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.


Carnival of the Clowns

by Eric Bonholtzer


“Daddy, Daddy! Can we go in, come on, can we? Please?!” Ritchie Taylor was the textbook definition of an exuberant child. Short, bowl-cut blonde hair, with wide saucer eyes that seemed to take in everything about the world, and most importantly an insatiable curiously. And like other little children, Ritchie seemed to have an innate talent for getting his way, especially when he had his heart set on something. And Ritchie Taylor didn’t just have his heart set on going into the haunted funhouse, it was the sole reason for his existence. So there was no way, no way, he was not going in.

“Fine,” his stepfather grunted in irritation. Won’t this kid ever shut up? he thought to himself as he had at least a dozen times today, one time becoming so ticked off that he’d cuffed the boy across the mouth to quiet him down. Little squirt deserved it too. The man spat with disgust. Jason James Fisher, or J.J. as he’d been known in his prison years, did not look like a particularly mean man or an abusive parent, but appearances were deceiving. If anything, his bespectacled, slightly tanned presence made him look like a professor or scholar, but the truth was, J.J. hadn’t even graduated the seventh grade, taking a milling job when his father was killed in the bed of another man’s wife. Anyone who spent a good deal of time with J.J. realized that beneath his “Father Knows Best” appearance lay something dark, something wrong. J.J. didn’t consider himself to be a bad stepparent, but sometimes kids just talked too much for their own good.

“Yeah!! All right, Daddy! Thank you so much! That is just so cool!” Little Ritchie’s face split into a wide grin.

J.J. did not share in his stepson’s delight, a bad hangover still grating on him. “Don’t you ever shut your mouth? Never give me a damn second of peace, boy. Now shut it or I’ll shut it for you.” He reached his hand back as if to emphasize, but Ritchie didn’t need a second warning. He fell silent. “And how many times have I told you, don’t call me Daddy. Call me J.J.”

Ritchie was too delighted with the prospect of the haunted funhouse to let the admonishment hurt him for long. The carnival attraction stood before them like a dark blight against a setting sun sky. Some of the paint was wearing off the structure, showing the plywood and nails beneath, but to Ritchie it was at the same time the singularly most frightening and most awe inspiring sight he had ever seen. Painted jet black, the weathered frame looked as if it could have been there for ages, though the carnival had only come to town last week. So real, Ritchie thought to himself.

* * * * *

“Two.” J.J. told the girl at the ticket booth, his eyes slowly undressing her, while cringing over the three dollar fee. That’d buy me half of a sixer, he thought bitterly. Money much better spent. But Karen, his nag of a wife, had told him to take young Ritchie to the carnival. Just because she was good friends with the owner, J.J. didn’t see why he had to be the one to go. But after all, it was Karen’s money, and as long as she was supporting him, J.J. had no problem doing little things for her and her son. He considered himself a very generous man.

“Are you J.J.?” the ticket girl asked.

“Yeah, what’s it to ya?” J.J. retorted sharply.

“Well, the owner said to let you in free for a private show.”

J.J. smiled. Maybe his luck was changing.

“I wish Mommy could see this.” Ritchie said, a slight glimmer of disappointment in his eyes, but it was quickly replaced with growing wonder as they approached the funhouse.

Little brat, always whinin’ for yer mama, J.J. thought silently. Grow up and quit bitchin’ like yer mom. JasJim this, JasJim that. And when she uses that stupid pet name… she’s practically begging for it, just like her little runt. Why can’t the kid just suck it up and be a man, like me? Despite what he wanted to say, there were people around so J.J. curbed his tongue and said only, “You know she had to work, Ritchie.”

As they entered the funhouse it looked more like a house of horrors, the sign bearing the name “Carnival of the Clowns”, scrawled in fake blood. They heard the doorman, a hunchback, shouting loudly, “Be wary of the clowns! Beware of the clowns! They’re killers!” J.J. resisted the urge to give him the name of a good chiropractor. The chuckling laughter followed even as they traversed deep into the dank depths of the haunted attraction.

It was pitch black, the only illumination coming from the few torches that hung from cobwebbed sconces lining the wall. The place smelled damp and earthen. Ritchie savored every second of it, taking in every sight, every sound, every smell, and loving it.

This stuff is so fake, J.J. thought bitterly to himself as they traversed deeper into the belly of the beast. Here and there he saw things: metal cages striped with pieces of supposed flesh, torture racks and iron maidens from the Middle Ages, that looked as if they had been bought from a surplus store. Who’s this stuff supposed to scare? J.J. continued his sour, never-ending rant against the world, but Ritchie seemed genuinely entertained. They soon entered a maze of mirrors, those funhouse staples, with their wacky reflections, some big and tall, some twisted and some small. Ritchie was currently engrossed with staring at just how he would look if he was seven feet tall with arms the length of an chimpanzee. What a baby, J.J. thought with disdain. You’d never see me hoppin’ around like a stupid ape. Ritchie turned and looked at his stepfather with a look of wonder on his face, and for a moment J.J. was almost taken aback. Below Ritchie’s left eye was the beginnings of purple-black bruise. When the hell’d that happen? But then J.J. remembered, as they continued on, and his heart once again grew cold. Oh yeah, that’s right. My magazines. The good ones. Stupid boy, thinkin’ that he can go round knockin’ my stuff down and not get his punishment. Gotta learn about the real world sooner or later. J.J. was a strong subscriber to the belief that telling yourself a lie enough times somehow made it true. Ritchie was saying something but J.J. hadn’t been listening.

“Huh?” he asked, the prospect of being home with a cold one bitterly mocking.

“I said, Daddy, where are we?” For the first time since they’d entered the funhouse J.J. noticed an emotion on Ritchie that wasn’t excitement or joy. It was fear.

“We’re right…” He looked left and saw only a vacant hall stretching off into nothingness, and to his right, the same, the distortion of the mirrors making it impossible to tell the real exit from the millions of fake ones. “You know, I really don’t know.” J.J. had been too engrossed with thoughts of cold beers to have paid much attention to where he was going, the three brewskies he had downed earlier doing little to aid his short term memory. A faint tremor of fear, quickly to be erased, because to J.J. that was an emotion reserved for children, and he replaced it with anger at his stepson who had been so stupid as to get them lost in a haunted funhouse with no directions whatsoever. J.J. reared back, ready to belt Ritchie one when a powerful voice split the oppressive silence.

“You touch him, you die,” the voice was frothing with rage, yet somehow sounded familiar.

“Oh, yeah?” J.J. turned, his hatred temporarily displacing from the boy onto whatever had the audacity to interrupt him. He glanced around, seeing nothing but his own reflection refracted a hundred different ways, from fat to skinny, short to shorter. Angered with nothing to lash out at, he became even more enraged. “Why don’t you show yourself, if you got the stones, and we’ll see just who’s gonna die?!”

Suddenly, like a ghost, a clown stepped from the shadows. But in reality, it looked like a thousand clowns stepping forth in suits of red, white stripes running down one side, and a patch blue stars across the chest. “Okay. Here I am. Why don’t you say that to my face?” The clown looked small, only 5’5″ or so, nearly half a foot shorter than J.J., making his confidence soar. Seeing this slight figure, J.J. smiled. It was always so much easier to pick on those smaller than yourself. Still, something looked oddly familiar in the clown’s eyes, something knowing.

“You think I’m scared of you?! You’ll get yours right now!” J.J. charged forward, a head-long bull rush from his younger days of back alley football. He stopped dead in his tracks after ten paces when he saw the clown pull out a very real looking knife. The blade was at least six inches long and looked incredibly sharp.

Instantly, J.J. turned and ran, fleeing from this obviously psychotic monster, pushing right past Ritchie as he went by. The frightened boy was quick on his heels, needing to get away. The clown was just behind him, its wrath seemingly focused on J.J. Soon, the hunted pair found themselves lost in the huge hall of mirrors, unable to get out, the white face and cold blue eyes of the approaching killer clown just steps behind.

J.J. and Ritchie ran with all their might, ducking and dodging behind the mirrors, everywhere they turned, seeing that grinning painted face. Suddenly, Ritchie was thrown to the ground, J.J.’s foot sending the young child sprawling, thinking that a small sacrifice could give him the time he needed to get out of there. Ritchie, infinitely hurt by his stepfather’s actions, could scarcely move, hatred and sadness burning in those sweet innocent eyes. Still the clown crept closer, seeming to be everywhere, in every mirror, in every reflection, all around. Finally, Ritchie forced his unwilling legs to move, getting up and taking off once again. The clown was definitely closer now; he could feel it. Ritchie painfully watched as J.J. ducked into a niche between two mirrors, abandoning his stepson, leaving him to the clutches of the clown.

Hoping that there had been some mistake, that his stepfather would somehow protect him, Ritchie ran to where J.J. crouched. The boy would have had better luck hoping for the world to stand still. “What are you doing, you idiot?!” J.J. was frantic with panic, nearly screaming at his crying charge. “You fool, now we’re both dead.” Almost as if summoned by his words, the mirror behind the pair shattered and there stood the chalk-white ghost face of the clown. In one swift motion the knife came down, slashing J.J., dropping him to the ground, where he lay clutching his bleeding side and crying. Ritchie was petrified, unable to move, unable to even scream for help.

The clown hovered atop them both, a thin runnel of blood already seeping from J.J.’s wound, and seemed to smile sadly, “Last chance at redemption, JasJim.” J.J. looked up at the crystalline blue eyes in wonder and terror. How did this monster, this thing know his wife’s pet name for him? Was this clown really a ghost? Something worse? There was no tremor of fear in the clown’s voice when it asked, “You or the boy? One lives, one dies. Your choice.”

J.J. didn’t hesitate. “The boy.” The clown reached down and grabbed Ritchie’s hand, pushing him towards the emergency exit.

“No,” J.J. screamed, seeing his chance of survival running out the funhouse door. “I meant kill the boy.”

The clown reached up and with a fury that rivaled hell’s own, struck fiercely, plunging the knife blade deep into J.J’s chest. “Wrong answer!” The clown screamed again and again, angry cries mixed with tears of sorrow.

As J.J. faded away, he could hear something faint, but something that made him angry, angry at himself, angry at his wife, and most of all angry at Ritchie. But none of that mattered now. It was all over now, at least for him. As the clown walked towards the exit, wiping away the thick pancake makeup and taking off the clown suit, realization struck. The last thing J.J. heard was that familiar voice saying, “Ritchie, everything’s going to be okay now. Mommy’s here.”


Understanding Causal Relationships In Animal Groups

by Kiel Stuart


Thunder made an ominous growl. Declan Moore sat in the cramped living room of his brother’s apartment, the party in full swing around him.

He had done it. Bought a house. Couldn’t wait to make the announcement.

But things weren’t going as he planned.

The party got noisier. Uneasy, Declan glanced around. No one else noticed the coming storm. They nestled close to each other, a pack of laughing, chattering, eating creatures.

“Ma!” Kate waded through the crowd. “More cole slaw?”

Ma shook her head, spraying a muffled sentence part cole slaw, part refusal. Two-year-old Francie, whose birthday they were celebrating, bumbled over and Ma grabbed the child’s pink cheeks. It was Ma whom Declan resembled, small and dark, not his big, loose-limbed father. Brother John had gotten all the size.

“So.” John lumbered up, beer in hand. “Got yourself a new house?” He made it an accusation.

And Declan found himself explaining how the recent construction boom on Long Island meant lots of work for everyone, house painters included, so Declan could finally buy a home of his own, a two-bedroom handyman special. It needed fixing up.

John, nodding and smiling, had already tuned Declan out. The doorbell rang and John went to answer, leaving Declan in Kate’s line of sight.

For an instant, Kate’s eyes flashed yellow.

John’s wife was a big girl, rosy-cheeked like baby Francie. Declan managed her a quivery smile, but Kate turned away.

John brought the new arrival to greet Declan. “Tina,” said John, his voice already slurring at the edges, “allow me to introduce my brother, the house painter, who bought himself a brand new home all on his little ol’ house-painter salary.”

Tina looked as if she’d like to sink into the orange shag carpeting.

Declan lowered his head, felt his mouth stretch in appeasement. If big John wanted a fight, there was nothing Dec could do to stop it.

“I think Kate’s calling you,” said Tina.

John grunted, shouldering through the crowd.

“Dec, why ain’t you eatin’?” Kate shouted. “Everyone else is eatin’.”

Declan sank into a chair. “Not hungry, thanks.” Besides, he was so tense he might upchuck right in front of all his brother’s friends. Now wouldn’t that just be a sight. Wouldn’t that be something for Johnny Moore to laugh about.

“Why’n’cha eat?” wondered Ma. “Boy your age should eat.”

Boy your age, mused Declan, I’m 33.

“And a boy your age should be married, shouldn’t he?” Ma glanced around the room, seeking an audience.

“Dec don’t need a wife,” laughed John. “Dec has himself a cat.”

“Look at your brother,” continued Ma. “Is that too much to ask, Dec? So when you gonna gimme some grandchildren?” Ma pinched Francie’s cheek too hard; the baby began to bawl, and John dove in to the rescue, picking her up, rocking her into quiet. Unfazed, Ma continued. “How ‘bout it, Dec?”

“I’ll run out to K-Mart tomorrow and buy a couple.”

The older kids sniggered. Declan, glad to share a moment with someone, anyone, winked at them.

“Dec’s too busy to get married, Ma,” said Kate, taking Francie and setting her down. “He’s too busy out there in the Hamptons with all his hoity-toity cocktail party friends.”

Declan’s breath caught. Hampton Bays was a working man’s town and Declan’s “car” was his business truck, an ancient Nissan beater with a patchwork paint job.

Tears forgotten, Francie toddled around the room, bumping into legs like a friendly little animal.

“Lay offa Dec,” John said, and clapped a hand on Declan’s shoulder. That same big hand had snatched food from Declan’s plate when they were kids, held toys at arm’s length. “Lay offa my little brother. He’s okay. He can’t help it if he’s too busy. He can’t help it if he lives all the way out on Long Island. Can’t help it if he’s too tired to ride from the Hamptons into Jersey.”

“Road goes both ways,” Declan muttered.

“Well now,” said John, looking down at Francie. “Well, now. Kind of a rough trip to take with the kids and all.”

“Francie’s too young to drag out all that way,” said Kate.

“When she’s older, then.” But Johnny was 10, Quint 8. The kids would be in retirement communities before Kate deemed them ‘old enough.’

“And you think money grows on trees?”

“Tolls aren’t that high.” Ah, I walked straight into that.

“No, I guess they wouldn’t be, not to someone who lives in the Hamptons with no kids, no expenses. Well, we’re working folks. You think we’re all just sitting here, waiting for Mr. Hamptons to crook his finger so we can come running—”

“Kate,” John said, taking her arm.

A growl of thunder split the silence. Kate was red-faced; John grave; Ma was shaking her head; the kids were wide-eyed, hoping for further entertainment.

Declan’s throat rasped. “I wonder how it is,” he said, “that I can be two people. The nothing of a house painter and the cocktail party Hamptonite all at the same time.”

“Don’t smart off to your brother.” Ma eyed them both.

“But I thought that’s what brothers do. Give and take.”

Ma blinked. “You’re drunk,” she opined.

“I don’t drink. I’m not my father. I’m not even Johnny.”

“Oh, I get it.” Kate shook free of John’s arm. “Mr. Perfect. Too good for the rest of us now.”

“What do you mean, you don’t drink?” Ma peered up at Declan. “You’re always yacking about that bar you hang out in, that fancy Casa Whatsitsname, that—”

“They do serve ginger ale in bars.”

They stood in a line, ranged against him. He edged toward the door.

“It’s a long drive back,” Declan said to no one in particular. “I want to beat the rain.” He went out and headed for his old truck.

He didn’t beat the rain. It started up as a steady gray stream as he sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Verrazzano Bridge. He hated being stuck on a bridge; he could feel the narrow surface sway beneath his pickup. The bridge would collapse and plunge him into the water.

When he was little, very little, and his father still around, the family had rented a car for a “drive in the country”. They had to go over the Throgg’s Neck Bridge, Declan’s first encounter with such a structure. As the car drew closer, Declan stared in horror up at the wild swoop of suspension wires, certain the car would be forced to ride up there, that the winds would push them off, that they’d all be killed. John had laughed at his terror.

Now a solid line of cars snaked across the Belt Parkway, as far as the road was visible. The sky darkened to night.

What was the alternate route, he wondered, The Brooklyn Queens Expressway? He wasn’t familiar with that road, but anything was better than standing still in a curtain of rain.

A glance at his Atlas showed a linkup with the Long Island Expressway at exit 35. It seemed a lifeline.

Home! Rain hammered the car, but at least traffic was moving. He looked at the dashboard clock. He had left at seven; it was now close to nine.

He made the turn. The rain stopped. A dense fog replaced it, cutting off the long view.

There were no other cars with him now. His headlights stabbed down a long twisty ribbon of blacktop. Come on, come on! he pleaded silently, but the truck bumbled along at a maddening slow pace, as if something was clogging the fuel filter.

The fog thinned. He was not on a road, but a slender grass bordered pathway into a park. Did I ever take a wrong turn.

The truck rolled onto the grass and stopped. The motor shut itself off. The headlights died.

His nerves were so taut he felt like crying. He tried the ignition again. Nothing. He tapped the dashboard clock; it, too, had stopped.

Sighing, he got out to pop the hood.

A metal pole lamp cast a circle of light. Grass and trees for about a twenty-foot radius, the rest curtained by night and fog.

Declan stood on the wet grass, leaning over the hood of the pickup. The world was holding its breath.

Sausages of fog floated past. He put a hand on his truck. The metal felt cold. As if the engine had been off for hours, not minutes.

The hairs on the back of his neck lifted.

Someone’s watching.

For several heartbeats he stood alone in the circle of light. Then, he heard a sound, and his heart took a painful leap. Like a horn blasting in his ear, wavering up and down in a full-throated aria: the howling of wolves.

Adrenaline slashed through him. He had no weapon; even his tire iron layout of reach. Turning inch by inch, Declan brought his body around so the truck’s hood was at his back.

Eyes shining in the dark.

Eyes like penlights, in pairs, glinting neon green, arrayed in a semi-circle a little over twenty feet from where he pressed against the cold comfort of his truck.

One pair of eyes detached from the group, and wavered toward him. Bobbing closer, two lambent ovals approached the circle of lamplight, until the pale glow revealed its form entirely.

His mind tried to tell him it was a dog. His blood knew it was not.

The wolf—a long-muzzled creature brindled gray and white—panted out its tongue between daggerlike fangs and shifted its paws. It was close enough to touch. He could surely smell it, that wet-dog aroma layered with something musky, wild, violent. Yet its yellow eyes regarded him with calm.

It began to make sounds, yodels and whines, tossing its head with little emphatic movements like nods. Declan was astounded to find that he could understand the wolf as clearly as if it spoke English.

—We are mourning our dead. Will you join us?

Other wolves padded forward into the circle of light; brindled ones, gray ones, one nearly white, one nearly black. There must have been fifteen of them, an entire pack.

And it was the least of them they were mourning, the Chief of the Wolves explained, the wolf who was last to eat, last to mate, last to claim anything.

Now that Declan understood the wolves did not mean him harm, he could think.

—The least of you, said Declan, still you mourn?

—He fulfilled his function. That was his place. And now he is gone. Brother, will you join with us?

Runt of the litter, Declan thought, that’s me.

Fog nuzzled up against him:

—Time does not exist here, said the fog, Stay.

Declan hesitated. The wolves would make room. But too many things lay as obstacles, calling him back to the world. He lowered his head.

—I can’t, he replied.

The wolves conducted a brief, snuffling conference. Then they stilled, eyes fixed on their Chief.

—We understand, said the Chief of the Wolves. Sing with us, then.

The wolves pointed their muzzles to the sky. Sound poured from them, grief and mourning and loss. The song pounded Declan’s body, raced up his spine, blasted from his throat, and flung itself toward the moon.

For a time there was only the song of the wolves.

Then it stilled. One by one the wolves melted back into the darkness. It was over. Declan stood gasping for breath.

Behind him, the engine roared to life. Headlights blazed. He climbed back into the truck and retraced his route. He got back somehow on the main road; back into driving, thundering rain, and snarling traffic. He was dazed with loss.

It took five and a half hours. Declan had no feeling left in his arms. His legs were pins and needles. It didn’t matter.

When he stumbled into the house, Fizzy rushed up to greet him. He knew exactly what his cat was saying.

Yeowh: You forgot me! Aowh: I’m starving to death!

The big marmalade tom did his best to trip Declan up on their way to the kitchen. He fed the cat, downed a can of tomato juice and collapsed onto the bed, his mind filled with the sight and scent and sound of wolves.

Fizzy managed to stuff himself upside-down into Declan’s lap. He began kneading empty air. A dopey look of bliss transformed his face into something funny and comforting.

Declan switched on the TV and rolled around the dial until he found a show about animals. “How ‘bout that, Fizzyboy, you like animal shows?”

The cat burst into a motorboat purr and settled at his side. The show examined the relationships of animals that lived in groups, wolves in particular. From Alpha to Omega, each wolf had its niche.

Declan found himself laughing. I broke the rules. That’s why Johnny’s so mad. The Omega Wolf could afford a house, and he couldn’t.

He watched for a few minutes. Then he switched it off. Fizzy muttered protests.

“Sorry. Already seen it,” explained Declan.

He sat rubbing his cat’s head, the texture of fur a map of memory. Someday he would go to the wolves again. Or maybe the wolves would come to him.

In the distance, thunder made a companionable growl.


Heavy is the Head


Illustration by Mike Phillips

by Robert E. Waters


An impish voice whispered in Palanor’s ear, muffling the bitter screams of his father. “Are you going to sit there and take his insults… again? Kill him! Kill him now!”

Palanor scratched away the voice, then drew his sword from its sheath and swung it wildly at his father’s neck, catching the old man in mid insult and knocking him off his horse.

Oh, the blood. Spurts and flows covering the road in deep crimson. His father’s blood. The king’s blood. More blood than Palanor had ever seen. His stomach turned. He looked down from his horse, down upon his father’s gurgling, moaning form.

“What will you do now?” There was that voice again. “Look at him. Even now, choking on his own phlegm, he mocks you. Finish him!”

Palanor jumped from his horse and raised his sword like an ax. Eyes wild, he brought the blade down into the gaping wound of the first cut, then again and again, until the head popped off like a ball and rolled across the road and down the gully wall.

Silence, save for the rustle of the head rolling away in the distance beneath the brown and red leaves. Palanor pulled a rag from his belt and wiped the blood from his sword. “You’re dead, Father,” he hissed, hovering over the beheaded man. “And you will never hurt me again.”

He tossed the bloody rag to the ground and stepped over his father, toward the gully where the head had rolled. A heavy suggestion of snow lay in the wind’s voice, whistling wetly through the trees, bringing to Palanor’s ears the first hopeful sounds of his life. Your father is dead and you will now rule, he thought to himself. No more shameful times. No more embarrassing moments in the courtyard, his father belittling him before his own mother and brother, his own countrymen, raising doubts about his mettle. No more feeling worthless. “Now you are the embarrassed one, Father, the weak one,” Palanor snarled at the head lying somewhere below. “You’ve lost your head, and your guard isn’t here to fetch it for you.”

Palanor stumbled down the muddy gully wall, supporting himself with the sword. His heavy boots scooped out dark cuts in the ground. Only now was his blood cooling in his face, though his heart was still beating strongly. As he descended, he wondered: How will I make it look? How will I convince everyone that we were jumped and I fought valiantly to save the king? He looked at his arms, his legs, seeking signs of struggle. None. The decision to kill had come quickly, per the advice of that tiny little voice, the meek whispery tickle on his ear that most assuredly had been his inner demon, his own conscience. No struggle except that which was now building in his mind, replacing the promise of the wind with screams of inner panic.

He reached the bottom of the gully and began poking through the leaves. It couldn’t have rolled far, being so fat and bumpy, like an over-ripe apple from a tree, popping off its branch and cracking on the roots below. He swept the leaves left to right, moving the broad blade of his sword like a broom. Where is it? He moved further down the gully, into the shadows where the ground was dark, so dark that he could only hope to feel the meaty thump! of his blade against the sallow flesh of his father’s head. His heart beat faster, forgetting the delight of a moment ago. Palanor dropped to his knees and started fishing through the sea of leaves.

“Are you looking for something?”

A childish voice from behind. Palanor’s head popped through the canopy of leaves. He whipped his body around to face the voice.

“Please don’t stop on my account.” There it was again, this time from the side and up in the trees. “But I can’t help but wonder if what you’re looking for is this…”

Palanor held his sword forward and braced for a threat. His face wild, he said, “Who’s there?”

“I’m up here,” the voice said. “Up here sitting pretty.”

Palanor turned right and looked up into the dark shadows of the twisted trees, up into a faint glow of magical light he hadn’t noticed before. And there perched his father’s head, delicately on a branch, swaying in the wind; lips crusted with drying blood, swollen, pudgy face, mangled white hair glued to a dead white brow. And eyes, covered in thick, ashen lids, accusing, mocking lids of eyes that could no longer pass judgment, but could still stir Palanor’s insecurities. The sight of his father’s face was too much for the prince to bear. The only thing that saved him from screaming was small legs crossed and resting on the bridge of the nose.

A brightly dressed pixy sat on the king’s head, subtle elfin-like lips parted devilishly, smoking a small pipe, blowing rings, swinging little legs, bouncing tiny shoes off cold flesh. Palanor fell back in terror, eyes fixed on the little imp. The pixy inhaled a long thread of smoke from the pipe, tossed his head up, and blew the smoke away. He seemed very content.

Finally, the pixy said, “Is this what you’re looking for?” It rapped its knuckles on the balding skull like knocking on a door.

Without thinking Palanor nodded.

“I thought as much,” said the pixy, cradling the pipe in its left hand. “I thought you’d come after it.”

Palanor finally gained his strength and stood. He looked around the base of the tree, searching for a way up. The steep, coarse trunk of the tree rose before him, its black roots peaking out of the eroding soil like serpents. Steps up. Palanor leaped for them, scrambling with hands and feet, pulling his way up the roots towards the little devil. His moves were violent and rash, clumsy and unprepared. It took several minutes to reach the branch where the pixy sat, but when he got there, the imp and the head were gone.

“Psst,” a voice from behind and up. “Over here.”

Palanor turned and looked up. The grinning, contented face of the pixy sparkled in the shadows. “It’s no use to try to catch me,” the pixy said, fluttering thin wings, “so I recommend we negotiate a deal.”

Breathless and dizzy, Palanor stumbled back down the tree and rested against the gully bank. Something about the pixy’s voice was familiar, but his mind could not place it. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“What do I want, you ask? I want what all men and fairies of good conscience want: World peace, a warm meal, female companionship, and a place to rest my weary head.” The pixy giggled. “But seriously, I’m no one special, and I don’t really want anything. I was just working my way through these woods, in hot pursuit of dinner, when I heard hooves on the road. My dinner spooked and ran off. Frustrated, I slipped up to the road to see who was coming and to my amazement, I saw the King of Trunkheim and his heir trotting along. I thought to myself, ‘Lucky me, I finally get to meet the great king and the prince.’ Well, you can imagine my surprise when suddenly I see you draw a sword and lop the old man’s head off.”

“You saw nothing!” Palanor screamed and flung a glob of mud.

The pixy ducked. “Not only did I see something, I felt it too. The king’s head flew right into me and knocked me down. It pushed me into the mud, it did. See…” The pixy stood up and turned, revealing a mud-streaked pink vest and wings. He sat back down and giggled again. “A pixy goes through his whole life thinking nothing like this will ever happen to him, and then it does. I feel like I’ve been hit by lightning.”

Palanor bared his teeth. “You saw and felt nothing, you miserable whelp. Now give me my father’s head.”

The pixy rubbed its chin and considered. It shook its head. “No, no. That won’t do. I think we need to talk a little more. Get to know each other better.”

“I said give me—”

“Shh!” The pixy put its hand out and pressed it down. “Don’t talk too loud. You don’t want anyone to hear you, do you?”

Palanor shut up quickly. He had forgotten the way voices carried in these woods. A childhood memory flashed in his mind: he and his brother running through the gullies, each casting his voice to confuse the other. Find me! Find me! They’d scream. Over here! No here! And then the booming voice of their father or a court aide calling them home, ending the fun. How many times, Palanor wondered, have I gone through this very gully? How many times had he climbed these very banks and flung this very mud?

Palanor breathed deeply and said, “Okay, what do you want?”

The pixy knocked the tobacco out of its pipe. “Like I said, I don’t want anything. The big question is what do you want? Political assassination and fratricide is a big step in a young prince’s life. Was it worth it?”

Tears welled at the corners of Palanor’s eyes. “He was a hateful man. He deserved it.”

The pixy nodded, tucking its legs away, still perched on the head. “He must have been. But it must have been equally hard for you to deliver the last blow…”

“Not at all.”

“…and it’ll be even harder for you to explain how it happened.”

That realization hit Palanor hard. He had forgotten that small detail in the scuffle to find his father’s head, and how he searched for excuses. “Self defense.”

The pixy shook its head, yanking a long strand of white hair from the king’s scalp. “I didn’t see any struggle.”

“The struggle wasn’t physical. It was internal and brought on by years of abuse.”

“I see,” said the pixy. “So you’re the victim in all this, huh? Please tell me more.”

“My father was ruthless,” Palanor began. “All my life he treated me and my brother like dogs, shaming us before our mother and our countrymen. When we were young, he would beat us and laugh. How many times did he call me ‘worthless’ or ‘unfit to govern’ or ‘wasted seed’? And for years I took the abuse. For years I let him humiliate and shame me. But not anymore.”

Palanor dropped down and began to cry, a cry of many years, a cry that wailed through the trees, echoing back like the howls of a lost banshee. And while he cried, the pixy flossed its teeth with the strand of white hair. “Yeah, it sounds like he was a bad man. I never knew that about the king.”

Palanor sniffled. “Few do.”

“Well, how are you going to cover it up?”

“Oh, I don’t know. We were attacked by thieves. How’s that?”

The pixy shook his head. “I don’t remember any thieves.”

“Nobody knows that.”

The pixy smiled. “I do.”

Palanor jumped up, his wild, sweat-soaked hair smearing his vision. “You little rat bastard. I’m the king now. I order you to bring down my father’s head.”

By this time, the pixy was lying on its stomach and reaching over and pulling up one eyelid and then the other, left, right, left, right. The cold, glossy eyes beneath, each time they were flashed, drilled holes into Palanor’s soul. Oh, what have I done? What have I done? Your eyes, Father, know the truth. I killed you in cold blood.

The pixy reached for the bloody mouth and pried the lips apart, opening and closing, opening and closing the hollow, dark mouth. “You are a bad son,” the pixy said, casting his voice lower, mimicking the king’s voice, opening and closing the jaw with each word. “You killed me and you will pay.”

“Shut up!” Palanor’s words bounced through the wood. He flung another glob of mud and this time hit the pixy square and sent the head tumbling down through the branches. But the pixy had disappeared again, flying into the shadows. Palanor scrambled forward, trying to catch the head before it struck the ground. He lunged and grabbed a handful of hair. He hit the ground hard, the weight of the impact knocking out his wind. But he held his father’s head firmly. Palanor brought the bloody orb to his chest and hugged it like a doll, lying in the mud and weeping loudly.

“I’m sorry, Father,” he whimpered, stroking the white hair. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean—”

“You know,” said the pixy from somewhere behind, “I think you ought to come clean on the whole thing. You’re the king now. What can they do?”

Through his whimpering, Palanor saw the truth in the pixy’s words. It’s right. What can they do? I’m the king now. Mother cannot even touch me. Suddenly, fear and despair were replaced with hope and optimism. He cracked a smile.

“You’re right,” Palanor said, turning his father’s head around to stare defiantly into the wrinkles. “I am king now, Father. It doesn’t matter who killed you. I can’t be touched.”

“That’s right,” trumpeted the pixy, suddenly appearing on Palanor’s shoulder with a flutter of wings. “They can’t touch you. And judging by how terrible he was, you did Trunkheim a favor, wouldn’t you say?”

Palanor’s eyes beamed with delight and he looked at the pixy, forgetting his desire to crush the little imp in his hands. “Yes.”

“Sure. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if they—” The pixy stopped and turned his ear to the wind. “Do you hear that?”

Palanor listened. Faintly, the sound of clinking hooves and jangling armor came from the road above, faint and distant, but growing stronger.

“The body!” Palanor said, suddenly remembering that his father’s corpse was lying alongside the road. He tossed the head aside and scrambled up the gully, like a dog, clawing at the mud and leaves. He reached the top and crawled to the body. Up the road, in the direction he and his father had been riding, came a single horse. On the horse was a man, a man of equal height and build as Palanor, but younger. A man of equally brief facial hair, but sharper. A man Palanor knew well.

His brother Roth.

Palanor rose up on his knees, but he didn’t try to hide the body, nor did he show remorse. What purpose would it serve anyway? Roth had experienced the same shame and humiliation at the iron hand of father. Surely he of all people, Palanor thought, would understand and give thanks. On his knees, he smiled faintly and watched his brother ride up.

Roth looked down from his horse, shifting his eyes from father to brother. His chest started heaving violently, his handsome face growing red with anger. “What is this? What have you done?”

Palanor spoke proudly, “I’ve killed the old bastard. I’ve killed him.”

Roth jumped from his horse and drew his sword, moving close. The sun was setting fast behind him. “I came looking for you because Colonel Gregor had sent his falcon forward with word that you and Father had slipped away from the knight’s tourney early this morning without the protection of his guard. I’ve been looking for you and this is what I find. Are you insane?”

“Roth, it’s over,” Palanor said. “Our misery has ended. I am king now.”

Roth lowered his sword, and Palanor rose to his feet and laid a hand upon this brother’s back. The young man began to weep.

Palanor pulled him close. “It’s all right, Roth. It’s all right. We’ll make it right.”

Through sobs, Roth asked. “How? How are we going to do that? What are we going to say?”

“We’ll carry the body back,” said Palanor. “We’ll tell Mother that we were attached by brigands and Father fell fighting bravely.”

Roth nodded. “But what about the absence of the guard? Why weren’t they here? Why were they left behind?”

Palanor shook his head. “I don’t know. Father slipped into my tent this morning and ordered us away. When I asked him about why we were leaving, he told me to shut up, so I didn’t press him.”

“You know,” said the pixy, setting down upon Roth’s saddle and coolly filling his pipe, “I witnessed the entire thing, and I don’t recall any brigands.”

The brothers stared at the imp on the saddle. “No one knows that,” said Palanor.

The pixy smiled, lighting his pipe. “I do. And besides, what with the story about your father’s ruthlessness that you explained to me, everyone will immediately assume that it was a conspiracy: Brothers conspiring to kill their father.”

“Wait,” Roth said, pulling away from Palanor. “I didn’t kill my father. There was no conspiracy.”

“No? Please forgive me.” The pixy stared deeply into Roth’s eyes. “Am I to assume, then, that the bag of gold you gave me two days ago had nothing to do with your political aspirations?” It giggled and patted the velvet bag tied around its waist.

“What’s it talking about, Roth?” Palanor asked, raising his brow.

Roth turned and threw up his arms in confusion. “I’ve never seen this imp in my life. It’s lying.”

“Lying?” The pixy’s little face wrinkled as if wounded. “Then I guess that knife you’ve hidden in your boot is for show and not for your brother’s chest.”

Palanor grabbed Roth’s leg and tugged down his leather boot to reveal a long blade tied to the calf. He pulled the knife out and pushed Roth back.

“Palanor, believe me,” Roth said, trying to calm his brother. “I always wear that knife. Always.”

“I’ve never seen you wear it,” Palanor snapped, throwing it to the ground. “I trusted you, Roth, and now I see that you planned the whole thing. Conspiring with Colonel Gregor to somehow lure Father and me away from the tournament early, leaving me alone with him out here in the woods, knowing full well that I’d be the center of his wrath, hoping that I’d lose it and kill him. And then you’d come looking for us and sob and weep and act the understanding brother. And when the moment was right, you’d kill me and take the throne.”

Roth backed up and raised his sword. “You treacherous bastard. You’re insane. You’re the one conspiring with Colonel Gregor, not me. You and Gregor and this pixy, luring me into a trap.”

“Me? Why you—” and Palanor raised his sword.

Roth braced and met Palanor’s attack. The swords met again and again, clanging violently in the waning light of the sun, filling the woods with the clamor of battle. The brothers moved over their father’s body, stepping on loose parts of the royal robe, stubbing their toes on his stiffening flesh, stumbling over his legs and arms. Arms stripped with cuts, legs weak and waning, the brothers cut and thrust and swung their blades, all in the presence of a small pixy humbly perched on Roth’s saddle.

He smoked his pipe.

And like before, a tiny voice entered Palanor’s ear and guided his sword home, deep into Roth’s neck at the vulnerable spot. Another blow, and another, and Roth’s head popped off his neck like a dandelion. Palanor dropped his sword and fell to the ground, chest aching for breath. More blood, even more than before, covering his father’s drying blood like a second coat of paint on a fence post. Palanor could not stop his tears.

A small body with a flutter of wings set upon the prince’s left shoulder. “You know,” whispered the pixy, “this is quite a mess we have here. In more ways than one.”

Palanor felt the pixy’s breath on his ear. “It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the voice I’ve been hearing. This is all your fault.”

The pixy nodded and smiled, shoving his smoldering pipe into his velvet bag. “It’s true, I must admit. But I’m merely a small player in a very big game.”

Right then he should have grabbed the imp and crushed him. But no. Doing so would not bring his father or brother back, nor douse the pain in his heart. He’d killed them. He, Palanor, the Prince-cum-King of Trunkheim had cut off their heads. And now lying in their blood, he didn’t have the strength to be angry.

“It’s over, isn’t it?” Palanor asked the imp. “I can’t be king now. What would I tell my mother? How could I show my face to the people with so much blood on my hands? So much shame. What do I do now, Imp? Tell me what to do.”

For a moment, no answer came. But then it did, not as a voice but as Roth’s knife, floating up from the ground and hovering before him, suspended in a magical white light. Palanor stared at the knife, and a little voice whispered in his ear, “Take the knife, my good prince. Your father commands it. Take the knife and finish the job.”

Palanor snatched the knife from the air, turned the blade toward his chest and drove it home.

* * * * *

In the dim light of the setting sun, the pixy rolled the severed heads up to Palanor’s head and arranged them in descending order. Father, Palanor, Roth. Oldest to youngest, left to right. It crawled up onto Palanor’s forehead, lit its pipe, and drew deeply. The warm smoke felt good curling down its throat. It took the chill off the bitter wind. It crossed its legs over the prince’s nose, smoked, and waited.

In time, a steady, slow clapping of horse hooves came up the road from behind. The pixy knew who it was. It could smell her perfume.

Without turning, it said, “It’s a tragic tale, isn’t it? An ancient one of hate, jealousy, greed, lust, and pain. Father sires son; son grows up weak and wanting; father hates son; son kills father; brothers kill each other. Makes you want to weep, doesn’t it?”

The clapping of hooves stopped. “Spare me your drama, Imp. I’m not in the mood. Did you have to arrange them like that? Right next to each other? So morbid.”

The pixy chuckled. “I thought you’d like to see them all together one last time, my lady.” It jumped up and faced the queen.

She was wearing a black robe with a thick hood clasped tightly at her neck. She was beautiful in black, it thought, admiring how her green eyes accentuated the darkness of the fabric cupping her face. It studied that face for some sign of remorse, some measure of guilt. Yes, yes, perhaps there it was. A flash of red in the eyes? A spot of tear on the lash? Was she, too, a victim in all this, it wondered. But that was a silly question, for it knew the answer to that already.

“My husband accepted your plan to lure Palanor here and pick a fight?” the queen asked.

“Yes,” said the pixy. “Once I convinced him that his sons were conspiring to seize the throne, he couldn’t wait to get Palanor alone. And when the moment came, I locked his arms against his side with a simple lock spell and he couldn’t defend himself.”

The queen looked down at her son’s bloody chest. The hilt of Roth’s knife stuck up like a tomb. “Palanor did what you told him? No troubles?”

The pixy sniffed, feeling the chilly air, fighting back the growl in its empty stomach. “Clay in my hands, your Highness. Clay in my hands.”

“And Roth’s knife. It was where I said it would be?”

The pixy nodded. “That was a nice touch.”

“Thank you,” the queen said smiling.

Men riding up halted their discussion. Ten mighty warriors of the royal guard lead by Colonel Gregor. They pulled up to the edge of the dried pools of blood and stared at the bodies. Gregor, garbed in the silver and red of the Trunkheim army, rode forward, eyes fixed upon the queen. She stared back. Gregor nodded politely. The queen responded in kind. Then together, they leaned forward over Palanor’s body and kissed.

The pixy cleared his throat. “Pardon me for interrupting this warm and cuddly moment, but we had a deal, your Highness. I do you a favor, and you do me one.”

The queen pulled away from her lover’s lips. “Very well, Imp. Name your price.”

“Full access to your royal grain stores and wild game reserves. Plus, if it won’t be too much trouble, a comfortable rat-hole somewhere in the castle. Winter this year, I fear, will be harsh.”

“Access to my grain? My animals? My castle? Impossible!” She looked at Gregor for support.

Gregor nodded carefully… very carefully. “It seems fair, my love.” The colonel then looked at the pixy. The little creature gave Gregor a quick wink and a smile that only the colonel could see. This tragic tale, the pixy knew, was far from over.

The queen shook her head, but said, “Okay, Imp. You have a deal.” She pulled the reigns of her horse, turned around, and motioned toward the three dead bodies, two headless. “You men clean this up,” she ordered, “and forget what you saw here today.”
Trotting up the road, the queen and the colonel held hands. The pixy flew between them, coolly smoking his pipe. “You know, my lady,” it said, “I wouldn’t be too concerned about giving me access to your food supplies. After all, there are three less heads at the dinner table now.”

Behind them, a guardsmen picked up the king’s head and placed it in a leather bag.


Sister Sonata

sister sonata

Illustration by Billy Tackett

by Robert E. Waters


“And it was the white blood that sent him to the minister, which rising in him for the last and final time, sent him against all reason and reality, into the embrace of a chimaera… It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aid of any man, swept him up into that ecstasy out of a black jungle where life has already ceased before the heart stops and death is desire and fulfillment.” — William Faulkner, Light in August

My sister Mira turned herself into a jewelry tree at thirteen. Earrings, nose rings, brow rings, tongue ball, titty rings, navel rings. And scarring too. Deep purple galactic swirls across her stomach and back, and when the light hit them right they sparkled and rotated like hurricanes licking the Virgin Islands. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee became her favorite musicians (“my burden so heavy, I can’t hardly see…”), replacing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “Sonny and Brownie are an institution,” she’d say. “Poster children for the modern age.” Then she’d crank it up and stop living.

Our parents couldn’t take the stress of her change. Couldn’t justify the body mutilations to the neighbors or the social clubs, and certainly could not take her newfound anger and disrespect. My father would ask me, “Paul, why is she so angry? What does she have to be angrier about than I did when I was her age?” But I couldn’t answer him, for I wondered the same thing.

Things came to loggerheads by her sixteenth birthday.

Mom was ladling out fried potatoes at the dinner table. Mira slunk down in her chair, with the new violin mom had bought her punched through the center and worn up on her bicep like some twisted badge of courage. The world stopped turning, the chunks of potato dangled at the edge of the spoon like swords of Damocles.

“What the hell is this?” Dad said, lips shaking with nervous anger.

“What?” Mira said, taking a sip from her water.

“You show your mother disrespect like that?” He motioned to the violin, whose strings were broken and curled every which way like octopus arms.

Mom’s eyes moistened. I could say nothing, eyes glazed in shock.

“It’s mine, isn’t it?” Mira said, defiantly. “I can do what I want with it.” And she stared into Mom’s pale face, silent and still, waiting for the swords to fall.

Dad bolted out of his chair. “That’s it, damn you! Get out!”

He grabbed Mira, ripped off the violin and smacked her across the face. Mira fell back, screaming, kicking, crying.

“Get out!” Dad screamed, going after her, his face also streaming with tears. “You’re not welcome here anymore.”

And they went on like that for a time, back and forth, until dad finally picked her up and threw her off the porch. I watched silently, doing nothing, wanting to intervene, but not being able to move. What’s the matter with you, Mira? What’s going on? I asked myself these questions over and over as their battle raged. I wanted to stop Dad, but I agreed with him. I was so mad at her. So mad.

That was fifteen years ago. I hadn’t seen Mira since.

An emaciated drug-monkey with Elvis sideburns tried to give me clues. “Last time I saw her,” he coughed, dragging on a holographic cigarette, “was a couple months ago at Eddie’s Data BBQ with some mutant friends of hers, licking net sauce off a dead pig’s ribs, and spinning music out of her body like some goddamned symphony. Don’t mind my asking, why you looking for her?”

As if it were his business. “There’s been a death in the family.”

His eyes lit up and he forced air out of his mouth like he was trying to pop a balloon. “Wow, tough break. I guess that happens sometimes. Do you remember…”

He went on about a bottle of vodka he had bought for some underage kids, but I wasn’t listening. Eddie’s Data BBQ, the finest virtual pork shop in the tri-state area. All the flavor without the fat. Some biotech guru from South Haven, Mississippi had come up with the idea. Take textured data matrices shaped into prime ribs and sauté them with the binary code of barbecue sauce recipes. Flavored Zeros and Ones. Delish! Trouble was, the taste of all that smoked data created pork junkies. People would eat nothing but virtual pork and die, eventually, of real starvation. Progress has its martyrs.

“…she’s probably not there now, though,” the drug-monkey chimed in again. “Sunday being the Sabbath and all.”

“It’s closed on Sundays?”


“Then, do you know where she might be?” I asked, putting her photo back in my pocket.

He shook his head. “I don’t know if she’s on the ground at all anymore, or somewhere uploaded.”

“Thank you,” I said, and walked away into the haze of the hot Memphis dog-day.


Eddie’s Data BBQ stood at the corner of Mendenhall and Winchester, in the old building where the U-Haul used to be. At the beginning of the new century, U-Haul was quickly bought up by the Taiwanese, when it was learned that all solid structures (like bedroom furniture) could be easily broken down into data strands and shipped across the net or on DVDs. Why bother with bulky trucks and trailers, when you can ship your goods around the world with one click and have it all reconstructed perfectly at the other end? The Taiwanese changed the name of the rental company to “U-Phase Shift It” and business boomed.

“Yeah,” the pale waitress said, handing back the picture, “Mira comes in here once in awhile, but I got to tell you. She don’t look like that anymore.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, tucking away the picture.

“She’s pure stingray now,” the ashen princess said with a throaty chuckle.

I shook my head. “Not familiar with the term.”

“No?” the waitress chuckled again. She obviously thought our conversation was quite humorous. I wasn’t laughing. “Sure, she’s still got the facial features, but they’re all flattened out, you know? A stingray, friend. Flat, leather gray body. Leathery wings. Sharp razor teeth in her flat mug. You know what I’m talking about: the kind of creature they used to scare us with at the aquarium when we were little. Those goddamn flat fuckers that looked like spaceships. Stingray! Of course, they aren’t called stingrays actually. But you get the gist.”

I nodded. “Well, what do they call them?”

She crunched her shoulders. “I’m not too sure. I mind my own business, understand? I’ve got my own troubles. I don’t go for those genetic mutation experiences. Straight, old-fashioned grass is my mantra. But some folk, like your sister, can’t help themselves, you know? Can’t help but feel a kind of cell music when the changes start happening. It’s like morphing into those blues brothers BB King or Lightnin’ Hopkins or Buddy Guy. They spray themselves with some kind of weirdo shit that seeps into their skin and changes them, and it’s Graceland all over again, know what I’m saying?”

I did not.

“But that’s what your sister is up to,” she continued, edging past me to push aside a dead patron to clean off the table where he had died. “She’s a fanatic. A real user… and a pusher too, if my cards are right. She’s gone overboard, used too much. Now she’s a stingray. If you’ll excuse me…”

“Wait,” I said, tugging at her light blue uniform sleeve. “Do you know where I might find her? Where would someone like her hang out?” She sighed and blew back a strand of dirty blond that covered her left eye. “Try Chirpy’s Agora on Beale Street. I hear a lot of mutants hang out there.”


Chirpy’s Agora is the kind of place you dream about after a bad taco. From a distance, it’s kind of blurry like you’re looking through hazy desert heat. But as you draw closer, the window front changes colors rapidly like a chameleon. Yellow and white and deep blue and gray and purple, rotating and flashing over and over again depending upon your point of view. A pure human like myself has trouble reaching the door, because the colors swim around so quickly it makes you sick. An effective way of keeping out undesirable DNA. This was definitely a mutant’s hangout.

With some serious trouble, I reached the front door, turned the lions-head knob and walked in. Immediately, my stomach stopped flopping, but my nose caught the sweet, pungent odor of rotten boards, moss and mushrooms. It was humid too, like I had just walked into the Amazon. The light was dim but I could see well enough to shuffle my way slowly up the aisle. I was afraid to put too much weight on the floor; damn floorboards were soaking wet.

Chirpy’s must have been some kind of head shop in the early days. There were still dusty old water pipes and nitrous oxide bullets and clove cigarette packs scattered along the shelves. But now the poisons of choice were tiny pre-packaged Score Slugs and earwigs and perfume spray bottles of all sizes. What those bottles contained I didn’t want to know, but I can tell you that some of them looked at me. They didn’t have eyes per se, but I felt eyes burning through the glass just the same.

They say the mutant culture is heavy on sprays, burrowing insects and mollusks like slugs, because when placed on the skin, a slug can pump the sound right to the vein. That’s what they call it: Pumping Sound. I’ve seen a Score Slug in action. Kind of reminds you of quackery and blood-letting; only this time, the slug mills around for a while on the receiver’s flesh until it finds a juicy spot to pump, and then the receiver goes pasty white and eyes dilate in an almost orgasmic stupor that (according to the accounts I’ve heard) feels like the hand of God. And then you hear a high-pitched, sustained note, a frequency almost too high to detect. The music the little monsters pump is a hyper-mutable junk DNA that grates along the receiver’s true DNA strand, and the friction creates music, “melodies of the soul” or “the voice of God” as they call it. I don’t buy that shit, though. Drop acid or snort a line of coke and you get the same result, as far as I’m concerned. See, the problem with mutants is that they think they are wholly superior beings. Homo-orchestrous. Homo-symphonic. A new breed of man… or woman… or whatever. Perhaps they’re right.

But I hadn’t come all this way to debate the existence of mutants. I had to find Mira, and find her now.

This gangly mutant behind a broken cash register wiggled his bat ears at me, lifted his chewy upper lip, and spoke through crooked teeth. “No humans allowed in here.”

I walked up to him slowly. “Yes, I can see that.” I tried to be polite. “But I’m here all the same. You must be Chirpy.”

He nodded. “Like the sign says.”

“I’m looking for Mira. Is she here?”

He unraveled his arms and spread them out to his sides, revealing furry brown wings. A flying fox. A fruit bat. Chiroptera. Impressive. He looked at me, wriggled his nose, and flicked a fly off his lips with a knife tongue. Pulled his cheeks back like smiling. “What business do you have with her?”

“I’m her brother.”

He stopped smiling. “No shit?”

I shook my head. “None.”

He folded his arms back against his body, and leaned forward. A cigarette he’d been smoking was lying dead in a tray to his left. He took awhile to pick it up, light it, and take another drag. I didn’t know bats smoked. “She might be here.”

“Well, if she is,” I said, growing ever more annoyed by this bug-eater, “can I see her?”

He flapped his wings and I thought he was going to launch, but instead he pulled a small velvet box out from behind the counter, sat it before me, and clapped twice. It flickered blue and then a little holo-man popped out, a black guy, holding a mike and wailing against the twang of a blues guitar: “If I don’t ever see you no more, baby, you know that’s too soon for me. I got my problems, I don’t want you to mess with me.”

“Know who he is?” the bat said.

I chuckled. “No.”

“Buddy Guy. Best blues man ever.”

“I thought all you Memphians liked BB King.” I leaned over and put my index finger through the stomach of the little screamer. I could feel his song.

“I’m from Chicago. You keep Buddy company. You listen good. He’ll teach you something. You stay right here.”

He waddled away and disappeared behind a door of beads.

“…I said, if I don’t ever see you no more…”

Above the riot of words coming from Buddy’s little mouth, I could hear muffled voices in the back, winding through the beads. Lyrical voices. Not like words, really. Music. Question, answer. Question, answer.

“…I got my own problems…”

The voices grew angrier, shouting. I tried to lean toward the beads to get a better listen. My sister was back there. I could feel it. Butterflies in my stomach. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years. God, what am I doing here? Why did I come? I started to sweat, which was funny because I hadn’t broken one pore since I walked through the door, even though it was as hot as hell. Cold sweat, the kind you get before a heavy bowel movement. I wanted to throw up. Damn you, Sis. Why have you put us all through this?

“…I don’t want you to mess with me…”

The fruit bat returned, scampered up to the counter, and snatched the box away from me. “She’s here!” he snapped, looking very flustered. “She’ll see you for just a few minutes.” He motioned to the back and through the beads.

I walked slowly. Buddy Guy was singing in my head. What would I find? I wondered. How different would she be? I took a deep breath and continued.

It was a jungle in the back. Right past the beads I stepped through a small, dark hall and down three steps into a greenhouse. Hot as hell! Steam. Humidity. Difficult to breathe. The floor a soft moss, the path lined by thick green sword-shaped leaves and snakeplant. Muted calls from toucans and Argus pheasant echoed off the glass walls from giant ivy-covered speakers, and water trickled cool down porcelain rock faces to pools of pure crystal at the end of the path. I couldn’t see them, but they were there. Mutants. All around me, shuffling behind the lush flora. Lizards. A spider monkey. A sloth. I knew that each mutant Agora had its own theme, representative of the basic mutations in the local group. In Arizona you commonly had rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, and peccary. In Florida, raccoons, bobcats, and Key deer. I would have expected the Memphis Agora to contain samples of the Mississippi, but what do I know? I’m human. But it troubled me. If my sister was a stingray as the waitress had said, then what was she doing here in the jungle? An outcast even here.

I walked up to the crystal pool and said, heart pounding, “Mira?”

Something moved at the bottom of the pool. A school of koi, but something was propelling them forward, scattering them like a predator on the hunt. I screwed my eyes tightly, peering through slits like Clint Eastwood. And then a large white shape emerged from beneath a rock formation. Not white, actually, but a light gray, almost white. Wings like a stealth fighter, but more oval, and they fluttered on the edge, like fingers clattering across a keyboard. I saw a thin tail, a wispy, spiked member flashing behind the mass, spreading the koi in its wake.

And then she emerged. My sister. Arms and legs unfolded from beneath her flat body, lifting her cartilage out of the pool, slowly, cresting the skin of the water patiently, deliberately. Her eyes set in deep brow ridges, now slanted slightly to the sides, but they were her eyes. Light blue. She pulled completely out of the water and I heard flutes. Dreamy flutes from Debussy’s “La Mer,” pouring out of her back like the droplets of water running down her spine. She rose up before me, the bottom of her body encasing her flat face, her mouth two powerful rows of teeth. She pulled herself onto the edge of the pool and looked at me, her flat cheeks turning tender pink in the humid air.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t believe this was her, and yet it was her. I found myself on the verge of tears, but she spoke through the din of french horn. “What do you want, Paul? I don’t want you here.”

Her speech was slurred. Had to be, with her jaw the way it was. She didn’t seem comfortable talking. I could tell it hurt to do so. She seemed content only when she let the music speak for her, the color of her leathery skin shifting hues like Monet flowers. She was angry… but she was beautiful.

I found myself speaking. “I have something to tell you.”

She waited, the mad flutes trilling up and down in a chaotic dance.

“Dad died.”

The music stopped, the color of her skin grew deep red. Was she crying? I couldn’t tell. Did she even have tear ducts? Could she even understand fully what I was saying?

“I said Dad is de–”

“I heard what you said,” she barked, resting her mutated bulk against her shortened legs. “When?”

“A week ago.”

The jungle behind me rustled with life. I was afraid to turn around. I think some of them had come up behind me, perhaps lured by my voice. Some mutants were so changed as to lose their connection with humanity. It slips through their fingers, after being different for so long. The changes seep into their souls, into their bones, translates their marrow.

“It doesn’t concern me,” she said. She was turning to fall back into the water.

“The hell it doesn’t! It concerns you all too much, Mira. Goddammit, you really hurt him.”

She turned back to me and bared her teeth. “He hurt me. He never understood me.”

“No one ever understood you, Mira,” I moved forward, not caring about what was behind me, not caring if she had friends in the shadows. I was going to have my say. “You and your stupid anger. We did everything we could to make you happy, and you shit on us.”

Furious violins screamed out of her back, and her stomach swirled with purple rain clouds. “That’s a lie. You never took real time to understand me at all. You never stopped once and asked, ‘What’s wrong, Mira? Why are you feeling this way?’ No, I was just an embarrassment to you all, an embarrassment to your snobby friends. And you tried to buy my happiness with stupid gifts… like that violin.”

“Oh, bullshit, Mira,” I screamed back at her through the cacophony of violent strings. “We did everything we could to reach you, we tried–”

“You didn’t try hard enough!” And she lost her balance and fell into the water, forcing the koi into full panic against the deep waters behind the rocks. The music stopped, I stopped, everything stopped. Silence. And then when the ripples subsided, she said, her skin turning a sobbing blue, “You didn’t try hard enough.”

Slowly, I knelt down before her, my face wet with sweat and tears. I put my hands out. I wanted to touch her, to rub her back, as if touching her would make me understand, would make the anger and hurt go away. “Make me understand now, Mira. Make me understand… why.”

She sat there in the water, looking at me. She said, “Do you remember that time when we were kids and I killed that bird with a rock?”

I nodded. “Vaguely.”

“We were in the back yard, and you were teasing me that I couldn’t hit anything with your slingshot. And I got so mad that I yanked it out of your hands, picked up a rock and put it in the pouch. ‘I’ll show you,’ I said, and aimed it at a little song sparrow, perched on a branch in our maple tree. I pulled back as hard as I could, and let it fly. And I hit it. We couldn’t believe it. I really hit it, and you were shocked, and the sparrow fluttered a couple times and then went down. We rushed over to it, and there it was: its wing broken, flopping all over the ground. I picked it up, and we took it in to mama, showed her the broken wing. She was mad, upset that we let this happen. I told her I’d take care of it; I’d make it better. I remember taking it into my room, and wrapping toilet paper around it, hoping that that would keep the wing tight against the broken bone, and perhaps it would heal. And we tried to give it food, remember? We tried to feed it leaves and worms and bits of apple. But it wouldn’t eat anything. And day after day, it grew weaker and weaker, until it died.”

She stopped. I waited. She didn’t say anything else.

“You became a mutant because you killed a bird? Come on, Mira, there’s got to be more.”

A somber bassoon flowed from her back. “There is, but you wouldn’t understand. But the bird was a critical moment, a memory that keeps floating back to me again and again. No, I didn’t become a mutant because I killed a bird. Not because I killed it, but by killing that innocent, beautiful little bird, I realized that sometimes a person makes decisions that she can’t take back, no matter how badly it hurts. She can’t control it. I had reached out with my anger towards you, I had pulled back a piece of rubber, and had hurled a rock into a tree… and as indiscriminately as God himself, I killed a living creature. I took away its song forever. I was human, and it was in my nature to do this. And when I was old enough to make the right decisions, I decided that I would never have to make that choice again, that I would never allow my nature to get the best of me.”

I sat there with my head in my hands, the memories of Mira as a seven year old, me as her older brother. Playing in the backyard. Man, those were good times. Back when we understood each other. Good times. Well, no more of that. I didn’t have time for this.

I jumped up and said, “Look, Mira. I don’t give a damn what you are, what you have become. All I know is that dad is dead, and the least you can do is come to his funeral. I want you to come.”

She shook the water off her face. “Why? What good would it do? He’s dead, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

It was time to go. I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket and laid it at the foot of the pool. “These are the directions. I won’t make you come. Do what you think is right.”

And I left. I think she called to me in her own way, calling me back to her, perhaps to explain further. I heard an oboe, a pleading voice to see things her way. But I couldn’t face her. Not like this. I remembered too much of how she used to be.


But she did come to the funeral. She showed up at the gravesite. An El Camino relic, all rusty and popping with backfire, circled around the yard and stopped fifty yards from our father’s coffin. I was there with my wife and my little boy, and around us our friends and my father’s friends. Mother had died years ago, and at that time I couldn’t find Mira, though I had looked for her then too. And as the preacher began the final prayer, I watched Chirpy and another mutant climb out of the El Camino, go to the back, and flip over a canvas wrap. My sister was underneath it, in a plastic tank.

As Chirpy and his friend pulled the tank out of the back, those gathered started looking over to them, and I could see them shift in their shoes. A mumble here and there, a whisper in the ear of a spouse, fear in the eyes. They tried hard to contain their disgust. Mutants and humans don’t mix too well, and here, on hallowed human ground, the sight of my sister and her friends was almost more than they could take. Even the preacher stumbled a bit, but recovered with a quick glance at the dirt mound at his feet. As long as he didn’t look up, he could finish the job.

They brought her up to the edge of the crowd, and set her down. Her tank was covered with a glass top, and Mira was settled at the bottom, half in and out of sand. There were guppies and minnows in the tank with her, swimming around. My little boy pointed to the tank, but I put his arm down.

“That’s your aunt, honey,” I whispered to him and rubbed his head. “Don’t stare.”

But I stared, deeply, into her eyes as she swam up to the edge of the tank and peered through the sun glare. She looked at me, at Father’s coffin, at the mound of dirt, at the people. She knew some of them. She had been in their houses, had played with their children. She looked at me, and it sounds funny, but I swear I could hear music piping from her tank. Not flutes or horns, or mad violins, but the deep, slow voice of a Blues musician. One of Chirpy’s favorites, no doubt. Lightnin’ Hopkins. “One kind favor I’ll ask to you, see that my grave is kept clean.” No one else seemed to hear the words, but I could see her skin change color as she sang, and the ripples on the water as each note percolated from her spine, like fart bubbles in a tub. I sort of snickered, as if we were sharing a joke. She seemed to laugh too, and Lightnin’ bubbled up and up in honor of our father. I winked at her. I was tired of fighting and feeling ashamed. I was tired of blaming her for something that was my problem… not hers. She was a mutant, and that was that.

The preacher finished and the crowd slowly faded away. Some of them tried to approach the tank, but most just slipped away, too afraid to take another step. My wife took our son to the car and waited. I asked her to. This was Mira’s time and mine.

I walked up to her, and Chirpy and their friend stepped back. Mira put her webbed hands against the side of her tank, and I touched them through the plastic. “I’m glad you came,” I said, smiling.

She smiled too, as best as she could, and rubbed my fingers through the barrier between us. For now and all time, I realized that that barrier would always be there, keeping us apart. Her songs were different than mine now. She had made choices that would forever keep us apart, and eventually she would forget about me and her father and mother, the way all mutants finally do. She would lose her connection with us, and live the rest of her life (however long that might be) in peace with her new kin.

I had listened to her at the foot of the pool. I had listened to her reasons for becoming a mutant. She said that she would never fall victim again to her nature, but look at her now. A creature of water, shaped and mutilated by the musical notes of life. She couldn’t stay out of water for too long; it hurt to speak; her eyes gummed over if they touched too much air. She flew through schools of fish like a bird, and found scraps of food at the bottom of tanks. It made me wonder. Was she so different now than before? Hadn’t she merely replaced one set of “natures” for another?

I rose up and said to Chirpy, “Take her away now. It’s time for her to go.”

As I watched them place her back into the El Camino, my thoughts drifted to William Faulkner’s character Joe Christmas in Light in August. Like the confused white and black blood flowing through Joe Christmas’ veins, Mira had been trapped between the races, trapped between the musics. It was her human music that defined her misery. It was her mutant music that defined her joy. It was her human music that had driven her away from us and into the embrace of a chimaera; and it was her mutant music that had swept her into an ecstasy beyond the very touch of God.

The car faded away beyond the hill, and I realized something. We have a lot of tough days ahead of us, we Homo Sapiens and Homo Orchestrals.

I began to cry. Sister was right about one thing: It is in our human nature to kill. Joe Christmas had been killed by the mob; Mira’s mob was yet to come.


Greek Garden

by Michail Velichansky


At some point, my husband turned into a statue. One of those white stone ones, like they have in the museums. Except, well… all the men there look better. Strong and muscled and handsome, even if they did have little things. They didn’t have beer bellies, and I think they had hair, though it was stone. And you know, the thing is, I never remembered looking at his hair when it was, well, hair—but when it became stone… It just wasn’t very good looking.

I don’t know exactly when it happened. I know that he wasn’t always like that, not when I first married him—who’d want to marry a statue? Back then, he was the sweetest man. I remember back when we were dating, he used to sing to me, and he had the most horrid voice. Usually it was steady and deep, but when he sang it would squeak and crack… I teased him about it, but really I liked it. I mean, it’s one thing for some great singer to get up there and sing, but the kind of courage it takes to try and do something like that with no talent… He was the sweetest man, my Roger was; never had any real talent for anything except fixing things, but he tried so hard. I really miss him trying to squeak his way through “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”

But he didn’t just turn into a statue overnight, all of a sudden. I would’ve noticed that. No, it was gradual. He became a little more like stone over the years, and I just didn’t notice. It wasn’t even bit by bit at first, but kind of a whole change. He started to move less and less; he became whiter and paler. And he became harder, I think. Because I remember when we were going out we used to touch a lot, hugging and stuff. He was a big man, but so soft… Later, though, I don’t think we hugged so much.

After a while, we didn’t even kiss before going off to work.

Then, one day, I came home and he was sitting in front of the TV, beer in hands. He didn’t move when I went in, but I didn’t really see anything strange in this—it had been a long time since he’d jumped up every time I walked through the door. I put my purse down on a chair and hung up my coat, and… I just watched him for a while. He was sitting there, the TV lighting up his face, the beer in his hands slowly going flat… I don’t know. He just looked kind of lonely. I went around behind the couch, and put my hands on his shoulder to give him a massage—and I jumped back, because he wasn’t flesh and blood anymore, but cold, cold stone.

I went into the bedroom and locked myself in—I couldn’t stand to look at him. I felt empty. Maybe I cried a little, though I can’t remember. Later, I thought I heard someone banging on the door.

“Leave me alone,” I said to whoever it was.

Roger was still on the couch the next morning, except now he was laying on it, reclining, his head back.

I don’t why, but I said, “Good morning.” Of course there was no response. And when I kissed him on the cheek before going to work—it had been a long time, like I said—he was rough, and cold, and I just felt empty again.

From then on, things got worse and worse. I came home, and he was in front of the TV. Change into sweat pants and he was bent in front of the open fridge. Put dinner in the microwave, and when I turn around it’s gone. There he was, the dinner on his lap, a potato speared on a fork in his stone hands, halfway up to his mouth. We never ate together anymore.

He stopped asking me how my day went. Not even the day I got mugged on my way home. He never asked what happened… No, he never asked where I’d been. I remember now. I didn’t go home right away after it happened. I think I went to see a friend.

But he never asked. Anything.

There used to be nights, when we’d stay up till dawn talking. Talking about anything. We’d laugh, and hold each other, and he’d say something sweet. I’d feel as though I could tell him anything. Or sometimes we’d talk without saying anything. We’d just sit, and I could look into those eyes… I usually don’t like looking people in the eyes so much, but with Roger, it was like someone putting a warm blanket around me on a cold night.

Not like those stone things he had now. They were the worst, I think, those smooth marble eyes. They didn’t even see me, they—

They were horrible.

Later, we stopped touching in bed. I’d get ready, put my nightclothes on, brush my teeth, and when I walked out of the bathroom the statue would be in the bed. I’d curl up, as far away from its rough stone as possible, on my side—away from it.

Though, I think it was better this way. Not like it was before that, before I noticed anything, when he’d just be on top of me with those eyes, and I’d look up at the ceiling, try to count the tiles and wait for it to be over. At least… at least that was better. It really was.

Still, sometimes I’d say something like, “How was your day?” Or I’d say, “What are you thinking about?” It was stupid. Stone doesn’t think anything. It just poses. But… but I still kept thinking that he must be moving. Kept trying to see him move out of the corner of my eyes. It’s kind of funny, because for a while I kept bumping into furniture I was trying so hard.

I was kidding myself, though. It never moved. Just posed.

That’s how I remember the last few years: like one of those garden mazes from the movies, with all the statues standing around, or sitting, or… Just. Not moving. You know?

I tried to speak to him about it once. I don’t know why—maybe I thought I could bring him back to life, like some kind of fairy tale.

“I can’t live like this anymore,” I told him. “You… you don’t talk. We don’t talk. Remember what it used to be like? It can be like that again, Roger. It really can. If you just come back to me. Can you just move a little? Just say something to me? Anything?

“I can’t even feel your breath anymore…

“Damn. Damn damn DAMN! It’s not fair!” I banged both my fists on him, but I just hurt myself.

I kissed him again that night, for the last time.

Nothing. Nothing at all. Just cold stone, and it scratched my lips a little. But when I turned around, he was lying on his back with his eyes closed and his thing was big. And hard, of course. I looked at his face, and I just knew he wasn’t thinking about me. Just the thought of it, hard and rough and cold: it made me sick.

I just ran out of the room.

That was the last time I spoke to the statue that used to be my husband. I went to my mother’s and spent two days there. But eventually I had to leave:

“Is there something wrong at home?

“What is it? What’s he done?

“I told you that he was no good. Didn’t I tell you he was no good?”

I started talking to this guy at work named Matt. He’d been working there for a few years, but I’d never really talked to him. He didn’t really talk all that much, except with some of the other guys now and then. Mostly about work. He’d go out for a drink with them sometimes. He told me that. We talked about work too, really; but still, it was nice, in a way. At least he saw me. Though, usually he didn’t look me in the eyes. I didn’t mind so much. At least he saw me.

After a while, after flashing him little smiles, after feeling him look at me as I passed, we got lunch together. And then dinner after work.

“Do you want to go back to your place?” I asked finally. We’d gotten to now each other a little now; it was probably time. And I was lonely.

He looked up, kind of scared and confused, and mumbled, “No. no, not my place we—” I could see him rubbing the ring finger on his hand nervously. “Maybe we shouldn’t?” Then he went quiet, and turned away, staring off into space. We didn’t talk when we left the diner, just turned and walked our separate ways.

The next day though, he was all flushed. Came and talked to me in my office. “Look, I’m real sorry about that last night. Maybe we can go somewhere for lunch? Your place?” There was a… a hunger in his eyes, when he looked at me.

“All right,” I said. Even though I knew, somewhere, how stupid it was.

We went to my place. It was all right. It was nice to touch someone. Afterwards, I could at least lay in his arms and close my eyes and pretend. Just pretend. Because his body was soft, and it was warm.

It was on the third time that we went to my place. Matt wasn’t done yet, when suddenly he made a kind of croaking sound, and rolled off me. I looked over, and the statue was standing in the doorway. Just standing there, hands hanging by its side. It’s face—it was as though someone hadn’t finished carving it. Just two holes and a slash. No look at all.

I can’t really blame Matt for leaving. And I don’t. He squeezed passed the statue and ran out in his undies, pants tucked under his arm. Before he left, he glanced back: his face was red, and he quickly looked away.

The statue just stood there. Looking at me. After a while I couldn’t take that broken gaze anymore, and looked away. When I looked back, it was inside the room, closer, its hands clenched. Looking at it then, I realized I hated it. I hated it so much, I didn’t want to look at it anymore, so I walked out of the room. There I paced around for a little while, feeling embarrassed and hurt and lonely. When I walked back into the room, the statue was still there, just standing, its eyebrows low, a terrible blank look on its face. It frightened me.

“I can’t live like this anymore,” I said to myself. “I’m leaving.”

It didn’t do anything. It stood, and stared, and stared, and stared, and it didn’t do anything. Just stared through me. I wasn’t even there. It was like a mountain, couldn’t care less about all the little people running over it, trying to change it. What was I?

Just another scurrying thing? Another nothing that it didn’t even feel?

I screamed at it. I spit on it. I hit it. I broke all my nails, and my palms were bleeding—and I wasn’t even really there to it.

I ran from it, and locked myself in the small bathroom, the one that wasn’t in the bedroom. I cried. No, it wasn’t really crying, it was… I was choking, sobbing. I couldn’t breath, I kept gasping, and then I couldn’t unclench my fist, not even when I broke the mirror. At least… at least the pain… I knew I was real. Was. Am.

For a minute, I was sick into the toilet, and then I felt like I could breath again. Had to bandage my hand first, and then as soon as I was done, I ran out and grabbed my keys. The tires screeched in the driveway. Usually, I’m such a careful driver.

I went down to the local hardware store, and I bought what I wanted, just threw some money on the counter and walked out. There was a blur of moving and driving—and then I was home, with the statue of my husband, on the couch, in front of the TV, beer in hands.

I hefted the small sledgehammer with both hands, looking for the best grip. I was very careful, because my hand was hurt and I didn’t want to make it any worse. I walked behind the couch…

Pulled back.


And with a great crunch, his head shattered, splitting into large chunks and pebbles and dust.

I got to work on the rest of him. Swung again and again. Each time, it jolted my arm; each time it hurt worse. I was sweaty and dirty, and I could feel the dust sticking to my face where I’d been crying. Who knew there was so much inside? It took me so long—until finally there was nothing left but powder and gravel.

I washed the powder from my face and hair, and I just kept scrubbing and scrubbing even though it was gone, until I was red all over. I put my face under the water so that I couldn’t feel myself cry.

When I got out, I felt a little better. And as I vacuumed up, there was only a little bit of emptiness inside. Or did I have it backward? Like a photo before you get it developed, where what’s something looks like nothing, and nothing… Nothing looks like something.

As I threw out bag after bag of dust and stone, I just couldn’t tell anymore.