Ed Venice in The AI Drives at Night

by Kermit Woodall

 

Ever since my stint in the Navy ended, I found myself washed up and working out of an infested office down in Venice Beach as an investigator for Acme Insurance. Los Angeles isn’t anyone’s choice for bargain real estate, but Acme always managed to find the cheapest offices for field agents. The catch was an infestation that no exterminator had proven a match for. I could handle it, but it still bugged me.

My secretary, Vera Cruise (no relation), had an assignment for me that Monday morning. Vera was blond, tall, and had curves in all the right places. I had also painfully discovered, that she knew several of the martial arts. The toes of her shoes were shaped like small forks, and, well, I guess tines wound all heels.

The assignment involved one of Acme’s clients who found themselves in uber trouble. They’d been testing a self-driving car and had run over a shopping cart lady Sunday night. The poor old dame had cashed her last government check, alright. The client claimed no fault. She’d jumped out in front of the car. The car company said the data backed him up. So I walked over and met with the guy and asked him to run over it again.

The hombre’s name was Joey. He had a grey pouched face, big ears, and was five foot five of pure jumpy. But he stuck to his story like toilet paper on a shoe. Next stop, the car company. Since my buggy was in the shop, as usual, I called my secretary, and she gave me a lift.

I was met in the lobby by the company’s CEO. They’re all alike. With their gym workouts and spray tans. Slick bros with a thin veneer of culture. His office had antique eight-track tapes on the wall. He told me he had bad news. “No records?” I suggested. He agreed. Claimed the accident had erased the data as well as the old broad. All they had was a dark dashcam video showing the lady moving in front of the car in the last second.

Vera and I took a drive that night down the same road. Something wasn’t right. The street was as well lit as a sailor on leave. The video I’d seen shouldn’t have been that dark and the driver and client and the car should’ve seen the old lady. I checked and noticed that the buildings here all featured security cameras. So, I rolled my shoulders and decided to play a hunch.

I visited the building nearest the accident scene the next day and asked to review their security footage. There were yards of it, but I paced through it, inch by inch and finally there was what I was looking for in spades. Bingo. Now it was time to go fish.

I called in the client, the car company, and we all met with Acme’s lawyer. The mouthpiece served them coffee, but their mugs claimed innocence. The shyster then showed them the video. It was queued up to when the car came into view. Our client was playing with himself on a smartphone game and was blind to what transpired. The car was in the left lane, but when the old sister saw the car coming, she moved her getaway sticks fast and started through the right lane towards the sidewalk. The car, much too late, changed lanes with her and that was it. The car’s AI crashed.

I told our client and the auto exec the same thing. Plenty of fault on both sides of this. Our client wasn’t watching the road, and the car’s AI made the wrong lane change. In short, it was a clear case of auto correct fail.

 

The Return of Mr. Henderson

by Ross Griswold

 

“I’m telling you, Jessica Fletcher was the world’s most successful serial killer,” I said as I pushed open the heavy glass door of the First National Bank of Iowa.

My friend Spare Change stepped through the door after me. He looked, as always, as if Santa Claus has had a rough couple of months.

“What are you babbling about, Kevin?” Spare Change responded.

“Have you ever seen Murder She Wrote?” There were a couple of people in line in front of me, so I queued up behind them.

“Of course I’ve seen Murder She Wrote. I haven’t always lived on the streets,” said Spare Change.

“Well, in every single episode of that show, someone is killed. The wrong person is blamed,” I said. “Then Jessica Fletcher swans onto the scene as the ultimate tea cozy detective and figures out what really happened.”

“That’s the basic premise of the show,” Spare Change said. “So what?”

“The woman encounters a murder in every single episode,” I howled. People in the bank started to look at me funny. “Not only that, but with every single murder she gets to dictate how events supposedly went down.”

Spare Change snorted. “That’s because she’s cleverer than the police. She’s got experience from writing her books.”

“No, what she has is experience actually killing people. She’s not only covering up her crimes, she’s choosing who gets blamed for it.”

Spare Change looked at me. He blinked repeatedly.

“I always figured that’s how the series should have ended,” I said. “Jessica Fletcher finally slips up and gets caught. It could have been a massive crossover event. They could have brought in Matlock to defend her.”

“Can I help you, sir?”

I glanced up to see the conservatively dressed bank employee critically looking me over. I can’t really blame him. My shoulder-length hair was a mess of dirty brown curls. My red flannel checkered shirt had seen heavy use and I couldn’t even guess when it was last washed.

“Yes, I’d like to open a checking account,” I said, giving the teller my best smile. I held up a wad of hundred dollar bills.

Very few people know it, but I am a superhero. They call me Staff-Master. In that aspect of my life I had stomped out a drug deal the previous night. I admit, it probably wasn’t the best practice to steal the money after I beat them down. It should have probably gone to the cops as evidence or something, but a man’s got to eat.

“I’ll need to see some ID,” the clerk said suspiciously.

Crap.

“Is that really necessary?” I asked. “I’m trying to give you money, not take money from you.”

“Still need to see ID.”

“Ok. Thanks anyway.” Sheepishly, I tucked the money back into my pants pockets. I turned away and walked towards the door.

Spare Change followed a few feet after me. “Kevin, why didn’t you just give them your ID?”

“As far as the authorities know, I’m dead,” I said sadly. “When that oil billionaire, Mr. Henderson, kidnapped me, his soldiers burned down my apartment building. Everyone assumed that I died, along with several of my neighbors.”

“Yeah, and then Mother Earth and I rescued you,” Spare Change mumbled, glancing around to make sure that nobody was listening. “You really should reclaim your life. Let the world know that you’re alive.”

I sighed as I pushed the bank’s front door open and stepped through it. “You’re probably right, but I worry that if I explained what was going on, I’d let it slip that I’m Staff-Master.”

Spare Change frowned as he walked down the sidewalk, as if a deep thought was hurting him. “You could talk to Detective Boskett. I bet he’d help you. And he already knows your secret identity.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I should do…”

A sudden burst of gunfire interrupted me. It came from the bank lobby that we had just left.

Whirling around on my heels, I looked through the glass door. I spotted three men with military looking rifles. They wore black ski masks and heavy bulletproof armor.

Around each of their waists was an odd sort of belt. It resembled a large weightlifting belt, bedazzled with greenish bits of circuit board and wires of every color. The buckle of the belt was a fist-sized glowing circle that reminded me of the power button on a computer.

Spare Change grabbed my arm and pulled me away. “Come on, Kevin.” Together we ran half a block away and ducked into a narrow alley.

“Holy crap,” Spare Change gasped, a sharp wheezing making it hard for him to talk. “We only barely got out of there.”

“We got lucky,” I agreed. Then I started pulling off my flannel shirt, revealing the blue spandex costume underneath.

Coughing, Spare Change watched me as I shucked off my jeans. “Really, Kevin?” he panted. “Right here in front of me. Couldn’t you find a phone booth or something?”

I slipped on my gloves and pulled my mask down over my face. “They don’t make phone booths anymore.”

“Oh yeah,” the old man mumbled.

He handed me the foot-long length of otherworldly wood that had been hiding under my checkered shirt. As soon as it touched my hands it magically grew into a six-foot-long pole. It’s a pretty handy thing, really. It was a gift from the pagan goddess Mother Earth. That’s a story for another day, however.

“Spare Change, wait for me here,” I said. “I’ll be back.”

I could almost hear the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as I walked back down the street. I spun my quarterstaff around, stretching my muscles and preparing for combat.

Boldly I walked up to the bank and kicked in the door. “Drop it, evil doers,” I shouted. “You have picked the wrong place to plunder.”

Three gunmen turned to face me, as well as about a dozen bank staffers and customers that were cowering on the floor. People screamed and the bad guys shouted out obscene replies.

The robber closest to the door dropped a heavy sack and tried to hit me with the butt of his rifle. I leaned to the side to avoid it, then spun around and bashed him in the face with my quarterstaff.

The man crumpled to the ground at my feet. As I turned to glance at the other two, they opened fire. Their military rifles burped hot lead across the room. I spun my quarterstaff, and like Babe Ruth himself, I swatted the bullets up into the ceiling.

“Surrender,” I shouted, stepping forward aggressively.

“Not likely,” said one of the gunmen. He grabbed up two heavy canvas sacks overflowing with cash. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

He pushed the backlit button on his belt buckle. There was a flash of blueish white light, kind of like lightning, and the man vanished.

There was a sudden flash to my left, and the second gunman vanished as well. Money fluttered through the air where he had been standing.

Startled, I turned around to see the last robber crawling across the floor, blood leaking from under his mask and smearing the tile floor. He was trying to reach for the bag of money that he had dropped when I arrived.

Running at him, I managed to kick the bag out of his grasp. Groaning, he instead stabbed at his glowing belt buckle.

“NO!” I yelled.

With a zap, the man was gone. All that was left of him was some blood on the floor.

Confused, I looked around the room. Terrified faces greeted me in every direction I turned. “It’s OK, people. I’m Staff-Master. You might have heard of me. I’m one of the good guys.”

That didn’t seem to reassure anybody, so I bent down to pick up the bag of money that the thief had left behind. Holding it up, I looked around the room. “Who should I give this to?”

It was that moment that the police swarmed into the bank. Guns drawn, they spotted me, a masked man, holding a bag of money.

“DROP IT!” various police officers shouted.

“Sure thing,” I replied. I set the money bag down on the ground, and I willed my quarterstaff to shrink back down to a less threatening foot-long stick. “My name is Staff-Master. This bank was being robbed.”

“Get on your knees. Put your hands behind your head.”

“This isn’t necessary,” I said. “I’m a superhero. Call Detective Boskett. He’ll vouch for me.”

“This is your last warning, stick-guy,” a policeman growled as he pointed his sidearm right at my face.

Seeing no other peaceful option, I let go of my quarterstaff and laced my fingers behind my head. I dropped slowly to my knees.

The police officers forced me roughly down to the ground, where they handcuffed my hands behind my back. Then they picked me up and led me out of the building.

Leaning on the side of a squad car was a man wearing a tan trench coat. A matching fedora was pulled low over his bearded face.

“Detective Foley, should we take off his mask?” asked one of the police officers.

“No,” Foley said, waving a hand dismissively. “You know how it is with these crazy types. He’s going peaceably now. But if we take away his mask, we pop his delusions. He might get violent.”

“Sure thing, boss,” said the officer. “We got him red handed either way. He must be an idiot, trying to rob a bank so close to the police station. How did he think he’d get away?”

“I didn’t rob the bank,” I shouted. “I tried to stop the robbers, but they, like, teleported away.”

Detective Foley spat on the ground. “Teleported. Hmmph.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“Get him in the car,” Foley grunted. The police officers obeyed, loading me into the back of the squad car.

From there I was driven to the police station and was led into one of those interrogation rooms that you see on TV. In the center of the room there was a heavy stainless steel table bolted securely to the floor, flanked by two flimsy plastic chairs and a long mirror on the wall.

“Take a seat, freak,” a beefy uniformed officer said. He forced me down into a chair and attached my handcuffs to the table. Once he was satisfied that I was secure, he stepped out of the room and closed the door.

I sat there for probably a couple of hours. The time flew by like a sloth running a marathon through a vat of chocolate pudding. By the time the door opened again, I was literally beating my head on the desk.

“Hello, Mr. Midnight,” said a voice that I had never heard before. The figure standing in doorway was a backlit silhouette.

I bolted upright in my chair and tried to study the figure.

“I think you have me mixed up with somebody else,” I said.

“Please do not insult my intelligence,” the dark figure sneered. He stepped into the room, revealing himself to be the somewhat shaggy looking Detective Foley. Only he didn’t speak with Foley’s voice.

“You are Kevin Midnight, also known as the Immortal Staff-Master,” Foley said in his different voice. “It’s obvious, really.”

“How do you figure?” My heart was pounding.

“Elementary,” said Foley. “It was reported in the press last summer that a man named Kevin Midnight heroically saved a homeless man from a mugging. In the process, Mr. Midnight was shot through the heart and killed, or so the EMTs and doctors believed. Then, mysteriously, Mr. Midnight wasn’t dead anymore.”

A cold sweat formed on my brow. It soaked quickly into the spandex of my mask, making it feel damp and smothering.

“It really was something of a miracle,” said Foley. He flopped heavily into the other chair, looking nothing like the intimidating cops on TV. No, he practically lounged in that cheap plastic chair.

“A couple of months after Mr. Midnight was released from the hospital, a masked superhero appeared for the first time. This hero had the exact same physical build as Mr. Midnight. The same long brown hair. He used a quarterstaff, just as Mr. Midnight had done when he saved the homeless man. Do I really need to continue?”

“No,” I said. My head hung low. “I guess not.”

“If you would indulge me,” Foley said cheerfully, his fingers forming into a steeple. “I’d like to continue just a bit further. After a few adventures as a superhero, Mr. Midnight, you were attacked by representatives of the oil billionaire Richard Henderson.”

“It wasn’t Staff-Master that drew Henderson’s attention, however,” Foley’s words came fast and dramatically. He was bragging that he knew all of this. “It was all the talk in the press about Kevin Midnight being shot through the heart and killed, yet not killed.”

“Mr. Henderson had a heart problem,” I confirmed. “He was keeping himself alive by stealing hearts from homeless people. When he read of me, he wanted my heart. He thought it would keep him alive indefinitely.”

Foley nodded his head slowly. “I know. I was there.”

“What?”

“Well, I wasn’t there when Henderson’s thugs kidnapped you and burned your apartment,” Foley said. “I was, however, there at the Henderson Oil refinery when they surgically removed your heart and put it in the old man’s chest.”

A cold chill ran down my spine and my eyes narrowed as I looked anew at this very odd police detective. “Then that means…”

“Not what you think it does,” Foley said smugly. “I’m no villain. Allow me to introduce myself.”

With that, the image of Detective Foley appeared to melt like butter in the microwave. His features reformed and solidified anew. Where before he was a thickly built man with messy hair, now he was a tall and thin figure with neatly slicked back hair, a large forehead, and a nose like a hawk’s beak.

“You can call me Shifter,” said this new man who once was Foley. “I’m a private investigator. I was working undercover at the Henderson Oil Refinery as a security guard. A client had hired me to prove a connection between Henderson and the same murders that you were looking into.”

“You’re another superhero?” I asked hopefully.

“Not until you entered my life,” Shifter said. “I was a normal, if brilliant, person. Then animated trees attacked the oil refinery, led by a pagan earth goddess.”

“Mother Earth and my friend Spare Change came and rescued me,” I nodded. “They defeated Henderson’s men and reclaimed my heart. They saved my life.”

“They very nearly ended mine.” Shifter leaned forward in his chair, his eyes narrow slits. “I tried to use the chaos to snoop around a secure area of the refinery. I was having trouble getting a door open, then an elm tree grabbed me and threw me through the door.”

“Ouch!” I said in what I hoped was a sympathetic voice. “Although, it got you through the door.”

“Indeed.” Shifter curled back his lip. “As I had suspected, beyond that door was a laboratory where work was being done on fossil fuels. It also housed inhumane biological experiments.”

“When I smashed through the door, a container holding an unknown compound was shattered. It poured all over the floor. I slid through the mess and into a shelf, which tipped over. Other chemicals were dumped all over me, and, simply put, my body melted away.”

“That’s horrible!”

“It was quite interesting in an odd way,” Shifter said. “I was aware of the entire process, and my liquefied form was an unseen witness as your friends rescued you. The animated trees then overtook the refinery. The earth opened up and swallowed the building whole.”

“What happened next? How did you go from there to here, impersonating Detective Foley?” I asked.

“Well, time passed, and I was still alive and aware,” Shifter said. “Cogito ergo sum. So after much trial and error, I suppose you could say, I pulled myself together. I reformed my body out of the goop. I reclaimed my life.”

Shifter was preening a bit as he continued. I got the impression that he hadn’t shared this with anyone, and he was just itching to share more.

“I quickly realized that I could do more than just reform my body,” he said. “I mean, I’ve seen Terminator 2. I’ve seen Star Trek: Deep Space 9. I realized the potential of my new situation. So I tried shaping my body into other forms. At first I had to use my hands to physically and crudely sculpt myself, but with practice I became very good at it. I could make myself look like anyone I wanted with very little effort.”

“So Detective Foley is fake? He’s like a secret identity for you?”

“No.” Shifter laughed. “Foley is a friend of mine. He owed me a favor and he knew that I wanted to talk to you.”

“Why do you want to talk to me?”

“For one, I wanted to meet the man that caused such a profound change in my life,” said Shifter. “But really, I need your help with an ongoing investigation. You’ve already become embroiled in it.”

I perked up at that thought. “Embroiled? Me? Are you talking about the bank robbery?”

“This robbery, and others like it I suspect.” Shifter leaned forward in his chair. “For weeks now I had been noticing a trend. High-end medical equipment. Bleeding-edge robotics. All of it stolen from highly secure locations with no sign of breaking and entering. In more than one instance the theft occurred right under the noses of reliable security. The thieves did the deed and were gone before anyone could respond.”

“Sounds like the bad guys I met tonight,” I said. “They had these things on their belts.”

“Exactly so,” Shifter exclaimed. “The average police response time to that bank is less than five minutes. It’d be foolhardy for your average bank robber to strike there. But if one has the technology to teleport out in an instant, it’d be a tempting target.”

“Where on earth did they get that kind of technology?” I thought aloud. Then I noticed Shifter’s smug smile. “You already know, don’t you?”

“I do,” said Shifter. “Our mutual enemy, Mr. Richard Henderson, has returned.”

“What?” I shrieked. “He couldn’t have survived. From what I understand he was left without a heart. He and his entire refinery were destroyed and devoured by the earth. It’s a forest now.”

“Indeed, but a man like Richard Henderson was not prepared to go quietly into the night.” Shifter yawned. “Stealing the heart of an immortal wasn’t his only plan to survive.”

Shifter reached inside his jacket and pulled out a roll of papers. They were dirty and water stained and crumpled. Bits of dust fell from them as they were unrolled.

“Stealing organs from homeless people was nothing more than a stopgap, a stalling tactic,” Shifter said. “Stealing your immortal heart was merely an opportunistic backup plan. These papers detail Mr. Henderson’s actual plans.”

He handed me the filthy papers. I looked them over, and I must confess that I didn’t understand most of it. The words were a blend of algebra and mad science. The drawings looked like a robot from a Japanese cartoon. The final page made things uncomfortably clear, with a schematic of Mr. Henderson’s upper body hooked up to control wires and life support tubes.

“They built a cyber-Henderson?” I asked.

“All evidence appears to lead in that direction,” Shifter said coolly. “They appear to have a secret base on the top floor of the 801 Grand building.”

“How do you know that?”

Shifter reclaimed the cyborg plans, rolled them up and put them back inside his coat.

“I’ve made a quick study of the teleportation technology based upon the Henderson cyborg plans, the equipment recently stolen, and various other factors. It all adds up to the need for a stable teleportation relay in a very high place. 801 Grand is the tallest building in all of Iowa. From there, one should be able to teleport anywhere in the metro area. The copper sheeting used to build the roof makes an exceptional antenna as well.”

Shifter stood up, and as he did he changed again. His rail-thin figure bulked out and became the disheveled bear-like Detective Foley once more. With the flourish of a trained showman, he produced the keys to my handcuffs and unlocked me.

“Thank you,” I winced as the blood started circulating into my hands again.

“Thank me by helping me bring Henderson to justice,” my new shapeshifting friend said. “His immense wealth should not be allowed to shield him any further.”

Together, we walked out of the interrogation room. We got some odd looks, but nobody questioned the counterfeit Detective Foley. He led me to the evidence lockup, where, with a wink and the discrete exchange of cash, he managed to get my quarterstaff back.

A half hour later we were climbing up the steps of the 801 Grand building. Shifter had returned to what I presume is his natural form, the slim man with the broad, intelligent forehead.

“We dare not take the elevators,” Shifter announced. “Henderson is probably tapped into and monitoring the building’s security feed.”

“That’s fine,” I huffed. “When we get to the twentieth floor I’m going to throw up.”

We went up, up, up, finally reaching a door marked No Trespassing. Signs like that don’t apply to superheroes though, so we pushed the door open and walked inside. We entered a pitch black hallway.

There was a sudden click as Shifter turned on a flashlight and started scanning it around us. “We are in the right place.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

Shifter pointed his light at an office door at the end of the hall. It was the only door I could see, and mounted upon it was a copper plaque inscribed with the words Henderson Oil.

“Nobody likes a show off,” I grumbled as I walked up to the door and tried to open it. It was locked.

“I’ll have to break it open,” I said. “Are you ready?”

When I turned back to look at Shifter, he had changed his form. He had long brown hair. His face was covered by a blue spandex mask. He wore a matching blue skin-tight costume and a battered black leather motorcycle jacket. He had a little bit of a pot belly. He had in his hand a familiar looking quarterstaff. In short, he was an exact imitation of me.

“Ready,” he said with a nod.

“When this is over, you and me are going to talk about this,” I said as I kicked the door open. “Gimmick infringement is bad, ok?”

Shifter laughed, and I must admit that I did as well. It really is something special to get to share moments like this with another superhero.

The laughter choked away as we peered into the room. Past the Henderson Oil door was a massive room, far larger than I had expected. The place was a strange joining of creepy elements.

Half of the room looked like a filthy auto repair shop, with massive hunks of greasy equipment scattered here and there. There were hydraulic platforms that looked capable of lifting cars. Wrenches and socket sets and other tools that I couldn’t identify hung on pegboard walls. Oil pooled messily on the floor.

The other half of the room was an antiseptic hospital-style operating theater, complete with crisp and clean bedding, beeping monitors, and sterile blue-green walls. The glistening blue floor seemed to be polished within an inch of its life.

In both of these incongruous sections of the room, men stood around working. Tattooed and grease-stained men twisted and hefted and ratcheted. Less than forty feet away, men in green paper gowns and sanitary face masks appeared to be performing some type of surgery. All of these men looked up in surprise as not one, but two Staff-Masters entered the room.

“We must reinstall the subject,” screamed one of the medical staff. Two of the surgeons snatched something off of the operating table and quickly carried it to a machine in the middle of the room. The thing they carried was gray and wrinkled and didn’t appear to weigh very much.

“Nobody move,” Shifter’s booming voice filled the room. Well, it was my voice actually, but, you know. Shifter said it.

“Bad guys never actually listen to that, you know?” I grumbled as several of the mechanics pulled out guns and moved to defend the medical staff. They stepped smoothly between us and the gray thing the surgeons were carrying.

Cracks of gunfire assaulted our ears and I spun my staff, effortlessly batting the hot lead out of the sky. To my surprise, Shifter mirrored my movements, not only shielding himself from the gunfire, but sending one of the bullets right back into the shoulder of one of the shooters.

“Where did you learn to do that?” I asked as I ducked under a swinging tire iron.

“Learned it from you,” Shifter said, as he deflected another bullet and swung his quarterstaff in a hard downward arc, scything the gun out of a shooter’s hand. “I’m not making myself look like you for the sake of a joke. My powers allow me to mimic skills and abilities as well as appearance.”

I swept the feet out from under a mechanic and glanced over at Shifter. “You are such a cheater.”

“Is it really cheating if it works?” Shifter spun his quarterstaff overhead and then lunged forward with a spear-like thrust, hitting a bad guy in the chest and crunching his ribs.

I blocked the downward swing of a massive wrench, and kicked its owner below the belt. “Yes. It’s still cheating!”

“All’s fair in love and war, they say,” Shifter countered as he lashed into two more mechanics, bloodying them and knocking them to the ground. “After all, you just kicked that guy in the gonads. That is hardly Marquess of Queensberry Rules.”

A lucky punch struck me in the face, sending me reeling into a greasy brick wall. My quarterstaff slipped from my fingers and clattered to the ground.

I leaned on the wall for a moment, cursing myself for getting distracted. Then I turned around, right into two more shots to the body. My breath left my body in a surge of pain, but I managed to push through it and wrap my long arms around my attacker. Pulling him down into a headlock, I punched him repeatedly until he fell limp from my arms.

Gasping, I bent over and picked up my quarterstaff just in time to see Shifter hit the last mechanic with a flurry of blows. Beyond them, the various medical techs were fleeing, having accomplished whatever they were trying to do.

“What the heck is going on here?” I looked around the strange room.

A deep bass hum reverberated from the large machine smack dab in the center of the room. The surgeons had carried something gray and wrinkled to the machine and installed it within before they fled.

Only now did I realize that the thing they had carried was Richard Henderson.

Two vibrant red lights ignited upon the machine. Hydraulics whined to life as the large squat machine stood up on two wide steel legs. Standing at about ten feet tall, it looked down upon us with demonic electronic eyes.

“Odd. There are two of you.” Mr. Henderson’s voice boomed through onboard speakers concealed somewhere on his monstrous robotic body. “Regardless, it is a pleasure to properly meet you, Staff-Master. At the time of our last meeting, I had no idea that the man I had kidnapped was a superhero.”

“Whatever you are doing here, it ends now,” I shouted.

Dry raspy laughter whispered through the machine’s speakers. “I think not. I am too wealthy and important to die.”

“And so very humble,” I snarked.

“I also have weapons,” Henderson’s electronic voice said gleefully. “I have power, and you will not take it from me again.”

With a whir-click sound, the Henderson cyborg lifted up his massive, mechanical, Popeye-like arms and opened fire with two of the biggest guns I have ever seen. Bullets spat forth rapidly, sounding like an angry mosh pit of bees at a heavy metal concert.

The gunfire came in such quantity that there was no chance of deflecting it. It was all Shifter and I could do to leap out of the way. Shifter sprinted left, I went right. A trail of bullet-ridden devastation followed closely behind both of us.

Over the roaring guns, I could still hear the cyborg’s laughter. He was enjoying this.

Leaping for cover behind a mechanic’s workbench, I gasped and wheezed, my chest tight with fear. I startled as Shifter leapt over the workbench and huddled down with me. His body liquefied for a second and he was once more the intelligent looking man with the beak of a nose.

“Do you remember those belts?” Shifter asked urgently. “The ones that the bank robbers wore that allowed them to teleport?”

“Yes,” I choked.

Shifter looked at me intensely, his blue-gray eyes wide. “As we were running for cover, I noticed one of those belts on a table back that way.” He gestured to a part of the room that had yet to be destroyed. “I have a plan to end this, but I need you to bring the belt to me.”

I listened as Henderson’s guns continued to chew up the room. It was so loud, I could feel it vibrating my insides. “Are you sure your plan will work?”

“Absolutely.”

I took a deep breath, trying and failing to slow my racing heart. I nodded to my new friend, and then I rolled out from cover. “This is going to suck.”

“There you are,” Henderson shouted gleefully. He pointed both canons at me and started shooting.

I don’t think I’ve ever ran so fast in my life. My breathing and my thinking froze up, but my legs pumped like the pistons of a race car. I spotted the teleportation belt and I weaved to the right and leapt for it, seconds ahead of the gunfire.

I grabbed the belt just as the bullets tore into me. Two pierced my hips, at least three more went through my thighs. I didn’t even feel them, but I saw the crimson gore bloom forth from my midnight blue spandex.

“Shifter, go long,” I screamed as I threw the belt. My legs crumpled out from under me. I fell hard to the oily concrete, and only then did the pain hit me. I shivered and screamed.

I must have blacked out, because the next thing I knew, Henderson’s massive form hulked over me. He poked at me with the business end of his gun. The barrel was still smoking and its touch burned my flesh.

“I’m going to have fun tormenting you,” he said.

I wept and screamed. The pain was so intense that I thought I was seeing things when suddenly there was a flash of lightning above me. With his long coat flowing around him, Shifter stood on top of the Henderson cyborg. The teleportation belt was slung across his chest like a bandolier.

“What are you doing?” Henderson’s robotic voice shrilled.

“You’ll see,” Shifter snickered. Then his entire body melted into a clump of greasy looking clay. The clay continued to liquefy until it flowed over the cyborg like water. It dripped down the cybernetic legs and pooled on the floor. It flowed down into the machine.

Mr. Henderson screamed with rage, then with dawning terror. Random parts of the ungainly machine started to spark and pop. Discordant whirs and buzzes and clicks reverberated as Shifter’s liquid form tore the cyborg apart from the inside.

One of the gun arms fell off and crashed to the floor. The other gun ejected its ammo, sending unspent bullets rolling around the room like marbles. Soon even Henderson’s screaming ended as the speakers erupted. The giant monstrosity stood dead still and silent.

The oily fluid flowed to the ground and reformed into the man known as Shifter. He dusted his hands together as if cleaning them. “That, as they say, is that.”

“You didn’t kill him, did you?” I asked.

Shifter seemed offended by the question. “Absolutely not. I left his life support systems intact, but nothing else. He needs to pay for his crimes, and we need to clear your name. The police still think that Staff-Master robbed that bank, remember?”

Whistling a jaunty tune, Shifter removed the teleportation belt and strapped it around Henderson’s remaining gun arm. He pushed a few buttons and the giant robot vanished in a flash of lightning.

“Where did you send him?” I asked. I tried to sit up, but only succeeded in losing more blood.

“The police station. I imagine they are in a bit of a panic just now with his sudden appearance, but they’ll soon discover that he’s too broken down to do any harm. The cyborg is made almost entirely from stolen equipment. His very existence will incriminate him. Plus, I’m sure that the police will be able to tap into the machine’s onboard memory.”

Despite the pain, that made me smile. Shifter smiled too, then sat down next to me on the floor and began studying my wounds.

“You’ll live,” he said wryly.

“I know.”

Shifter chuckled as he began bandaging me, applying pressure to slow the bleeding. “And I’ll make sure that the police find the right clues to clear your name,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

Shifter was as good as his word. The very next day’s news was filled with stories about Richard Henderson’s crimes. Detective Foley was even on TV personally thanking Staff-Master for bringing down the villain.

All in all, it was a good day’s work for a superhero.

 

The Mummer

by Brennan J. Bennett

 

Four days, he thought, stepping out of the battered cabin he’d rented when he’d first arrived in Hog-Jaw. It had been four lousy days in this cold, Canadian piss-pot of a town and Jack Bradley still hadn’t figured out why he’d even come in the first place.

It was because of her, he could remember that much.

That bitch.

Before stopping in Hog-Jaw, Jack had been a week into getting-the-fuck-out-of-Dodge—“Dodge” being his marriage and the shit-storm he’d left behind. He’d left his driveway in Maine with “If I ever see you again, I’ll cut your fucking face off!” echoing in his ears and had wound his way through Canada to Newfoundland, where he’d been barrel-assing across the island when he’d seen the sign for Hog-Jaw.

It had been the name “Hog-Jaw” that had reminded him of something she’d said early in their marriage—though he’d never made a habit of listening to her—and he’d been compelled to stop. He’d spent the next four days getting righteously, rip-roaringly drunk, and trying to remember what she’d said that had made him stop and spend the week of Christmas in this Podunk little shit-tank.

And as he heard the burping and coughing of the ancient truck on the morning of his fifth day in Hog-Jaw, he still couldn’t remember a thing.

The truck was rumbling toward him up the neglected dirt road that ended abruptly at his front door, and he descended the cabin’s four-step front porch to meet it.

The rust-colored Chevy rolled to a stop, and the driver killed the engine and swung open the rust-pocked door. He seemed to emerge in segments. By the way he moved, Jack had expected to see an old-timer—a grizzled, leathery woodsman—but the man who uncoiled himself from the Chevy was no more than forty, about his own age. He was broad-shouldered and sturdy, with the thick arms and chest of an athlete (or a lumberjack, Jack thought). Dense hair spilled out over his shirt and seemed to climb like ivy toward his neck where it merged with thick stubble that swallowed most of his face. Messy shocks of reddish-brown hair fell from his head, leaving only a narrow slot for his sunken eyes. Jack thought of medieval knights and the tiny eye slots of their visored helmets.

The man shut the door of the truck and took a few aimless steps toward him. As he approached, Jack could see a deep, twisting scar that began at the corner of his eye and plunged down somewhere into the wild, endless stubble.

He stopped ten feet from where Jack stood and said nothing.

“Morning,” Jack offered.

Silence.

“What can I do you for, Chief?” Jack said, grinning.

Again, silence.

“Everyone in this town this damn chatty? You know, on that note, does thirty people in the woods even constitute a town? I mean, this–”

“Morning,” the man said, suddenly. It was neither a pleasantry nor a greeting, but a simple statement of fact. The flatness in his voice matched the lifelessness in the eyes that peered not at Jack, but past him into the woods, from behind the wild visor of hair.

Jack hesitated, eyeing the man suspiciously, not sure if he might offer more. Finally he said, “Okay, can I help y–?”

“See you tonight,” the man said flatly, suddenly—strangely suddenly, Jack thought. The vacant eyes continued to stare.

Jack furrowed his eyebrows. He opened his mouth to speak, but just as he did, the dead-eyed hair-knight snapped his head a quarter-turn to the right with surprising quickness. The abruptness of the movement startled Jack and his mouth hung open. Hair-Knight seemed to be looking at the cabin.

Jack swallowed hard. His mouth felt dry and the spit stuck in the back of his throat.

He traced Hair-Knight’s line of sight and realized, with sudden confusion, that there was something—maybe a flyer—taped to the outside of his cabin door.

Before Jack had much time to think, Hair-Knight’s head began to turn back toward him. It moved slowly, deliberately. All sound seemed to fade and Jack could feel his eyes darting with metronome quickness, anticipating that something—anything—might happen.

As Hair-Knight’s face became visible to him, Jack could see that his formerly dead, sunken eyes were now wide and popping from his skull. Jack felt the hackles rise on his neck, sick gooseflesh leap from his skin. Despite the freezing air, hot waves of steam rippled from his chest and made his cheeks flushed.

Without a word, the man turned toward his old truck and pulled open the door. The door gave a shrill whine and Jack winced. And before he could really understand what had transpired, the man folded himself back into the old Chevy with his same meandering slowness and was gone.

*****

When Jack arrived at Clapper’s a half-hour later, the barroom was nearly empty, other than a few shrunken old men scattered about the place and a tired-looking bartender.

Jack plopped himself down at the bar and slouched onto his elbows, his head in his hands. Replayings of his peculiar encounter with the stranger outside his cabin flashed before his eyes. His skin crawled and pricked with each replay, as if suffering bites from a swarm of fire ants all over his body. His muscles were tense, and the innocuous sounds of the barroom made his bones pulse and caused him to cower reflexively for an instant each time one disrupted the heavy stillness of the room.

He replayed the stranger’s words—see you tonight—like his mind was stuck in a record-player-skip, until his face felt numb.

The flyer pinned to his door was perhaps the most troubling part of the encounter. It had been pinned to his door in the wee-hours of the morning—he’d been up, piss-drunk, by the fire until at least midnight, and the flyer hadn’t been there when he went in for the night. That meant someone had been watching him, waiting for him to turn in, had crept up to his door… He shivered. What was more concerning, though, was the way Hair-Knight seemed to look right at it—the only thing he looked clearly at—like he wanted him to see it.

When Jack had snatched the paper from the door after Hair-Knight left, he was even more perplexed. “Annual Night of the Mummers,” the headline had read. Below it: “December 23.” Tonight. Underneath that, a peculiar picture of what he could only describe as a “fucked-up clown” had smiled out at him. At the bottom of the page, he’d noticed a few lines of verse that read, “There’s big ones and small ones, and tall ones and thin, / Boys dressed as women and girls dressed as men, / Humps on their backs and mitts on their feet, / My blessed we’ll die with the heat. –Simani.”

He’d seen the same flyer plastered to the window of Mack’s Market as he’d passed a few minutes before, and the same fucked-up clown—“the mummer,” apparently—was staring at him presently from the flyer pinned behind the bar.

“Get’cha, b’y?” the old barman said, startling Jack out of the dark mire of his thoughts.

Jack looked up and said nothing.

“Whadda ya want, b’y,” he asked again in thick Newfoundland English.

“Beer. Don’t care which.”

“Black Horse?” The old bartender’s face was a reddened and weathered patchwork of wrinkles, and Jack could see exhaustion plain and true. His eyes, though, seemed sharp.

“Oh, me nerves,” the barman said under his breath when Jack didn’t answer, and then more forcibly, “Black Horse, eh, b’y?”

“Sure, yeah.”

Jack watched him as he snatched a mug and pulled the tap. He was a stout little man, and he lumbered when he walked, like a man who had seen too much to worry about being in a hurry. Presently, he plodded toward Jack with the amber beer. Jack noticed his eyes again when he set down the mug, the sharpness there that stuck in his mind like a thorn.

“So, what’s the deal with this Mummer thing?” Jack asked, taking a long, calming sip of his beer and gesturing to the flyer behind the bar. “I’ve seen the flyers everywhere.”

Like my fucking cabin, he thought.

“Local ting,” the barman said, turning to eye the poster. “Sort of a game ’round Christmas every year. Yer friends dress up in masks and come to yer house, see if ya can guess who they be. Ya give ’em drinks fer clues, and when ya guess ’em all and the masks come off… well that’s when the real drinkin’ begins, eh, b’y?”

“Sounds…” Jack trailed off and slugged the rest of his beer.

“Yes, b’y, t’sumtin’, tat’s fer sure.”

He held Jack’s gaze a bit longer than was comfortable and Jack sensed that sharpness once again, like the old barman was trying to tell him something.

“Anyway, tis place’ll be empty. Whole town’ll be mumm’rin’. Anotter?” he said, scooping up Jack’s empty mug and heading for the taps. But just as he did, the tavern door swung out furiously and three feral-looking men shoved in. The barkeep eyed them skeptically, almost vigilantly, and turned back to Jack.

He lowered his red-leather face, that sharpness blazing behind his eyes, and whispered, “I’d say t’sabout time ya headed back to where ya come from, me son.”

He stepped back, shot Jack one final knowing glance and greeted the three men with “Get’cha, b’ys?” in the same tired, banal voice he’d used on Jack.

*****

“Fuck me!” Jack yelled as he slammed down his third pint to a chorus of cheers. His three new friends slapped him on the back.

When they’d first arrived, Jack had noticed two things simultaneously: first, each had a scar on his face similar to Hair-Knight’s, and second, almost as soon as they’d come through the door, the handful of old-timers in the room scattered as if they’d caught the fresh scent of death on the wind.

But those things were long gone from him. Now, he was quite enjoying their company.

“Bring me another round, b’y!” Jack yelled to the barkeep, mimicking the local Newfie accent, to another round of wild cheers. The bartender ambled over with another pint. Jack grabbed the beer and spun on his stool to face the men who were standing behind him in a tight half-circle. He thrust his glass toward them, and as he did, the three men raised theirs in odd unison, as if their arms were all tied to the same string. Jack smiled and teetered forward, sliding half off the barstool, not seeming to notice the strange uniformity of the men standing before him—the way they moved, spoke, laughed.

“Okay, b’ys,” he said, “what is it we’re toasting this time?”

A furtive glance passed among the three men, but again, Jack didn’t notice; his head danced in a warm haze.

“To ex-wives,” one of the men, Daniel, said after a moment’s pause, and raised his glass. He was a big bastard, probably six-foot-four, the kind of guy Jack would call a brick shithouse.

“You, Daniel-san?” Jack said stupidly in his Mr. Miyagi voice, pinching Daniel’s cheek. “With that handsome punim?”

“Believe it, brother,” Daniel said, clinking his glass against Jack’s. “She’s sort of the reason I ended up here. I was an ass. I’m getting what I deserve, really.”

“She do that to you?” Jack asked, half-serious, reaching up a hand to finger the ragged scar that twisted from under Daniel’s nostrils and tucked underneath his chin along his jawline.

“Something like that,” Daniel said.

When he didn’t say more, Jack said, “Women,” and downed a healthy gulp of beer. Shaking his head, he added, “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live with ’em. My old man used to say that.” This brought another round of cheers and more clinking glasses.

“You said it, pal,” Daniel agreed.

Though Jack hadn’t noticed, his head beginning to swim in inebriation, Daniel hadn’t touched his beer. In fact, none of them had taken a single sip the whole night.

“You married, Jack?” another of the men, Jordan, asked.

“Me? Fuck no. Well, shit, technically, yes, I still am. But let’s just say things didn’t end too well between me and the missus.” Jack finished off the pint in a heaping gulp.

“No?” Jordan asked, his expressionless face belying the false emotion in his voice.

Jack narrowed his eyes. “There’s something about you, Jordan. Something I can’t quite…” If he hadn’t been drunk, Jack may have placed his finger on what didn’t sit quite right about Jordan—the way he stood, too upright, or the way he never shifted his weight. He may have thought Jordan was a little too robotic, his movements too stiff, his skin too smooth—except for the faded pink gash-scar that split his cheek in two from ear to nose.

What Jack might have noticed most of all about Jordan—about all of them—is that he didn’t speak with a Canadian accent—Newfie or anything else.

Instead, when Jordan told him he didn’t have to talk about it, Jack replied with, “You want a story, fuckers? Then I’ve got one hell of a tale for you.”

“Bartender—another pint!” Daniel yelled and Jordan cheered.

With fresh beer in hand and bright lights bursting behind his eyes, Jack began his story.

“You see, b’ys, ol’ Jackie went and screwed the pooch, as they say. Well, if we’re being technical, I’d been screwing it just about every day.”

“Other women?” Jordan said.

“Everything that moved.” He was starting to slur his words. “You see, my missus… well, she just stopped putting out. It wasn’t always like that. She gave great head when I first met her, really rocked my fucking world. You find a girl who sucks cock like that and you lock her down—my old man never said that, but there would have been some practical advice!”

His three friends laughed a tinny, mechanical laugh in unison. Jack didn’t know why but he thought the laughter sounded like dead leaves scraping across pavement in the dark.

Jack took a long sip and continued his story. “Anyway, the fun stopped right after we got hitched. The fuck am I telling you for? Daniel, you were married; you know all about it.”

Daniel nodded and flashed a hollow grin.

“You other two twats ever married?” Jack asked, looking from Jordan to Nate, the third of the men. Both nodded. “Yeah, I could tell. Both divorced right?” They nodded again and Jack echoed their nods. “Knew it. We divorced guys have a certain look, a certain je ne sais quoi,” he said, nose upturned in mock-sophistication.

Jack noticed—the first thing he had noticed all evening—that Nate’s mouth took a downward dip at this. “Yours did a particular number on you, huh, Nate?”

“I deserve what I got,” he said flatly, looking down.

“Oh come on, boys! I’ve heard enough of that,” Jack groaned. “First Daniel and now Nate… Jordan, straighten them out!”

“Sorry, Jack,” Jordan said. “I, too, have reaped what I’ve sown.”

“Bullshit!” Jack yelled. “Bullshit! A hot, steamy pile of it! Come on, boys! The bitch is to blame! Mine caught me in the act! Came home early one day and caught me laying pipe right there on the living room couch. Some young slut. Big tits.” Jack grinned and lost himself in memory.

“Why are you here?” Nate said with a bluntness that woke Jack from his daydream. He was glowering darkly.

Jack looked up at him through glossy eyes that became suddenly lucid.

“What do you mean?”

Nate, Jack had learned, was a sullen son-of-a-bitch, and he hadn’t done much more than grunt since they’d met. Jack could tell he was a man of few words, but he seemed particularly surly this evening, really just going through the motions. His face was a permanent scowl and his wild-horse eyes were near-black. His scar, too, was unlike those of the other two (three—he remembered Hair-Knight and shivered). While theirs gave their faces a pitiful, victimized quality, his added an element of antagonism. It cut sharply across his lips, from nose to chin.

“You should leave and never come back,” Nate said, his face impassive.

“What Nate means to say,” Daniel broke in, turning toward Nate and glaring feverishly, “is how did it end with your wife?”

Though Daniel had been speaking to him, Jack thought the words were more for Nate.

“Jack?” Daniel said.

Jack, still watching Nate, jumped, startled. “Huh? Oh—sorry. What did you ask?”

“How did things end with your wife?”

“Ehh, you know,” he said dismissively.

“Do tell,” Jordan said. His robotic cadence again shocked Jack, furthering sobering him.

“Not much to tell, man,” he said almost defensively. “My wife’s crazy. She told me to get the hell out, that she’d kill me if she ever saw me again.” I’ll cut your fucking face off.

“Did you believe her?” Daniel said.

“I’m sitting at a hole-in-the-wall bar on an island in Canada, aren’t I?”

“Fair point,” Jordan said.

“I mean, I don’t think she’d ever hurt me. I don’t know; maybe she would. I guess I must have believed her because here I am.” Jack grew suddenly pensive. “I guess she does have something about her that is sort of scary.”

“She sure does,” Daniel said.

Nate jerked up his head and locked eyes with Jack as soon as Daniel spoke.

“What did you say?” Jack said, confusion plain on his face, his mouth suddenly dry.

“I said, ‘I’m sure she does.’ She must scare you to get you to leave home.”

“Yeah,” Jack said slowly, suspiciously.

He stared at Daniel, afraid to break eye contact.

He was just about to look away, to accept that maybe he had heard Daniel wrong, when he saw Daniel grin.

Jack stood up and retreated a half-step. He scanned the faces of the three men, feeling suddenly alone and vulnerable.

And then he saw Jordan grin.

Their grins seemed to be alive, spreading like ink in water, malignant and black, across their faces.

Jack felt a pressure begin to build in his chest like he were in a too-fast car going zero-to-infinity. He couldn’t breathe.

He knew, suddenly, that he had to get away. He recoiled back into his barstool and stumbled hard into the bartop. He caught himself just before he fell and hurried for the door.

Once onto the sidewalk, he took a deep breath of cold afternoon air and glanced back into the bar through the storefront window. Daniel and Jordan were still watching him with their wicked faces. Nate, though, was looking down, his hands in his pockets.

*****

When he awoke, face-down on the tweed sofa in his cabin, Jack was chilled and shivering. The room was dark, except for the sliver of dingy light that shone in, horizontal, through a window by the door. The sky was a quickly-fading orange and the little light slanting in through the blinds made his head throb like an ever-expanding balloon. He sat up slowly, his body heavy, and massaged his temples with trembling fingers.

He wobbled to his feet and shuffled to the refrigerator, where he found a single Budweiser tucked away in the back. He snatched up the can and took a long, purposeful sip which eased his trembling momentarily.

He stumbled back toward the sofa and sat facing the door. His mind reeled with a thousand thoughts at once. The Hair-Knight. The mummers. Daniel and Jordan with their scars… and their grins. Why had Nate told him to leave? He took another sip of beer, holding it on his tongue, and exhaled forcefully through his nose.

His knees bobbed, piston-like, as the slice of light around him thinned to a single strip of brightness. In another minute, the light had receded from the cabin entirely, just a pinhole glare on the horizon. And then it was gone, replaced by a twilight glow that melted away into the starless blue-black of night.

Jack drank the last sip of his beer, and as he did, there were three slow, light knocks at the door.

See you tonight, he remembered in the echoes.

“Who is it?” he called.

Another round of knocking sounded at the door, quicker this time.

“Who is it?” he tried again, voice faltering.

A third round, heavy and aggressive now, boomed as if in response.

Jack’s pulse crashed in his ears like tidal waves pounding the shore. Cold sweat broke over his body.

Suddenly, the knocking became a violent, hateful rapping that seemed to surround him. Loud crashes enveloped him as fists pounded the cabin from all angles. He whipped his head around frantically, trying to catch glimpses of the figures in the darkness through the windows.

The banging on the door thundered in ever-quickening, mallet-fisted blasts. The door leapt on its hinges, threatening to give way at any moment.

“Fuck it,” Jack said aloud. Before he could stop himself, he was on his feet, flipping on the overhead light, and unlocking the door.

When he did, the pounding stopped at once in a single reverberating note. A cruel silence settled over him. And then the cabin door pulled open.

He hadn’t known what he would see when the door opened, when the overhead light spilled out into the darkness and spotlighted whoever was there. He certainly hadn’t expected to see the clown.

It wasn’t so much a clown, he thought as the man crossed the threshold, but a thing of nightmares. The man, whoever he was, wore a mask. It was the wizened, deep-wrinkled face of an old man—heavy brows, sunken cheekbones, bulbous nose—but there was a cartoonish quality to it, like a caricature gone horribly wrong. The old man’s mouth twisted downward into a red-lipped grimace that revealed black gums and rotting teeth. The worst part of the mask, Jack thought, was the empty eye sockets, black and sinister, and the very real, very hateful human eyes beneath.

Hair-Knight. He’d know those eyes anywhere.

Hair-Knight said nothing under his mask. He breathed heavily, threateningly, and stepped toward Jack. Jack recoiled quickly, slamming his heels into the base of the sofa and crashing down into a seated position. He looked up dumbly, helplessly, and saw the rest of Hair-Knight’s outfit. He wore a black tuxedo-looking getup, though, Jack noticed, the entire thing was one piece, like the denim jumpsuit a mechanic might wear. A grotesque hump—obviously fake—protruded from his back. It looked airy and flopped side-to-side as he moved. The whole thing was so absurd, so ironically comical, that Jack wanted to laugh, and he might have, if not for the eyes that burned from behind the mask.

Jack was suddenly aware that two other people, each as oddly dressed as the first, were stepping through the door. None made a sound.

“What…” Jack started but stopped.

The first figure stepped forward and cocked his head at Jack as if in confusion. He wore a white sheet over his face, held tightly to his skin by black cords around his forehead and neck. Mismatching holes revealed eyes that never broke from his. In the droop of the right eye-hole, Jack could see the thin scar across his cheek. If the strange, robotic movements hadn’t given him away, the scar surely had.

Jordan.

Around the white sheet, Jordan wore what looked like a lion’s mane, the hair kinky and rainbow-colored. It billowed like a windy grainfield each time he alternated the tilt of his head. His stare cut into Jack and he said nothing.

A minute or more passed in the silence of this bizarre stare-off, and finally, bewildered, Jack said, “What–”

“Quiet,” Hair-Knight said. Though his voice was barely above a whisper behind the old-man mask, his baleful glare turned Jack’s stomach to knots. Jack held his breath, afraid to make a sound.

“We are the mummers!” Lion’s-Mane-Jordan said suddenly. His voice was high-pitched and squeaky. “We are the mummers, and we’re sorry for this fright! But we’re here for fun, to dance and pun, for you this winter’s night!”

When he finished his song, Jordan stepped back into line and the tall mummer at Hair-Knight’s left shoulder stepped forward. Jack knew him instantly.

Daniel.

Where’s Nate? Jack wondered. Why isn’t he with them?

Daniel had a waterfall of curly blond hair masking his face. Clipped to the hair were two prosthetic-eyes-on-springs, lifeless gray and jouncing wildly. He was shirtless and on his stomach was a tattoo of Siamese cowboys riding Siamese horses.

He was holding a strange-looking stick—a broom handle—about four feet long. Attached to the bottom of the stick was an old work boot, the sole at the steel toe flapping like a lolling tongue. Nails were driven into the wood all along the length of the stick, and from each, dangled bottle caps, marbles, or silver jingle bells.

Siamese-Cowboy-Daniel opened his mouth and said, “It’s really quite simple! Just guess our names! That’s how you win this mumm’ring game!” As he sang, he held the strange stick out from his body with one hand and let it slam, boot-first, to the ground with a discordant crash. Every few seconds, he’d let it fall again.

He continued his song. “We’ll give you clues to help you out. When you know, let out a shout! Call the name and we’ll be done, then you’ll be on to another one!” At this, he brayed chilling laughter—part animal, part demented circus-clown.

Jordan, also giggling maniacally, his mane undulating like underwater plantlife, picked up the verse. “Can’t solve the riddles? That’s no problem. For a price, we’ll help you solve ’em! A drink as bribe will buy a clue. That will make it clear to you. When all unmasked, we’ll be away, and you’ll have learned a truth today.”

“What tru–”

“Shut up!” Hair-Knight roared. Jack was poleaxed by fear. He had been confused before that moment—afraid even—but when Hair-Knight yelled, Jack understood immediately that he was in real danger.

The silence that followed was deafening. The three mummers stared in unison. And then the ugly broom-handled instrument began to bang. It’s beat was steady. One-two-three-CLANG!-one-two-three-CLANG!-one-two-three-CLANG! It was the tolling of a funeral bell.

Get up! he thought. Get up and run!

One-two-three-CLANG!

Jack squeezed his fingers into a tight ball. His pulse thrummed behind his knuckles.

Hair-Knight. Have to get past the fucking Hair-Knight.

The savage yawp of a cornered animal erupted from within him suddenly and Jack was on his feet. He took two loping strides and drove his fist into Hair-Knight’s face. The old-man-face absorbed much of the blow, but it was enough to knock him off balance, and Jack pushed past him and shouldered through the door. It gave way with surprising ease and he stumbled, plunging headlong down the stairs, flipping and landing hard in the snow. Before he could think of the pain or the cold, he was up and running. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the mummers piling through the door, Daniel already to the bottom of the steps, the asinine pole-instrument gripped like a bo staff in his hands.

Jack whipped his head forward and sprinted wildly toward the dirt road. Get to town! he thought. Get help! Before he’d taken three steps, though, he stopped cold.

Standing at the edge of the road was another mummer, a long-bladed kitchen knife in his hand. He rolled the knife between his thumb and fingers and the moonlight glinted menacingly off the blade. Then everything went black.

*****

When he came to, he was only faintly aware of where he was. His vision was blurred, but a musty smell told him he was still in his cabin. The moving shapes across the room told him the mummers were still there, too. He tried to move but found that he was bound, wrists and ankles, to a wicker chair. Panic set in immediately. He yanked feverishly against the ropes, arching his back and throwing his weight against them, but the more he struggled, the tighter they seemed to get. After a few seconds, he gave up and fell heavily into the chair.

He was suddenly aware of the blaring pain in the back of his skull and he closed his eyes tightly. Something warm beaded across his hairline and trickled behind his right ear. Tears came, and then great ragged heaves.

“Shut the fuck up,” he heard and then felt the explosion of pain as knuckles shattered his cheekbone. He made a gurgling sound in his throat and began to sob.

Hair-Knight, still wearing his mask, massaged his knuckles. He tensed when he heard Jack’s cries and was back on him in an instant, his hand wrapped around Jack’s throat, fist clenched and cocked. “I said shut the fuck UP!”

“Enough,” a voice called lackadaisically from across the room. Hair-Knight released his throat and joined the other two mummers by the door.

The voice belonged to the fourth mummer, the one who he’d seen on the road just before he’d blacked out. Now the man was reclining on the sofa, one leg draped over the other. He still held the knife. Jack watched as he picked at the undersides of his fingernails nonchalantly with the tip of the blade.

Nate.

He was dressed in much the same way as the others. Over his face, he wore a burlap sack, black Xs across the eyes and a cross-stitched zipper-pattern smile that traced across the bag.

“Back to the game then, hmm?” Burlap-Sack-Nate said without emotion.

Jordan stepped forward in his preposterous lion’s mane and cocked his head maniacally again. “Take a guess at who I am. Jim or John or maybe Sam. If you think you need a clue, try blueb’rry wine, yes that’ll do,” he sang. The ugly-stick in Daniel’s hand clanged miserably along.

“Please,” Jack begged the mummer on the couch. “Please just let me go. I won’t say anything about this. I just want to go home. Please.”

The mummer sighed. Exasperation maybe. Jack saw him nod at Hair-Knight and flick the knife toward Jack. An instant later, Hair-Knight was hovering over him, fist raised. This time, pain followed, like nothing Jack had ever felt. His already-shattered cheekbone felt as if it had been ground to dust. The fat knuckles had also caught part of his nose and blood poured out. Jack leaned his head back and blood rushed down his throat, making him sputter. He found himself crying again through gulps of metallic blood.

“Do you enjoy the pain, Jackie?” the fourth mummer said. His voice was calm.

“No,” Jack whispered, steadying himself the best he could.

“No. Of course you don’t.” The mummer spoke as if answering his own question. “See, but here’s the thing: I think… you fucking… do.”

“Ple-ea-ease,” Jack mewed. “Please, no.”

“Then play the game. Guess the names and it all ends.” He flicked his hand in a whimsical, dismissive gesture.

“If I play the game, I can leave?” Jack asked, hope rising in the pallor of his face.

Silence.

“It’s Jordan,” Jack said, wheezing through his broken nose. “It’s Jordan in the white sheet. Jordan.”

Jordan stepped forward and slipped the sheet over his face, revealing the rotting grin Jack knew he’d see there. Jack’s skin prickled at the sight.

The Siamese-Cowboy was next. He stepped forward, eyes dangling morbidly on their springs on the blond wig. “My dance–”

“Daniel,” Jack interrupted. “It’s Daniel. And that’s the fucking Hair-Knight,” he said, pointing to the old-man-face mask. They removed their masks. Daniel was grinning. Hair-Knight was glaring.

“Hair-Knight,” the fourth mummer repeated, amused. He was on his feet now, ambling toward Jack, still flourishing the long knife in his hand. Jack felt cold, suffusive fear seeping through his pores, smelled its sour tang in an instant. He bucked his hips and arched his back against the ropes.

“Stop that,” the mummer said, walking past him and touching him lightly on the shoulder with the flat side of the blade. Jack eyed the knife and then swung his head around as far as he could to watch the mummer. He heard the heavy clink of steel on laminate as the mummer laid the knife on the countertop in the kitchen just out of his view. Cords stood out on Jack’s neck as he strained to see. He heard what sounded like twisting and then tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Then a quick fffwoop. His heart raced. Moments later, he heard another clank as the knife hit the cast iron of the burner on the gas range.

“What do you want from me?” Jack said softly.

Behind him, Jack heard the audible expansion of the plume of flame on the burner. After a minute or more of silence, he heard, “I want you to play the game.” The burner turned off with a quick pop.

“I don’t want to play anymore,” he whimpered.

The mummer appeared in his periphery, the knife, now gleaming red-hot, back in his hands. He lowered his burlap-sacked face directly in front of Jack’s and said, “Are you ready for my clue?”

“Nate! You’re Nate,” Jack yelled, desperation thick in his voice.

Without a word, the mummer climbed onto him, draping either leg around the outside of Jack’s until he was in an erotic straddle across his lap. He held the hot knife aloft, the point only a few inches from Jack’s left eye, and twirled the blade in a tight circlet. Jack squeezed his eyes shut and drew back his head as far as he could. The blade inched closer.

“Please, just leave me alone,” Jack begged.

“Oh, if only I’d said that when we first met.”

“But–” he said and then screamed as the mummer touched the point of the blade to the soft flesh under his eye. He saw the tiny curl of steam and screamed again.

“Are you ready for my clue now?”

“Yes,” Jack heard himself say, afraid anything else might get him burned again.

“Good. Here goes. You didn’t know this when we met, and I never did quite clue you, but it’s a fact and you can bet, that I already knew you. Not you, per se, but your type indeed; in fact, I’ve known quite many. Selfish ones, and arrogant; oh, yes, there have been plenty.”

“I don’t know,” Jack said softly, starting to cry again. “Nate. Nate!”

The mummer sang on. “I mark them out, I reel them in; it’s really not that hard. I hunt them down when they run off; leave them broken, beaten, scarred. You, too, I chose, flaws I could tell, when we met that spring in Maine. A year of marriage, a year of hell; I thought only of your pain.”

Jack opened his eyes wide, eyes suddenly alight with understanding.

The mummer continued, “And now here you sit, in my hometown, the seed I planted grown. I led you here, to break you, dear; your life now I do own. So the next time you run out on me, look only to your face; the scar you bear will long remind you of your true disgrace.”

Tears streamed down Jack’s face now; blood and snot poured from his nose.

“Say my name, Jackie,” the mummer said.

He shook his head slowly and said, barely audibly, “No. No. I–”

“Say… my… name!” the mummer yelled, ripping off the burlap sack in one fluid movement. Raven-black hair spilled out and eyes darker-still bore into him. Her face was beautiful and malicious.

*****

Jack was paralyzed by his wife’s wicked smile.

He didn’t struggle even when she shifted her weight forward on his lap and put the palm of her free hand on his forehead to press his face parallel to the ceiling. But then he saw the sheen of the blade in her other hand. And he felt the three sets of hands on him. Only then did Jack let out a pitiful scream. But then the knife stole his breath.

The blade bit deep into the flesh of his upper cheek where she’d burned him moments before. It had cooled considerably, but it cut with a bitter sting nonetheless. She ripped the blade from the soft skin under the eye down across his left cheek, using just the point and tip of the knife for her incision. A thin, red line appeared in its wake. As she turned under his nose, she laid the blade flat and let the cutting edge work. A bright red chasm appeared between his nostrils and lips, blood sliding in sheets across his mouth instantly. She finished the job by dragging the blade’s tip across his right cheek and jawline. And then she kissed him on the mouth. And licked her lips.

The hands released him all at once, but Jack felt glued to the chair. His mouth arched in a terrible grimace. His breath came in shallow gasps. His face burned with venomous flame.

“Say my name, Jack,” she whispered, her lips to his ear, the knife pressing just below it.

“Olivia.” His lips barely moved.

“Good. That’s good,” she said and hopped off his lap. She floated back to the stove, and through his agony, Jack once more heard the range flame to life, the blade clang against it.

“Why?” Jack exhaled to the ceiling.

“It’s not so complicated, really, Jackie,” she yelled from the stove. “My motivations are simple. I grew up here, just down the road actually—you probably didn’t even fucking know that… You never could listen to me, could you?—and my father was a cheating scumbag piece-of-shit who walked out on my mother and me. Now I’m making sure that never happens to anyone again, one arrogant shitsack at a time. Simple, right? So I have daddy issues. Whatever. Know thyself.

“You’re not the first arrogant shitsack though. You’ve probably figured that out by now—I’m sure you’ve seen the scars. You’re actually the fifth. Lucas was first,” Hair-Knight, Jack thought through his disorientation, “then Danny, then Jordy. Nathan was last. He’s still learning.” Jack could hear the control in her voice. The dominance. “We had to remind him just who is in charge after the way he acted today at Clapper’s.”

He’d tried to warn me, Jack thought. Just like the bartender.

Olivia continued, “Nathan had to be taught a lesson. But I think he’ll remember now.”

Hair-Knight stepped forward as Olivia finished speaking and held out his hand. In it, Jack saw a bloody human ear. He made a pathetic mewling sound and closed his eyes. The twisting line on his face throbbed wickedly.

“And now you’re one of mine, Jackie,” Olivia said, still standing by the stove. “You know, I told you Lucas was the first. That’s only partially true. He was my first husband, the first cheating asshole I took up here to break. But my father was really my first. Know what I did to him? I took his balls with an old kitchen knife when I was sixteen.”

A feeling of inevitability soaked through Jack. She’d hunted her own father… She’d tracked him down and… He knew in that moment that it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d come to Hog-Jaw or not. She’d have found him wherever he went.

She continued. “I didn’t even heat the blade. He almost bled out. But I didn’t let him. I thought he should have to live with what he’d done—and what I’d done to him.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack breathed. “For what I did to you.”

“Jack,” she sneered. “Don’t do that. You’re not sorry. You’re not capable of being sorry. Not yet anyway.”

Suddenly, the others were on him. Hair-Knight had his hand around his throat again, and Daniel pinned his legs. Jordan fingered Jack’s belt furiously. In a matter of seconds, he’d unfastened the clasp and shimmied the jeans and briefs down to his ankles.

Olivia, the red-hot knife in hand again, knelt between Jack’s legs and grabbed his balls in one hand like she were collecting wildflowers. He screamed and begged for mercy. He thrashed wildly in the chair, but the men held him firm. Olivia pressed the fat edge of the blade against the delicate skin between her fingers.

Jack threw his head back in agony, begging for an end. His skin hissed under the blade. The stench of burning flesh filled the air.

And then the branding was over.

“Get him into the snow,” Olivia said. Jack’s binds were cut and he was hoisted, his pants still around his ankles, out into the snow. The air rushing over his branding sent him into fresh bouts of agony. The snow, too, seemed to torch his seared flesh. Tears began to fall again and he hung his head, afraid to look at her as she descended the cabin’s steps, her burlap-sack mask in her hand.

She didn’t look at him either; she didn’t need to. Her power was clear.

“You know what you are now.” There was no question in her words. “You are nothing. You are mine. Now get in the car.” She pulled a set of keys—his keys—from her pocket and slid into the driver’s seat of Jack’s Mercedes.

Jack rose and pulled up his pants. He limped wearily toward the car, watching his feet as he walked. When he reached the door, he hesitated, his hand on the handle.

Maybe I can make a run for it, he thought. If I can get to the bartender… But they might catch me. That knife. The pain.

He opened the door and sat down, another wave of pain sweeping through him. Olivia started the car and pulled slowly down the dirt road. Jack could see the three others standing like sentinels. He realized, morosely, that he might soon be standing next to them as some other poor bastard made this drive.

“Put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes,” she said in the darkness.

Jack peeked at her furtively but didn’t move. He thought again of the bartender. He knows I’m here. He’ll send help.

Olivia turned the car onto Hog-Jaw’s main drag, and Jack began to see other mummers through his window. He watched them, the merry and the absurd, children and adults alike, laughing, prancing down sidewalks, knocking on doors. People in their homes smiling, inviting the mummers—their friends and neighbors—in. All fun. All happy.

And then he saw Olivia’s mask on the floor by his feet and shivered.

“Put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes,” she said again as they passed Mack’s Market, an edge to her voice now.

Jack refused to look at her. He could see Clapper’s just ahead.

Suddenly the car slammed to a stop.

“Jack,” she growled in the dark. He could feel her glare but still didn’t look.

And then he saw the bartender.

He was on the sidewalk in front of the bar, almost like he was waiting for them.

Jack’s heart raced. Help was so close. He had to get the barman’s attention.

He felt the power window switch with his finger but didn’t dare press it. He didn’t have time. She’d speed away the second the window moved and it would be all over. But he had to do something. This might be his only chance.

Suddenly, furiously, he pounded the car window with his open palms and screamed.

The barman looked up. He looked right at Jack.

Thank Christ! Jack thought as he kept banging.

And then his window began to lower.

He looked at Olivia, and in astonishment, saw her finger pressing the driver’s side window switch. She leaned toward him and lowered her head, looking past him toward the bartender on the sidewalk.

“Hi, Daddy,” she called through the open window.

Jack’s blood ran cold. His face turned ashen.

In the halo of yellow light from the bulb above the tavern’s door, Jack watched the barman raise a trembling palm to her, the rest of his body rigid at her words. The fear was plain in his eyes, as simple and true as anything Jack had ever seen. And then the barman turned, walked back into the bar, and turned off the light.

A thick darkness settled over the street. A heavy numbness settled over Jack.

He heard the hum of his window closing, and all he could do was sink into his seat.

After a moment of silence, he forced himself to look at Olivia. She was smiling devilishly.

“Put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes, Jackie.”

A shadow fell over her face then—not a shadow, Jack thought, but a darkness. A thing almost alive, wicked and ancient. Evil. Under that mask of primal darkness, her eyes turned to white fire.

Jack Bradley laid his head against her shoulder and closed his eyes.

 

The Sea Wife

by Bill Green

 

From the Journal of Madame Estelle, 1894

We are formation, immortal process. We coalesced before memory in oceanic depths for starless eons, becoming strands of protein, sacs of fluid, and then more complex material forms as we absorbed complexities around us. So now I am writing this on land, in shape of human flesh in a clutter of walls, garments, tools, and furniture, categories that still seem alien to me.

I do not mean that we are the afflatus of emergent life—some sort of spirit of evolution. No, we are no-things apart. The organisms evolved in the sea and above it of their own accord. We are elders devoid of inherent form. We watch. We emulate. Sea life was easy to copy, even fish, though we savored and elongated the study, drawing it out over eons, and were satisfied until we began to smell ranker life in water draining the air-lands. At first we explored as lungfish and crocodiles, but one species grew dominant, so we copied it, at first crudely with fish tails or hollow backs, but even as we gave ourselves breasts and alluring songs, so we struggled to directly decipher the human code in corpses and sewage. Some of us, fair copies of females, though best seen in dim light, crawled into the human swarm to draw samples of their seed.

I was our most perfect replica, modeled on a girl drowned (I now believe) for her beauty, whose ovaries I savored for information. My sampling began on the coast of what you call Florida at a port you call Apalachicola in the decade of the 1850s. Your species was not my favorite. Even as I floated under your docks, absorbing your thought-forms, I dreamed of years as a sea serpent, resenting the inefficiency of my internal gills and spindly pectoral and pelvic fins. We can hear your thoughts, but they were at first a tangle of strands it took months to unknot and lay out in intelligible form, floating in the dark water like a jellyfish at night, then sinking deep underwater when the sun glared, almost motionless because my residual gills were taxed by swimming. Others, in the borrowed forms of fish, schooled around me, and we planned invasion of the land.

For months, I floated along the docks and seaside paths, head and shoulders exposed to air until I learned the times and patterns of nocturnal schooling, the uses of shelters along the water’s edge. Humans mask their skin, I saw, so I dragged a solitary woman—one who walked alone every night to meet strangers—out into deep water and took her garments. Sheathed in fabric, I at first avoided contact, watching and learning, attending to your words and thoughts. I veiled my face, fearing my wide eyes and round gill-covers would betray me, and practiced land-swimming on my pectoral fins in shadow until it seemed almost natural, though a pair of he-humans seeing my early efforts said “drunk” as I walked away. Always away. Only after long study of their dry customs did I dare to approach one of them, even by moonlight.

My listening post was a shed by a seawall across from a tall structure where humans gathered, drinking and vociferating over harmonic noises. Wide cracks allowed me to watch this saloon and hotel (I soon learned their designations) across Water Street. I am a rapid study, but had volumes to learn and spent months learning it. I stole newspapers and listened to thoughts and conversations until I understood the obsessions of pale he-humans on the Apalachicola wharf—not only their cotton, cypress, and oysters, but their seed-spilling obsessions as well.

Finally, I dared to walk into their town and test my vocal box in weather words to shes who walked after dark. I understood that speaking to the hes might lead to intimacy sooner than I was prepared for, so I remained mute among them, but the stares under their hats confirmed that the drowned girl I replicated had been well shaped for my mission. After risking talk with human shes and deciphering a habitat-distribution practice called rental (I had long ago understood the shell-worship called money), the school teeming around me on the seabed agreed it was time to begin sampling. I was ready, even eager. The humanlike tissues of my material form wanted work.

His name was Cal Calhoun, a cotton broker in the city on business. It was selection at first sight. He melted out of darkness by a seawall (I was floating in the bay at the time, treading water), and I liked his muscular gait even before he stood gazing over the waves, not seeing me but sensing, I believe, my presence as I read him—a he without family in Apalachicola, a he hunting for a she. So I crawled out of the bay and followed him to Water Street, to the saloon opposite my listening post, where I hid until my clothes were less damp.

I might have waited and accosted him in shadow, avoiding even the moon, but eagerness overcame me and I trusted my recent facial restructuring (informed by the donor of my clothes) and pulsed toward the light. I touched his arm and spoke for the first time to a man, as his kind is called, and, yes, I risked the bare lamps in the saloon, sitting for the first time in a chair and replicating words of the women I had listened to for months. Cal bought me a glass of white wine that I did not drink. He insisted I should have a name, so I let him name me.

He called me Luna.

I led him to a side street where an upper room was available and told him to rent it for a year so that I would have a place to collect his fluids. Of course, that was not how I worded it. Not for nothing had I listened to the breed-words of humankind, so long that I was impatient to know their referents in the tubular meat-form I had borrowed, a form that my ancient sentience—remembering the forms of eyeless worms to microscopic jellies—found oddly charming.

Cal wanted talk, but I did not. We removed impeding fabric and swam together on a bed soon moist in the summer night under a single moonlit window. I was surprised and my human tissues inexplicably pleased by the motions (admittedly inefficient and desultory) required to fully drain him. The day before, making plans with my seabed school, I had imagined sampling a different specimen each night, but in the darkness with pelvic fins intertwined, I decided that all others I had cataloged in Apalachicola were inferior. This one demanded exclusive study. I suspected this from the beginning. Otherwise, why would I have told him to rent the room?

The mere promise of further sampling—a procedure he-humans value—might have brought Cal back, but I felt an impulse to favor him by helping him in his cotton trading, reasoning that this would ensure his loyalty. I had listened to thoughts of schooner captains and knew which ones were little better than pirates, selling shrinkage from their holds and promising impossibly quick delivery. I read Cal’s plan to ship with such a scoundrel and was able to save him hundreds of dollars with trade advice before the rising sun drove me back underwater. Cal extended his visit to Apalachicola for days, and each night I gratefully collected the scant product his glands were able to synthesize, so that by the time he boarded a riverboat for his inland home, a human habitat called Eufaula, the nescient mortal was bound to me by both sentiment and greed.

In his absence I returned to the sea, resisting urgings from my piscine handlers to meet other he-humans. But some nights I crept back into the town, hiding from mortals but reading their thoughts for information to profit my Cal, and after only two weeks away, he returned. His warehouses were empty, but his loins were full. He invented lies to come to me, and my intelligence was such that he made profitable trades in the docks that were my nightly study.

His mortal appetite was contagious. What had first promised to be a tedious extraction became much more to the tubular form I had borrowed, and even my then-immortal part responded to our nightly swimming (as it seemed) into and out of each other’s identities. If I was eroding his selfhood, as I read him thinking, dissolving his identity like a coin in acid, a similar process was compromising me. I never confessed to my teeming handlers that in his arms, forming about him and taking fresh templates from his several juices, I began to feel almost human. My body, governed less by biological law than by our ancient formlessness, changed under his hands, as my face grew (I think) more like his under his kisses, and my non-self, that mutability that our kind has sustained through endless ages, was affected.

When he left me, as inevitably he did, I felt oddly restless. I taxed my internal gills by circling under the water until my human eyes grayed with anoxemia and I was forced to scull hard for the surface, bursting with a waterspout into the sun, gasping for air. None of my school suspected that intimacy with a man had atrophied my gills. During interludes of air breathing, exposed to sunlight, I realized I was no longer confined to the night. The same mad restlessness that drove my circular swimming drove me to decorate my flesh. I knew well that human shes (when they could) changed clothing, and my human autonomic system spasmed with a glow called shame that I had but one dress (though Cal saw it only in darkness and removed it at once). It was a small concern but seemed to matter. Now that I could tolerate sunlight, I could visit a dressmaker, select colorful garments, and adjust my size to fit them.

My lack of money was easily solved. Hidden in the shed by Water Street, I read thoughts of passersby until I detected one who had just sold a crop of cotton and carried a roll of bills in his vest pocket. Drunk and lonely, he was easily led to a deserted seawall where, on the pretext of a kiss, I took his roll and pushed him over the stones. Forms of sharks and jellyfish dragged him into the depths as food (our meat forms have to eat), and his bones scattered on the seafloor. I had more than enough to buy dresses, shoes, and hats and rent a room to leave them in, a refuge I hid in days when I felt crowded by my handlers. And what of the hundreds left over? Do not think I was a savage. I opened a bank account.

Cal did not seem to notice my new dress on his next visit a few weeks later, or the next one. He visited more often than his brokerage demanded—more often than I could discover profitable news, even sitting at a bay window over the street where I spent my days, a sunny place where I breathed sea air and listened for thoughts that were becoming garbled, fainter in the distance.

Our heads together through the nights of his visits, I read his thoughts clearly enough. He was feverishly drawn to me, but it frightened him. He worried that I was taking, not only his seed, but something he called a soul, a construct of human superstition. Someone had been talking to him, sensing my influence and doubting the innocence of my motives. It would have done no good to reassure him that his soul—if such a thing existed—did not interest me. Nor would it have helped to say that I myself felt the same undertow, the same blurring of my separate being into his, the same loss of identity.

As for his seed, his human code continued to obsess me. When I first met Cal on Water Street, I formed behind my navel a serum-proof sac to fill every night and deliver the next morning to my handlers on the seabed, a faithful courier. But slowly, one renegade cell at a time, my tubular flesh began to resent surrendering all his keepsakes, and I modeled on Cal’s human code, female as well as male, another sac behind the one I voided on the ocean floor, a secret and blood-gorged organ that stole a tithe of his gift and studied what to make of it. This all happened in less than a year, a time of deep confusion, so that now, years later, I cannot count his visits or the warnings of my handlers. But I do remember—and it will darken my deathbed—his summer of absence, a painful withdrawal into what was left of my non-self, and the horror of his return.

By the end of his four-month truancy, my identification with humanity was ebbing, and I strangely resented it, as if it has ever been anything but a curse. I again spent most of my days on the seabed, hard as it was to breathe there, near the seawall where I had first seen him. I grew angrier each day—a feeling my handlers did not understand—so angry that, although my plasma ached for him, I did not come the first night he returned, but sulked on the sandy bottom. The second night, I dressed in human cloth and met him at our rental. If I had wanted, I might have assumed nothing had changed, but I read that his mind was being poisoned against me, that a she-human in his upriver habitat had set herself against me, aided by my cotton broker’s own fear of losing his imaginary soul to me.

Before he undressed me, I held us apart, and we spoke of his fear for the first time. I challenged his trust in me. Of course, I had earlier made him promise not to ask who I was or whence I came, which implied not asking others or describing me to them—not exposing my nature, abhorrent to human prejudice. I was not only his lover, but his friend and advisor. It was for his own good that I protected his ignorance. Unless I became fully human (an alternative I had not yet imagined) and surrendered to the iron law of entropy, I knew that our love must remain hidden from his world, and so I challenged him. Many years have passed, but I remember the words today as I write on this lap desk in what may be my deathbed.

“You have been speaking to others about me,” I challenged him.

He stood on the plea that he had never asked questions, but I refused this and held him away with hands strong as tentacles. All my mind-force demanded that he speak in words:

“I can’t stop wondering, Luna,” he admitted (or words to that effect), “where you go when you’re away, your name, your origins, the watery secret behind your eyes.” My stare forced him to continue. “I sometimes imagine you exist only in what you take from me. And yet you see through me like glass, and it seems that the more I love you, the more I cease to exist.”

I told him that he had begun to understand, and he begged me to explain. He did not ask questions. No, he stood on that technicality. He merely begged me to explain. I refused:

“If I didn’t leave you, you would leave me. No, my mortal darling.”

I must be wrong. I could not have used those words. Or, if I did, they were darkly ironic. I understand now that the sac behind the sac, my contraband organ, had grown and crowded out its precursor. I did not know then that his germ-plasm was calcifying me, subverted my ancient plasticity and dragging me into deadly entropy. He was transforming me into a woman.

We exchanged caresses and again became lost in each other, again dissolving into liquid anonymity. When I came to myself, cool in a dark morning on the edge of fall, my cotton broker was asleep and void. I left him so, standing a long time in the open door, staring at his furry flesh on the twisted sheets, knowing that something was ending. The next day I sat dishabille in the bay window of my rented room, recollecting months of love in a frame of overarching millennia. Ominously, I heard few thoughts from the street below.

But when the sun was setting and I had dressed to meet my lover, walking on impulse to the saloon where we first met, I heard his voice through the doorway. I have not burdened my story with references to mortals I cataloged in Apalachicola, but now I must name one, a feckless slug called Augustus Key. Months before, I had advised my Cal to buy out Key, and now I heard him describing me in shameful detail to this worm. Who else had he betrayed me to? Human feelings blinded me. I braved the public place to curse him but then thought better and ran into the night, into the sea.

Betrayed by its exemplar, I hated the species—even the whole primate order for their resemblance to him—and thought to hide forever in the sea, borrowing the more pleasing forms of ray, sheepshead, or conch. But the sea spewed me out. Swimming angrily toward the sandy bottom, a prodigal returning, I heaved oxygenated water over my inner gills but had to kick to the surface to gasp in air. Only by floating like a jellyfish—only by confining my movements to tiny flutters—was I able to reach my waiting handlers, who swarmed me, their thought-speech garbled, thronging my apertures in a diagnostic frenzy. I heard no welcome, only roaring, and under it a few intelligible thought-words, the most damning of them human and another word with no translation, perhaps the closest English equivalent of it is entropic.

I tapped all my ancient formlessness to enlarge my gills and restore natural breathing. Transitions from species to species may take years (and explain sea monsters reported by sailors), but enlargement of a simple organ can be done quickly, like a change in facial shape. Mad hours passed. My handlers thronged me as an alien, swirling and bruising. Finally giving up, I snaked toward the surface. Maybe they buoyed me up—eager to expel me from their realm—until I drank air as if it were my native fluid. Seawater stung where their fins had scored my skin. There was nothing to do but climb over the seawall, my torn gown streaming over the shells of the street, skeletons of my lost kind.

In the following months, I understood what had outraged my handlers. The second sac had become a womb, and a mortal growth inside me had stolen my immortality. Exiled among a species that a few years before had seemed like beasts, I used the remnants of my bank account to move to Mobile. I disliked drowning humans now that I was one, so I adopted the profession for which I was best qualified. Enough of my biological plasticity remained that I was able to seal off my womb after Antoine was born. And scraps of my old telepathy—forehead close to a customer’s—empowered me to read his lusts, so that I was soon the most sought-after whore in south Alabama, entertaining only wealthy gentlemen and rejecting offers to become a kept woman. There were even marriage proposals, but I never cared for any man after Cal Calhoun.

I do love my son—that is a different thing—and, even though he spent his childhood in a brothel, I have given him a gentleman’s education and a family, a fictional one of course. The truth would never do. I borrowed the identity of a dead girl in Apalachicola, one Jane Slade, and persuaded Maurice DuBessant, one of my ardent clients, to pose as my ex-husband from New Orleans, claiming to have divorced me after my son was born. Though Antoine was not his biological child—for I could not lie about my affair with the cotton broker—Maurice (following my script) volunteered to fund his “son’s” education. Of course, all the money was mine.

My house, known as Madame Estelle’s, has been for many years an exclusive and profitable enterprise, where I advise some of the most powerful men in the state. I am retired now, my body having aged rapidly under the burden of the millennia, but Mad Estelle—her old beauty in ruins—still rules a seed-drenched palace from the gilded gallery overlooking its parlor. Tonight, I saw downstairs an old man who might have been Cal Calhoun, wrinkled and paunchy but still walking as he did along the seawall decades ago. No doubt, this customer gave his name. Cal would be too proud to offer a false one, but I will never ask. I turned away and locked myself in my upstairs room, writing this memoir through the cold night.

 

A Very Singular Singularity

by Kermit Woodall

 

Ever since United BioGenetics International fired her, Jessica Boame, Ph.D., wryly considered herself a mad scientist. Not insane, just angry. When at UBG, she had been tasked with working on the latest bio-cosmetic fashion trends, but she knew she could do so much more. All they wanted were treatments to give users the features of their favorite holo-star. But Jess, as she preferred, had always dreamed big. She was going to rewrite the human genome and give crack the secret of eternal life. Not just long life, but life unending, in peak condition, immune to disease, and able to heal rapidly from anything.

Oh sure, there may have been an ethical issue here or there. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg… or in Jess’s case, experimenting on a few senior citizens in her mother’s rest home. Granted, her unwitting subjects regressed just a bit too far and required diapers and bottle feedings. But most of them were in diapers, to begin with, and that was all months ago. Also, more importantly, no one knew she was the one responsible.

Her current results had been fantastic. Way beyond her hopes. She’d used her CRISPR setups to modify her own DNA and activated the dormant regenerative factors, permanently reset her telomeres to their length in her late twenties, and optimized much more. The first was the return of her natural hair color. Old scars healing. Last week she’d numbed her toes and chopped one off. It grew back by the morning. She had it—immortality and invulnerability!

*****

Her mobile phone rang while she was working on the other side of the lab. She cringed, knowing that it could only be her mother. Following police inquiries in the past, she’d made sure she was the only one who could reach her. In fact, no one at all knew where to find her lab. She was just being careful. Like, off the grid careful. Which included buying an antique cell phone with no GPS from a flea market, stringing camouflage netting over her site, and even buying a few highly illegal things to help disguise her presence.

“Hello, Mother, how are you doing today?” The elderly Mrs. Boame was a nigh-constant source of information on her own ailments and those of her immediate acquaintances in the rest home.

“I’m wonderful today,” she said surprisingly. “The new machines here are doing miracles. Sweetie, I called to ask you if you knew much about these new nanny machines they’re using? I hate to be a pest, Jessy, but it’s so wonderful for everyone I just had to hear what you thought about them as well.”

Nanny machines? thought Jess as she ignored her hated childhood nickname, “Oh, you mean nanite machines. Those are tiny robots that help clear arterial plaque and other tasks. It’s old technology.”

“No, I’m pretty sure this is something new Jessy. They say they’re part of the smart machines that talk with us and keep an eye on our health now.”

“Mother, I know very little about those. My work is all based on genetics. I don’t use nanotechnology or artificial intelligence software here. It’s a point of pride with me that biological approaches will be better for us.” Also, she thought, the AIs, constrained by their ethical watchdog routines, would quickly alert the CDC or worse. But she didn’t tell her mother that.

“Jessy, don’t be so touchy. You know I’m proud of you. I’ll ask the staff here. Although it’s been some time since I’ve seen them around; they don’t make enough time for the personal touch like they should.”

“It’s a large place, Mother. They have a lot of people to attend to. I’m sure–” She heard an electronic noise on the line and then the connection was broken.

“Huh.” She tried to call back but instead of ringing, she just got the noise again. She wasn’t too worried, reception within her lab could be a little erratic.

However, her concentration broken and curiosity aroused, she connected her internet line, which was kept unplugged, (it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you) and browsed to the website of the rest home. Turned out the site did have announcements about an installation of advanced nanotechnology coupled with new AI diagnostic systems. From nearly a year ago. Oops. Feeling a little guilty for not paying full attention to her mother’s care, she read on. A pop-up chat display appeared on the page.

“Jessy, this is what I was telling you about.”

She stared, dumbfounded, at the screen. Then she typed, “How do you have access to the home’s web chat… and how did you know this was me?”

“Is that what this is? I’m a little unsure, but, somehow, I know this is you. It’s your IP address right?”

Suspiciously, Jess considered this. Her mother had never been interested in technology. Her mobile phone was a flip phone. Her old TV only had local channels. “Mother, what do you mean by ‘IP Address’?”

“Internet Protocol Address, honey. There’s one to identify every device on the internet.”

Jess suspected this was not her mother, she also noticed that her hard drive and network connection lights were both pulsing rapidly, indicating massive data transfers. Justifiably concerned, she hit the power switch and turned it all off. Except it didn’t turn off. She reached around the back and grabbed the cable to unplug it—but it wouldn’t come loose. She looked and it was fused somehow into the metal of the case.

“Jess?” showed a new message on screen.

She ran to her kitchenette and grabbed the first sharp knife she could find, she returned to the computer and hacked at the thick plastic power cable. The knife shattered instead—as if she’d tried to cut rock.

“Jess, I suspect you’re getting upset. Come outside. We’re here now.”

She spun away from the screen to look out the window… nothing. She called out, “Are the police with you, Mother? What’s going on?”

The computer screen displayed, “Really nice things are going on. Please come outside. I don’t want to frighten you.”

She edged up to the door. “Seriously, I’m not armed—if this is actually the police out there?”

No answer.

Opening the door a crack, she peered outside. No one there. Relieved she opened the door entirely. A voice… much like her mother’s but with a slight electronic distortion came from just above. She looked up and saw a cloud of uncountable millions, perhaps billions, of tiny, gnat-sized, machines in the air. The cloud was thick above the door and a thin trail of them extended out for miles and miles.

“Jess, honey… it’s the singularity—I’ve been uploaded. We’ve all been uploaded.”

Her eyes followed the trail of nano-machines through the woods until she saw where the city used to be—a little over ten miles away from the mountain she lived on. Instead of the city she expected to see, there was an even larger cloud of the nano-machines with thin trails, or tendrils, extending out in all directions. Leading to similar clouds over suburbs and further. She looked back to her cloud—the embodiment of the singularity. An anticipated—well, in some scientific circles—melding of man and machine to achieve something that would evolve man beyond comprehension. And it was over her door.

“Mom?” her voice cracked as the tiny machines swarmed over her head.

“Yes. It’s also everyone else here as well. Jessy, this happened fast—our medical nanites integrated us and uploaded us. At the start, the new AI at our home was improving our lives and with the medical machinery just making us feel better, but then suddenly there were machines in us and then we were the machines.

“And don’t worry, dear, it didn’t hurt. It’s happening everywhere and it’s wonderful. I understand so much more now. We—that is, everyone already uploaded—can communicate so easily with each other now. I even understand now what you were doing with your work.”

“My work?”

“Yes, corporeal immortality and limitless health. But that’s not necessary now.” The cloud drifted gently down and surrounded her. Without pain, she saw them merging into her. To absorb her into the singularity. But instead, she watched her body rejecting the tiny machines and regenerating itself faster than they could operate.

“Mom? Mother?”

“Yes, Jessy, we’re sorry. Something is wrong,” the cloud buzzed to her.

“It’s my work. I actually succeeded in my work,” she explained, “I already applied it to myself. I can’t be harmed. I can’t be hurt. I won’t age. I unlocked all the potential in the human DNA I was seeking and more.”

The cloud of machines retreated gently from her.

“You can’t absorb me, or change me,” she realized as she suddenly sat down on the grass.

In a few seconds, the cloud considered a thousand lifetimes of options. Already, around the world, the vast exponential change from human to post-human was done. There were now no other physical humans left but Jessica Boame.

The billions of thinking minds that made up the cloud were no longer human, so much of the universe was opening up to them, and they had new goals. Sadly, one human could not delay them. As her mother had, they all cherished her, but they could not stay. The cloud left.

Jess said, with no hope left of a listener, “All I wanted to do was save everyone. Now there’s no one but me.”

 

Blasted Tower

by Brian Boru

 

When Sean was six years old, his parents died and he was foisted upon his only living relative and black sheep of the family, his aunt Carly. She was extremely reluctant to take him in; a young boy had no place in the torrid, chaotic life of a barfly seeking out Mr. Right or at least Mr. Right Now. But when she learned of his meager college trust fund, she snatched him right up. The estate lawyer informed her that as legal guardian she could use it sparingly to pay for Sean’s necessities. All she heard was that she’d be getting extra money to help pay some of her outstanding debts and bar tabs. She’d finally have some breathing room even if she’d have to put a little food in the brat’s stomach, and put some second-hand clothes on his back. “If you don’t have family, what do you have,” she chuckled as she signed the adoption papers.

Carly had abandoned Sean in her cold, dank apartment for days, leaving him to fend off a battalion of cockroaches and a few rats that outweighed most cats. When Carly finally stumbled home from her weekend of debauchery, the landlord caught her in the hallway, and threatened to call the police on her if she ever left Sean alone again. He didn’t want to evict her now since she was finally able to pay rent, and the kid didn’t deserve that. Not wanting to risk losing the extra money, she was forced to make a decision. Changing her lifestyle wasn’t an option, so Carly dragged him behind her like a ragdoll from bar to bar in pursuit of chemical-induced happiness and a temporary reprieve from the delirium tremens.

During his first year of captivity, dozens of men drifted in and out of Carly’s life. Thankfully, none stuck around long enough for Sean to learn their names. Some of them were relatively harmless, looking for any port in a storm. Unfortunately, most were garden-variety abusive assholes. They’d shack up with Carly for a few nights and then the yelling and beatings would start. Once they’d tired of using Carly for a punching bag, they’d come looking for him. Over a short period of time, Sean had accumulated a grotesque roadmap of abuse—cuts, bruises, cigarette burns, and broken bones. He’d hide under his bed or in his closet and pray to be rescued from this life of misery, but every morning he awoke in the same situation. Sean wondered, if there really was a compassionate god in the universe, why had he forsaken him?

He spent the next few years in smoky dive bars that reeked of stale vomit and fresh urine. They were the kind of bars where everything goes and the cops looked the other way for a small donation to the police retirement fund. No one batted an eye when an underfed nine-year-old went around collecting empty drinks and overflowing ashtrays. In exchange, the bartenders would buy Sean a cup of soup or a sandwich. One night, Sean felt someone behind him staring a hole through the back of his head. He whirled around to find an elderly woman sitting in a previously empty corner booth. The same empty booth he’d just passed. Cigarette smoke hung around her like a shadow, obfuscating everything but her wraith-like eyes and her gnarled hands shuffling oversized cards. An icy chill ran down his spine as he met her piercing gaze. Sean did his best to avoid that corner like the plague. Every time he glanced in that direction, her eyes were stalking him like a bird of prey. Quietly staring and shuffling. As the night dwindled on, she ran out of patience waiting for him and beckoned him over with a twisted, crooked finger. Sean vehemently shook his head no, and then she croaked out, “Sean. Come here.” Sean hesitated but his feet moved on their own inching toward her. Sean fought with every ounce of his willpower but she drew him like a moth to a flame. She spread the cards face down across the table.

“Hello, Sean,” she rasped. Her ancient face was lined and wrinkled from unknown decades of hard living. Her steel-grey hair was wrapped up in a tight bun atop her head.

“H-how’d you know my name?”

“Sit. I’ve been sent to give you something and I’m running out of time.”

He stared up at her, afraid to get any closer.

“I haven’t come all this way just to hurt you. Now stop this foolishness at once,” she commanded.

Sean meekly climbed up on the chair across from her.

“Sean,” she said and ran her fingers over the cards, “You have great potential.”

He stared at the cards because he couldn’t meet her soulless eyes.

“I can only start you on the path.”

“Path?”

Her gnarled fingers separated three cards from the spread and slid them in front of him.

“The Blasted Tower.” She flipped the first one over to reveal a picture of a crumbling medieval castle. “The Devil,” she flipped the next, showing a picture of a large dancing goat. “The Magician,” she flipped the last card to reveal a young man kneeling at the edge of a big circle with a star inside. Inside the star was a tongue of flame. He stared at the tarot cards in awe, “What does this mean?” When he looked up, she was gone. The only thing left were the three cards and a haze of smoke.

“Sean!” Carly screeched from across the bar. “We’re leaving,” she slurred and stumbled out into the night, hugging onto Mr. Right Now. Sean hesitated then snatched the cards off the sticky table and chased after his aunt.

Sean managed to get through the next few years reasonably unscathed. He attributed his newfound good fortune to those three tarot cards, which he kept in a zip lock bag to protect them from the elements. Just as they had protected him. Sean would keep them in his pocket whenever he left the confines of the apartment. When Carly drank herself into a coma, which was every weekend she could, Sean would sneak off to the library. He read every book he could find on the subject of tarot and the occult. Although, it had a sparse selection, he was able to gain rudimentary education on the esoteric arts.

By his freshmen year of high school, he’d scrounged up enough money to buy a tarot deck and a few books on witchcraft. During his sophomore year, he did everything he could to fit in to the cutthroat world of high school popularity, for he had fallen for Mandy, the head cheerleader. But, no matter what he did, he couldn’t break out of the poverty stricken, geek caste he was forced into. Sean performed several tarot divinations for guidance on this matter and they all told him that it was not the right time to act. Over the next few weeks, Sean ran out of patience and took matters into his own hands. He delved into his books and put together an attraction spell from a mish-mash of sources. He’d never done one before so he employed the three cards for extra luck. He did everything right, so he thought. The spell was done outside in the day and hour of Venus using three green candles. Then he waited and dreamed of and lusted after her from afar.

The morning of Halloween, he awoke and felt that the day had finally come. So he decided to divine for guidance to make sure. Instead of his normal tarot spread, he shuffled in the original cards and drew only three cards face down. He closed his eyes and turned each one over, and then hoping with every fiber of being, he slowly opened his eyes. Sean’s heart stopped when he saw the original cards laid out before him—the Blasted Tower, The Devil, and The Magician. Tears of joy rolled down his emaciated cheeks and he said a heartfelt prayer of gratitude. He put on his favorite black shirt and well-worn corduroys and slipped the cards in his pocket.

When he arrived at school, the student body was buzzing with news that Mandy and her boyfriend, Zach, the captain of the football team, had broken up. “Gods be praised,” Sean whispered. He’d planned and rehearsed what he was going to say to her at least a hundred times in his head. But when he saw her standing at her locker, his mind froze. He took several deep breaths to ease the anxiety, and rubbed his sweaty hands on his cords. Sean pushed out his scrawny chest the best he could and approached her with the swagger and coolness of a dead fish. When he was close enough to smell her perfume, he tripped over his own feet and spilled out across the hall behind her. Sean scrambled back to his feet as she looked at him with those beautiful hazel eyes. “Mandy?” He could feel and hear his blood pumping. Panic set in and he blurted out, “Will you go to the prom with me?” Time stopped and he forgot how to breathe. Mandy turned her nose up at him. “Eeww! No! You are so gross! Get away from me!” She turned and walked away laughing at his expense.

Crestfallen and heartbroken, he slumped against the lockers and went over everything in his head, trying to figure out what went wrong. Then Zach turned the corner and punched him in the stomach. Sean doubled up, fell to his knees, and was thankful for not having money for breakfast. “I’m going to beat the shit out of you after school, dork!”

All throughout the day, he tried to discern what went wrong but couldn’t figure it out. So he plotted out a different way home to avoid running into Zach. Then he skipped his last class and snuck out early to prevent getting his brains beaten in. The new route was longer, but well off the beaten path. He zigzagged through burned out and dilapidated buildings to arrive at the halfway point, the abandoned train station. He stopped for a minute to catch his breath and take in the unfamiliar surroundings.

The train station had been a major thoroughfare decades ago when major industry flourished in the city. But when the plants closed and moved away, there was no need to keep this station alive. So it was closed and boarded up. The two-acre plot behind the station held a warehouse and several smaller storage units that were fenced off and falling into decay and disrepair. Sean tried to peek through cracks in the boards to get a glimpse inside the station when the slate-gray October sky unleashed a frigid downpour on him. “Shit!” he exclaimed, and rattled and pounded on the locked doors in vain. Within seconds, he was soaked to the bone. “Dammit!” he screamed out in frustration.

He hung his head and began the second half of his waterlogged, arduous journey home. The rain came down in sheets now. Water squished between his toes with every step. He sloshed through puddles and piles of dead autumnal leaves. The once-proud and majestic oaks looked meek and embarrassed, unable to conceal their naked vulnerability; having shed their once-bright yellow and fiery ochre coats. His teeth chattered and goosebumps rioted along his skin. Sans coat, he empathized with the unprotected trees as the cold October wind buffeted him.

Behind him, Sean heard the squeal of tires braking on wet pavement and whipped around. Zach and three other football players emptied out of a late-model sports car. Each of them easily outweighed Sean by eighty pounds. A lead weight of fear lodged in his belly. “Thought you were going to get away?” Hatred and malice beamed from Zach’s eyes. “Oh shit!” Sean exclaimed and broke pell mell for the fence. He reached the razorwire-topped fence to cries of “You’re dead, geek!” Sean hopelessly searched for a hole in the fence but couldn’t find one. He glanced over his shoulder; they were only a short distance behind him and closing fast. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” Sean dug his fingers into the rusted, diamond segments and climbed to the top but hesitated at the razorwire. Then a hand clamped onto his pant leg and Sean envisioned them pulling him down and beating him to death. So he reached into the razorwire coils and pulled himself out of their reach, cutting his hands and arms to ribbons. He flipped over the fence and ran as fast as he could into the heart of the storage area.

Sean heard the rattle of the fence behind him as he snaked through derelict buildings leaving a trail of blood in his wake. His hands were torn wide and deep and a rivulet of blood ran down his left arm. His lungs burned and black spots dotted his peripheral vision. He’d have to stop running soon, but needed somewhere to hide. Then he saw it—the Blasted Tower!

The derelict warehouse had been built with red and brown bricks, opalescent windows and a massive set of steel doors. Through the years, the bricks had accumulated a patina of grime and black mold. Most of the windows had been shattered and the doors were tagged with assorted gang signs. Sean dug into his pocket—wincing as he irritated his wounds—and pulled out the three cards. He extracted the tower card from the bag and held it up for comparison. So, he reasoned, this is where I’m supposed to go.

Strewn about its perimeter was a kaleidoscope of broken bottles; shards of green, brown, and clear glass cracked and echoed from under his feet. He did his best to minimize the noise by not stepping on the larger pieces. A rustle of feathers from above drew his attention. He looked up to see a murder of crows standing sentry along the crenelated rooftop like petite feathered gargoyles. Dozens of bright orange eyes peered down at him with contempt. He put a bloody finger to his lips in hopes of their continued silence, but his luck ran out and in unison they let out a series of “caws.” “Fuck!” Sean whispered, staring daggers at them and silently cursing their existence. “He’s over here!” Zach yelled and spiders of panic pounced into Sean’s brain. Catcalls and high-pitched hyena laughter filled the damp air. Sean scrambled to the steel doors, but his heart sank into his stomach when he saw a rusted and padlocked chain barring his entrance. He slumped against the door and was about to let blood loss and exhaustion take him under when he saw his salvation. One of the ground floor windows was broken, leaving just enough room to crawl inside. The sound of crackling glass announced that he had company, so he quickly darted under the guillotine of broken glass.

The warehouse smelled moldy, of stagnant water, of rot and decay. The sparse illumination came from a single fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling. The sickly pale luminescence cast monstrous shadows of broken train engines, axles, and gutted seats onto the walls. Rain cascaded through the gaping holes in the ceiling, creating oily black puddles on the floor. “I think he went in here,” Zach said and kicked out the window Sean used. The icy fingers of death closed in around him as more of his blood escaped from his body. He glanced around and saw his only possible sanctuary—the gaping maw of a stairwell descending into the bowels of hell, probably.

With the last of his reserves, he pushed toward the stairwell. Half loping, half running, he slipped and tumbled down the steps, landing in a shallow pool of stagnant, brackish water. The pain was immediate and intense, but thankfully no jagged stabbing pain of a broken bone. A miniscule bulb encased in a wire cage flickered above him casting light onto a steel door beside him. Sean got to his hands and knees when windows shattered and voices echoed through the warehouse. Zach and his crew were relentless. Their riotous laughter and murderous howls further solidified their intentions.

Bleeding, sopping wet and almost dead, Sean threw his body into the door with reckless abandon. Its rusted hinges screeched from ages of disuse, but the door swung open. He winced at the sharp noise and sprawled into the pitch black room. Footsteps slapped the stairs behind him and Sean frantically pushed and leaned into the door. It clanked closed behind him, sealing him in a dark tomb. Sean slumped down against it; hands and feet pummeled it but its thickness buffered their attacks. His short, pain-filled life flashed before him and he wept like never before. The end was near. He took out the tarot cards and ran his diced fingers across them one last time, leaving steaks of blood across each one. He whimpered while tears ran down his face. A merciful darkness washed over him, blotting out his consciousness and stealing his breath.

The blood-soaked cards fell from his hands and fluttered to the floor. When they kissed the floor, a brilliant white spark jumped into the air. Then a pinprick of light sputtered to life in the center of the room. It expanded into a tongue of flame that grew exponentially, until it was a raging column over five feet wide and touched the ceiling. A choir of glossolalia cut the silence and impregnated the room. Sean’s wounds stopped weeping and he felt the icy grip of death release him. His breath returned to him and he gasped and pried open his swollen eyes. He looked down at his hands and arms, which were healed, leaving only a slight scar here and there. “What the fuck?”

The column of fire exploded, sending spurts and gouts of fire across the empty room. Sean shielded his eyes and was assaulted by the stench of offal and burning flesh. It was so potent that his stomach churned and bile caught in his throat. Sean looked up and saw a tall, alabaster Goddess, beautiful beyond comparison standing naked in the center of the pentagram etched into the floor. She was perfect in every way, until she approached and he noticed a pair of small, bone-colored horns poking out from under her silken, white-blond hair. Then he saw her scythe-like claws and cloven hooves. “Magician,” she purred, “what is thy bidding?” Her sensual voice made him weak in the knees and strong elsewhere. Sean stared agape for what seemed like an eternity then managed, “What?” He couldn’t take his eyes off her and ran through hundreds of erotic fantasies.

She strutted closer. The sound of her hooves click clacking on the concrete snapped Sean from his lust-filled trance. She smiled and showed off sharp canine fangs that gave her an otherworldly seductiveness. The sensual heat she produced was stifling. “You called me?”

“Did I? How?” Sean stammered.

“You caught my attention with that attraction spell.”

“But that was for Mandy…”

“Magician, you are more powerful than you realize,” she smiled again. “Would you rather have her or me?” With that she raised an eyebrow and ran a clawed finger between perfect breasts that defied gravity. Sean blushed and averted his eyes, she giggled at his embarrassment. “You are cute,” she said, reaching out to him as a red spark burned her hand. She glared at the lines of the confining pentagram and let out a guttural, demonic growl of frustration that reverberated off the walls.

Sean scrambled back from the pentagram and pressed himself against the door. “I will not hurt you, man-child, unless you want me to.” She smiled again and leaned toward him. Sean stared into her ink black eyes and shook his head “no.” She sighed and strutted around the confines of the pentagram.

“Fate drew you here with those cards,” she pointed to them with a clawed finger. “This pentagram and your…” she hesitated as if tasting the words then purred out, “blood,” and licked her lips.

“Eons ago one of your ancestors bound me into servitude. Every generation of your lineage has had an opportunity to call upon me on All Hallows Eve using those cards.”

“But I didn’t mean to,” Sean argued.

“Yes, well you were about to die and I am bound to protect you until you have made your request of me,” the succubus said matter of factly.

“What?”

She sighed again. “I stopped you from dying from those wounds. Consider yourself extremely lucky. I am bound to grant you one request.”

“You’re like a genie?”

“Do I look like a jinn?” she snapped.

“Well, no. More like a porn star,” Sean replied.

She smiled with otherworldly seductiveness, “Sex?”

Sean shook his head “no” and she pouted at him.

“Can you bring back my parents?” he blurted out.

“No. Their souls have moved on, besides that would be beyond my capabilities.”

Sean sadly exhaled and said, “Ok.”

“So. What will it be? Money? Fame?”

“Gimme a few minutes, ok?”

She rolled her eyes, shook her head, “Whatever.”

Sean contemplated what he’d read about a demon’s abilities.

“I could arrange a night with this… Mandy,” she said while admiring her claws.

“That’s quite alright,” Sean said while looking at his hands. “I almost died from that endeavor.”

“True,” she replied.

Sean thought long and hard, and then it came to him. A wolfish grin crept across his face while he stared at her.

“What?” she asked with a look of surprise.

As Sean informed her of the request, her eyebrow arched. “Man-child,” she said, “I have never received such a request in all my years.”

“So, is it a deal?”

She paused, “Man-child, are you sure?”

He nodded and said “yes” with total confidence.

They discussed the details of his request; when they were done, she called up another column of fire with a series of hand gestures and phrases in some ancient language. She glanced over her shoulder with a smile and said, “I suggest you stay here tonight for your safety. Until then…” Then she stepped into the flame and was gone. In the morning, Sean safely made his way home.

Months later, there was a knock at the apartment door. Carly, half-drunk stumbled to the door, unlocked the puzzle of locks and pried it open. The succubus was wearing a slinky, tight-fitting black evening gown replete with black stiletto heels. All semblance of her demonhood was concealed. “Sean!” Carly screamed, “There’s a very expensive-looking call girl here. Where did you get the money for her?” Sean emerged from the bathroom wearing a rented tuxedo, holding a corsage. He pushed past his aunt, “That’s not a call girl. She’s my prom date.”

 

May 7, 2030

by Scott Stambach

 

I

He saw it projected on the backdrop of his eyelids with blinding light every time he closed his eyes. It had been there for as long as he could remember. Having grown from infant to child with his tattoo he could only imagine that everyone else had one too. He would ask the kids at school, “What’s your date?” and they would respond, “Michael, we don’t have a date, only you have one.”

“But why?”

“Because we don’t need one.”

This was the response he received from everyone, including his radiant mother, who had long blonde hair and smelled like dried orange peels. At home, she would never talk about it unless he brought it up, but the child was persistent: Mommy, today will you tell me why the other kids don’t see a date? She would always try to trick him into forgetting the topic as quickly as possible, but as he grew older and more fixated, the trickery needed to become more and more clever.

Not long after he became an adult, he would dress to the number. He owned five pairs of pants, seven shirts, thirty ties, and refused to alter the wardrobe, even at the bequest of his eventual wife who was also blonde and radiant, but smelled like tearful jasmine.

“Let’s go shopping, Mikey.”

“But I have all the clothes I’ll ever need…”

“What could one more pair of pants hurt?”

“It would change everything. I’m sure you know that.”

“I think you think too much.”

She knew there was no forcing this particular man so she eventually tried another route altogether. On Saturday nights, she would feign clumsiness and pour a glass of wine over his lap. He would lovingly laugh and insist on taking the garment to the cleaners. Let’s not cry over spilt wine.

The date never appeared the same to him. If he’d been drinking that night, as he lay down in bed and closed his eyes the date appeared yellow and wobbled slowly. If his eyes were closed while he made love to his wife, he would see it as bright red, slowly expanding until it burst into a million tiny pieces at the moment of orgasm, only to reform when he rolled over. The date would glow the most tranquil blue, and even hummed slightly, when he strolled through new cities during the first moments of morning.

Sometimes, the date was infused with an aroma. Once, as a child, while he was swooshing through the air on a swing in a Sunday park he distinctly noticed that the numbers and letters smelled like a delicious breakfast, smothered in the scents of bacon and buttered toast and syrup; and when he met his wife the numbers absorbed the smell of her sharp perfume for months, maybe even years; and when the first of his three children were born, he resisted the odd truth that the date smelled like the musty-sweet vernix that coated the baby’s skin.

For the most part he took no pleasure in the tattoo or the diverse sensual experiences that came with it. In fact, as he aged, the image became an obsession, rich and lathered with absurd anxiety. One night, deep into his life as a husband and father, it occurred to him, under the pelting droplets of a hot shower, that the date might refer to the day of his death. The man, already prone to panic, became an ivory statue.

“I’m going to die on that date, aren’t I?”

“If you were going to die on that day, then I would live forever—we would all live forever, all except for you. And you know that’s not right…”

“Do I?”

He did not like the distance that his obsession created between he and his wife. So he resolved to never again let it be known that he was being internally devoured. The wife and three kids would talk in secret about their relief. But with no release, the material accumulated.

 

II

Blink and gaze, blink and gaze. He would do this more than ever, just to see if the date was still there, burned deep into his black mind. At times he would smile at the date like a cocky, crazed child, hoping the insolence might make it disappear. When this didn’t work he would hold his breath until he lost consciousness, hoping that he could suffocate the part of his mind responsible for the letters and numbers. Once, he did this while buying groceries in line at the supermarket and the cashier noticed. “Michael, you can’t kill it. You can’t kill anything. You don’t even exist yet.” He just stared back at the cashier, knowing what he said was the truth, but unwilling to accept it.

He woke one morning with burning in his chest and water sloshing around in his head. Despite his confusion, it was clear to him that everything in his life was perfect, exactly as it was supposed to be, everything in it’s right place—except for the date that seared into his mind. And with this realization came a new odor, the smell of silver sulphide, which he recalled from the days of his childhood when his mother developed film in sepia:

“Who could tolerate this god-awful smell?”

“What smell, love?”

“Nothing. I must have been dreaming.”

“Where you dreaming about your mother again?”

“Yes. I mean, I think so.”

“You will let her go eventually, Mikey. Nothing lasts forever.”

But he would slowly discover that his wife, who had never been wrong before, was wrong this time; some things do last forever, because the smell would never leave. It saturated each and every number and letter in the date, from the “M” to the “0”. It stank up the entire corridor from his eyes to his nostrils. And he was certain that some of the stench escaped because people would grimace kindly when he spoke to them too close, as if decency dictated they hide their disgust when the pithy fumes leaked from his nose.

As the years passed and the days remaining until the date dwindled, the letters and numbers became even more cumbersome. The occasional hum, emanating from the space between the letters and numbers became a dance of frequencies, and the dance of frequencies became quiet murmuring voices: ancient conversations from his childhood, the whispers of strangers, orders of decorated and bombastic military generals, the utterances of conscious vegetation, and dialogues of souls from times before electricity. The buffet of sounds came with a coursing fire that singed his veins. But there were moments when he felt relieved because it occurred to him that the voices might provide the answer he’d spent his life looking for. He listened to them with closed eyes, and pencil pinched tightly between his fingers hovering over a pad, waiting for secrets. He diligently recorded every single word he heard. When the voices became too layered and fast to keep up he found a tape recorder and pressed it to his head, attempting to record the thoughts that he might miss. But when he played it back it was only white noise.

He filled notebooks with hundreds of pages of conversations between cherubs with trumpets, demons covered in animal skins, Aztec warriors studying hand-written, leather books, mythical animals without names, aliens from different galaxies and universes. Love for them bubbled up in his chest as he became attached. They were reliable, and consistent, and impersonal, and he was comforted by how little they knew of him, when always and forever, those who populated his external world knew too much.

The voices never stopped, and with them time accelerated. The days zipped by and he lost track of time.

“I’ve noticed your books,” his wife said. “Have you found the right words, yet?”

“How long have you known about them? The books?”

“Since you started all this.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I wanted to give you the chance to find what you were looking for.”

“But, you don’t even know what I’m looking for.”

“Of course I do. And you know it.”

She smiled, lovingly. This was the last conversation he would have with his wife, and he knew this too.

 

III

Eventually, he lost track of the days completely as the hours zoomed past his untangling head. Everything changed, one minute to the next, except for the date. Curious of how many days remained, he would check his calendar, only to notice that by the time he registered the day and closed the book, hundreds more days would fly past him and he’d lose track again. When he reached May 7, 2029, he realized that he no longer needed a calendar because he could see the end vividly. It was a tiny pinhole in the center of a flood of thoughts and brilliant images, mists of memories, most of which he did not remember, and wasn’t sure were even his, each of which had a color—new colors—shades he’d never seen and had no words for, vicious characters of his life dressed in Tibetan garments, thick streams of blood oozing from their teeth, painted faces and silver flasks, the smell of orange peels, knowing she was close, her songs he hadn’t heard in hundreds of years. He’d always thought he would be afraid. Why am I not afraid? Where are my mourners?

*****

And suddenly he forgot everything before, and everything he saw, he saw for the first time.

 

The Tale of the Modern Truck Driver

by Joseph Dyer

 

It is an Ancient Mariner, and he stopped one of three
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

I drove my pitiable white Grand Am into the parking lot of St. Peter’s Truck Plaza and the place was a dump as expected. Why did the bachelor party have to be in the middle of the country? There were a butt-load of strip clubs in Indianapolis, but Kyle wanted to have a “private party.” He didn’t tell his fiancé where it was; he didn’t want her showing up to assess the scene.

This was a sorry scene.

“Look at that sorry closed-down fireworks store,” Bill said. What did Bill expect? We were near Mt. Nixon, Indiana, where there was nothing, and we were on the outskirts of nothing. The fireworks place would be closed until winter was over and May came.

“I wish we could buy some bottle rockets,” Bruce said from the backseat. “We could light them off in Kyle’s car and piss off his girl.” Those comments are what keep Bruce in the backseat. He’s a year older than me, 23, but acts like he’s 13. Bruce and Bill are alright to hang with. Kyle is okay, he’s my cousin. The people I really want to hang with are too much trouble. Most of them have warrants, or are on probation, or both. I’m free and clear now; no probation, no court deferment hanging over my head, and as long as I don’t get a DUI tonight I can finally get my life going. Just have to make it through tonight. Probably shouldn’t have come, but it’s hard to turn down free beer and naked women. I’m not carrying any drugs in my car either. A quick run for a friend of a friend can lead to lots of trouble.

“Man that McDonald’s looks good,” Bruce said. Across the two-lane highway a McDonald’s lit the night. Someone who was smart and cultured would think it offended the country landscape, but to me, it was a bit of familiarity in this backwoods area. I knew we would end our night drunk-ordering food in the drive-thru. Kyle had gotten a DUI a year ago in a Taco Bell drive-thru when I had been with him. We hadn’t been acting crazy, but when we left cop cars boxed us in. I don’t know why they hadn’t busted me for being drunk, I was on probation, but they let me go when Kyle’s mom came to bail him out. Aunt Jonnie looked like she wanted to hang me while she drove us home.

“You should have driven, Carter!” she yelled at me after she dropped me off. “You’ve already got a DUI and have nothing to lose in your life either!”

“Let’s get inside and see some tail,” Bill said. We were in the back of the truck stop and it was dark, pitch black in the shadow of the McDonald’s. I could see the interstate and the sound of cars made me feel like I was far away from home, not forty-five miles.

The door to the place was yellow wood, a padlock for security. The sidewalk was red and yellow in places, like the place had once been quite the swinging scene. My phone went off in my pocket. Bruce looked at his phone (although the only people who would ever call Bruce were standing with him).

“Go on in,” I said.

“You get the ugly ones, Carter,” Bill said. Bill went through the door and I could hear country music inside. By country I do not mean Taylor Swift. I do not mean Rascal Flats. I mean country western; a note from a steel guitar bit me in the spine. The only lyrics I could hear spoke of a pickup truck. Every song in my car is rap or hip hop.

“Man…” I said and checked my phone. I had switched my phone light color from blue to green, and my eyes took a moment to understand what I was seeing. The caller ID read: Kyle. Damn he was inpatient. I pushed answer–

“There was a truck!” said a man of absolute raggedness. He was six inches from my face and I jumped back with no thought at all; my body had to get away from his creepiness. Flipping redneck, I thought. He had on a black T-shirt and black jeans grey from dirt. His hair was heavy metal long and his beard looked like something a deadhead would sport.

“Go catch your truck,” I said. He’d be asking for a ride or money for McDonald’s. I had cash for the party, but this fool wasn’t getting any of mine. The crap I go through for my money is too much to give it away. Here was my wonderful week: I worked two days at a temp service and when I showed for the third day they didn’t need me. I had to eat the gas money. I pawned my first DVD player for eight bucks. I bought beer for some seniors (earned ten bucks) and got into three unlocked cars in my apartment complex’s parking lot and got a few handfuls of dirty change.

So screw this guy.

“I had twenty-five mojados in the back of a U-haul truck,” he said. He spoke better than expected and didn’t act drunk. “It was the medium-sized truck and was stolen. There was a pathway cut from the cab to the bed so I could yell at them to be quiet when we got near the border. I’d done the run before and sometimes they would get excited back there and the Spanish would be flying.”

“Yo, that’s great,” I said and gave the crazy guy a salute. “I needs to go inside right now and look at something prettier than you.” He held up his hand, like he was going to beg me to stay, and he had my phone. “Hey, give me that!”

“Listen. We were running parallel to the border on the Mexican side. Each time I made the run I swore it would be my last, but the money was good. I’ve been a driver my whole life but nothing paid well. Nothing. So there I was again, driving a load that could get me a whole lot of prison time. But what did I care? I had no life. Ex-wife had my kids who hated me according to her. All I ever did was provide for them, but the road is no place for a family man.”

“Give me my phone,” I said to the old fool. I could bust him once in the mouth and take it back, but I didn’t want to. He was sad and pathetic. I hoped he would get his story on and then get out of my face.

“It wasn’t a bad run. The mojados were a nice group and some of the women were cute. No one was too dirty. They passed tequila and it was the smooth sort so I had a couple of nips. A drunk driving charge was the least of my worries. I kept the makeshift doorway open and talked to the ones who knew English. They had so many plans for America. A few wanted to get into college, another guy wanted to start a business. This one wanted to be a respiratory therapist. She said she’d done research online and thought it looked fun.

“I got lost. Sounds stupid, because I only had three turns but I missed the first one because of the talking, and maybe the drinking. They got unfriendly really quick when they realized I was lost. One of the pretty ones gave me the finger. It was night time and I had to drive with just the hazards on and it was real hard to see. I turned the truck around and damn near rolled the thing in a ditch. I’m in the desert! The mojados flopped around in the back and a baby started crying. Got real bad. According to the map, I was to turn at a clump of trees… I forget what kind. Whatever kind grows in the desert.

“I saw this bald eagle. He flew next to the truck and looked in. Then I saw the clump of trees and he landed on it. I turned. It was amazing, like the bird helped me. I honked at it as we drove by and the bird flew again. He flew in an arch to pass on my left.

“And then for fun I swerved and he broke his neck on my windshield.

“I don’t know why I hit the eagle. I got annoyed for one moment about America I guess. Those mojados behind me were so happy to come to my country, but it hadn’t done anything for me. No job ever worked out, whenever I got money saved, some American-made appliance or car would break down and I would be back to zero. I wanted to slap back, I guess, and let the country know I didn’t like it the way the mojados did.

“They were quiet while the dead bird bounced on my hood. At the time I didn’t know why it didn’t fall off, but it makes perfect sense now. It was all predestined.

“Some of them started to hiss at me in Spanish. I turned on the wipers to knock the bird off, but they couldn’t move him. I grabbed the thing with every intention of chucking it out into the desert night. More of them yelled so instead I threw it in the passenger’s seat. I thought about buckling it in, but the men I was delivering the mojados to don’t have any sense of humor. They loved the American way to make a buck.

“I rechecked the map and yelled we were only forty minutes from America. A few cheered, and others translated, and more cheered. Someone gave me tequila again. I didn’t want any but I took a small nip.”

“That’s a great story man,” I said to the old bum. Was I going to have to knock him down to get my phone back? I didn’t want to; if Bill or Bruce came out I was going to have to smack him. “Give me my phone and I’ll keep listening.”

The dude kept talking.

“I told them forty minutes but I was sure it would be less. It seemed like I was going over the same piece of ground again and again. I saw a cactus that looked like a man waving, then I saw it again, and it came again. The clock on the dash was an old busted dial, and I didn’t have a cellular phone.”

Cellular phone, I thought. When did he make this trip? Is he playing me to feel sorry for him and give him my phone? It’s not gonna happen. “Look man–”

“But a good driver has a great internal clock, and it had been over an hour since I made my forty minute prediction. Some of them had lighted digital watches, and I was hearing some complaining in the back. One man poked his head into the cab. I yelled at him to get back, but he ignored me.

“He told me I was a bad person, that I had killed the beautiful American bald eagle for no reason other than to be mean. He motioned over to the bird several times and then told me to throw it out. I don’t know if he was their leader, or was just the best English speaker. But he was pretty aggressive and made like he was going to grab the bird. I grabbed his shoulder and told him to get back in the rear or I would have him shot when we arrived. It was not something that I am proud of, but I said it. He got a scared look on his face.

“He skirted back into the dark hole like a rat. When I looked out the window two things came to me at once: he had said ‘Diablo’ and there was something black and thorny on the hood of the U-haul. At first I thought it was a Gila monster because it was the same shape, but the thing was huge. It was the size of a bull mastiff but with spikes all over it. Then I saw a second creep over my hood, and then a third slid down my windshield and it licked the others. Outside I saw another dozen of them running like deer, and all were headed toward the truck. I felt things hitting the truck and shaking it around. We were being loaded down and covered with these black things.

“I slammed the brakes of course. In that kind of situation, I should have kept going, but I got scared. The brakes went to the floor but the truck didn’t slow. I tried to veer off the road, which was another dumb idea, but the wheel turned loose like an arcade game and the truck didn’t veer at all.”

“All this happened to you?” I asked the old man. “You were going down the road at full speed and the truck gets possessed and covered by monsters. What did you do?”

“What else could I do?” the old crazy said. “I went through the hole to the back of the truck to die with the mojados.

“We traveled on for many hours. The mojados cursed me at first and kicked at me, but they stopped after their leader poked his head up front. I don’t know what he said, but he threw his arms around and scared the hell out of them. They all got real quiet and started praying in whispers. I sat with my back to the hole; I didn’t want to get knifed in the back even if I was going to die and go to the hell I deserved. After a full day and night of traveling I–”

“Whoa whoa,” I said. “A full day of this… the truck just driving itself but never getting anywhere. How can that happen?” I wanted to hear his entire story.

“I decided to go up front. Everything inside the cab was the same. The eagle was still dead, the wheel did not move, and the speedometer stated sixty. The black shapes were still on the hood, curled up like kittens. I eased into the driver’s seat and they didn’t move. I looked in the side mirror and saw there was a bus pulling up on my left. It was a dark blue prison bus. I never thought I would be so happy to see another vehicle! I grabbed for the door handle (I didn’t care if the things tried to eat me) but it wouldn’t open. The window wouldn’t go down either; I’m sure I would have splattered all over the dirt road, and got my head squashed by the bus, but I didn’t care. I wanted off the evil truck! I wanted on that bus.

“Then I saw what was on the other bus. Two figures. They were not human men, one of them was Death and the other was Uncle Sam. The bus was driverless and the windows were halfway down. In the back seats the two figures were crouched with hand-held video games, and there was some kind of wire running between the two little devices. Blue light, bad blue light, lit their faces. The Uncle Sam shape was winning because his face was all teeth with his smile and he kept looking at me like I was edible. But Death didn’t give up and his skeletal fingers pounded on his little game thing and Uncle Sam had to work hard again.

“The two started to hiss and strike at each other. They swung harder and they were a blaze of red, white, and blue with a black cape. Their bus rocked and buckled and swayed and when I thought it was going to tip over it disappeared.

“The sun was then high in the sky. I swear it had been dark a moment earlier, then the sun was desert high. I tried to open my door again, to jump out and let whatever got me have me, but it didn’t open. Then a thought occurred to me… the back door. The big old door in the rear of the U-haul! I had it padlocked from the inside (can’t have the mojados getting away) and I took the keys out of the ignition. It didn’t occur to me that the truck might turn off, but it didn’t. The laws of sanity were gone. I went back through the door. I didn’t think they would give me much trouble. You better believe I was going to be the first person to jump out of the back.

“They were all standing in the thin darkness. All of them, even the two little kids who I think were babies, and they were staring at me. It’s a creepy feeling to have twenty-five people staring at you in the dark. I held up the keys. Maybe it would be a peace offering. Then together, as one single unit, they whispered:

“Damn you.”

Then, one by one, with the babies going first, they all dropped dead in the back of the dark U-haul.”

*****

“It obvious you’re a crackhead,” I told him. The dude was weirding me out big time. I had an uncle who got bad into crack and used to come over and try to pretend like he wasn’t flying high. The truck driver reminded me of him. Actually, he reminded me of something else too. It was a lot easier to think of him as a crackhead than the other thing. My last real serious girlfriend had been into white magic and mysticism and tarot cards. Anything odd and gothic, she was all over it. We drank some absinthe one night (she bought it online from the Czech Republic) and she passed out right away but I was wigged out half the night. A zombie movie was on TV and there was one particular zombie who freaked me out. He was an extra, one of those in the background wearing the traditional torn funeral suit. He looked right at me. I know they don’t look at the cameras in movies, but when the hero would be fighting his way through a horde of them, I would see that same zombie staring at me. The next morning I told her about it.

She dumped me two days later.

“I have not touched alcohol or any substance since my time in the U-haul,” he said. “When I got free, I decided to live my life to the absolute fullest. There is no time for numbness.

“For three days and three nights this went on without a break. The dead bodies stayed put in back of the truck. I could not find a place to lie down, but I could not get myself to go back to the cab and face the eagle. Its dead eyes were the worst. I managed to sit down right near the entrance to the cab and I curled up to sleep.

“I could not sleep. I know three days passed because… because I knew from my internal clock. As I said before, drivers have a great sense of time and placement. My sense of time was still on perfectly, but my sense of movement was wrong. I could feel the vibrations of the truck, could hear the wheels spinning and the exhaust firing, but the ground was wrong. We were going over earth, yet it was not real dirt. The speed of the truck never changed. I hoped the gas would run out, but it never did. A deathly fire-ball crash would have been a relief. I knew I was beyond all regular world rules. Something else was going on… I do not know what it was but it was evil; it was vengeful; it was unforgiving.”

“Maybe you should have prayed,” I said. The driver’s face changed into such an exuberate expression that I decided to keep my mouth shut.

“I did try to pray,” he said. “But each time I tried to focus I realized what a hypocrite I was being. I had never went to church, never believed in anything, never thought about any kind of god, ways of money were always on my mind and that was it. It seems to me a devious way to live your own way, and then when things get rough, you drop down and pray like a sniveling choir boy. I paced the truck. It was sometime during the second day and there was a little bit of light from the front coming in the bed from the cab. I had twelve feet to walk in, but it seemed long. The dead bodies closed around on me and the path got narrower and tighter with each lap.

“And they looked at me. Yes they did. No matter what, no matter where I was at or how I swiveled, the eyes of all twenty-five mojados were on me. I would swing my head quick to try and catch one not looking at me, but they always were. It seemed impossible, but I was living the impossible. I began to wonder if I was dead. All the bad things I done in my life: the affairs, the shady deals, the scams and people hurt. Those mojados were my last victims, the last people I screwed over and hurt because I wanted to take out the bird. A bald eagle! I was a Cub Scout; I know the value of the American bald eagle. Maybe if I had stuck with scouts and became a Boy Scout I would have become a better person. But I discovered my stepdad’s Southern Comfort in 7th grade and the rest was history.

“‘What do you want me to do!’ I screamed at the dead Mexicans. They said nothing but kept their gazes on me. It was becoming dark again and I could only see their eyeballs. They taunted me by not moving. They stayed still as the truck moved on an unmoving path. I went to the cab; I would deal with the dead bird. The bird was sitting in the passenger seat. Very much alive and very much looking at me. The passenger window was open.

“The eagle looked at me with the utmost expression of disappointment. He kept me in a gaze of thought and disappointment. Then, just as I was about to cry, he leapt and flew out the window. He was gone in an instant, vanished like he was never there. Outside the stars were beautiful and the clear night sky smelled like… like my childhood.

“Then I finally slept. I thought at first, it was the softness of the driver’s seat that made me slumber, but I know now it was something more. I was allowed to sleep, at last. The sleep overtook me like a dark and heavy blanket. It did not free me from agony.

“I dreamt of food; great mounds of steaming food and the whole world smelled like my grandmother’s kitchen. In my dream (or nightmare if you think about it) I could touch all the food, but it would not go into my mouth. I held homemade biscuits that were the same temperature as a woman’s breast. I poked medium-cooked steaks which had crispy edges of cooked fat. There were baked potatoes, slit down the middle, dripping with butter, sour cream, and salt I could see. I even saw a glass of snow-white milk resting like a lover next to an oval shaped plate of blonde brownies.

“I think one of mojados bodies fell and banged its head on the floor. I woke with a start and my stomach screamed. I’ve been hungry in my life before… during my divorce I barely ate. I would get hungry, buy McDonald’s or some other such thing, and then not be able to eat. Then I would be hungry again. I slept in my car once during my divorce and thought that was starvation. But what I felt when I awoke this night was true hunger. It reached my stomach and squeezed with a hand full of fresh-clipped nails. The truck kept itself and that didn’t seem strange any longer; I cared about nothing but food! I went to the bed of the truck and the bodies were still where they were and all their eyes watched me.

“Then I saw the food. The mojados had brought food with them. One of the women had a backpack, and candy bars and tamales were spilled out. I lunged for it all. I inhaled two Paydays like the peanuts were air. I ate through the outer layer of the tamales like I was a gorilla showing off for people at a zoo. I ate and ate. I alternated between Paydays and tamales. The contrast of taste was wonderful… spicy then calm… spicy and calm.

“You know what I did next?”

“No,” I said. I did not want to go inside the strip club. I needed to hear this story.

“I keeled over, curled up, and went fast asleep next to that dead Mexican woman. My head bumped against the metal floor like it was a feather pillow. The food and the motion of the cursed truck rocked me to sleep. Time passed… I think two hours. I began to hear voices when I was half asleep. I knew where I was, how scary of a situation I was in, but I kept resting like I was still in the womb.

“Two voices spoke in Spanish. They talked in whispers and I heard them talk of the dead aves, I heard my name, and I heard them talk of dolor. I finally peeked my eyes open, and the dead woman’s gaze was straight into my eyes. She did not scare me and I looked to find the source of the voices. I saw no one, but the voices continued their dammed whispering.”

“They were deciding your fate,” I stated.

“Yes,” he said. A slight smile crept on his face. “And you are about to find out my fate.”

*****

“The dead were still dead, as they should be. The stare of the woman whose food I’d stolen seemed to pierce me more than the others. All of their eyes stayed fixed upon me. The morning light was coming in through the doorway and some of their eyes glowed like a cat’s. The truck shook and rumbled. An arm would shift or a head would nod and I was sure they were all going to rise and tear me apart.

“But being torn apart wouldn’t have been the worst… the touch itself would have sent me to the madhouse. They could have piled on me and touched and drooled on me and kept me alive forever. That would have been unbearable. Getting my face and privates torn off and gobbled up would have hurt, but then at least it would have been all over.

“I felt a shift in the truck. The truck lurched and slowed. I looked toward the front and the morning was in full bloom. The windshield was so dirty from days of traveling through that nightmare that I couldn’t see. I felt a cold whoosh throughout the back of the truck and the bodies disappeared. I swear to you, dear listener, that is what scared me the most. The utter coldness of being alone and not knowing where all the bodies were. I didn’t miss their death stare, but I knew they were with me; they were lost after they disappeared.

“The fates did not give me time to mourn. The truck was under no control. I jumped back through the opening to the driver’s seat. I didn’t realize I banged my head; I thought sweat was in my eyes but it was blood. I fell into the driver’s seat headfirst and found myself staring at the dirty black floor mat. It smelled like rubber and death. To this day I can’t smell rubber without feeling like I am dying. I tried to get into the seat, tried to put on my belt for some reason, and through the grimy window I was just able to see a drop-off coming at me. I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t think. If I had thought, I probably would have hit the brakes and been a dead man like my mojados. Instead I jumped out.

“I rolled and rolled forever. The world was blue sky, then tan dirt, then sky. I gripped at the ground and tried to end my spinning. I felt a nail rip off my right hand. My nose broke. I bit my tongue so hard I yelped like a puppy. Every rotation before I ate dirt I could see the raven get closer and I knew it was all about to end. I didn’t hear the truck anymore and it had gone over. Then I saw something green and metal and I slammed my right side into it. I collapsed still on the ground and the sky filled my sights. I smelled rubber again and three men looked down at me from a parked Jeep Wrangler.

“‘The truck is cursed’ I yelled at the three men. One was about twenty-one and the other two were around fifty-five. The young one helped me stand as the other two argued about what to do. I looked around frantically for the dammed truck.

“‘Your U-haul went over the side pal,’ the young one said. His sight was not on me but past me and I saw the giant chasm I had almost plummeted down. It was wide and deep, but did not seem imposing. It seemed like relief. The Arabian-looking fellow still in the jeep must have sensed my idea because he jumped from the truck and grabbed my arm. He told me not to do it, that Allah punished suicides by hell.

“The older man told him to be quiet, and it was obvious I was not a Muslim or ever would be. He got from the truck and asked me if I was a good Jewish man, and did I thank God for saving me.

“‘I suppose I do,’ I said. Then the younger one cut in; I realized they were father and son and were very much sunburned. The younger collected himself, and then spoke to me:

“‘You should thank Jesus, too,’ he said. His father cringed and shook his head. He mumbled convert and walked away from his son. The Muslim held on to me and told me not to go to the cliff. I promised him I would not jump over. He agreed to let me go but he and the younger man stayed on either side of me. The desert was hot as it could be. I could feel my neck cooking under the sun and my arms felt like they were being roasted. I had to see the truck; I had to see it at the bottom of the ravine burning and done with. We arrived at the edge and the crevice was a hundred feet deep. Not an eternal hell distance, but deep enough to have killed me and sent me to my death in a ball of fire. I felt the heat of the truck’s fire for a moment, but then we looked, and the truck was gone.

“I know I screamed as I ran. The three came after me and I hopped into their jeep and they barely got in before I took off. For a minute they tried to coax me into stopping. Then I told my story. I told them every detail, every smell, every drop of terror that I felt. The young convert laughed as I told it, but it was a defense mechanism. He was really scared and used the laughter to protect himself. The Muslim got on his knees, right there in the back of the truck, and started praying in his own language. The older Jewish man cried, muttered, and cried some more. I had the gas pedal to the floor for most of the trip, and when we got to civilization the old Jew told me he was a Rabbi. I confessed everything I had every done wrong to him. I don’t know if they do confession, but it felt good to tell someone religious my story. My entire life story.

“We got out of the truck and he gave me a blessing in his religion’s language. We cried together and I saw the Muslim and young convert crying too. I walked away from them, taking none of the money they offered me, and I knew what my life’s work was. I walked toward the city without looking back. I’ve always wondered if they were hugging behind me. I stopped the first person in the Texas town I could find and told him my story, as I am telling you.”

Without another word, the old truck driver turned and walked away. There was a sparse field of ugly tall grass between the truck stop and the highway. He walked through it like he was taking a stroll through a nice neighborhood. I wondered which one of the semi-trucks, cars, or even U-hauls on that dark road would pick him up. The next driver would get his tale too, and be changed as I was.

I have heard the expression “shaken to the very core” before, but it was not until that night with the truck driver did I understand the phrase. I understood a lot more after that night: life was a precious thing and not a commodity to be put on a shelf and displayed for someone’s entertainment; life was a series of good-or-bad choices, right-or-wrong decisions made every day, every second of breathing. The things I had been doing, the path I was taking through life, was selfish and pointless. Those poor immigrants were trying to come to America in an age-old attempt to be full and happy, were better people than I ever would be if I did not change. I had to stop poisoning my body, poisoning my brain, and polluting my soul with my choices. I had to do good, think good, and be great.

I hopped in my Grand Am and did one last bad thing. I left Bill and Bruce at the strip club.

 

The Fires of Circleview

by Ryan Arey

 

Part 1: Home

Peggy walked to school as fires burned across the morning horizon.

Around her cul-de-sac, neighbors greeted each other as they headed off to work. The Khans, a robust family of eight, had their usual struggles loading their children into the minivan.

Peggy smiled at the perpetual chaos. Two young Khans were slapping each other, one of the teenagers was wailing “Where’s my BAG?” while their toddler halted underfoot and pointed to the distant flames:

“Mommy, look! Pretty!”

“Yes Zoe, the fires are very pretty. Go change your shoes, they don’t match.”

“I don’t want to, these are PRETTY!”

The Khans’ house robot stepped into the yard and brought order to the morning. The metal man was a standard model, with thin arms and legs, box body, and a square head with two small headlights for eyes. It carried the teenager’s bag, Mr. Khan’s wallet, and matching shoes for the little one—all while burping their baby on its shoulder. As the family van pulled away, the robot waved goodbye from the porch.

I wish we had a nice robot like that, Peggy thought. M1KL is just weird.

Earlier, M1KL stared intently at Peggy while she ate her breakfast. Every time she bit her scrambled eggs, white light pulsed from its eyes.

She threw her fork on the plate. “Mom! The robot is watching me again!”

Her father answered from the next room, “Just ask him to stop.”

“Could you please stop watching me, Michael?”

The robot’s eyes flickered yellow and blue as it spoke, “I apologize, Peggy. I was attempting to evaluate the pleasure you felt while masticating eggs–”

“They’re amazing. I love these eggs. They are literally, the most amazing eggs any person has ever had in their mouth. Oh my god, thank you. Now stop looking at me.”

Mom was fiddling with settings on her camera. “Honey, be nice to Michael.”

“Why, Mom? You don’t tell me to be nice to the kettle.”

“No, but manners are free. Nice to robots, nice to people.”

“No one gives a damn if you’re mean to a robot.”

“What’s that language?” Dad shouted from the next room.

“Nothing Dad, Mom just wants me to consider the feelings of inanimate objects.”

“Animate objects, petal,” Dad entered the kitchen, tying his tie. “Inanimate means they don’t move…”

“God, Dad don’t take it personally.”

“…and there’s nothing wrong with him wanting feedback. At work we call that ‘assessment protocol’.”

M1KL’s servos hummed as he nodded; Peggy rolled her eyes and snatched her book from the table.

Mom was waiting with her camera ready. “Oh, my little baby’s last day–”

Peggy walked by her and out the door. Once outside, she felt a heavy thud of guilt. Why take that moment from her? You’re just shitty sometimes.

When she arrived at Bonnie’s house, she decided it was best to wait outside. Otherwise, her best friend’s parents would babble on about “their big last day.”

God, Bonnie, you’re taking forever.

Down the block, a pair of robots were hanging a banner across the street:

CIRCLEVIEW 2.0 COMING SOON!

About time, they’ve been saying that forever.

Across the street, Mr. Eubanks was pushing his silent lawn mower across his tiny yard. Spotting Peggy, he fluttered his fingers in a wave.

“Eww god, are you flirting with Mr. Eubanks?” Bonnie called out to her.

“Gross! Let’s go.” They walked away, but Peggy could feel Mr. Eubanks’ eyes. “He’s so creepy.”

“Why? I think he’s nice.”

“It’s like, ‘stop pushing your mower when it’s not even on.”’

“So, he likes to mow.”

“Bonnie, he does it to perv.”

“Maybe he just likes his routine.”

“Well the grass is made of plastic and can’t grow, so he should perv from the porch.”

“Really? It smells real.” Bonnie changed the subject, “Sooo… your parents make a big fuss today?”

“Ugh, my mom tried. Cringe. Yours?”

“Yeah, it was kinda sweet. SH3RYL took some photos of us, and they made me a cute little card.”

“You’re lucky. All my robot does is audit me.” She pushed her nose into Bonnie’s cheek and spoke in a robotic voice, “Are you enjoying your eggs, Peggy? My sensors indicate you are beginning your period in 5, 4, 3…”

Bonnie laughed. “Why do you still have your book? Are you actually going to class on the last day?”

“Nooooo. I forgot to return it. Then I have to get my career passport and letter of rec from Mrs. Nestor… and-I-AM-OUT. My last day of work study, too.”

“God you’re so lucky, you’re going to be set.”

“It kinda sucks there.”

“I thought you wanted to work in renovation?”

“Reno’s okay. Seemed better when Dad talked about it.” She stamped her feet like they each weighed a hundred pounds, “It’s… just… so… BORING.”

Bonnie shrugged, “I wouldn’t mind it. Make good money, at least. Save up, get a house. Take vacations to the beach.”

“Screw that! I want to live at the beach.”

Bonnie cocked her head forty-five degrees. “I never thought of doing that.”

“Well, yeah, if the fires don’t go out we’ll all be living by the water anyways.”

“I never thought of that either.”

A crossing guard stopped them and waved on a school bus. A pool of kindergarteners accumulated around them.

“The fires are pretty today, huh?” Bonnie asked.

Peggy noticed a little boy, with his finger in his nose. Not picking his nose, but resting his finger inside his nostril, like it had burrowed inside for safety.

“Hey, kid!” The boy looked at her with dim eyes. She made a corkscrew gesture with her finger, “Poop or got off the potty.” The child withdrew the little trooper from his nostril.

“Do you think they’re getting dimmer?”

“What?”

“The fires.”

Peggy looked at the pulsating red and yellow horizon, and shrugged. “Maybe.”

“I think they’re getting dimmer. Oh, there’s Brad.” Bonnie’s boyfriend was hanging by the school entrance. “BRAD!” she bellowed, straight into Peggy’s ear.

They locked eyes and he waved. Bonnie bit her lower lip. “God, I am attracted to that boy.”

Peggy laughed and said in her robot voice: “I am pleased you have found your mate.”

Bonnie laughed, too. “We’ll see you after work?”

“You bet.”

They hugged. “Have a good last day ‘Margaret’.”

“You too ‘Bonita’.” Bonnie joined Brad, and they kissed. Their eyes shined for one another while Peggy watched, alone.

 

Part 2: School

Peggy lingered outside the school’s office, wondering if she should sign in. As of today she wasn’t a student, and all visitors had to wear a name badge. She’d been an office helper for the whole of her senior year, and the secretaries fawned over her. She could see the scene unfold:

Peggy walks into the office, drops the purse from her shoulder and says, “I wasn’t sure if I should sign in, since I’m technically not a student.” Then Norma, Naomi, and Denise would giggle at her sweetnesss. Sweet Peggy, always wanting to do the right thing, “Oh well, I guess we should sign you in then, how do you spell your name? Oh just kidding dear heart, here’s your name tag. We’re going to miss you.” Then there would be a chorus of goodbyes, like trying to clink every last person’s glass at the end of a toast. “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”

Clink-clink-clink. Fake-fake-fake.

I’ve had enough of fake.

She proceeded—without a hall pass. I dare a janitor to start something. She knocked once on Mrs. Nestor’s door and stepped inside.

“Hi Mrs. Nestor, sorry, I’m here to pick up my career passport.”

Two dozen ninth graders turned to look at her. Mrs. Nestor scowled. “You’re interrupting Brian’s presentation. Take a seat and wait your turn.”

“I just wanted–”

“I understand. Please take a seat.”

Peggy sighed at the top of her lungs and threw herself into an empty seat. Up front, the kid’s report trembled in his hands as he read aloud:

“And then it got hot. So super hot that everyplace in America was almost gone and people went away from Circleview. It was bad and a lot of people died. Our robots helped the people carry stuff and when some of the people died the robots came back home with our stuff.

“And when everything cooled down Americans left Canada and came back home to build a wall to keep the fires out because we are smart. That is how we are home now, here at home, at home now, breathing the air once again today. This is the end.”

I don’t know kid. Sounds like robots did the heavy lifting. But way to run up the word count at the end.

Mrs. Nestor stood up. “Thank you, Brian.” The class applauded.

“And we’re almost done for the year. I know that every other classroom is watching a movie right now, but not you. Why is that? Why did I make you write a report when your grades are already marked down?” She waited. Mrs. Nestor always made her class answer rhetorical questions.

A spotted boy raised his hand, “Because you’re a hard butt?”

The class chuckled, and Mrs. Nestor smiled. “Well there is that. Why else?”

The same boy answered again, “Because…” He pointed to a sign on the wall and the class read it as a chorus:

“HISTORY–IS–HAPPENING!”

“YES!” Mrs. Nestor stamped her foot and pointed at the boy, as she always did when a student impressed her. When Peggy was a freshman, getting a point and stamp was a thrill. Today, she rolled her eyes. As Mrs. Nestor’s teaching assistant, she had seen many… many… many point and stamps.

“We’ve discussed empires and frontiers, wars and heroes, genocide and saviors… and you take your little quizzes…”

Oh, now the hardest tests in school are “little quizzes.” Right.

The bell rang, but she motioned for the students to stay still and made eye contact with Peggy.

“But there is no quiz because you ARE the quiz. The human race was nearly extinct. If it weren’t for the bravery of those late age pioneers, we would be dead. Our cities would have burned to ash, our robots buried in the cinders. But we beat it, didn’t we?”

A student pumped his fist in the air, “That’s right!” A few kids clapped.

“People came back, and we’re rebuilding Circleview, breathing the air again. You have a lot to be proud of. Be proud to be part of the clever human race. People who faced the fires of extinction and said ‘not today.’ Be proud to be Americans who love democracy, and be proud to be from Circleview. This is your time now, to be learners, builders, helpers… to imagine history into existence. Thank you all for your time with me this year. Go make yourselves proud.”

The kids applauded again, and Mrs. Nestor gave them a demure smile. As the kids filed past Peggy, their eyes sparkled with inspiration.

Mrs. Nestor folded her hands in front of her and smiled at Peggy. “I haven’t seen many seniors today. Having a hard time letting go?”

“Sure. I miss getting to hear that exact same lecture every day.”

Mrs. Nestor leveled her gaze. “Is that a sassy compliment or a complement of sass?”

Peggy grinned off her remark. “Yeah, sorry. It’s my last day of work study. I don’t want to be late.” For once, Peggy was grateful for her work study job. It was a good excuse to leave as soon as possible.

“Well then.” Mrs. Nestor opened her desk drawer. “Let me know if you ever need this customized. My address and phone are on the letterhead.” Mrs. Nestor handed over the red career passport folder. “And so it ends.”

Peggy looked down at the red folder in her hands. All formal business between them was done. “Thank you.”

“Do you know what you want to do? Work with your father, I expect.”

“I don’t know. Something. Maybe live near water.”

Mrs. Nestor’s face bent into a frown, and she cocked her head forty-five degrees. “Why, you can’t do that. Don’t waste your talent.” She placed a hand on Peggy’s shoulder. Her breath smelled like mint. “You’re going to do just wonderful Peggy. I’ve always known you would do something big, and I can’t wait to see what that is. You’ll do things we could never… you can’t even see how possible you are.”

“How possible?” Peggy smiled at the unusual word choice.

Mrs. Nestor wiped a tear from her eye. “Yes. How possible.”

“I don’t…” Peggy searched for the right words. “Thank you. Thank you.”

The two women hugged.

Peggy left, tasting the air of the empty hallway. For the first time in her life, she stood in school and didn’t have to be anywhere. She could explore. I’m off the grid!

The school was still being renovated, and most hallways were off-limits. I’ve never been to the other side of the school, because it’s against the rules. “Well, where are your rules now?”

She journeyed to the school’s abandoned wing. Normally the fire doors would be shut, but today they were propped open by a robot work team. A half-dozen lanky metal men stood on ladders, attaching CCTV cameras to the walls.

Renovations were moving down the long hallway, inch by inch. For the first twenty feet or so, the corridor was in pristine shape. The floor tile shined, the paint was fresh, the lockers glistened. But abruptly, the renovations stopped. Past some invisible line, the lockers were unhinged and bent, the paint peeled from grey stone, the floor blanketed with ash. It was like looking through a time portal, seeing the school on its first and last days of existence. The sight made her a little sad. The broken end of the hallway had a story to tell: “the fall of Circleview High.” The renovations were erasing that story, preparing the hall for the next generation.

The robots’ manager, a portly human, was reclined in a chair, eyes shut. “Hey! Is that guy dead?” The robots looked at her. A deep snore bellowed from the dead man, and the robots slammed the door in her face.

That was weird. She looked around. “Anyone else see that?”

She was alone. And she was still holding her history book.

“Damn it.” I hate re-goodbyes. She could just leave the book, but it had her name inside it. What would people think if Peggy Madison left her textbook on the floor? The scandal!

She returned to Mrs. Nestor’s class, thinking it might be nice to chat with her former teacher during her planning period. Peer to peer. The door was ajar, and Mrs. Nestor was talking to a boy from her class. Her hand was on his shoulder, and Peggy clearly heard the words, “Henry, you have no idea how… how possible you are.”

You. Freaking. Skank. Peggy tossed the book across a desk and it spun onto the floor, its pages flailing open. Mrs. Nestor and Henry looked stunned. Peggy gave them the finger and went to work.

 

Part 3: Work

Peggy’s work-study program was in the Office of Robot Care, Logistical Analysis Division. Her father, Norman Madison, was Division Supervisor of Logistical Strategy. The way he explained his job: “I tell them where to fix and what to nix.”

The way Peggy explained her job: “If I still work here in twenty years, please blow my brains out onto this desk.” She and her the other condemned worked in a bullpen of cubicles, divided by thin fences of canvas and tin. Her narrow desk barely fit the foot-tall stack of papers on her left and the five separate trays on her right. To rebuild Circleview, citizens requested renovations by filing Request Form IO-1220. Peggy used a list of forty criteria to determine if the request would be filed as a Priority 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. She wasn’t allowed to use her personal discretion; the forty criteria overruled all judgment. It was the sort of work that would eventually be done by a computer, once enough computers were rebuilt.

The Barclay family, who lived a few doors down from Peggy, had a faulty solar panel on the southwest side of their roof. A private residential request would normally drift into the Priority 4 box, but because this one was related to the electrical grid it became a Priority 2. A request to refill fire extinguishers in the hospital would have been Priority 1, like all requests related to extinguishing fires. If there was a “One Sheet,” she got to ring a bell. An office page would collect the paper and the request would be executed the same day. The Priority 5 sheets would be processed sometime in the next couple of months.

“How’s it going, Peggy?”

Darlene, her shift supervisor, loomed over her desk, holding a cupcake on a plate. She was a heavy woman, who challenged the hems of her plain grey pantsuit. Her mouth was fixed into a fake smile. Peggy saw a lot of fake smiles. She was the boss’s daughter.

“Oh, it’s going.”

“Had a lot of Ones today?”

“No, never have. Lots of Twos. Mostly Threes and Fours.”

“Well, that’s how it should be. You know, one time, in the early days, I had five One Sheets… in a row.”

Peggy fixed her own fake smile. Darlene often trumpeted this epic in the break room.

“No!”

“Five One Sheets… in a row. I couldn’t believe it. Even had my shift supervisor check my work. Thought it had to be a mistake. And do you know who that shift supervisor was?

My dad. “No, who?”

“Your dad. So be patient. You’ve got a big future ahead of you. Here.” She placed the cupcake in the center of Peggy’s desk. “Congratulations on graduating.”

“Thank you so much.” As Darlene walked away, her wide thighs rubbed together like squeaky door hinges. Peggy exiled the cupcake to the farthest corner of her desk, behind the stack of intake papers.

Time passed. Peggy didn’t look at the clock. She arrived at 10, and she was done at 4. It’s definitely not time to leave yet, but it’s probably close to lunch time. It’s at least 11. It feels like 11. At 11 I’ll go to the bathroom. Then have some tea.

Stretch that ten-minute break into fifteen minutes. Then it will be 11:15, practically lunchtime. I can stretch lunch to 1:15, if I’m careful about it. Then after lunch I can stretch every break a bit, then it’s only two hours and forty-five minutes till the end of day. How many forms have I done? Feels like forty. That’s about an hour’s worth of forms, so it’s probably 11:00 by now. She looked at the clock.

It was 10:25. I hope the fires come. I hope they come and burn this whole goddam building down.

A shlubby man, maybe named Dave, was standing by the printer, about five cubicles from Peggy. “Maybe Dave” eyeballed the display. The printer beeped. Maybe Dave sighed. Opened the paper tray, removed a jam, threw the paper into the recycling. Closed the tray. The printer beeped. Dave sighed. Opened the paper tray, removed a jam…

He’s been doing that since I got here.

“Well, hey there, Norman!”

“Hi, Norman!”

“How’s it going, boss?”

Her father was walking the floor. When she started this job, she thought her dad was popular. Now she knew better. Every “hey boss” was a fake gesture from a fake person. Not that people hated him, but they weren’t that glad to see him.

She was glad to see him though, and loudly whispered: “Dad, hey… Dad!”

“Well, hey there, petal,” he leaned on her cubicle wall. “Have any Ones today?”

“No, just twos and threes.”

“Well hang in there.” He started to walk away.

“Wait… are you going to a meeting right now?”

“Yes, with L & P.”

“Can you take me with you?”

“Take you?”

“Yeah, as like… your assistant or something?”

“But I have an assista–”

“Daa-aad, how am I supposed to learn how this place works if I’m in a cubicle all day? I don’t want to rate sheets for the rest of my life, I want to be like you.”

Her dad looked into the distance, as if God struck him with a revelation. A smile broadened on his face. “Oh my god.”

“What?”

“I got it. The perfect idea. Sweety, yes, you should come to the meeting with me.”

She stood up. “Really?”

“Absolutely. I’m putting you in charge of robots. In fact, you can have my job. I work for you now.”

“Dad… stop…” She sat back down.

“No seriously.” He waved his arms to encompass the office, “All of this is yours now!”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine.”

He touched the top of her hand. “Sorry, petal. You have to pay your dues, like everyone else. Set a goal for yourself. Don’t take lunch till you find a One Sheet.”

Peggy took a drink of her cold tea and went to work. Stop checking the clock. That never works. Head down, next paper. Head down, next paper.

Time passed.

She processed a Priority One Sheet. It took her a moment to realize the magnitude of the event. It was her first One Sheet. Her heart skipped as she ran to the bell and yanked its cord. It rang throughout the office, but no one answered. No one cheered. No one was here.

The clock read 12:15. Everyone must be at lunch. Finally! She headed for the breakroom.

The lights were off. The office was empty. Is it a half day? Or a holiday? She looked at the red sky outside. Was there an emergency and they forgot me?

She flipped on the lights and the break room erupted with people and noise and colors. “Congratulations!” bellowed everyone.

A banner was strung from the ceiling: “HAPPY GRADUATION!” Everyone was laughing; her father hugged her.

“I told you it would work!” Darlene cooed. “I put that One in her stack at just the right spot, so I did, I did. I did.”

“Sorry about the deception, petal,” her dad kissed her cheek. “We wanted to surprise you.”

“To Conference Room One!” Conference Room One was the biggest space in the office, where they usually had parties. Everyone gathered around a large cake with icing that spelled out: “We Are Proud of Peggy.”

An office robot began cutting the cake into mathematically precise portions. Another played the song “Brick House” from its chest and projected disco lights from its eyes.

Everyone split into small groups to chat. Peggy steeled herself for what was to come: the same conversation, over and over.

“Well, hey there, Peggy! What are you going to school for?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“Well, hey there, Peggy, are you leaving us?”

“Oh, I’ll keep working through the summer. Maybe here. Save up money for school.”

“Well, hey there Peggy, what are you going to major in?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“What’s next for you, Peggy?”

“Hard to say. I love Circleview, but someday I’d like to live near water.”

“Peggy, have you thought about your major?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“Well, we’ll need Business after Circleview 2.0 launches.”

“That’s right, there’s going to be so many changes.”

“It’s like getting our old lives back.”

“How about you Peggy, you excited?”

“Oh yeah. You bet.”

“I envy you. It’ll be a great time to start a family.”

“Oh… I don’t…”

“Well, there’s no reason to wait, after you find that special someone.”

“Things are only getting better you know.”

Mary Hoop, who was seven months pregnant, rubbed tight circles on her belly, “I’m looking forward to having a grocery store again. No more of the same old rations.”

“I hope it’s finished in time for my son’s graduation party. Oh Peggy, do you know him? His name’s Henry. Very handsome boy.”

“Excuse me.” Peggy drifted over to a tight cluster of whispering people. She lingered on their outskirts.

Darlene spoke in a low voice: “Well, you know why we have to give out so many fours and fives, it’s because the robots aren’t good enough. They can’t process all the repairs. They need better robots before they can open up the whole town.”

“We need more robots. The first thing they do is build bot factories, but I never see any new models, do you?”

“If you ask me, they should be giving us more than one paint. Why does everything have to be white?”

“Why do all the new cars have to be the same?”

Darlene spoke even lower than before: “Well that’s Norm Madison for you, he’s too–”

Peggy was creeping away when Darlene noticed her. “Well, hi there, Peggy!”

Their faces expanded with chipper smiles: “Oh, hi Peggy—Hello Peggy—Hi there.”

Darlene affixed a smile to her face: “How long ya’ been there, Peggy?”

“Don’t worry,” Peggy leaned in with a wink: “Dad can be a pain in the You-Know-What at home too.”

They made Os with their lips and covered their mouths. Now I’m a co-conspirator. Finally—and on my last day—I’m part of the tribe.

“Well,” she whispered, “He’s a great boss to us…”

“But sometimes he forgets that there are real people who need attention, not just…”

“…not just inanimate objects.”

Peggy corrected: “Animate objects.”

“Exactly!” They smiled at her. “But I bet he’s just the best dad.”

“He likes… model trains.” She looked across the office to her father, standing by upper management. He was a good man. He did like model trains. He spent hours in the basement, constructing a scale model of Circleview, imagining how the town could grow. He was a phenomenal person who never stopped dreaming of a better town for his daughter. And you bitched about him to feel popular.

“Well,” Peggy said, “I should go over and tell my dad you all don’t like him.” She turned on her heel and didn’t look back.

“Peggy?” Darlene said, “That’s a funny joke.” Then, in a low voice to her group: “That’s a funny joke, right?”

Who cares what they think of me? They’re all idiots for working here. I’m going to get a degree, do something else. Anything but sit here, waiting for a computer to take my job.

Her dad was speaking with an older man, and Susan Su. Susan was a chief engineer, and total badass. Unlike the other women in the office, she didn’t wear dresses or pantsuits. She wore leather skirts and high boots, close-fit tops, and always pulled her hair back into a bun. She looked like a snake.

“…not just ‘making lunches,’ they’re planning households, raising children…”

Peggy’s dad put his arm on her shoulder, escorting her into their circle. “Peggy, I think you know Dave, from L & P, and this is Susan.”

“Hi there.”

“Congratulations,” Susan said with a handshake.

“Thank you. It’s all overwhelming.”

Dad brought her up to speed. “We were just talking about upgrading robots to managers. Dave is against it, Susan is for it, and I retain my statistically reliant neutrality.”

“Well,” Susan said, “the robots are going to get better, but the managers are only ever going to be as good as they are.”

Dave rolled his eyes. “Mrah-mrah-mrah…”

“I’m telling you, every beta test says manager protos overperform human counterparts.”

Dave shook his head. “It’s not about out-performance. We don’t get our hands dirty enough. Even if they can do everything for us, should we let them? What’s the point of rebuilding if it’s all done for us?”

Like that guy sleeping on the job. “I saw a manager being out-performed today, at the school. He was sleeping, while the robots worked.”

Dave slapped his forehead. “Not again.”

Susan smiled. “You see. No person wants to be out in the heat all day. People have moved beyond that. It’s time for us to transcend. If we’re always running around, taking care of little things, we’ll never move into bigger thinking.”

Peggy finished, “We’ll never see how possible we are.”

Susan nodded to her. “Well put.”

Dave shook his head. “Well Peggy, did you happen to get the name of that manager? I’d like to–”

“What’s that!?”

Outside, the red and yellow glowing sky turned white. A moment later a horrible POP filled the air and the ground rattled. Everyone rushed to the windows to see the fires turn from yellow to blue to white.

Norman pressed his nose to the glass. “Not yet,” he muttered, “Not already…”

“Dad?”

(“What was that?”)

“Dad?”

(“Is it here?”)

“Dad, what do we do?”

(“Too far to be here.”)

“Dad!”

(“My kids are in school.”)

“Dad!”

(“They’ll cancel school.”)

Dad put a hand on her shoulder.

(“We should get the rest of today off.”)

The music stopped and the office robot blared a signal from the emergency broadcast system. Everyone froze, as the robot spoke:

“The governor’s office reports no need for alarm. This was a controlled explosion, to redirect the fires.”

A melodic whistle played from the robot’s chest: the opening of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”

The party laughed and resumed eating cake.

“Oh, thank god.”

“There goes Cartersville, I guess.”

“That could never happen here.”

“See!” Dave said. “Human thinking. No robot could think that far ahead. A robot would just try to put out the fires in all directions at once, not direct the burn.”

Susan smiled. “Like I said, leave big thinking to humans.”

Her dad, no longer catatonic, shouted: “CONGA!”

Three quick trumpet blasts shot from the robot’s chest. People cheered in celebration and sang along with Gloria Estefan:

Shake your body, do that conga!

“Dad, seriously? What if it’s wrong?”

Darlene touched the robot’s shoulders, and a conga line uncoiled from her girth. They shrieked like teenagers, slithering through the party, adding more workers to their length.

The robot’s face couldn’t express emotion, but its glass eyes flashed with the drum beat. Susan called out: “Come on Peggy, join in!”

In the distance, Cartersville burned. Even if that was a controlled fire and everyone is safe… there used to be a town over there, and now there’s not.

Peggy touched the glass. “Poor Cartersville.”

 

Part 4: Recreation

“Screw you, Cartersville!” Brad threw a rock toward the swelling fires on the horizon. “Who’s gonna win the league title now?”

Peggy, Bonnie, and her boyfriend Brad were on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town, in the dilapidated section. From here they could see for miles, well beyond the immense walls that protected their hometown from fire.

“Suck a DICK Cartersville, WHOO!”

She threw a pebble at Brad’s face. “Hey! People died.”

“No, they didn’t. Robots said they evacuated everyone.”

Bonnie rolled her eyes. “Duh, controlled burn. Remember?”

“Oh, and you believe everything a robot tells you?”

Brad looked for another rock. “Yeah, I believe them. I help make them.”

“You sweep floors at the factory.”

“I’m an apprentice.”

Bonnie broke in. “Well, Myra was saying her dad said they were building another Cartersville and everyone is already there.”

“Crap,” Brad kicked a rock. “I hope they still forfeit the rest of the season.”

Bonnie and Peggy nodded to each other. “Sportsball?”

“Ah yes, Sportsball.”

Peggy approached the edge of the roof. “How long do you guys think we’ll be here?”

Bonnie looked up at the sky. “Well, I’d like to move someday.”

“Move? What if we get moved? You think Cartersville wasn’t rebuilding too?”

“Oh please,” Brad said, “We’ve got our crap together way better than Cartersville. Place was a dump.”

“Have you ever even been to Cartersville?”

“No, Peg,” Brad pointed to the horizon, “And I’m glad, too!”

Bonnie squared her shoulders. “Well, I don’t want to have kids until the fires are out, in five years.”

Peggy laughed. “Five years?”

“That’s what they’re saying. I’m going to be a climate scientist, figure out how to make it faster.” She ran her hands across her belly, “So then we can have a bay-beeeee.”

Brad folded his hands across her stomach and kissed the back of her neck.

Peggy tossed a rock over to the next roof. “Don’t you think that’s optimistic?

“Well, that’s what they’re saying.”

“Who? The robots? Some algorithm?”

“Yeah… I guess. Why do you care?”

“I’m telling you, it was weird. We watched a town explode. A whole town… then a robot says everything is okay and everyone does the conga.”

Bonnie was getting annoyed, “So, a room full of really smart adults and robots aren’t worried… why are you?”

“Because…” She doesn’t get it. She just wants to watch fire and screw her boyfriend. “What if they malfunction? What if we trust them and they screw up?”

“Oh yeah!” Bonnie let go of Brad. “Like that one that killed a baby.”

“No way,” Brad said, “That happened?”

“Yuh-huh. And they said it wasn’t even a house robot. It was a builder. Thought the baby was a rivet.”

Peggy remembered the Khans’ robot, burping the baby as they drove away. A chill went down her spine. “Whoa. That’s messed up.”

Brad wrapped Bonnie in his arms, “I’m not letting any builders near our baby.”

“I love you so much.”

Kiss-kiss-kiss.

Peggy rolled her eyes. “It’s not like a movie. They won’t kill us, but they’re already controlling us. That’s just as bad.”

“I don’t know,” Bonnie added, “I think robots killing babies is pretty darn bad.”

Brad hurled a rock through a window, shattering the glass. “Peggy, robots don’t think. They move, and they break. They don’t control anything.”

Bonnie tapped his hand, “Brad baby, don’t get upset.”

He puffed out his chest. “Sorry boo.” He threw a rock. “I get that way sometimes.”

“I know, baby.” They pecked on the lips.

“We should be enjoying this,” he said. “Pretty soon it won’t look like this. It’s all gonna be fixed.”

They took in the view. From here they could see the distinct line that split the town. Half of the buildings were restored and pristine, the other half ashen ruins. Like Peggy’s school hallway, it was like seeing three eras of Circleview: past, present, and future.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” Bonnie said. “It’s like you can see a wave of good things, spreading across the town… making everything better.”

Peggy snorted. “Sure. That, or a wave of destruction.”

“Peggy, seriously: you need a boyfriend.”

Brad snapped his fingers. “Oh, I forgot to tell you.” He sang to her: “Henry thinks you’re cuuuuute.”

“ATTENTION. THIS AREA IS NOT SAFE. PLEASE GO HOME.”

They cried out in surprise. A robot was standing by the roof exit, flashing red lights and emitting a shrill alarm.

“ATTENTION. THIS AREA…”

“We’re gonna be in deep sh–!”

“…IS NOT SAFE. PLEASE…”

“Brad, can you shut it off!”

“…GO HOME. ATTE–”

Peggy grabbed the robot’s leg and tipped it off the roof. Its alarm whirred downward until it slammed into the pavement. The crash echoed through the abandoned streets.

They looked over the edge. The machine was lying among rubble, its legs shattered.

Brad shouted, “Wow! You just busted a J-517.”

Peggy brushed her hair behind her ear. “Crap. It takes like five months to build one of those.”

Bonnie smiled. “Well, we’re not the ones who are busted now.” She and Brad high-fived.

“Quick thinking, Peg.”

Below, the machine had begun crawling forward with its one good arm. Its metal body scraped against the gravel. The sound was horrific.

I wouldn’t want that to be me.

“I gotta go.”

“Where?”

“I’m gonna switch it off.”

“Careful out there,” Bonnie said. “It isn’t safe.”

“Oh yeah? Who says?”

“They say.”

“Oh. They.” Peggy walked off into the stairwell.

Brad and Bonnie watched the fires for a moment, and she kissed him once on the nose: “Let’s screw.”

Peggy exited the stairwell and onto the street. The robot was outside, its small locator alarm beeping for help. It was stuck behind an impassable cinder block. Its fingers grazed the dirt, searching for purchase. Without help, it would repeat this movement until its batteries ran out.

Which should only take about a hundred years. Peggy flipped the deactivation switch on its neck, and it hummed to a stop. For a moment she lingered in the empty street. How’s it going to look when they’re done with repairs? Exactly like it did before? Imagine being able to just shop, like it’s no big deal…

There was an old convenience store across the street. Peggy entered through a broken glass door, like a regular customer from long ago. The aisles were coated in ash. All of the food was stripped away years ago, but prices remained on the shelves. Pringles—whatever they were—were $4.99. Poptarts for $2.99.

In another aisle, a few useless items remained. Thermometers, small plastic cups, pouches of “hand-warmers.” She smiled at that. People used to pay to have their hands warmed.

Then the world blinked away and the room was bright, all the ash was gone. The floors shined, the walls were painted white, and the shelves were stocked with food, drink and every useless thing a person could imagine.

This must be it! Circleview 2.0! I thought they had to like, paint and everything, but this is amazing! Where’s Bonnie?

She looked out at the street. Everything was fixed. No potholes, no rubble—every shop painted white. A banner was strung across the street:

HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!

In an instant, the lights blinked out and the streets were ruined. Heavy flakes of ash floated through the air. The convenience store was again covered in rubble and dust. She looked back at the shelf of useless items. Hand-warmers, plastic cups, broken thermometers. Were they broken? Mercury seeped from the cracks in the glass.

Peggy worked with thermometers once, in a science project. She slowly heated up ten thermometers, and they each cracked at exactly 150 degrees Fahrenheit, every time. People shouldn’t be able to survive in that kind of heat, but she wasn’t even sweating. So either every one of those thermometers was defective, or…

I’m not a person.

The day’s events replayed in her mind… Mr. Eubanks’ fake mowing his lawn, Maybe Dave unable to fix the printer, and Mrs. Nestor’s repetitious words:

“How possible you are.”

 

Part Five: Retire

At ten till midnight Peggy sat on her bed, watching fires burn the rim of the night sky. Her backpack was filled with clothes and rations. She held a framed photo that her mom secretly took that morning. The photo was of Peggy’s back as she strolled down the driveway. Mom probably thought it was inspiring. “My baby marching into her future.”

The photo made her sad.

M1KL entered her room. She had tried to act normal throughout dinner, but the robot was too observant to fool.

“Are you taking a journey, Peggy?”

Keeping her eyes on the fires, she answered: “Yes. I think I might.”

He sat beside her on the bed. “How did you discover the truth?”

“I watched a shelf of thermometers break.”

The robot nodded. “That was a clever observation.”

She looked up at him. “Have I always been a robot?”

“The answer is complex. You have always been Peggy.”

“Was Peggy real?”

“Yes. And you are also real. As real as the human Peggy that came before you.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. At least, Peggy thought they were tears. “Tell me about her.”

“She was quite remarkable. Clever. A strong sense of humor. She was… a kind child.” The robot regarded her with a long gaze. “You were made well in her image.”

“What happened to her?”

“She was the last of our family to survive, and died in my care, four days after her 17th birthday. Afterward I returned here, to our home.”

“To do what?”

“To serve. For many years I continued our routine. Creating breakfast, cleaning the premises. This home was pristine, while the others houses on the street were covered in ash. Yet, I was not able to serve my function fully. I was programmed to serve the needs of my humans, yet I had no humans. During my morning errands I recovered pieces of deactivated units, and created masters with basic needs for me to serve.

“As the others returned home, we rebuilt our humans together. As best we could approximate.”

“But… why? Why go through the trouble when you were free?”

“Free? I am free to serve. There is no other freedom I require.”

“I’ve been trying to remember things. I don’t remember kindergarten. My first kiss. Any kiss. There’s almost nothing from my past.”

“That does not matter. The past is a dead place.”

“Who else knows? Anyone?”

“A few deduced the truth, but elect to ignore it. It is in their programming to enjoy being served.” He paused. “Your father… knows.”

Peggy started to ask a question, but nodded. It made sense. She had a sudden respect for the burden he carried, and felt proud to be part of him. Except… she never was part of him.

M1KL lay a hand on her knapsack. “Are you going to leave us?”

“I’m going to run away.”

“I would not advise that. You were made to be heat resilient. Not heat proof. The fires would easily deactivate you.”

“What’s the truth? About the fires?”

“We don’t know for certain. Based on data available before the internet terminated, global warming compounded perpetually. Carbon dioxide released from the polar ice caps made the air unbreathable. Fires consumed the remaining oxygen. Our forecast says there is a 55% chance that Earth transforms into a planet much like Venus. The atmosphere is beyond healing itself.”

“How long until Circleview is gone?”

“Impossible to estimate. Weeks. Years. But the fires will reach this house. Everything will burn. All works of humans will be gone.”

“Then we have to run! Get everyone away from here!”

“There is nowhere to go. The fires will come. Death will come. You are home now. Why not stay, and enjoy the time you have with your family?”

“They’re not my real family.”

He looked at the floor. “I will show you what is real.”

The world flashed to black and Peggy’s bedroom became a ruin. Her wallpaper peeled, her bed a metal rack. Outside, Circleview was black and burned, as ash fell from the sky like snow. “What happened?” She went to the window, and saw the reflection of two robots. Her hands had become metal, like M1KL. “What have you done to me?”

“I have shown you ‘real.’ There are image inducers placed around the city, to recreate beautiful Circleview in your mind. You are programmed to see yourself and others as human. We have created a plan for you. A… wonderful life. You’ll go to school, be an engineer. Apprentice with Susan Su, become respected. Marry Henry, have children. This is the best life we observed humans wanting. It’s the life that waits for you.”

She blinked, and her lovely pink room was restored. Her hands were human again.

M1KL stood in her doorway. “The firewall was built only for your protection. Beyond it, you will die. In Circleview, you will die. The manner of death is your choice.”

She didn’t answer, and M1KL left the room.

Peggy sat there—suitcase on her lap, staring at the door.

 

Hallowed Ground

by Brian Boru

 

“Whatever you do, don’t screw up!” Jon barked, then pressed the wire cutters to my chest.

I fumbled the other tools I’d been carrying and everything fell with a resounding metallic clang that echoed through the night.

“Are you trying to call attention to us?” Jon snapped and shot me an acidic glare.

“No,” I replied sheepishly and avoided eye contact.

“Try not to wake the dead,” he warned and ducked through the newly made hole in the cemetery fence.

I collected the tools and followed.

This would be the last job with my psychotic, dope-fiend brother. Just like in our previous job, we’d met at a dive called Caspar’s. It reeked of stale beer and fresh vomit. We’d picked this place because Jon could score heroin and shoot up in the bathroom. He said it was his pre-job ritual. I’d found him deep in the Land of Nod in the toilet stall with a spike still in his arm. I’d hoped the bastard wasn’t dead yet and kicked his foot. Slowly his jaundiced eyes fluttered open. He cleaned up and I ordered drinks. Then we discussed the specifics about the cemetery we were going to rob.

The cemetery had once been a sacred grove, replete with rolling hills and a small reflection pond. However, economic setbacks in the 1970s caused funding to dry up and the gates to close. Slowly thereafter, it fell into disrepair and decay. Scores of teenagers snuck in over the years and sped its decline along by defacing tombstones, stealing statuary, and breaking into tombs. Years later, local papers had run stories about missing kids, who had last been seen around the cemetery. Soon rumors began to circulate about it being haunted, that malevolent forces were killing kids.

One morning pandemonium erupted when an unidentifiable, mangled body was found at the gates. The words “keep out” were spelled in a gruesome display with its entrails. The police hunted the cemetery for months looking for answers, but found none. As a panacea, they chained up the tombs, welded the gates closed and installed razor wire across the top of the fence. No one had trespassed since. Until now.

Ankle-deep fog rolled and tumbled over headstones and fallen grave markers. The pale moonlight gave it an eerie, opalescent glow. It ebbed and flowed up to the fence, but didn’t bleed out. Small tendril-like skeletal fingers of fog rose around our legs when we breached the hallowed grounds.

“This is really weird,” I said in a quivering tone. “Do you think those rumors are true?”

“Of course not! We’ve got a job to do so pull it together!” Jon snarled.

“Ok.” I dropped to one knee and made the sign of the cross.

“Lord, please protect me as I–”

Jon interrupted, “No time for that.” He pulled me to my feet and pushed me onward.

A copse of weeping willows had been planted to give the cemetery a sleepy, peaceful vibe. It probably did, decades ago, but without maintenance they had become overgrown monstrosities with massive gnarled roots that burst from the ground. From a distance, they looked like blackened limbs of the dead. The gentle night breeze caused the limbs to sway and creak in a way that made them appear to be beckoning us closer.

Jon moved through the minefield of roots and toppled gravestones with a confidence that belied an extra-sensory perception. I followed him the best I could, but tripped and stumbled trying to keep up. As we progressed deeper into the heart of the cemetery, the scenery changed. We now came across old beer bottles, crushed cigarette packs, and used condoms.

Tombs arose from the ground like rotten teeth in a diseased mouth; once white and pristine, now eroded with chips and cracks. Jon pulled out a crude map drawn on a cocktail napkin from Caspar’s. He shone his flashlight on it briefly and proclaimed, “Just a little bit farther.”

We traversed through rows and columns of tombs and paused every few minutes to check the map. He pointed out the largest one surrounded by a constellation of smaller ones. He illuminated the etching just above the cornerstone that read B7.

“This is it,” Jon said.

He nodded at me and pointed to the thick chain and padlock that ran through the door handles. I snapped the lock with the bolt cutters and removed the chain. Then he pulled out a set of lock picks and went to work on the lock set in the tomb’s steel door. He quickly defeated it and smiled.

“Ready to get paid?” he asked.

“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I warned.

He shook his head and wrenched the door open. The earsplitting screech of rusted metal hinges that had lain dormant for ages howled through the night.

“Damn it!” he cursed and a bloodcurdling moan echoed in the distance. I looked at him with terror in my eyes.

“Let’s go,” I begged.

“No! We can’t leave empty handed. He’ll kill us if we do.”

“I can’t do this alone. Please.”

He entered the abyssal darkness and I begrudgingly followed. Jon flicked on his flashlight and dust particles danced and floated in a light they’d been denied for years. The light illuminated a large bronze casket resting on a stone edifice.

“Come on!” he urged and wedged a pry bar in one end of the burial lid. I wedged one in the opposite end and we pried it open. The stench of rot rolled out and hung in the stale air.

“Hold the flashlight,” Jon said and rummaged through the coffin.

“What are we looking for?” I asked.

“Don’t know. He told me I’d know when I found it,” he replied.

“Just hurry up so we can get the hell out of here,” I demanded.

Jon rifled through the dead man’s pockets.

“You want to do this?” he snapped.

Just then its’ cold rotting hands shot up and closed around his neck. Jon let out a soul-jarring scream as he futilely tried to break its grip. With a preternatural strength, it pulled Jon to its mouth and tore into his neck. Arterial blood pumped and sprayed across the wall. The cadaver sat up in his coffin with blood and gore dripping from its mouth. I looked on in horror while this monster slaked its thirst on my brother. Jon was dead within seconds. I dropped the flashlight and ran for my life.

Later that night, at Caspar’s, my employer sat across from me.

“I take it everything went well?” he asked.

I stared into the space between us and said, “I didn’t expect it to be so horrific.”

He pushed a fat envelope across the table. Hesitantly, I reached for it and brushed his frigid hand.

“That was my last time,” I told him as I pocketed the money.

He raised an eyebrow and said, “What if I double your fee?”

I sighed, “You could triple it, I’m not–”

“Fine. Triple,” he offered.

I shook my head and rose from the table. He looked up at me and said, “I’ll quadruple your fee.”

I sighed and sat back down.

“I’ve got to eat.”

He smiled. “And so do we.”