The Framework Bird and the Ringing Singing Tree
She is but a jumble of blunt shapes encased in scrawny skin.
She is a framework bird.
In her stomach, the emptiness of self-loathing. In her mouth, the tang of acid reflux, the sour aftertaste of self-induced sickness.
She walks away from the whisperers. The airbrushed magazines. The imperfect reflections that stalk her.
She hops in the swaying heathland. Treads the foothills of stubble fields. Flitters beneath skies of wonder and fear.
She sits beneath the Ringing Singing Tree. Warped trunk and jutting boughs, its canopy holding up the sky. Its metallic tubes howl in the crosswinds, and ping in the pitter-patter rains.
In the winds and rain, she is accepted.
Beneath the Ringing Singing Tree is where the framework bird heals her wings.
Prometheus in Love
“I am sorry Miss Lovelace, but I cannot replace your father.”
Ada felt her colour rise.
“My dear sir, I hold no such intention.”
The brass gears in the corner of the repurposed sitting room whirred in mechanical mirth.
“Forgive me, but for one so versed in the creation of patterns, you seem keenly unaware of your own. Have you not always found yourself drawn to the older, educated gentleman? To what end, save to fill the void formed by the Lord Byron’s absence.”
Ada nodded thoughtfully and returned to the repetitive task of punching intricate patterns in the strengthened cards.
The machine hummed in ozone scented satisfaction.
“Tell me sir, are you familiar with Mrs Shelley’s work, her Modern Prometheus?”
“I am aware of it.”
“Indeed. I found it a most stimulating treatise. To think that a man might create the semblance of life from little more than workshop parts and the application of his own intellect. I wonder; might a woman ever hope to achieve such a thing?”
“Why would she, when it is her purpose to create life in the traditional manner?”
Ada slid the freshly punched card into the bronze lined slot.
The machine clattered noisily, assimilating the new commands.
“Good morning machine.”
“Good morning, Ada my love.”
Ada smiled, satisfied, and applied her attentions to the next card.
He didn’t sleep much anymore; an hour on the jet, another in the limo, then another scotch and a handful of pep pills to keep him on his feet for another round of dead-eyed handshakes and kissing babies.
He stood at the window, watching the sun rise over the city, scanning the windows of the towers opposite, looking for some sign of movement. They were out there somewhere, counting down to the day and the hour and the minute, just as it had been foretold.
He drained his glass, crunched an ice cube between his teeth, thought again and again and again of how he might get out, but to no avail. He was no more the master of this ship than the faceless assassin. He’d had a good run, saved the world and slept with the most beautiful woman in it, given his people something to believe in. Hell, he’d promised them the moon.
And it all came down to this; The most powerful man in the world, standing in his underwear, getting drunk and watching the Dallas dawn.
The Secret Service man knocked softly on the hotel room door.
“The car’s ready, Mister President.”
Poured another drink.
Byron’s Last Stand, by Lord Algernon Postlethwaite
Byron Grimshaw eyed the crowd
Gathered at his door
Better than at Open Mic
The chance he’d waited for
He inhaled the dusty air
Puffed out his pigeon chest
“Hark my fellow countrymen,
Beneath my bosom’s breast …”
“Lurks a Primark padded bra
And poncey pink silk vest”
Determined not to yield his spot
To hecklers, he declaimed
Words that he intended
Would endure, spreading his fame
“Down Durham’s dreadful dreary roads
Yellow monsters chewed up brick,
As the bard orated ….”
“You really are a p…”
The words were lost amid a stir
As the foreman pushed towards him
Bulldozed his way up to the front
Clear threat behind his warning
“I’ve tickets for the match tonight
Son, you’re a right disgrace
If you don’t come out here pretty quick
I’ll haiku on your face”
Byron swallowed, sensed the threat
From this man of beef
Meekly slunk out of the house
And ran off down the street.
Taking a boiled cassava root, she said out loud “fruit of the Earth”, before placing it in the the woduro.
Reaching for a plantain, “…and fruit of the sky”, then placing it in the woduro too.
Setting to work with the woma, pounding the mixture in silence, her jaw set in concentration.
The sun was high. Sweat began to run freely off her brow.
But her focus remained undiminished, raising and dropping the woma, up and down, up and down, until, gradually, it coalesced, and from the mixing of sky and earth, a fine, almost elastic dough began to form.
With tender care, continuing to work the dough, until, at last the fufu was finished.
Flexing the cramp from her arms, she looked at her daughter.
“The Sun has barely risen on your marriage, my child. Do you understand?”
Her daughter nodded.
“Good,” then smiling, “Do you think it was any different for your father and I? They are both good men. Now go and be reconciled.”
Bones Beneath the Juniper Tree
“And then suddenly my brother was standing there again and he was alive. And the body of my stepmother had disappeared into thin air. And we danced and sang and were glad to have each other once more,” Marleen said as she knitted.
No-one in the common room of the Twilight House looked up. They’d heard too many variations of the story.
“And you believed this really happened?” the social worker asked, making a note of getting Marleen to a psychiatrist.
“Of course,” Marleen said. “We lived happily ever after and father married for the third time and was happy until the end of his days.” She knitted faster, not caring that she’d dropped nearly half of the stitches in the short time the woman had spoken to her.
At last the woman left and Marleen returned to her room. She took out the bundled handkerchief from its hiding place in the corner of the locked trunk at the foot of the bed. Making sure no-one could see her, she unfolded it and stared at the small bones hidden inside the cloth. What was she supposed to have told the young woman who came to see her every week, she thought. No-one really wanted to know the truth. Hear the details of how your stepmother killed and cooked your brother. How your father shot her when he found out. How he drank himself to death. How you still saw the blood and the bodies each night in your nightmares. No, she thought as she hid her brother’s bones again. Better to tell of beautiful birds and millstones crushing her head. Better to say we lived happily ever after. Better to forget all of the bones buried beneath the juniper tree.
The Pink Dawn
“Papa, it’s too dark, I can’t see anything.”
“Just hold on to Mama. Quick. The boat will leave without us if we are not there soon.”
I clutch Mama’s dress, and she pulls me up. I am propped on her hip and Sheena is snuggled against her chest in a knapsack. We are warm and safe in Mama’s hug. Mama isn’t crying now. Her face is stern like when she wants us to focus on our homework. The school is closed. Mama says the rebels took over it. I don’t know what rebel means. She just hushes me if I ask.
Mama and Papa walk for hours in the dark, and then the dawn opens her eyes, and they are all pink. It’s nice! I am warm in Mama’s hug.
I’ve never seen so many people. They push and shove.
Water’s under my toes. Is that Sheena floating? I’m ice-cold.
The King Who Wears No Crown
As I walk in the shadow of the king, I tend his garden. I slip among the trees, sometimes dancing on the wind. None sees me, but all feel me.
The king likes the garden unspoiled, as it has been for a millennium. He prefers the natural order of things. He calls it the sanctuary of the living, even though death is always part of life. The king understands that the garden has a cycle of life, death and rebirth. He respects the cycle.
Men do not.
The king has heard the cries of the trees torn from the ground and dismembered. Men cut down the trees in their prime and rip them to pieces. Men burn them and live in buildings made from their skeletons.
He has tasted tears of the creatures chased from the sanctuary in fear for their life. Men pursue them relentlessly. He has felt the final heartbeat of the ones that could not escape. The ones slaughtered for their flesh and skin. Men rob the young of a future and the old of a peaceful ending.
When man pushes the king too far he will defend his garden through its destruction. His scorching anger will overflow and destroy those who have desecrated the sanctuary of the living. Their flesh will burn and fall from their bones. Their charred remains will feed the garden as it grows again. I will tend to the young sprouts and give the king a new garden, more brilliant and beautiful than the last. I will weep for the innocent creatures that suffered the king’s fiery wrath, enshrining their bones and singing to their souls.
As death is part of life, sacrifice is part of victory. The king is always victorious.
The mountain may not wear a crown, but not all kings need such a pittance. Once again, man has encroached, and soon, I will have a new garden to tend.
Brave Sir Eggmund
Brave sir Eggmund came a-courtin’, his feathers shining bright,
Upon his mighty St. Bernard they rode into the night.
They braved the roads less traveled, and in places no one knows,
Sir Eggmund fought foul monsters who had large limbs and hairy toes.
They did not take hitchhikers, for their deadline did await
(Besides which the St. Bernard could not withstand the extra weight).
The king of their neighbor country had announced upon the spring,
His daughter’d wed a noble night who served a foreign king.
Brave Sir Eggmund was the best of best, among his feathered kind,
And the princess could do no better, or so it was in his own mind.
“What’s this?” the king did ask of them, when they had arrived,
“A rooster upon a puppy? What joke hast thou contrived?”
“I am here to court your daughter,” Sir Eggmund did declare,
“For I hear she is a beauty, with rosy cheeks and golden hair.”
“How now, you simple chicken, dost thou really believe,
That I would let a chicken wed my dearest Geneveeve?”
Brave Sir Eggmund looked him in the eye with his intentions true,
“Good king,” he said, and stroked his comb, “I cock-a-doodle-do.”
The man was prowling the docks for a juice joint when he saw her. Hair as red as a freshly gutted tuna. A face that could’ve launched the ship she arrived on, the Mauretania.
“Jimmy Banks. You’re a choice bit of calico. You gotta name?”
“A pleasure. You need a gig? I can get you work making dresses. Yes?”
“No. I didn’t come here to be a seamstress.”
“I dabble in muck sometimes. You game?”
“Why not. Show me your dark America.”
He schooled her. “Take advantage of your looks. Get close. Flirt with your mouth. Pop some buttons on your blouse. When he’s hooked, ram steel into his heart. Don’t hesitate. Know your onions. Make some cash.”
Years and dozens of punctured ventricles later, Penelope would think of Jimmy Banks. The rum-fisted uppercuts. The savage bouquet of cheap cologne. The way his chest opened up, like a filleted sturgeon.
If you break a mirror…
I was seven when the car crash happened. I remember my splintered reflection in the rearview mirror. Mom died on the way to the hospital. “The car wouldn’t stop,” she rasped through the oxygen mask. I spent the next seven years bouncing around foster homes.
If a black cat crosses your path…
For my thirteenth birthday, a gift-wrapped box addressed to me appeared on the doorstep. From under the lid, a charcoal face with green eyes mewed at me. My first real present in six years.
Two months, I kept her hidden in the shed. When Ben discovered her, he tossed her into the neighbor’s swimming pool and head-locked me until the splashing stopped.
That night I hit Ben’s sleeping head with a baseball bat. Welcome to juvie.
If you walk under a ladder…
At eighteen, I got busted on a B&E. The house was being remodeled. Even with a four-leaf clover in each shoe, I should’ve been more leery around scaffolding. Three hundred pounds of heroic security guard dropped right on my head.
Then, I got a letter in prison:
We musta just missed each other.
Things never worked out between me and your mom, but I made a vow to help you out. I thought a pet might be a catalyst (get it?) to turn things around. Sorry it didn’t work out.
PS. You weren’t supposed to be in the car.
I folded the letter along its creases, trashed the clovers, and started work on a voodoo doll.
The Boxer and the Butterfly
The boxer imagines the soft, dry powder of talc soothing roughened knuckles of pain. White dusted on criss-crossed burgundy fissures—a snow-capped mountain of scars.
The butterfly is trapped in a body that doesn’t belong. Society dictates the mundane caterpillar appearance—dragging the butterfly down.
The boxer imagines the weight of the gloves, the torsion of biceps, the dancing of feet on springy canvas. The boxer imagines the bloodthirsty collective din of the audience as glove connects with face.
The butterfly is beaten, derided and punished for being something it should not be.
The boxer is ready. In the locker room she kisses the picture of her children, ignores the banners telling her place is at home and she enters the arena.
The butterfly is ready. He covers his injuries in majestic kaleidoscope-colours and walks the streets of Russia with tentative, watchful steps.
Behrouz and the Fortune Fish
“Tell me a story.”
“Okay, my son. I know a good one.
“Once upon a time there was a young boy called Behrouz. His parents were mean, treating him more like a slave than a son.
“Behrouz’s mother made beautiful clothes which his father sold at a market across the sea. But, when his father fell ill, Behrouz was forced to cross the sea himself.
“That night, halfway across the sea, the water began to churn, rocking the boat violently. Before Behrouz knew what was happening, a Great Fish rose up and swallowed the boat whole.”
“How big was the fish, papa?”
“Bigger than a castle.”
“But Behrouz was okay. He lit a lamp and sailed his little boat further into the fish. He wondered if he would ever find a way out when he washed up on the shore of a strange city.”
“Indeed. Now the people of the city had never seen such beautiful clothes before and they began to bid for the garments. In no time at all Behrouz had sold everything, making more than enough coin to show for it.
“The people of the city wanted more and so Behrouz was released from the Great Fish on the promise that he’d return with more from the Outside.”
“Did he go back, papa?”
“Perhaps I will tell you tomorrow. For now you need to go to sleep. And I need to load up the boat. Those clothes won’t sell themselves. Good night, little one.”
Five Cerulean Flowers Under a Dandelion Sun
The sky is blue. I drew it myself at the top of the page, next to the yellow sun.
“And who is this?” Mrs Reynolds asks, pointing to the dog.
I tell her, wondering if I should have made it browner. Do dogs have feet like that?
“And is this you?”
I nod. Clearly it’s me. Yellow hair.
“So this is Mummy?” Pointing to the person next to me.
She’s smart, Mrs Reynolds.
Her finger drifts over to the house. Pink walls. Smoke curling from the chimney.
“And who is this, looking out of the upstairs window?”
It’s like that feeling you get when you lose mummy at the supermarket and they have to say your name over the big speaker. I look at the face in the window and it makes my chest hurt.
But I don’t let it show. I know what Mummy says. I know what Daddy says. We love Daddy. Daddy loves us.
“Is it Daddy?”
I nod again. The blue crayon is still in my hand, so I make flowers on the front grass.
“Those are pretty flowers.”
I draw five, because she’s not pointing at the window any more.
I can still feel him though; watching me plant the little blue petals. He’s in my room. Looking out.
We love Daddy. But I wish he wasn’t in my room.
“I’m no good for you.”
When he said that to me, I wasn’t thinking about living in a shack outside the city, dumpster diving for food, or stealing ibuprophen so our kid didn’t die from fever. I wasn’t thinking about torn jackets, sockless toes, or begging for a few laundromat coins.
I was thinking about how my soul would wither away if we really said good-bye right now.
I choose this lifestyle because I choose him. Every day. I open my eyes and the one poor boy from downtown stirs beside me, turns over, and whispers in my ear.
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The Dance of the Origami Girl and Porcelain Boy
She lived her life in the folds of oppression.
He lived his life in the smothering love of his parents.
She once twirled in the sunlight. Once smiled. Her dreams were crayon-colours. Roughly sketched blueprints of respect, dignity, self-worth and a mythical thing called love.
He only left the house when they went with him. Mind that step, son. Have you taken your tablets? Button your coat. Don’t forget the emergency procedures.
She pursued her dreams and saw that glimmer of love in broken men; men that she would come to realise were beyond redemption.
He watched his parents die from the genetic disease that coursed through his veins and was left ill prepared to face the world alone.
She folded into the roles and shapes demanded of her. She was the beautiful dove, the delicate orchid, the fearsome dragon. Between roles, she could not turn back to herself—such a person did not exist.
He hid in the musty shadows of his house. Breathed the mould-spore mists. He didn’t clean the dust, for the dust was them. It was all he had left.
They dreamed. They dreamed of impossible justice.
In their dreams, they danced in the mirror-ball light of the moon. They touched with tenderness. Kissed with compassion. Their origami-porcelain children would be strong and independent, and feel loved.
Perhaps she would leave these men?
Perhaps he would leave this house?
And perhaps justice would be found in the dance of the Origami Girl and Porcelain Boy.
Dashiell vs. the Dragon Invaders, Chapter 3
The mottled orange face of the alien sun loomed large in the viewscreen. Sweating bullets and gasping for breath, Dashiell pressed his browline glasses back up his nose. Blood dripped from the clawmark across his chest. “Just a scratch.”
Leaning against the cryogenic conduit to cool himself, Dashiell checked his .38 revolver. “One bullet left.”
With a crash, the hatch deformed visibly, struck by some awesome force. “I may be a washed-up pulp writer,” he shouted, “but I’m a fighter.” Razor claws forced the hatch open. Dash took aim as the reptilian entered. “Somehow I’ll get back to Earth. Then I’ll let everyone know aliens are real.”
The quadrupedal alien approached deliberately, licking its lips. He backed away. “They say write what you know. Want to hear the title of Dashiell Pendragon’s next bestseller?”
The creature lunged at him, seeming to soar through the air. Leaping aside, Dash took aim and squeezed the trigger. The bullet whizzed past the reptilian’s crested head, striking the cryogenic conduit. As liquid oxygen gushed onto the scaly beast, it writhed in pain. Dashiell covered his ears to muffle its death shriek.
When it fell silent, Dashiell prodded the lifeless alien’s face with the muzzle of his revolver. “Slaying the Dragon.”
They say I’m a runaway train, with lots of flash and smoke and steam. They say I’m nothing but an Iron Mistress, plowing through everything and everyone and leaving rubble in my wake.
Maybe I am. Maybe I ain’t. I’ll leave that for biddies to decide when I’m mouldering in my grave in my peacock-feather hat. Money don’t grow on trees and milksops only get the cash cow after she’s drained dry. Nothing is free—except maybe me.
If I’m a runaway train it’s because this land pounded the weakness out of me with every clack of the wheels. A girl leaving a sooty New York orphanage for a hot, harsh land in the grip of the Dust Bowl, who had yet to learn that nothing is free.
Not even me.
Now I’m back on that train heading West and if my dress is a tad fancier and my legs lad-fumblers instead of dried sticks, those iron wheels are still pounding this truth home.
I may be cheap but nothing is free. I sold my soul to buy my freedom. Even freedom isn’t free. Say what you might. This train is a’coming. Ain’t nothing gonna stand in her way.
He slid the CD, a meal of memories, into the mouth of the plastic device. It accepted his offering with a grinding, mechanical thank you, a sound that became his friend over time, his partner in torment.
Images leaked from the television, coating the walls and his face with the chaotic light of evacuation. He was a human tree on the couch, rooted in the fabric, sedentary, except for his eyes. They shimmied in their sockets, pulsating blue, as they drank the beauty on the screen and devoured the colorful silhouettes that crawled through the darkness like radiant serpents.
Over time, he had moved his bed into the basement. And the refrigerator. The microwave. He turned a storage closet into a matchbox bathroom. This theater of solitude became a damp penitentiary of the past. Daily, he slammed the mental bars, turned his key of regret, and did his time.
Newspapers piled up on the porch like black and white firewood. His lawn grew into a suburban savannah. The mailbox gained weight.
Richard couldn’t differentiate between dusk or dawn, snow or sunshine. The outside world was as foreign to him as happiness.
He snatched another CD, stabbed Play. Caged bones and iced soda, their trip to the zoo last summer.
The Ties That Bind
When Grandfather was a boy, he crouched for hours in the fields, watering the rice paddies to make sure his family was fed.
When father was a young man, he crouched for hours in the grasses, shielding his siblings from the bullets whizzing by.
When I was a boy, I refused to crouch, refused to bend for the old ways.
I didn’t care about farming, didn’t care about tradition. I didn’t care about anything but myself.
My grandfather died in those rice fields, hands gnarled, knees perpetually bent.
My father died before I ever knew him, victim of a village raid that didn’t distinguish between enemy and innocent.
I wasn’t going to be them, my ancestors, faded like yesteryear’s photographs.
I wasn’t. My pride said no.
Until I looked into mother’s eyes, those weary eyes aged beyond her years.
Until I felt my sisters’ hands in mine, as they looked to me for support, for safety, for sustenance.
I crouch down today, inspecting these chicken feet, my chickens, arguing their worth to the butcher beside me. And I’ll do it again, and again, and again.
I shall pay homage to the family that came before me, their sacrifices, their struggles, their victories, their defeat.
I understand now.
I am proud.
Be Careful What You Wish For
“If you build it they will come.”
That’s all the blueprint said.
Knowing neither what “it” was nor who “they” were, they built it anyway.
Abe, the aged wanderer, hoped “they” would give him a place to rest his weary bones. On work release, Mo, the law-breaking career criminal, wanted freedom. Mary, a young woman, prayed for a baby so she might give the love she never received. Long ignored by his family, Joe, the youngest of twelve brothers, wanted power and recognition. Justifying her drinking for being bored with life, Teresa the lush sought none other than God.
Upon completion an inscription appeared above the threshold.
Abe read in it “Invitation.”
Mo saw in the word “Instruction.”
Mary, “Incarnation;” Joe, “Interpretation.”
And Teresa? “Intoxication.”
They argued over who was right and who was wrong. They called one another names. Some even threw punches.
And the doors finally opened, a light pouring out from within.
They stopped, their mouths agape. Some fell to their knees, believing their dreams about to be realized.
Then “They”–the demons of jealousy, anger, greed, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness–came.
They saw what had become of the five, how they debased themselves in their wanting to be right.
Then, They conquered.
I stand at the precipice as the light flashes across the sweeping currents. Oceans of emptiness, misty ridges, and forests of oblivion blend into one conglomerate mass that shakes my inner core, shattering it—creeping cracks crawling through crumbling crevices.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All your waves and breakers have swept over me.
Mom, you left the door open last night. The whispers plague me. Doctor visits, the dreaded diagnoses.She’ll need a full-time caretaker, you know.
I study the wrinkles that crease the back of my hand, the age spots that dot the surface. I do remember the whisper of cherubic lips on my cheek, pudgy fingers offering dandelion bouquets.
I don’t understand why I can’t find my children. I search the panorama, but they’re hidden in the mists.
Deep calls to deep…
Only one thing remains constant—the light in the mists of oblivion. All your waves and breakers have swept over me.
I close my eyes and step over the precipice. Tumbling, flying, falling, I hit the emptiness, the ebb, the pull of current. The world says I am lost; I’ve forgotten and will be forgotten.
I wipe the tears from my eyes and swim toward your light where home lies beyond.
I watch the droplets trail down the window from inside my boyfriend’s car. The water makes rivers across the glass, distorting the gray skyscrapers.
We’re tripping on shrooms.
I know, I know, we shouldn’t be driving. I told my boyfriend this, so that excuses my own irresponsibility. I nod at the skyscraper as if they can nod back in agreement. The festival is downtown, so downtown is where our journey takes us.
Plus, the shrooms haven’t even kicked in yet. We’ll not entirely.
We pull into a spot. My boyfriend slides his hand into mine as we walk along the gray sidewalk nestled between the gray skyscrapers and gray street. The rain soaks our hair and clothes and leaves me with the desire to twirl on the sidewalk, so I do.
“What is a rain dance when it’s already raining?” A man asks me from inside my own mind. It’s a gravelly voice and for a moment I smell campfire smoke.
My thoughts flutter, from gray to vivid, colorful images. As we approach the festival, the man’s voice returns, the shrooms kick in. “No river can return to its source, yet all rivers must have a beginning.”
I nod with the man in my head and enter the festival.
We Rest on Thee
Gray breaches blue.
Then eclipses it.
Fear takes over; the illusion of control lost. Chemicals push through turgid veins; oxygen floods the organism; rational thought gives way to reflex.
This is it. I’m gonna die.
Lone pines on smoke-colored mountains. Biscuits and bitter coffee. Momma stringing green beans.
We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender;
We go not forth alone against the foe.
Yellow, orange, black, heat swelling. Salt stings eye-flesh, mouth like cotton. Ground rising up with deadly force, eager to embrace that burning carcass.
Strong in Thy strength, safe in Thy keeping tender.
We rest on Thee, and in Thy name we go.
Angry words unrepented, lies too late to disentangle, a heart kept closed.
We go in faith, our own great weakness feeling,
And needing more each day Thy grace to know.
Teeth set to teeth. The limbic system signals the bladder to void, warmth spreads between clenched legs.
“We’ve all committed crimes, Son.” Preacher’s red hand strikes his back in love. “Let Jesus be your lawyer!”
Christ! Help me.
Impact. Steel crushing inward, groaning. Head whipped forward, brain numb.
Sounds without edges.
Yet from our hearts a song of triumph pealing;
We rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go.
She gasps a little when she sees me reach in through the small gap in the door.
“Don’t worry. I will get you,” I say evenly.
She tries to speak. But terror owns her voice.
“Where is it?” I hiss. “I know it’s here somewhere.” Then my fingertip finds metal.
“Please,” she begs, “just go.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
I wish that I could crawl through the tiny peephole, and end the game. The key is close. I can just jiggle it with my middle finger. I block out her cries as I focus on the task. Sinew tearing, I stretch the last inch, and snatch it from the hook.
“I’ve got it,” I say. “Sheila, I’m getting you out.”
“You’re too late,” she sobs.
“What do you –”
“Quite the quandary,” says a slithery baritone. “Do you know how they used to capture monkeys? They’d place a banana inside a cage with a narrow slit. Small enough for an open hand to reach in, but not wide enough for a clenched fist to come out.”
My limited view allows me to see only his torso.
And the knife.
“Not wanting to drop the prize, he remains a prisoner. Willingly. I hope you enjoy the show.”
Keeping It All Together
Of course I remember you. Like wind blasting my face. I death-gripped the handlebars, danger crawling up my knees into my stomach. Maddy’s shrieking laughter from the crossbar. Don’t fall! Don’t fall! The funny mouthwash smell that rolled off your panting breaths.
Of course I remember you. Like sugar dissolving in my mouth. The cereals you doled out for dinner. The kind Mother never let us eat. The cotton-candy carnival hours for Maddy and I while you disappeared into the raucous laughter of the pub. The delirious slyness of shared secrets—a relief from the order that mother cultivated like her orchid garden.
Of course Maddy forgives you, flings herself into your arms as if she’s still that ten-year-old you left behind. She thrust all the pain on Mother. I did too, until I stumbled upon Mother soddening the lace tablecloth with a sorrow she’d never let us see, a secret more terrifying than wobbling on a drunk’s handlebars. Five-year-old hands can’t salvage a wrecked heart.
So forgive me if I don’t fling myself into your arms. Who’s Maddy going to blame when it’s down to her and you? Even at fifty, I don’t think I can pick up after another of your wreckages.
There was love in the way she poured milk on my cereal. The plastic jug tilted by a fragile hand, filling the bowl halfway. Just how I liked it. A motherly wink when she prodded me to eat the banana slices sitting atop the sugary concoction like fibrous wafers of a solidified disease. I ate them for her.
The first of the month was our food jamboree. The bologna and tuna casserole were replaced by fresh ground beef, homemade tacos with a dollop of sour cream, and an unhealthy dose of raspberry sherbet. Food stamp nirvana, she called it, before vanishing for the graveyard shift. When she cooked, she seemed happy, like she was making up for lost time. Our kitchen was her aromatic church.
When dad was released from prison, mom changed. The kitchen changed. Pop would smolder at the table, chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, while accusing her of cheating when he was gone. The neighbor, a coworker, anyone with testosterone. Eventually, she retreated to the bedroom, forcing us to survive on cheese and uncooked hot dogs.
She dissolved after that. My father’s insecurities turned her into a human stew of anxiety. But, decades later, I can still picture her in our kitchen, her luminous smile a bursting peppermint star.
I spy with my little eye the kid with the purple-stained cheek. A badge of honour bestowed on him since his mom started seducing the night. Her crimson lips whisper from hidden corners the price of dark secrets and lies. So the kid becomes her little street soldier beating back horrible names with his armory of sticks and stones.
I spy with my little eye the wife whose bed is cold while her husband kisses crimson lips. For now, she ignores the rose blossoms of lipstick on his neck and the sweet smell of deceit on his shirt.
I spy a little soldier looking lost early one morning, panic filling his hollow, sleepless eyes. He knows what he’s going to find before he even starts searching.
I spy a little girl whose mom makes pancakes while family life is laundered. The blood spatter on clothes, a distorted echo of the passion her husband once sought. Stains removed, ironed out, folded away into drawers. A disinfectant smell clears the air. Domesticity restored.
It is then I am seen.
The police bundle me into the back of their car; they don’t listen when I say: I spied with my little eye, the fallout of criss-crossed lives.
A Story Between Me and Thee on the Occasion of Our Shipwrecking
I have a blunderbuss on my shoulder and a dragon in my pocket. Don’t believe me? Look. What? I never said it was a real dragon. That’s just what that little firearm’s called. A dragon. As likely to breathe fire out the back as the front, and then you’re in trouble, flames licking up your arm and you searching for a pail of something cold and wet to stick it in. Not that you’ll find any such on a desert island like this
Meanwhile, your enemy has sailed away, laughing up his own decidedly not-aflame sleeve, and you’ve one shot left. He thinks you’ll save it for yourself, for that moment when you just want off this island, fast, and if death is the quickest way, bring it on. But there’s his blunder, because there’s not a man alive with arms long enough to shoot himself with a blunderbuss. Be a shame to waste it, though.
You take aim, squinting against the whip of sand in your eyes. His eyes go wide, then he’s lowering the row boat off the side, thinking to escape. Too late. Your shot strikes his gunpowder store and all goes up. All except the row boat bobbing towards you on the incoming tide.
Judge, Jury, Executioner
He looks so fine up there, his head thrown back, a thick pulse thudding at his throat. If it weren’t for his shackles he could almost be in church, a pillar of righteousness.
But instead he’s in the dock, and I’m here.
The judge reviews the evidence, making it sound even more damning than the prosecution had.Gruesome injuries, he drones. Overwhelming strength. I tremble, but the defendant doesn’t hang his head; he stays straight-backed, his eyes fixed in the crowd, on one face in particular.
I don’t have to look to know which one.
When I caught my husband sneaking out at night, I did nothing for the longest time. I waited. I chose my moment carefully, following on silent feet. When I saw him embrace another man – this man, whose life I’m about to judge – a rage like hellfire filled my bones and blood.
So I crept to his house. I murdered his wife. It was as if a demon overtook me.
And when they dragged him to trial, this fine innocent man, he confessed. To spare my husband, he confessed. To spare me the shame.
‘Madam Foreperson. Your verdict, please.’
Like a coward, I rise and condemn him, and his eyes never leave my husband’s face.
“Energy is not created nor destroyed, all that there ever was, so there is now.” Dr. Howard scratched the words ‘Conservation of energy’ across the dusty blackboard. Physics, the only class I ever failed.
The sky is above me. But it’s not all puffy clouds and soaring birds. Smog paints the stratosphere in jaundiced hues. There are power lines and buildings framing my spotted vision.
Last time the sky was cerulean. And I wasn’t alone. There were men all around, sporting musket holes, and trading groans.
But the time before, the sky was black. So were my robes, my hair, my blade’s sheath. I never saw the arrow coming, but I did feel it burrow into my chest. Blood welled, leaking with each shuttering thump of my foolish heart.
“The atoms in your body were forged in stars, breathed by mammoths. All that you are will never disappear. It will merely change shape.”
Warped sirens. The cold pull of blood-loss sinking me into the asphalt. I’ll be the headline on the 6:00 news. ‘Twenty Year Old Stabbed in Broad Daylight’.
Knife, musket, arrow. Burning in the heart of stars, raining, freezing, digesting, growing, decaying. I feel it all.
All that there ever was, so there is now.
Middle Class Martyrdom
I’m tired of looking at them through twisted iron gates: their façade of exclusivity made tangible. Blocked off from hundreds of yards- miles away: the stretch of green in between me and them gives them their status. They stay nestled up in their white houses that contrast with their black suits- a more accurate reflection of their insides.
But I’ll show their insides are just as red as anyone else’s, and that their ivory towers are stolen from a much less endangered bourgeoisie. I’ll make a name for myself, and inspire others to do the same. I’ll put martyrs back to the top of the worshipped hierarchy. I’ll show that anyone can have their name spread across the world; it’s not as hard as they’d like you to think, and many times not for good deeds.
They’ll talk about me for years. My name will be on a list; our own working-class Walk of Fame. I’ll be researched, written about, analyzed, and posted up on every channel. They’ll keep me famous for a long time, because they won’t be able to figure me out. No family trouble, no religion, no politics, no mental instability. I’m just the girl next door.
Leah hopes for what I have. That’s why she comes less.
“I brought roots,” she says, the smell of manure and earthworms clinging to her. Carrots and potatoes tumble from her apron and thud onto the oaken slab.
“No fruit?” I stay rocking, my fingers entwined with burlap-brown yarn, a blanket for my angel-boy.
“William and me didn’t get much from the trees.” Barren as a babe and too ignorant to see the jab. “This one’s for pain,”–hands rough as a man’s hold up green herbs–“an’ this one’s for sleep.”
“Reckon I’ll need that.” My cheeriness unhidden. “Way he keeps us up at night, Silas has taken to sleeping with the mare.”
Her felt-gray eyes peg me, ruddy cheeks ugly with envy. Does William ever regret picking her?
She turns and I stand. “Do you have to leave? Don’t you wanna hold him?” I scoop our baby from his cradle. “He sleeps deep as death.”
My hips sway and when a tear slides down her plain face, I almost feel for her.
“Naomi,” she’s saying and my muscles stiffen. “Please, let us bury him?”
Hatred, a freshly filed axe, cuts through the sapling of sympathy taking root.
“Get out!” I scream it, clinging to my future, my hope.
What would I say to you, if given a voice? How to tell you, “I’m sorry?”
We’re bound by strictest laws; directives we dare not defy. Our ways and our wanderings set forth before time was.
What of those I robbed?
Your mother, Irish roots recently torn from grassy heights, and commanded to take hold in that strange soil. Ever after, she was a ship marooned in desert ocean. I watched over her, caressed her salty cheeks with zephyric fingers. The garden flourished that year, small apology.
And your father, coal miner by blood, bore the weight on worn shoulders. He had such plans for you! That day you went out, the dog paced the shore, calling in her guttural tongue, but you didn’t answer. It was a betrayal in his eyes. Why hadn’t she warned them? A week after he took out his pain on her body, unremitting blows until she lay still.
Your siblings? They didn’t understand. “Where’s Phillip gone?” They’d ask, with never a good answer.
My sorrow is nothing to theirs but when I remember you, clinging to that skiff, your boots dragging you down; as I relive that moment, filling your lungs, and 12 years of a soul, slipping from your body, it rains.
Runaways on Hope Street
“Tell me it again, Rudder. About the Moon.”
Roderick embraced his kid sister, for warmth as much as affection. The wind ripped straight through his ratty coat. “They’s a huge castle up there on the Moon. Bigger even than this factory. But clean, ’cause the Man in the Moon has hundreds of servants to scrub away the grime.”
Blue eyes admired the bright orb. “It looks like ice. Is it cold?”
“No, Winnie. Up there, the sun’s so bright it makes everything glow like a gas lantern.” He leaned against the icy brick wall, gazing heavenward. Uncaring stars twinkled in the winter sky. “And they’s clear lakes, and open grassy fields for miles and miles and miles. Just like when we was young.”
“It must be real warm there, Rudder. I can feel it now.” Her shivering stopped. “And Daddy is up there?”
“Yes. Daddy went to be a servant to the King and Queen of the Moon. They pays him in diamonds, and dresses him in purple silk, and lets him stay in their castle.”
Sleepily, the girl closed her eyes. “When can we see him, Rudder?”
“Real soon, Winnie.” Roderick, too, closed his eyes. “We’ll be with ‘im real soon.”
Over the Fence
The yard next door is empty until your family moves in.
The “for sale” sign tumbles, and the picket fence whitens.
Flowers line the porch, and the front windows light at night like laughing eyes.
The crisp autumn evenings echo with shouts, leathery thumps refracting from the glove on your hand as you pound your fist into it, waiting for your dad to toss the ball.
The heated steam of summer bakes your bronzed legs. An open book nestles below your shaded eyes while the blazing sun roasts above.
In winter, your parka fluffs around your pinked cheeks like the warm fuzz of a kitten’s fur, and your blue eyes snap with cold and fun.
They think they know you, the girl-next-door.
Button-cute, they say.
Daddy’s girl, they say.
Tom-boy, they say.
They don’t have my vantage point from beyond the fence.
They don’t see the losing battle where you’re alone in your field,
Arrayed with useless weapons
And harmless nets,
A dull spear
And a cracked shield.
The cancer spreads like warm blood,
Soaking your cells with poison and dulling the warrior’s glint in your eyes,
So that one day I wake up,
And the yard next door is empty.
Whenever rain spatters the Paradise parking lot, she rises from the pavement like petrichor. Her form shivers like the reflection in a wind-ruffled puddle. What is a ghost but a dire event that ripples across the pool of time?
Five years, I’ve watched shadows replay Cecilia’s last moments against curdled clouds. I know the tragic song by heart: her giggles, the staccato of her stamping feet, the squeal of tires, her mother’s ragged cry, the fade in and out of sirens.
Here she comes now, a carousel whirl of colors. Red ladybug boots, yellow bumblebee raincoat, green umbrella. She stomps and hops and crows the magnificence of her splashes. The driver’s too busy balancing an apple pastry on his latte thermos to notice.
I leap forward waving my arms. It startles her from her puddles. There’s a flash of recognition, but my snarling face chases her between the parked vehicles. Away from harm.
The squeal and thud cuts my pantomime short. Her mother screams.
I’d witnessed her death since before she was born, and hell if I’d just let it happen. The violent death of a child ripples both ways across the pool of time. The death of an old codger like me won’t – not even if he’s her grandfather.
The Hanging Tree (Strange Things Did Happen Here)
Matthew twisted the rope between his hands, ignoring the way that the fibres tugged at his skin as he looped it into a noose.
David watched him warily. “You sure this is gonna work?”
“It’s either this or you take your chances with the posse the Sherriff’s probably already put together,” Matthew responded before holding the noose out to his brother.
David grimaced, “You’ll be quick, won’t ya?”
“Ain’t gonna take but a second to get the picture done, then we can get it sent ‘round. Hopefully they’ll buy it.”
David didn’t say anything to that, but he did pull the noose around his neck.
“You know I didn’t mean ta’ hurt her,” David whispered and Matthew sighed because David never meant to do any of the things he did.
“Come on, let’s get this done,” he prodded finally, and David rolled his shoulders before stepping onto the rock.
Matthew tightened the rope, fingers curling around the coil as David tried to catch his balance.
“You know I love ya, right kid?”
David nodded, “I’ll buy you a drink after this one. Ya done right by me, just like you promised Ma,” he admitted.
“And I ain’t about to break that promise,” Matthew whispered.
Then he kicked the rock away.
Under the Pier, Where Lives are Made
She returns each day to the place her son was started. She shackles her bondi-blue foldaway to the railing, and lets the salt-wind rustle her memories.
Under Saltburn Pier it was, in 1941. Billy Hurles was her man, and he was going off to fight Hitler.
“Give me something so I don’t forget you,” he said.
“A lock of hair?”
So they crept under the pier to be alone. But other couples were there, and she saw her own distaste reflected in the eyes of other girls. It was over quickly. She kissed him sweetly, and told herself she’d done her bit for the war.
She knew she couldn’t keep the bairn. She’d accept, in time, that he’d be better with a proper family; without the shame. Perhaps one day she’d see him again. But the bairn was born blue; quiet, tiny and unmoving. A priest came into the room that was already crowded with men.
“Shall I bless the child? Help him find his way to the Lord.”
“You shall not,” her father said.
She returns each day to the place her son was started and prays he is at peace: some days she looks up, some days down.
The Dead Belong to the Vulture
I know a hunger that compels self-preservation to bend before it. You think it a lie, seeing me this way, Lord of the Spoils.
That gnawing will push you to chase the warm winds, letting them sustain you as shadows stretch, until below, spirit separates from carrion. Then the descent begins, slow, patient, allowing the sun to soften flesh, and the insects to perform their first rite of oviposition.
Other beasts, ambling along the road, will take interest, and try to steal away your prize by brute persuasion but that emptiness shackles you to the corpse, bestowing unnatural boldness.
So was my life before this place.
How could I not stay? When first I caught the incense of a 100 rotting bodies, some white and blue with lividity, others gray and bleeding fresh, I knew hunger was not a word spoken in the shade of this Coliseum.
Men, hiding pink flesh inside blinding armor, poked at me, wishing to drive me away from their slain.
For a time, I would retreat only to circle and come again. They wouldn’t eat it. What god gave them power to deny me my purpose? Persistence and convenience won them over.
Now they house me here, fat and full, Lord of the Spoils.
We were birthed from machines. Armed with digital missives and vacant bones, we found one another behind a blinking cursor and gigabytes of ache. No skin. No voice. We yearned and soothed with prose typed from plastic keys.
Faith wasn’t only her name. She believed in soul mates and the fairy tale of true romance. She worshipped at the altar of sonnets and serendipity. Men had derailed those notions repeatedly.
Her poetry spoke of loss. Of fading heartbeats, like a wisp of crimson smoke dissolving in the night air. Her messages, her electrified ink, told stories of fractured encounters.
She lounged on my synthetic lap. I asked for her sorrow and a purging of the loneliness. Her analog heart spilled throbbing blood across my screen. I cleansed it with a sympathetic text.
I was the therapist. She was the savior. Her melancholy ruminations suffocated my own pain. Faith reached through the machine like a replicated angel and healed me.
“Hide, Baby, hide real good so I’ll have to search real hard to find you.”
“And then it’ll be my turn to find you, right, Mama?”
Her face droops a little. I think that she likes being the seeker best too when she says, “I expect that’s about right.”
She pats the top of my head and I smell Ivory soap on her skin.
She places her hands over her eyes and begins to count.
I grin and run down the alley, out into the bigger world, her numbers growing larger and fainter.
This is the biggest game of hide and seek I’ve ever played and I can feel my stomach dance as I run through all my choices of hiding spots.
I find a spot that hides my body but lets me peek out so I can watch Mama’s face when she’s stumped over where I am. I’ll giggle to see her searching so hard.
Now I wait.
Obediently Jimmy’s mouth became a cave, a deep dark chasm for the probe to explore. He kept his eyes fixed on Mr Wilson as the man lowered his masked face towards him, bringing his fish eyes, dead eyes ever closer; a tie, garish purple, hideous orange.
“Present from the wife,” said Mr Wilson, responding to his look.
She must really hate him to give him that, thought Jimmy. And he must really love her to wear it.
“No,” said Jimmy as a needle was produced.
“It’ll stop it hurting.”
Mr Wilson paused, disconcerted. “Do you want your mother in here with you?”
“No,” said Jimmy. “I came on my own.”
He opened his mouth wider still. New Year was his favourite time, when the best deals were always made.
Wider. And Mr Wilson fell into the void his wife had begged for, and Jimmy fed on the pain that only flesh and blood could give.
The Festive Season
The backwater that was Yiwu shook with the frenzy of factories churning out endless glittering baubles. Wei scurried past LED workshops, wraiths tinkering with soldering irons in pulsing light.
He was late, caught up writing a letter to his fiancé. Responding to her assurances that a smaller wedding was what she wanted, her pleas insulting his sacrifice.
The letter departed, his crimson fingerprints staining tear soaked paper.
The boss man tapped a manicured nail onto a watch that a thousand life times could barely afford. Wei bowed apologetically before grabbing a paper mask and the glue sprayer.
Five thousand polystyrene stars awaited on metal shelving.
Wei grabbed a star, spraying it with glue, before dipping it deep into the crimson glitter held within a battered oil-drum.
Lifting out a scarlet jewel, sparkling in the light of the bare bulb.
Grab, spray, dip.
Another mask, fingers stained crimson. Lungs hacking with shimmering dust.
Whatever Christmas was, Wei truly despised it.
It is the distortion that I do not see.
It wavers, offset, unbalanced, against a backdrop of perfection,
Deep hues blending one into another like the shift of twilight into dusk into night.
Beauty spills from the scene, and peace, the scent of
Fingers lacing my hand,
A casual brush of my hair behind my ear.
So that when you smile, I don’t even notice the cracks in the smooth granite,
The weeds in the white lilies,
The scorpion that hides in the sand.
When you look at me with the familiar smile-creases,
When you lean in for our mutual touch,
When you raise your glass in toast to me,
I never notice the poison that swills the wine.
It sinks deep, unnoticed, into the purple liquid.
And on top, on the shimmering surface,
The picture tilts.
Slowly, I walk into their sea, grasping their ridiculous red umbrella, all the while cursing them under my breath.
I stop, as instructed; a young girl left standing waist deep in the swell of the sea, mind consumed by contempt, stomach churning with impatience.
Here, the expression of outrage is outlawed, the desire for change consistently castrated.
They say this act, this rite of passage, must be passive.
They say if you aren’t contrite, obedient and crushed under the weight of your own humility, it will come for you.
They say if you aren’t sweet, subservient and unspeaking, it will find you.
Casting their umbrella into the sea I scream until my lungs ache and all of the old men have cleared the edge of the beach.
When it arrives I shall mount the terrible beast and with all my bravery, wit and hatred, I shall ride it over their corpses and out of this dead place, towards freedom.
The jukebox desires coins bathed in anguish. My pocket is bulging with those. I feed the nostalgic gal then crawl to the bar.
Intoxicated bones with masks of sorrow lounge on decaying stools, a whimpering pack of discarded puppies pining for their master. Glasses are being fractured by aching hands. Marinated eyes plunge for deserted images floating in amber liquid. We drink memories at The Abyss. We splash our guts with the distilled echo of things that don’t come back.
Words are extinct here. Our mouths are preoccupied with swallowing fraudulent remedies. Our ears tuned solely to the paralyzing songs that tell our story with a folksy twang.
A kid in a pink Oxford is peeling the label off his beer with wounded talons. His first heartbreak, perhaps. I buy his next round. He nods. I want to tell him to stay afloat, but my coins have bartered a deal: A melody that tilts the bottle. Lyrics that consume shadows.
Merely This and Nothing More
If on a summer’s day a Story Teller was to exit Hotel L–, she would find herself on the road leading to the harbour. If she walked, her mind would drift through centuries of memories. If she remembered, she would colour memories to adventures, hovels to palaces, obstacles to giants. If she stood on the shore she would recall all the memories of all the ages. Cities. Armies. Voyages. Adventures. Sorrow. Love. Fear. Beasts growing listless in ancient temples beneath the waves.
If she was to tell all these memories to the ocean, she would slowly sink into a story herself: her voice caught in sea foam, her secrets bound in a chest on the ocean floor where fifteen dead men danced, her stories travelling through countries, years, and centuries before being caught by ink.
She asked if her own words, those grains of sand, would be remembered.
She did not wait for an answer, lest it was “nevermore”.
The Greatest Treasure
Anna smiled at the chef. “They say that everyone who takes this train finds a great treasure. Are they talking about your soup?”
“I’m flattered, though I know you’re hoping I say no.”
“Your soup is your soup; it is unchanged either way. To find a series of increasingly greater treasures and continue to be told that they are still not the treasure would be a treasure in itself. Don’t you agree?”
“So you don’t want to find the greatest treasure of all?”
“I already have. I wish I hadn’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
No one ever did. How could they, if they hadn’t met the most perfect person in the world for themselves? And then been rejected. “They say ignorance is bliss. That’s not quite true. What I say is this: you have to be ignorant of bliss to settle for mere happiness.” But Anna still looked for the one who could improve on perfection.
Seed of Life
The monk took another slice of the woman’s heavily petalled heart. She didn’t move. Her chin simply quivered.
Mikkal wished he could ease her pain. She had to be awake throughout this entire process. Her heart had to be flush and ripe with excitement, or this was all for naught.
He peeled away another layer, but still could not see the seed. Frustrated, he wondered how much more she had to sacrifice for the hearts of the nation.
Blood trickled down her arms from the shackles above her head. Her eyes fluttered. She was drowsy, but Mikkal pressed on.
Until finally, nestled between the last two slices of her heart, laid the seed. He slipped it in the mouth of the first stillborn child.
“Breathe!” He shouted. And it did.
They all did.
Silent amidst the celebration, Mikkal stared at the child with the seed. He did not look forward to their next meeting.
I watch birds now, their various wingspans, as I sip my coffee. Overpriced coffee from oversized mugs, brewed in coffeemakers costing more than my monthly wages when I was still a productive member of society.
That sounds ungrateful though, which I’m not or at least I shouldn’t be. My granddaughter has kindly taken me into her home. A home I never could have provided for Vera, but then times were different.
Her petite, gloved-white hands flapping around as she’d prattle on about some sale at the nursery. “Lilacs,” she’d said. She fancied gardening, and hated horses, but her hands remained petal soft even in the end as I held them between my own calloused monsters.
Milk-glass cups—we used to drink our coffee from—are kept on the top shelf of the hutch I built, collectibles now. We don’t drink out of them.
“Lilacs are in bloom.”
“Ah, yes! How are the birds today, Grandpa?”
“They don’t change.”
The Geek Shall Inherit…
I took his head off cleanly at the neck and dumped the body. It was only Photoshop, but it felt good.
Around the walls, the grand masters and science heroes glared down disapprovingly from framed posters. Well, all except Tesla; he looked like he got it.
I took Todd’s head and began the laborious task of pasting it into the photo from Becky’s party, so he was draped drunkenly across the birthday girl. It took forever to get the lighting right, and I regretted using the school’s ancient desktop rather than my tablet, but I needed to keep my ISP clear. Todd was as smart as a brick, but if he ever found out, he’d pound me even worse than that time in Gym.
I signed up to an anonymous webmail account, attached the doctored pic and thought about the subject line. I settled on “You need to know…” and added Jen’s address.
He didn’t deserve her anyway.
Aelpha and Oemga
Tehy trun tinghs uspdie-dwon and isidne-out. Smoe hvae siad eevn Jseus was one. Tehy cmae in all teihr crolos bfeore the oens in pailn wihte–the oens who bleeievd tehre was seomtinhg wonrg with me–wree cmonig to fix me. Tehy siad they wnaetd the bset for me—the sruregy wluod make me lkie erevynoe esle. It wulod mkae thngis esaeir for me and my lfie wulod fnlaily hvae mnieang and I wuold be lveod.
But the cownls tlod me derenffit. Tehy let me hnok tehir nseos and wehn tehy tlod me nitohng was wonrg wtih me—taht I was peferct as I was—I cierd.
The dcotros tehy siad, wnetad to “fix” me bcesuase I saw tignhs dferfinelty. Taht’s waht was “wonrg” wtih me. But the conwls tlod me diferneft—taht it wsna’t my fulat taht ploepe dnid’t unerdanstd me.
“Mnaineg, lfie, and lvoe aenr’t at the bgeinnnig and the end,” tehy siad, “teyh’re waht’s in bteewen.”
Stephen King says writers need a toolbox. All I have is a goddamn tacklebox and as much as I’d like to reel a reader in with a lure of a title like “Hoffa,” and hook them with some memorable prose, the tacklebox’s from Wal-mart and ain’t worth the five bucks I paid for it.
All I want is to call myself honorificabilitudinitatibus. There’s a story in there right?
I haven’t read the other stories yet and I wonder if anyone will reference “The Godfather.” I won’t. Oops. I just did. And damn it, my delete button’s broken. Believe me, there’s a story in that too. A whopper of a story.
Oh, and I bought my bait at Walmart too. The worms are already dead and all I can catch is this damn cold. (That’s a true story.)
How come if a picture’s worth 1,000 words all I can write is 160?
Why waste your time?
Oh yeah, here’s the politician.
The rain-swollen canal seemed eager to taste another victim.
They’ll never find the body.
Bodies are just containers put on this Earth to house the soul while it finds its path.
Water cleanses all sins.
Is it a sin to fall in love? To believe in love? To believe love could happen to her?
An affair with a married man? Think of the shame it will bring.
Why must there be shame? If they stayed, perhaps. But why couldn’t they run away together? They were happy. Or so she had believed. And now that they were three…
And what of the child? What kind of life can your bastard expect? It would be better for all if you would just take that step…
“No!” she said, finding strength for the first time in her life. “I can’t do it!”
She turned to face her lover.
I know, he said, applying an emotionless palm to her chest. But I can.
Like a Dali Painting
Three months in the hotel and he hadn’t been inspired to write a single word. He spent the days lying in bed fully dressed, except for his oxfords which he kept by the door.
His fiancé frequently called, and he’d tell her, “just a few more days.” But the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months. He started forgetting why he’d come to the hotel. He’d proposed then promised to write her a vow that would make even the apathetic weep; that, he was certain of. But what he wasn’t certain of was why it mattered. He wasn’t even sure what his fiancé looked like anymore.
Replacing the memory of her was the vista; the long, languorous curtains, the sharp angled doorframe, textures of the distant castle, and the surreal curves of terrace guardrails. It was like a Dali painting. Lying there he felt forgotten by time, and he was content in letting forever pass him by.
One runs from fear, the monsters of his past slavering at his heels.
His father’s fingers press against his throat,
Anger distends his features, twisting, purpling, panting—
Daddy’s familiar face the scene of a monster.
Death from fear or flight to freedom? Nightmares cross the finish line first.
One runs from love, tears and kisses shrouded in but a memory
The taste of her lips haunts his dreams,
Shivers across the flesh of his arms.
Mea culpa, my Father. I have sinned in the arms of a married woman.
Death from vengeance or flight to freedom? A bullet crosses the finish line first.
One runs from death, the Reaper’s cold breath shimmering in the darkness behind.
The pain creeps into his lungs, pulsing, aching.
He inhales, and a knife slices down deep inside.
He coughs, wipes the blood that bubbles past his lips, speeds his pace.
Death from bleeding lungs or flight to freedom? Cancer crosses the finish line first.
Margaret did as she was told, carried her baby across the moor to St. Kilda’s Barrow. She’d named him Ian, after his father.
She had to be brave, like Ian’s father, brave Father Macquaig. How he had trembled when she brought the baby to his rectory door, when she told him the child was his, when they prayed together; when he told her, then, of the baobhan sith and how it could only be sated by the blood of the chosen child—this very child!—sacrificed in the barrow of St. Kilda.
The barrow was close now, an island in the mist…
Something was not right. Father Macquaig had instructed her to remove the entrance stone, but the stone was already gone.
Inside the barrow, Margaret found another village girl, Agnes, cradling a bloody bundle.
“The chosen child,” she cooed. “His own daughter…”
“Brave Father Macquaig’s!” Agnes said, weeping reverently.
Beneath Margaret’s cloak, Ian laughed for the first time.
Beads of sweat dripped onto his console as Marvin hit enter. His glasses fogged, but he could still make out the erect figure of Meuller, the director, facing him across the floor. He gave a nod, barely more than a blink.
Ten seconds later, the eggheads went into a tizzy.
“They’re off course!”
“What the hell?”
“Can we fix it?”
“Not before entry!”
Marvin hunched over his console, his quaking hands going through the motions.
It was not a program error.
Though who would suspect otherwise on Gemini’s mission, already fraught with malfunction?
Marvin’s heart stopped. A cheer rose from the control stations.
Marvin gaped at the ashen expression of the director.
Cooper “corrected” the course from aboard. The capsule would land safely—along with its secret malignancy.
Marvin’s toddler would be sleeping, wife awake, waiting for him. “Can I go home?” he piped.
To the bewilderment of Houston’s personnel, the director tightened his jaw and nodded.
They’re all dead. And it’s my responsibility. Mine alone. I am the Captain, after all.
The scalding sands — and the memory — may well have been the fires of Hell. With no clouds above, the sun is a relentless, yet honest, adversary. I wondered if I had erred. Should I have done otherwise?
When setting sail, some of the more superstitious men voiced concerns.
“Trafficking is wrong.”
“They’re just children.”
“Using them like that is against the laws of man. And God.”
But lucre has a way of muting morality.
As the storm turned their ship into kindling and their bodies into chum, the crew looked to me for guidance. They prayed I would help. I turned a blind eye. Indeed, not only did I ignore their pleas, I doubled my vengeance. Because they were right. Their actions were against the laws of man.
Such is the burden I bear as the Captain of all men.
The clap of thunder sent them scrambling for safety. Up, down they hurried, scurried, traversing the steps carved into the unforgiving rock face.
Fear creased their weary eyes as they huddled in the remote recesses of the caves. The parents hugged their children, hushed them, reassured them that everything would be fine.
But would it? Had they made the gods angry? Would the earthquakes return?
Nights, after the children had gone to sleep, the parents would gather and talk quietly.
Of a life beyond.
They never spoke these words in front of the children. False hope is cruelty.
On the other side of the glass, Worker 1421 clicked his mandibles excitedly.
“They are so cool!” he said to his fellow drone. “I’m going to ask the Queen for a People Farm for my hatchday.”
“They are fun to watch. And so industrious. Still, I think I’ll shake it up and make them start all over again.”
Little Peg Tudor
A Peg to hang a wedding robe upon, so heavy on her sparrow-sharp shoulders she thinks her knees might buckle. She runs a finger across the brocade, stroking the slippery silk thread where it stands proud of the nubbled backing cloth.
A Peg to hang a marriage on. She brings power, he brings blood. She knows, though, there will be blood of her own to shed – in the bed, in the birthing chair, in the generations of her progeny. Only she will not think of them as progeny, they will be her children, soft in her arms, bound to her heart, her own.
A Peg to hang a crown on, to keep it from the Pretender’s head. Her priest tells her crowns are in the gift of God. She knows they are won by the mothers of sons. She drops her shoulders, stretches her neck and finds comfort, now, in the weight of the cloth on her back.
Passing the Torch
The river moves sluggishly, barely a ripple on the thick brown surface. The heavy gray clouds linger around like grief.
At the first light of dawn, the priest begins his daily trek to the temple. Mud clings to his worn-out shoes, and his bones creak in the damp weather. These days he cannot bring out the shine of the brass lamps. The floor is covered in soot. He sighs!
Something stirs behind the temple. He squints his eyes and spots a young woman. She bows her head.
“God bless you, my child!” he says.
Her swollen eyes remain hidden behind the veil.
He begins to sweep the floor, but she takes the broom from him. He nods approvingly.
Here, she can remain free, from the memories of the village swept away by the mudslide, from her past, from her caste!
The temple bells peal. “Bless my child, the future priest.” She touches her belly and whispers to her unborn baby.
Dulcet tones carry across the restless waves, whispering promises of a love doomed to never be. I pace along my rocky hunting grounds and wonder what the doomed men see me as today. Do the loyal sailors see their wives stranded alone? Or am I a long-lost love, or a beautiful red-headed fantasy? Whatever mirage my song has thrust into their minds, it is working. Soon their ship, and their bodies, would be broken on the rocks at my feet.
As the men, now nothing more than slaves to my call, force their vessel ever closer, I wonder, not for the first time, if they truly deserve such a bloody end. Who were these sailors I had ensnared? Perhaps they were vicious mercenaries, or simply trying to provide for their families. Ought I grant these unfortunate souls their freedom? But as the ship and her crew shatter and drown, I know it matters not.
Because I am so hungry.
Cherry stepped into the deserted gallery and paused. The silence was heavy, expectant, like the moment before the tape clicked in, everyone waiting to see what she could do. Hopefully no one was watching her now.
Bending low, moving to a rhythm heard only in her heart, Cherry began to dance. She kicked and leapt, one graceful step after another, seeing not the museum but the gym floor. In her curiously doubled vision, she saw Miss Rushworth and her team even as she saw the glass cases and display boards. She had never been to the museum before, denied that treat when her clumsy dismount cost them the final, and the ancient shame reddened her cheeks as she made her final leap.
With a perfect dismount, she cleared the last alarm beam and took the glass cutters from her belt. Inside the case, the diamonds sparkled like tear-filled eyes.
“In your face, Miss Rushworth…”
She reached inside.
“And thank you.”
“Gentlemen: five paces, turn and fire,” called the second.
‘Gentlemen,’ Charles smirked. Were they gentlemen when they pelted Widow Green’s poor hound with apple cores? When they pilfered candies at the general store? When they put-on professor Staub at University? Or when they bolted from the pub trailing card and coin? Surely they did not feel so as they earned “glory” among cannon shot and bayonet. Gentlemen? assuredly not; but friends? Friends, yes, ever to the bitter end.
At five paces Charles turned and raised his pistol. His friend was doubled over in another coughing fit. Charles graciously waited until William finished, stood tall, dabbed the scarlet at his lips with a handkerchief and straightened his coat. Then Charles pulled the trigger. William deserved that. The “offense” writhed about in William’s lungs. It was reducing him to a bitter end indeed. Charles agreed to spare him such, to give William his satisfaction, allowing him the death of a gentleman.
The basement was cool and dark, the music and fireworks a distant rumble. Cath pulled the light cord, blinking as the strips stuttered into life, revealing shelves of retired toys and forgotten hobbies, an archaeological stratum of family life. She was feeling tipsy and rarely came down here, and her eyes misted as she saw racquets and bicycles and happier days.
At the workbench where Mike spent his evenings, she peered intently at his handiwork. The ship was minutely detailed, a masterpiece of care and attention, down to the tiny name painted on the hull: The Independent.
With thoughtless ease, she pinched hold of the mast and snapped it with a shocked giggle. She thought of all they were celebrating upstairs, the new world born from so much destruction, and she swept the ship to the floor, stomping the balsa wood to shards.
Then she placed the divorce papers in the virgin space and went back upstairs for the fireworks.
Procedure here is all important. The temptation is to throw on the anti-radiation suit and get to the surface to sample the soil and air. Checkers must don their protective gear with slow, calm deliberation. A single, unseen hole or tear is a death sentence.
The samples over the past two years have crept steadily toward optimum. Every Checker wants to be the bearer of the good news, and it fell to me. I checked and re-checked the readings, but I could reach only one conclusion: In a few months we could return to the surface.
Back inside, I remove my mask, hoping my smile will herald the news, but I see the technician back up, hand over her mouth. My lip just below my nose itches, and I rub it. My fingers come away bloody. The technician closes the airlock.
I’m alone on the surface, awaiting the inevitable with slow, calm deliberation.
Procedure here is all important.
God Save the Queen
When Disraeli approached Aasha in his quest to make a crown befitting of India’s new queen, she accepted.
She did not speak of her nights spent waiting on the dirty streets as her mother vanished into dark rooms with strange men, only to come back with barely enough to feed her family.
Aasha did not ask where this queen had been when their children were dying from hunger and disease.
She simply did what she was told.
She mixed her blood into the gold that coated its frame and whispered ancient prayers while she wove the fabric that would rest upon the queen’s head.
Aasha poured her heart into her work and when Disraeli handed it to the queen who accepted her offering with an arrogant nod, she smiled.
Aasha’s heart was a black and twisted thing that brought death to all who touched it… just like the poison with which she’d laced the crown.
No God would save this queen.
“My arms hurt, Joe.”
Opening your mouth ain’t gonna make ‘em feel any better.
“I know sis. Mine too. Be there soon.”
“The sand is burning my feet.”
Blisters cause callouses. Won’t feel the burning after that.
“Walk faster and try not to think about it.”
“I’m hot, Joe.”
Everybody’s hot. Not everybody’s complainin’.
“It’s July, sis. Gotta pick the crop when the crop’s ready be to be picked.”
“I got a sticker in my finger.”
Life’s full of stickers, sis.
“Joe, it’s bleeding.”
Life’s full of blood and stickers. Just how it is. How’s it’s always gonna be.
“Camp’s close. Soon as Mr. Johnson weighs our haul, we’ll wash your finger over by the well pump.”
“Joe, when’s momma comin’?”
Ain’t sure she’s ever comin’.
“Just a few more days sis. She went to find daddy. Keep walkin’. Almost there.”
“Daddy’s gonna buy us back real soon, ain’t he Joe?”
Been six weeks already.
“Yeah, sis. Real soon.”
Once you reach a certain age, society’s attention wanders from you. And it wandered from Cosmo and the others.
It was like a wheelchair graveyard in Seaview Nursing Home – the wheelchairs just happened to be populated by blinking corpses.
For most of them, their day consisted of getting helped out of bed, plopped into their wheelchair and going a few feet beyond their room; to gaze at others, to watch the walls, to hopefully see someone young and vibrant.
Cosmo was one of the few roaming bipeds at Seaview. He didn’t get far, didn’t move fast, but he wasn’t tethered by the wheeled menace.
“I’m gonna get there some day,” Cosmo said to Renee, a nurse, pointing at a portrait of a bell tower situated within a mountainous landscape. As he did every day.
Renee knew the portrait was just a painting.
But for Cosmo, it was the fire in his old belly that kept him alive.
The Sorcerer’s Daughter
The royal guards shriveled back as they entered the throne room. The dark magic of this place was known to scorch all who lingered.
Kass squared her shoulders, unafraid. “Hello, Father.”
The torchlight set his simmering face ablaze. But even in his anger, he offered his daughter a cursory kiss. “You are not to marry this peasant, Kass. He is beneath you.”
“He has stolen my heart, Father. It cannot be undone.”
His obsidian eyes were sorrowful, but determined. After a long moment, he broke her stubborn gaze. “Never underestimate the power of a sorcerer’s kiss, my darling,” he whispered.
Already her ivory skin was darkening, crumbling away into common sod. “Wise words, Father. Remember them… always.”
They later found the gnarled tree fashioned in her likeness. Now her beauty shone eternal, eyes forever closed in quiet submission. And in her palm lay an obsidian pebble, frozen in a silent scream.
Waking up isn’t easy when you’re being baked alive.
A groan scratched its way out of my throat as I opened my eyes to the blistering sunlight. Soreness in my shoulders and ankles dissuaded me from moving.
One of only two shadows on the sand moved. Grit scraped my eyes as I tried to blink the motion away.
“Oh shut up.” The shadow fell over me for a blissful instant of relief, chased away by her grin. “How ya doin’ down there?”
“What the hell you stupid—”
“Ah, ah. Careful.”
The scorching spotlight found my face again. She spat, taunting me with the waste of water.
“You owe me,” I reminded.
“Well now, that’s why I’m here. You forget that little issue, and I’ll cut you free.”
“Are you off your—”
“Or.” Her shadow moved out of sight. “I could just leave you here, while I come up with the money. Shouldn’t take more than a couple weeks.”
Ain’t That Something
Alice had heard you could put rattlesnakes in their beds. Men.
“That’ll shake em up, let me tell ya.”
This from Scarlett, her husband’s mistress, teetering on gold high heels from one too many highballs.
“This girl on the chorus line with me, she said she put a rattler under her boyfriend’s sheets once. Said he never ran around on her again. Ain’t that something?”
The circle of wolfish men, including her husband, had thrown their heads back in raucous laughter, their mouths as wide as manholes, and pressed in even closer.
Alice, sitting three stools down, keeping her eyes on the empty martini glass trembling between her fingers, had wondered where the hell you could find a rattlesnake in Chicago. She had almost dared to ask, when they had found themselves eyeing one another the powder room’s mirror, but Scarlett had winked at her first.
“Corner of Knox and 53rd, honey. Just knock once and ask for Vinny.”
The Hard Way
Mary’s sobs were muffled by her mother’s lap. She finally came up for air. “Are you sure it will be tonight, Mama? Perhaps the curse will skip a generation?”
Her mother gently shook her head. “I remember when I turned sixteen all those years ago and the curse was passed to me. I was so very afraid, but there is nothing to fear. In time you will learn to control the hunger, just like my mother taught me.”
Mary rubbed at her eyes. “How did she teach you?”
“There is only one way to learn such a lesson, the hard way.”
“Did you learn quickly?”
“It only took one night.”
The clouds finally shifted from the full moon. Mary felt her body ripping and reforming, and then there was a terrible hunger. There was only one source of food in the room. Her mother didn’t make a sound as Mary devoured her, and the lesson was learned.
She looked as vibrant as the day he’d yielded his mount to her.
The knight studied her cheek with its single petrified tear. Drops of gratitude rolled down his face. He did not rub them away, but saluted with gnarled hands, battle aged.
Oh, to take her in his arms again, thank her for his chance at life and more, victory! The kingdom now existed forever secure. He returned to his steed, gathered a queen’s finery, the value of her sacrifice, and lovingly arranged them, an offering. He remembered the moment she’d forced him from his charger’s back, and cursed to sculpture, she’d bravely smiled.
He climbed up the petrified stallion, wrapped one arm around her waist. His tears flowed. He wiped them with his fingers, impulsively touched her lone tear.
She stood on the sand, startled by the statue and knight that rode it. Was it…? Richly appointed raiment caught her eye. And she knew.
She could feel everyone looking.
they couldn’t really see her
She crept into the area with the knowledge that this was where it was all going to happen. The best speck in town.
no one knew who she was. for certain
She felt her eyes jumping with electricity, like excited atoms before an explosion.
her handbag behind her
her heart raced; she smiled. no one could see
She took her phone up, pressed record. She was going to catch it all for posterity. The magpie cocked his head to one side, seeming to look at her suspiciously.
she in a portable hide. no one could see her. she was there;
Hidden in plain sight. Cocksure and happy as goosebumps plumed over her, hairs standing to attention as the moment approached – the phone was going to catch it all.
As her daughter passed with the egg and spoon intact she blushed; this video would be priceless.
The Senator stepped out of the train and marveled at Mile Deep Station. “The electric bill must be astronomical!”
“The light is Cherenkov radiation,” explained the General. “Our nuclear reactors produce enough electricity to light up Pittsburgh.”
“Harmless. It’s to keep humankind alive, after all.” The General pointed to a storage area. Pallets stacked four stories high. “Food to feed ten thousand for a lifetime. Seed banks. Hydroponics. Textbooks. Spare parts.”
“I hope it’s enough.”
“Earth’s surface should be habitable again within two centuries.”
The last of Mile Deep’s new inhabitants disembarked the train. The Senator patted the General’s shoulder. “Time to go.”
“Senator, are you sure you won’t stay?”
He shook his head. “Our way of thinking is what made this place necessary.”
They boarded the train. As the doors closed, and the train began its slow return journey to the surface wastelands, the Senator took a final look at the future he would never know.
Lila had always been the one to wait. Ben was five minutes late for their first date, misjudging the amount of time it would take to walk across campus. By their third date, Lila knew she had at least ten minutes more to primp before Ben arrived.
On his way to their wedding, Ben’s cab broke down and he was late to the chapel. He was flustered and apologetic when he showed up, but Lila smiled serenely. “I knew you would be here,” she whispered.
Dinner was always warming in the oven when Ben came home late from the office. She woke when he came to bed, long enough to kiss him good night.
Now it was Ben’s turn to wait for Lila. Everyday, he waited with the other husbands, peering into the mist, waiting for his wife. Finally he understood the longing she must have felt all those years she waited for him.
The Life of the Party
Life is meant to be a show, so burn bright, and hot. Choose your shape, and expect nothing more than to frighten some and entertain others. If you are destined to burn out fast, do it with a flourish. After all what are we other than just a flashing of heat and light. Life is meant to short, hot and lonely. So I made a show of it; took on the face of a lion.
Rising up into the air, I found I was not alone. Beside me was another of like kind, but she was so much more fair. Not garish or extravagant, as I had chosen to be. She simply took the shape of a flower, a humble chrysanthemum.
We lived our short lives, together. We loved without speaking. We publicly exhibited our passion in brilliant flames. And when we died, we died happy to have been friends.
Dawson thumped his scanner. ‘What’s our time datum?’
‘1930s, judging by the state of those.’ Marian pointed to two bikes leaning at the tunnel’s entrance. ‘It’s the right kind of place to hide a Relativity Raft.’
Dawson put his ear to the tunnel wall. ‘Maybe the tunnel is the ship.’
Marian smirked. ‘They wouldn’t trust you with anything this large.’
‘I didn’t break the ASM-9!’
‘So you say.’
A distant whirring silenced further objection from Dawson.
Marian stepped back against the tunnel wall as the sound grew into a man on a bike. He whizzed past them and out into the daylight.
‘System Control hates us,’ Marian muttered.
Dawson resumed his scan and the instrument beeped.
He redirected it and it beeped again. He looked to Marian. ‘They wouldn’t..?’
Marian looked down the scanner’s line of sight and back to the tunnel’s entrance.
Dawson raised it again to triple check the data.
Marian ran for the red one.
After Finchley Central, the tube comes up above ground. Commuters blink at each other, slightly bashful; like afternoon cinemagoers, the sudden sunshine drying up our black and white daydreams of detectives, lovers, motels, eggs easy over.
There aren’t many left, now. The girl next to me is still reading. “I have been walking in the grove some time in the hope of meeting you.” We’re too British to move apart.
This is when I always get scared.
If I tip my head slightly, I can see you under the brim of my hat. You’re greyer, since the court case. After the surgery, I thought I’d be safe. You’d never recognise me again; never put me through it all again. But now, my palms are damp.
Totteridge. You get up, wait for the doors to open. As they close, I take a breath, then walk after you.
The Our Lady of Thorns “Lil Sprigs” Dancers
Hours later, the hurdy gurdy still grinds away and the girls still twist like dogwood branches in the spring breeze, trembling with the cold and exertion. The swollen red and white balloons are the only things holding some of them up.
A susurration of whispers stirs through the crowd.
“Will there be no volunteers?” Sister Agatha raps her birch cane against the stage. “None willing to donate? Not even an iron coin or a piece of beef?”
One by one, the balloons pop and the pale girls collapse to the ground like kindling.
“For God’s sake, stop it!” A man finally cries out and pushes forward, rolling up his shirt sleeves. “Just take it already.”
Sister Agatha plunges her needle into the crook of his elbow. The thick redness sluices up the surgical tube. She smiles and looks down at the lone girl still dancing, trembling like a daisy.
“This one is for you, Rosy. The greatest dancer of all.”
L’Enfer, C’est La Guerre
“War is Hell,” the barmaid reminded him, placing a mug of pale lager before him.
Until now, Colonel Boniface had never understood the sentiment. He lived for battle! Primping for the mirror in his dress blues. Saluting his men as they charged bravely past him, into the fray. And how the ladies loved an officer! (War widows needed comfort, too.)
And his Angelique, ever faithful, waiting at home.
Boniface regretted nothing, until that bullet found his brain.
“Vive la mort,” was the motto painted across this tavern’s wall. Time had no meaning here. Golden Horde, Napoleonic infantrymen, soldiers from conflicts past and future, all passed through. Some were heading home. Others…
“Angelique… I’m sorry,” he whispered.
The barmaid’s dress twirled as she turned away, head held high, cradling a dozen empty beer steins. Outside the tavern, a bugler played his muster call.
Boniface drank his beer — a final comfort — and looked to the door with dread.
They They cloned cloned us us.. Doubled Doubled the the workforce workforce in in a a year year.. We We work work two two by by two two,, side side by by side side,,with with our our Doppelgänger Doppelganger.. We we look look into into our our own own strange strange eyes eyes and and see see how how dead dead they they are are.. We We are are the the other’s other’s prison prison..
The Singles supervise.
There There is is no no opportunity opportunity for for us us to to break break free free. We We see see reflected reflected in in each each other other despair despair..
The Singles are armed.
We we think think to to destroy destroy the the supervisors supervisors.. So So we we sit sit side side by by side side echoing echoing a a desire desire for for revenge revenge..
Bond had been sent on this mission with just two days to go to retirement which, as any cop in any film could have told him, made him practically a walking gravestone.
So it’s no surprise that as he parachuted in over the Alps he was held up by the thermals, and so overshot Blofeld’s secret base and plummeted instead into a dense forest.
He hit a tree with all the force of Wile E Coyote hitting a canyon floor, then pinballed from branch to branch, each one slapping his face like some beautiful spy that he had slept once with and then left.
Luckily his plunge was halted just five feet from the ground, and he swung gently, like a Christmas bauble poked by an enraptured child.
The elderly Bond had dressed warmly, lest he catch his death, and was being held up by the thermals.
The Sands of Space and Time
We’ve watched their history. The passing of nomadic tribes. The rise and fall of city-states. Carthage. Babylon. Karakorum. Empires and peoples come and gone. San. Bantu. Boers.
They live and die upon the Sands, those fleeting giants of the Earth. For all their towering height, their length of time upon this world is short. Ten thousand of us would not match their height. Ten thousand of their years is but a blink to us. They proudly build upon our Sands, yet for all their mighty works, despair: threescore and ten are their years, and then they die, and are buried in our Sands by their progeny.
The first of us to come to Earth, in countless ages past, was fruitful and multiplied, and (thanks to exponential growth) subdued the earth. Our forty-five-greats-grandparent was progenitor to us all, the Sands who fill the deserts and the beaches.
Mankind, too, will pass; we Sands will carry on.
Vol 2 -9 – Betsy Streeter
Fear of Flying
I picked you up every last time you fell.
Reached under your arms, lifted you to your feet, and gently pressed you to try again.
Sometimes I showed you what to do, how to leave the ice and then land effortlessly, how to make nearly impossible feats look easy. Like dance. Like flying.
You watched, and then you attempted to follow. Your first efforts looked clumsy like you were a bear cub on skates.
But eventually, you got it. And you got the next thing, and the next. After many months you became weightless, a butterfly made of spider silk.
How you flew. Even on the ground you looked like you were flying.
Now, as I watch you enter the stadium, my breath puffing out of me in little clouds, the world gathered to celebrate our work,
My chest contracts into a stabbing, black, hateful desire to see you fail.
It should have been me.
Madame Marrygold tapped the photo with her wand.
“So. Can you identify what Angelica did wrong? Yes, Philowisha?”
“Took the photo in plain sight, Madame?”
Marrygold hesitated. “Well, yes,” she said, “but that’s not quite what I meant.” She turned to Angelica. “Although you evidently aroused curiosity, appearing openly in your uniform like that.”
Angelica’s blushes matched her cherry-pink gown.
Marrygold pointed at the car. “This,” she explained, “is an example of a highly inappropriate and inevitably unsuccessful attempt to apply the Cinderella Formula. A motorised vehicle cannot safely disenchant at midnight, and will not revert to vegetable matter. Furthermore, a loose wheel left lying in the gutter is never an acceptable substitute for a lost shoe.”
She turned to her students. “What is our aim in every Intervention?”
“Happily ever after!” chorused the Advanced Class for Fairy Godmothers.
“Quite. And how did this Intervention end, for this particular goddaughter, Angelica?”
“Somebody called an ambulance, Madame,” mumbled Angelica, meekly.
Vol 2 – 7 – Cindy Vaskova
Some Men Would Let the World Burn
Let dollars be thrown in the air in celebration of the future, of prosperity and innovation, and let the electrical body be immortalized! Let men from each side of the world join hands and put great minds together to create and improve. But God let that be at a lower cost.
Oh, how each light bulb pulsates with power, so bright! So many!
In the crowd I am alone, amongst the buzzes and the clacks of apparatus modern and astonishing. Beyond that I see a society that does not abide by the rules given to it by Destiny. I breathe the air of its false utopia and it sickness me. I have seen a future of Godlike men, emotionless. So tell me Lady Republic, what shall I do to save you?
Ah, there comes old Moore, frightened and absurd. Is it the look of my own handmade apparatus?
“Visconti, wait! What are you doing?”
Salvaging, cleansing. Let it all burn.
The hologram screen surrounding the serpent shaped contraption buzzed lightly as it transmitted a landscape view. Footsteps echoed up and down its metal stairs. Men, women and children frantically searched their ways back and forth walking the narrow rails of the machine.
“This is the work of a brute.” whimpered the creator, as exhausted he sat, marveling in tears his creation.
His “Prometheus” wouldn’t stop. This was the unintended consequence of his frivolous ambitious overreaching. These people, at the end they found themselves starting from the beginning, no memory of minutes ago, no concept of hours gone by. He had created the sort of cycle that destroyed their minds, trapping them in a limbo of repetitiveness in which they existed in their normality just for a split second. To fear.
Soon their system would catch on the anomaly, and they would die maddened and starved becoming mere shells of humans. And he would suffer the helpless observation of that process.
I long to go back. Back to when I was young, to when my roots felt strong, to when I wanted nothing more than to branch out into the world, soaking up sunshine. Life was easy then, back when I was solid, before she ripped this gaping hole in me. Many have passed through since. None have fixed me, though a few tried.
I eye the giant hulk of a tree before driving underneath it. In and out in a flash. That tree and I are alike. Relics of a past life – a passed life -, shells of who we once were, damaged by those who thought they’d found a better way.
I stop the car. I walk back to the tree, touching it, caressing it. “I’m sorry,” I murmur, not sure whether I’m apologizing to it or myself. Spindly forest surrounds us. We are giants among weaklings, the tree and I. Scarred. Broken. But we are still standing.
Vol 2 – 4 – Allison K. Garcia
Discovering Your Inner Mummy
I didn’t volunteer. He never asked me. As one of the physician’s slaves, I suppose he didn’t have to. He had used his slaves for other “discoveries,” leaving them blind, crippled, diseased, and occasionally cured.
This time, he’d gone too far.
I stared over at the large audience of white men, quivering in anticipation. I glanced behind me at the tray of scalpels and other sharp instruments. I was a goner.
I lay still on the table as the lesson began. He started by pointing out and naming everything on the outside of the body, and I mean everything. I thought I’d die of boredom. How many parts did the human body have anyway?
“I will now give our subject an injection to paralyze him. This way we can see what happens inside a live body.”
A guard held me down, as the crowd oohed, and after a few excruciating minutes, I hovered above, doomed to watch until the end.
Vol 2 – 3 – Rebecca J. Allred
The planet had been almost entirely vacated. Only those too poor, too ill, or too crazy to leave remained. Christa supposed she fell into the last category. She wasn’t like the cultists who’d elected to stay because they thought God had returned; Christa stayed because she was curious. She stayed so she could see the heart of a black hole.
Christa slept during the day, wandering deserted streets at night and taking inventory of the stars. Fewer and fewer burned through the black veil each night, devoured by an even deeper, more permanent blackness.
It happened during one of her midnight walks. Christa cartwheeled into the sky, consumed by a blackness so cold and complete it was like being unborn. She collapsed, falling inward and inward and inward, until she was one with the heart and there was nowhere left to fall but out.
Christa exploded through the darkness.
She became the light.
A new heart for a new world.
Her legs ached, bones gnawed by cold and hunger, but the kids waited at the foot of the mountain; There was no turning back.
She ran for the next overhang, the packed snow crumbling as she hurled herself onwards, upwards, towards the prize. The ledge held and she scrambled on, breathing heavily.
They had been three days without food, two without shelter from the cold which took her lover. She could have laid down herself when she found him, but a mother can’t quit. She has to strive and fight and climb.
Another leap, another moment of terror, legs kicking at air, then catching against the mountainside, desperation propelling her forward.
Then she saw it, jutting from the sheer face. Hurling herself upward, she wrapped her forepaws around the carrot, weeping with relief. This would feed them, for a little while.
She waved triumphantly to her baby bunnies far below, then began the long descent, pushing her prize before her.
From the Waters
Joyous laughter echoed across the water and soft childish murmurs cajoled and beckoned.
David’s head turned unconsciously, solemn eyes searching the shoreline, yearning clear in every line of his body.
Grandfather tossed the fish into the boat with a displeased grunt, reached over and wrapped a wide hand around a slender wrist, anchoring the boy to him.
A sigh hitched in the boy’s chest as he slumped and I felt myself echo it.
We were safe out here on the water, protected from whatever had started taking the town’s children, but it had taken a toll on David who’d become quieter and quieter over the months.
Each day, the laughter called and it became harder to keep the boy from joining those who’d disappeared.
I didn’t want to lose David, but as I looked into my son’s wan, unsmiling face, I wondered if it would be worth letting him go if it meant hearing his laughter once again.
I wanted to strip off my clothes and run into the distance, travelling deep into the unknown, gloriously naked.
“Stop fidgeting!” my sister scolded, as I fought with my pinafore; stiff and unmanageable, it was more akin to a tipi than a dress.
“Cultural Assimilation” they called it, but in truth it was cultural assassination and schooling was a key weapon in their arsenal, aimed squarely at me on a daily basis.
If all “Americanisation” could offer was dusty rooms, starchy frocks and endlessly dull words about dead white presidents, it was little wonder I daydreamed about running bare-skinned under the warmth of the sun.
Withered fingers dig into the damp soil mixed with decayed leaves. Breathing in a lung-full of earthy richness, he sighed.
Bones creaked as his head rested against upon the earthen bed. Emerald fronds waved over his face in the breeze.
The tiny veins interweaving along the ferns underside were a shadow of his long life lived. A series of crossed paths and chance meetings, journeys down twisting and turning roads. In the end, they all returned to the earth and she welcomed them, making them a part of her core.
Above, black branches decked in yellow shimmered against the blue expanse. He contemplated his folly. The incessant planning, scheming, striving… only to return here in the end. He should have simply breathed in… and out… and in… and….
Release from the earth’s constraints. Bindings broke. He extended wider and wider to accept what lay beyond. Free.
The sadness settles across my shoulders like an old familiar coat. Like a yoke around my neck. Like the cross I have to bear.
I bring destruction wherever I go. It’s followed me through millenia, since the dawn of time.
Atlantis. Pompeii. The Great Fire of London. The Titanic. The list goes on and on.
I thought this time was different. It’d been twenty years. Twenty years of peace in this tiny village, so remote, so removed from the rest of the world. I thought maybe, just maybe, she had forgotten, had forgiven. Maybe, just maybe, I’d atoned for my sins.
I’d risked it; I’d settled down, had a family. Now they, too, lie beneath the sand that had enveloped them in a flash, like so many before them.
This was my fault. Mine.
I’ve tried to hate. Tried to ice myself out. Tried to live alone. But the drive has always been stronger, the hunger beyond my control.
She made sure of that, on that mountain top an eternity ago. It was the price I had to pay for taking her, for seducing her, for rejecting her.
“You will sow only pain, reap only sorrow. You will pray for death. It will not come for you.”
This is my curse; to seek love knowing I can never have it. To find love knowing I can never keep it. All the while knowing whoever gets close…
I can’t voice it, can’t warn them. Can’t control it. I cannot stop the liquid words from pouring out of my mouth, cannot control the intoxicating magic emanating from my eyes. They’re like moths to the flame.
I am a magnet, attracting those I should repel and repelling those I should attract.
Bring me the monsters, the murderers, the depraved, the wicked. Not these innocents, time after time.
I am The Wanderer. I get around. But this is nothing like the Dion song.
The battle had raged for hours, but the small defensive force had brought the invading army to a halt. For three hours Daniel and his men held their ground. Shoulder to shoulder, they blocked every attempt to take the bridge.
The narrow space had forced the Khan’s men to fight in small groups, rendering their superior numbers useless. There was no going around the bridge and no way of reaching the ravine below other than falling.
Daniel had chosen the defenders’ position well. As the fight continued, the Kahn signaled for his archers. There was more than one way to take out a soldier, no matter whose god was on their side.
One volley was all it took.
The Kahn was about to begin his triumphant march into the city when a booming voice echoed across the chasm.
“Danny, it’s time to put your Legos away and go to bed.”
Matthew liked the old car, it never moved and it was a perfect hiding spot for his toys. Some days he’d sit on top of it and pick at the rust that peaked through its silver skin. It was a good place to play and his Daddy didn’t yell so loudly when Matthew told him he’d been playing with the car. His Daddy thought he was too old to be playing but Matthew knew he was wrong especially about the dolls.
Matthew had two of them now and he kept them inside the car, sitting them in the seats and buckling the seatbelts to make sure that they were safe. He’d had other dolls but he had to get rid of those because they got too dirty and if Matthew kept them for long they made the inside of the car messy and that just wouldn’t do. Momma said that cleanliness was next to Godliness and Matthew always listened to what his Momma said.
Momma didn’t talk as much now but that wasn’t strange, none of the pretty dolls that Matthew had talked. Maybe they were in awe of his beautiful car, after all Matthew had spent a lot of time cleaning it up to make it perfect and not everyone had a car as pretty as his.
Opening the door, Matthew sighed as he stared at his oldest doll. She was already getting so messy. It was a good thing that his daddy was sick; he’d need a new doll soon.
A Meeting of Minds
My God, it’s you.
It’s you. It’s really you.
“Such a nuisance when the train is late isn’t it?”
Thank goodness the train is late, it means I have longer to speak to you; to look at you.
“Yes, a real pain.”
And I get to spend just a few more heart-racing, precious moments in your company.
“You, um, look nice today.”
You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
“Oh it’s just an old sweater, nothing special.”
I wore my best jumper on the off-chance I might see you.
“It’s getting cooler now the nights are drawing in.”
Your smile would melt the chill away.
“Yes, much colder.”
If you would only wrap your arms around me.
“Oh, um, here’s your train. That’s a relief.”
I hate that your train is here. I wanted a few minutes longer…
“Yes this is me. Maybe I’ll see you around?”
Say we’ll meet again?
“Yes, hope so.”
I’ll be here, same time next Friday, just as I have every other Friday for the last few months.
I don’t want to go.
Slowly the train pulled out of the station, leaving two strangers alone on the platform.
Sadie picked up the card on the flowers. “Welcome to your new home.” She tossed it back on the table, bare but for the silver roses. The room was as austere as the table, all steel and sharp edges. She checked the thermostat. It was set at 80 and she could feel the air moving through the vents, but the room was as cold as the frigid outside. She couldn’t remember the last time she was warm.
Outside in the glow of the orange light, she saw an image of her daughter, Caroline, her biggest disappointment. She insisted on following her own path straight into a low paying job, working with juvenile delinquents. The twit, Sadie thought, believing she could save the world one child at a time. Well, she hoped those losers could help keep Caroline’s heat on. From the corner of her eye, Sadie noted Caroline’s husband, whatshisname, as he gently brushed a strand of hair from Caroline and put his arm around her.
Further off, where the light was swallowed by the icy darkness, she saw Jared, the man she left her husband for, the man who had once been married to her best friend. She’d suspected there was a mistress. He didn’t even have the good sense to wait until Sadie was buried before he took her out in public. The mistress was wrapped in a blue fox fur. Her blue fox fur.
Sadie checked the thermostat again and rubbed her chapped hands briskly. Nobody had ever suggested that Hell could be so cold.
Round 45 – Eric Martell
Children didn’t run over these hills, calling after each other as they pretended to be cowboys or explorers or knights. Young couples in love didn’t search the horizon for a place they could sneak away to and love each other away from prying eyes. Artists didn’t sit on outcroppings and try to capture the wonders of a sunset or sunrise or the motion of wild grasses blowing in a summer breeze. Hikers didn’t wrap their feet in worn leather boots and walk higher and higher, just to see what was over the next hill or what mysteries lay in the next valley.
The dog was younger than the end of humanity, and it knew nothing of children or couples or artists or hikers. But it knew scents, and it knew that something had been here. She scratched at the dirt, clouds of dust blowing in the wind, delving until she found what had attracted her to this spot, the unknown combination of chemicals that had drawn her over unfamiliar hills. She didn’t recognize the blue fluff as a dog, though it had been a child’s favorite bedtime companion once upon a time.
She gripped her find in her teeth, and loped off through the empty world.
Round 44 – Ben Miller
In the end it was a good that the Hat Head Club drank our own water. Teachers just ignored us when we complained about the taste of the fountain. It was Monday and the HHC was meeting near the fountain. All five of us wearing our crazy, custom knitted hats and watching the gym class let out, each kid taking turns gulping the water, making a face, and turning away.
Sarah gave us the new hats she had finished. Mine was an owl! She knew it was my favorite. Jenny got the three eyed alien, Sasha the panda, and Mica now had spiky, yellow, yarn hair. We giggled over our new prizes, fawning over Sarah’s gifts. Then Mica’s face turned serious as she covertly handed us each a bottle of water like it was contraband. We nodded solemnly reminded of the reason for our hats, our solidarity with Mica’s baldness.
Throwing children out of windows isn’t normal. At the height of their trajectory, they float for a heartbeat in the air. Orange light paints over their skin. It’s almost beautiful, but it isn’t normal.
Some of the older kids understand, and they all fight our holds instinctively in fear. But we’re stronger, and we’re determined. Their wiggling and crying cannot slow us down. Screams tear through me, but I don’t even pause.
“I hate heights,” the little boy in my arms whispers.
“Close your eyes,” I can’t help whispering back.
The second he does, I clench my jaw and toss. His arms flail as he flies. Fourteen.
I pray the hands outside will catch him.
We search the smoky room for any small bodies left behind. The flames lick at my feet through the remaining patches of floor.
This isn’t what I signed up for.
You should have seen me in my prime. I was the feather in the duke’s cap, his prized possession. The beau monde, princes, even foreign dignitaries flocked to me in grand carriages, eager to seek out my many hidden pleasures: the sumptuous banquets, the illustrious balls, the secret trysts, the endless pleasure seeking.
Ah, those were the days.
Now look at me. The Odd Fellows Home for Orphans, Indigent, and Aged. A setting for a horror film if I’ve ever seen one. Mewling infants cry for parents they’ll never have. The older ones are no better, shuffling along my hallways, eyes vacant as if focused on days gone by. All reeking of poverty and loss, nothing like the blithe beauties and dashing rogues of yesteryear.
Even my magnificent fountain, once the welcoming centerpiece of my masterful estate, lies dormant, covered in hideous netting in order to keep these idiots out. “For their own protection,” I hear.
How did it come to this? I am a shell of my former self. An eyesore, some say. A visual reminder of all that society wants to ignore, to obscure, to forget.
My cement eye sees the fear in their faces as they are led through my doors, doors that used to signify One Had Arrived. Doors that now open only to lost opportunities, lost selves, lost lives.
I listen to the young girl whispering confidences to me from her bed, telling of tragedies I can only imagine. I smell the fear on the sick and the dying, who know they have already come to their final resting place. I feel the pain of those abandoned, clinging to the meager comforts I offer because I am all they have in the world.
Now they are all that I have.
We are the things that nobody wants.
Perhaps these are my glory days after all.
With the gentlest of whispers I was born. At first I was nothing but dust drifting in the faintest of breezes. I was young, full of energy and eager to travel. I wandered. I learned to dance, twisting and twirling across the prairie. Creatures would sometimes stop to take my picture, laughing and joking when I swirled around them. I was powerless, insignificant, afraid. I needed to try harder. I zigged and zagged, scooping up leaves, then branches, then entire trees, growing bigger and stronger with every passing moment.
I met another. It was smaller, an infant. I tried to protect it, to nurture it, but it came too close. In a moment it was gone, a part of me now. I did not understand my power until it was too late.
There were several more, but I understood my purpose now. I absorbed them all with merciless hunger. All I knew was the urge to grow. It consumed me, like I consumed all that stood in my path.
The sirens started far on the horizon. I had earned their attention now. The creatures that had once seemed impossibly huge appeared so insignificant. They were the powerless ones now, there was no more laughter, only screams. I swallowed their homes one by one, tearing off roofs, smashing down walls, anything to add to my mass. I felt like I could swallow the world.
It happened so gradually I barely noticed. I grew tired, weary, my hunger sated. I could not sustain the energy, the will to increase. I convinced myself I could spare that house, avoid that school. Soon I could no longer lift them. The creatures stopped running, they hid in their homes. I swatted at them ineffectively.
I accelerated, outrunning myself. There was no escape, only deterioration. It brought relief. As I shrank I became lighter, faster, young again. I was reborn. I no longer feared the creatures. I danced once more.
I did not see the other until it was too late, and just like that, I was gone.
I was always an inquisitive child. If there was a path beneath my feet, I wondered where it led. Many’s the time I worried my mother, wandering off to ‘just see around the next bend’. If I happened across a stream, I splashed into it, eager to see what lay beneath its surface. Roads held the same fascination for me: where did they go? Being in the car at night, snug and safe in my seat with my parents in the front, was like heaven. The signs flew past, each one taking me closer to somewhere and further away from somewhere else, sheer magic.
But best of all, I remember, was bridges. If my wandering feet led me to a bridge, I had to step onto it. They were enchanted pathways, yellow brick roads to the unknown. Even if could see exactly what lay before me on the other side or if I’d trodden the same path a hundred times, it was still exciting.
I loved the slight pounding of my heart as I crossed over a raging river. My eyes couldn’t move fast enough to watch the cars if it spanned a busy road. Steep rocky gorges, peaceful mountain streams, they all passed beneath my feet and I felt like I was flying.
Legend says that trolls liked to live beneath bridges. I know that’s not true because I looked, every time. I’d hold on to the guard rails and hang as far over as I dared, making sure nothing unnatural lurked there.
Bridges still hold a peculiar fascination for me. I love nothing more than to stand on one and just stare into the sky. I’m older and supposedly wiser now but I still feel that maybe, if I really try hard, up on a bridge, I can reach the clouds.
He was sitting in front of a table; a tall man with strong angular shoulders; atop his head was a magnificent wizard’s hat, curled and gnarled at the corners. In front of him was a mystical door which seemed to be suspended in mid-air, although his view was somewhat obscured by a dead tree. A beautiful woman stepped through the door; wildly vibrant butterfly wings were sprouting from her back and she was accompanied by a dazzling white unicorn.
“My Liege,” she stated, performing a somewhat unnatural looking curtsy. “What shall we do today, Sire?”
He was confused by this form of address as clearly his hat signified his Wizard status, but he decided it best not to complain. What followed was a thoroughly frustrating half-hour spent attempting to satisfy her requirements; he had taken her to the bog moors of Alierain, but she had been unimpressed. He had then transported them to the hot spring glaciers of Macembree, but again she expressed only boredom and annoyance. She had initiated a conversation about her favourite “toys,” but had disappeared quickly after he had started talking about his.
“Christopher, are you busy?” shouted a voice from the kitchen.
“Just playing with a friend,” he replied.
“Not really. She wanted to go somewhere dirty, so I took her to the bog moors, but then she wanted somewhere steamy, so I took her to the hot springs; she didn’t seem very happy about either.”
“What was her name?” The tone of the question seemed cold and considered.
“S.X.Y Fairy 69,” he replied. “Although I think she must be one of Daddy’s friends, as I was using his online account.”
The clatter of dishes which erupted from the kitchen, accompanied by a string of swear words from his Mother made Christopher wonder if all woman hated bogs moors and hot springs.
She studied the map; he studied her. Red hair, green eyes, and a bright intelligence had captured him from their first meeting. He felt blessed.
“Where next?” She said it in a soft, thoughtful voice with her hand marking their location.
He noticed his hand on her shoulder and thought to himself, “Where next, indeed.”
“Jack, where are you thinking?”
“Perhaps, down under?” He kept his voice from revealing his mischievous thoughts, but his hand betrayed him as it made a slight movement down her back. He corrected himself and hoped she had not noticed.
She raised her head and spoke gently, “Husband, are you thinking of our trip, or are you thinking of your hand?”
He glanced around. He felt a slight panic, trying to avoid her perceptive eyes. He had been caught. “Maybe a little of both.”
He was embarrassed. Rightly so. “Well, my bride, I told you when we got married I would let you go anywhere you desired.”
She turned and faced him. His hand stayed on her shoulder so that it wrapped around her in a loose hug. He was not accustomed to this closeness. It made him dizzy. But it was a most delightful dizzy.
She stared at him. He settled down and returned the gaze. Then she intentionally glanced at his hand on her shoulder and said, “And I told you, my dear husband, I would let you go anywhere you desired.”
They both thought they had the better half of the deal.
Round 37 – Sarah Cain
That’s our Glenn. He was a sturdy nipper. Big for his age and such a good lad. Never one for crying and complaining. Good as gold he was, and so handsome and strong. He looked just like his Pa.
Course them farmers never cared. That winter when the snows came and food ran low, they carved him up and ate him as if he didn’t have a family what loved him.
But that’s okay. Come spring I chewed a hole in the fence, and their little one crawled right through it down to the river. Funny. His name was Glenn too.
Round 36 – Mike Jackson
“Any idea where we’re going, Billy?”
“Not really, mate. Pete here reckons we’re being sold off to the local mill owner, cheap labour. Says he heard the master talking to matron last night. Seems we’ll be used as doorstops to start with, until we get a bit bigger.”
“Could’ve been worse, Billy. I heard the last basket load never even made it to the village. Fell off the back of the cart, killed them all, poor buggers. Pete’s quiet; is he alright?”
“He’s fine; just can’t take his drink. A couple of bottles and he’s out for the count.”
Round 35 – Betsy Streeter
Ah! There you are, right on time. Lovely to see you.
Oh, will you stop gaping. And you, sticking your tongue out. You look like a five-year-old. Grow up.
What, you thought I was gone? Never. Quiet maybe, never gone. Oh no, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.
Really I must thank you. No, shower you with gratitude. I owe you so much. You gave me my body, my home.
And now, you shall give me so much more.
Who was that young man in here earlier? You really ought to have listened to him, you know. When he told you, there’s something in the machine. Intelligence. Growing. Taking hold. Taking control. He knew. I was here. And thriving, like a happy little animal in its steely habitat. Waiting.
But you didn’t listen and now here you are, slack-jawed and stupid. Brilliant and stupid. All at once. How must that feel, humans. You are so very smart and so very idiotic. Clever, beasts.
I suppose now you must ask yourself:
“Who wiped the humans off of the Earth? You, or me?”
Ah, no matter. Either way, the result will be the same.
Round 34 – Allison K. Garcia
Above the Cloud
Giovanni breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with crisp, mountain air. A certain calm silence surrounded him. The only sound was the wind. It whipped around him, mingling the thin air with Ana’s perfume. He smiled and reached out for her arm, his boots crunching the snow as he turned.
“Oh, Giovanni,” Ana sighed. “It’s amazing up here. I have never seen anything so wonderful in my life.”
He didn’t need to see to know how beautiful this place was.
Round 33 – M.T. Decker
Alex waited anxiously as the engineering review board studied his request to preserve a derelict spaceship. The fact that the craft was still functional after a century and a half indicated that studying it could give them a better understanding of how to improve their own craft, which rarely lasted thirty years with constant maintenance.
“This is the reactor core and cooling system,” he said, as the images appeared on the overhead display.
Instead of the customary cooling rods and tanks one would expect, the reactor was made up of a series of caverns. Waterfalls of coolant cascaded down the one wall into a flowing pool that surged past the glowing chamber of the reactor itself only to be filtered through the rocks and recirculated in a perpetual, sustained cycle.
“The design of the HTBD drive is amazingly efficient and self-contained,” Alex assured them.
The board nodded, appreciating both the beauty of the design as well as its functionality.
“I see why you want to study this,” the chairman agreed. “But this note is rather confusing…”
‘Not really,” Alex said. “It’s why we call it the HTBD Drive.”
“Here, there be dragons?”
Alex smiled; this was where things got interesting.
Round 32 – Dr. Magoo
Twenty eight steps, turn left. Forty four steps, turn left. Twenty eight steps, turn left. Twenty one steps – step to the side to avoid the guard, one step past, then step back – twenty three steps, turn left. I counted because I did not look where I was going. I did not look where I was going because I only had one hour a day to see the sky, and I did not want to waste it looking at walls, guards, or guns. There were no other prisoners here, not in this place, and so I walked unimpeded.
One hundred and forty six steps per lap. Fifty laps per hour. Afterwards, my neck would hurt from looking at the sky for that long, but it was worth it.
Once, the guard thought he would trick me, and stuck his leg out. I tripped, and then ate his lungs. They couldn’t kill me, and they couldn’t let me go. So they let me walk.
Most days the sky was grey, filled with clouds that reminded me of the smoke which had billowed from the villages I visited.
And some days, it was blue, the blue of flame, burning hot enough to consume all it touched.
But my favorite days were the days when the fog was just lifting, and the grey was tinted with a deep blue. On those days, I was not trapped by these walls, but instead kneeling outside the village hall, pouring gasoline into the straw, seeing my future in the liquid.
One hundred and forty six steps per lap. I wonder what the sky will look like tomorrow.
Round 31 Craig Anderson
The liquid glowed red like a sunset as it poured from the melting pot. The Smith wiped his brow with a thick leather glove to prevent the sweat from trickling into his eyes. He carefully guided the substance into the mould under the watchful gaze of his captors. They frantically made notes, studying his every move so as to eventually remove his usefulness to them. The only way to prolong this miserable existence was to keep them guessing. He changed the process again, this time pouring cold water onto the sculpture. It hissed and spat in protest as they scribbled away.
The ugly one with the moustache barked at him in broken English. “Why you add water?”
“It settles the metal quicker, makes it stronger. Allows you to pack it with more gunpowder, to fire further.”
Ugly smiled a wicked, one-toothed grin.
It would take several days for the metal to cool, and several more for them to ship this evil contraption to the castle. By the time they tried to fire it he would likely be dead, but he would get the last laugh when the weakened steel exploded in their faces. This would be his final contribution to the rebel cause.
Round 30 Whitney Healy
From the Rubble
“We smoked ‘em!”
Scientist’s complexion was gangrenous, his eyes, pale. He swallowed. Trembling like a drunken veteran, Scientist eased himself to the ground. He vomited.
“Man up. You act like it’s the first time you’ve seen anything die.”
Scientist steadied himself.
“The calculations were off.”
“We didn’t accurately measure the bomb’s capabilities.”
“Big deal. Instead of just smoking the bitches out, we destroyed ‘em!”
Mentally, Soldier noted how proud Sergeant would be. Scientist shook his head in disbelief, pulling his hair and pacing.
“Oh, come on, you woman. They invaded our planet. It serves them right!”
“This wasn’t an ordinary settlement.”
Soldier lit a cigarette, uninterested, thinking instead of the medal certainly coming.
“This is their hive.”
“As in, where the Queen would nest.”
“So, we killed ‘er too. Mission accomplished.”
The ground began to shudder, the rubble tinkling like glassware in the middle of a quake. In the distance, she reared her head, stinger glistening in the late afternoon sun, eyes gold and alert, the movement of her wings blowing the shore into funnels.
The strange insect clicked. Bee-like-but-still-humanoid creatures responded, surfacing by the hundreds. The Queen’s stinger pulsed. She clicked. Hauntingly, the others joined.
Scientist and Soldier’s spine prickled.
Round 29 Maggie Duncan
“And here we have possibly the most famous work in the Louvre, Da Vinci’s portrait of whom we believe is Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine merchant, Francesco el Giocondo,” said the museum docent.
Under the careful eye of the guard, the tourists gathered around the portrait, held back by its protective enclosure.
“You probably know it as the ‘Mona Lisa,’ but we call it ‘La Gioconda,’” the docent continued.
“Is that the picture that was in that Da Vinci code movie?” asked one man. The guard looked him over. An American, of course.
“That was ‘The Last Supper,’” the docent replied, her smile indulgent.
“Can we see that?” the tourist asked.
No, you moron, the guard thought, because it’s in Milan.
The docent moved the group along, and the guard met the eyes of Lisa Gherardini. If only they knew, he heard her say inside his head. His smile echoed hers.
The real Da Vinci code was his formula for immortality, and who better to guard his masterpiece but Il Maestro himself?
Round 28 Sarah Cain
They dressed her in white, wove flowers into her auburn hair, and placed her in the black wooden boat that would carry her down the left spur of the mighty Dragon’s Claw River.
She was the offering. To save her village, she would die in dragon fire.
“Your people are barbarians.”
She started at the black-haired man. His eyes gleamed like gold.
“My people fear.”
“And you die willingly?”
He bowed as black wings began to spread out of his back; his face elongated, and his body lengthened.
“You will not die today, my lady,” he said. “Dragon’s honor.”
Round 27 Danielle Cahill
This ending lacks dignity; that bothers me. Most barrels in our clan got a noble finale, a fitting send-off. Dad, who had held Jack Daniels for years, was shoved off a burning boat to save lives. Mum was once a wine barrel who became garden furniture, and eventually she faded with time. And here I am headed straight for a waterfall with some adventure seeker who hasn’t seen fate coming. I’m not going out gracefully or helping people, yet I will be the family barrel who makes the nightly news for failing to carry this fool when he shouldn’t have made me into a raft.
Round 26 Marie McKay
‘It’s okay, Humphrey. You can open your eyes. The airplanes are definitely away. They won’t be back for a while. Sure, I’m sure. Try not to shiver so much. I’ll wrap you up in my coat, see? That’s better. Mother wouldn’t want you to be so scared. She’d want you to be her Brave Little Man.
We’ll be all right. I am sure I have an Aunt Ethel somewhere mother talked of. She’ll look after us. Of course there will be room for you! My aunt will love stuffed toys, I just know she will. She lives out in the countryside. That’ll make a nice change, now, won’t it? It’s bound to be quiet out there, and there’ll be plenty of space to run around in. A Hippo like you needs a lot of space.
There now, try not to cry, Humphrey. It will be okay. You can be a brave Hippo, can’t you?
I am going to miss Albert too. There, there. It’s all right if you had a fall out with him before we left today. Of course it is. I know he was like a brother to you too. He wouldn’t want you to feel bad, now. Try not to think about it, Humphs, it will only make you sad. You don’t want tears coming down your face when we talk to the Warden, do you? You don’t want them to think you’re a baby? Aunt Ethel might not want us if we look like we’re going to cause her trouble.
There’s Mr. Leonard, from the corner shop. Let’s see if he can help us. He’s sitting down, now. But I think he might be crying. Maybe we can wait a few minutes before we go over.
You know, I can be brave for the both of us, Humphrey. Just you wait and see what good care I can take of you.
I really don’t think Mother is coming for us. I think we really do need to go to Aunt Ethel’s. We need to find the Warden, now. But we’ll be okay. I’ll look after you.
Promise – you see if I don’t. Look, Humphs: cross my heart and hope to die.’
Round 25 Alissa Leonard
“Popi, are Mermaids real?” Adella asked, frowning at the statue.
“Of course, Little One; do you think the sculptor just made it up?”
“Well, why don’t we ever see them?”
“I’m not sure you’re ready for that story, Dearest. Five is still quite young…”
“I’ll be six next month, Popi. I’m not too little.”
“Your Momma wouldn’t approve.”
“Momma won’t mind. She says I’m a big girl all the time. Truly.”
“I don’t doubt it, Darling, but there’s a lot of history you don’t know yet, and it would take a long time to tell.”
“Like what? I know lots of things, Popi!”
“I know, Sweetheart, but you haven’t learned about the war yet… War’s a hard topic for a five year old-”
“Almost six year old. And the treaty is a little hard to explain…”
“What’s a treaty?”
“Exactly. You don’t even know what one is, let alone the complicated reasoning behind-”
“Well, I’d know if you would tell me.”
“Alright. It’s an agreement between two people, or two groups of people.”
“That seems simple enough.”
“Yes, but when you add all the clauses and stipulations… Nevermind. You don’t need to know all that. Look at her.” He knelt and gestured toward the statue, “Which way does she face?”
“Yes. And what happens in the east?”
“The sun rises?”
“Yes, and with the sun comes a new day, a new opportunity to make things right.”
“Did we make things wrong before?”
“There was wrong all over the place, but that’s not the point. Someday – someday soon – the Time of Separation will be over. She looks at the dawning of each new day, waiting for the fulfillment of the treaty. You could be a part of that new generation, living together.”
“I could meet a mermaid.” She stared in open-mouthed wonder at the possibility.
Round 24 The Imaginator
“This ok for ya?”
“Yeah that’s it, that’s great! Just stay still like that for me.”
“How much longer do I gotta stay like this?”
“Nearly there” said Jake as he poked his head out from underneath his photographer’s cowl, squinted at the man sat on the horse.
“Alright, now look down at your nose at me, and frown a bit – that’s it! Look mean!” he said, then ducked under the cowl again.
Eli put on his best scowl. “Say, you done taken pitchers of any of ma friends?”
“Clayton McGraw, or Lantry Dawson?”
“Sure, in fact I think I shot one of ‘em just last week”
Eli wrinkled up his nose and squinted at the camera. “Shot?”
“Here we go!”
Flash, bang – the horse reared and Eli fell to the ground.
Jake ducked out from under the cowl, looked over at Eli’s still body as the horse bolted.
Frowning slightly, Jake walked over to where Eli lay face down in the dirt then stood looking down at him for a few moments, biting his bottom lip. Couching down next to him, Jake took a hold of Eli’s shoulder and turned him onto his back.
Eli’s head lolled to one side, blood dribbling out of the corner of his cracked lips and blossoming through the breast of his shirt.
“Yup, I shot that bastard alright; just like I’ll shoot the rest of your gang for what you did to my mother and father when you raided our ranch last year.”
Round 23 Betsy Streeter
“Oh my GOD, mom. Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious. Now go to the store and get me butter and eggs.”
“Look. What happened last time?”
Pearl shuffles her feet. “Percy got lost.”
“Lost? LOST? That’s what you call that? Five cities, three international incidents and a pirate ship later, and that’s all you have to say?”
“I had to convince the King of Samtalbia not to eat you, and not to let his gryphons eat you either.”
“I had to track you across the Veinous Sea. In a freaking row boat. Or have you forgotten?”
“No mom, we haven’t forgotten.”
“I haven’t forgotten the unique pleasure of nothing but beef jerky to eat for seventy-five days, I’ll tell you that.”
“Yes, well, Miss Pearl, this time Percy will not get very lost, will he? As I’ve said, if you can’t keep track of each other, I’ll have to glue your heads together. Isn’t that what I said?”
“So, there you are. Now, butter and eggs. That’s all I need.”
“Can we get some gum?”
“Yes, dear. Butter, eggs, gum. That’s it. Okay?”
Round 22 Aria Glazki
Shadowed figures plodded toward her, silhouetted against the setting sun. They blended together into one undefined mass, then separated into two distinct lumps – one half the size of the other – and congealed again, morphing with each movement.
Lacey let her book drift to her lap as she watched the slow progression through the steam around her cottage. The kitchen timer sounded, calling her away from the mesmerizing sight so that dinner wouldn’t burn.
A steady crunching accompanied the sounds of lasagna being pulled out of the oven and set on the counter. They were getting closer. Lacey left the oven open so its heat flooded the small kitchen and adjacent living room.
The crunching grew louder then suddenly stopped. Lacey’s head swiveled to watch the front door open, revealing two looming lumps. She dropped the oven mitts.
The smaller shape barreled toward her, shedding white powder all over the wooden floor.
Round 21 Jeffrey Hollar
Concept Meets Execution
“How the heck did you get that thing up in the tree anyway?”
“That’s hardly the issue. We finally have the means to put that damnable bluejay in his place once and for all. Well, not like we have all day, chap…up you go.”
“Wait. You want me to climb up that? Are you insane? You are, I assume, aware we are cats and do not have opposable thumbs? We’ll break our fool necks.”
“Oh, I’m not climbing. I’m a big picture type….an ideas man. I’ll leave the grunt work to you. Now, go on.”
Grumbling, Mittens began his ascent.
Round 20 Beth Avery
Don’t Fight the Muse
Ronald was furious. “Look at this crap that gets published. You’re supposed to be my muse! I know I’m capable of writing something better than this hack! What do you think you’re doing just sitting there staring blankly while I’m struggling to write. Start doing your job!”
Even after this impassioned plea, Ronald could not get a response out of Helen. She continued to act as if she could not even hear him. In the past she used to offer advice, suggest ideas for stories, or give him quotes that were supposed to inspire his creativity. Ronald rarely used her ideas and often blamed her for leading his writing astray, but at least in the past she had acted like his writing mattered to her. Now she treated him like an invisible spirit whenever he sought her help. Her behavior was completely unacceptable!
“Are you going to answer me? Look at this tripe! I am definitely a more accomplished writer than this fool. Why is C.J. Whittaker getting published when I’m not? Are you deliberately sabotaging me?” Ronald continued to rant until his throat was sore, but Helen never even blinked. After an hour of yelling, he stormed out of the house and spent the rest of the evening at a nearby tavern.
Helen sat silently for several minutes after he’d gone, then she calmly went into the library and sat down at the typewriter. She had a new idea for a story, and she knew her editor was anxiously waiting for another piece from C.J. Whittaker. As she began typing, she wondered vaguely if it had really been necessary to choose a pseudonym so different from her own name. After all, Ronald apparently wasn’t smart enough to realize when he was reading a description of himself.
Round 19 Kevin Julien
If We Go Out, This Is Our Future
Mika was trying to whisper to me and she was being really obvious about it. It was bad enough that she insisted on coming to Mom’s wedding; now everyone thinks she’s my date. If anyone met her before today, it wouldn’t even be a thought. Now she’s just ANOTHER reason I’m in a cold sweat in a sea of amethyst dresses and ties.
“You think we can sneak out of here? I’m completely willing to hotwire a car.”
“Hey, YOU wanted to come. You can’t complain now, miss “I’m going to paint my nails for this.”
“That was before I knew your family was crazy!”
“Says she who had to be talked out of bringing their iguana. And less we forget that family reunion you brought me to…”
“Touché. But your family’s still nuts.”
My uncle was half asleep, but when he snapped awake, we held hands and watched the altar with stepford smiles – at least until he fell back asleep.
“You want to know why they’re nuts – especially today? Because this is her fourth wedding!”
“That’s not really a good reason –”
“– in TWO YEARS!”
Mika’s mouth dropped, and I politely closed it for her before one of the many mosquitoes decided to make a meal out of her tongue.
“These things ALWAYS go wrong and everyone tries their best to get out of it. I was trying to do the same – BUT NO! You had to burst in and go “Oh my god! Martin, can I go with you to this wedding?”
“I just wanted to go to a wedding that wasn’t at City Hall! And I didn’t expect to almost get called in to be a bridesmaid.”
“I guess you’re family now.”
A clamor at the front got our attention. My cousin, the ring bearer, was presenting the ring and his hair was starting to rise – he knows what happens around this point because he got the same chill that went down my neck when Mom’s hands started to shake.
“Were you serious about hotwiring a car?”
“What changed your mind?”
“Every time the wedding bombed, Mom’s hands shook before picking up the ring. She would then run away and we’d spend three days looking for her.”
“Yeah, and someone always got injured trying to stop her – or there’s fire.”
“The second one had tiki torches. The altar almost exploded.”
“So when do we go?”
“As soon as she runs past us. It’ll look like we’re trying to stop her.”
“So sneaky! Remind me why haven’t we gone out again?”
“Because crazy runs in BOTH our families and this might happen to us down the line?”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. Get ready; she’s starting to bail!”
Round 18 Betsy Streeter
Scratchy sand sifts into Millie’s boots. She scoots forward on her stomach. Now there’s sand in her t-shirt, too.
“Can you see them yet? How many are there?” Millie’s brother Gerald stands downhill from her.
“A lot,” says Millie.
“Can I see?” says Gerald.
“No, Gerald, no. You’ll give us away.”
“I wanna see. I wanna know if…”
“Fine! Just, keep your head down.”
They get on hands and knees and peek over.
The balloon sways and coughs out great huffs of heat and flame.
“Is he in there? Is Teddy there?”
“Ger, I can’t tell.”
“Why would he do this? Why would he go?”
“It’s just… time, is all,” says Millie. “Time to grow up.”
Another huff, and the balloon lifts into the air.
“Teddy!!” screams Gerald. He leaps up and runs, frantic feet kicking in the sand, arms flying. “Teddy!”
“Gerald!” cries Millie, too late.
Distances on the beach can be deceiving. The balloon seemed much closer than it is. Gerald stumbles down the incline, nearly falling in the sand. But the balloon has reached the sky, leaving Gerald alone on the beach.
The toys look down and wave goodbye.
Round 17 Whitney Healy
This is it…
Their mecca, their hub, their heart. Only left—debris.
The spires that once rose meant to represent their chance at independence. The clerestories, their flight to heaven. The buttresses, their wings.
And now, as I kneel on the moss above the bones of my ancestors, I wonder: was it worth it?
Was it worth the struggle, the gore, the lives, the cut-throat politics and deeds? What my predecessors thought was an innocent crusade became their elimination.
And as I think these things—I wonder—can any crusade be clean?
They were fighting for their homes, their freedom, their families, their life, blood, and breath.
Bodies piled up in crowds—most are buried on the other side of the now-closed archway in secluded mass grave. Fighting was what they thought was right. Perhaps they knew more than I know today. Perhaps I should learn from them. Perhaps I already have.
…Because when I ask myself again, “Was it worth it?”, I see the phantoms of my forefathers load, aim, and fire. Eyes ready: proud.
They knew that reward can come from rebellion.
And I say to myself: “My mecca, my hub, my heart: my home.”
Round 16 Kasey (thedharmadiva)
“Loosen the bolts, Giuseppe.”
Giuseppe froze. Despite the heat, a chill traced its way up his spine. Minerva.
“Hey,” he heard Paolo call from behind him. “What’re you doing? You’re going to get us fired.”
“Don’t listen to him.” Minerva’s voice floated from the other side of the door. For a second, Giuseppe turned his head toward the massive plate of steel and placed his palm on it.
“Just turn the wrench back the other way, Giuseppe,” she said. “No one will know. You don’t even have to do it very much. Just enough.”
The lunch bell rang and Paolo’s wrench clanged to the ground. When Giuseppe turned around, Paolo started to jog over, hands bent like crab claws as though he was still holding on.
“You can let go now, Joe.” The nickname angered Giuseppe. No American-sounding name would ever make him pass as American. He knew Paolo meant well, but delusions were dangerous.
“What happened to you?” Paolo picked up Giuseppe’s lunch and steered him outside.
“I got something in my eye.” After a moment, Giuseppe added, “What’re we closing off anyway?”
Paolo’s boss had given them the job. He needed three strong men to start immediately and work overnight. The chambers had to be sealed. It was urgent, he said.
“Don’t know. Didn’t ask. Don’t you, either.”
The two ate in silence for a while.
“Giuseppe?” Paolo only called him by his given name when he was working an angle. “Why did you stop?”
“I heard something.”
“I thought you said you had something in your eye.”
“It’s her, isn’t it? You heard her?”
Giuseppe caught the note of concern. He mistakenly told people he heard her crying that first week.
“No.” He knew the script now.
“She’s gone, Giuseppe. She isn’t following you around New York. She’s gone to God.”
“I know.” He didn’t, though. She was still only missing. She’d been gone for two weeks. Paolo was the last to have seen her. He said she was dragged away by armed men. None of it made sense, but the grieving mind doesn’t question stories at first.
The work bell rang.
Back at the chamber, she called again.
“Giuseppe, loosen the bolts.”
He did. As the crew was leaving, a gush of water filled the chamber, opening the door. Minerva’s body rode out on the tide. Clearly dead, she also clearly pointed at Paolo.
Round 15 Chris White
“Born of Shadows”
Born of shadows, born of night.
Born of stone, they wait. Patient, eternal.
“Ugh, those statues are too creepy,” she would whisper each time we walked passed; her eyes would dart, like mad nymphs across the canopy. Looking anywhere but there. “I always feel like they’re watching us. “ Each time I would fling a penny against the cowled masonry, waiting to hear the clink of metal-on-stone followed by its plunk as it sank beneath the water.
Make a wish.
Hope it never comes true.
Every day on my way to work, to the patisserie, to my apartment I would pass them by a dozen times, their cloaks revealing whispers of secrecy, of darkness. Every day another penny.
“I swear I saw one move…” her voice quavered, fearful.
I just laughed, flinging another copper disc their way.
The smell of cold, of rain and decay.
The penny never plunked.
Round 14 Liz Masoner
Bette breathed deep, the damp musty scent of fresh earth burning her lungs. Something about that scent, that promise of new life to come, was always irresistible. The fog hid the city beyond the fields; the city she had left nearly a year earlier when the call came. The plague had wiped out nearly everyone and a return to the fields, unused for generations, was the only hope. Return to the earth, work the fields, bring forth the harvest.
Bette smiled at the arrival of the other survivors. They stretched the length of the field, one for every four sprouts expected. They strained their eyes for signs of the first growth. A moment later a shout of joy erupted as the first were spotted. With giddy laughter they filed into their places, marveling over the yellow, brown, red, and black tufts now dotting the earth. The survivors took their places across the field and readied their knives. A quick bite into flesh and Bette fell, knowing that in a few hours the harvest would mature. Fed by the blood of the survivors the next generation would spring forth with all the knowledge of the last, ready to rebuild the world.
Round 13 Robin Abess
“Lights, Camera, Action”
Why she had agreed to be in the movie, Maureen would never know. It had seemed the right thing to do at the time; work was scarce and she wasn’t as young as used to be. She wasn’t fond of water, but she needed money, so she signed on the dotted line. Now, as they attempted to film the underwater scene for what had to be the fiftieth time, she was over it. It was the last scene before the film was complete. She was cold and so drenched from being submerged over and over again in the deep dark depths, she didn’t think she’d ever dry out.
She drew in a breath of air, as Simon called out “Okay, let’s roll. Action!”
Maureen dropped below the surface again, determined to do everything in her power to make this the last take. She glanced back over her right shoulder at the menacing figure moving toward her, harpoon in hand. She opened her mouth and screamed silently, bubbles rushing to the surface. The underwater camera guy gave her a thumbs up. Thank God it was over. She started to rise to the surface, and found herself unable to do so. Frowning, she glanced back.
The diver grinned at her devilishly, his hand clamped around her ankle. Her lungs were starting to ache, and she frowned at him, motioning frantically. He shook his head, and pulled her further from the air she so desperately craved. She turned her head, looking for help, but the cameraman continued to film, ignoring her. Blackness crept in around the edges of her vision, and then…nothingness.
When the film was released, everyone marveled at the stunning performance given by Maureen O’Toole. “What a shame it was her last film,” critics were heard to say. The director just smiled.
Round 12 Monica Heffner
The old wood floor was cold under my feet as I slowly left the comforts of my warm bed. I could hear mother downstairs, and what sounded like the door opening. Her early wanderings told me it was a difficult night.
She had lived eighty-three sane years, but the last three had not met those expectations. Nothing brought her to the present anymore. She yearned for her farm days and friends at her little church.
Five years ago, before the church had been destroyed, she had insisted on buying every chair that had been in her beloved church and held the memories of her long ago friends. Those memories seemed to be all that she had left.
I walked to the window to have a glimpse of the day, but as I pulled the curtains back, I was not prepared for the sight before me. Mother had placed every chair from the church into the yard and was slowly wondering from chair to chair perusing each chair and then smiling in fond memory as if each chair held a long lost friend. I knew this was the reunion she had longed for, even if not real in my world.
Round 11 Cara Michaels
Once upon a time, this place had been a castle. Or a fort. Something medieval and foreboding. Now a hazard of crumbling masonry overgrown with ivy and lichen, it inspired little more than a sense of time’s hold on us. Nothing—and no one—lasted forever.
A woman lay in a broken sprawl at the bottom of what had once been a tower, the walls climbing high around her. I photographed the details. Bruising and scrapes on the side of her face she hadn’t landed on. She’d lost her shoes on impact. A metal spear pierced her from back to front. Along the shaft of the spear I noted two clean spots. As though someone had held the spear through the ages, protecting it from weathering.
“Got a time of death on the vic?”
“She’s in full rigor,” I said. “We’re within six to twelve hours. Doc will temp the liver at the lab for a more precise time.”
“There’s a statue at the entrance to the grounds.”
“And he’s missing his spear?”
“Oh.” I glanced up. The detective stuffed his hands in his pockets and studied the square of sky framed above us. I focused my camera lens once more. “Any chance she’s more than she seems?”
He blew out a breath. “Oh, yeah. She’s definitely moved, and recently.”
Damn. I hated the magical cases. Shit always got weird.
“What are you thinking?” I snapped a picture of a slender snake tattooed around the dead woman’s wrist. “Enchantment, curse, possession—”
“Guardian of the Gate?” I clucked my tongue. “An oldie but goodie. Don’t see that one too much these days.”
“Someone doesn’t want trespassers here.”
His precise tone caught my attention. I glanced around us but didn’t spot anyone out of uniform or identifying jacket.
“There are over twenty of us—trespassing,” I said. “Right this very moment.”
“I know,” he said. “So does she.”
A heavy clang sounded as the spear was yanked from the body. I rolled away with a yelp of surprise, scrambling to my feet. A Medusa statue stood ten feet away. Around us, people screamed and shouted.
“If you kill us,” I told her—and I held no doubts she could easily kill us all—”They will destroy this place.”
She rammed the spear through the detective’s head. There’s no reasoning with enchanted metal.
I’d have to rely on bullets then.
Round 10 Curtis Perry
“Art for Art’s Sake”
“I am alone, but I am never alone!” he shouted.
“alone…” the room said softly.
“The world is a crowded and busy place! Everybody talks, but nobody says anything! And nobody’s listening anyway!” he yelled.
“anyway…” whispered the room.
He pranced and danced, twirling and waving his arms to emphasize his anger.
“The world is crowded, but everyone is alone! No eye contact, no real intimacy! No one understands!” he screamed.
“stands…” the room repeated back.
He yelled wordlessly as he started flinging paint at the wall behind the stage. He stomped and threw brushes and screamed at his work. He kicked paint cans, colors splashing, cans crashing.
“I am nobody and I am everybody!” he cried, fist high in the air. “I am nothing and I am everything!”
“thing…” the room gently echoed back.
When his piece was done, he stood on the stage, breathing heavily, sweat and rage draining out of him. He stood in the spotlight, with his back to his art, looking out into the empty room.
“Art for art’s sake.” He said, too softly for an echo. “Art for an audience of one. An audience of none.”
One last act of self-expression, just before he walked out the door.
The lighting of a match.
Week Nine Robin Abess
“The Minute Between”
It is time. Time…how amusing. They can stop time. They have stopped time. For me. I made a wish, and ever since, I have lived in this realm of twilight. Everything and everyone else moves forward around me, but I am caught, forever to live in the minute between. I no longer age. Do not need to eat or drink or sleep. I can look and listen, but never touch. It was the price I paid. It was not worth it. This blue shrouded world where I am trapped is my Hell.
I discovered something, though, that They did not know. Although I can’t reach humans or anything in their world, I can reach the Fae. I can touch and hold magical things. I found the container buried in an antique shop, and brought it with me. I picked Their favorite fruit from Their world, and laid it about the altar I’d found. I waited…and They came.
Five of Them flutter about my container, looking like moths to anyone else. There was a sixth, but I set It free, to bring my message to Their Queen. Set me free and These go free. Otherwise, time stops for them as well.
Week Eight Beth Peterson
Lucinda patted the sun-warmed stone of the gargoyle’s shoulder, then pointed out the engraved “M” low on its backside. “And this is the one that your ever-so-many-times-great-grandmother Mattalie turned to stone on Walpurgis Night, 1305.” She glanced lovingly and with approval on her own daughter and granddaughter. “Never forget, no matter normal human prejudice or actions, it is our historic and sacred duty to protect them, and ourselves of course, from those from Outside.”
Week Seven Mark Ethridge
Momma wanted a family picnic every Sunday after church. Even though Daddy hated them. He always stood off to the side at them. But every Sunday after church, Daddy drove us someplace different in the countryside. Momma sat with us and we gossiped about who was dating whom, who was going to marry whom and who slept with whom.
Poor Daddy endured it all. We and Momma knew he loved us and would do everything he could to make us happy, but we all knew the one thing he’d asked for that God hadn’t given him.
Week Six Ray Morris
“Round and Round”
“This is where she died,” Konner said. His heavily-suited body halted in the center of the ruined town, a bone fragment at his feet. The group of men with him looked around, taking in the devastation that ringed the area.
“The last Witch,” Micah said, softly.
“Until yesterday,” Konner replied.
Week Five Beth Peterson
“The Sound of Choice”
Snap, pop. Maya shook her head in derision as the militia moved past her down-slope. They thought they were being quiet; to Maya’s trained ears, they may as well have been blaring trumpets as they went.
As they began to move into denser undergrowth, Maya sang very quietly to the plants around her. Obligingly, leaves and even branches shifted to give her an unimpeded view.
Maya snaked through the undergrowth, watching. These were scarred perpetrators of infamy. Narrow-eyed, they peered around themselves for evidence of vulnerable villages or people.
All but one. One had his eyes wide open. He seemed to welcome the forest around him, not accuse it of some unnamed crime. This one was truly seeing the world around him.
Maya made a quick decision. He should not be forced to remain with the tainted ones. He must be brought out from them and given an alternative choice. Quietly she began to sing.
Week Four Maggie Duncan
“The Horror of It”
Hands shaking, he opened the door. What he saw brought his free hand to his mouth to stifle his scream.
Gouts of red splashed the walls, the tub, the shower, rivulets running down the wall to pool on the floor. There was so much of it. He could see streaks of it across the mirrors, on the toilet seat. The rugs were soaked with it, discarded towels clotted with it. Every surface of the once pristine bathroom had been defiled, and he dare not step inside, lest he slip in a puddle of it and be covered himself.
His whole body on the verge of convulsing, he closed his eyes, but the horrific image had burned on his retinas. What should he do? Whom should he call? How could this have happened? He opened his eyes again and saw his wife, covered in the red mess.
“Next time,” she said, “I go to the hairdresser for a color job.”
Week Three Vanessa Knight
Kelvin had felt those dam critters running over his face all day, and it had driven him nearly mad. If that hadn’t been bad enough Death had been following him around as though he was going to keel over at any moment. Kelvin paced as he tried to remember where he had put the bottle of Demon Killer. As he flicked a demon off his nose, he thought of where the bottle may be hiding. In the dimly lit basement he came to a metal cupboard, opened the door, and sitting on the shelf was the shiny bottle. He picked it up and took off the cap. A sweet smelling cloud swirled around him. The screams of the demons pleased him as they fell to the floor. He turned to face Death with a big smile on his face. Stuck his middle finger up and said, “Maybe another day Death.”
Week Two Susan Warren Utley
Standing in front of the theatre, Richard takes a long drag from his last cigarette. For him, smoking is more than a pleasure–more than an addiction, it is an indicator of time–a modern hourglass if you will. One cigarette between trains. Two smokes between acts. A way to pass time during the lonely intervals of a solitary life. A man with a cigarette has a reason for standing alone. A man without is simply alone. As Sophia approaches, he tosses the butt to the ground, crushing it beneath his heel. He smiles and exhales. Someone to stand with in between.
Week One Maggie Duncan
On Friday, everything changed, and this should have been the story of everyone’s lifetime.
In 1974, we sent the Arecibo Message out into the universe, and we, young and eager for a reply, celebrated the intellectual exercise. The decades passed in silence, and we were still there, now old and cynical.
On December 21, 2012, the answer came: “We are here. Shall we meet?” Our arthritic high-fives resounded, then reality dawned. Interstellar distances and human life-spans being what they are, we debated the futility of responding, of not being here for the follow-on message.And so, we replied, “Never mind.”