Old Soldiers Never Die

Old Soldiers Never Die

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Robert E. Waters

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rina hesitated. “What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Watch your step!”

“Do you mind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are a traitor,” Petre said.

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

“Yes. Regan’s treachery was profound.”

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

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

“Do you miss him?”

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

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

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

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

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

She wanted to cry too.

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rina’s mouth popped open. “You know?”

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

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

“I know everything, child.”

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

“You doubt me?”

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

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

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

“So can you help me?” Rina said.

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

Rina nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rina kissed him lightly on the head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, brother.”

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

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

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

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

Regan nodded. “As do you… brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have not, little one.

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

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

No, Rina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stopped running. Come back, Father!

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

I miss you too, little one.

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

“Captain Petre!”

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

“How are you, sir?” she asked.

I am well.

“And Binus? Regan?”

All is well, child.

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

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

He shook his head. No, child.

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

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

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

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

She sat eating… and remembered.

 

Trademark: A Tragedy™

Trademark: A Tragedy

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Scott D. Coon

 

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

Beep.

They break into three different aisles.

Beep.

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

Beep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Burglar fires a warning shot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you heard that one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Labowski, Esq., tearfully recited:

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

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

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

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

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

“Argh!”

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

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

Weak and confused, The Burglar tosses them the solvent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trademark: A Tragedy

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

 

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Helen Lloyd Montgomery

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Going up, Sal?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t close it behind you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Weapons testing in the sixties!” Sal cried.

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

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

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

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

He thought for a minute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned at ’em.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no! My new lamp!”

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

“My apartment! My things!”

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

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

“Thank god!” Sal cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They thought they had me on the run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alien Abduction

Alien Abduction

Illustration by Matt McIrvin

by Lucy Arnold

 

This is why I believe in aliens:

The possibility of being sucked into the sky
to be probed
Is part of what makes life meaningful
Because if human beings are interesting enough
that some aliens need to probe them,
If human beings are that complicated
and require that kind of study

Then people obviously
aren’t as simple as I suspect
They aren’t as easy to figure out
(i.e. evil, greedy, close-minded, violent, miserable)
as I think.

That’s what I hope
and that’s why I’m willing to sit around and wait,
Hoping that I’ll be abducted by aliens,
a scenario that would be

Bad for me,
Good for mankind.

 

Dear Cthulhu: Issue #18

DearCthulhuLogo

 

Dear Cthulhu,

My wife is a huge racing fan. She was that way when I married her but lately things have changed for the worse. She’s given herself the nickname “Speedy” and insists the kids and I call her that. She pretends like she can’t hear us if we don’t. Whenever we go somewhere, Speedy insists on driving. It’s not that I mind being chauffeured, it’s that she drives like she’s on a track. She’ll do upward of 80 MPH in a 30 zone. Speedy’s been pulled over a dozen times, but gets out of a ticket every time because her dad is the chief of police and her mom is a local judge.

I’ve tried to get her to go for counseling, but that only made it worse because the therapist made her get in touch with her inner driver. Now she will only turn left, which makes getting off a highway dangerous. Forget about local driving—we live in a part of New Jersey where they make you go right to go left. The bottom line is that we have three kids and I worry about their safety, especially when I go to work and leave them with their mother.

Worse still, she’s out in our garage souping up our minivan with nitrous oxide boosters. She bought a racing jumpsuit and a helmet, which she wears when she drives. Speedy painted a number on the sides of our minivan. That would be the least of it if I didn’t have to put up with the snickers and rude comments from the neighborhood guys, which wouldn’t even have been an issue if she had chosen any other number but 69.

The very worst part of it is she splits up all her errands. Instead of going to the grocery store, hair salon and auto parts store in one trip, she stops at the house in between each and expects me and the kids to act as her pit crew. The cost in tires in the past week was more than my last paycheck. When I talked to her about it, Speedy told me not to worry, that we’ll only have to pay for the tires until she lands a sponsor like Greatday or Hotrock Tires. Then she hit me with a tire iron when I suggested that since she wasn’t a real racer that might not happen and that it wasn’t safe to have the kids work on the car. Our three-year-old cut his hand and needed stitches after using the power impact wrench to take off the lug nuts and the eight-year-old went up like a Roman candle after the racing gas can backed up and dosed him and a spark set him on fire. Luckily I instantly doused him with the racing fire extinguisher Speedy keeps near the car, but he still lost all the hair on his arms and both eyebrows.

I’m at my wit’s end. If I leave her, her dad will make my life miserable and if I try to get custody of the kids, her mom will make sure whatever judge I get gives them to her. I’ve thought about cutting her brake lines, but I’m too worried I’ll get caught and I couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t have the kids in the car with her when the brakes fail. What can I do?

–Married To A Racest

 

Dear Married,

Once again, Cthulhu must state that humans should not kill humans. That pleasure is reserved for Cthulhu alone. I suggest first trying medication. If you can’t get a local physician to prescribe for your wife, maybe for you. Many humans seem to care less while on narcotics. There are several internet sites that will help you out, whether you decide to medicate yourself or your spouse. Of course, you will have to research which medication you feel will work the best and not have bad side effects. Without any medical background this will be a challenge, dangerous, and also fun.

I also recommend feeding into her psychosis. Find a local stock car race league and have her join. It is possible that racing for real may decrease her desire to pretend to race. And work hard to convince her that driving on the side decreases her potency on race day. Make up quotes to that effect from racers she admires and post them on the web under another name as if they are news, then show them to her as if you found them.

As for protecting your offspring, mention to her that most sponsors follow child labor laws, at least in their factories in the Untied States, so using child labor will hurt her chances of landing a sponsorship deal. Of course, that will leave you a one-man pit crew. If she stays in the car, use the power tool to make noises and move around like you are really changing the tires after spraying something foamy on her rear view mirrors so she can’t see. Wipe it off only after you are done. This should save your back and your tire bill.

Have A Dark Day.

 

Dear Cthulhu welcomes letters and questions at DearCthulhu@dearcthulhu.com. All letters become the property of Dear Cthulhu and may be used in future columns. Dear Cthulhu is a work of fiction and satire and is © and ™ Patrick Thomas. All rights reserved. Anyone foolish enough to follow the advice does so at their own peril.