The New Guy

by Ben Pierce

 

Clark stumbled backward, putting his hand on his chest as blood ran through his fingers. A voice roared from behind him, telling him to get down. He hit the floor as quickly as he could. He heard a gunshot and saw the hound flinch as the bullet ripped through the massive beast. It must have been as long as Clark was tall. As it growled, exposing rotting teeth, it turned and Clark saw that its ribs were protruding out from a bit of decaying flesh.

It lunged at Clark, but this time he intercepted it with one of his daggers. The hound yelped as it hit the ground.

“Move!” Pain said from behind him. Clark was shoved aside as Pain pointed his revolver at the hound’s head and pulled the trigger. A blinding flash of blue light emanated from the gun. When Clark opened his eyes again, the hound was nowhere to be seen.

“What was that?” Clark asked.

“It’s called a Dip.” Pain’s robe seemed to disintegrate into thin air. “Nasty little things,” he chuckled. “Or I should say nasty big things. People once believed them to be dogs under the devil’s control, but now most people simply believe that they’re myths.” He glanced at Clark, “You okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just a flesh wound.” He winced as he put his hand to his chest once more. “It’s not a big deal.”

Pain nodded. “You can take the robe off now.”

“How do I do that? Getting it on was hard enough!”

“Just focus on reverting back to your human self,” Pain said as he started to walk down the beach. “You can do it. You’re a big boy.”

Clark did his best to concentrate, trying to block out the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. He thought of the life he once had, the taste of his favorite dessert, the smell of pine needles from his home up north. He felt his psychic senses leave him, and his clothes seemed to get lighter. He opened his eyes to find that he was once again wearing his t-shirt and jeans. He also saw that Pain was now quite a distance away. Clark had to run to catch up with him.

“So, is that it?” Clark asked. “Are we done for the night?”

“It?” Pain said with a hint of surprise. “You’ve just seen something that most people believe to be nothing but a nightmare, and you want more?”

“Yeah, I’m not afraid of what Hell has to offer.”

Pain gave a wicked cackle. “Boy, you know nothing of Hell.”

After arriving back at the beach’s parking lot they climbed into Pain’s car and took off. Pain was listening to talk radio, which literally managed to put Clark to sleep.

When Clark’s eyes drifted open, he found that they were driving through a small patch of suburbia.

“Is there a reason we’re in the suburbs?” Clark asked impatiently. “I mean, there can’t possibly be any hellhounds here.”

“You’d be surprised what you can find in the suburbs,” Pain said. “And it was called a Dip.” Clark looked down at the clock to see that he had been asleep for almost an hour, so it was a very good thing that Pain’s BMW was comfortable. Suddenly, Pain pulled off the road and parked in a patch of grass. “Here we are.”

Clark looked around. Aside from a park that had its gate closed, there was nothing here but infinitely more suburban homes. “This is nowhere.”

“We’re going to the park.”

“At three in the morning? It’s clearly closed.” Without another word, Pain stepped out of the car and started walking toward the park. A shadow engulfed him, and suddenly he was clad in his black robes. Clark followed him, allowing the shadows to consume him as well; the two hopped the gate with ease. “Why are we here?” Clark asked impatiently.

“We’re looking for Oak Trail,” Pain said approaching the nearest map. “And keep your voice down. We don’t want them to hear us.”

“Them?” Clark whispered. “More dogs?”

“I’m afraid that it’s going to be quite a bit worse than that,” Pain whispered as he took off down a trail. Clark followed him. He found himself doing it a lot that night. Suddenly, a feminine scream pierced the silence.

Clark took off sprinting. The screaming continued as he ran deeper into the woods searching for the source of the sound. Clark arrived at a clearing, and suddenly the noise ceased as he saw a woman looking at him. She was on her knees, crying at the base of an oak tree. Something wasn’t right about this. Clark kept a hand on one of his daggers and approached her. “This is the spot,” she muttered. “This is the spot.” She kept repeating it over and over again.

“What spot?” he asked her. She was wearing all white, and she almost seemed to glow.

“The spot where he killed us,” she answered, as her eyes burnt a hole in Clark’s face.

He was struck with an intense fear. He heard another scream, this time masculine, but not a pained scream like before. It was filled with anger. Clark looked up to see a shapeless black object moving toward him with the face of a man. It swooped in and sent Clark flying backward. It felt like a train had just hit him. As he stood up, he saw the shapeless mass coming in once more. This time Clark charged it, drew back his daggers and stabbed, with perfect timing. The blob retreated, then hovered in midair until the face appeared once more. It said nothing, it only continued to yell.

Then Clark heard the familiar sound of gunfire, and watched the face twist and distort until it faded back into the black. Pain slowly approached it, with his gun pointed at it the whole time. The face appeared once more and came at him, but Pain simply fired again. It crashed into the ground and stopped moving.

“Finish it off,” Pain said as he walked away from it and towards the phantom girl.

Clark approached the now still black mass, and stabbed it with his daggers. It began to shake, and then pieces started to rise up into the air and fade away. Tiny black spheres continued to fly upward until the entire shadow disappeared. He looked over to see that Pain had taken the girl’s hand and she was now standing. Clark walked over in time to hear Pain say: “It’s alright. You can go now.”

The girl smiled. “Thank you.” With that she too began to turn into small white orbs, which floated up into the sky. They rose up until they were too small to see.

“Is that what the Reapers do?” Clark asked, still looking towards the heavens.

“Yes,” Pain said as he began to walk away. “That’s what the Reapers do.”

 

That Funky White Light

by James Rayvin

 

I expected to hear trumpets. I thought I would see horsemen. I predicted that the Mississippi would run red. But we can’t always get what we want. How does a man test his mettle when his hand is made of leather and his throne of wood? The pitch of my life was coming in fast. It turned out to be a sinker, like the pit of my stomach.

I raised my son to wear Cardinals red in hopes of a better life. Not that he was going to be a pro ballplayer. No, but the quest would be in him. The quest to do better and to be better. This was an example that I had failed to set for most of my life. I have treated him terribly and now I need to make up for it. I’ve spent the last several years trying to forget that I was a father.

Fatherhood just wasn’t the style for Noel Darlington. I felt that I was too rugged, cool and smart to be a dad. With my dark hair, blue eyes and intelligence, it just limited my options. I already had some money tucked away, and I planned to make more once I moved to New York to become a stockbroker. I couldn’t see where strollers and dirty diapers fit in.

Don’t get me wrong, I did try it. It’s not like I got a girl pregnant and then bolted. I got a girl pregnant and then married her. Rose was the kind of girl that you would cross the river for. She was lithe, with smooth, radiant skin. Her hair was the burnt red-orange of a sunrise. We moved to the Frontenac neighborhood and started our private forever. Our son was born a year later. We named him Jonathan. He came home to his own room that was stocked with anything he could have ever wanted. Shouldn’t I get credit for that? I tried the “right” thing. It just wasn’t right for me at the time. That is how I justified my absence to myself.

I stayed with Jonathan until he was two. I made a big mistake at work and got fired. There went my salary, our dream home, our vacations, our cars. I came home drunk and in a fury. I picked a fight with Rose. Not mentioning my termination, I told her what a terrible wife and mother she was. Neither was true. I started throwing and smashing things. She went to bed in tears. I sat on the front porch and had serious doubts about my ability to cope in the real world.

I figured Rose and Jonathan would be better off without someone as lousy as me. She could remarry a more intelligent man. One who could provide a real future instead of a welfare check. I went into Jonathan’s room and watched him sleep for a long time. I placed my wedding band on the kitchen counter, scribbled a note, and walked out for good.

That night I slept in a cheap hotel. Taking pulls of malt liquor, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I decided that I was. I moved into a studio apartment and began the next phase of my life. I was determined to make a clean break. I never sent a birthday card, let alone child support. If they were not dependent on me, they would be much more likely to reach for their dreams. It was another of my rationalizations.

The only contact we had was through lawyers. I took pains to become invisible. I changed my phone number and unlisted it. I took a job on the opposite side of town from where I lived. My mail went to a PO Box by my office. I rented an apartment so that I would not show up in the property owner records. Every once in a while I would think of Jon and Rose, but pushed them out of my mind. Everyone knew they were better off without a wretch like me. This charade went well. I was free.

Ten years later I had a nightmare. It was night in the dream and I was walking alone downtown. I could smell the fecund odor of the river bottom. Rain pummeled the foggy streets. A Metrolink car whooshed behind me. From a distant alleyway I could hear the lonely whine of a violin pleading for someone to assuage its solitude. A crack of thunder forced me to look up.

With each subsequent lightning flash I could see a figure hanging from the center of the St. Louis Arch. As the picture drew in I could see a man swaying in the breeze by the noose around his neck. The man opened his dead eyes. I realized with shock that I was looking at myself. The view followed the rope on its long descent to the ground. A black-robed figure was holding the end of the rope. He delighted in its every twist and swing. The figure pulled the cowl off of his head, revealing Jonathan’s face.

I awoke in a sweat and sat straight up. I hunched over the side of the bed and began to sob uncontrollably. I did not know what was happening to me. Was I having a heart attack? Was I going insane? There was an abject sense of fear and sorrow coursing through my entire body. I had never felt so alone. Then it occurred to me. Was this but an inkling of how Jonathan felt? I poured three fingers of whiskey and tried to calm down. I knew what had to be done.

The letter arrived at Rose’s house the next day via International Parcel Service. It explained how sorry I was and that I knew that I could never earn their forgiveness. However, I wanted to try. I wanted to reconnect with them, if they would allow it. I gave them my home, cellular, and business phone numbers. I told them they could call me 24/7. To show my seriousness I enclosed a check for $10,000.

Rose’s initial reaction was as you would expect. She did not respond to the letter and shredded the check. After a couple weeks of unreturned messages she agreed to meet in a public place. Fittingly, we met at the Statue of the Naked Truth in Compton Hill Park. She proceeded to tell me exactly what she thought of me. I listened to it all without flinching. After she had completely vented, she paused and fixed her gaze on me. I flinched. “Noel, you are a selfish, sorry, shell of a man,” she emoted. “I agree,” I responded. A surprised look curled at her lips. “I know that nothing I can do will make up for the lost years. But, I want to make sure that the future years will be great.”

I was disheartened, but not surprised, by the presence of a new wedding ring on her finger. “OK, Noel,” she exhaled. “So you know, there is no chance of romance between us. I am totally happy with Max… my second husband.” Anger flashed in her eyes again, but she managed to stifle another outburst. “I do think that a connection would be in Jonathan’s best interest. He is still angry with you. Yet he is open for a trial visit. You owe him that much. After witnessing your sincerity, I will allow it.” The old Noel would have resented her attempt to control the situation. All I could do was grin and tear up. “That’s great! Thank you, Rose.” I thought I saw a tear in her eye, but she clopped away in her high heels.

We met at a restaurant in a historic part of town called “The Landing” on a Saturday afternoon. It was the kind of place where the décor was made of wood. We exchanged pleasantries and I shook Jonathan’s hand. “Maybe one day, you will let me give you a hug,” I said. “Maybe,” Jonathan replied, unsure of how to react. I actually liked Rose’s new husband, Max Mabry. In an if-you-weren’t-taking-my-wife kind of way. He seemed to believe that my intentions were above board. His conservative brown haircut and gold glasses seemed to impart a gentle wisdom. Deep down, I was both saddened and grateful that Rose had found someone better than me.

Once the food was done it was time to pack up. As Rose pulled her purse to her shoulder, I interjected. “Wait, hold on. I have one more thing to say.” I pulled a piece of paper out of my wallet and handed it to Rose. “Noel, this is a check for $15,000.00!” She inspected it, her face reddened, and she handed it to Max. “I told you that we didn’t need your money then, and we don’t need it now.” My jaw fell a bit, but I recovered nicely. “I know that, Rose, Max. However, this check is solely for Jonathan’s college fund.” Max leaned forward and interlaced his fingers on the table. “In that case Noel, we’ll take it as penance.” We all laughed. When we left Jonathan did hug me. I could only describe his embrace as guarded optimism.

Months flew by and conversations went on. Gradually the Mabrys relented to unsupervised visits with Jonathan, then weekend sleepovers. Eventually they came to accept my honesty, and granted joint custody. I do not think Jonathan will ever forgive me for what I did, but he is getting better at forgetting. That is fine by me. I cherish every moment we have together. I realize that those ten years with no contact were like a wasteland in my life. He would show me fear in a handful of dust.

This brings us back to Cards red. I bought Jonathan season tickets to the Cardinals baseball team for his thirteenth birthday. It would be just him and I sitting in the house that Busch built. Oh, how he jumped with delight! “I figured it would be a great bonding experience for the two of us,” I commented. To my surprise, I got a smile from Rose. “Sure, he needs some bonding with his father. Nothing like the chalk lines in the outfield to do it,” she responded. “Not to mention, it’s a great conversation-starter with his friends,” Max added. I beamed. I didn’t deserve total support.

Opening day was a game against the dreaded Cubs. There is nothing like a good sports rivalry to bring the fun. As long as you both are on the same side of it. Perhaps it would get our minds off the fracas spiraling within our family. If only Harry Caray were here to moderate. Who would he favor?

“This is going to be great,” Jonathan exclaimed as we pulled off Clark Street into the stadium parking lot. He pulled the red ball cap lower on his head and brushed some of the sandy-colored, scruffy hair out of his eyes. “Do you think we are early enough to watch B.P.?” I smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “You know it, Jon.” I was a bit excited myself. I felt like a kid again.

We had a grand time. Batting practice lead to autographs. When the game started, we sat behind home plate in the upper level. The score went back and forth, enough to ratchet up the excitement. Jonathan and I ate hot dogs, crunched Cracker Jacks, and drank soda together. We chatted about his life between innings. He was getting straight As in all his classes. He was thinking about trying out for the baseball team at school. After a 3-2 count, Pujols hit a home run. I saw the light in Jonathan’s eye as he jumped up and down and hollered with joy. My eyes started to tear up. Maybe, just maybe. One day, he might start to forgive me.

It happened during the seventh-inning stretch. By now darkness had fallen and the stadium lights were at full wattage. I looked up and saw a different light. It seemed far away at first. I thought it might have been a plane. The light originated between the Arch and one of the skyscrapers. I yawned. Then it got bigger.

The light was somehow both pale and luminescent. It shone high in the sky. As it came closer I realized that the light was in the shape of a perfect rectangle. It emitted squiggly rays around the outside. It appeared to be miles wide. I stared directly into the center of it, while fearing it would burn my eyes. It was moving at a slow but even pace. Definitely closer now, it seemed to be coming down and in towards me.

I turned to Jonathan, expecting him to ask about the light. He was too engrossed in the game, counting balls and strikes. I turned to the family beside me, but they did not seem to notice the light either. I started scanning the stadium. It seemed like I was the sole person in a crowd of 42,000 who could see the light. Good ’ol, bad old, Noel.

Something unusual occurred at that moment. The entire ballpark went silent. I knew I was not deaf because I could hear my heart beating, my sweat hitting the floor, and even the digestion in my stomach. It was as if the awareness of my body functions went into overdrive. The sound of the blood flowing through my veins made my ears pound like a bass drum.

Quietness endured around me. People’s mouths moved as if talking or laughing. The beer man in the next aisle dropped a handful of bottles. The bat connected solidly with a fastball. None of these made a sound. It was as if someone had draped a veil of hush over the rim of the arena.

A noise emanated from my head that I could only interpret as neurons firing. My mouth went dry. A slight breeze kicked up and tousled my hair. I felt an unexpected wave of dread wash over me. I heard a voice that had to be my own exclaim a single word: “Why?”

A cursory glance up found that the light was now on top of me. It enveloped the whole stadium now. I felt that it might have covered the entire county. The only person to notice was one Mr. Darlington. The organ player piped on in silence. I squinted from the brightness.

I felt myself falling. Mouth agape, I gasped as the ground rose up to meet me. My bones seemed to crunch as I hit the pavement. Pain worked its way into nausea. I had no idea what was happening.

All I could think about was Jonathan. I turned my head and saw his shoes. An intense feeling of longing struck me. What was his shoe size? What was his favorite type of shoe? Who bought these shoes for him? Did his friends like his shoes? Who were his friends?

A good father would know these things. Sadly, I did not. But I was trying! Mending the relationship takes longer than mending a fence. It is my top priority. If only Rose and Jonathan could see that. I just need some time. Don’t we all need just a little more time?

I tried to stand up but found that I could not move my legs. I reached towards Jonathan but my arms would not cooperate. I turned my head with no success. Was I paralyzed? How did this happen? My field of vision got progressively whiter until it was all I could see.

I had a vision as I grew accustomed to my private tunnel. I lay upon a vast desert, blanketed with the windblasts of eons. I flipped onto the sands of an island where the trade winds ruffled the fronds of a thousand palms. I wanted the waters to be blue, but they were black. I was transported into the walls of an ancient catacomb. Buried deep, I felt that I was the only person alive on the continent, and I could not get out.

I flashed back to the hard concrete floor of the stadium. My vision cleared so that I could see my surroundings. That funky white light had dissipated like morality among thieves. Jonathan was beside me now with a look of alarm on his face. I heard his voice, but it was distant in a way I cannot describe. “Daddy, daddy, where are you going,” he cried. A group of EMTs arrived, but it was all elementary now.

 

The Tetris Run

by Sonya Craig

 

Don’t ever think you can understand an alien because the truth is, you can’t.

Space debris punches a hole in your fuel tank, you make an emergency landing on an alien’s brutal-ass ice planet, and he shows up on the day you’d almost given up, half frozen and starved and he nurses you back to health. Then he disappears for days. And then randomly reappears at odd intervals.

His technological capabilities seem to far exceed your own yet he is unable to help you brainstorm a fix for your compromised vessel. He seems to want nothing from you in return for his generous help. Nothing that is except to listen to you talk. He seems to want that very much. And yes, it’s a little freaky having a giant, black demonic-looking creature sit across from you and hang on your every word. But his charity has kept you alive so you guess you could indulge him this small quirk.

According to the marks I’d scratched into the curved bulkhead above my bed, I’d been stuck in this glacial hell for one hundred and forty-three days. Forty-two days since he had stepped from the blowing chemical ice storm outside and into my frost-covered cabin. A vision from a nightmare: a deformed, half-reptilian, half-insectoid monstrosity with red eyes that burned with an otherworldly intensity. As I lay there dying on Day 101, my thoughts had been all for my daughter and that archaic movie that had been her favorite: 101 Dalmatians. Was it some sick twist of coincidence that I would die on this day?

My mind wandered. All those cute puppies. She had wanted to save every single one of them, but especially Lucky. “He’s Lucky ’cuz he almost died but then he didn’t,” she would say every single time she watched it. “He didn’t die and now he’s like the toughest of them all.”

Two summers ago, she had experienced a miraculous recovery from a coma brought on by a tumor inside her head. A tumor that the doctors and scientists couldn’t operate on, couldn’t tell me if it was benign or malignant or if it would ever go away or if it would kill her tomorrow. A grapefruit-sized invader that stripped my baby of her innocence and dumped a permanent load of worry over the rest of her life. And mine. A tumor very much like the one that had taken my older brother from me when I was ten.

After her release from the hospital, she had fixated on Lucky. We had watched that movie so many times since then that I could recite every line and nail each and every inflection.

I spent the next two years watching her every move, her every change in expression, her eating habits, her sleep patterns, her everything, on constant guard for any sign that the malignancy was making its lethal run. I reached the breaking point, mentally, emotionally, everythingly. I simply COULD NOT TAKE IT ANYMORE. If you’ve never lived this kind of on the constant edge of losing everything dear to you, then you cannot understand. The stress and the anxiety had worn me to a thin fragile shell. My mind darkened to a chronic, muddled mess, my hands shook, and my world teetered, ready to fracture at the slightest hint of possible doom. That was when I chose to take the Tetris Freight Run—the well-paying, notoriously dangerous, ship-busting Tetris Run with its almost always lethally dense meteor belt. The run that was almost guaranteed to end my pain forever.

This was the guilt-laden memory running through my head when he walked into my world and I swear to god I thought Satan had finally come for me. I had little doubt that I was destined for hell after the life I’d lived, especially after my chicken-shit decision to use the Tetris Run to escape my pathetic existence. A decision that was in effect abandoning my daughter. But when he stepped through that door, the devil incarnate and oh so real, my already chilled blood froze solid. He loomed over me, hellish eyes burning through the blastwave of jagged ice shards, Lucifer, ready and eager to watch me pay for all my sins. I admit to wishing I had lived my life differently. I wished I had lived stronger. I wished to god I’d never taken the Tetris Run.

Now, weeks later, my monstrous alien savior was seated on the opposite side of the portable furnace he had generously provided me, his bulk hunched to fit inside the cabin, his gnarly hands warming themselves over the heat. He listened to my latest story as he always did, his massive head cocked to the side much like a curious dog, red eyes watching my lips move.

I paused my tale. “You do realize that you staring at me like that doesn’t help your Creepy Factor, right? Can’t you at least stare into the fire once in a while?”

He clicked out some ugly sounds that translated through his comm device a second later. “Not fire. Exothermic reaction. Technology beyond your understanding.”

I held up my gloved hand and did a talk-talk-talk puppet gesture. “Yeah, yeah. You know what I meant and you don’t have to keep pointing out your technological superiority, you know? Unless maybe you’re trying to compensate for something. Is this your species’ version of a big-ass truck with oversized tires?”

Click, click. “Truck?”

“You’re never going to get sarcasm are you? Nevermind. Where was I?”

“Mooovie.”

“Right. So my kid, she loves this movie about these dogs and she loves this one little guy way more because he…” My voice caught in my throat and to my horror, tears suddenly filled my eyes. I swiped at them, my face heating under his perusal. “Fuck. Fuck it all.”

The alien leaned his bulk toward me, his crimson eyes studying my face. Mimicking my motions, he ran his hands across his own eyes and then held them in front of his face, as if the answer to this new and uncharacteristic action on my part would be written on his palms. After a moment, he returned his gaze to me.

Click, click. “Explain meaning.”

I waved away his request. “You think too much you know that? Back to my epic tale of 101 doggies and one mean old lady and her icky infatuation with fur coats.”

Click, click. “No. Has meaning. Explain.”

“What? It means exactly nothing alright? Do you want to hear the rest of the story or what? It’s what you come here for, right? The stories?” His eyes, god. Why did he have to stare so intently? I’ve never had another being look at me like that before. I felt soul naked under that gruesome red-eyed stare.

Click. “Explain.”

His looming posture and the altered tone of his voice made it clear that this wasn’t a request but a demand. For whatever alien reason, this was important to him.

My head spun with the abrupt change in our status. He was my alien ally, helping me manage this external crisis until I could either repair my ship or make contact with a passing Terran vessel that could rescue me. He was conversation and supplies and a break from this bleak solitude. That’s what he was to me. What he was not—was anyone who was allowed into my heart or soul or whatever you want to call it. He was an alien that in later years I would remember with a distant fondness. I wasn’t prepared for anything more than that.

“It’s nothing.”

Click. “Not nothing. Explain. Now.”

“It’s a dog okay? A cute dog that she got all sentimental about. That’s it.”

His red eyes narrowed. He repeated my hand-swiping-tears motion and then reached across the space separating us. His huge, bony fingers hovered before me, framing my face. “Explain you. You explain you.”

There it was. He wanted to know why I had teared up. Well, that wasn’t gonna happen. Not in this space-time continuum. I shrugged. “Just something in my eye. That’s all.”

His expression changed. His razor-sharp teeth clicked, his brow furrowed, and his eyes practically glowed with some internal fire. A month ago, when he had stepped from the fogged tundra and into my crash site, he had scared the living hell out of me. He was by far the ugliest, most intimidating and grotesque creature I had ever encountered in all of my travels. Not that a lot of species exist in the universe, at least as far as Terran exploration has encountered. I’ve seen all the ones known, all four of them, and trust me when I say this guy made the others look as pathetic as amoeba in a petri dish. The look on his hideous face at this moment would have sent even the strongest among us into permanent hiding.

Click, click. “You talk. But you not say anything.”

“I don’t know what to say, alright?” A lie. Another avoidance.

“Explain you or I leave and do not return.”

My jaw dropped. “What? You’re saying you’ll just leave and not come back?”

He gave me a single nod and then sat in expectant silence. I had no doubt he meant what he said though. He would leave me here to starve and die if I didn’t answer his question because that’s the kind of inexplicable stuff aliens do. I rubbed my temples. I so did not want to do this whole communicating my feelings thing.

The idea was completely foreign to me. It was the reason I was a freight hauler. I travel for months in blissful solitude, never needing to interact with anyone. It was why my marriage ended. It was why I had no close friends. Supposedly, I’m “distant” and “unapproachable” and a million other phrases that essentially mean “You’re right. Stay the hell out of my stuff and we’ll be just fine.” Apparently, that attitude doesn’t work for others.

It is, however, who I am and that’s that.

But now I was stuck. I had been given an ultimatum.

So, I told him about my daughter’s brain tumor and how it held me captive, constantly afraid to my core for her, wearing me down until I had nothing left. He wasn’t satisfied. He wanted more. He wanted me to explain all of me. Why hadn’t I told others about my fear, why hadn’t I sought out consolation, help, support?

So I did my best to briefly explain the reasons for my stupid emotional repression: my brother’s death and how it ruined my family, my suddenly distant father, my depressed mother. Me, all alone with my loss. My friends, unable to deal with anything more serious than the latest video game, all pulling away from me.

I was alone in my house and alone in the world. Cast out, I grew accustomed to being a loner. I excelled academically and failed socially. Out of the various professions available to me, I chose the grueling training of flight school where weakness was considered a guaranteed fail. And I excelled, graduating near the top of my class. I had turned my self-sufficiency into a positive. Mostly positive. My husband left and then my child became ill, her ongoing heath crisis threatening to shatter me if I gave in to the fear. And still he wanted more. More depth. More soul baring.

“Why are you doing this?” I yelled at him. “Do you earn your fucking wings if I bare my soul or something?”

Click, click. “You talk now or I leave.”

“Fine! But fuck you every step of the way. Fuck you and the ugly egg you probably hatched from. Fuck you and whatever alien version of a horse you rode in on. And also, and also… I hate you!”

He was unmoved by my tantrum. He waited. And as I haltingly began my tale, he listened. He listened through the whole, ugly story. At some point, I broke down and started crying. Tears hot on my cold cheeks, tears I hadn’t felt for years, tears that melted my protective armor. Not just crying. Hell, let’s be honest. I sobbed, I wailed, and I shook. My shell cracked and splintered into a thousand shards of shed pain.

Fuck. Just fuck it all.

But to my surprise, I did not crumble into nothingness. The world did not shun me and I did not become an instantaneous failure at life.

I had cried. I had told my story. I had let someone in. And nothing bad had happened.

To my utter shock, the alien appeared at my doorstep the next day with a crowd of his friends. They repaired my vessel, replaced my fuel stores and sent me on my merry way back to my home and my life and most especially to my precious daughter. Like I said, don’t ever think you can understand an alien because the truth is, you can’t.

Standing awkwardly before him, I said my eloquent goodbyes. Eloquent for me anyways. “You’re the weirdest fucker I’ve ever met in my whole life, you know that right? But I do hope you get your stupid wings. And uh, thanks, you know, for everything.” 

*****

I watched the small, weird alien fly off in her primitive spaceship. To my friends I said, “This one took three times longer than any of the others. This one was far more stubborn than any of the rest of the freighters that end up here.”

“You did well,” my friends said. “These Tetris Run freighters travelling through time and space all alone, they are endlessly fascinating.”

“And endlessly broken. I’m not sure I will ever understand these aliens.”

“That’s because they do not even understand themselves.”

“I suppose that’s where we come in. Somehow, fate has aligned us in this odd relationship with them. I wonder how they all survived before the Tetris Run opened? By the way, does anyone know what a wings is because I think I just earned one.” 

 

Take-Out

by Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

 

I’m Harvey Hickman and I’ve got the most dangerous job in America… I’m the pizza delivery guy.

Oh, I know, I know. Some people argue that the Chinese food delivery guys have it worse, or maybe the mailmen, uh, mailpeople. But c’mon, the guys that deliver your Chinese food travel in gangs that ride around in hopped-up Japanese crotch rockets and they carry fully automatic weapons (even though they’re still illegal), and those folks that deliver your mail show up in armored personnel carriers with specially modified cannons that shoot your mail right onto your porch or through your window, and besides, most folks just use email nowadays anyway—so no, it’s me alright. And that’s why the chicks love me and all the guys hate me, ’cause they all wanna be me (I mean the guys, not the girls).

It all started when the Rift happened. BTR (Before The Rift), I was just a skinny loser with perennial acne, a crappy car, and an even crappier job—pizza delivery guy. I mean, I couldn’t get laid if I were an egg! Even tips from my customers were rare. I’d be standing in someone’s doorway wearing that stupid Pizza Pete’s paper hat on my head, my hand held out for some sort of gratuity, and more often than not I’d get the door slammed in my face. What really burned me was hearing them all laughing at me from the other side of those doors. Now, not only do I get big tips, but there are plenty of times when a beautiful woman will show up at the door in just her undies and pull me inside for a little “afternoon delight.” Ah yeah, life sure is sweet now… but hey, don’t get me wrong—it’s still dangerous as hell. Literally.

*****

I don’t exactly know what happened, maybe nobody does, but the word on the street is that about a year ago some scientists working on a sort of secret collider project on a little island in the East River accidentally tore open a hole in the so-called fabric of time and space. Well, whatever it is they did, it turned into a real mess…

You see, that tear in space or whatever—what we now call the Rift—allowed all kinds of creatures from some other dimension (or whatever!) to enter our world and cause all kinds of trouble. At first it was just Manhattan, but soon after it became the tri-state area, and then the whole country. All kinds of weird animals and monsters were soon roaming through every neighborhood, attacking and eating people, pets—anything they could catch. There were hundreds, heck, thousands of them—all different kinds, but they all had two things in common: they were all mean and they were all hungry.

The cops put up a good fight at first, but it was just too big a job. It took the military to get things under control, but as the weeks and months wore on it became clear that these creatures (Rift Dwellers we call ’em) weren’t going anywhere—they were the new reality. But folks still had to make a living, and the president even went on television and told everyone to continue with their lives and go back to work. A lot of people did just that, and a lot of ’em got killed. So then it became legal for everyone to carry a gun, and plenty of folks got together and formed armed carpools and were able to get back to work, but by then the damage to what they call the national psyche had been done. People in general were still really afraid to go out, with thousands of folks stuck in their homes or offices—too afraid to get out and go back home, work, shop, or just get something to eat without being eaten themselves. People were starving, and law enforcement and the military were stretched too thin to be everywhere at once.

That’s when guys like me became the new rock and roll gods!

Now it’s another Friday and I’m sitting in the back room at Pizza Pete’s with my feet up and my 3-D glasses on—watching a movie between gigs. And there will be another gig soon, my eighth of the day so far, since Fridays are our busiest days.

“Yo, Harv,” came Joey’s voice from out front. “Have another delivery for you—lock and load, babe!”

That’s Joey Riccio, he owns Pizza Pete’s. I never actually met Pizza Pete, in fact I don’t know if there ever was a Pizza Pete.

I walk out into the dining area, past the heat of the ovens, and nod hello to the regulars. The regulars are actually a guy and two women that were here when the Rift opened and have been too scared to leave since. They look a little bedraggled now; their eyes have dark circles under ’em and their hair’s a little dull and shaggy. Marla, that’s one of the women, was pretty once and she used to smile a lot. Now she still smiles a lot, but in that weird kinda way that tells you she’s close to losing it. I’ve offered to escort them home plenty of times (especially Marla), but they’ve always been too scared to leave.

“You got two cheese pies, same address, right across from the park. You also got a pepperoni pie, buffalo wings, and a couple of two-liter sodas mid-town,” Joey said, taping invoices with the addresses on them on to the boxes.

I take the boxes and wings, and slip them into the wide vinyl sleeve that’ll help keep them nice and hot. Next I grab the sodas and drop them into my backpack. Lastly, I check my weapons. My main arsenal consists of a Mossberg semi-automatic sawed-off shotgun, a .38 Colt Diamondback revolver with the heat-dispersal vents along the top of the barrel, a two-shot .22 magnum Derringer, and a really, really big Bowie knife.

I prime the shotgun, sling the pack onto my back, grab the vinyl case with the pizzas and wings in it, and back out of the door.

At first the bright blue sky of outside dazzles me, but my eyes adjust quickly enough and I make it to my car without incident. I put the pizzas and sodas on the passenger seat, and turn in time to see a Bagger and two Hump-Lizards heading my way. A Bagger looks exactly like a plastic supermarket shopping bag, and it floats in the air or scoots along the ground just like those bags do when a breeze gets a hold of ’em. But then you notice that there ain’t no breeze and by then it may be too late—the Bagger whips itself over your head and suffocates you. Then it slowly starts to digest you, but eventually other RDs (Rift Dwellers) find your fresh corpse and help themselves to the feast. Hump-lizards are mastiff-sized lizards with 3-inch claws, 6-inch fangs, and humped backs that ooze acid.

I considered blasting them but changed my mind, jumped in my car, and took off instead. I mean, c’mon, I had to get those pizzas delivered in thirty minutes or less!

Speaking of my car, I got rid of the Yaris and now I drive a black, armored, super-charged, 2012 Chevy Camaro with bullet-proof windows and tires. This baby’s basically a tank that can do 240 mph on a straightaway, and shatter windows for a block when I crank the system up and blast music from the six titanium-reinforced exterior speakers. Holla!

I delivered the first pizzas to an address on East 71st Street and Fifth Avenue with virtually no problem—I just wound up running over a couple of love-struck Vampires, dodging some real persistant Baggers, and blasting a Raticorn (kind of a giant rat with tusks and a horn) that came running out of Central Park and right at me.

The second delivery was a little more eventful. It was in the “Lipstick” building on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. A few office workers got stuck there when the Rift happened and just never went home. There’re a lot of places like that all over—people saw their friends, family, even heavily-armed military guys get torn apart right in front of their eyes and it freaked them out. They don’t want to end up some RD’s meal and figure it’s a whole lot safer to stay put… and they’re right.

Luckily, I find a parking space right out front (hey, this is still Manhattan!) and while I’m getting the pizza out of the car I hear a roar off to my right and it’s getting closer—I already know what’s coming and I brace myself. They come zooming around the corner in tight formation, the sun gleaming and glinting off their helmets and Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycles. A Chinese food delivery gang and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re making a delivery at the same address I am. They stop right behind my car and drop onto their kickstands in unison; like they’ve been rehearsing it for years. I finger the safety off my shotgun.

The leader of the gang saunters over to where I’m standing, checks the skies and removes her helmet—shaking free her long, glossy black hair. Oh shit, it’s Lisa Lim; so that means that this gang is the Sunny Garden crew… a very tough bunch.

“How ya doing Harvey?” she asks, putting one hand on her hip and resting the other on the snub-nosed Heckler & Koch fully automatic rifle slung over her shoulder on a Hello Kitty strap. “What are you doing in Sunny Garden territory?”

I sigh and repeat what I’ve told her a bunch of other times, “It’s only Sunny Garden territory as far as Chinese food is concerned—I deliver pizzas.”

She laughs and I can hear the rest of her all-female gang laugh under their helmets. I think I already mentioned how I don’t like being laughed at.

“If I say it’s Sunny Garden territory, Harv,” Lisa says, “then I’m talking about any and all food; and that includes your lousy pizza!”

More laughter. Then her voice and attitude get much more serious. “But tell you what, we’re going to do you a favor and deliver your stale pizza for you… isn’t that nice of us, Harv?”

While she’s talking I’m trying to figure a way out of this mess. I check my watch—I only have seven minutes to go before the customer gets a free pizza and it comes out of my pay. I’m sweating. I figure I can take Lisa and maybe two of her crew with the shotgun, but then they’d just chop me to bits with those automatic weapons of theirs. Then, as if she were reading my mind:

“Don’t try anything stupid, Harv,” Lisa says as she swings her rifle in my direction. I notice that the rest of her gang does the same. In unison again. Like synchronized swimming. Cute.

“Just give us the pizza, whatever you have in the backpack, your weapons, and your wallet. If you’re real nice and quick about it, we might let you keep your car.” There’s more laughing, so I don’t feel too bad about what happens next. Very slowly and deliberately I pull my knife out. I check my watch—four minutes to go.

Lisa sees me slide the 12-inch blade from its leather sheath and her eyes go wide in surprise. I hear the loud click as she snaps the safety off her rifle.

“That was a very stupid thing to do Harvey,” Lisa says menacingly as she levels her rifle at me.

I take a deep breath and use it to yell one word as loud as I can, “Incoming!” I point above and behind them, and luckily a few of them do turn to look. It’s their yelps of fear and surprise that make them all turn and look. That’s when they see the Baggers, hundreds of them, coming right at us.

Lisa’s gang forgets all about me as they point their weapons at the fast-approaching RDs and begin firing. The noise is incredible! I haven’t heard a racket like that since the early days of the Rift. Lisa’s firing her weapon too, and to their credit, the Sunny Garden crew shred dozens of the Baggers—but there are plenty of the little bastards to go around. Lisa’s gang really is doing a good job of fending off the attacking Baggers; but then they’re all wearing helmets. In fact, the only ones not wearing helmets are…

Lisa stops firing her rifle at the Baggers long enough to once again turn it towards me, “Saved some for you Harv,” she yells over the clatter of her gang’s guns.

I figure I’m done for and mouth some quick prayers—thankful that at least I’d finally gotten laid before I died.

Suddenly a Bagger swoops down and covers Lisa’s head, immediately wrapping its translucent appendages around her neck and pressing itself tightly against her face to deprive her of oxygen.

Lisa drops her gun and opens her mouth to scream, or maybe take a gulp of air; I don’t know which, and it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t succeed at either. She starts pulling and clawing at the Bagger, but it’s fastened itself onto her pretty tightly; and its skin is tougher than it looks. I check my watch: two minutes.

I grab my pizza bag again and start for the building when I spot a shopping bag bulging with Chinese food hanging from Lisa’s motorcycle, and I make a decision. I take my knife, slice through the elastic cord holding the food, and grab the bag before it hits the ground.

I spin on the ball of my foot, knife flashing, and I cut open the Bagger on Lisa’s face, saving her life but opening up a gash on her pretty face that’s gonna leave a nasty scar. I duck under and slice apart a Bagger that was coming for me and sprint for the building; with at least twenty of those Bagger bastards right behind me.

I make it inside, leave the Baggers outside, and grab the elevator to the third floor. As soon as the doors open I run to suite 3404, my sneakers squeaking as I skid to a stop in front of the doors and press the buzzer. The door opens and a gorgeous brunette with soft gray eyes and a beautiful smile is standing there. She’s wearing a blazer that matches the color of her eyes; part of what was once a chic business suit. I check my watch: nineteen seconds to spare.

“Well, another minute and I would have gotten a free pizza,” she says with that great smile.

“Nineteen seconds,” I say with a smile of my own. We exchange food for cash, and I remark, “That’s a lot of food for just one person…”

“Yes, it is,” she says with another smile as she opens the door wider and steps aside.

I start to step inside when I notice that there are already two other guys in the room. The older guy, in shirt sleeves and tie, salutes me with a glass he’s holding; the amber liquid inside sloshing around.

As soon as I realize my mistake I quickly step back out of the room. What I thought was an invitation was just her showing me she already had company. Now, I just stand there feeling idiotic and I can sense the color rising in my face. The woman in the gray blazer notices of course and says, “Those are my neighbors from suites 3406 and 3409… they’re lawyers.” She whispers the last two words as if she’s imparting some secret knowledge to me in confidence.

“We were just going to eat and watch the news, see if anything’s changed. You’re, uh, welcome to join us,” she hurriedly adds at the end.

I hear the faint rat-a-tat of gunfire from outside; Lisa’s gang still doing battle with the Baggers. Then I remember the Chinese food I’m carrying.

“I, uh, gotta deliver this,” I stammer as I hold up the torn shopping bag with the Chinese food inside. Something must have spilled because it’s leaking some sort of brown sauce.

“Oh!” she says in surprise. “You deliver Chinese food, too?”

I can only nod dumbly and turn away, heading back to the elevators. During my elevator ride up to the 11th floor, I mentally kick myself over and over for losing it during my delivery to suite 3404.

“That was the old Harvey Hickman,” I admonish myself. “The new Harvey Hickman is a red-hot lover, monster killer, and ass-kickin’ Chinese food delivery gang fighter!”

By the time I reach the 11th floor, I feel a lot better about things and I ring the buzzer next to a highly polished wooden door. A brass plaque on the door reads, “Rift Systems: Division 1.” Rift Systems? The Rift? Could this be a coincidence? I look around and see that there are no other offices or suites, which means that this Rift Systems: Division 1 (whatever that is) takes up this entire floor. The hair goes up on the back of my neck; there’s something weird about this.

I’m about to press the buzzer again when the door opens and some military-type ushers me inside. The soldier closes and locks the door behind me.

“Put that on the table over there,” he says. “And try not to get whatever’s leaking outta there on anything.”

I nod and look around; more than just a little surprised at what I see… The entire 11th floor looks like it’s been converted into a gigantic lab, with steel tables, computers, screens, gadgets, cubicles and scientists all over the place. There are soldiers too, although not many, and I wonder what the hell is going on.

“How much will that be, son?”

The voice, tinged with a slight southern accent intrudes on my thoughts so suddenly that I jump. Another soldier, this one an officer I guess by all the ribbons and medals on his jacket, walks over to me and asks again, “So, what do we owe you?”

I remember the amount written on the invoice stapled to the bag and I tell him. He counts out several bills and I see him add a $10.00 tip for good measure.

“Thanks, uh, thank you, sir,” I say as I stuff the cash into my pocket.

The officer glances at my weaponry and nods approvingly. “Glad to see you’re loaded for bear, son,” he says. “Times call for it! But hopefully that’ll all be in the past soon and things can get back to normal.”

“Normal?” I ask as I look around the room. This guy is starting to scare me. “What do you mean normal?”

The officer puts a big, meaty hand on my shoulder and points at a guy in a lab coat. “See that man there? He is the world’s foremost expert on the Rift and he’s figured out a way to close it,” he says.

“C-close the Rift?” I ask. My head swims; I can feel the old Harvey Hickman bubbling to the surface.

“Here, let me introduce you to the man that’s going to save the world,” the officer says as he steers me toward the guy in the lab coat. “This is something you’ll be able to tell your kids and grandkids about someday!”

We walk over to where the man in the lab coat is standing, talking to two foreign guys in tweed jackets.

“Professor,” the officer says; interrupting their conversation. “I know you’re busy but I just wanted to introduce you to a fan… or at least he will be once you get rid of this goddam Rift!”

The professor stops his conversation long enough to turn towards us. He’s a regular looking guy, about my height, a fringe of graying black hair surrounding about three-quarters of the dome of his bald head, and he’s wearing glasses. “A fan, huh?” The professor says this while he looks me up and down like I’m some kind of specimen. “Come back in another three months, the Rift will definitely be gone by then and you can be a fan all you like, until then I’m too busy to talk to some delivery boy.”

The professor turns his back on me and dismisses us with a wave of his hand. He continues his conversation with the two guys in tweed and basically forgets I ever existed. Just like the bad ol’ days BTR (Before The Rift), when everyone pretty much dismissed the old Harvey Hickman as being someone unimportant; someone of little or no consequence… while I’m having this, uh, revelation, the officer has me by the arm and he’s leading me back to the door.

“Sorry about that, son,” the officer says. “The professor’s a busy guy, but hey at least you got yourself a nice tip out of it!”

Suddenly, I make up my mind—I know what I have to do…

I spin on the ball of my foot, much like I did with Lisa and the Baggers earlier, and I march back towards where the professor was still conferring with the two guys in tweed.

“Hey kid, what are you doing? The professor’s too busy to talk to you right now,” the officer calls out loudly from behind me. “You have to leave now, let’s go!”

The other soldiers look on curiously; they’re all carrying sidearms but no one reaches for their weapon.

The professor, maybe wondering what all the yelling is about turns around and faces me. I whip out the Colt and shoot him exactly two inches above the bridge of his nose. The guys in tweed look on in shock until I shoot them too. Then all hell breaks loose.

By the time I leave that suite on the 11th floor, everyone in it is dead. I feel bad about the soldiers, they were only doing their job, but I had to stop the Rift from being closed… had to.

My backpack is heavy with all of the hard drives and other electronic filing equipment I plan to toss into the Hudson. Whatever hardware or software I couldn’t carry out of there I made sure to thoroughly destroy. I found a couple of manuals with lists of passwords for a series of online backup files that I plan on deleting as soon as I can get to a public computer in an internet café or somewhere…

I feel a stitch in my side and I put my hand there—it comes back wet with my blood. One of the soldiers back in the suite must have hit me. It’s not serious, I’ll live.

I take the elevator to the lobby and peer outside through the glass doors, expecting to see Lisa and her crew still out there waiting for me. To my relief, they’re gone—although it looks like they took the time to tag my car with that lousy silver spray paint that’s impossible to get off.

I limp to my car as quickly as I can, toss my backpack, the pizza bag, and my shotgun in, and climb behind the wheel while the sun starts to go down on another day. In the distance a sticky-cat yowls its welcome to the coming night, while from somewhere closer I hear the coughing sound made by a Fool You/Kill You. Soon all of the night creatures will be up and adding their own weird and unearthly sounds to the chorus.

I reload my weapons, start the car and put it in gear. I pull a u-turn and point my car’s nose uptown, towards the George Washington Bridge. I know a doctor in Jersey that’s terrified of leaving his home and he owes me a couple of favors, I’m sure he’ll patch me right up. Then it’ll be back to delivering pizza… and killing monsters.

 

The Woman of My Dreams

by Zakariah Johnson

 

My captor was a woman. She hadn’t spoken and I’d never caught a glimpse of her from under the duct tape I’d awakened to find swaddling my head like mummy wrap; but I could tell she was a she. Something about the lingering smells when she left the room, the subconscious after-effects of a feminine touch, even when she’d been shoving a straw roughly into my mouth and squeezing in just enough water to keep me alive. Something deep down murmured that she was a woman and I always listened to those deep down murmurs, even though they were what had landed me in this predicament to begin with.

I’d screamed myself hoarse the first day, but since nobody told me to shut it or came to gag me, I’d figured out soon enough not to bother. Wherever I was, nobody could hear. But excepting my mouth, I was definitely trussed up like a hog: duct taped and chained, naked, to a wooden chair with a hole cut in the middle through which to relieve myself into a bucket underneath (it smelled like plastic.) My legs were numb yet somehow still in agony from two days tied in the chair. I was sure I would throw a blood clot soon if she didn’t release me, or at least let me lie down. I shuddered to think, perhaps that was her plan.

So I had some free time and a few thoughts to dwell on. One of which was who she was, and how knowing might help me. I figured it had been about two days since I’d regained consciousness. Though she’d only fed me twice, I counted the other signs of time passing: how often my stomach growled, how often she gave me a drink, how many times I relieved myself and in what fashion, not to mention how often I dreamed. Dreaming had always been easy for me. It’s one of my main pastimes, one of my weapons, a skill and a special tool I use to figure out what’s really going on around me. So I’d had two days to dream. Two days meant it was Sunday night, assuming I’d only lost track of a couple hours between when she had ambushed me in my house and when I awoke. That meant it might be another whole day before anyone noticed I was missing. Which meant my jailer, whoever she was, would soon be reaching a decision point herself.

After two days of smelling her, listening to her feminine walk and reviewing my knowledge in the half-awake state that the lack of food and water made easy to attain, I’d narrowed the suspects down to three women, all linked to Joe: his secret crush, his stripper, and his wife. Assuming I wasn’t the victim of some random kook or unless she decided to tell me who she was, I knew I had to retreat into my subconscious to whittle down my list of suspects, and so I drifted off…

*****

“I had a dream you asked me to help find your son’s body.”

Joe said this to me as blandly as he might have said good morning. But he never said anything without a purpose. He gave me a smug smile with his mouth but kept his eyes focused on mine as a he took a drink from the cocktail in his hand.

As I often react to shocking breaches of etiquette or good taste, I was too stunned to respond. “What?” I said. “What are you talking about? My son?”

“It was the strangest thing,” he said, warming to his topic. “It was so real. I was out on Odiorne Point in the little inlet south of the playground. And you came running out of the ocean—running up to me, somehow dry and dressed like you are now. Tie and everything.”

My refusal to succumb to the casual attire of my colleagues was a source of mirth throughout the company. Several junior programmers stood by, chuckling appreciatively at Joe’s dig. Jeana didn’t laugh. Despite the noise from the Press Club’s regular Irish session players behind us, she’d heard every word. Her little blonde head had jerked up with attention as soon as Joe had uttered those first words and she’d stood there mutely listening, sensing the danger Joe seemed not to understand he was courting. These were words I wouldn’t forget, the way I could dismiss a simple insult. After all, he’d had a dream. And Jeana knew how I felt about dreams.

Recovering a bit, I went mentally through my options one by one as he drawled on. Punch him? I’d be fired. Knock the glass tumbler he was holding into his face, scarring him forever? I’d be arrested. Grab him with both hands around the neck until someone pulled us apart? I’d be jailed, even if I didn’t manage to kill him before someone broke us apart in the narrow space between the bar and the wall separating the booths on the other side. Smile? That seemed the way. Joe also knew my views on dreams. We’d told each other everything in the first six months we worked together, or maybe it was just me, lonely and open, who’d done all the telling, while he filed it all away for later use. Jeana had been the same way, getting friendly when we first started working together until she’d learned all my secrets and then moving on to simper after Joe, despite his well-known engagement.

“That’s a bad dream, Joe. You shouldn’t mention dreams like that—”

“Well, it’s nothing. I just had to tell you. It seemed so strange I’d be dreaming about you, and your son. He’s living mostly with his mother now, isn’t he?”

“Did you help?” I asked him.

“What?”

“Did you help, in the dream? Did you get involved? Help me find him? Maybe he was still alive?” I tried not to sound frantic, playing it cool.

“I don’t know,” he said, staring slightly. “I can’t remember the rest. Just you in a suit on the beach.”

“Yeah, strange the things we feel for our children,” I said. I need my job, I repeated to myself. I’d been out of work too long before I got it. I was making nice to Joe’s face, but I could tell Jeana was reading me right, hearing my thoughts. She knew I knew that the threat from a dream remained as long as the dreamer could act out his role in it. It’s what had driven my wife to leave, that unbearable knowledge that she lived with a man who could see her future, or could help her see it if she could overcome her fears. She’d always been a dreamer, too, before she left me for our son’s soccer coach…

“Are you okay?” Joe asked.

“Fine,” I said, refocusing. He’d avoided my question. He hadn’t helped. He was as worthless in his own dreams as he was in the office. Good at taking credit, good at politics, but never contributing anything anybody would miss should he disappear.

*****

I drank too much that night. I hadn’t meant to, but no one ever does. We’d been celebrating a difficult software release, one too often delayed, one everyone was relieved to be rid of. It was time to let loose, so Joe and I had okayed it with Mitzy, the skeletal brunette who runs everything at work, to treat the whole staff to a night out, even bringing the marketing and sales teams who’d contributed nothing. They were good at taking credit, too. Joe had always belonged in marketing; he was certainly never much of an engineer.

Between the booze and my apprehension I barely slept that night. The dream Joe had given me poisoned my sleep and my spirit. I awoke at four AM in a cold sweat and got up to check on the boy. At first I panicked when he wasn’t there; then I remembered he was at his mother’s house. Even so, I nearly hyperventilated in fear.

I didn’t sleep any more that night, a Thursday, but I got to work on time the next day. More than Joe could claim. His whole team rolled in about ten or later, but Mitzy never said a word. I was there at eight AM and so were all my people. I made sure of that. Mitzy came by to say good morning, but I knew she was really checking to see if I had come in late.

Joe and I had been friends. I guess he thought we still were. In any case, I was on the list to go to his bachelor party in two weeks. But this software release had nearly ended our relationship, and had shown me who he really was: a man who would win at any cost. I’d seen it in his management style, in his work with vendors, even with the other managers. He would do or say anything to win, and then he’d let you know he’d screwed you, almost bragging about it. I walked into his office one day to hear him giving a client a line about the cause of our delays. He signaled me to sit in the chair opposite his desk as he talked into the phone:

“It’s that code from your Indian contractor. None of it’s properly commented. It’s just mishmash. Our guys are having to go through it line by line, debugging it along the way without really knowing how it fits together.” Joe gave me a wink as he talked. “What’s that? Yeah, sure, ask him. Ask him if it’s commented. He’ll tell you or he’s lying. It’s just going to take us some time. Don’t worry. We’ll make the deadline. Ok. Talk to you soon. Bye.” He hung up.

“Since when do your guys need to have comments written into code they wrote the specs for?” I asked him, knowing the answer.

“Well, what was I going to say? That we’re a bunch of idiots he should have never contracted with?”

“That describes some of your programmers. Will you meet the deadline?”

“Are you kidding me?” he smiled. “We’ll burn that bridge after we cross it. Don’t worry, there’re no penalty clauses in the contract until we’re six months late. I checked. It’s mostly Beau’s part that’s lagging. And he’s got extra help now.”

And that was Joe Grafton in a nutshell. Make it work, shift the blame, move on, stay friends. At least he assumed you’d stay friends. I think it came from him growing up in a big family. He had two brothers and two sisters, relatives all over the county and upstate. There probably wasn’t a town in New England where anyone in the Grafton tribe would need to stay at a hotel instead of with a cousin. It’s that sense that “family forgives all” that was really at the heart of understanding him. He might be underhanded, he might double cross you, he might play a psych game to win every pick-up game on the office basketball court, but he knew you’d forgive him because everybody always had: that was family for you.

It was never like that for me. No siblings, no mom after a young age; a dad who didn’t forgive you or let you forget he hadn’t. No cousins within a thousand miles. No dogs. (I’d tried to give my son a dog after my wife left me and moved to Concord with Harris, the soccer coach, but the boy never took care of it properly and I finally gave it away. His mom got him one after he moved in with her, despite my protests.) For me, it doesn’t matter where you are; people are all the same. You shouldn’t count on forgiveness, but even more you shouldn’t do people wrong in the first place. What Joe didn’t understand was that I knew not to trust a man you’d seen cheat someone else.

Once I saw into Joe’s character I tried to pull back. But it was too late. I’d told him enough about me; what I think, who I am; that he had plenty of weapons to start using against me every time we had a disagreement, whether in a meeting with Mitzy or over assigning the real blame for the latest much-too-overdue software project over which I was sure we’d lost the client.

I’d told Mitzy as much: “We’ll never get another contract from them.”

“How do you know? Their CEO seemed very pleased with our product.”

“That’s only because he doesn’t know enough to know better. His engineers will tell him soon enough.”

“Did you approve a bad product?” There she went, turning it on me, like it was my fault as quality control officer whenever I had to delay releasing the garbage Joe’s team cobbled together.

“No. It was good. But it was late, and the excuses for it being late not only weren’t genuine, it’s easy to check and find out they weren’t.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” And again! Blaming me. I saw her and Joe go out for lunch later that day. I never knew why. I wasn’t invited, even though Joe and I were technically peers. Not that I cared. Joe Grafton was quite simply a snake, and that was how he started visiting my dreams: forked tongued and slithering.

And dream about him I did, as a snake in my garden or a rat under the sink, but mostly just him walking down the rough pebbled beach at Odiorne Point. And sometimes he walked with my son beside him. The dreams came more frequently, my sleep suffered and my work did as well. But I was thankful for the dream. Such dreams are warnings, and I had learned never to ignore one or be ungrateful for any vision. Joe had to go.

*****

I snapped awake and heard the footsteps before the door opened. A cold draft of air followed her into the room, giving me goose bumps along my chained, naked body. Then came her smell. I had been right.

“I know you’re a woman,” I said. “How can you do this to me? You know you’re going to be caught.”

That was all I got to say before the straw from the squeeze bottle was thrust into my mouth and I had to swallow fast to avoid choking on the water I’d been craving for hours. After that she fed me cold chowder, spooning it into my mouth until the spoon scraped the bottom of the can.

“I’m still hungry,” I told her. She hit me hard with an open hand across the temple. She was right-handed. I saw stars for a moment, both from the blow and the low blood sugar I was suffering from after two days on a starvation diet. It sounded like she was sniffling as she went out. She left and I was alone in the room again with the lights out. But something was different. It wasn’t much, but where she had hit me the duct tape had crept up just enough to let me see the shadowy edge of my own knees in the dark when I looked straight down. It was a start, something to work with in my fatigue as I fell into a dream…

*****

Jeana is the first woman on my list of potential captors. She’d known about my row with Joe. She’d been standing there in the bar, listening in on conversations like she always seemed to do, now that I thought about it. If I’d listened to the murmurs before, I’d have done her, too, as a precaution. But after she spotted me following her, I’d had to back off. I’d been sure she was seeing Joe and followed her after work, thinking she’d meet him in a bar. Instead she drove over to the Walmart in Newington. She wouldn’t have seen me at all, but the checkout clerks were so slow I’d walked past her three times already when she said my name. She played it cool, asking what I was doing. I ended up having to buy some crappy slacks I threw away later just to throw her off. Now, I had to wonder if it had worked.

I should mention that Joe is dead. We can’t be sure of much in this world, but you can bank on that. Though you’d have a hard time proving it. I’d dreamed on killing him for weeks, setting the problem in my mind just before bed and working out the details in my sleep. Whenever I saw myself in chains (like now), I started on a new plan. I wasn’t about to go on the Internet to find anything out—they’d trace that back to me for sure. I had to use older research methods. And I did.

There’s a lot of water around Portsmouth, New Hampshire but only an idiot puts a body in water. It actually preserves the body more than the open air. I had known that from long ago, but recalled it in my dreams. I also remembered about burials: that they are always discovered unless you cover them in concrete, but then you can never sell the house. As it was, I laid Joe to rest in quite a few places, though not until extracting all his teeth with pliers and soaking them in hydrochloric acid until they entirely dissolved. (I got the HCl by paying cash for a kid’s chemistry set at Toys R Us. Imagine.) So much for dental records. His fingerprints all went away when I cut off the first digit of each finger and burned them in my fireplace until they were crushable cinders. I couldn’t get rid of a whole body that way, but I could get rid of an identity if that’s what it took to protect my son. Joe’s dream will never come true: I will never ask him to help me find anything. Nor will the dream of anyone who dreams about Joe come true, unless they dream about where he’s buried. But nobody even knows for sure he’s dead, so who could ask for a dream about that?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

*****

The second woman on the short list is the stripper. Unlike Jeana, I’d always meant to do her when I did Joe, but she got lucky. After the incident at the office party in the bar, I went along like normal. Joe apologized the next day and I said I forgave him, as he expected. We both knew nothing was really forgiven though. Some things can’t be forgiven if you want to keep your self-respect. Joe might have thought he’d gotten THAT from me when I accepted his apology, but he would learn better.

I went to Joe’s bachelor party as planned. I was a little older than most of the guys there, but no one seemed to mind. The girls were all about the dollar bills anyway, not looking at our faces any more than we looked at theirs. The party started at a dance club, but soon moved on to Joe’s older brother’s house. Several of the girls from the club showed up soon after we switched venues, and most seemed on close terms with the brother, a rangy looking guy with spiky blond hair that stood up in front, making him always look like he’d just done a line of meth (which he probably had, given the looks of his place).

At one point, Joe had a small but well-built blonde sitting naked on his lap whispering in his ear. He caught me looking at him and just smiled before he put his right index finger in front of his lips to signal, “Shh…” Again he winked; like always, expecting to be forgiven.

Later, the same blonde disappeared into a side bedroom with the brother, though I assumed for other reasons than what I later learned. It was a Saturday night the week before Joe’s wedding and I suppose I could have gone off with one of the girls, too, after paying of course, but that’s never been my scene. But you’d think a party like that would help guys to bond. No chance. Monday morning it was business as usual, with the programmers on Joe’s team not even acknowledging me in the break room. You’d think we hadn’t done anything. Fine. I let that go, too. But I knew something they didn’t: I had been right about losing that client and the axe was gonna fall. Turns out Joe knew, too, but if he ever let on to his team he didn’t tell them in front of me. You’d think a guy who invited somebody to a party would let the same guy know when he was about to lose his job, but not Joe.

His team lost three guys. Only one of them had been at the party, and Joe got him moved into a marketing job, so he made out okay. Marketing departments are like company sponges that soak up the spillage. The other two guys hadn’t been at the party. One was a huge guy who always wore a trench coat to work, even at his desk, and never bathed. Nobody would be sad to see him go, other than to worry he might go postal. The other guy was Beau. Beau hadn’t been at the bachelor party or probably even heard about it because he was one of those guys who always goes on about Jesus in a way that gives people the creeps:

“Good morning, Beau.”

“Praise God, yes it is!”

That sort of thing. Completely nuts. Beau kept a picture of himself and his wife on his desk, both of them dressed in judo gis with—get this—honest to god crosses embroidered into the lapels. He taught judo to so-called “at risk” youths at some community center in Manchester, driving all the way up there a couple times a week to do “the Lord’s work.” I never found out what denomination he was, but I was right when I figured any tree like that, too stiff to bend in the wind, was going to snap. And snap he did, like you’d never dream.

Joe had to give the news to Beau that he’d been fired. Unknown to Joe (until later) he chose to do it right in the middle of a family crisis Mr. “Praise-Jesus” had been too private to tell us about: his wife leaving him and taking the kids with her. I guess the alimony payment wasn’t his only concern (you can massage those if you have to.) It turned out Mr. Trench Coat wasn’t the one we needed to worry about. The HR director came running out of the room where she, Joe, and Beau were exchanging bad news and screamed, “Help! He’s killing him!”

Most people who work with computers aren’t used to actually reacting physically—they send a tweet or put up angry blog posts when they’re agitated—but the big smelly trench coat guy (who hadn’t gotten his own bad news yet) sprinted across the common area of low-walled cubicles and into the meeting room before most of the rest of us knew what was happening. Everyone except Jeana, that is. She was right on his heels and probably kept him from hurting Beau too much. Turns out Beau had Joe on the floor in some kind of judo death grip and only a guy as big as Stinky would have been able to pull him off. He picked up Beau and slammed him against the wall, knocking the air and the fight out of him at once. Beau slid to the floor in a heap, where he remained, crying, until the cops came for him. Meanwhile, Jeana half-carried Joe out of the room, his arm around her shoulder. (That’s when I started following her, figuring something was up between them, but you knew that.)

Joe didn’t press charges, so Beau was out of jail within hours. I’m not sure why Joe didn’t have him locked up, but I’m guessing he was taking the opportunity to play the big man for everybody. It worked for him, too, since he got promoted soon after. (They made him my boss! Who ever heard of Quality Assurance reporting to Engineering? It’s like the fox guarding the henhouse!) But Beau’s attack gave me the opportunity I needed by providing a ready-made suspect in case Joe disappeared.

I started tailing Joe more seriously after that. At least I did once I’d cleared up the latest custody mess with my wife. She even had Harris the Coach at the hearing, who made a big show of hugging my boy—MY boy! Never mind; someday my son would know what I’d done for him. I followed Joe mostly at night, but sometimes on the weekends. I knew I couldn’t wait too long or Beau’s attack wouldn’t be in play anymore. Then after the second week I got lucky: Joe met with the stripper.

I was following him at a distance in the second car I’d bought for the purpose (I always kept it in the garage at home, never driving it to work), when Joe left early from the Press Room, his usual Thursday watering hole, and headed north on Highway 16. He got off at Exit 8 in Dover and drove the same route we’d driven after leaving the dance club for his bachelor party. Sure enough, he pulled up in front of his brother’s place. Joe went in for about an hour, then left, his clothing not fitting exactly the way it had before. I was getting ready to tail him (I’d parked down the block) when the brother came pulling up just in time to see Joe driving away. He parked his truck in the driveway, then got out and looked in the direction Joe’s car had gone for a good long time before running inside the house and slamming the door behind him. I sat there waiting to see what would happen, but after half an hour I gave it up and tried to figure out where Joe had gone. I never found him that day, but I did notice he started leaving an hour early on Thursdays after that. And instead of going to the Press Club; well, the way Mitzy had it in for me, I could never leave work early, but it wasn’t hard to figure out where Joe’s car would be parked.

*****

I cut off my dreaming as soon as the door banged open. Through the crack under the duct tape I saw my own knees and, yes, a pair of small women’s boots crossing the floor attached to a pair of slim, jeans-clad legs. Her smell was the same as earlier. Was there a chance she was working alone? If so, how did she carry me here?

“So you’re the stripper, huh?” I took a chance on my latest guess. “Your husband doesn’t mind your bump and grind routine but he gets upset at an affair with his brother?”

She stopped moving right in front of me, but didn’t answer. Looking down through the slit, I saw the water bottle in her hand, which was clad in large, men’s work gloves. My throat was burning with thirst at this point and I must have let my head follow the bottle as she moved it back and forth. I heard one quick grunt, then the bottle disappeared and I heard the sound of duct tape being pulled off a roll. As quickly as that, I was in the dark again, but not before I’d seen a confirmation of sorts on my leg: a foot-long blonde hair, of the type that belonged to each of the women I’d suspected, lay on my knee like a signed confession.

*****

The Thursday I’d decided to snatch Joe, he changed his routine. That’s what saved the stripper. I’d planned to grab him, empty out his checking accounts by as much as his ATM card would allow and then make them both disappear together (leaving his car within blocks of his brother’s house, of course). But that day he actually did go to the Press Club. The courts had changed my custody arrangements permanently by then, so my son was staying with my ex-wife, even though he knows he’s supposed to stay with me during the week. But since the arrangement left me free on Thursdays I’d delayed fighting it.

The problem was, since he was about to disappear, I couldn’t follow him into the bar and risk being seen with him. It also didn’t seem safe to be on the street since Jeana and some of the others often came here after work, too. I considered calling Joe’s cell phone to lure him out, but dismissed the idea as likely to leave a trail. Instead, I figured I’d meet him at his next stop: his brother’s house.

I went ahead and drove up to Dover again, then waited on a side street where I had a view of the main avenue approaching the side street where the stripper and brother lived. From there I could be sure to see Joe without being seen. Trouble was he never came. It was nearly eight o’clock when I gave it up as a loss. The brother was home by then and the picture window showed me a scene of domestic tranquility worthy of Norman Rockwell, if he’d made a habit of painting the home life of strippers. I turned the engine over and drove back to Portsmouth to find Joe.

It turned out he was at home. I found his car parked in front of the house he’d bought with his wife a couple months before their wedding. It was in the gentrified part of old town and needed paint but not much else. The kind of place DINKs buy when they turn thirty and decide to get married and immediately have babies. I sat behind the wheel of my secret car in the dark wondering what to do when the slam of a screen door brought me to attention. Yet another short blonde woman, looking similar to Jeana and the stripper, walked down the stairs. Joe definitely had a “type” he went for. Then I recognized her as Joe’s wife, whom I’d followed a bit as well before I learned about his affair. She walked down their front steps with two miniature dachshunds on leather leashes. At the bottom of the steps she pulled the hood of her sweatshirt up over her shoulder-length blonde hair. Then she did what I’d always seen her do: looked furtively up the steps before pulling out a pack of cigarettes, lighting one and continuing down the block with the doglettes.

I’d been cautious, even meticulous, up to that point, but as they say “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” If I was ever gonna live free of the threat of Joe’s dream, he was gonna have to die, and now was the time. I grabbed the pillowcase with the padlock in it that I always carry under the driver’s seat, crossed the street and swept up the stairs in a motion like one smooth golf swing, pulled open the unlocked door and entered. Joe had his back to me, watching TV on the couch in the living room.

“Forget something, hon?” he crooned without turning his head. I swung the pillow case twice to build up speed then extended my arm and hit him full strength with the padlock just behind his right ear. He crumpled over at once, out cold. I’d lucked out twice: catching him unaware and subduing him without blood. There’d be a bump on his head, but not a spot of red had dripped onto the couch.

I turned off the television, grabbed his wallet and keys off the small desk on the other side of the room, and then pushed the button on my own keys to open my car’s trunk. The street had been dark so I took a chance and walked quickly down the steps back to my own car, tossing Joe’s unconscious form into the trunk before slamming it shut. Driving away, I thought I caught sight of the wife and little mutts coming back, but I’d learned that whenever she was sneaking cigarettes she kept walking for awhile to get rid of the scent.

*****

I woke up suddenly when it hit me: cigarettes. I could smell those, too. Faintly to be sure, but there had definitely been a hint of their smell on her gloved fingers when my captor applied more duct tape to my face. Could Joe’s wife have captured me? It had been weeks since Joe had vanished. The police had questioned everyone at work, but they’d never even come to my house. I had been certain I wasn’t a suspect, but certainty was hard to maintain at the moment.

It was Sunday night. Or was it Monday morning already? Either way, I wouldn’t have to wait long to learn who’d grabbed me. Maybe nobody would miss me over the weekend, but my employer had to call the cops when I didn’t show up. (But would they? I’d gotten notice soon after Joe’s promotion—I had been given a month to train him to do my job, too, then I was out. Even after he disappeared, Mitzy hadn’t asked me to stay.)

The cigarette smell was the key. Had I been talking to Joe’s widow, calling her a stripper? Or was it Jeana? She smoked when she drank, and she’d known about the dream, hadn’t she? Another blonde in Joe’s life of blondes. I’m normally perceptive about things like smell. For instance I remember after my wife left, the smell of her lingering on the pillow and sheets for months afterward until I finally changed them.

*****

I drifted into sleep again. In the dream I was in the water looking towards the rocky beach on Odiorne Point where I saw Joe. I called to him, but he didn’t hear me. He just kept walking, with my son beside him, and my wife following hand-in-hand with Harris. No one heard me calling for help.

The door opened and I jerked awake, realizing I’d been yelling. A hand grabbed the side of my head and ripped away a strip of duct tape, then another, and another until I could see her there before me.

“You.”

“Me.”

And suddenly the latest dream made sense. And I understood why my assailant had been able to get into my house to lie in wait for me without breaking the door or opening a window: she’d had a key.

“But why? And when did you start smoking again?”

“Smok—Why?!? Because you’re insane! Because Harris and I have been following you for months as you stake out strangers’ houses and follow strippers around. Did you decide to stalk women who look just like me or was that just coincidence? What are you, another Boston strangler? Don’t answer that. It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to harm our son, no—MY son—anymore.”

“What?” Again, I was falling into that stunned silence that had kept me from confronting Joe at the moment he first insulted and threatened me. “This is about our son? But, you’ve already sued for full custody. The restraining order—”

“Restraining orders aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. You’ve taught me that. But this way the boy doesn’t have to know what a sick puppy you are. You can just… go away.”

“But everything I’ve done—I did for him! I’ve protected him in ways you can’t imagine! In ways you CAN’T DREAM OF!”

“I’m sorry,” she said as Harris the Coach, her live-in boyfriend, appeared in the doorway behind her carrying a hang-up bag of the kind you carry suits in on airplanes. I realized it was one of mine. My ex-wife pulled a small-caliber handgun from her pocket; then checked the cylinder and popped it back into place with a soft click the sounded like thunder. “I’m sorry, but I won’t spend the rest of my life having nightmares about you.”

She didn’t ask, but if she had, I could have told her that some dreams never die.

 

Tripping Reincarnation

by Jeff Tikari

 

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

The maids quietly backed away, bowing respectfully.

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up or I’ll beat you up!”

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” asked Mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

“No, sir, I am not.”

“Where did you learn the art of combat?”

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Read, I said he can read.”

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

*****

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

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

“What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikas stood, holding his aching shoulder.

*****

“What happened to your shoulder?” Aphsara asked.

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

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

“You were practicing how to strain your shoulder?”

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

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

“God forbid!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

“Thanks.”

“What were you doing, anyway?”

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

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

“I’ll whistle for them to follow us.”

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

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

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

“Do you know swordsmanship?”

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

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

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

*****

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

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

“Soon, Princess, very soon.”

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

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

“Then come here and kiss me.”

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

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

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

Salim bowed low and salaamed her.

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

His father looked at him and beckoned him near.

“He is you in every detail!”

“He is me. And I am he!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You will kill yourself?”

“Maybe… so be it!”

*****

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

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

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

Vikas was watching him with large wide-open eyes.

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

*****

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

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

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

“Hello, Dipti.”

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

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

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

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

“We were kids, then.”

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

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

*****

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

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

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

Vikas smiled at her.

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

Vikas again smiled at her.

“Are you going to your parents’ house?”

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

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

“No, I’m his brother.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name, by the way?”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Would you like some tea?”

*****

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

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

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

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

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

Salim walked desultorily to the kitchen.

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

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

*****

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

“Are you sleepy?” asked Dipti.

“No.”

“Okay, let’s talk.”

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

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

*****

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

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

Two can play the same game!

 

A Girl’s First Time

by Elizabeth Stephens

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna scowled so hard it hurt.

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

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

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

“What?” Lauren said, lips pursed.

“What.”

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

Jenna pouted. “Why can’t I do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna shook her head.

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

“Now?” Jenna’s voice was strained.

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

*****

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

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

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

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

“What?” Jenna said bluntly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it work?”

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

Jenna rolled her eyes. “No.”

“Then I guess we’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s too bad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Jenna said, slightly shaken.

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to go, sluts.

You ready, love?

Jenna turned back to face Lauren and nodded.

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

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

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

“I’m not so sure,” Jon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

 

The Bishop’s Funeral Procession: An Anchor Tale

by Patrick Glancy

 

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

 

I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

I could only roll my eyes.

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

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

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

“Just whip ’em again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was not entirely accurate however.

Behind me, the bishop coughed.

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost where?” I dared to ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fall guy? For what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What in god’s name is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Key and the Orange

by Rhys Schrock

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you think?” I ask Freddie.

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

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

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

“What?”

“The circus is in town.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just to talk.”

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

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

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

“We’ll just hang out here,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You still on about that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What’s In A Name?

by Bruce Graham

 

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

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

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

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

“June, I believe,” said the leader.

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

“The father would have not been named.”

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

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

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

“That’s it.”

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

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

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

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

The priest located the marriage records for 1842.

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

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

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

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

The man leaned, nodded. “That’s it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“But the man wants to be legitimate.”

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

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

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

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

The man shook his head.

“Where is this Alois?”

“He is in the Imperial service.”

This was more serious. “What service?”

“Customs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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