’cause most of the trouble’s gonna be where all the people are… in the big cities and the like.”

“We haven’t seen a soul since we left that store, sure enough,” said Betsy.

“Well, we better get moseyin’ along again,” Eli said as he stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants.

* * * * *

“It’s just on the other side of that rise over yonder, Betsy!” Eli said as he pointed across the small valley in front of them to a ridge covered with tall pines.

“What time ya got, Eli? It’s gonna be a darn shame comin’ all the way out here and not gettin’ to sit a while and enjoy the view.”

“It’s almost seven o’clock, Bets. We still got an hour and a half. Come on, let’s go!” Eli shouted back as he hurried down the slope into the valley.

Betsy did her best to keep up with Eli, even as her own little backpack was starting to weigh her down. Eli slowed down when the land started to rise again. Betsy caught up to him as he struggled up the hill towards the top of the ridge. Finally, they came into a clearing on the top of the hill. Both stood silent, their breath heaving in their chests.

“I declare,” said Eli as he slung the pack off of his back and let it thud to the ground. He stood up and took in the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

“Wow,” said Betsy. “Looks just like Ma’s picture.”

Far below them, the waters of a wide river meandered through a sweeping vista of farmland and forest. The summer sun looked fat and swollen as it hung above the horizon off to their left, shining on the ribbon of the river with a red glow.

“I bet we can see for twenty miles,” said Eli, now standing with his left hand on his hip and his right around his sister’s shoulders.

“Gracious, Eli! I sure am glad we came here,” Betsy said, reaching up and taking his right hand in hers.

“And we still got a little over an hour,” Eli said looking at his watch.

They both sat down on the ground.

* * * * *

“So what’s it gonna be like, Eli?” asked Betsy.

Eli could hear the fear in her voice.

“I’m scared, too Betsy. At least a little. But Pa says that when it happens, it’s gonna be right quick. You ain’t even gonna know about it. I promise, okay?”

“Okay, Eli. I believe you.”

As they sat and watched the last sunset, they were mostly silent. They lived old moments in their minds and occasionally smiled, one at the other. They held hands as Betsy rocked gently back and forth.

“You hungry, Bets?” asked Eli as he got up and went to his backpack.

“Nah,” said Betsy as she watched him for a moment and then looked back out at the river and the sunset.

Eli came back and sat next to her on her left, his right hand on the ground behind her.

“Just about time,” said Eli as he looked at his watch again.

“I love you, Eli Hamilton,” Betsy said.

“I love you, Betsy Hamilton.”

Far off in the distance, there was a deep rumbling sound that started to build quickly as the ground trembled slightly. On the horizon off to their right, the sky began to quickly discolor. Eli looked at the back of Betsy’s neck, focusing on the mark that Pa had made just below the base of her skull. He lifted the pistol slowly and pointed it at its target as Betsy was still looking out anxiously at the sky, wondering what would happen next.

 

Old Soldiers Never Die

Old Soldiers Never Die

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Robert E. Waters

 

Rina peeled off a juicy wedge of orange and fed it to the head she was sitting on. She heard Captain Petre’s quick inhalations as he sniffed the fruit. He didn’t need to eat, she knew, but it kept him happy and his mouth moist. After two hundred years buried up to his rusty gorget, it was the least she could do. If she had enough oranges, she’d feed all of the heads lined up around her, row after row, as far as the eye could see.

Dried lips and yellow teeth snapped the wedge from her gentle fingers. No matter how often she fed the captain fruit, his quickness startled her. Though trapped in dirt and rock, he was still a warrior, strong and proud, and she tried to respect that. Rina felt herself lift as he chewed the fruit, his muscular jaw working the pulp. He was a big man; his head made a good stool, if not a little bumpy.

She got up and tossed aside the spent orange peel. She dusted off her dress and wiped her mouth clean. She then took a small kerchief from the tassel at her waist, bent down, and wiped the spittle and juice from Captain Petre’s face. It was a strong face, one cupped in a forest of red stubble. A face that never changed.

“Thank you, my dear,” Captain Petre said. His voice was gravelly and hampered by a tuft of grass in hard clay beneath his chin. “You are the sweetest little girl.”

Rina smiled. She liked the captain. She liked many of the soldiers she had met in this field. Many of them were her friends. But Captain Petre was special. He told good stories.

A commotion erupted to her right. She turned and saw her brother’s cur, Grey Jack, lifting his leg over the head of an old halberdier. The poor man tossed frantically back and forth to try and shoo away the mutt, but it did little good. A thin stream of piddle splashed across the russet helm, and a great voice filled the air. “For the love of heaven and earth, will someone kill this dog!”

Cries and whistles, and more than a few chuckles erupted across the field as the Chorus of the Sundered began. That’s what it was called. When the heads wailed in unison, their collective voices were heard for miles around. When the wind was up, or when a rain or snow covered the land, the moaning would go on for days, sometimes weeks. The song could chill the bone and ruin the flesh, some mystics said. But sometimes, when a pleasant eastern breeze wound through the valley, and the warm light of a generous sun brought daisies and wildflowers in bright beds between the columns of heads, their song was melodic and comforting. It lifted the spirit.

Rina shook the thought from her mind and chased the dog away. She stepped carefully between the heads, cautious not to catch a toe on an iron visor or catch her laces on a discarded sword. Many villagers and thrill-seekers had caught their death by the simple prick of the tainted steel that lay afoot. It was forbidden to be in The Field of Heads, and Mama had been most stern about the rule, giving Rina and her brother Kristof an oak switch across their backsides when she had caught them in the past. But Rina didn’t care. Playing among the heads was her favorite thing to do in all the world.

Rina removed the wet, brittle helmet. She recognized the soldier immediately. “I’m sorry, Binus. He’s just an old, dumb mutt. He doesn’t know any better.”

A foot came down on the soldier’s head. Rina jumped back. The crooked frown of her brother met her gaze. “Grey is not a mutt,” he said. “Take it back.”

Rina pushed against his leg, though she wasn’t strong enough to move the big bully. “He peed on Binus. That makes him a mutt to me.”

Kristof snickered, but knelt down and snatched the helm from her hands. He placed it back on Binus’s weathered, pale head. He rapped his knuckles across it as if he were knocking on a door. “He doesn’t mind… do you, old man? Why, it’s the first bath you’ve had in a hundred years.”

“Say you’re sorry!” Rina balled up her little fist and popped her brother on the shoulder. It didn’t hurt, but it threw him back and away. He stood up quickly to the roars of laughter from the heads nearby. Rina braced for a push, but her brother did nothing. Perhaps he was surprised by the soldiers barking at him; perhaps he was growing up a little.

“Don’t be so upset. By the gods, I was just having a little fun.”

A little fun is not what her friends needed nor wanted. Enough people had come to The Field to have “fun” with the heads. Kicking them, jumping from one to the next, leading their livestock through the maze of helms and pikes, letting their animals poop everywhere. And even more sinister and evil sorts would come and take knives to faces or bare throats. Clubs and shovels. Cleavers and axes. All in the name of fun. All in the knowledge that pain could be inflicted, but no permanent damage. So what was the harm? They deserved it, right? Isn’t that what the stories told?

Kristof tugged at her shoulder. “Come on. I want to show you something,” he said.

Rina hesitated. “What is it?”

But he had already trotted away towards the cobbled road. “Come on. Don’t be such a baby.”

Rina stamped her foot. She wasn’t a baby. She just didn’t like the heads on the other side of the road. They were the enemy, Captain Petre had declared. They were thinner and almost always bald with tattoos and other dark markings. And what helms had survived the years of torturous weather were sharp and many sealed to black iron mail. They were disgusting. She didn’t like them. But she was no baby. She stepped over the road and followed her brother through the sea of heads.

They were active this morning, barking obscenities and other foul things across the way, in an attempt to anger the other side, to get them to bark back. It was a game they played, and sometimes the shouting became so awful that Rina was driven from the field.

“Where are you going? Wait for me!” Rina yelled to her brother.

He waved her on, almost stumbling over a thick patch of helms, spears and barding.

There were a lot of horse bones on this side of the field. It was scary but Rina did her best. The horses had not been cursed, but they had been driven into the ground like their riders. Soon they all had died, their flesh and muscle rotting with the seasons, leaving bleached rib cages and leg bones and skulls in shifting heaps. A lot of it had been removed by smugglers and thieves, but enough remained to give off a blinding white glow when the sun was at its zenith. Rina shielded her eyes and kept moving.

Her brother disappeared into a patch of wood. Here, the line of ancient infantry was its thickest. It was difficult to step without kicking a head, and more than a few choice words escaped the mouths of the soldiers around her.

“Watch your step!”

“Do you mind?”

“If I were free and had a sword, I’d lop off your head!”

Rina was used to their nastiness. She couldn’t blame them. If she were stuck forever in the hard ground, she’d be nasty too. She ignored them, gave a few dirty looks, stuck out her tongue at one of them, kicked a little dirt into another’s eyes, and plunged into the woods. Near a cropping of rock, she saw her brother and his yappy dog. Grey Jack was barking and nipping at something, but this time, her brother held him back, keeping the dog from biting and scratching the sharp, dirty helm covering a head.

“What is it?” Rina asked, out of breath.

Kristof smiled and motioned her closer. “Are you ready for a look?”

Rina waited, her hands on her waist. Kristof pointed downward. He grabbed the pointy top, turned it slowly, then lifted it off.

Rina looked into the face of the head revealed. She gasped and fell down.

* * * * *

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a twin brother?”

Captain Petre turned his head from Rina’s inquiring eyes. She moved into his view. “Don’t turn away. Please tell me.”

“Tell her the story, Captain,” a head nearby said. It was Kellin, Captain Petre’s aide-de-camp.

“Yes, tell her!” A chorus of voices spoke up. Rina could feel their vibrations through the ground. It tickled her feet.

The cries became too great. “All right! Just shut up, the lot of you!” Petre screamed. “I will tell her the story, if you’ll just pipe down. Your yapping is making me ill.”

Captain Petre cleared his throat and looked up. “Sit down, child, and I will tell you about my brother Regan. He is dead to me, but I will tell you, if only to keep these bastards around me quiet.”

Foul curses erupted again. Captain Petre waited until it stopped. Then he began…

* * * * *

…the writhing mass of the grand army of Saint Fydorov excited him. He had seen them march before, when he was just a boy. But now, as a man, Petre Gorov looked upon the columns with renewed pride. His heart raced. Pike and halberdier, knights and swordsmen, as far as the eye could see. Their martial music marked tempo with the constant shift of boots upon the ground. Their colorful banners waved proudly in the misty air. If there was a time that he should join them, it was now. They were moving south. They were going to face Lord Hrudiz and his grand force of the Liebstag. They had met him many times before on bloody fields. They were going south, and they would return victorious… or not return at all.

“I must go,” Petre told his father that night. “There will never be a better time.”

His twin brother Regan stood nearby, listening intently, waiting to hear their father’s answer.

Father shook his head. “No. You are the eldest of the house, born before Regan. I am too ill to work the fields, and therefore The Saint can make no claim on you. You are needed here to serve me, your mother, your brother, and your sister. That is my decision.”

But that night, as the moon fell behind the clouds, Petre and Regan ran away. They followed the army south, and when they found it, they volunteered on the spot. Petre was made a swordsman, Regan a pikeman.

For years they campaigned against Lord Hrudiz, from the Shokolov Steppes to the massive pinewood of the Tandorov Valley. Tens of thousands of soldiers died, and a thousand score innocents who stood in the way. Both Petre and Regan rose through the ranks, gaining prestige and glory in battle after battle. But neither side could capitalize on the fortunes of their victories, and things grew desperate.

Then Saint Fydorov decided that the long-standing policy of officer exchange no longer applied. Lord Hrudiz countered. Then no quarter was allowed at all, as each side tried to out-murder the other. It was a time of terrible, bloody strife.

In this time, Regan Gorov was captured, and his brother Petre presumed him dead. Then one day, as Captain Petre’s men advanced onto a grassy ridge in the center of the Bitikov fields, he saw a familiar man atop a grey dun, wearing the red-and-black-stained mail of the enemy. The enemy charged, and Petre’s swordsmen stood their ground. The cavalry struck and a great battle ensued. Then in the midst of the slaughter, Petre saw the man again, thrown from his horse. His sharp helm fell away and what was laid bare to all enraged and saddened him. It was Regan, fighting and killing for the enemy.

Petre, feeling the tears well in his eyes, raised his sword and charged. The traitor counter-charged, and they fought.

“You were captured,” Petre said through ringing sword blows. “You were killed.”

“It isn’t so,” Regan said, parrying a thrust. “I live.”

“You are a traitor,” Petre said.

“No, that isn’t true,” Regan said. “I have seen the light, my brother. Saint Fydorov’s crusade is a perfect evil. He means to destroy the world.”

Petre jabbed with his sword again. “You lie.”

“It is true. Look around you. He was the one who first declared no quarter. He is the one who orders the slaughter of every innocent woman and child. He is the one dragging this war out infinitely. A peace has been proffered, and The Saint refuses to accept.” Regan held out his hand. “Come with me, brother, and help me end this war.”

Petre answered with a sword swing, but before further discussion could be made, reinforcement cavalry raced up the hill, and Captain Petre ordered his men into a fighting retreat. As they fell back, he could not take his wounded eyes off his brother, his younger by mere minutes. The traitor to his people, to his mother and father, to his own brother. And through the chaos and smoke of war, Regan’s face faded away…

* * * * *

“…and that was the last time I saw him,” Petre said, then closing his thin lips.

Were those tears in his eyes? Rina wondered. She had never seen the captain cry before. She didn’t know it was possible. “That’s so sad.”

“Yes. Regan’s treachery was profound.”

Rina shook her head. “No, I mean, it’s sad that you haven’t talked to your brother, or seen him, for so long. You never saw him again?”

Petre gave his head a little shake. “Jeshok, the God of All, hammered us into the ground before our armies could meet.”

“Do you miss him?”

Petre hesitated, then said, “Despite my better judgment, I do. I’m surprised of it, actually. I’ve spent so many years thinking about his deceit, his dishonor. But now… now that I know he lives, and just over the ridge, I—”

The captain could not continue. Another tear escaped his eye. It ran down his face, leaving a mark through a crust of dust and dirt.

The sun was setting. Soon, Rina’s mother would wonder where they were. Kristof had already gone home and so had Grey Jack, much to the joy of Binus. Clouds were forming in the east. The rains would come soon.

“It’s time for you to go, little one,” Captain Petre said. “Get on home to a warm meal and a good bed. You can come back tomorrow if you like.”

Rina stood. She waited for a moment, looking down at her friend, down at the uncountable rows of heads.

She wanted to cry too.

* * * * *

Kristof ’s eyes were fixed on Rina as they walked up the mystic’s path. “You’ve lost your head,” he said. “Mama will beat you silly when she finds out.”

Rina ignored him. She had already explained her plan twice. She was not about to explain it again. He had promised to come with her so she didn’t have to face the old shrew alone. He agreed. That was that.

She tapped on the door. It was dark inside. Rina could feel her heart race. Visiting mystics was definitely not allowed. They were creatures of magic and arcane lore. Some in the village used them for medical purposes and for divining the future. But there was never any account that Rina could remember of a mystic doing anyone any good. But she had no choice. What she wanted needed the power and experience of someone like Madam Plotka.

A withered crone opened the door. She was small and bent at the knee. Her black shawl covered a crooked frame of pale skin. The wrinkles on her face at first seemed sharp and angry, but as she waved Rina and Kristof in, they smoothed as a smile crept across the leathery landscape of her cheeks like the cracks of an earthquake. Rina liked her immediately.

“Come in, come in,” Madam Plotka said, waving them forward. “It isn’t often I have children visit me.”

The old lady moved past them slowly, her cane knocking around in front of her. It was clear that her eyesight was not the best. Rina hoped that she could see well enough to help them.

She ushered them onto stools, then took a chair herself. Her knees creaked and she gave a small yelp as her bony rump met the wood. Rina tried to keep from laughing. Madam Plotka caught the little girl’s smile. “There is no humor in getting old, child. Even your friends in the Field of Heads can attest to that.”

Rina’s mouth popped open. “You know?”

Madam Plotka laughed, a high-pitched squeal that tingled the ears. “Everyone knows about Jeshok’s Curse, girlie. And I’m a mystic. I can read minds.”

“Then you know why I’m—, why we’re here?” Rina looked at her brother for support.

“I know everything, child.”

Rina appreciated Madam Plotka’s confidence, but she doubted the old woman’s honesty.

“You doubt me?”

Rina shrugged. “I don’t know you well enough to say, miss. But I’ve been told that you sometimes… exaggerate.” Rina shrunk a little on her stool, as if she expected to be smacked.

Madam Plotka leaned forward. She ran a thin, dark tongue over cracked lips. She winked. “You are wise beyond your years, girlie.”

Rina wished it were not so. But she had grown up quickly. Her father had died of a stampeding horse when she was four. She had witnessed it. She remembered him looking up from the mud, his face covered in grime and blood. He had smiled. She had reached out to him. He tried to do the same, then went slack. She cried for days. It wasn’t easy, but she had gotten over it, tried to forget it. And living with Mother was difficult. A widowed woman had it tough in the world; she was not respected. Mother refused to marry again, though suitors had called upon her. Rina found it hard to make friends, especially with a brother who constantly teased. The heads in the field were her friends, and they neither judged nor criticized her. It was nice having friends that never died.

“So can you help me?” Rina said.

The old lady rubbed a finger across her hairy chin. “You want me to bring Captain Petre out of the ground, and his brother too, so that they may meet once more. Is that what you’re asking?”

Rina nodded.

“This is stupid!” Kristof said. He tried to get up, but Madam Plotka stared him down with a dark stare.

“Indeed it is,” Madam Plotka said, “but are you always this disrespectful in someone else’s house, young man?”

Kristof stopped, shook his head, then sat down. He crossed his arms and looked away.

“He is right, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. “It is a foolish thing you are asking. Fiddling with Jeshok’s Curse is a quick way to die.”

“But he’s my friend,” Rina said, “and he misses his brother.”

“He should have thought of that before joining that bloody war… and angering the gods.”

Rina had heard the story a million times. Captain Petre’s version was always the best, the most enjoyable, the most exciting, despite its sad ending.

The armies of Lord Hrudiz and Saint Fydorov had clashed for days on the Girtok Plains. It was the greatest battle in a war that had been waged for decades, and while both sides seemed infinitely prepared to continue the slaughter, the gods grew tired of it all, especially Jeshok, Lord of All. He was tired of seeing his creations kill themselves needlessly. Many peace offers had been proposed, but not one of them accepted. Jeshok’s children ignored his pleas for peace.

The armies lined up, row upon row of sword and pike and horse, all regaled in their finest plate and chain. Again, Jeshok warned them to stop, and sent his angels to urge their compliance. Again, Man refused. And just as the two forces moved to engage, dark clouds formed in the sky, as if a mighty flood would come. But what came out of the clouds was even more powerful, more devastating. Men looked up and saw a fist, dark and ethereal, a massive rock of black, angry smoke. Before they could run the fist struck, pounding scores into the bloody ground.

Nothing escaped, not even the squirrels in the trees. Everything on the field that day was hammered into the fold, up to their necks. But only the men were cursed, the soldiers who had shed blood, those who had defied Jeshok’s demands and had put themselves above the gods. Now they would live in a prison, never to grow old, never to die. They would endure the passing of time, the changing of seasons. They would know pain, anger, sorrow, fear, desperation, hopelessness. They would endure every emotion perpetually, year after year, century after century, in payment for those lives they had taken, for those they had killed and had denied the right to feel, to fear, to weep, to despair.

Rina would sit for hours and listen to Captain Petre tell the story. It was very exciting. But sad too. So sad. So many lives lost, and for those poor men out there, locked in the ground. How many of them were just following orders? Were they to blame for the decisions of lords and kings and generals… and captains?

“But you can bring them out, can’t you?” Rina said. “You have a way?”

Madam Plotka nodded. “Of course, girlie. That’s never been the question. There have always been ways to get around Jeshok’s Curse. The question is: Who wants to defy the God of All?”

Rina shook her head. “I don’t care about a silly curse. My captain wants to see his brother. It’s been long enough. They’ve suffered enough.” She broke down in tears, letting them run down her cheeks. “Don’t you have any family? How would you like it if you were never allowed to see your brother or sister or father again?”

If you can read my thoughts, then listen to me now. Rina stared deeply into Madam Plotka’s eyes, letting the old woman see her cry. Please help me, and I will give you something that you can use in your magic. Her eyes drifted to her brother who sat there bored, disinterested, looking up at the bare rafters of the house. Rina formed the image of an object in her mind, and she kept thinking about it until the old woman understood.

Madam Plotka nodded, a faint smile on her face. “Very well. I will help you and your captain.” She leaned forward, pressing her wrinkled hands into the nub of her cane. “You are bold beyond your years, girlie.”

* * * * *

Rina led Madam Plotka over the cobbled road separating the armies. The old woman found the light of the setting sun difficult to handle, and the constant shouts from the heads frightened her. In the comforts of her own hovel, she was master. Here, Rina led the way.

She had already freed Captain Petre’s brother, Regan, and the sky hadn’t fallen. No smoky fist had pounded the little mystic into the ground. Nothing, save for the shouts and screams of the heads at their feet. The heads were just as amazed as Rina was when Regan lifted out of the ground. The heads went mad when their comrade appeared, whole, now nearly naked with the passing of time, bits and pieces of mail and plate and leather covering his legs, back and shoulders. Kristof had agreed to help the old soldier walk, while Rina and the mystic worked on Captain Petre.

Teeth nipped at their heels. Word had spread among the heads that one of their own had been freed. From the noise they were making, Rina could not tell if it was a song of joy or sorrow. Some were crying, some laughing. Some seemed angry. But most were afraid, shooting glances skyward, waiting for the clouds to form and Jeshok’s fist to come and nail them even further into the ground.

“Go away, old woman,” one of the heads said. Rina recognized the face but couldn’t remember the name. “You will ruin us.”

They ignored the snide remarks and kept walking. Rina could already see Captain Petre’s face. She had whispered to him last night what was going to happen. The captain cried again, silently so as not to alert his men.

“You should not do this, little one,” Captain Petre had said. “You are messing with forces you know nothing about. You could get hurt.”

Rina kissed him lightly on the head.

Now they stood in front of him. The soldier’s eyes were pensive. What are you thinking? Rina wondered. She could not read minds like Madam Plotka. The old woman must know his thoughts, but she kept silent, her bent form straining under the warm, setting sun.

“Hello, Captain,” Rina said through a faint smile. “We have come to take you to your brother.”

Rina could feel Captain Petre tense. She knew him well enough to know his expressions, how his jaw muscles flexed when nervous, how his teeth gnashed when excited or afraid. The ground beneath their feet vibrated with the shouting of the heads around her. On any other day, she would not mind. Today…

“Quiet!” Captain Petre shouted. “All of you shut up!”

The rows silenced. Other officers, captains and lieutenants, took up Petre’s call and quieted their men. The entire field fell silent. Rina was amazed. Even after so many years, respect and discipline was given to captains and lieutenants, colonels and generals in this field. Leaders were still leaders, and their men still obeyed orders.

“Get on with it, old woman,” Captain Petre said. “The day is waning.”

Madam Plotka reached into the pocket of her black dress and pulled out a tiny leather bag of powder. Rina led her around the captain’s head in a circle. With each step, the mystic uttered strange words and tossed ground bone and blackpowder onto the ground. Rina had not told the truth to Kristof when he came and asked what had happened to his dog. She feigned ignorance, and he was too stupid to figure it out. It was cruel and hateful what she had done, but this was more important than any old mutt. This mattered.

Madam Plotka finished the circle of blackpowder, then stepped back. With Rina’s help, she raised her cane to the sky, and spoke more gibberish. The heads around them held still and silent, their eyes fixed upon the old woman.

The tip of the cane began to glow white hot. Rina closed her eyes and helped guide the cane down until the burning tip touched the blackpowder.

A flash of smoke and ash flew up from the cane tip, and lightning reached around the blackpowder until Captain Petre’s head was ringed in flame. The captain’s eyes grew large, dark and round. He bared his teeth. A yelp of fear escaped his mouth. Rina wanted to reach out and comfort him, but she didn’t dare. No one entered the circle while the flame burned, Madam Plotka explained. Was she telling the truth? Rina wondered. But she had seen the magic work once already today. To doubt it now would be foolhardy.

With a burst of energy, Madam Plotka raised her cane and shouted into the sky. Rina fell back. Another burst of lightning sprang from her cane and circled the captain’s head. The old soldier cried out as if he were burning to death. Other heads cried as well, begging that it stop. The mystic kept her body rigid, her chant steady, until the fire circle began burning through the soil like a knife cutting out the core of an apple. Deeper it cut, deeper still, until the ground around Captain Petre looked like a shaft of black soil, rumbling and popping and sizzling as the fire seared rock and clay.

Madam Plotka reached out towards the circle and yelled, “Rise!” She lifted her hands again and again, as if she were personally moving the earth. Such a silly gesture coming from such a feeble little creature. At first, Rina had giggled when Regan was released, but she wasn’t laughing now.

The earth moved as Captain Petre rose from the ground, wrapped in a cylinder of dirt. Sharp rocks rubbed together like a millstone grinding grain, breaking roots as they crested the top of the hole. Captain Petre yelled as he ascended. Rina could see the fear and amazement in his eyes. It was really happening. He was being freed. She could only imagine the emotions churning inside him. She felt the roil of emotions inside herself. She would finally see her captain in full, not just his head. He would be a warrior again. He would walk the earth again. The very idea was almost too much for her young heart to bear. Tears flowed.

Rina moved Madame Plotka out of the way as the dirt cylinder fell over like a pile of crates. It rolled and came to rest against a line of heads and broken pikes. Those smashed by the cylinder yelled out their distress, but Captain Petre could do nothing but laugh.

“Help him out, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. Rina helped the mystic to the ground. The stress of the spell had taken its toll on the old woman. She lay there silently, her eyes closed, her mouth open. “I am too weak to do it.”

Rina went to the captain’s side and began to rake away the dirt with her bare hands. It fell away easier than she thought. Like opening a present or peeling an orange. Her glee grew stronger as each rock, each thick chunk of clay, fell away, baring legs, then arms, then chest. Like his brother, most of Captain Petre’s armor had not survived. But bits and pieces remained, along with stiff patches of leather and wool. She couldn’t imagine how heavy and hot such an outfit would be in the midst of battle.

Suddenly, he was free, the years of confinement gone. He just lay there, his bare arms and legs turning pink, then red, then white again as blood flowed once more into them. “I—,” he tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat. For the first time in ages, he tried to raise his head. He shook as old muscles found themselves again. He raised up on his elbows. “Please, help me.”

Rina came to his side. “We must get you up,” she said, and put her hand on his back. He sat up, breathing deeply, showing pain on his face. “It’s difficult,” he said.

“I will help you.” With all her strength, Rina strained to lift the captain to his feet. He struggled, the ground unforgiving and slick with fresh clay.

All around them, the heads exploded in cheers. “Yes, Captain!” “You can do it!” “Do it for us!” Their calls gave him strength, and he pushed himself forward, Rina holding his back for support.

“Come, Captain,” Rina said over the din of voices. “Your brother is waiting.”

She led him across the field. Every few steps, he paused to bend and tap the heads of his men. He smiled incessantly, giggled like a child, his tears flowing freely. Their wails of encouragement led him forward, toward the cobbled road.

He did not have the strength to crest the ridge. He fell to his knees and crawled the rest of the way, Rina holding him firmly by the waist. “You can do it,” she whispered to him. “You can do anything.”

Captain Petre pushed his bare feet into the ground, his old bones straining under the pressure. Rina pushed with all her strength. He let out a yell and fell onto the cobbles. He lay there a moment, breathing heavily.

“Hello, brother.”

Captain Petre stiffened at the sound of his brother’s voice. Rina sat quietly at his side, staring at her brother and Regan beside him, waiting on feeble knees. It was uncanny how much they looked alike. If it weren’t for the different uniforms and the different spread of armor and clothing, she could never have told them apart.

“Hello, brother,” Captain Petre said, waving his arm at Rina to give him aide. She did, and led him forward until he too was kneeling before his brother.

For a long while, the two brothers stared into each other’s eyes. It was like watching mirrors. The shape of their chins, their cheeks, the length of their noses, matched perfectly. Rina smiled.

Finally, Captain Petre spoke. “You look well, brother, for someone over two centuries old.” He cracked a smile.

Regan nodded. “As do you… brother.”

They fell silent again, neither man taking his eyes off the other. This is a good thing I’ve done, Rina said to herself. A good thing.

“Where is your sword, brother?” Captain Petre asked.

Regan looked to his side, where the remnants of a scabbard were held against him by a rotten belt. “I guess I’ve lost it, brother.” He looked up, his smile gone. “Where is your army?”

Captain Petre’s dry lips quivered. “They’re in the same place as yours, traitor.”

Regan leaned forward, a scowl leeching across his face. “You are the only traitor here, dear brother. You followed a murderer.”

“Wait,” Rina tried to say, moving forward. “Stop this—”

“You son of a bitch,” Captain Petre snapped back, his hand shifting to the pommel of his rusty blade. “I’ll kill you—” He pulled his blade and thrust forward, but his movements were slow. Regan fell to the left, avoiding the blow, and Captain Petre fell on his face.

Regan kicked with his right foot, driving his dirty toes into the eyes of his brother. Captain Petre screamed, grabbed his brother’s foot, and bit hard. Regan yelled and tried kicking away, but Petre was on him, pounding his fists into brittle ribs.

The Field of Heads burst into chanting, each side cheering on their warrior. “Fight! Fight! Fight!” The echoes of their rage filled the darkening sky.

Rina screamed, “Stop it! Stop fighting!” She moved towards them, but Kristof held her back. “Don’t be a fool,” he said. “They’ll kill you.”

“Let me go!” she screamed and tore away from his grasp. She threw herself between them, shielding Regan’s body from Captain Petre as he raised his blade and tried to stab down. Just in time, he noticed her and stopped.

“Remove yourself, little one,” Captain Petre said, trying to keep his balance. “This is not your fight.”

Rina shook her head. “No. You will have to kill me too if you kill him.”

“Let them fight!” a voice from the field said. “We want vengeance!”

“No!” Rina screamed, her voice breaking into tearful sobs. “The war is over.”

“It’s never over, girl,” said Regan. “It goes on forever.”

“No,” Rina said, standing up and moving in front of Captain Petre. “I gave you this gift, Captain. I thought you would be happy to see your brother, to talk with him. But you betrayed me. You knew all along that you would attack him, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

Captain Petre’s eyes filled with tears. He shook, and tried to touch her shoulder. “You don’t understand, little one. You don’t—”

“No, I don’t. I don’t understand how after two hundred years, you think the war is still going on. Well, it’s not. It’s over. It’s over!”

Rina grabbed Captain Petre’s sword. He tried to stop her but she moved too quickly. He reached for her but she pulled away. She raised the sword high above her head. She teetered a little. Even in its decline, the sword was heavy. It had not been made for such small hands.

She stumbled down the ridge and into a small crop of rocks. “It’s over!” She screamed again. She brought the sword down hard. It sparked against the rocks. She hit again and again, each strike resounding across the field and sending sharp pains into her elbows. She brought it down again, and the blade splintered into a dozen pieces. She dropped the hilt and stumbled back. She landed hard, her bottom stinging on the gravel. She closed her eyes, her head swimming with anger and sorrow. I’ve failed. Failed.

You have not, little one.

A voice from the sky. Rina opened her eyes and saw storm clouds gathering. Large, thick and black. Angry clouds like those in Captain Petre’s stories. They blotted out the last of the sunlight. They billowed out over the field. Winds came.

Rina ran up the ridge. Captain Petre, Regan and Kristof lay on the cobbles, curled up like babies, looking into the sky and shaking uncontrollably. He has come, Rina said to herself. Jeshok is going to kill me.

No, Rina.

There was the voice again, ringing soundly in her head. She tried pushing it out, but its echo remained. She went to Captain Petre and hugged him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s my fault. I’ve cursed us all.”

The clouds formed a hand. Not a fist like she expected, but a hand, smooth and soft. A fatherly hand.

You have not failed, Rina. You have succeeded. Indeed, the war is over. It has been over for many years. It is time to move on…

With that, the hand in the sky dipped down until it grazed the field. It then moved slowly left to right, and as it passed each row of heads, the imprisoned warriors were plucked out. They hovered in the air for a moment, then their bodies dissolved into white smoke and drifted away. Rina covered her face when the hand crossed the road. When it was gone, so too were Captain Petre and Regan. Only Rina and Kristof remained.

Rina stood up and watched her friends disappear. Those rows not yet released sang their song, a joyous sound, one of relief and happiness. Their nightmare was over. They were, finally, at rest.

“Wait!” Rina said as she stumbled down the ridge. A sinking feeling gripped her chest and she began to cry again. This isn’t what she wanted at all. “Don’t go. I don’t want you to go. Come back, Captain Petre. Binus. Regan. Come back to me!”

But there was nothing she could do. The curse was broken. Jeshok was gathering his souls. They were his now, forever.

She stopped running. Come back, Father!

* * * * *

It took several weeks before Rina could walk the field again. While local officials, priests, mystics and other dignitaries came to marvel at the sudden disappearance of the heads, she would not dare show herself. And though they tried desperately to understand why, after so many years, Jeshok’s Curse had ended, Rina would not speak. Even her brother Kristof, still upset at the disappearance of his dog, said not a word. Rina kept quiet about everything.

The field lay barren, nothing more than a sheer block of dark clay of weeds and rock. But it still held life for her, and memories of friends and good times. She would not abandon the field, though it had abandoned her. Jeshok had taken away her friends. She was angry about that, but she kept her anger secret. It was not wise to anger the gods.

She walked out into the field. The places where each head had lain were marked with a discolored patch of earth, and rains had sunken some of them to form tiny puddles of water. But not Captain Petre’s. Despite Madam Plotka’s unearthing, his spot was smooth and solid, as if nothing had ever happened.

She walked over to it and stood on the very spot where her friend’s head had been. She pulled up tight and straight, keeping her feet neatly within the colored patch. She smiled. “I miss you, my captain,” she said.

I miss you too, little one.

The voice was strong in her head. She turned and saw a figure, bright and tall, within a patch of trees. Rina started running toward the shape.

“Captain Petre!”

The shape put up his hand. Rina stopped. It was him. She recognized the forest of red stubble on his face. His armor was new, pristine and shining. His clothing red, green and fine. She smiled. He was a warrior again.

“How are you, sir?” she asked.

I am well.

“And Binus? Regan?”

All is well, child.

He smiled, but there was a sadness in his eyes, one he could not hide from her. Even as a ghost, she knew his expressions. She could not read his thoughts, but she knew what that sadness meant.

“This is it, isn’t it? You’re never coming back, are you?”

He shook his head. No, child.

She fought back the tears. “Goodbye, my captain.”

Goodbye, sweet one. Don’t forget us, he said, then slowly faded away.

She turned and on the place where her friend had laid, was a rock, smooth and head-sized. On top of it lay an orange, freshly peeled and waiting.

Rina went to it. She picked up the orange. She smoothed out her dress, sat down, then ripped a wedge of fruit away and popped it quickly into her mouth.

She sat eating… and remembered.

 

Trademark: A Tragedy™

Trademark: A Tragedy

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Scott D. Coon

 

Mr. Labowski, Esq., ascends the north wall, Mr. Fredericks, Esq., and Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., the south. Not an alarm in sight. This will be a cakewalk. As Mr. Labowski, Esq., and Mr. Fredericks, Esq., stand guard, Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., carefully cuts a pane of glass of an unknown brand with his officially issued Diamond Glass™ brand glasscutter. He lowers a strand of Tite Knot™ brand nylon rope and, in short order, all three are in the target building. It’s dark. With MinuteMan™ brand night vision goggles on, Mr. Labowski, Esq., heads for the files; Mr. Fredericks, Esq., heads for the storefront displays; Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., stops and calls everyone back to the insertion point. “Listen.”

Beep.

They break into three different aisles.

Beep.

They close in on the target noise. A red beam of light cuts through the darkness.

Beep.

They spot the unexpected target. Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., holds out a bit of paper as if it were a gun. “Hold it right there!”

Kevin continues reading bar codes, filling his stock database. “If you’re looking to rob a place, you’ve missed it by one door. The check-cashing place is next door. We don’t even have money for me to steal.” Kevin scans another bar code. Beep. “This is a hardware store.” Beep.

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., reaches into his double-breasted suit pocket. “We’re not thieves,” he explains as he extracts a business card. “We’re lawyers.”

Kevin’s eyes swell with fear. The bar code scanner falls to the floor, its light scanning barcodes on its way down. Beep. Beep. Beep. Kevin runs for the panic button but he’s too late. A heavy legal document printed on quality paper stops him in his tracks. Mr. Labowski, Esq., slaps him on his shoulder with the document. “You have been served.” Holding the kid at paper point, Mr. Labowski, Esq., demands, “Now, show us to your glass and glass cutting products.”

From the roof they hear, “What the hell is this?!”

The Burglar slides down the still dangling rope. “What the hell is this?!” He points his gun at the three lawyers and the stock boy. “I’m doing this break in! Who the hell are you?”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., replies, “Go about your business, sir, this doesn’t concern you.”

“What?! I’m pointing a gun at you! I concern you!”

“Yes, and you’re lucky I’m distracted right now.”

The Burglar raises his gun, and says snidely, “What? You know kung fu or something?”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., turns his attention towards The Burglar. “No, sir, I know the law.”

The Burglar fires a warning shot.

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., steps forward. “Now you’ve done it. You clearly don’t know who you’re firing at.”

The Burglar yells, “Shut up and sit down.”

“Now you’ve done it,” says Mr. Fredericks, Esq. “Not only have you broken in—clearly without a civil search warrant— you have interrupted a legal proceeding. Diamond Glass™ now has legal grounds to move against you to recoup losses including the cost for our time here. In essence, every word that comes out of my mouth is costing you, on average, five dollars and forty cents.”

“I think it’s more fair,” explains Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., “to make that estimate based on syllables, Mr. Fredericks, Esq. After all, syllables are more regular in length than individual words.”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” screams The Burglar. He grabs a roll of Silver Streek™ brand duct tape and quickly tapes their hands together, one at a time.

As The Burglar tapes together the hands of Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., Mr. Dessemondi, Esq. says, “I am obligated to inform you that you are interrupting a legal investigation by Diamond Glass™ corporate lawyers into trademark violations by Jake Beagley & Sons™ hardware store.”

“Well, I’m here to break through that wall over there and empty the cash from the next business over.”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., speaks up. “You realize that taping us with Silver Streek™ brand duct tape is assault and battery.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., nods in agreement and adds, “And, because Silver Streek™ brand duct tape is extra adhesive, pulling it off amounts to aggravated assault and battery.”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., smiles. “Very good, Mr. Labowski, Esq.!”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., also smiles and nods.

“Oh dear god! Did they grow you people in a lab?!” The Burglar pulls back to hit Mr. Fredericks, Esq., with his gun. Mr. Fredericks, Esq., thrusts out his chin defiantly.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warns Mr. Dessemondi, Esq. “Mr. Fredericks, Esq., wrote the current law on civil cases resulting from assault, and I mean literally.”

The Burglar stops. “You were writing new laws and now you’re breaking into hardware stores in the middle of the night?! Why?”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., states simply, “Better pay.”

The Burglar finishes taping them and stands back and looks at his work. “That should hold you. Lawyers.” He shakes his head. “Goddamn lawyers! You know what you call five thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the sea?”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., interrupts, “A good start.”

“So, you heard that one.”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., nods. “How about this one: It was so cold last week that I saw several lawyers with their hands in their own pockets.”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., chuckles. “Or this one: How was copper wire invented? Two lawyers were arguing over a penny.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., tearfully interrupts the jocularity. “Everyone hates lawyers but, when you want to sue someone, who do you turn to? When you want a will or a contract or any other legal document too complex for The Kiss-Soft Household Lawyer™ brand legal document software, who do you turn to?”

“Only because people like you make the laws so complex,” replies The Burglar.

“And why do we make the laws so complex? Because criminals like you look for every crack, every loophole, every edge to skirt around the law and we have to Spackle™, Spackle™, Spackle™!”

“What the hell are you talking about? I broke in; I have a gun; I’m here to steal stuff. What’s complicated about that?”

“Not you!” roars Mr. Labowski, Esq. “Him!” Mr. Labowski, Esq., thrusts his shaking, duct-taped hands towards the stock boy. “Yes you, mister putting Steeley Glass™ products in a display container clearly provided by and for Diamond Glass™ products! You know kerosene was once a trademarked product but for people… I mean, criminals like you.”

Kevin looks to The Burglar. “Dude, get me out of here. These guys are nuts.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., huffs. “Nuts! My father… my father…” Mr. Labowski, Esq., breaks down in tears.

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., explains, “His father had a company and a corporation was able to steal the product and the product name right out from under him. Mr. Labowski, Esq. wrote a ballad about it. Recite the ballad for us, Mr. Labowski, Esq.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., tearfully recited:

“This is a ballad of a noble man
Who knew not the Lanham Act.
This man would lose his only trademark
And he would not get it back.”

“Just shut up,” says The Burglar, exasperatedly. “Please, just shut up.”

“Wait,” insists Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., “I have a back story, too. See, I am a Diamond Glass™ man as was my father before me and his father before him and his father before him and… umm… I think that’s as far back as it goes.”

“Shut up! Shut up!” The Burglar grabs his own head as if trying to hold it together. “Damn! It’s almost dawn! I don’t have time to break down the wall! You lawyers cost me this job! Now, I have to get out of here with nothing!” The Burglar starts to leave.

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., calls out, “To save us some pain and to save you one more line item in the pending law suite from Diamond Glass™ glass manufactures, I strongly recommend that you use Earth Hugger™ brand commercial solvent to remove the Silver Streek™ brand duct tape from our wrists before you leave.”

“Argh!”

“The fact that Mr. Fredericks, Esq., has mentioned this fact,” explains Mr. Labowski, Esq., “adds weight to your negligence should you leave without providing us with the Earth Hugger™ brand commercial solvent.”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., chimes in. “Yes, and there is an Earth Hugger™ brand commercial solvent display right next to you—which is properly marked and stocked, unlike the glass and glass-cutting products display. Your negligence at this point would be most profound.”

Weak and confused, The Burglar tosses them the solvent.

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., nods bemusedly. “I would consider that an act in good faith. You may have just saved yourself a lot of money.”

The Burglar turns to Kevin. “Kid, I would rescue you from these nuts but I just don’t have the time.” The Burglar turns to leave.

“For the love of…” cries Kevin. “At least shoot me!”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., asks Mr. Fredericks, Esq., “Would that be considered slander, calling us nuts?”

The Burglar screams and runs out the front door and into a police officer writing a ticket on The Burglar’s car.

As the officer’s backup arrives to help apprehend The Burglar, the lawyers and the stock boy free themselves with the solvent. Mr. Fredericks, Esq., heads out to deal with the police.

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., turns to Kevin. “Now, back to the business at hand.”

After a short negotiation, they come to an agreement, which releases Kevin from liability but leaves the store open to legal repercussions if the violation is not corrected in seven days. After signing the agreement, Kevin asks, “Can I get a Xerox of that?”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., breaks down in tears. “Have you learned nothing?!”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., holds his distraught colleague close, comforting him. Over the shoulder of Mr. Labowski, Esq., he scolds Kevin. “It’s ‘a photocopy from a Xerox™ photocopy machine’ thank you!” He hold’s Mr. Labowski, Esq., closer. “One day they will learn.”

Trademark: A Tragedy

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

 

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Helen Lloyd Montgomery

 

I was attacked by hummingbirds on my way home from work today. You know what they are. Tiny emerald speed demons. People used to hang out jars of red sugar water for them. They don’t any more. They’ve learned better.

A lot of things have changed over the years but not the aggressive nature of hummingbirds. I’d just come out of the office when they swarmed over the top of the building and were all over me like stupid on a chicken. Tiny wings blurred and neck feathers flared bright as the thumb-sized creatures buzzed me. A needle-like pain in my thigh was the first clue that I’d been struck. The second clue was the iridescent bastard that hung there with his beak buried in my flesh to feed.

Oh, did I forget to mention? Hummers don’t go for nectar these days. They’ve learned to prefer the taste of blood.

With an angry shriek, I swung my pocketbook at it. It darted away before I could connect but I took out a couple others on the fly as I took off running for my car. It was a fair run, too, because, I’d parked at the far end of the parking lot that morning. Meanwhile, I was taking a lot of hits from these guys. I swing a mean pocketbook though, and by coupling a wild counter-attack with a chaotic advance, I managed to break free of most of them by the time I reached my car. Bleeding from a hundred tiny puncture wounds, I opened the door while trying to sling off a die-hard who’d clamped onto my finger with a grip like razor-wire. When slinging didn’t work, I made a fist and smashed him into the back window before jumping inside to safety.

One of the little pee-wees accidentally got inside with me. I began to smile, his buzzing antics amusing now that I had him alone, without backup. If he hadn’t already realized his mistake, he’d learn soon enough that the tables had turned.

Outside, the tiny army regrouped. Hordes of angry hummers hovered about the car, glaring through the windshield at me.

“Well, well. Looks like I’ve got your buddy.” I grinned at my audience. “Would you like to watch what I’m going do to him?”

They beat wildly at the windows while he whirred frantically here and there trying to escape. I rummaged around and came up with a can of windshield de-icer. On his next pass, I let him have it. Several fly-bys later, I’d soaked not only the passenger seat but the bird’s lovely plumage, too. The alcohol in the de-icer cut through the protective oil on his feathers, clipping his wings rather effectively I thought, and he fumbled a landing. Chortling wickedly, I picked the little bugger up by his head and dangled him in front of me.

“Here, now, you don’t look so big and bad. I ought to pinch your head off.”

The tiny bloodsucker twisted in my grip and emitted a squawk.

“What?” I said, cupping a hand to my ear. “You don’t like that plan? Okay, I’ve got a better one.”

I have a Tupperware container I keep in the floorboard of the car for storing auto insurance papers, CDs, Minnesota winter survival gear, stuff like that. I dumped the contents out and dropped him in, setting it on the seat where all his pals could watch. I pulled my lighter out of a pocket and struck the flint, brandishing the resulting flame at my diminutive, bedraggled prisoner. He chirped a birdie profanity at me and tried to drag himself away.

“You little hot-shots think you’re so tough. You think you can jump anybody you please,” I said, flourishing the torch at the bird. He dripped ponderously away from each thrust. “Well, pay attention to who you’re messing with next time. I can take that aerosol can and turn it into a blowtorch, so—”

The bird apparently decided he’d had enough of either my lighter or my bluster and tried to fly away, something I hadn’t anticipated. Bad mistake on both our parts. One wing-tip brushed the flame and poof—instant fireball. I jerked my hand back from the conflagration as the reek of burning feathers and sizzling meat filled the confines of my car. I grabbed an old towel and beat the fire out. Too late, both for the bird and my container. He’d fried to oblivion and nearly melted a hole in the plastic. The hummers outside went nuts.

I cranked the car and turned the air conditioner on high to help clear out some of the stench, then shook my fist at the little devils outside.

“Anyway, as you can see, I don’t appreciate being messed around with. And don’t you ever forget it!”

Apparently they had no intention of forgetting anything. They zipped around the car as I drove out of the parking lot and into slow-moving traffic. They beat their wings against the windows. Their throats flashed like angry red beacons as they stared in at me, demented expressions etched on their cross-eyed little faces. It was embarrassing. They stayed with me for three stoplights until I got up enough speed to outdistance them. It was a pleasure to see them dwindling in the rearview mirror… those that hadn’t ended up plastered against the grill of the car behind me, that is.

I reached my apartment complex without further incident and pulled up in front of the garage. The door opened when I pressed the button on the remote control clipped to the sun visor, until about halfway up when it suddenly reversed direction and started to close.

I hit the button a second time. It rose several feet and then mindlessly about-faced and trundled back down again.

I snatched the remote from the visor and aimed it pointblank at the door. Mashing the button repeatedly, I argued with it electronically until it opened enough for me to roll in underneath. I shook my head, parked in my assigned stall and switched the car off. Seemed like life was getting stranger every day, like I was living in the Twilight Zone or something. I got out of the car and headed for the foyer, glumly noting that my Honda was speckled with hummingbird crap.

I heard a low groan coming from the foyer ahead of me. As I rounded the corner, I saw Sal Osseo lying there on the floor in front of the door.

I only barely know Sal. He seems to be a nice enough guy, I’ve just always been reclusive. At any rate, it was sort of a shock to see him lying there like that. His legs were crumpled like an accordion and his back looked twisted. He had raised up on one elbow and was trying to reach the doorknob.

“Hey, Sal, whatcha doing, lying down there like that?”

He sighed heavily. “Trying to get into the building. Guess you might help me with that?”

“Sure, Sal. Having trouble reaching the doorknob?”

“You could say that, yeah. Just a little trouble.”

I eased past, careful not to bump him, and opened the door, watching with horrified amusement as he crawled through. He panted and groaned the whole way.

“Thanks, Sissy,” he said as he crawled over to the elevator.

My name’s not Sissy, but I let it go. He lay there for a moment staring up at the elevator call button.

“Going up, Sal?”

“No, I’m going down.” He rolled his eyes. “Of course I’m going up. We’re in the garage, for gosh sakes. Nowhere to go from here but up.”

“Well, gee, Sal, you don’t have to get testy.”

I pushed the button and waited to see if the elevator would work today. Finally the silence grew uncomfortable and my curiosity got the better of me.

“So, Sal,” I ventured. “What happened to you?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” Sal shifted his weight as if settling himself more comfortably and twisted around to glance at my ankles. “I tried to kill myself a few nights ago. Jumped off my balcony. Of course, it didn’t work. It just sort of twisted my back and crumpled my legs up. Been laying out there for the last three nights. Kept calling for help, but nobody ever heard me.”

“Gee, Sal, that’s a shame. Why were you trying to kill yourself?”

“I’ve tried a few times already. A couple of months ago, I tried poison. See?”

Sal rolled over on his back and pulled up his grass-stained shirt. There, in the middle of his pasty-white belly was the most god-awful ruin I’ve ever seen. A half-healed hole in his guts big enough to put my fist through, had I been so inclined. I turned away, squeezing my eyes shut.

“Oh, jeez, Sal, cover that up. That’s gross! Don’t be showing it to people, what’s the matter with you?” I stabbed a finger into the call button a few more times. As if awakened from a deep slumber, the light behind it flickered dimly.

I don’t know. This used to be a nice place. Now nothing works right anymore and people crawl around with their guts hanging out.

With an unnerving thump, the elevator arrived. The door slid open with a raspy whine and Sal started to crawl through.

“Hey, Sissy, hold that door, will you? I don’t move as fast as I used to.”

I obliged, holding it open until he’d squirmed inside.

“Oh, that’s good!” he sighed. “So nice to be on carpet for a change.”

I got on behind him and said nothing, figuring Sal might not enjoy it so much once he had carpet burns all over his elbows. The elevator door wheezed shut and with a lurch, it began to rise.

The ride up to the third floor wasn’t as long as the wait but when the door opened, I discovered we hadn’t quite made it all the way to three. In fact, the elevator was about a foot shy of having gotten there. For me the step-up wasn’t that much of a problem. But for Sal—
Old Sal was game, I’ll admit. He was trying to make it. I shook my head again and with one hand on the elevator door to hold it open, I reached down and caught hold of the back of his belt.

“Here, lemme give you a hand.” I tugged at his lower body and half carried, half shoved him up onto the floor.

“Ooh, ouch, hey, watch it—whew. Thanks Sissy, I appreciate the lift up.”

“No problem. Hey, Sal, look at this,” I said, climbing out into the hallway. “Somebody left a grocery cart sitting here. Guess you can use it?”

Sal’s face lit up like a kid a Christmas. The cart, supplied courtesy of the apartment complex for residents to use and then never return to the garage for the next person to use, was of the variety that had a big basket up top and a large child-storage area below. He clambered into the child storage area. I raised the basket so he didn’t have to scrunch over so far. He did a triple-take when he turned to thank me and saw me for the first time.

“What happened to you?”

I must have looked a mess. I expect a hundred tiny puncture wounds can to that to a person.

“Don’t ask,” I said, wheeling him away down hall. “You live in apartment three-twenty, don’t you?”

“Yeah, this is it right here. Hang on, let me see if I can find my door key.”

He squirmed around in the bottom of the cart, searching his pockets and leaving me to wonder why someone committing suicide would take their door key with them. But he had, and grunting with effort, he reached up and unlatched his door.

I made a three-point road turn with the cart and backed in. I had a little trouble getting it over the door-frame with Sal’s weight on it. He tried to help until I rolled over his fingers. Finally, with much creative cursing on my part and reams of unnecessary direction from my passenger, I got him pulled inside. I wiped sweat from my forehead, performed another three-point turn, and pushed the cart into Sal’s den.

I came to a halt as soon as I saw the hummingbirds. They were everywhere.

There must have been hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands! The furniture crawled with them. They perched on lampshades, curtain rods, picture frames, the lop-eared antennas sprouting from the back of an ancient television. At any given moment, at least fifty were buzzing slowly through the room, searching for a place to light.

It looked like the town’s entire hummingbird population now populated Sal’s apartment. I heard Rod Serling’s voice whispering in the back of my mind.

“Sal,” I said, “why’s your balcony door open?”

Sal cleared his throat. “I must’ve left it that way when I went out to jump.”

“You didn’t close it behind you?”

“You’ll understand, I’m sure, that I didn’t expect to be coming back.”

“You thought to take your door key,” I pointed out.

“Okay! I’ll admit, maybe I wasn’t thinking too clearly at the time.”

One of the hummers saw us and with a shriek, launched himself directly at us. Immediately the air turned green with hummers following suit. I hunkered down and flung my arms over my head for protection. As I did, my elbow hit the basket on the cart and sent it crashing down. It landed with a clang and a loud “Ouch!” from Sal.

I was wishing I had time to be sorry that had happened, but birds had covered me like a down comforter. One somebody had stuck needles all through, that is. Screaming obscenities I’d learned from a sailor boyfriend a few years back, I shook off as many hummers as I could and began swinging my pocketbook again. Birds went flying in directions they had not intended. So did Sal’s face when I accidentally whacked him.

I don’t understand how a man bent on committing suicide could be so vocal about getting smacked in the chops with a pocketbook, which I was finding to be about as helpful against this barrage of birdies as a fly-swatter would be against a mad swarm of killer bees. While Sal bellowed about being hit in the face, I swam through an emerald cloud of hummingbirds to a bank of light switches, flipping each one until I found one that spun up the ceiling fan. It whirred gently to life, catching a few, but not enough to make a difference. Obviously, whoever had designed the ceiling fan hadn’t designed a very efficient weapon. I needed something more.

That’s when I noticed a strange thing. Sal was sitting helplessly in the bottom of his cart, clutching his head in his hands and wailing something that sounded like “Chernobyl!” But never mind that. The strange thing was that the birds weren’t attacking him. Not a single one of them. His caterwauling must have been fending them off. I wondered if wailing “Chernobyl!” at the top of my lungs would help me, as I thought I could feel my iron level dropping under the assault. Instead, I dashed through the room and hit the “on” button on his stereo receiver and cranked up the volume, hoping the noise might drive the hummers back out the open balcony door.

I should have guessed Sal’s stereo would be tuned to National Public Radio.

A subdued conversation between an NPR moderator and a member of the local Audubon Society emanated from the woefully under-used Polk speakers as I ran into the kitchen. In the den, Sal whimpered “Exxon Valdez!” while I dashed past the gas stove, flipping on burners. Hummers swarmed after me as I skidded into fighting position between the stove and the sink. Those that I relocated with my pocketbook never recovered from the blast of heat and flames I sent them careening through with my deadly backhand.

That was more like it! I sent scads of the little devils tumbling straight to hell. It would have been quite fun to watch the tiny flaming explosions under other circumstances. But at this rate, I’d be drained of blood before I got them all. Besides, they were catching on to this tactic and countered by flanking me. What I needed was a diversion. I created a small one when my pocketbook knocked a blender off the countertop. It struck the floor about the same time a faint hope struck me.

“Weapons testing in the sixties!” Sal cried.

“Hey Sal!” I shouted over NPR while maintaining a steadfast defense. “What’ve you got in the refrigerator?”

Through a shifting peacock-colored cloud, I saw him angle his head curiously at me.

“Surely you’re not going to eat at a time like this?”

“Dammit, Sal! I’m being sucked dry in here!”

He thought for a minute.

“Well, my last dinner was supposed to be liver and onions. Then, somehow, I just couldn’t stomach the idea.”

That made sense to me. I imagined the headlines on the front of the Weekly World Sun: Man With Gaping Stomach Wound Attempts Suicide Rather Than Eat Meal Of Liver And Onions.

As Sal recommenced his howling: “—mercury in our streams! Three-legged frogs!—” I snatched the blender off the floor and plugged it into an outlet by the stove. Sweat mingled with rivulets of blood as I pawed through items in the fridge and came up with the package of liver. Working as fast as I could while swatting hummers away, I filled the blender with water, hacked off a chunk of liver, tossed it in, and turned it on. Presto! Blood soup! The blender splattered the walls with what I hoped would provide a delightful change from human blood.

“Come and get it, you little bloodsuckers!” I shouted.

It worked better than I’d expected, creating a sufficient diversion. The stink of raw blood drove the hummers into a feeding frenzy. They fought each other for position. Thousands were drawn to the feast, giving me time to ransack the contents of the cabinet under Sal’s sink. While Sal lamented “migrating ozone holes!” and the blender began to suck up hummers, I came up with treasure.

I can imagine Sal, a man who eats liver and onion while listening to NPR, being a very organized type of person. The type person who, at winter’s end, brings in the car’s winter survival kit for summer storage. And he was. For there, under the sink, was a three-gallon container with candles, matches, flares, etc., all those things you might need if stranded in a sudden blizzard… and beside it, a large spray can of windshield de-icer.

In the den, Sal wailed, “Vampire hummingbirds!”

Yep. Maybe that’s what they are. And if so, maybe the environmental disaster that re-wired their tiny bodies to thrive on blood had also rewired the way their tiny minds worked. Maybe they’re telepathic, too. How else to explain an unprecedented attack such as this, considering what I’d done to one of their own not an hour earlier?

I ignored a new hypodermic jab and popped the plastic cap off the can of de-icer. I pulled my lighter from my pocket. Careful to aim the spray nozzle away from me, I flicked the lid open, and struck the flint. You can always count on a Zippo. I held the flame to the front of the nozzle, and pressed it.

Whoosh! Instant flame-thrower. It was spectacular! The three-foot tongue of flame blasted a picture from the wall. The recoil flung my grip on the can up and over my shoulder like the recoil from a 9mm cannon. Startled, I dropped the lighter. The flame went out. Birds withdrew questioningly, hung uncertainly in the air.

I grinned at ’em.

With a Rambo-like scream of defiance, I re-lit the flame-thrower and began sweeping the kitchen. It scorched the front of the refrigerator. Blasted refrigerator magnets. Seared the counters. Sautéed the chopped liver. Toasted cookbooks. Detonated a roll of paper towels hanging from a holder on the wall. Burning ash mingled with scorched feathers, drifting to the floor amidst dozens of fried hummers.

The survivors fled the holocaust back into the den, screaming tiny birdie screams of terror. I ran screaming after them. Sal screamed when he saw me.

I raked the retreating hummers with the flame-thrower. They plummeted to the floor in flames. Carpet smoldered where they crashed. Burning birdie bodies crunched underfoot as I rousted the invaders. There was no escape from my flame-throwing prowess except through the open balcony door. Panicked by my powerful advance, the hummers seemed to have forgotten it. What a shame. They dropped by the score for that mistake. I wreaked havoc on them, swept hell through their ranks. Curtains burst into flame at the touch of the flame-thrower.

“Oh!” Sal cried. “Oh, my curtains! You’ve caught my curtains on fire!”

A lampshade went up in a fiery inferno as hummers died.

“Oh, no! My new lamp!”

The sofa smoked from the heat of my revenge as I decimated the enemy. Throw pillows went up in raging glory, taking out more of the foe. The soft cloth covers on the Polk speakers flared brilliantly. Decorative candles turned to slag. Burnt hummers fell like black hailstones.

“My apartment! My things!”

I stumbled over something behind me. It was Sal, crawling as fast as he could across the floor. He was holding a fire extinguisher in one hand. He pulled the pin and began tracing my trail of destruction with destruction of his own. Many more hummers fell as I trapped them between death by fire and Sal’s stream of CO2.

Suddenly, without warning, my flame-thrower petered out. The Zippo burned my fingertips. Sucking my breath between my teeth, I dropped the lighter and tried to fling off the sting as I investigated the can of de-icer. Was it clogged? I turned the can upside down and pressed the nozzle. Air shot from it. I turned the can right-side up and pressed the nozzle. Air shot from it. I shook the can. It was empty.

“Thank god!” Sal cried.

The buzzing of hummers took on an undertone of interest. I smiled weakly at the several hundred birds still left alive.

“So, you guys ready to talk surrender?” I asked. The humming grew vengeful as I rapidly rethought my options. “A truce maybe?”

Guess not. Understanding that I was now weaponless, my antagonists regrouped and swooped after me. I turned and ran squealing into the bedroom section of Sal’s apartment.

“Oh, no! Don’t go in there!” Sal despaired. “It’s the only room you haven’t destroyed!”

I had hoped to find sanctuary in the bathroom. But before I could shut the door and lock them out, they soared in like tiny fighter jets and started dropping little bombs on me. I jumped up and down swinging my fists at them. They stayed effectively out of reach. I raged uselessly as hummingbird crap rained down on me, then I spun to a crouch and jerked open the cabinet door under the sink.

Aha! I grabbed a bottle of cleaning ammonia. Instantly half the hummers broke formation, forsaking the aerial assault to form an opposition to force me away from the cabinet. I managed to snag a jug of Clorox before the sword-beaks won. I charged out of the bathroom, back through the den where Sal lay sobbing softly and into the kitchen again with kamikazes hot on my tail.

They thought they had me on the run.

I grabbed a bowl of fruit from the counter, dumped the fruit, and dashed into the den with the remaining hummers in hot pursuit. I dropped to my knees in the center of the room, fumbled the cap off the ammonia and poured a fair amount into the bowl. While hummers dive-bombed me from above and applied sophisticated knowledge of bayonet usage from below, I wrenched the cap off the jug of Clorox.

Dammit! It had never been opened. It was sealed tight with one of those seals it takes a pocketknife to break. Screaming like a karate master, I stabbed it with an acrylic thumbnail, ripped the seal away, and splashed bleach into the bowl with the ammonia.

The resultant fumes hit me immediately. My nose started running. So did my eyes. I coughed and gagged and fumbled to my feet, backing way from the bowl.

“My eyes!” Sal wailed. “They’re burning! They’re burning!”

With their maniacally fast metabolisms, the gas was hitting the hummers hard. The ceiling fan helped disperse the noxious gas through the room, and I knew Sal and I didn’t have much time. I stumbled into the bathroom, grabbed a couple of washcloths, and soaked them with tap water. I held one over my mouth and nose. It helped me to breathe easier and so I hurried the other one out to Sal.

“Ahgh! No! Keep away!” he screamed, flinging his hands across his face when I tried to help him.

“It’s a wet washcloth, Sal! You need to breathe through this!”

I practically had to stuff it up his nose before I got him to hold it in place. I held my own washcloth to my face with one hand, hooked my other arm across his chest and under his arms, and dragged him out to the balcony and fresh air. I dropped him with a thud and closed the balcony door. Covered in sweat, blood, and hummingbird crap, panting with exhaustion, coughing sporadically as my lungs tried to clear themselves, I peered in through the glass as the last of the hummingbirds descended slowly into death.

“Wow, Sal, that was really something,” I said between ragged breaths.

Puzzled by his lack of response, I turned to check on him. He had curled into a fetal position, rocking gently as he sucked his thumb. He was making these weird mewling noises. I figured he was upset because I hadn’t given him his chance to really commit suicide.

I seem to have gained some notoriety from this event. It took a couple hours for my lawyer to get me out of jail for what Sal claimed was vandalism, destruction of personal property, assault with intent to inflict bodily harm, assault with intent to kill, and I don’t know what other kinds of charges. Upon finally being released, I found the press hanging around outside the courthouse waiting for me. Everyone wanted an interview! The local newspapers, the TV stations, the radio stations. The interview with Trent West from ZRock 109 might be fun; he’s kind of cute. I might even become famous!

I finally managed to break free of the microphones and cameras and reporters-in-my-face and go home, where I called my friends and told them all about it. They’re calling me “Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer.”

You know, I sort of like that. Do you think it will stick?

 

The Ghost in the Library

GhostInTheLibrary

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Charis Himeda

I.

Summer semester was over, but Sarah Marks was headed to the library. It was a perfect morning, hot under the steel-blue sky, cool in the shade of the polymer towers, but Sarah paid no attention to the weather. She walked quickly, past Frisbee-throwers and sunbathers on the trim grass of the quad, past the occasional abstracted prof and clusters of students giddy with newfound freedom.

No one noticed her as she went by, a slight form skirting the edges of their awareness. This was partly due to her own devices; she had discovered that unsolicited attention was usually more troublesome than flattering, so even on this warm day, her dress was conservative—a long-sleeved cotton blouse and a grey skirt. These served the additional purpose of making her look older than she was. Her slim figure melted into the shadows of the trees; only her hair marked her— it streamed in the wake of her passing, and when she emerged from the wooded path into the open field, it shone in the sun like polished obsidian.

The architecture of Westhall University was typical of most colleges, except for its main library, which was built of granite and brownstone in the Romanesque style. Next to the crystal polymer edifices that graced the campus, the library would have looked like a stodgy, brown-suited matron among sleek young girls. It managed to escape this indignity by being situated at the far end of a field flanked by sparse woods. Sarah admired it as she always did, feeling the sort of fondness a lover of history feels for a rare artifact. As she hurried up the steps to the entrance, she paused to run a hand over the stone wall, taking comfort from its sunbaked warmth, its unpredictable roughness. Too much was smooth and glossed over these days.

She hurried through the double doors of carved oak, then put her face to the Eyedentifier in the foyer. Once the retinal scan was complete, the inner doors slid open and Sarah entered the deserted main floor, pleased at the cool and unaccustomed silence. She crossed the marble lobby and seated herself at one of the computer kiosks along the west wall. Choosing from the main menu, she selected “Guided Tour” and then, under “Guide,” she chose “Dr. James Hazelton.”

“You again?” said a voice behind her, and Sarah swung around to face it. A man who looked to be in his mid-twenties, brown-haired and blue-eyed, had walked out from the psychology rows, shaking his head at her. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this? It isn’t even raining today!”

Sarah laughed. “If I only studied on rainy days, I’d have flunked out by now,” she said.

“Oh, are you here to study?” he asked. “Then I won’t trouble you further…” And he walked back into the row of microchips. Sarah ran after him.

“What’s gotten into you?” she asked. “Have you forgotten that you’re a public servant?”

“If only I could,” he said, smiling at her. “What’s on the menu for today?”

“The Witch Trials,” she said. “I’m taking Anthropology 230: A History of the Dark Arts, and I want to get a head start.”

“A History of the Dark Arts?” He stared at her in mock astonishment. “Isn’t that a bit fluffy for a nanobiology major? Or are you trying to branch out, maybe get accepted into a sorority?”

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Everyone has to take one of the experimental courses.”

“The Witch Trials…” he mused. “Salem in 1692, or Salt Lake City in 2112?”

“Salem,” she replied.

“All right,” he said, gesturing with one hand toward the towering ranks of stored information. “This way!”

He led her past the psychology and sociology rows, and into the history stacks. Each narrow black rectangle lining the shelves was a microchip representing a single volume, a tiny computer capable of storing and releasing information independent of the others. These microchips made up the bulk of the library’s offerings. Anyone who preferred the oldfashioned comfort of books was out of luck. Unless, of course, he or she wished to obtain the necessary permit, don a pair of gloves, and endure the stifling, low-oxygen conditions of the vaults where they were kept. Sarah had never known what it was like to curl up in an armchair on a rainy day with a musty volume of Tolkien or London or Bradbury, but she was fascinated by books all the same. The few times she had seen them, standing at attention like sentinels of a forgotten past—fat and slim, short and tall, all of them bearing cracked or faded bindings and yellowed pages—she had felt a dim sense of regret. But there was no denying the appeal and utility of the microchips. They were space-efficient, impervious to the ravages of time, and loaded with so many accessory programs that she had never fully explored any of them. As to why they were stacked in rows… it was as if people wanted the feel of a twentieth century library, even without the books.

Of course, she could peruse the stacks alone, activating the chips herself, but then she would miss out on all the advantages of a guided tour… she laughed as ahead of her, her companion’s dress changed from his standard brown suit to colorful African robes, to the uniform of a Belgian merchant fleet officer, to fifteenth century Chinese armor, to the bright skirts and bracelets of a feast day in the Dominican Republic, and on and on through a whirlwind of clashing colors and styles. He could activate the visual aspects of the microchips at will, and delighted in doing so at a dizzying pace. She always tried to count the different costumes, but once he quickened his stride, she gave it up. After a final flourish of changes, he came to a grinding halt near the far end of the row.

“Here we are. United States history… Salem Witch Trials… 652231–652243. Would you like the Visual Summary?”

“Skip it,” she said impatiently. He knew she hated the Visual Summary, one of the few accessory programs that was a waste of time. If she wanted to watch actors and actresses prance around in a parody of history, she’d rent an old movie.

His face took on a sly look. “Are you up for a trip down the Rabbit Hole?”

Sarah hesitated a moment, temptation warring with responsibility. She really did want to get a head start on the course.

“Maybe not today,” she said. He looked disappointed, and she knew why. The Rabbit Hole was the closest thing to freedom he had. Oh, why not, she thought. Tomorrow wouldn’t be too late to do some real studying. It was still summer, after all.

“Come to think of it,” she said, “after sharing a room with my older sister, I know something of the Dark Arts already. Let’s go!”

“You’re the boss,” he said, but she knew he was pleased. She followed him out of the stacks to an empty conference room, where they locked the door behind them. She waited in the darkness until she saw the curtain, visible as a faint ripple, a silvery disturbance of the air in front of her. She stepped forward and into a green valley wreathed in mist.

The Rabbit Hole was their pet name for something he had discovered only two weeks ago—a back-door entrance to a program hidden from the standard user. Creating virtual depictions in the real world (many holographic changes of clothing, for example) was old technology, but James had found that the opposite was also possible—creating a real depiction of oneself in the virtual world. As he explained it to Sarah, one could enter a holographic representation of the place and time described in each of the library’s microchip volumes. After embarking on several reconnaissance missions with a campus squirrel, and determining that the experimental animal could not be pierced by virtual spears and arrows, drowned by virtual rivers, or dashed to pieces on virtual rocks, he had finally agreed to let her come. Only two weeks, and already they had scaled the Egyptian pyramids and wandered through the gardens of Babylon, sailed to the Lone Islands on board the Dawn Treader, and listened to the sound of Merlin’s harp as he lay trapped in his crystal cave.

Later that evening, a man and a young girl appeared in a conference room on the main floor of the Westhall University Library. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were glowing. He smiled to see her so happy, but his face was strained, burdened. They walked back to the kiosks at the entrance. They said goodbye. Then she typed a command on the keyboard and sighed as the hologram that was James Hazelton disappeared into thin air.

II.

It was a shame they hadn’t just let him die, thought the hologram, alone and formless once more. Although the original holograms—human representations of an artificial intelligence—were used by companies and government agencies around the world, most public institutions had adopted the use of Guides—holograms based on the complete genetic information of men and women who had once lived. The idea was that such programs would be more genuinely human than their fictional counterparts; library patrons, for instance, could interact with them as they would with real librarians, without taxpayers having to shell out for salaries.

Usually the Guides were chosen on the basis of their fame or accomplishments in life. James Hazelton hadn’t been particularly famous or accomplished—he’d been a history professor who had achieved small-town notoriety in the late twenty- second century for his books on the wars of the Middle East. Because he had lived and worked in Westhall, Massachusetts until his death at the age of 58, the residents of Westhall decided to honor him by making him a Library Guide. They promptly put in a petition, which then got mired in the endless red tape of the city’s computers. It was another fifty years before the sequence of his genome and the most recent neural map of his brain were finally fed into the holographic program, and the Guide labeled “Dr. James Hazelton” on the University Library main page was born. His physical age had been set at 25, close to that of the students who made up the bulk of the library’s users.

As far as the hologram himself was concerned, there was no discontinuity between his old life and his new. When he was first activated, he had been frantic and disoriented, calling for Alice, wondering where he was and why he was suddenly out of bed. The program mediators had tried to calm him. They had explained the situation to him, apologized for the delay (which he was not aware of ), and congratulated him on being chosen for such a prestigious position. Of course, he had known about the Guides (had even used several of them himself ), and after the initial shock of his death had subsided, he gradually became accustomed to his new role.

It was strange, he thought, pacing the aisles of his mind, to be an old man trapped in the body—even the non-corporeal body—of a young man. Although there were times when he felt less like a man at all, and more like a collection of sorts, a library within a library. He had nearly sixty years of memories at his disposal, and if there was one advantage to being a hologram, it was the unnatural clarity and ease of their recollection. He could unearth memories of his earliest childhood, his days at school, his work, his family… not the faded images his brain used to dredge up, but the crystal-clear events themselves, with every associated emotion in all its original intensity.

Each memory, he thought, was really a map, a map with distinct features—sensory, emotional, intellectual—integrated in a multidimensional picture. It was natural that such pictures became distorted over the course of a lifetime, chipped and marred through disuse or manipulation, and he was delighted to find that his memories were now in mint condition. He could only take physical shape when someone activated him, but this didn’t trouble him. During his off-hours, he existed in a world of the mind, needless of sleep, entertained by remembrances of his past. If he had never met Sarah, he might never have realized that anything was wrong.

But he had met her.

He had materialized one day to find a girl waiting for him—a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl. She was standing by one of the kiosks, looking around nervously.

“Do you need a Guide?” he asked, approaching her. “I’d be happy to assist you.”

“Yes,” she said. “I mean… that would be great.”

“You look a little young to be a student here,” he observed, cocking one eyebrow. “Are you a child prodigy?”

Her cheeks colored, but she looked straight at him and pulled up her sleeve so he could see the ID number on her wrist. “I am a student here,” she said, “but I’m new, and I thought I ought to take a Guided Tour… just to get started.”

He looked in her eyes, liking the combination of boldness and innocence in them, and smiled at her. She smiled back, and their friendship was born.

He had shown her the stacks, explained how to activate the chips, and she had been fascinated by the virtual programs linked to each volume. After the tour, she had asked if there were any books in the library, and he had taken her to the archives, where they gazed through the clear walls at the small collection of antiquity.

“My parents had a book once,” she said, her breath misting the crystal polymer wall. “It was just a paperback detective story, but they sold it to a big collector before I was old enough to read.”

He told her that books had been more readily available during his lifetime, and she looked a bit embarrassed at that, as if unwilling to acknowledge that he was not technically alive. He told her something about his life, how he had come to be here.

“It’s hard to believe you’re a hologram,” she marveled, casting an appreciative eye over him. “You could have some fun if I left you activated, you know… you could walk right through people… or run away. How far away from the library can you get?”

“I don’t know,” he said, frowning. The thought had never occurred to him.

“Do you ever get tired of being here?” she asked. “And showing college students the same things, day after day?”

“I was a history professor, remember?” he replied. “We never get tired of re-living the past.”

That had been over a year ago, and they had seen each other nearly every day since then. Sarah lived in one of the halls on campus, an easy walk from the library, and rain or snow didn’t stop her from coming. Sometimes their visits lasted only a few minutes, and sometimes they lasted half a day. Once he discovered the Rabbit Hole, they were no longer bound by the hours of the library, and they had spent a whole weekend in Tolkien’s Rivendell, wandering unseen amongst the elves and exploring the forests. Although her studies never suffered, he had other concerns.

She’s spending too much time here, he thought. In a fantasy world with a man who no longer exists. Still… he enjoyed her company too much to put a stop to it.

It was ironic that she was the source of both his greatest happiness and his greatest misery in this new, strange life. And why was that? What had she said or done to make him feel so empty, so hollow?

He didn’t know. He only knew that the time they spent together had begun to haunt him. That she haunted him. There was no denying she was beautiful, with the kind of beauty that asserts itself most strongly in solitary places, where one couldn’t help noticing the delicate bones of her hands, the graceful shape of her stride. Thinking of her now, he felt something tug at him. It wasn’t love—couldn’t be love—but it was a memory of love. In his mind’s perfect eye, he saw the pure lines of her face, her eyes alight with excitement, and he remembered Alice. And he wondered what cruel trick fate was playing him.

III.

“Sarah,” he said, as they sat in the grassy courtyard outside the library, watching swallows and chickadees alight on branches and disappear into the hot blue air, “wasn’t your family planning a trip to the West Coast this summer?”

She looked up guiltily. “Yeah,” she said.

“Well? Why didn’t you go?”

She shrugged, playing with the leaves on the ground, probably trying to come up with a plausible excuse. But she was a terrible liar, and they both knew it.

“I’d rather be here,” she said, finally. “Besides, now that we have the Rabbit Hole—”

“That’s no substitute for the real thing,” he told her. And I’m no substitute for a real person.

“Are you getting tired of me?” she asked teasingly, but he refused to be teased.

You will get tired of me before long,” he said. “No—” he said, as she opened her mouth to protest. “Listen to me. You may be quite advanced for your age in some ways, but you’re still very young. Your life has barely started.”

“Are you going to tell me to start spending time with some nice boy my own age?” she asked scornfully.

“Well, it’s bound to happen sooner or later,” he said. “You’ll graduate within the next two years, and then what? You can’t pretend you’ll still be coming here every morning to visit your holographic friend.”

She said nothing. He sighed and moved closer to where she sat, her skirts spread carelessly over the grass. They watched the restless birds circling, circling, never staying for long.

“James,” she said, at length, “what do you miss most about your old life?”

He glanced at her, but her face was hidden by a silk curtain of hair as she leaned forward to pluck a dead flower from the ground. Its petals were still white and perfect, but the stem had been gnawed, torn to shreds. Suddenly, the fluttering of the birds stilled, and the sky grew dark before the sun. He felt his image try to retreat back to its source, those dark paths he walked alone at night. For a moment the hologram flickered on the grass of the courtyard, wavering in the bright air like a reflection on water. And then he realized what it was that had been plaguing him.

“I miss very little about being alive,” he said. “I have memories of being starved for grilled hamburgers, fried chicken, eggs and bacon—but I’m never hungry now. I wish I was. I have memories of hiking in the Blue Ridge mountains, and waking up in my tent with sore legs and an aching back. Do I miss having sore muscles? I wish to hell I did! I remember the solid weight of wood in my hands and the lightness of feathers, I remember the feel of oiled leather and slick metal, cold glass and new-fallen snow, the warmth of a fire, the softness of skin—” He reached out a hand to her face before he caught himself, and she stared at him, wide-eyed. “But most of all, I remember what it was like to love someone,” he said in a low voice. “I remember what it was to be a creature of flesh and spirit, not numbers in a digital landscape.”

“What are you, then?” she asked. “A renegade computer program, and nothing more? Don’t tell me that, because I won’t believe it.”

“I’m your friend,” he said, after a long pause. “James Hazelton was your friend, though he never knew you.”

“I love you,” she said, in a voice almost too soft to be heard. But the days when he’d been hard of hearing were long ago, in another life.

“I can’t love you, Sarah,” he whispered. “I’m a hologram, remember? Think what you will, but those are the bare bones. Besides, I’m too old for you.”

“Nearly a hundred years too old,” she agreed, “yet you are who you are! James Hazelton may have died, but you are him—you have his genes, his memories, everything!”

“Don’t you understand?” he growled. “My soul left my body fifty years ago! I’m a ghost—a shell—a blueprint of a man.”

She looked at him uncertainly, as if for the first time considering him, not as a man whose life has been extended, but as one who has been robbed of something essential. Then her face fell and she turned away. He put an arm around her, unable to help himself, but it met no resistance, falling through flesh and bone as if through mist.

“It would have been better if we’d never met,” she said bitterly. “You were happier then, weren’t you?”

“No,” he said. “Before I met you, I was a slave and I didn’t even know it. What’s the good of life without the capacity to live it? My soul is at peace somewhere… I want this echo of myself to be at peace, too.”

He looked at her then—in the youthful intensity of her grief, and the promise of comfort and greatness that surrounded her like a redeeming cloak. In his mind, he kissed her goodbye. And then he told her what she had to do.

When Sarah left the library that night, she was not alone. There was a microdisk stowed carefully away in the locket around her neck. Before she left, James had told her how to erase his program from the library’s database.

“You’re lucky I’m not a famous astronaut,” he’d said, “or you’d have to travel to every public institution in the country to do away with me!”

She hadn’t been able to laugh.

“Promise me,” he’d said, his eyes both commanding and begging her. She had fulfilled that promise, but she’d also done something else. She had downloaded his program onto one of her own disks before erasing it from the system. Tucked away in the darkness of the locket, cut off from any hard drive, she supposed he was unconscious. Still alive, all his information intact, but sleeping. And that was good, because she needed time to think.

Summer was lingering that year, and the night was mellow and quiet. Sarah walked at a fraction of her normal pace, meandering slowly over the dark field. By the time she reached her hall, normal dining hours were over. Shunning her room (and her talkative roommate), she headed instinctively for her second-favorite place on campus—the hill on which the science halls were perched like slender crystal flowers.

Sarah liked this hill for many reasons, not the least of which was the privacy afforded by the heavy foliage. She was not the only one who enjoyed a little privacy, and as she moved away from the halls and into the woods, she heard murmurings and laughter behind the leaves. Climbing to the top of the rise, she stood facing east, looking out over her known world. From this vantage point, the university lay like a phosphorescent city, eldritch lights swimming in a sea of darkness. She thought of James leaning over the rail of The Invincible, calling to her in excitement, and the sight of those lights illuminating the deep with their billowing, pulsing brightness. Then the lights sprouted flames, and the flames were trembling and dancing together, and hot tears were running down her face. She wiped them away and clutched the locket on its chain. She remembered what he had said—that his soul was gone, that he was no more than a blueprint of a man. But she couldn’t make herself believe it, she wouldn’t believe it. If he was nothing but a blueprint, then how could she feel the way she did? His intelligence, his emotions, his warm humor… they were all real, the product of his life experiences and those densely packed bundles of DNA in his cells. What difference did it make if those things—his genes and his memories—were housed in a computer instead of a living creature? If she could fall in love with that—not the man masked in flesh and blood, but the man with his mask removed—then how could his soul be missing? And if it was… then what good was a soul anyway?

You may think you want to die, she thought angrily, but I can’t kill you. Be damned if I will. She’d go back to the library tomorrow and activate him and tell him all this. She would convince him, make him see that she was right. But as her anger faded, the bitter knowledge that he didn’t love her rose to replace it. And what was worse, what cut all her fine arguments short, was her memory of the look on his face—the look of a man who has lost something irretrievable and infinitely precious, something on which everything else hinges.

Had she thought it was a warm summer night? It was cold as late autumn. The breeze whispering through the trees was an empty voice; the stars were merciless and far away, nothing to pray to, nothing to wish upon. Even the buildings below were strange—pale, tentacled creatures lost in fog. Nothing was warm, nothing was familiar; there was no comfort to be found anywhere in the world on this night. Sarah unclenched the locket and turned it gently in the palm of her hand, knowing that she had to choose one way or the other… and either way, she would lose.

IV.

Three days later, she was on a bus—an old-fashioned, six-wheeled bus that still served the rural areas of western Massachusetts—looking out on the trackless countryside. The locket was still around her neck; the disk within it had been reduced to shards. She sat motionless, eyes fixed on the endless fields and rambling stone walls beyond the window.

After many miles—a lifetime of watching the same flat-topped farmhouse appear and disappear, an eternity of watching corn ripen under the blue sky—she pulled the cord and waited as the bus ambled to a stop. Stepping out, she made her way down the road, dust clouds rising behind her. She turned down an unpaved lane leading to another farmhouse in the shade of a beech copse. Beyond, the path angled up a slight rise. And over the top of the knoll, nestled in a gentle, sloping valley, was a graveyard.
Sarah walked among it, taking her time, looking carefully at each inscription. The huge coffins and markers were overgrown with grass and wild rosebushes, and shaded by tall, ancient trees. None of the graves were fresh, some were unreadable, and a few had been reduced to formless mounds. Finally, she found it—a granite tombstone neatly inscribed:

James Hazelton
2145 – 2203

And next to it:

Alice Hazelton
2148 – 2231

She stared at his wife’s tombstone next to his, grey and mellow in the dappled light that filtered through the trees. He lived a whole life without you, she thought. A whole life. The knowledge struck her with sudden force, and she wondered how she could have been so silly as to think that she was his life, that her visits to the library and their holographic voyages together were the pinnacle of his existence. She laughed then—a sad, surprised little laugh. And she knelt down on the weedy ground and pulled the locket over her head. It flashed in a sudden shaft of sunlight, bright gold as the mallorn leaves on Cerin Amroth, then Sarah buried it in the earth above his grave.

If only I could have made you happy, she thought.

You made me as happy as you could, his voice replied. But I was broken; I was a clock in perfect working order that had lost its hands.

I’ll never love anyone again, she thought, and the sound of his laughter startled her to her feet.

You will, he said. And then he disappeared from her head, and only her heart remembered his voice.

 

Champagne and Balducci’s

Champagne

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Laurel Anne Hill

 

Real trees didn’t dance in kitchens or anywhere else, so what the hell was going on now? Just five feet away from Warren Lund, a scrawny redwood sapling pirouetted on root tips as though the New York City Ballet had opened a show in Fangorn Forest. The tree wiggled outstretched branches, split its lower trunk to form two timber legs and leaped in his direction.

Warren dodged sideways. The envelopes he held scattered like broken crackers tossed to pigeons. His shoulder hit the refrigerator hard. His dinner sack thumped against the floor. The tree vanished in a puff of cream-colored smoke, as though on stage. A whiff of fresh evergreen lingered.

This prank had to be his roommate’s doing. Arlo, a dancer and magician, was warped. Okay, where had he hidden? The pantry?

But Arlo had boarded a plane three days ago, had even said not to call except in dire emergency. Arlo had too much on his plate to sneak back to Manhattan for a gag. Sweat dripped off the tip of Warren’s long, narrow nose. His damp T-shirt clung to his chest. Another poof and the kitchen filled with lemon-yellow vapor. Who—or what—would he find when the air cleared? Tolkien’s Treebeard or Harry Potter?

The smoke dissipated, revealing a gaunt figure hunched over a three-ring binder, sitting on a wooden stool. The man bore a deadpan expression, like a crafty poker player dealt four aces. A cigarette dangled from the side of his mouth and shed ashes on his black pants and V-necked sweater. Why, this was Warren’s boyhood idol—Bob Fosse.

No way Fosse could have stolen into Warren’s apartment. The renowned director, choreographer and Broadway icon had died over twenty years ago, in 1987. Ghosts—like dancing saplings—existed only in the realm of fantasy. Warren would figure out a reasonable explanation for all this… wouldn’t he?

He rubbed his sore shoulder and glanced at the clock. Two hours before midnight. He had gotten off work at nine, after an ordinary humid July day. Ordinary, that is, until he had returned home, fetched the mail and flipped on his kitchen light. Fosse glanced up, as though in rehearsal for Chicago or Damn Yankees.

“You call yourself a dancer?” Fosse said. “You’ll never land a job on a Broadway stage at the rate you’re going, other than to push a broom. You barely made the chorus of an off- Broadway flop.”

An unruly lock of Warren’s curly black hair hung in front of his eyes. He ought to defend himself but Fosse had pegged the problem. It was time to return to California and become an accountant. Meet the right woman. Get a life. Warren stammered a lame remark, more syllables of sounds than words.

“That’s not good enough.” Fosse peered over the top of his granny glasses and shifted position. “I want more.” A column of beige smoke oozed up from the base of the stool. The icon’s image faded.

A husky, melodious voice called out Warren’s name. What now? A thin young woman with long legs stood in the kitchen doorway, her right leg raised high in a vertical split, toes pointed and ankle at brow level. A maroon leotard and tights, as taut as skin, hugged her petite curves. Where had she come from? Thick cocoa-brown hair draped her shoulders with sensual waves.

“It’s been two weeks since you’ve gone for a jazz class and three since you’ve hit the gym,” she said, still perfectly balanced. “Bet you’d tear a muscle if you tried this.”

How did she know what he did or didn’t do? Warren pressed his back against the refrigerator, studying her wide blue-gray eyes. They looked soft enough to melt. The mixed fragrances of Christmas trees and expensive perfume wafted to his nose.

“Who are you?” he whispered. “What are you?”

“A space alien.” She morphed into a pulsing gelatinous mass—an enormous fluorescent green blob with three maraschino cherry eyes. “Remember when you were seventeen and auditioned for that academy? They told you to pretend to be a bowl of lime Jell-O. If only you’d quivered more.”

A pressure surged within Warren’s head and throttled his temples. The lime Jell-O blurred with the scattered envelopes on the floor. He sank to his knees. Something was seriously wrong. Drugs! Some street wacko could have dusted the mailbox with crack or methamphetamine. Verizon had disconnected Warren’s cell phone yesterday for nonpayment. He crawled toward the living room and Arlo’s land line telephone. What was the number for Poison Control? Or had the government discontinued that service? It didn’t matter. The phone was gone.

The Jello-O giggled with a musical sound and sprouted two maroon-clad legs. “I’m not really from outer space. Now, it’s your turn to do an improvisation.” She balanced on the balls of her feet and rocked from side-to-side, like a metronome on slow speed. “Pretend you’re a ripe avocado or a rotting pear.”

Warren, still on his hands and knees, parted his lips, unable to speak. Nobody knew about his recurring nightmare—being backstage at the Ambassador Theater on Forty- Ninth Street, dressed in an avocado costume with a jammed zipper. Gene Kelly always belted out “Singing in the Rain” from a lamppost in the audience. Fosse always shouted for Warren to get on stage and be a pear.

The mustard-yellow sofa with the flattened cushions drifted in and out of focus. Warren hadn’t eaten much since six in the morning. Food might help. He crawled back into the kitchen and enlisted the support of the stove to stand. The woman in maroon opened the cabinet under the sink and tossed his white plastic sack into the garbage.

“That’s my dinner,” Warren protested.

Was your dinner.”

She opened a drawer, pulled out a large manila envelope and extracted one of the eight-by-ten glossy photos Warren handed out at auditions. She scrunched her face, then turned the picture upside-down.

“Know what this headshot says about you?”

He stared at the lackluster image with the dark complexion, boxy jaw and phony smile. The faint crinkles below its eyes suggested an older age, maybe forty instead of twenty-eight. He massaged his throbbing temples. What was he supposed to reply? That he was black-and-white, tired, and worked for cheap?

“This man,” the woman said, “eats disgusting leftover falafel from a fast-food hole-in-the-wall and lets balsamic vinegar the color of crankcase oil dribble down his arms.” She tapped the tip of her first finger against the photograph.

“I happen to like balsamic on my falafel,” Warren said. “And what do you expect on my income? Champagne and caviar?”

There was nothing wrong with the occupational perk of free food, even if it came from a third-rate restaurant. Okay, he danced rotten. But what right had she to bust into the apartment and pick apart his entire life?

“I can’t afford crab cakes from Balducci’s,” he snapped.

His stomach gurgled as he pictured the wheels and pie-shaped wedges of pungent imported cheeses in Balducci’s. The crusts on the fresh loaves of bread always looked so crisp. A sharp bite might make them shatter.

“It’s time you improved your image and got a real job,” the woman said. Her eyes crinkled to disapproving little slits, like lopsided sections of miniature Venetian blinds. “You can’t mooch off Arlo forever.”

“You think I like living this way?” The warmth of mixed embarrassment and anger spread across Warren’s cheeks.

He glanced at a framed portrait of Arlo in the vestibule, taken by Jason Leigh, one of Manhattan’s finest photographers. Arlo could act, sing or dance his way across any stage as though he owned it. He had just left for a three-month gig in Las Vegas—had even arranged to lease a pricey mid-town apartment upon his return. The photo radiated the image of his growing success.

Warren sat on the vinyl floor and drew his knees toward his chest. What was he doing, carrying on an argument with some phantom dredged from the depths of his own screwed-up mind? He smelled evergreen and recalled an audition for a school play in the third grade. He had wanted the role of John Muir but had been cast as a redwood tree. His hands tensed.

The woman in maroon did a slow horizontal split and landed. She stretched her torso forward until her elbows pivoted against the floor. Her palms rested under her chin.

“Poor dear,” she said, “you were mortified. Muir was manly, the epitome of the rugged mountaineer. And you had to stand at the rear of the stage for twenty whole minutes, decked out in cheap cardboard and waving two funky plastic branches, while some overconfident creep you despised stole the show.”

“I’m dying.” Warren buried his face in his hands. “That’s the only explanation.”

“No, you’re not,” she said. “I abhor trite endings.”

The woman stood and snapped her fingers. She wore a black tuxedo now, complete with gold studs and a rose silk cummerbund. She slung a soiled dishtowel over one arm, with a grand gesture, and opened the refrigerator door.

“My stage name’s Velvet Skye. I’ll be your waiter tonight. Among other things, the specialty of the house includes champagne, caviar and crab cakes from Balducci’s.”

Velvet transferred a plaid liquor sack and a green-and-white shopping bag to the kitchen counter. Warren inventoried the array of delicacies—crispy Roman artichokes and chocolate torte, even buckwheat blinis for the Beluga. The food looked so good.

“The crab cakes are cooked,” she said. “You don’t mind if we nuke them, do you?”

“That… that’s fine.”

He touched the neck of the bottle of chilled Mumm’s with the tip of his first finger. The vessel neither imploded nor vanished in a puff of smoke. He crinkled the edge of a paper wrapper. The wrapper seemed real, too.

“Set the table, or do I have to do everything?” Velvet laughed—a musical laugh, as clear as the tinkle of a glass bell. “Besides, I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in years.”

Warren pinched the skin on his forearm. Nothing worse than momentary discomfort resulted. He grabbed a sponge from under the sink and mopped off the gummy metal top of the nearby card table. He frowned, then rummaged through a drawer. A clean towel would have to do for a tablecloth. He washed two mismatched plates, some stainless steel utensils and a couple of ten-ounce plastic tumblers. Arlo hated to shop for housewares.

Warren folded paper towels for napkins. Blue-and-crimson lights flickered across them, like the images of flames in mirrors. He held linen now, not paper, and faced a mahogany table set with sterling silver, gold-rimmed champagne flutes and china. Velvet tilted each flute and filled the sparkling crystal with Mumm’s.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Is the pattern on the Wedgwood too busy?”

“Oh, nothing’s wrong.” He swallowed hard, as though trying to clear a lump of meat from a dry throat. Nothing was wrong at all, in a way.

Velvet spread caviar on several buckwheat pancakes the size of silver dollars. She added dollops of sour cream and slid one of the appetizers into his mouth. The mild tang of the blini and cream muted the stronger but pleasing flavors of salt and fish. Warren chewed in slow motion. She had just transformed paper into linen and metal into mahogany. What the hell was he really eating—stale raisin bran and lumpy outdated milk?

“Table setting’s a fake but the food’s real,” she said, as though she had read his mind. She licked her fingers and tapped her crystal flute against his. “Your tax dollars at work. I walked into Balducci’s and the nearest liquor store this afternoon, projected the persona of our dear mayor and charged this whole damn meal to the City.”

Warren chuckled. She was outrageous—totally, wonderfully outrageous. He broke into unrestrained guffaws. Velvet laughed with him, her eyes sparkling like sapphires reflecting shafts of sunlight. Perhaps he was eating raisin bran. He didn’t really care.

After dinner, he and Velvet stood by the open bedroom window, against the backdrop of a wrought iron railing and a graveyard for cigarette butts. They did cold readings of dialogues by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. She closed the book and grasped his hand. They sat on his futon and listened to the honks and brake squeals of taxis navigating a Manhattan summer’s night.

“The theater’s a mistress,” she said. “But…”

Warren didn’t hear the rest. She toyed with his curly black hair, twisting the longer strands around her slender fingers. He cupped his hands around her petite breasts, her skin softer than clouds.

They made love on Arlo’s double bed, dancing an ancient dance on white sheets as though every movement had been choreographed anew. Velvet was Eve, Juliet, Helen of Troy—then Delilah afire. She ignited her Samson until his strength was consumed. A warm breeze slipped through the window, too humid to evaporate sweat from sticky flesh. A phantom light from the outside world played on the ceiling. Warren stroked Velvet from her head to her toes, afraid she might vanish.

* * * * *

Warren awakened to the annoying pulse of his digital alarm clock. Daylight streamed through the window. Morning was here. Velvet wasn’t. He called for her several times. Perhaps she was hiding, playing another game. He checked under the bed and dug through the closet. Had she turned herself into a piece of clothing or an umbrella? Warren sniffed Arlo’s leather jacket and inspected a polished loafer.

He stumbled toward the kitchen. Where was she? He noticed the cabinet doors under the sink, ajar, and flung them open. The shopping bag from Balducci’s was tucked inside of the plastic garbage pail, beside the empty champagne bottle. The trash smelled of Christmas trees. The aroma faded. Warren slumped to the floor, cradled the pail in his arms and cried.

The telephone rang. Velvet? Warren scrambled to reach the phone, hoping to hear her laugh. The male voice on the other end was effeminate and unmistakable—his agent, Larry. Warren tried to conceal his disappointment.

“I just lined up an audition,” Larry said. “Next Friday morning at ten sharp.”

Warren opened a drawer and grabbed a pencil and pad. Of course, he wouldn’t get a private audition. He never did.

“Another cattle call?”

“One for blue ribbon stock,” Larry gloated. “We’re talking best of Fosse.”

The new restaging of Fosse’s most spectacular musical numbers? The show scheduled to open soon? The pace of Warren’s heartbeats quickened.

“You mean,” Warren said, “on Broadway?”
“Well, I don’t mean the Brooklyn Bridge. Listen, an unexpected slot turned up. Not principal, but good. I talked you up big, okay? Said Bob Fosse was your idol and you could dance his routines in your sleep. The Broadhurst at ten—no, nine-thirty’s safer. And, for godsakes, don’t let me down and dance sloppy, or my reputation’s dead meat.”

The phone call ended. This was the potential break—the big one—and Warren had skipped jazz class for two weeks and dropped his membership at the gym. His credit cards were maxed. His headshot looked stupid. An eighteen-wheel truck might as well flatten him right now. Warren pounded his fist on the counter and swore. His dream girl had just gone virtual unreality and now this.

Warren needed coffee. He brewed the last of the house blend he had filched from the restaurant. Flashbacks of Velvet blazed through his memory like fireworks in a cloudless night sky. Could even a wacked-out imagination create a fantasy that real? The weak coffee tasted lousy. He downed it anyway and decided to audition.

Warren piled his meager supply of cash on the kitchen table and found his checkbook. It would take money to make money. He hunted through Arlo’s closet and dresser drawers, unearthing a MasterCard, two fifties, seven tens and a dozen twenties. Arlo’s money went on the left side of the table. His own stayed on the right. Warren put on his leotard and sweats, stuffed thirty right-side dollars into his pocket and caught the subway uptown.

The dance studio occupied the third floor. He plunked down the fee on the registration table and signed in. The instructor was new. At least the guy wouldn’t make any cute remarks about why Warren kept missing class. Warren cut to the rear of the room to warm up muscles stiffened from neglect. The ninety-minute ordeal seemed endless.

* * * * *

The next morning, Warren felt like a hood ornament after a head-on collision. He soaked in a hot bath. It didn’t help. His dancing sucked. He’d totally blow the audition. Larry would dump his portfolio into the East River.

He mushed some stale raisin bran with water. Arlo’s portrait seemed to watch his every move. Arlo had said not to call except in an emergency, would go postal if Warren woke him up to beg for money. Warren slurped down breakfast. How could he afford new shots? He covered Arlo’s photo with a dishtowel and checked the listings of photographers in the phone book. His guts ached, as though two hands twisted them. He’d never stolen money before.

It was Sunday. After jazz class, Warren headed for the Jason Leigh Studio near Grand Central Station. The steel gate was open but the place looked dark. He prayed and turned the knob. The door creaked open.

The proprietor’s bell tinkled with an old-fashioned sound, straight out of a Forties flick. Warren stood motionless in the doorway. A balding man wearing narrow-rimmed glasses emerged from the back room. His tight black turtleneck and jeans accentuated his broad shoulders and flat gut. The diamond stud embedded in the lobe of his left ear glittered. The man matched Arlo’s vague description of Jason Leigh. He coughed as though he smoked too much and cleared his throat. An air-conditioning unit, wedged in a small window above the front door, rattled.

“I need a decent headshot,” Warren said. “At least two copies by Thursday night.”

“Are you kidding?” Jason flipped through the appointment book on the counter. “I can’t even guarantee a shoot by then.”

“You did as much for Arlo Brandon last year,” Warren said, unsure if the guy would wink or throw him out.

Jason’s gaze shifted, obviously scrutinizing Warren from head to toe. Warren fidgeted with the lower edge of his sweatshirt. He dug out Arlo’s credit card and two fifty-dollar bills.

“I’ve got an important audition Friday morning,” Warren said. “The shot I’ve got won’t do. And Arlo claims you’re the best photographer around.”

Jason removed his glasses and rubbed his right eye. He squinted at the lenses, then eradicated a smudge with a linen handkerchief. Would he agree?

“You just can’t charge something to somebody else’s account. I don’t know you from beans.”

Warren offered his California driver’s license. Maybe he should have phoned Arlo. Too late, now. The photographer studied the license in the light from a goose-necked lamp. He ran his finger across the hologram of Warren’s picture and the State of California seal. He inspected the two fifties. Probably thought they might be counterfeit. Jason smoothed back the thinning black hair on the sides of his head, then gestured toward the back room.

“Put on the white polo shirt at the front of the rack,” Jason said. “Let me do your makeup, though.” The air conditioner seemed to rattle louder. “If you’ve stolen that card—if you’re lying—you won’t perform for anyone in New York again. Understand?”

Warren understood all too well.

* * * * *

Warren returned to the photographer’s on Thursday at three o’clock. The studio was dark, its steel gate locked. Where was Jason? Warren needed those new shots for the audition tomorrow. He rattled the bars and pounded his fists against the sun-warmed metal. Two middle-aged women in chinos and floppy blouses walked by and stared.

“You don’t have to bust my place in,” a voice said.

Warren faced the photographer. Jason frowned, the skin on his forehead as rutted as a ploughed field. He set a small paper sack on the pavement and dug a single key out of the side pocket of his white Dockers.

“I skipped lunch to finish your pictures,” Jason said. “A man has to eat.”

Warren’s mouth froze in neutral gear. A taxi driver wearing a turban wove his cab through traffic, leaning on the horn. A pigeon flapped by and landed on a discarded donut. Was Warren the only New Yorker who didn’t express himself worth a damn or know where he was headed?

Jason rolled the gate aside. He motioned Warren over to the counter and disappeared into the back room. He emerged carrying several eight-by-ten glossy photos stacked on a sheet of white mounting board.

“This is the real you,” he said. “I mean, if you ever grow up and calm down.”

Warren focused on the image of a soul in black and white. The eyes in the photo looked alert and sensual—almost alive. The lips were slightly parted, curved in a natural smile. The overall combination radiated artistic sensitivity… success.

“How can I ever thank you?” Warren’s tongue felt thick, as though he’d been drinking.

The photographer placed seven photos into a shallow nine-by-twelve-inch cardboard box. He rested his hand atop Warren’s, his palm warm.

“Get a good night’s sleep,” Jason said. His voice sounded genuine and kind. “You’re prettier than Arlo but you’ll need all the help you can get.”

Warren returned to the apartment. He left the box of photos on the living room sofa and hit the sack by nine. His brain chanted the photographer’s advice like a television set blaring an obnoxious commercial. Warren listened to the sounds of traffic for two hours. His leg muscles ached. He stumbled toward the kitchen to down his last three Advil.

One of his new headshots sat on the kitchen counter. The hairs on the backs of his hands stood as though spray-painted in position. The image of his eyes sparkled with an intense crimson light. Warren blinked. The light vanished. The room spun. He awakened in Arlo’s bed at sunrise. What the hell had happened the night before?

* * * * *

Warren arrived at the Broadhurst Theater at nine-thirteen. The shocking-pink lettering on a promotional poster challenged him from behind a brass-framed plate of glass: Sexy! Hot! Go! He stepped onto the green-and-white floor tiles in the foyer, his tongue daubed with a metallic taste. Apprehension always wacked his taste buds before an audition. He glanced up at a crystal chandelier, then entered the main theater and stretched his muscles to prepare for the test.

A thin, sandy-haired man with a clipboard set up a card table near the front row of seats. Warren signed a roster, filled out a card and placed his headshot on the table.

Eight other men arrived and registered, dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts. Several limbered their legs. A chestnut-skinned man with a stubby ponytail stripped down to his black leotard and tights. He practiced the splits in the center aisle, his thighs taut, and his movements smoother than a Teflon-coated zipper.

“You look terriff, Barry,” a dancer with one pierced ear said, obviously trying to ease the surrounding competitive tension.

Warren’s stomach churned, as though he was about to drill his own teeth. The other guys all seemed to know each other. They probably attended classes together or had worked some of the same shows. Only one person in Warren’s jazz class was employed as a dancer—the instructor. Warren exercised his feet and calves with a therapeutic stretch band. These guys looked so damned professional. What chance had he to get the part?

A high-pitched feminine voice drew Warren’s attention. A willowy brunette in stretchy white slacks strode down the center aisle toward the stage, accompanied by a man in his forties, probably a choreographer. They sat in the second row of seats. The brunette crossed her legs. A teal polyester blouse clung to her flat chest. The man with the clipboard handed her the stack of glossy prints, then turned toward the assembled group. He rattled off a string of instructions for the dancers. Each would cross the stage one at a time for a warm-up, doing steps from “Steam Heat,” a Fifties showstopper—sexy, smooth, precise and classic Fosse.

Warren and the others lined up single file by height in the wing at stage right. At five-foot-eleven, he stood third from the rear of the line. He breathed in, mentally counting to four. He counted to four again and exhaled. If only Warren were two inches taller, he’d go last.

The first man in line, the Barry guy, danced across the stage sideways, on his knees, facing his audience of three. Both his hands clutched an imaginary bowler. His arms—and the hat that wasn’t—drew a large, continuous circle in the air as he moved. Warren could almost hear the click of an advancing locomotive’s wheel against steel rail. No way for Warren to beat that.

Barry reached the opposite wing, stood and gave his name. The second dancer crossed the stage. The third. The fourth… Warren’s turn arrived. His heart pounded like a lead drummer high on drugs. Then the image of Bob Fosse, clothed in black, appeared in the opposite wing. The other dancers didn’t seem to notice. Fosse pushed a derby down over his brow and gestured toward center stage.

“Get out there,” Fosse called. He took a long, hard drag on a fresh cigarette while he stubbed the butt of the previous one in a translucent bucket of sand. “Be me and give it all.”

The theater darkened. Beams from twin spotlights pierced the blackness. Their golden pools hit center stage and flared. Velvet posed statue-still in the far beam, her sequined crimson tuxedo glittering like a chain reaction of light.

Warren’s skin tingled at the sight of Velvet. Was she truly there? She faced him, her knees bent and legs apart. Her pelvis rocked with sensuous thrusts. The red bowler in her right hand accentuated the suggestive rhythm. Her eyes glistened, pupils sparkling like two ruby sequins.

“Come on,” Velvet called to him. “Get hot.”

She belted out one of yesterday’s songs, as though she could be heard and seen by all—as though her song resonated fresh and new. Even her verbal mechanical sound effects, her banging-on-the radiator clicks and steam hisses, swelled fresh and new.

Warren moved onto the stage—cool, slow, sharp and very Fosse. Velvet might vanish in a minute, but for now she was vibrant and real. The center spots blazed red. She switched the step. Warren did, too. He entered the crimson beam beside hers.

They danced side-by-side across the other half of the He stage, under the hot lights. The mingled odors of woman, sweat and redwood permeated Warren’s nose, mouth and mind. Just short of the wing, Warren called out his name, facing a standing ovation from the packed house that wasn’t. He was Fosse, Arlo Brandon, John Muir—everything he’d ever dreamed.

The rest of the audition simply happened. Nine male dancers faced their critical audience of three. No one actually told Warren, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” No one had to. Warren read the expression in the choreographer’s eyes. Barry would get the part.

* * * * *

Warren walked away from the Broadhurst, the pack containing his dance gear against his back. He let the hot, wet midday air numb his feelings as it sapped his strength. He passed a closed theater. A cardboard-and-newspaper bed blocked the boarded-up stage doors. Was that his fate?

A sidewalk vendor hawked rice and kabobs. The smells of grease and chicken nauseated Warren. Water flowed along hosed-down gutters. He purchased a bottle of Crystal Geyser and sat on the stairs leading to the subway downtown.

He should have hunched his shoulders more during the audition and snapped his fingers less. His movements should have been more angular and clear. Warren gulped down the cool water, as though the liquid might evaporate. He fished a subway token from his pocket, hoping Larry, his agent, wouldn’t call today.

The stifling underground station appeared unusually empty. Warren mopped his forehead and gazed down at the tracks, then into the blackness of the bore. He had stolen Arlo’s money, couldn’t pay it back. The rumble of an approaching train drew him closer to the edge of the platform. He could smell the stink of his own sweat. The rumble intensified. A yellow ball of light hung in the tunnel, like a coastal beacon in the fog. His left foot inched into the void.

“I abhor trite endings,” a voice said.

Startled, Warren teetered backwards to safety. The train emerged from the darkness. His heart pounded. What the hell had he almost done?

“The theater’s a mistress,” the voice said, “but she demands all and belongs to all.”

Warren recognized the voice now. The words and inflection were Velvet’s. The voice was his own. He boarded the train and slumped in an empty seat, struggling to solve the intangible puzzle of Velvet’s identity. A boom box thumped rap ten feet away. A swarm of squealing kids buzzed into the car at the next station and out, two stations later. The train picked up speed again and swayed. Who was she? His inner self or some sort of muse? Nothing made sense.

Warren stepped off the subway and climbed the stairs toward daylight. A humid draught hit his face and a sharp click caught his attention. A translucent image of Fosse, holding a leather case, stood on the sidewalk. The gaunt icon lit a cigarette, coughed, and opened the case.

“You almost killed yourself down there,” Fosse said. “If you really want to dare the Devil, do it right, the way I did.” He offered three plastic vials of pills in his outstretched palm. “Poppers, Dexamil, Seconal, everything you need.”

The world undulated around Warren, cold as a dead halibut packed in ice. A ruby-red neon arrow flickered across the street, pointing toward the parking lot below. He smelled evergreen, then dug his hands into his pants pockets and walked away from Fosse’s image.

* * * * *

The telephone rang an hour later in the apartment. Larry must be calling. Warren should admit failure and accept the consequences.

“I know you didn’t get the part,” Larry said. He sounded as wound-up as a coil of wire humming with electricity. “Hey, sit down if you aren’t already. Madison and Moore—that hot new ad agency—wants you to do a commercial.”

“What gives?” Warren hadn’t auditioned for any commercial in months.

“Christine Phillips—one of their managers called,” Larry said. “Her younger sister was at the audition this morning. Christine wants to meet you Monday at eleven and offer a contract. To do a wacky commercial for the next Super Bowl.”

“The Super Bowl?” Had he misheard?

“A beer commercial,” Larry gloated. “Something woodsy with a tree dancing a pseudo-Fosse routine. Christine’s sister swears you’d be perfect. Claims she saw you on stage and could even smell pines.”

Warren’s elementary school play. The message hit as though a giant sequoia had crashed-landed beside him. The whole blasted country would watch him dance—and he’d be a damned tree? What would they have him do, hand Mean Joe Green a can of carbonated sap? Warren stifled the urge to deliver a sarcastic quip.

“That’s fantastic,” Warren said. “What’s the address?”

Warren hung up the phone five minutes later and burst into unrestrained laughter. Life had typecast him as a tree. He pretended to wave two funky plastic branches at the choreographer, Barry Ryan and the brunette in the teal blouse. He did the splits, his arms raised in mock triumph.

“Warren Lund,” he announced, “a dancer who puts his best root forward. A redwood for all seasons.” He laughed a hard, bitter laugh. “The theater demands all and delivers squat.”

Warren inhaled the odor of an old wooden stage sprinkled with sawdust. Images of him and Velvet dancing “Steam Heat” flipped through his mind. He recalled his own voice reciting her words with her inflection. He turned a mental key. Velvet had known he wouldn’t get the Broadway part. She had inspired him to dance his best for the brunette—the Phillips woman. Had somehow convinced the brunette to hire him. Why hadn’t he seen the whole truth before? Velvet really was a muse yet so much more—a little bit of him, Fosse and Broadway.

Warren rested his palms against the smooth vinyl floor. An ache of loneliness seared his mind and soul. The feeling retreated to the pit of his stomach and gnawed with the blunt teeth of emotional distress. Velvet didn’t belong to him and never could. She belonged to art, was the substance and illusion of theatrical art.

The front door opened with the sound of rushing wind. Velvet appeared in a puff of crimson stage smoke. The shopping bag she clutched bore the green-and-white Balducci’s logo. She uttered a strained giggle, then pinched her lips between her front teeth. Warren turned away. Should he order her to leave or beg her to stay?

“The theater could use a few good trees,” she said.

Velvet opened a bottle of champagne. The cork bounced off the kitchen ceiling. She jabbered about imported cheeses and beer commercials, her words all strung together, as though her voice were a recording played at high speed. She twisted a lock of her cocoa-brown hair around her slender fingers and laughed.

 

Old Boyfriends

OldBoyfriends

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Sue Lange

 

Funny how you can go through a whole day and not remember a bit of it. One minute you’re on the morning train, and the next you’re back at Grand Central during evening rush hour, waiting for the train to North White Plains.

Sarah Carla spotted the gate number just as the fleeting questions about where the day had gone entered her head. She passed the flits off as a human’s amazing ability to turn off their brain when its work day was as mind-numbing, tedious, boring, and mundane as Sarah Carla’s. There was a phenomenon associated with it; some sort of self-anesthetizing reaction to the dull world of the underutilized.

Sarah Carla, expert data input clerk and sometime telephone answerer, would be the first to tell you she was not underutilized. She had the fastest fingers in town. A pretty big statement in a city of seven million. Unfortunately, she got paid by the hour so her talent went unrecompensed fairly. Perhaps Jerome was right about her not reaching her potential. Perhaps he was right to fight with her about it. But did he have to leave over it? Anybody that left because their partner was unrecompensed fairly was not someone you wanted as a partner.

She spotted the gate number, 29, and turned from the boards to head across the floor past the information booth where gate 29 stood.

The commuter crunch was in full swing. Raincoats—the uniform outer wear of the modern-day office worker regardless of the weather—flocked toward the various gates and passages. The surging pool of brown khaki was no doubt overwhelming to inexperienced out-of-towners, but Sarah Carla and the 499,999 other day workers were well informed. They navigated past each other swiftly, avoiding mishaps. Briefcases and laptops slung along like nursery rhymes: all rhythm and purpose.

Sarah glanced at the big clock hanging above the balcony of the Palms where the less-pressed commuters stopped for a martini before heading home to supper and bed. Or maybe a group of visitors rested there to regain strength squandered on a day of manic shopping—the last New York minute before their holiday ended. Parcels and bags gathering underneath the little tables there attested to the latter.

The clock said 4:15, giving Sarah a good twenty-five m…

Just as Sarah returned her gaze from the dial to the ever-moving maze of rushing bodies wearing raincoats and carrying cases, a face materialized out of the crowd and brushed past her. Its owner wore a green and gold letter jacket, circa 1976, instead of the ubiquitous power raincoat.

Sarah gasped. Reggie Crown’s face had not changed a bit. She abruptly turned to watch Reggie’s passing varsity coat sink into the surrounding crowd. The sudden move on her part caused the man carrying the Dell immediately behind her to lose his timing. He stumbled into her for a brief second. Then, in a deft side step, he regained his composure and returned to the swing of the crowd and within seconds was halfway to gate 32. Sarah stood unmoving for a frozen moment before stepping forward to follow the green and gold.

“Reggie,” she called.

The jacket was by now heading around the corner to the main exit. She swam upstream to follow. She called again when she reached the corner and watched him looking for an opening in one of the twelve exit doors. He was the only one in the crowd trying to leave the building. The noise was such that he could not hear her calling. Soon he was out and now Sarah was in the same predicament he had just been in.

Pushing, elbowing, and glaring at the oncoming traffic, she made it to the exit doors as an old woman with a cane was also trying to exit. Everyone around the old lady had opened a path to let her by and Sarah saw her opening. She stepped through with an “I’m sorry,” to the doddering woman.

“Fuck off!” the old woman said.

“Thanks,” said Sarah, actually meaning it, because she was not paying the least bit of attention.

Reggie Crown crossed the street and headed into the Pershing Café just as the traffic light changed. Sarah ignored the red hand standing in for “Don’t Walk” and shot across the street, safe in the thirty seconds after the hand came up that the pedestrians would jaywalk against the light. Long before the thirty seconds were up, Sarah was inside the café and explaining to the hostess that she was looking for a friend in a green and gold high school bomber jacket.

“Cabletown?” the hostess asked.

“Yes,” Sarah answered seriously, as if Sarah actually needed to specify the one from Cabletown as opposed to the ones from Allentown, Syracuse, or Bumpfuck.

“Yes, he joined his friends in the far corner,” the hostess answered once she knew exactly which person Sarah was referring to. She pointed to the back where the riser was situated by floor-to-ceiling windows allowing patrons to sit and watch foot traffic outside.

Sarah collected her raincoat belt that had slipped to its last loop. She walked to the corner table where Reggie Crown was just settling in with three others. As she approached the table, the four turned and smiled to her as if they expected her. She kept her eyes on Reggie, though, and didn’t see the others: the crooked teeth and thick glasses with the tape holding the stem in place on bachelor #1, the white boy dreads of bachelor #2, and the innocent age of 15 of bachelor #3. She only had eyes for those of her high school sweetheart, Reggie Crown.

Reggie was not surprised to see Sarah Carla. He smiled in warm welcome, not taken aback in the least. He did not jump up in surprise and wonder for a few moments just how the hell she got here. He did not imagine himself back on the track practicing with coach Dander while his love sat in the bleachers, melting at the thought of a little hunt and pet after the drill.

“Reggie!” Sarah Carla held her arms out to embrace the unembraceable. “What are you doing here?”

Reggie remained seated and smiling. “Sarah, have a seat. We’re all here.”

Sarah’s wide smile slowly released into the shape of a “W” as in “What the…?” as she took in the other three bachelors. She looked from one unaged face of her youth to the next: Tom, her first boyfriend, still anticipating his sixteenth birthday and the expected driver’s license; Lance, the guitar-prone genius headed for the Billboard charts; Mike, her college boy and calculus compatriot. They sat smiling and looking exactly the way they had the day she’d left each of them for greener pastures a long time ago.

She froze and moved only her eyes from one ghost to the next. After several moments of confusion and perhaps a tinge of fright, she spoke: “You forgot Jerome.”

“Jerome’s not an ex,” Mike stated with the exactitude she would expect.

“As of last week, he is,” she said.

“Sit down, Sarah,” Reggie said. He stood to pull out the vacant seat between him and Mike.

“Uh,” Sarah faltered, her brain short-circuiting as she tried to force herself awake. She knew she was dreaming. “I’m going to miss my train,” she said.

“You’re going to take the late bus today. What will you be doing when you get home, anyway?” Reggie asked.

“That’s more important,” Lance added.

Sarah looked at him. His face had not lost its innocence yet. He hadn’t met with the crushing defeat of the music industry. He had not gone into insurance yet. He was still headed for the Grammies right here thirty years later. She stared with her mouth opened in wonder, her brows cinched together.

The four of them watched her and became impatient. Especially Tom, the youngest and a bit fidgety. “It’s your weekly confession,” he blurted. “Did you forget?”

“My weekly confession?” she turned to him now. “What are you talking about? And why do you bother shaving that little wispy thing?”

“Is that why you dumped me?” he asked.

“I dumped you?”

“Sarah, sit down, please,” Reggie pleaded in a not so much accommodating way as an annoyed way.

Sarah looked to him and realized she was stuck in either his dream or hers. Or in a hallucination or delusion.

“It’s not a dream,” Lance said.

“Or a hallucination,” Mike said.

“Or a delusion,” Tom said.

“It’s your weekly confession,” Reggie said.

“That’s what Tom said,” she answered as she looked again from one unchanged face to the next. She ended on Reggie. “And why should this weekly confession be any different than any other weekly confession?”

“It’s different because you meant it,” he answered.

“You sound like some lackey in human resources. Are you going to start in on the bullshit line? I won’t listen; it’s all just some company requirement to keep the psychologists off their back.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Mike jumped in. “It has been proven that people that go to church regularly and experience forgiveness of sins perform fifty percent better in their jobs. After all the tests and surveys were completed it was determined that out of all the things church offers, it’s the forgiveness of sins that really makes a difference.”

“Really,” Tom said.

“Better even than life after death,” Mike continued. “You’re a registered atheist and so have to resort to electronic confession to get equivalent relief.”

“And keep your job,” Tom added.

“It’s just snake oil,” Sarah said, looking straight at Mike.

“On the contrary,” he answered. He stood up and circled over to Tom to illustrate the theory behind the electronic confessional experience.

“Your brain harbors unresolved conflicts in your temporal cortex,” he said palming the top of Tom’s head, his brain. “These conflicts reside in the neurotransmitters stored in long-term memory in various and sundry synapses. They periodically release signals to the amygdala where tension, resentment, anger, self-pity, self-loathing emanate. These negative feelings will continue to affect your personality and sensitivity all your life unless prior conflicts are resolved. Forgiveness of sins resolves these conflicts. Every Sunday, true believers take advantage of the fact, go to church, and start with a clean slate Monday morning. You, being an atheist my dear,” he bowed towards Sarah, “must resort to technological means to achieve the same sort of release. You, my dear Sarah Carla, have been subjected to fMRI which detects just where your sins are residing. A tiny bit of dopamine via tyrosine injection—small and unnoticeable, yet highly effective—has been sent to your temporal cortex to induce hallucinations,” he gestured to the four at the table, “to affect a dredging up of your past sins stored in the cortex. We’ll get the ball rolling, extract a confession, and pretty soon forgiveness will set in.”

“Ha!” Sarah said, taking the seat next to Reggie. “I’ve been going to Confession® every Wednesday since I signed onboard this meat-packing outfit. It’s never made any difference to me. I wake up just as disillusioned on Monday morning as I was on Friday night. I don’t buy it.”

“Then why are we here?” Lance asked. “How did I get here, looking as I do? As if I was still starry-eyed, pimply-assed, and slightly off-key? Why aren’t I interested in selling you some homeowners’?”

“I don’t own a home?” Sarah suggested.

“And how come I’m still fifteen?” Tom asked.

Faced with the obvious, Sarah did what was natural, she balked. “So I went to my weekly confessional requirement as mandated by Company policy and now you four are the result? How’d it happen? Takes a lot of dope to become four sizable blobs of protoplasm, even if your brains were never very developed.”

“So that’s why you dumped me for a jock,” Tom said.

“And me for a rock star,” Reggie said.

“And me for a genius,” Lance said.

“But why’d you leave me?” Mike asked. He walked from where he stood next to Tom and out in front of Sarah across the table.

Sarah pulled on her collar, tugging the clay bola at the front of her neck loose. “Can’t we get a waiter or something?” she said. “What’s wrong with the service here, I’m dry as a bone.”

“Why’d you leave me?” Mike asked, raising his voice to the point of emotion.

“Why am I on trial here?” Sarah asked. “Kids don’t form real relationships, they change boyfriends weekly. What do I have to make an accounting of?” She stood to go and tied her raincoat belt around her waist.

“You’re not on trial here,” Reggie said. “It’s your confession; you wanted us here.”

“That’s bullshit,” she said, looking directly at Mike. “Snake oil.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “You know it isn’t. The confessional samples your brain waves, analyzes the sin, dopes it around and voilá, Reggie Crown is meeting you in Grand Central, leading you to your final destination: the back table at the old Pershing Café. Waitress!” he held his forefinger up in the air, beckoning the server in the middle of the room.

The waitress came to the table balancing an empty drink tray on her right palm and said, “What can I get you?”

“The lady needs a drink,” Mike answered.

“I just want a… a Pellegrino,” Sarah said, retrieving her seat.

“And what else?” the waitress asked looking around the table at the bachelors.

They all shook their heads and cast their eyes down. “Nothing for us,” Reggie spoke for them all.

The waitress smiled tightly and walked away. For several moments no one said anything.

Sarah finally spoke. “Why now, why today? What’s different?”

“Why do you ask us?” Lance said.

“This is your scenario,” Mike added. He sat back down in his seat and fumbled with a table napkin, folding it into neat parallel thirds.

“I don’t know why, Mike,” Sarah said. “I don’t know why, truly. I wish I did. As for the confessional, I guess I wanted to apologize to all of you. I was unable to give you all you needed, what you deserved, or anything at all.”

“You said you loved me,” Tom said.

The table grew restless; they all knew what he meant.

“I lied,” she said. “I didn’t know what love is. Don’t now.”

“Oh, come on,” Lance jumped up. “No one knows. That’s a stupid excuse.”

“But it’s the truth and if you look back on it, you’ll realize you didn’t love me either. We were just trifling, not meaning anything, practicing for the big meltdown. For the day when the walls would come tumbling down. When we’d get hit by a ton of bricks. Nobody loved anybody!” She looked from one to the next as she worked through her rationalization.

“I loved you,” Mike remained slumped.

“Oh, please, Mike,” she said, almost disgusted. “We were still kids, big-brained, malformed, grown-up kids, waiting for the next thing.”

“I loved you and you knew it,” he said.

She inhaled and exhaled in a quiet burst, perceptible only to herself. “Why?” she asked.

“Because you were bright, excited, and exciting. Something that had never come along before. We went everywhere together. We were inseparable. I hung on your every breath, planned my whole life around you. And you knew it.”

“How could I know it?” she asked.

“Because I told you. And you knew it anyway.”

“You trying to make me feel guilty?”

Small laughs and chuckles gurgled simultaneously from all four bachelors.

“That’s the point,” Reggie on her left said. “You’re making you feel guilty.”

“Oh yeah, from the confessional,” she said. “Thing is, it’s not working.”

“It worked before you even stepped into that booth on 29th and Park,” Lance said. “We’re not here to dredge up the past and remind you of what you did; we’re here for forgiveness of sins.”

“I forgive you,” Sarah said.

The four stared at her with half-closed eyes. No one said a word.

Sarah looked at Tom and said, “Because Reggie was better looking.”

She looked at Reggie. “Because Lance was more edgy.”

She looked at Lance. “Because it was over.”

She slowly turned to Mike and inhaled deeply. She glanced at the three-fold napkin he’d been playing with. “It was too much,” she whispered.

Mike sat up stiffly. “What?”

Sarah leaned in towards him. “You were too much.”

When he didn’t react she repeated it louder: “Too much!” And then quieter: “I couldn’t breathe.”

“Because I loved you?”

“I guess. I don’t know. Love was not what I expected. There was this terrible disabling aspect.”

“Because I loved you too much?”

“That’s not love, Mike. That’s fear.”

“It was love, and you knew it.”

“I knew it wasn’t, but I could never tell you. It was so much easier to just run away.”

“So is that your confession?” Mike asked.

“What difference does it make?”

“You tell me.”

“Tell us,” the other three said together.

Silence again as she looked around from face to face.

“I handled it all wrong. All of it. All of you. I never explained. I didn’t know how. I don’t know now. I’m just very, very sorry.”

She hung her head and tried to gather an explanation, find an answer on the inside of her eyelids with eyes pinched shut.

“Ma’am, your seltzer,” the waitress was bringing her order. Sarah snapped her head up and looked at the waitress. “Ah,” she said. Without looking around the table, she knew they’d gone. They’d faded away once her confession had been completed.

“Thank you. I’ll take the check now,” she said.

She took a few sips of the Pellegrino which burned divinely in her throat, and then pulled a few bills out of her laptop outer pocket and dropped them onto the table. Gathering up her raincoat and laptop, she walked through the café and out into the 42nd street pedestrian traffic.

Across Park Avenue, the express bus for Westchester waited for the embarking commuters. It seemed about ready to take off so Sarah hollered “wait!” as she ran across the small distance from the café exit to the bus entrance.

Once inside the bus, she passed her commuter card over the reader and gained admittance to the seating area. With no surprise, and actually a little expectation, she moved to the one empty seat next to Harold, her husband—now ex—of three years.

Harold wore a brimmed hat of the style that would make sure the whole bus noticed. He nodded to her as she sat. Once she had made herself comfortable, he inhaled, gearing up for a spiel. Just as he was enunciating his first syllable, she cut him off.

“I have absolutely no remorse regarding you,” she said. “My confession does not include you. Everything I’ve ever needed to say to you has been said. So what the eff?”

Deflated, Harold closed his mouth and lost his energy. “Hello to you too,” he said.

“So what’s my crime?” she asked.

“No crime, don’t be so defensive. As you noted everything that needed to be said, has been said. A long time ago, I might add.”

“So why are you here?”

“For closure.”

“Oh, please,” she looked away, adjusted her laptop onto her lap.

“Now, now Sarah. Your confession conjured me as the one person that could best guide you forward. You’re all clean now, and vulnerable. You made your confession, that’s true. But you don’t know why yet.”

“So why you? I don’t even like you at this point.”

“Who better? You don’t like me, but you can trust me. We don’t have any secrets; our mutual hate makes us painfully honest. Who else would lay it out in the open for you?”

“Are you going to tell me how many hail Marys or acts of charity I have to commit for penance or something?”

“In a word? No. You just need a push in the right direction and all charity becomes your own.”

“Uh huh.”

“Why do you think Jerome wasn’t there?”

“Leave him out of this. He’s not hounding me so let’s leave well enough alone. I’ve had enough old boyfriends for the time being.”

“He’s not an old boyfriend, Sarah.” All levity had gone out of Harold’s voice. He had the seriousness of a teacher that’s getting to the grist and will leave no child behind.

“Have you spoken to him?” Sarah asked.

“No, have you?”

“Not since last week when he ditched me.”

“Why did he do that?”

“How should I know?”

“Oh, come on Sarah, you know full well why. You made him. You wanted him to.”

“I absolutely did not.”

“Why didn’t you want him to?”

“Because I…”

“Ah,” the bon vivant returned to Harold. His eyebrows lifted, he shrugged his shoulders. “So why are you here? In this city? On this bus?”

“I live here.”

“You ran here.”

“It’s a place.”

“You have a mechanical engineering degree from a half-way decent school, yet you do data input, the type of work a half-witted monkey could do. Why do you take the easy way out all the time? Why don’t you work for what you want?”

“It’s relaxing. You should try it sometime.”

“Why are your fingernails all chewed to the quick if you’re so relaxed?”

Sarah looked down at her hands resting on the top of the laptop. “What do you want, Harold?”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to leave me alone.”

“And so I shall,” Harold said. “For here is my stop.” He rose to go. The side door was already opening with the passengers queued up in the aisle. He latched onto the back of the line and at the door he turned to Sarah and said, “It’s okay to be wrong, you know, if that’s what you want.” The doors flapped shut behind him.

Sarah huffed after him as if her disgust would reach through the doors and remind him how annoying he was and how glad she was that at least she and he had no unfinished business.

* * * * *

Abruptly the lights went out and she found herself waking in the booth’s curtained darkness. The LEDs of the analyzer surrounding her blinked in the darkness. She felt woozy, disoriented. She barely remembered accepting the tyrosine-laced wafer proffered from the booth’s mechanical priest arm.

“Please retrieve card,” came the canned instruction. She registered its sound and slowly realized she needed to get her debit card back and return to work.

Tripping out of the booth on 29th and Park before fully regaining consciousness, she felt too queasy to face the data terminal. She collected her raincoat and her laptop and headed down to Grand Central. She thought about Jerome and the fight they’d had. He was pressuring her into checking into the city engineering gig. He worked in the mayor’s office and found out about a contract in the making for new city development—office buildings, parking garages. A lot of shit was going on. White Plains needed a gaggle of young, enthusiastic (read: cheap) engineers to pump up the design/inspection squad. He really wanted her to put in an app. She claimed as usual he wasn’t getting it; that she was fine where she was. He said, fine. She said, fine. He left. For good, he said.

In the station, the 1:00 p.m. crowd was nothing like that during commuter crunch. She easily found her gate, 11, and without any jarring ex-boyfriends to intercede, entered the train and lay down in the empty seat. Once the train got underway, she felt better and sat up.

On the other side of the river, the train exited the tunnel and made it out into the open. She watched the cityscape permute from tall housing projects to warehouses to six-floor borough residences to the suburbs with its single-family homes on sixth-acre lots interspersed with duplexes and cement walkways running between them. At Woodlawn she debarked along with the Irish-American contingent that lived there.

Walking the couple of blocks to her tiny back-room apartment, she thought of her past mistakes and personality flaws. As she neared her street, the self-absorption slowly strayed away. The sun had come out after an early afternoon shower and the air smelled fresh and invigorating. She thought of how lucky she was to be able to duck out of work on such a mad, great day. She began skipping, with the laptop swinging like a child’s lunch pail. She ran up the steps to her flat and flew into the kitchen, dropping the raincoat and laptop onto the table. She picked up the headset of her landline and punched in #1.

“Hello,” came from the end of the line.

“Jerome,” she said. “What are you doing home?”

“Sarah? Uh, well I was coming down to meet you.”

“But I’m home now and I was, uh, just thinking of coming over to your office.”

“But I’m not there.”

“I know, and that puts me in a quandary, because…”

“I just want you to forget the whole city job thing. It’s fine where you are. I just want you to be happy, and I…”

“…because I decided I needed to fill out an app anyway, and I’m…”

“…miss you, and I don’t want to…”

“…sorry, and I don’t want to…”

Together they said, ”break up.”