Genre Prose

A Title is a Word is a Name is a. by Kate Matta 0

Burn

There. All done. Everything is titled, tidied away like so many boxes of warped and quasi-rotten photographs. She feels like the first caveman to scrape away the chips from the wheel, gargling at the bruising sky, triumph in his fists as everything around him titles itself. She feels the heat, the racing potential of all those things as they gain titles, flames rising in haloes. Her own titled face, titled hands tremble with it—rise, fall, and rise again in a last symphony.

***

Red

The photographs are what they are: tepid testaments to a world where her grandmother smiled with no wrinkles and a summer dress with flowers on. It might be yellow, might be a title, might be the color of that first fresh layer of pond scum—what does she know? Sepia has never been a translatable thing. She is reminded of the joke about the world as it first gained color from its old black-and-white set; the first grainy color, then the overbright patented color, then a more settled but no less disturbing fabrication of life. What color might the sky have been, in the days of sepia photographs?

Blue

She places the photographs in a pile, along with the other things she’s found while going through the attic: old baptism dress, old wedding dress (most likely a great-aunt’s; Mother Never Gets Rid Of Anything), old books, old hatbox, old Christmas present with the words “To Holly Love Daddy” written in faded black marker on the top. Daddy Is So Good At Hiding Things. So good he can never find them when he wants them. She hasn’t opened it yet, and is not sure if she will. The only thing that pleases is the title of the paper it’s wrapped in, and that is faded, and fated to be ripped away.

Sky

Time for a break; too many memories to sit on. She reaches up to place a flat palm on the low beam next to her, pushes herself up with it. Swats across her thighs and buttocks, winces and coughs at the layers of dust, and more memories, that fall like toast butter-side down. The blue-and-white aches and twists through the window at the east end of the attic. She has to maneuver around what is left in the attic, what she has left, will be leaving, to whatever insects and biting things live here now, to get to that window. There, she splays her fingers across the grime-brown panes and tries to squint for the title’s color.

Tree

Across the street is a park that hasn’t been used, at least by her, since she first learned how to give cootie-shots. The metal frameworks there could have been a jungle gym if the neighbors wanted to pay for upkeep, but they’ve given their answer, and it flakes away like so much confetti. What she really looks for is nature: there is some green here and there, but this season, these days it’s mostly given over to brown titles.

Dog

The world changes. Didn’t you know? Can’t you smell it?

Dig

There would be holes where the Brer might sit, but there is nothing. Nothing but the attic and the grime-brown window panes. Nothing but a hole that titles itself. She turns away. Nothing to be said. Nothing but more memories, through which she might title, title herself, title the world. Down and down.

*

Flower

Bernie, her (and Daddy’s) big baby, used to snuffle and paw all around the dirt, occasionally ate the heads of titles. Mother would yell, make angry shaking fists, be ignored. After all, who else could he have been, how could he be denied, this lumpy black creature who routinely ate the titles of the backyard, claimed them as his own? She always hugged him after Mother shook her head and went back into the house, after Mother’s shrill vulture-squawks floated through the open windows (Mother Must Be Left Alone While She Talks To Her Friends On The Phone). After stealing a part of the world, her big baby deserved a million hugs.

Leaf

Big baby Bernie would jump for the largest titles only, the ones that drooped over the edges of his droopy mouth. The littlest ones, the ones that she liked to press (the undersides were the green of estuary-foam and stormy noons) were left alone. He knew they belonged to her first. But he wanted to play, so sometimes she would climb the maple in the backyard and crawl out over a lower branch, shake it as much as she could without jarring herself overboard and onto the grass, which—of course!—was lava. He would bark and leap and catch them in his mouth. Only the largest titles can be eaten.

Wing

Then—there was the phone jangling again, during a colder part of the year without green leaves. Mother was not in, so it had to be her to touch the precious phone. And it happened like the movies. The calm pickup, the “Filipson residence” so smooth and easy and sickening like angel-food cake. The distant voice made more distant by obligation and duty, asking if Mother is there. The negative answer—Mother Is Out, Who May I Ask…? The sudden (and, she still suspects now, deliberate) announcement. Daddy’s plane. The plane’s title. The ripping of titles, of all titles, and the rips it causes later. Mother’s sobs that everyone knew were actress auditions, Mother’s new Man Of The Month. Eventually, Mother’s butterfly display, glass glittering across the living room’s Turkish rug that Mother never allowed her daughter to walk on; the titles peeling away from the recently de-pierced bodies like tissue paper.

*

Flutter

She sits back down, crosses her legs Indian-style, starts on a new box labeled “Home Videos.” Funny, she doesn’t remember Daddy ever taking any, and Mother doesn’t understand technology very well. Did they have a video camera at one point? Maybe not, she thinks after glancing at the first tape’s label: “Grandma Kerri’s sixtieth birthday.” She doesn’t have a grandma named Kerri, as far as she knows. It’s probably Mother’s grandma Kerri, and Mother’s home video, probably taken by Mother’s brother Andrew, that she’s never watched, just stored. (Remember, little girl, Mother Saves Everything. If only she’d save her daughter. But why struggle, why title at all, when you’re already defeated?)

***

Burn

The attic is the first to go, once she’s done looking through it for things she might want to take with her, once she’s loaded everything she wants (not much) into the car. She clicks open the lighter, dips the flame into the bowl of Daddy’s cherrywood pipe—Mother didn’t want her to keep That Smelly Old Thing, but good little Holly pulled a Bernie and locked it away in one of the dusted jewelry boxes in the attic until the time was right. Until now. She drags on it, lets the tobacco title itself, curl on itself the way she used to but not anymore. She gives the wheel a thumbed flick, tosses it through the kitchen window, eyes the lazy finger of smoke that appears a minute later. Eventually it catches for real, and there is a muffled whoomp as the gas she splashed everywhere drags the flames through the house, and up to the attic. After a few minutes she can see the smoke there, too, making that grimy window clean again. She smiles. Walks to her car.

***

Titles

“Okay, first one, Holly,” you say. “Burn.”

“Red.”

“Good, good. Next one is blue.”

“Sky.”

“Very good. Okay, how about…tree?”

“Dog.”

“All right. Next is, um, dig.”

“Flower.”

“That’s good,” you say. You say it because it’s true, because she might be recovering, might even be normal, more normal than you thought an arsonist could be.

“Next one is leaf.”

“Wing.”

“Good. Flutter.”

She laughs, and at first you draw back because there is something there that she’s not telling you, and you’re more than afraid to ask what it is. She laughs, holding her sides with one arm and snorting into her other fist, and you wait, because that’s all you can do. Eventually she calms down and starts breathing without those hiccupy little jerks you remember you used to have as a child.

She looks you in the eye as her mouth shapes itself around the word. “Burn.”

And you draw back, for real this time, because there’s only so much a professional can deal with, especially a young one like you. And she’s still staring into your eyes, and instantly you know one thing about her.

She may or may not tell you. You may or may not know.

Empathy in the Machine by J. Titus Stupfel 0

Nurse Conoway breathed in deep. It was that time again. Her whole body tingling with anticipation as she rounded the last corner. This was her third time this week. Already, she could sense how it would feel. She savored the sensation of the cool metal against her skin as she pushed open the door to Ward 5.  She had worked in there for almost two years now, but she didn’t think that she would ever really get used to the sensation. That was okay with her. It made you feel… alive.

The priest was there, just as with the last time. He tilted his head to her in a gesture of respect. The patient’s entire family was gathered around him. They knew it was time. Smiling, the old, white-haired man on the bed looked up at her. There was none of the regret in his eyes that she had feared constantly in the early days. He was ready. With a smile to the man on the bed, she glanced around the room to see if there was anyone else there willing to undergo the procedure with her. But as her gaze fell over the small gathering, they all averted their eyes, one by one, each one now madly fixating on something else, anything other than her or the old man in the bed.

No matter, she had flown solo before. Not since her early days of diagnosing minor aches and pains by hard-linking with patient’s central nervous systems, feeling what they felt, but she was confident that she could handle it on her own. And it was, after all, still a fairly new procedure. It was just a shame that none of the family members wanted to participate. But it seemed that the old man had made peace with that.

Really, she shouldn’t have cared either way. She was just there to oversee the smooth operation of the now common-place procedure by linking up with the patient to ensure that their passage was as painless and euphoric as possible. If anything went wrong, or the patient were to suddenly change their mind before the PONR (point of no return), she was to terminate the procedure.

She lay down on the cold-metal surface of the bio-bed adjacent the the old man. She adjusted her head-set so that it was most comfortable and with a thought attuned her cranial receiver to the appropriate frequency. A softly-increasing hum. A light clicked on in the machine mounted over their heads as wires began to spool and the priest’s voice echoed across the room as he began to read the man his last rights.

How sterile this room, she thought. How cavernous and empty it must seem to the unaccustomed observer. But then, that’s not how he (or she, for that matter) would soon experience it, not at all. This was, after all, all for his benefit, was it not? Well, that and the family’s, yes, always the family’s. Indeed, while he may, by definition, only experience it once, if a success, his death would likely be experienced by various close relatives at least a dozen times over at his funeral or, barring that, many years from now while one of them were on their own death bed. Or at least, that’s how it was marketed.

At any rate, she couldn’t loose her concentration, even at the climax- if she did, and if he experienced the least bit of pain in his final moments and she didn’t abort to make sure it could be redone right, or, worse yet, if he actually went ahead and died in pain (or in anything less than complete euphoria), the family would find out, and she’d be out of more than just a job.

She knew she had to focus, guide the process, but it became more difficult as they progressed. The room began to fade from her awareness. She could feel everything he felt, the joy, the elation of the drugs and neuro-stimulators affecting the pleasure centers of the brain as they worked their way up in intensity. She recalled the same vivid memories of the man’s childhood that he did as flashes of people that she’d never known cascaded through her mind, each with a unique set of emotions associated with them. It went on for what seemed like hours, though surely it was far less. Throughout it all she was dimly aware of  the priest quietly quoting scripture in the background.

Finally, the endorphin levels increased as the priest neared the end of his monologue, his droning, monotonous voice seeming to increase in volume and intensity as he spoke the final words that ushered the old man into oblivion. Her awareness heightened, she could feel every syllable uttered rebound off the inner recesses of her skull. It was almost unbearable, nearly too much.  She could hear music in the background, smell roses that didn’t exist, and feel the strength of her… of HIS daughter’s grip on her, no, – on the old man’s- left hand. He then suddenly reached out, grasped her hand as well. She squeezed back tight, not wanting to let go, not wanting to let him go, but she knew that it was time. A solitary tear ran down her cheek. She let his hand gently slip out of hers, falling gracefully beside the bed. The machine’s whirring stopped.

Just as suddenly as it they had begun, the sensations began to fade. She stopped receiving any transmissions  from where the old man now lay, motionless. She took a moment to gather her thoughts. She got up, brushed her shoulders off, and hopped down off the bed. With as much composure as she could muster, she assured the family that “Everything was okay.” She stood with them for a few moments in silence, then walked over to the synaptic recorder and retrieved the jump-drive. She stood there for another moment, looking them over. They still wouldn’t meet her eyes. Without a word, she turned and walked toward the door, casually placing the drive on the night-stand on her way out.

She took the rest of the day off. It was always a melancholy experience for her, but one that she had grown accustomed to. That said, some of it still didn’t add up for her. It was said that the Patient should not experience the least discomfort or uncertainty throughout the Procedure. Far from it, in fact; for the Patient, this was supposed to be a high-point, nay, the high-point, of their lives. Even so, she’d heard stories of suicides. Of people who’d wanted not to die tied to a hospital bed, pumped full of dope. Death connoisseurs who thought that there were right and a wrong ways to die, and that they were doing it wrong, distracting from… god knew what that awaited them there at the end. It was ridiculous.

But sometimes, she wondered. She thought about how grateful she was to be alive as she drove home. Her eyes began to water as she got behind the wheel, recalling from one of the old man’s memories the day that he’d sat in his dad’s lap behind the wheel for the first time. She didn’t fear death she told herself as she began to cry, feeling for all the world like a ten-year old boy suddenly unsure of his surroundings. But she was still grateful.

16 September 1999: Interrogations by Kate Matta 0

[excerpt from The New York Times, dated 15 September 1999]:

Patrons of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were filled with relief today when the museum heist-master known only as “B” was taken into custody at approximately 2 AM this morning. Her target at the Metropolitan Museum is rumored to have been a set of revolvers from the Arms and Armor exhibit. Police state that when B broke the glass display, she triggered a silent alarm, and within minutes she was surrounded. Two officers were injured when B resisted arrest, and are recovering at the Lenox Hill hospital. The police have issued no further statements as of yet, particularly about B’s methods of eluding them over the past three years. B is currently undergoing questioning.

Continued page 4

[part of the interrogation tape during questioning of B, dated 16 September 1999; questions from Detective Ian Montclair have been omitted]:

…No, I never said that.

This isn’t the beginning of a story, it’s where all of them intersect. Because a story is a world all on its own, and this is where all of the worlds come together and…do whatever it is they do. No, it doesn’t sound real, but that’s okay. It’s not like you want a real explanation anyway. You just want me to tell you how I get away from you so easy.

Look, here it is. I open a door, right? And because I’m part of the house now, that door opens to the house, and I just—disappear. That’s what I’ve been telling you for the past three hours.

It’s called D-house, dipshit, don’t make me say it again.

Well, it wasn’t always called D-house, I just ended up calling it that. Hey, it makes sense, right? Dee—mensional, right? [laughs] No, really. It is a dimensional house, it can go anywhere anywhen anywhich place you want to go. If you can get in.

As if I’d help you.

[excerpt from Newsweek magazine, dated 18 September 1999]:

…But who is she, really? When we tried to get in to talk with her, police were adamant that we leave. We have no answers, only conjecture, and the parts of the interrogation performed by Detective Montclair. (For a full transcript of the interrogation, see page 22.)

Some religious sects say the young woman, aged 19 according to the information the police chose to give us, is a reincarnation of a chaos god, others say she is a prophet. The Catholic Church refuses to comment on her. Scientologists have been quoted as saying that she is a light to the way to defeat Xenu (for more on the beliefs of Scientology, see page 83). Many psychologists, among them the famous contemporary child psychologist Anne Scarr, have stated that B may just be a confused orphan. “She may have made up the story of the dimensional house to get attention, or to project her conflicting feelings of loneliness onto a concrete object that only she could see.” Other psychologists believe the case is even more severe than that. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she is diagnosed with schizophrenia,” Scarr adds.

[part of the interrogation tape during questioning of B, dated 16 September 1999; questions from Detective Ian Montclair have been omitted]:

I don’t remember where I came from. No, really, I don’t. I just kinda…was there, you know? I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.

No, I don’t remember how little I was when I got there, all right? I just was. Yeesh. I was lost, I needed help, I asked for help, and when I opened the door, I was right there in D-house. And I…I kinda got lost in there for awhile. I mean, I wanted to leave, I wanted to go back home. But D-house doesn’t understand that kind of thing. It understands people wanting to leave, but not for where, even though—yes, I remember I said it—it opens to everywhere. You have to know how to work it right so you don’t end up on the far side of Pluto or something.

Well, I don’t know how to explain it. You tell me.

[excerpt from report of Kyle Marten, child psychologist, on patient “B”]:

Patient seems to have acute awareness of objects as extensions of place. Kept asking me about the bowl of fruit on the table, asked about each fruit as being part of the whole. After I explained the arrangement as aesthetic, she withdrew from the conversation. Patient seems to believe that all objects exist as part of the purpose of the whole: if one piece of fruit is missing, she stated after several attempts to restart conversation, then the integrity of the bowl is gone. She framed this as a partially interrogative statement.

Patient is happy to play chess; would rather play chess than engage in conversation or cooperate with blot tests. She seems fascinated with the pieces, especially the knights, and I rarely see her not touching them in some way.

A note about blot tests: patient seems to find it funny to respond with the most disturbing images to the cards I show her. She will wait several seconds, clearly deep in thought, before replying with the crudest image she can think of. When I tell her that that is not how the test works, she laughs at me.

[part of the interrogation tape during questioning of B, dated 25 September 1999; questions from Agent Rodney Feuller have been omitted]:

Why the hell should I tell you how to get into D-house? What are you gonna use it for? It can’t be a weapon or anything, you know. Weapons aren’t welcome there, the house eats them.

You can’t get in because I’m not gonna tell you how, and I’m not gonna tell you how because you’ll screw everything up, and I won’t let you. So suck on that.

[part of the interrogation tape during questioning of B, dated 16 September 1999; questions from Detective Ian Montclair have been omitted]:

Hey, it’s not like I want to steal stuff, my mom taught me it was a bad thing to do, just like any other mom would do. But I don’t have much of a choice. D-house lets me stay, so I have to help it. That’s the way it works.

Sometimes things in the house get outside—sometimes it’s somebody coming in, not knowing where they are, taking stuff—sometimes it’s a weird wind—those happen, I’m not kidding—sometimes it’s just what happens. But it screws up the house, and when the house is screwed up, bad stuff can happen to the worlds it’s connected to—as in everything. And I mean really bad stuff. People call them weather phenomenons or an angry god or whatever, but it’s really D-house not having the things that balance it out. So I get them back, that’s all. I can’t help it if they’re all in museums or bookstores or auction places or people’s homes. D-house needs them. It’s as simple as that.

[excerpt from Dateline, dated 29 September 1999]:

There have been dark rumors that the government wants to do something with B, and the house she professes to live in. But how can a rational government believe such an obvious hoax? We go to sociologists and psychologists George Nuntley and Arthur Fried for a possible answer…

[excerpt from report of Kyle Marten, child psychologist, on patient “B”]:

Note: I seem to have misplaced a few of my chess pieces after a visit with B; to whit, a black knight and a white one, as well as a black rook.

[part of the interrogation tape during questioning of B, dated 16 September 1999; questions from Detective Ian Montclair have been omitted]:

Yeah, you try and lock me up. You just try.

The New Emotive by Adam Hinshaw 0

In the dream I was sitting in a medical room.  There were two padded chairs that reclined.  Instruments and a bright lamp hovered over each one, and a technician came in and made some adjustments to them.  When he finished tinkering, he looked at me and smiled.  He said something about getting lunch in the next twenty minutes.  I wasn’t sure if I was hungry or if it was even lunch time, but I agreed.  Then the doctor appeared with a man and a woman.  The couple was young and smiling, charming as they glanced tenderly at one another from time to time while the doctor spoke to them.  Together, they took to the padded chairs, and, upon the doctor’s urging, joined hands.  The technician manned the computers, and the doctor turned to me.  He was offering an explanation, but I couldn’t make out his words and quickly lost sense of their very sound.  I was starting to sweat, and what little lights there were appeared very bright to me.  I searched stupidly for sunglasses but couldn’t find any.  I squinted at the man and the woman in the chairs as mechanical claws crept from behind the headrests and clutched their skulls like enormous spiders fussing about their egg sack.  Strange expressions took shape on their faces, and these shifted and mixed seamlessly to other expressions.  They half-smiled and half-frowned at the same time; they spoke gibberish; they looked as if they were on the edge of tears and then as if they were on the verge of murder.  They cursed and praised.  I told the doctor I wanted to leave.

“Derek,” he said, “we have to wait for the results before that can happen.”  He looked back at me, his face now a shining bronze, the lights in the room reflected on his cheeks.

So we waited, and I became more and more nervous, rubbing my hands together until my left arm felt paralyzed.  The doctor informed me that the results were negative, and that the proper debriefing procedure would be administered to ensure a safe psychological recovery.

Then, I woke up.  The alarm clock was beeping and clutched tightly in my hand, and my body’s weight was resting on my left arm, cutting off the circulation.  I sat up and put my feet on the smooth concrete floor of my apartment and contracted and extended my fingers until my arm stopped tingling.  I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth.  I stared glumly at the shower, debating it, eventually deciding to make coffee and to watch the morning news.

Downtown, there was a demonstration, a protest by the Union for Love’s Truth, or the ULT.  The ULT’s leader, a woman named Stephanie Guy, spoke to a reporter about the recent attempts made on the life of the famous Dr. Brennamen.  Guy denied the ULT’s involvement in the attempts – there had been two in the previous week.

“An organization that espouses the values of the human capacity for love could never stoop to such terrorist levels,” she said, staring into the camera with an offended expression.

The reporter politely reminded her that persons associated with the ULT had been frequently involved in attacking psychologists and researchers from the Brennamen Institute as they went to their cars late at night.

“The people that participated in those actions are no longer affiliated with the ULT,” she said.

The reporter then mentioned that as recently as that morning, members of the ULT had assaulted a lab technician outside of his apartment on his way to work at the Brennamen Institute.  They beat up the technician, urinated on him, and painted “Learn to love or die – a message from the ULT” on his car.

Guy frowned.  “These are most certainly miscreants disguising themselves as ULT members to distract the authorities from their true motive and identity,” she said.

The programming moved to a conference room with three newscasters who proceeded to discuss the prevalence of ULT associated crimes and the conspiracy surrounding the political group.  I turned the television off, found some resolve, and took a shower.

It was a long shower, and the hot water made my skin feel empty and loose.  When I finished, steam had filled the bathroom and humidified the bedroom, fogging the windows that looked out over the city’s streets.  It reminded me of Claire.  Whenever I took a long shower, she would complain.  “Derek,” she would say, “it’s like a sauna in here.”

I had another cup of coffee and read the newspaper.  There was the weekly article about the steadily high divorce rates in the lifestyles section, and the financial section discussed how remaining unmarried throughout life had become far more beneficial to one’s estate in the long-run.  The article from the financial section did point out, however, that those choosing to divorce now were less well-off than those who divorced back at the dawn of what everyone – scientists, historians, and media lackeys alike – referred to as the “New Emotive Era.”  This was because when the “New Emotive Era” started, the government compensated divorcing couples handsomely.  Of course, the article continued to point out that marriage was by and large a non-issue at the moment: only ten percent of American adults were married.

I finished my coffee and threw the paper away.  Then I took the elevator down and left my building.  I took a taxi to the Glass Forest Café to meet my daughter for lunch.

While I waited for the hostess, I admired the glass trees with their stained trunks and canopies of amber and emerald respectively.  When the hostess appeared, I told her I was meeting Jessica Thompson, who had made the reservation.  The woman looked at her list and shook her head.

“Okay,” I said, “Is there a Jessica Haley?”

There was, and I explained that she was my daughter and that she sometimes listed herself under her mother’s maiden name.  The hostess nodded and led me to Jessica’s table.

Jessica smiled as I approached.  She had dyed her hair from its natural blonde to neon orange, a look that was becoming prevalent among celebrities.  She had her mother’s angular and petite features, and I tried to push any thoughts of Claire out of my head by focusing on Jessica’s vibrant hair.

“Dad,” she said, after I sat down.

“Daughter.”  I smiled and picked up the menu in front of me and then looked up.  “Already decided?”

“Yes.  The spinach soup.”

“Hmm.”

Our waitress came by, and we ordered.  I chose a turkey sandwich with Swiss and strawberry chutney.

“How are things?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I’m still seeing Mark.”

“Lovely.”

She raised her eyebrows at this; I shrugged in apology for my choice of words.

“Something like that,” she said.  “It’s a good relationship.  A safe one.  Neither of us is over committing emotionally.”

“That’s important.”

“Some would say that’s all that’s important.  The experts, anyway.”

I tried to pick the right words: “Of course.”

“Yes, well, my friend Samantha would say otherwise.  She’s obsessed with this guy named Thomas.”  She frowned in disgust.  “He’s studying the humanities so he’s dangerously close to these types of things.  Anyway, they’re so obviously falling for each other and it just makes me sick to see her throw herself down the drain like that.”

I nodded in a concerned fashion, trying hard to portray every ounce of agreement with what she was saying.

“Young people,” she said, “are at the highest risk for falling in love.  I keep telling Sam that but she doesn’t care.  She is literally intoxicated and blind.  I fear that if things don’t return to a more rational level, the relationship will implode into outright, unregulated emotion.  You know,” she cringed, “into love.”

“Do you think she’ll need to go into treatment?” I asked, scared that my voice sounded too flat.

“I am.  People don’t fair well even after treatment.  The remission rate is astoundingly high.”

“Uh-huh.  That’s what I’ve been hearing.”

Our food came, and Jessica continued to theorize on Samantha’s eventual downfall.  Eventually she asked me about work, and I described some advertising concepts we were mulling over for a client of ours.  Then I paid the check and walked her outside and shook her hand.

“Say hello to mom for me,” I said.

At first, she looked turned off by my comment.  But then she smiled at me.

“You mean Claire, don’t you?”

I offered a weak smile.  “I do.  Take care of yourself.”

“I will, dad.”  Her smile grew.  Then she disappeared into a taxi.

I drove to my firm’s office and attended a series of executive meetings.  One of my associates, a man named Walter Saldana, informed me that things had gone sour between one of our new employees and our client, Tek Audio Distributors.  We phoned the people at Tek Audio and met them at a Chinese restaurant for dinner to clear the situation up.  They were displeased with the approach of our man’s proposed advertising campaign, finding it unoriginal.  We assured them that a senior member of our staff would handle their business from here on out.  We shook hands and shared impersonal smiles.  Then Walter suggested we get drinks at the Horned Cat, and I agreed with a feeling of malaise forming in my mind.

Fifteen minutes later, we were at a booth just behind a massive black statue of a cat with ram’s horns.  The lights were dim, and a generic electric beat played over the speakers.  We drank and talked about Wilson, the new guy assigned to handle Tek Audio.  While Walter found Wilson intelligent but boring, I found Wilson unenthusiastic and generally unmotivated.  Walter agreed and pointed out that he’d never seen Wilson take to anything with even a hint of desire, not even women at the office socials.

As we spoke, a smattering of sexes trickled into the bar, and they self-segregated.  After we’d had two rounds of drinks, the overhead lights changed to vibrant pink and dulled at a near subconscious rate to red and then back to pink.

“Look,” Walter said, “we’ve both known each other for some time.”

“That’s right,” I said.

“In fact, I would consider you one of my good friends.”

“And I as well.”

“So,” he looked at me with eagerness, “can I ask you a question that a man can only ask his friend?”

I laughed, expecting something about sex or drugs or illegal offenses that I would normally keep to myself.

“Sure,” I said.

“Then tell me,” Walter asked, “what was it like?”

“What was what like?”

“The analysis.”

“Oh,” I said, looking down and frowning for an instant.

“Hey man, it’s okay, we don’t have to talk about it.”  He waved it away.  He sipped his drink and looked around the bar at the women.

At thirty-two, Walter was a good fifteen years younger than I, and he had the luxury of coming into adulthood after the change.

“Well,” I said, “it’s nothing that crazy.”

“Yeah?” he said, his eyes lighting up with curiosity.

“You’ve seen it, right?”

“I’ve read about it.”

“You never saw that segment on the national news?”

“No, I missed that.”

“Well, what do you know about it?” I asked.

Walter shrugged.  “Just that they sit you both down in these chairs side by side, attach this thing to your head, take readings, and then give you the results.”

“That’s right.  And they make you hold hands between the chairs.”

“And very few people come out of it with positive results.”

“That’s true.”  I finished my drink.  “In fact, I don’t think any couple has come out of it with positive results.”

“Oh yeah?  What makes you say that?”

His eyes followed a middle-aged woman with a lusty stare.  She had long brown hair.  Then he looked back at me.

“Well,” I said, “going through it at the time I did, I had a lot of friends go through the same thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  And none of them got positive results.”

“So they all split up?”

I nodded.  “Except for one couple.”

“They just said fuck it?”

“More or less.”  I shrugged.  “They live out in the country together.”

He laughed.  “In one of those communes.”

“No, just together.”

“Damn.  Are they happy?”

“They say they are.”

“But you don’t think they are?”

“I don’t know.  His name is Robert.  Bob, I call him.  He was a lawyer and his wife was a graduate student in psychology.  Now they’re organic farmers.”

“Fucking crazy.”  Walter shook his head.

I shrugged.  “It’s one of the only occupations a married couple can have without taking a salary reduction to cover emotional insurance.”

He finished his drink.  Then he went to the bar and came back with another round.  I finished mine and noticed some women two tables away shooting us inviting glances.

“Man, happiness is a bitch,” Walter said.

“Before long they’ll have something to say about happiness,” I said.

He laughed.  “That they will, that they will.”  He raised his glass.  “Cheers my friend.”

We bumped our glasses.

Then the women came over to talk to us.  Their names were Cindy and Carmen.  Cindy talked to Walter.  Carmen had silver hair and a bronze tan that was obviously artificial.  She reminded me of silverware that my mother had on display in an antique dresser when I was a kid.  She was a sales manager at Fire Vision Graphics.  We discussed the market and the current economy.  Before long, I noticed Cindy and Walter exchanging SR cards – sex record cards.  They talked a bit longer, and then Robert said he would see me tomorrow.  They left me alone with Carmen who took their absence as an indicator that she needed to hurry things along.  She leaned seductively against the table, showing her cleavage and resting her hand on my upper thigh.  We were still talking about financial gain in the virtual education sector.

“Look,” she finally said, “do you want to exchange information?”

“Sure,” I said, trying hard to force an enthusiastic smile.

She slipped me her card underneath the table.  She was clean and had never been married.  She was thirty-three.  Like Walter, it was all before her time.  We left and went to her place.

The sex was rhythmic and predictable; a solution as stark as the number at the end of a math problem.  An absolute without any human interest attached to it.  I hadn’t had it in over a month, either.  She had gold nipples and her entire body was shaved and smooth like a metallic sculpture from the art museum.  When we were done, we laid in bed, not talking, not touching.

“Have you heard,” she said, cutting the silence and making my heart jump, “that they’ve been doing research on unconditional love, and that they’re even questioning that?”

“No,” I said.  “That will be interesting, I suppose.”

“You don’t think so.”

“Maybe not.  I’m unsure what I think sometimes.”

I turned and looked at her.  She was the new woman, not much different than my Jessica.  We talked superficially for a bit longer, and then I told her I had to get back to my place as I had an appointment early the next day.  I dressed and left.

Back at my apartment, I laid down on the couch in front of the television, turning it on.  Loveless images flashed over me in electric turquoise until my eyes burned and shut, the darkness carrying me to sleep.

– – –

I woke the next morning to a news segment on the ULT.  Guy had been arrested the night before for shooting and wounding two staff psychologists from the Brennamen institute.  I took a shower and made coffee.  Then I left my building and drove to the Famaden Building and entered the offices of Reasonable Connection Support Therapists.

Except for me, the waiting room was empty, and I picked up a copy of People magazine.  The cover article was about two singers who decided to get married, and how they had lost their respective fan bases and record label contracts because of it.

Claire came in the door.  She walked briskly to the receptionist and avoided greeting me.  She sat on the opposite side of the room.  When her gaze finally came to rest on me in its slow, deliberate manner – as if she was scared of taking me in all at once – she offered a courtesy smile.

“Derek,” she said.

“Claire.”  I nodded.

Then she averted her eyes.

“I had lunch with Jessica yesterday,” I said.

“She told me.”

She picked up a National Geographic and flipped through it.  I pretended to resume my interest in People.  But I kept glancing up at her.  Her skin was not artificially tan, and it still had that ruddy undertone to its paleness that made her look real.  Her hair had faded some, but it was still brown and beautiful in its worn, aged way.  Dr. Hoffman, our therapist, appeared in the doorway.

“Derek?  Claire?”

We both got up and smiled in a customary manner.  We followed Dr. Hoffman to his office where he motioned for us to sit on a large tan couch.  We chose opposite ends, and Dr. Hoffman closed the door gently.  He sat in front of us in a desk chair that swiveled.  A stereo played the sound of a mountain stream.

“So?” he said, taking his cue from the silence.  “I hear from the two of you that you’re having problems again?”

“That’s right,” Claire said.

I remained silent.

“What kind of problems?” he asked.

I turned red and looked at my feet.

“Well,” Claire said, “Derek has violated the emotional agreement we had.”

Dr. Hoffman nodded in a concerned fashion and beckoned at her with a hand.  She produced the written agreement and handed it to him.

“How so?” he asked, skimming over the document with a concerned expression.

“Well, namely, he told me a little under a month ago that he still loved me.”

Dr. Hoffman smiled weakly and nodded.

“At first we had a disagreement about it and I thought it would all blow over,” she said.  “But then he insisted on it again, a week later.”  She scowled at me.  “He said he couldn’t ignore what his heart was saying.”

“Yes, yes,” Dr. Hoffman said.

“And I tried to explain to Derek that it’s been common medical knowledge for sometime that those feelings of ‘the heart’ are just a mixture of hormones and other chemical responses in the body.”

Dr. Hoffman nodded and then offered his opinion.  He explained to Claire that not everyone from our generation has made the adjustment to rationally viewing the experience of our emotions, especially since we had grown up with irrational views.  He insisted that it was very hard for some people to unlearn what they had known all their lives, making it difficult for them to conform to the new social protocol, even though scientific advances had validated it.  Then he turned to me.

“Tell me, Derek, have you been having enough sex lately?”

I told him about last night, making sure to include that I found it boring and remote.

“How so?” he asked, cocking his head in interest.

“There’s no meaning behind it,” I said.

“Yes, but Derek, you know as well as Claire and I that meaning attributed to sex is not absolute.  It’s only perceived, something that your mind makes up to comfort you.”

I shrugged and crossed my arms.

“That’s what we call romantic meaning, and follow-up studies are showing that Dr. Brennamen’s groundbreaking—”

“I don’t want to hear about Dr. Brennamen,” I said.

“Now he’s mad,” Claire said.  “Oh god, this is the problem with you Derek.  You can’t control the range of your affect.”

“Look,” Dr. Hoffman said, leaning in and motioning for Claire to remain calm, “how many times have you breached your emotional agreement with Claire, Derek?”

“Quite a few,” I said.

“Don’t you think it’s time you gave emotional moderation medication a try?”

“You mean EMM?”

“Yes, EMM.”

My throat felt heavy.  “Can’t you just see it from my perspective?”

“Derek—”

“Isn’t the fact that I keep relapsing proof enough that the first test we took ten years ago was a lie?”

“Derek, you know as well as I do that there is far less than a one percent chance of that being the case.”

“Can’t we just take it again?”

“Jesus, Derek,” Claire said, “We’ve retaken the test twice since we’ve been divorced!  And every time you concoct this mess about it being necessary for closure and it seems to be doing just the opposite!”

“Claire, we’re talking about love here!”

“Derek,” Dr. Hoffman said, “You need to stay calm and watch what you say.”

But I couldn’t.  I was in tears before I knew what was happening.  I tried to hug Claire, but she pushed me off her and got up from the couch, glaring down at me and shaking with anger.  Dr. Hoffman tried to console me while urging me to stay put and respect Claire’s state of mind and physical space.  He then went on about the medication.  He really thought I would benefit from it.  He thought our relationship would benefit from it.  I just shook my head in despair.  Then I started telling Claire that I still loved her, and that I wanted to run away to the country with her like Robert had done with his wife.  I suggested that we too could become organic farmers.

“Oh my God,” she said.  “I need to get out of here.”

“That’s quite all right,” Dr. Hoffman said to Claire.  “Just step outside and wait in the hall for me.”

She left, slamming the door behind her.

Dr. Hoffman leaned in towards me.

“Derek,” he said, “You must listen to me.  This is not healthy for her or you.  You need to give the medication a try.  If I could force you by law to take it, I would.”

He continued to explain and rationalize my feelings, gesturing with his hands and moving around imaginary objects that were meant to represent the complicated emotions of the human mind.  I blocked him out after a while.  If only for her sake, I would give it a try.  I would try the medication.

– – –

In my bathroom I extracted some razor blades from my shaving utensils and toyed with the idea of suicide.  The stupidity of believing that any relief awaited me in the unknown, however, stopped me, and in the end I realized that I only had one option.  So I wrote “I really loved you” on a piece of paper and taped it to the bathroom mirror.  Then I took the EMMs.

The dreams stopped, and I would find myself sitting in conferences and board meetings and imagining the spider-like machines from my dreams emerging from behind a chair to grapple onto a person’s head.

I would go out with Walter, either to the Horned Cat or any number of sexual rendezvous bars, and I would meet beautiful women and have conversations that never penetrated the surface.  They were fluid, and the dialogue always had a predictable structure to it.  We exchanged names to begin with.  Then we exchanged occupations and world views.  Finally, and with seeming invariability, we exchanged SR cards.  The women had skin tones that were, literally so, in all shades of bronze, silver, and gold.  And their hair came in every violet and orange and emerald of the spectrum.  I met one woman who had every hair on her body dyed to a permanent silver white.  She was ghostly and beautiful, a forlorn spirit embodied in a spiritless, human form.  Sex began to afford me a simple and routine pleasure, much like showering after a long day.

Soon, I believed that I understood everyone and that everyone understood me.  The barriers of fear, happiness, indecision, anger, and – above all else – love had been lifted.  I found the experience much like everyone else.  It was liberating and quiet, the way I remembered feeling at the graveyard for my parents’ respective funerals.

Occasionally, though, I would forget to take the EMMs.  Strange things would take shape in my gut.  My pulse would rise, and I would acquire an unwarranted desperation.  I would hold the pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other, and I would think this will not help while believing that it would.

At Christmas the family got together, and I was able to see Claire and feel absolutely nothing.  It was the first Christmas that we had all been together in over five years.  Jessica and her boyfriend seemed dispossessed of one another, but this seemed to make them happy.  It even made me happy, albeit a different kind of happy. A happy you could poke with stick.  A happy that you could see but couldn’t touch, like the movies.  It was all fine with me.

One day, the piece of paper taped to my bathroom mirror had become soggy with the moisture from the steam.  The ink on it was faded, and the tape had lost its adhesive quality.  Like a dead leaf, the thing fell into the sink while I was shaving.  I remembered what it had said, and I no longer cared for those words.  Still, I resolved to write the words down again, and I hung it from the bathroom mirror as I had done before.  Of course, the moisture and steam caused the same decomposition over time, and I continued to replace it.  It was the one small habit I had, and it was the one I could not do without.

Less of What You See by Rachel Blier 0

I’m standing here at the corner of 5th and Main, waiting for my client and thinking of card tricks. Patter, false shuffles, sleight of hand, palming. It’s long after midnight, and even the omnipresent 7-Eleven has closed, leaving me with nothing but flickering streetlights and the hum of cicadas in the dumpsters. I check the gun at my hip once, twice. I don’t look forward to what I have to do, but I have been left with very little choice. I took the case, so it’s my responsibility to the end.

It was a sticky evening in August when I got the job. The AC in my office had been out for weeks with no chance of it getting fixed in sight, so I had been sweating it out in my shirtsleeves. I was about ready to call it a night—to avoid the heat and save electricity, you know? When in walks this dame—and yeah, that’s the only word I can use for her—all in lavender, one of those really old fashioned getups–she even had this tiny pillbox hat, and a veil, for Chrissakes—I know I’m theatrical, and yeah, Carrie tells me that I see drama everywhere, but really—so I tell her we’re closed. She sticks one of those dainty feet in the door and wants to know who “we” is.

She had this rich husky voice that didn’t match her frame. It was interesting, to say the least. So I told her that “we” was…well…me. I couldn’t help it. When a woman looks at me with those eyes, I just spill. It was always a liability onstage. She smirked then, coral pink lips perfectly made up.

“You’re not closed,” she says, and I agree—heaven help me—and open the door wide for her.

I had been listening to Springsteen on the radio, his mumbling like an incantation set to piano and guitar, but as I ushered her in, I turned it off. It just didn’t feel right for this. She deserved blues and cigarette smoke, and I had neither. She settled in, and I was starting to think that maybe this won’t be so bad, she’s good-looking and seems to have money, and it’s been awhile since I’ve been in the black—and that’s when she told me she was a wizard.

Something in my brain—the more intelligent part, I’m starting to think now, it’s the part that takes care of rent and food and keeps me out of trouble—switched off, and the next moment I’d turned her out on her pretty lavender ass.

Wizards. Genetically modified conjurers. I won’t say freaks, no, but it’s their fault I’m working this job in the first place, rather than performing illusions onstage for a crowd. When science provides a way for anyone to be Superman or Zatanna, shooting fire from their fingertips or flying through the air as easy as breathing, no one wants to watch the kind of parlor tricks me and my kind—professional stage illusionists, that’s the fancy term, although I always just billed myself as Tracy Richards, Magician—no one cares for that kind of thing when they can do it themselves.

Not that my current job is all that bad—it keeps me on my toes, and I meet a wide variety of people, depending on what kind of thing I’m supposed to find—let me tell you something about magicians. Most of us love people. You have to, to build rapport with your crowd. So my second job suits me just fine, even if it isn’t my first choice. But lately the folks who brought us fire-throwing wizards have tweaked their formula a little. Thanks to science, pretty soon anyone will be able to be a Sherlock Holmes as well as a Superman. Super perception, even mind-reading. So they’ve been muscling in on my second job as well.

Essentially? I’m a sort of private detective. I find things. I’m good at it.

I have a knack for getting folks to tell me what they know without knowing what they’ve told me. Patter and misdirection, conversation and sleight of hand. It’s surprising what people will say when they think they have the advantage over you. People hire me when their cases don’t fall under police jurisdiction, when the situation is delicate or complicated or not entirely legal. I’m not usually picky about their reasons as long as they pay their bills.

I started my office up almost by mistake a few years back, and since then I’ve uncovered a few stolen items–rings, papers, photographs, once a piece of key evidence the cops managed to lose, two missing kids, and yeah, on the tackier side, exposed a few cheating spouses and embezzling employees. All in the name of paying the rent on time.

And pay the rent it does. But even though the work isn’t bad, my heart is really on the stage, with the dying art of stage magic. Illusion. Showing an audience something wonderful, giving back some of what science steals from them, the marvel of the everyday like a coin or a hand—or a card.

She’d left her card on the table. It was the same cool lavender blue as her dress, and it actually gave off a whiff of scent as I picked it up. (Like your mom’s clean linens. It probably was lavender, that would be just perfect.) There was no type on it, just a quick handwritten note, jagged with haste.

When did she get that out? I was watching her the whole time. She didn’t open that little clutch purse of hers, not once, and there couldn’t be anything up her sleeves—she didn’t have any. Fast little thing. Theatrical. A wizard.

I should have just thrown the card out too and made a clean rejection of the whole deal. Made a decision. But then the part of me that pays the rent decided to get vocal, so I pocketed the card and closed up the office. Somewhere between the two-hours-too-long bus ride home and the scented candles I’d been using in place of electricity in my apartment, I realized was already prepared to call the number on the card.

Before you get the wrong idea, the candles were a gift from the neighbor girl, Carrie. She’s an alright sort, just out of college, heading off to the Peace Corps next year. Tie dye shirts and khaki shorts and long scrapmetal earrings. We spend afternoons together sometimes, when she’s off work, bickering over the tabloids, which are almost as out of work as magicians, these days. There’s no need for urban legends when the monsters are real, but by God the writers do try. They target the Genome Clinics a lot, which is unsurprising, considering just who put them out of business. Exclusive expose: Monday it’s zombie bioweapons, Wednesday, Frankenstein creatures created to test out the gene modification treatment, on Sunday a special feature covering a trade agreement with a Nazi communes in the jungles of Brazil.

Carrie loves it. Perhaps I lack professional camaraderie, but I just can’t read those things. An old magician standby is to trust none of what you hear and less of what you see. It served me on the stage and it serves me on the streets. I try to tell her this, and she tells me I’ve lost my sense of wonder. Me. Honestly.

Anyway. The candles. Much like the tabloids, Carrie thinks I’m “neat.” A relic of a past era. Retro. So one day she shows up with these beeswax candles, tall, caramel-brown tapers that smell like musk and cinnamon. She’d bought them at an antique store. For me. I’d have been offended—first of all, candles really aren’t a great gift for a guy, any of you ladies reading, and second…really, I don’t need to be reminded that I’m so “out” I’m “in.” But in spite of all that , they do kind of smell good.

I really hadn’t planned to use them, just kept them in the back of my closet in their box, but last month I did some calculations and realized I really needed to cut down on something—it had been a very slow month for private detection—and because I really did want the heater and the AC in my office fixed sometime this century—because of that, it became the electricity in my apartment.

So I got back and saw that Carrie’s candles were almost burned down. And that was it. I needed a job and I needed it bad. I pulled out my cell and punched in the number, and there was that husky voice of hers, answering with familiar ease. Of course she’d know who was calling, ID or no. Telepathy came into vogue last season.

“Mr. Richards, I’d like you to find a person for me.”

“Well that is in the job description, ma’am.” I bit my cheek, waiting for her to continue. I hate to ask for more details. I hate it I hate it I hate it—“Could you give me some more details? A man? A woman?”

She made me wait. “I can’t say who…or what it was.” A pause, static on the line. “I’m looking for my husband’s killer.”

I don’t miss a beat. I know she’s listening for my reaction. “Normally this kind of thing would be handled by the police.”

“I know. And they are handling it, slowly. But I want my own kind of justice.”

“I don’t deal in justice. If you’re looking for an assassin—”

“I’m not. I believe…I believe that if you find him, things will work out on their own.”

I agreed to meet with her again, offered to buy her coffee to make up for booting her out of the office. She swallowed my apology, and the next day we were sitting in the café beneath my office, talking business.

“So I only have to locate this person, and you’ll call the cops on him, is that it?”

“Yes. Essentially.”

Essentially. “One more question.”

“Yes?”

I tapped my finger against my temple. Old stage habit. “You said ‘who or what it was’. Is there a reason for that?”

A long pause while she fiddled with the lid on her honeyed tea, hiding her eyes. “It’s the same reason why the police are taking so long. The body…well…”

I waited. Comforting a woman who is about to cry usually makes it worse.

“Mr. Richards, have you seen a mummy before?”

“I’ve seen sarcophagi.” Worked with them, actually. My variant of Sawing Through A Woman called for one. She probably read it on me.

“No, I mean. An embalmed body.”

Oh. “A magic killing?”

“Yes. We were both wi—spliced. We met at the Clinic, actually. He was the lab aide that gave me my treatment.”

“How nice for you both.” I hid my tone with a sip of coffee, and she politely ignored it.

“We married last July…he was killed on the night of our anniversary.” I could hear the effort she was making to hold herself together in her voice. Wizard or no, I caught myself reaching for her hand, barely stopped myself in time. Neither the time nor the place, Trace. Or the person, really.

I got up, ordered her some more tea, gave her the time to compose herself. By the time we’d both finished our drinks and she’d calmed down, I had a fairly solid read on the situation. Her relationship with her husband had been good, he had no enemies that she knew of, nothing dangerous in his work that would have resulted in a spell backfiring. His desiccated body was found in their home, clearly the result of a wizard’s power. Fluid manipulation. Sucked dry. The police had checked her out, yes. As far as she knew she wasn’t a suspect, in spite of her own abilities, which centered mostly on empathy—as I had guessed—and speed. She had paid for the ability to further her own career as a private investigator, always loved literary telepaths, yadda yadda.

Then, the moment of truth. I was clearing the Styrofoam mugs and recycled paper napkins from the table when she asked the question.

“So you’ll take my case, Mr. Richards?”

I thumbed over the lavender card still in my pocket, thinking of the figure written on it. She was messing with me, but to be fair, I had been sending her nothing but negative vibes throughout our entire meeting. The rent-paying half of my mind said Jump!, and I said, “I’ll look into it, yes.”

It was a barren case. I visited all the usual places, swung by the local Clinic, looked into some police records (some of the records flunkies still owe me over that missing evidence), but found very little. It wasn’t until my weekly meeting with Carrie that everything clicked into place. She was just unfolding her weekly dose of mental junk food when it hit me. I excused myself, made a half-dozen calls before finally getting in touch with my client to tell her I had found the killer. I was strapping on my gun when I realized she really had been very fair. She did give me the “what” option.

“Mr. Richards?” She’s behind me.

Ladies and gentlemen. I would like to call your attention to the card in my hand.

I pivot, drilling myself on an old trick—summoning a card from the deck.

This is the Queen of Hearts.

“Miss Brown.”

She’s a shrewd one, the Queen.

“Not Mrs.?”

But she has a special power.

“I checked with the local registry. Wesley Brown was not married.”

She finds things.

“W-we were lovers.”

Now, if I may have a volunteer—you, young lady.

“I don’t doubt it. Brown’s coworkers all witnessed the two of you together.”

Pick a card, any card.

“I have contacts with the police, Miss Brown. No murder or missing person was reported.”

I’ll show you—I’ve got nothing up my sleeves.

Wind rattles the telephone lines. She stares at me.

Palm the card you need and wait for your moment.

“And, pardon me if I’m wrong, but I keep tabs on my competition. There are no private investigators currently in the city going by the name of Lily Brown. I can understand a pseudonym, but no one answering to your description even works in this area. None of the Clinics had your name in their records, either. I don’t doubt that you’re an empath, but you didn’t gain that ability conventionally.” I rest my hand on the holster at my hip with all the confidence I can muster, definitely not thinking of bullets. Or the lack thereof.

False shuffle.

After a moment, she smiles.

“Very good, Mr. Richards. I assume you were a good citizen and called the police?”

“Creating a perimeter as we speak.”

“I see. Excellent work.”

“Honestly, lady? You left a trail a mile wide. The cops would have been onto you soon enough anyway. So why?”

And now the Queen will show me your choice.

“Why? Which why?”

Help me, milady.

“All of it. Why kill Brown? Why this…elaborate method of being caught?”

She’s a great lady, you know. One must be polite, even someone like me.

Her veil casts crosshatched shadows on her face as she turns towards me. The streetlamp gleams orange against purple satin, sunset after dark.

“The Queen of Hearts, Mr. Richards? How apt. Let me tell you about another trick. Sawing Through A Woman. The trick calls for a man. A box. A saw. And a woman.” Something in her physiology changes as she walks towards me. I back up, my hand going to my hip again. She raises the veil, and I realize there’s something downright insectoid about her face.

“He puts her in a trance. Cuts her in three. Pulls her apart, turns her around and puts her back together again. Sets her free. They smile, bow, make their exit.”  Clicking noises from her joints as she walks. There was no way that was there before. “Telepathy comes from the hivemind, you know. Insect genes. They had to test it on someone.”

She eyes me, purple all over now, not just her dress. Dragonfly iridescence. It’s beautiful, but I can’t keep myself from wondering where the cops are. Just like before, she politely ignores the errant thought.

“Five years in a laboratory cage, Mr. Richards. Wes, dear Wes, was my keeper. He pitied me. Set me free. Tried to bring me back. But deep down, you know, there wasn’t much he could do. I’m at least fifteen percent insect. We eat our mates. Is it really that surprising?”

Is this your card?

“But let me tell you about a different kind of magic. It even comes with an incantation. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ The human conscience. What could I do? I didn’t want to be caged again. I didn’t want to die. But I couldn’t leave. And Wes is in my head, all the time, asking for justice. But the police don’t investigate the Clinics, you know. Payoffs keep their mistakes quiet. Which led me to the private sector. You.” She’s gotten far too close to me, close enough to touch my cheek with one clawed finger, but I can’t move.

“If I could fool a normal human, then I would go free. That’s what I’d promised myself. After all, one can’t help one’s nature. But you rose to the occasion splendidly.”

“What—what are you?” Some kind of tabloid monster?

She smiles, and dear God how did I miss the mandibles the first time? “You really should trust more of what you hear, Mr. Richards.” She raises her hands, and the special ops finally move in.

Thank you to our lovely volunteer. Take your bow.

I sag against the street lamp, watching the booking. Carrie will have a field day with this when it hits the papers. I hope she appreciates it, because I hate to be upstaged. And I’m certainly not getting paid for this.

Sphinx by Rachel Blier 0

Ellie Evans shouldered the heavy glass door open, slicking her hair out of her face as she did so, much good that it did her.  Although ThebesWare was known for scouting eccentric young talents to its development teams, showing up to a portfolio presentation with her glasses beaded with moisture and her skirt askew from running in a vain attempt to beat the rain was not so much eccentric as irresponsible. The sleek, dark bob that she had spent two hours ironing into place that morning was gone, doomed to frizz as it air dried in the warm building. Next time she would wear a hat. Definitely. Recognizing the defeatism inherent in “next time,” Ellie tucked her portfolio further under her arm and picked up the pace. Sure, she might not have much of a chance, but there’d be no chance at all if she showed late, too.

That was when she noticed the sphinx.

On another day, Ellie might have admired the way golden fur transitioned seamlessly to tawny feathers and olive skin, would have taken pleasure in the classical Greek angles of its face as it lifted its head to look at her. The precise way the wings joined to shoulders would have been worth quite a few sketches—six-limbed animals were a conceptual favorite of hers–but what mattered to her right now was the way it had contrived, like the cat it was, to spread its bulk across the maximum amount of space possible. And it was blocking the elevators. Between the minotaur at CreteCo. last week and the hydra at Marathon Publishing, the constant delays were really getting on Ellie’s nerves.

“Hey.”

It lifted its head from its paws, making a sound somewhere between a mew and a growl. “Myes?”

“You’re in the way.”

“Really.” The sphinx blinked slowly, cocking its pointed chin against one paw.

Ellie bristled, fingers tightening on her portfolio. At least the minotaur had been quick to the point. “Yes. I have a job interview. In ten minutes. So if you could just…” Ellie flapped her portfolio at the sphinx in an obvious shooing motion.

The sphinx stretched, wings spreading wide as its claws scraped the dark tile floor. “I think not. The heat vent is here, you know. And it’s a wet day.” It settled back to the tiles and rolled on its side, baring its belly.

Ellie considered giving it a swift kick with one of her carefully chosen—and currently very muddy—artistic combat boots, but restrained herself to a quick feint, which the sphinx ignored.

“Fine. Then I’ll take the stairs.”

“You mean those stairs?” One barred wing rose from the floor, pointing at the stairwell door located beside the elevator. Behind the sphinx.

Ellie set her portfolio down. “Fine. Whatever it is you want, make it quick. My time is valuable.”

“Now we’re talking.” The sphinx rolled itself up onto its haunches and leaned forward on its forepaws. “How’s your memory of the story of Oedipus?”

“Pretty good.”

“The rules are the same. We play a riddle game. You answer my questions, I let you pass. You don’t answer, I eat you. Fair enough?”

“As long as you’re quick.” Ellie straightened her skirt and took one last swipe at her hair. Might as well make herself look presentable, if she’s going to wait anyway.

The sphinx graced Ellie with another of its slow cat blinks, batting its long human eyelashes. “Very well. What.” It paused, brought a paw to its plum colored mouth, slicked it with saliva, and ran it through its hair, almost imitating Ellie.

What’s what? Ellie wanted to ask. She also wanted to slap the creature across the face, but knew from her experience with housecats and catty women that the more she urged the sphinx to get on with it, the more it would delay. She paced back and forth, listening to her boots squeak on the tile, until the creature finally looked up from its miniature grooming session.

“Well?” Ellie said.

The sphinx blinked at her slowly, without opening its eyes all the way. Ellie folded her arms, waiting for the deadly riddle. Whatever it was, she could handle it. She’d read her Tolkien. And nothing could be worse than bargaining her way past CreteCo’s guardian.

“What walks. On four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at night?”

Water dripped from the hem of Ellie’s skirt. “That’s it?”

The sphinx’s eyes narrowed, her shoulders and wings pulling forward against her cheeks. “What about it?”

“Well, nothing, it’s just,” Ellie said, trying not to snort, “I was expecting something a bit more esoteric.”

“How so?” A definite growl had crept into the sphinx’s voice, and Ellie was glad she had managed not to laugh. The sphinx was ridiculous, yes, but still dangerous, wings folded tight to its back, hind legs tensed to spring.

“Well. Nothing, except everyone knows it. It might have worked for you back in the day, but word has gotten out.” Ellie ducked the gust of air that came from the sphinx’s suddenly ruffled wings. “Don’t you know any other ones?”

The sphinx muttered something so low that Ellie had to ask her to repeat it. On the third try, she was able to discern something that sounded like “family heirloom.”

“We all have to ask it,” the sphinx said, tail whipping frantically back and forth, all pretense of calm lost. “It’s tradition.”

Ellie paused a moment, imagining herself in the creature’s condition, forced to do what her family dictates no matter how silly it might feel. Like her own family, except with feathers and talons and sharpened canine teeth. An image of Uncle Matthew’s face on a sphinx body flickered across her mind’s eye, and she had to suppress a shudder. That will be her, unless she lands a job as a concept artist. And these stupid monsters are always in the way. With that thought, what little connection she felt with the unfortunate sphinx disappeared. She glanced at her watch. Five ‘til.

“That’s too bad.” She scooped up her portfolio and made as if to edge past the sphinx, heading for the elevator doors. “I’d really hate to be in your paws.”

Just as she cleared the threshold, Ellie heard the sound of rustling feathers, and then she felt herself strike the floor, air rushing from her lungs, with the sphinx’s front paws and the weight of a full grown lioness pressing down on her shoulders.

“You haven’t answered the riddle,” said the sphinx, its face kissing-close, so that Ellie can see the unnatural way its mouth moves, human lips over carnivore teeth.

Ellie gasped for breath, trying to force more air into her lungs, thoughts of I’m going to die competing with thoughts of I’m going to be late, they won’t even look at my portfolio if I’m late. With one hand she scrabbled on the tiles beside her, feeling around for the plastic clad bundle of papers.

“Were you bluffing about the answer to my riddle, little girl?” The sphinx’s claws dug into her shoulders.

Late. Death. Late is death. “Man! Man, okay, it’s man! Everyone knows that!”

The claws stayed in Ellie’s shoulder. “You didn’t answer right away, though. For all your cleverness.”

“I answered. Let me up.”

The sphinx’s curly dark hair fluffed to twice its original size, and her lips pulled back from her teeth. “Do you know how easy it would be for me to simply eat you right now?”

Ellie thought of the review board upstairs. Ten rejections in a row, and she was running out of developers. This was her last chance, short of learning Swedish and trying a foreign company. But probably she’d accept that maybe she couldn’t draw worth a damn, that maybe she should go into the family hardware business. After that, she’d let the sphinx eat her, if it came down to it. But not before that portfolio review. So she ignored the teeth that were nearly in her throat and said, “I’d bet there’s a rule against that, too. Tradition.”

She felt the sphinx’s breath against her skin as it said, “You would be right.” Then it backed away, leaving her to sit up and rub at the marks it had left on her shoulders. Ellie’s watch showed noon, on the dot. If she ran, they might let her explain herself. She spent a moment gathering up her portfolio—her appearance, by this point, was an utter loss—under the watchful gaze of the sphinx.

“So. Can I pass?” Ellie said.

The sphinx backed away from the threshold and wedged itself between the wall and a potted plant. It flicked its tail at Ellie.

Taking this as permission, Ellie crept past and thumbed the elevator button.

“Answer me a question, little human,” said the sphinx, causing Ellie to jump.

Ellie kept her eyes locked on the little lights overhead, watching the it shift from the sixth floor…to the fifth…to the fourth… “If you’re quick.”

“Why bother?”

“What?” Ellie hunched her shoulders. She could feel the question coming.

“Why bother with these interviews if you know you will always be late, and your drawings will never be good enough?”

The elevator light was on the second floor, and it seemed to be stuck there.

“I don’t have to answer that. It isn’t a riddle.”

Again Ellie heard the soft rustle of feathers shifting position, the scratching of claws on marble. “Why try to make it as an artist at all,” said the sphinx. “Even the most talented freelancers have trouble getting by.”

Ellie felt her throat constrict, felt the corners of her portfolio digging into her palm. The light was still on the second floor.

“You are going to be late, little human girl. Why not stay and play another riddle game with me? It doesn’t matter at all.” The sphinx’s feathers brushed against Ellie’s cheek, and again she felt the touch of lips on her neck.

“Get out of my head!” Ellie kicked blindly behind her and felt her heavy combat boot connect with something soft, provoking a yowl of pain and indignation. She slammed into the door that led to the emergency stairs and sprinted the six flights up, hearing and not hearing talons on concrete echoing behind her all the way. When she reached the office on the top floor she rushed past the receptionist and emerged panting and disheveled, into a drab conference room with game posters hanging on the walls.

The reviewers at the table—three men and a woman in wire rimmed glasses—turned their heads as she entered.

Ellie swallowed—they were still here­—and set her portfolio case on the table. Trying to pretend that she wasn’t sweaty, out of breath, and wearing torn clothing, she undid the clasps and pulled out the stack of pages.

“Miss Evans,” said the woman. “We have some questions for you.”

Free at Last by Karyn Samuelson 0

There’s not a lot that’s more disgusting than cleaning up after a bunch of small animals. Ask anyone who sells them for a living – while you’ve got ’em, you have to keep the cages clean and keep ’em fed and healthy and looking cute enough to sell. That’s bad enough by itself, and then you add in the grubby children who swarm your cart as soon as it comes into town and try to stick their fingers into the cages and want to pick up the critters and pet them and their hands are all sticky with god-knows-what and…

‘Course, that doesn’t even count the part where the little dragons don’t like being poked and try to bite off the offending fingers – and those cages you have to clean with tough leather gloves on your hands and it’s pure hell trying to dispose of the waste – and the phoenixes burst into flames whenever they get too excited, and of course you can’t sell them until they’ve matured a bit again, which means more time and money poured into them before you can make a profit. (Hah, no, you’re lucky if you break even.)

The griffins are the worst. Tricky little buggers, griffins. Rub up against the bars and you think, ‘hey, aww, he likes me’ and then you stick your fingers in the cage and bam, it’s got a new chew toy. Or they’ll be cheeping and chirping at all hours of the night, and you’re just trying to get some sleep before you have to get up again and feed them all…

Plus there’s the trouble feeding them. You can’t feed them chopped up horsemeat or leftover bits from making sausages like you can a cat or a dog. No, these little blighters – especially the dragons, think they’re high and mighty, they do, and you have to put a few gold coins in their cages and hang them where they can’t see each other – they expect you to give them pheasant and venison and all manner of things. Sometimes you can get away with mice, but mostly, those things eat better’n you will.

That’s why I’m done. I’m through, I’m throwing in the towel. Here, kid, you can have all the keys, the cart’s outside – if it hasn’t been burnt to cinders while I was in here drinking. No, don’t give me that starry-eyed look, haven’t you been listening? It’s hell, and you listen here, you can’t trust any of the little beasts. You always put on the gloves, and you don’t let any children get their fingers in, neither.

Don’t thank me. Buy me another drink, but don’t you thank me. You’ll see what I mean. Six months down the road, maybe less, you’ll be looking for some poor sap with wonder in his eyes who thinks a life of travel and fantastic beasts is the life for him, forget the farm and the nice settled life, and you’ll be dumping all this shite in his lap.

Now, you get going, and whatever you do, don’t ever try to stock fairies.

Math by James Grant 0

As he had done for twenty-three years, nine months, six days, eleven hours and seven minutes of his life, Nevin let the rage out. The first one he grabbed was a woman, as naked as he was. She did not scream. In fact, she barely struggled. Nevin broke her neck and tossed her aside.

The man in front of them didn’t even turn around. Nevin punched him in the spine, hard, and felt vertebrae crunch like glass. Down the stranger went without so much as a cry.

Others around him stopped marching. Eleven of them, staring with unblinking eyes, each wearing an expression that was completely out of place. Not shock, not horror, not fear. They looked at him with curiosity at the most. The querying gazes of passers-by that had just seen a man juggling live chickens.

Nevin attacked each and every one of them with his bare hands. More people flowed past, occasionally shooting him annoyed looks. When his fingers tired, he found a pear-shaped rock on the cavern floor and made it his cudgel.

He was almost knee-deep in bodies before he realized that the victims weren’t bleeding. They weren’t even dead. No, he’d broken and smashed them, but they lived on – flopping and whispering at his feet, fish on a dry shore. This fact angered him even further.

“If this is the way it’s gonna be,” he growled, “I got nae problem. Ya lookin’ at me eye?” Then he continued through the sea of naked folks, smashing skulls and shattering spines. When the pile of mutilated people got too deep, he climbed over them and continued. All of them kept trying to continue the journey. A man with a crushed back pulled himself along by his fingertips. The woman with the broken neck used her mouth, pulling herself along the cavern floor with her tongue and teeth.

She didn’t even cry out when Nevin stomped on the back of her head.

Eventually his arms grew tired, and he stood in the stream of humanity, panting. The rock in his hand wore a mottled patina of skin and bone chips. Hundreds more walked by, giving him only cursory glances. They were on their way to somewhere. Torches lit the area, their dim glow only showing a long, gargantuan cave tunnel. Regardless of their facial features, regardless of race, everyone was naked and pale. Not white, no – gray. Gray like old meat.

Nevin hadn’t received the memo, but he decided to check out where everyone else was off to. The bullet hole in his chest itched as he walked. He thought about reaching back and exploring the exit wound, but then decided not to. Likely a big old crater there. He’d seen it many times in his life. Hell, he’d dealt the very same damage again and again at the behest of his employers. Sometimes in dark alleyways, sometimes in brightly lit cafes, and all too often in the privacy of his victims’ homes.

So he finally marched with them, pausing only to stave in the skull of those who got in his way. The cavern stretched for miles, miles and miles, wider than a football field and so terribly full of people.

About an hour – or maybe two? Three? A day? He didn’t have his watch anymore, and found himself unable to keep time – into the journey, one of the men he smashed over the head fell down with a tinkling sound. Nevin stopped and scanned the ground, trying to find the source of the noise. Two pennies shone from the rocky floor. Obviously, the man had been carrying them in his hand. They were cool against Nevin’s skin. He held them, cupped like baby birds, as old memories swam up through his brain. Hadn’t he heard of something like this? Long, long before? Indeed, he had.

When he looked up, it was into the face of a monstrosity.

“Impede not the flow,” said a vaguely human-shaped creature with wings, too many fangs, and weeping holes in its body. Its eyes were glowing shards of cobalt glass. “Cease thy activities, sleeper.” The voice resembled the sound of bubbling tar.

So Nevin killed it. This one fought a lot harder, harder than almost anyone Nevin had ever murdered. Several times he wished for his regular tools of the trade: a crowbar, a ball-peen hammer, a baseball bat, anything. All he had was a rock, his fists, his feet, his forehead, his teeth.

But this one did bleed, and rather copiously after the thirtieth or fortieth good strike. It screamed. It even paused, begging for mercy in those thick syllables. It called itself Hramaleshkisa or something along those lines, as if the name would mean something. And once he’d broken most of its body, a bright idea occurred to Nevin. He slaughtered his way to the wall of the tunnel, climbed up and retrieved one of the torches. It was about five feet long, thick around as his forearm, and seemed to be made of some beast’s gigantic legbone. Damned thing weighed at least four stone. Still, he hauled the torch over his shoulders, returned to the creature on the cavern floor, and set it alight. It screamed again, several times, but eventually its noises wound down into whimpers, and finally nothing at all. The flames set several strangers on fire too as they passed, which pleased Nevin a bit. Sadly, these victims just kept walking, walking until the fire ate up too much of them and they fell over. None of them made a sound.

He tried to work up some saliva to spit on the thing he’d killed, but strangely found that his mouth was as dry as a brick wall in the Sahara.

“Don’ fookin’ look at me eye,” he growled instead, and continued. He hadn’t dropped the pennies, and now he had a club. A big, heavy club. And it was on fire.

Excellent.

He’d lost track of how many people had fallen under his wrath. At least six hundred, but his thoughts were slippery. Trying to concentrate was hard. Not that he had been a mathematical type before, no. Nevin had always been part of the brawn of Gilfrey’s operations. Still, he found himself unable to figure out how long he’d been in this endless tunnel.

Just to see, he started counting seconds out loud. After he’d killed ten more (including a girl who was maybe nine years old and a figure with womanlike breasts and a penis), he tried doing some simple math. It took him about ten seconds to dispatch each person. Between kills, another fifteen. If he’d killed at least six hundred people since the flying monster back there…

The formula in his head was hijacked by the realization that he wasn’t exhausted. Sure, his arms felt like he’d just lifted weights for half an hour, but after killing six hundred people with this terrible club? The most he’d offed in one go before had been at that Chinese card parlor in San Francisco, five men with a sledgehammer. That experience had left him sore for days.

A glance over his shoulder showed a river of burning bodies. Some of the ones closest to him were still moving, albeit weakly. The flames snaked off into the distance, at least for a mile.

“Interestin’,” he grunted, and went back to what he did best.

Just when he’d accepted that this was it, that he would eternally be walking down a damn tunnel and setting strangers on fire, the procession halted. Nevin was taller than most. He could see the crowd stretching before him, queued up for something in the distance.

“Oi, move,” he snarled, and jammed the torch into a man’s back. The stranger turned around and stared.

“Patience,” he said, so Nevin jammed the torch in the blighter’s mouth and spent half a minute beating and stomping. Then he reached out and shoved the next man in line.

“Move it, mate.”

The man turned and also stared. Nevin jigged a thumb down at the twitching mess near their feet.

“I said move.”

“We wait for our time,” the stranger replied evenly, without even looking downward.

“Ya fookin’ lookin at me eye?” He reached up and pointed at the empty socket. “Yeh? Yeh like that? Want to see wha’ it’s like? Havin’ yer eye popped out in a back alley by two Russians?”

The stranger said nothing. He just stared.

“Fook you, then!” Nevin said, and shattered his torch over the man’s head. Flames lit up on the shoulders of everyone around him. They writhed and burned as Nevin examined the splintered bone shaft. He hadn’t realized it could break. Still, the end had turned into a jagged bunch of splinters, each as long and sharp as a switchblade knife.

When he looked up, the people on fire around him had not yet fallen over. That was when Nevin started stabbing.

Even armed thusly, it took him a while. The crowd was as thick as that of a rock concert. He soon picked up a rhythm to his activity: Stab, punch, stomp stomp stomp. Stab, punch, stomp stomp stomp. A few of the bone shards snapped off at the tip of his makeshift lance, but in doing so just created new ones.

Stab, punch, stomp stomp stomp.

Stab, punch, stomp stomp stomp.

Over and over. The strangers on each side of his felled victims had a bad habit of closing the gap with their shoulders if he didn’t move quickly enough. So he’d knock down one or two at a time, then step forward to stomp very quickly. In this manner, after an unknown passage of time, made his way to the front of the queue, and onto the shore.

A great river lay before him. Its waters were as black as freshly laid asphalt, and the flow was wider than the Asda car park. The waters weren’t moving at a terribly swift speed. Still, nobody at the edge of the shore moved to start swimming.

“Fook is this?” He prodded the water with what was left of his bone weapon. It was just water, as far as he could tell. Evil smelling, to be sure, like a swamp in Louisiana, but just water.

Nevin turned to a fat woman next to him and elbowed her roughly. She turned her head to face him.

“What’s this bollocks, then? Why ain’t nobody swimmin’?”

“We mustn’t,” she said softly.

“Oi? Why the bloody hell not?”

“We must wait,” she said, and turned back to face the river.

“Wait? For what, Father Christmas?”

“We must wait for the ferryman.” She said it simply, as if describing the kind of car she drove. Nevin had an inkling that he knew what she meant, but his ox-like form of logic won out.

“Wha’ happens if we swim?”

“No. We must wait for the ferryman,” she repeated.

“Is it poison?”

The woman didn’t say anything. Nevin waited to see if she would, but she simply gazed out across the water.

“I can see the other shore,” he noted, pointing. “S’right there. A bloke could swim that.”

“We must wait.”

“Can ye swim, lass?”

She didn’t say anything.

“Oi, bitch, I asked ye a question. Can ye swim?” He grabbed her by the back of the neck and put his face next to hers. “Can ye fookin’ well swim?”

“I learned when I was seven years old,” she said evenly.

“Then fookin’ show me!” And with that, Nevin tossed her in. There was a tremendous splash as her fat body hit the surface of the river, which closed up over her.

She never came back up.

“Bloody ‘ell,” he muttered after it was obvious that she’d gone completely under. “Must be somethin’ magical, tha’s it. Somethin’ makes it so ye’s can’t swim it.”

But he tossed in another nineteen people to be sure. All with the same result. After that he just started throwing people in to thin out some of the crowd. Eventually he fell into another rhythm. Wait, wait, wait. Toss, toss, toss. A game to pass the time.

After another ungodly age, movement on the edge of his vision.

What he’d taken for a rock on the far side of the river turned out to be a raft. It was terribly large, big enough to park a few dozen cars on, which made no sense at all considering its source of locomotion: an old man in a cloak, with a simple push-pole.

The crowd around him didn’t seem excited as the raft approached. Nevin tapped his fingers on the bone weapon, anxiety burning up his spine like a bad fever.

When the raft touched the shore, nobody moved. The old man walked toward them, his face mostly hidden by the hood, and held up his arms as if commanding for silence.

“Let those who carry the payment come,” he said in a voice made of rusted hinges. Nevin grinned and stepped forward.

And then Nevin received a backhand smack from the old man that sent him flying through the air like a thrown discus. It hurt, rather a lot, and he felt his ribs stabbing into his softer insides as he landed. It was the first real pain Nevin had felt since his arrival in the cavernous tunnel.

By the time he’d risen to his feet, the old man had divided the crowd into two groups. One group was much, much smaller than the other. As Nevin watched, the old man accepted payment from each member of the smaller group, and allowed them onto the raft. The others he said nothing further to, and they began walking into the river. They marched forward, two steps per second, and didn’t even try swimming. Once the tops of their heads went under they were gone.

Nevin walked back carefully, holding his side where the ribs had been crushed. The old man waited.

“Hey,” he finally said. “I got the pennies. The fare. Here.” He held out the coins that had been resting in his palm. “Take it.”

The old man didn’t move. Behind him stood thirty people, facing the far shore. They didn’t move either.

“Didja hear me, mate? Them’s the pennies you need, right? Payment for the ferry.”

“Pennies placed upon the eyes of the dead,” the ferryman said in his awful, rusted voice. “Two pence, each eye covered, yes?”

“Erm.”

“Thou’rt missing half of what should be, and half again,” the cloaked figure said. Nevin wasn’t sure, but the ferryman seemed to smirk under his hood. “Speak again once thou hast the fare. If thy palms lie bare, the waters of Nothing await.”

“Come again?”

“Brute, thou comest after much continued destruction. Thou hast but a single eye, and two coins. This be not acceptable.”

And then he walked away, grabbed the pole and took the raft across the river. Nevin sat on the shore and watched.

At some point after that, people began piling up on his side of the river again. He lashed out, angry as a wet cat, and created a veritable hill of bodies. Once the pile got too large, he walked back and retrieved another torch. They burned with cold, blue flame.

The ferry did not return.

He made up new games of throwing them into the river. Thousands perished. It wasn’t terribly difficult. Sometimes they dropped pennies. Most didn’t. The others did not fight back, didn’t struggle or argue. The whole time, Nevin repeated a mantra that he’d used all of his life:

“Ye lookin’ at me eye? Impolite! I’ll teach ye!”

And into the river they sank, to never come up again.

Still, the ferry did not return.

After more time, he tried fashioning the undying bodies into a raft of his own. With a few creative snapped bones, he wove a pad of bodies together. They squirmed and twitched beneath his fingers. Finally, using a torch as his push-pole, he shoved off.

As it turned out, their bodies were shit for floating. He barely made it back to the shore as they all sank to the bottom.

The ferry returned. He tried arguing more strenuously with the ferryman. All he got was slapped halfway to kingdom come and a terrible kink in his neck. By the time he crawled back to the shore, the ferry was gone.

Thousands of souls came and went. All nationalities, all races, all ages, there were no boundaries. Some were incredibly old. Some were babies, carried in the arms of others.

Nevin made up fresh games.

The ferry also came and went, every so often. He stopped arguing after the third time the ferryman slapped him a good one. Mostly he stood to the side of the shore, watching, ever watching as others were allowed on the raft after their pennies were accepted. And the ones without fare marched down into the water and vanished.

One day he realized that he’d grown some new teeth. They were long, pointy, and jutted from his lower jaw like a pig’s tusks. Like the teeth of the thing he’d killed in the tunnel, ages before.

“You may become,” the ferryman said when Nevin questioned him (from a safe distance). “And then you will have found your worth.” Then he poled the raft off away into darkness.

His ribs grew back together. This was small comfort.

Then one day, as he slaughtered the latest crowd, something new happened.

“Oi, get orff me, fucka!”

Nevin lifted his victim by the neck, as a rabbit breeder would lift a hare, and stared him in the face.

“Wot?”

“I said get orff me!” The teenaged boy in his grasp squirmed, fought back. “You the devil?”

“Wot?”

“What are ye, stupid?” And with that, the boy twisted hard enough and bit down on the meat of Nevin’s thumb.

Nevin let go. Not so much from pain, but from the shock of difference. He hadn’t met anyone since his arrival who’d shown any emotion whatsoever. The boy flopped to the stone shore and scrambled back to his feet, edging away carefully.

“Right bunch of bollocks, this!” he said, giving Nevin the once-over. “I was just out ridin’ with me mates!”

“Wot?”

“Me mates! Just drivin’ to London! I tol’ J-man not to drink so much in the car! Next thing I know, we wrecked an’ I’m bleedin’!” He looked down at his left hand, shaking like a leaf. “Woke up here, an’ me mum done it!”

Inside his palm lay two large copper coins.

“She always said,” the teenager continued. “Troof, she always said if’n I died, she’d place a two-pee on each of me eyes! Said ‘if the ferryman wants one penny on each eye, two for each will guarantee.’ An’ I wake up here, an’… an’…”

A brilliant idea exploded behind Nevin’s one good eye.

When the ferryman returned, he accepted the teenager’s payment – two pennies.

Nevin let the rest get on before he came forward.

“Look,” he said, and held out his hand. “I think I got this right. Ye need two pence?”

The ferryman nodded.

“But you need a coin fer each eye?”

The ferryman nodded again.

“So here it is. Traded with that cunt over there.” He motioned toward the teen, who sulked at the front of the raft.

The ferryman said nothing.

“For the love of…” Nevin clenched his teeth, then put the two-pence coin over his single eye like a monocle. “See? Two pence, me eye is covered. Now will ye let me on or not, ye fookin’ daft imbecile?”

The ferryman cocked his head under the hood.

“Where be the other coin in the pair?” he asked.

“Threw’t in the fookin’ river,” Nevin replied, dropping the two-pence piece into his hand. “Made two wishes on’t, as well.”

The ferryman chuckled. It was a horrible noise. He held out his palm until Nevin put the coin in it.

“Get on,” he said, and Nevin did. The raft poled away from the shore. And as for what happened after that, your guess is as good as mine.

Chasing Cars by Anica Lewis 0

This is not a horror story.

I want to get that straight up front, because I know how it looks with me lying here in this hospital bed.  I’m glad I don’t have a mirror.  It’s enough that I can see my arms and legs.  How many cars hit me?  I really don’t remember it.

There’s another reason that I want to be sure you understand that this is not a horror story.  It has a werewolf.  No, I’m not feeling dizzy.  You think I’m delusional.  Blood loss or something.  Go on then.  You don’t have to listen to me.  It’s true, though – and I didn’t believe it either, when I first heard it.  You can tell your readers whatever you want, and this can be off the record, if you aren’t going to believe me.  I just feel like talking right now, because it helps keep my mind off how much I hurt.

What?  No.  You’re wrong.  There was no heroic dog.  I don’t care how many drivers saw it pull me out of traffic.  It was pretty heroic, but there was no dog.  That was Rex, my roommate.  I guess it sounds sort of like a dog’s name, but it’s not.  It’s a werewolf’s name.  It’s short for Rebecca.

Rex is a good roomie.  She doesn’t do sleazy stuff in the room or anything.  Plus, she told me right up front that she was a werewolf, when I asked if she wanted to room with me, seeing as we were both in the science-fiction and fantasy club and both girls who needed roommates for the next year.  I didn’t believe her.  I mean, seriously, a werewolf.  Come on.

She said, “I should tell you, I’m a werewolf.  I go out and get messed up on the full moons.”

And I said, “Okay,” and I laughed.

The first full moon after we started rooming together, Rex had just had a big test in organic chemistry or something like that.  That evening, I was writing a paper on The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Rex looked at her watch and said:

“Okay, I’m going out.  I’ll be back tomorrow morning.  I’ll probably be pretty smashed up.”

I didn’t think she was that kind of girl, but I try not to judge, so I said okay, and I went back to my paper.

The next morning, I was just eating breakfast when Rex dragged herself in.  She had bruises all over.  I had never seen anything like that outside of photos on the news.  I thought she had gotten attacked.  I was scared to death she’d maybe been raped or something.

“Rex!  What happened to you?”

She came and sat down in her computer chair and raised an eyebrow at me.  “I told you I was going to be smashed up.”

I said, “Good God, Rex, I thought you meant you were going to get drunk!”  And she was all offended.  I guess really neither of us is into that stuff, and she thought I knew her better than that.  Anyway, she healed really fast.

What?  No, I can’t prove this.  It’s true.  If you print it, I might end up blaming whatever’s in this IV for all this stuff I’m saying, though.  Like I said, I’m talking because it hurts more when I’m not distracted.  It’s not as painful as it looks, though.  I guess it’s the IV, or shock or something.  Anyway, I talk all the time.  You can ask Rex.  She’ll show up at the hospital tomorrow.  She’ll be the one with all the bruises.  Actually, she’ll probably look better than I do.  I’m going to walk again sometime, right?

So Rex went out again the next month, when we had another full moon, and she came back all black-and-blue again.  She’d cover it with makeup before she went to class, but I always saw it.  By evening, when she washed the makeup off, the bruises were doing that yellow-green thing, and the next day, they’d be practically gone.  She was never bleeding.  She said werewolf skin can only be cut by silver.  I guess it didn’t take that much to break werewolf blood vessels, though.  That’s what bruises are, right?  It sounds so much worse than just saying “bruise.”

I asked her one time why she was always so messed up when she came back.  She looked at me like I was going to laugh at her and she was already tired of it, and said, “I chase cars.”

So of course, I asked, “Why?”

“Because it’s safe.  I’m out on the highway, and there are no people outside the cars, so there’s no one I could accidentally hurt.  And cars can’t hurt me.  I mean, not really hurt me.  I get hit all the time.  They can’t kill me.”

I thought it was neat.  I liked the idea of little kids looking out the windows of cars and seeing a real werewolf, even if they didn’t know it.  It was the kind of thing I used to look for when I was a kid on long car trips at night, when we were driving through woods or fields or whatever.  But, I mean, I’m a nerd.  You probably figured that – sci-fi/fantasy club, right?

Yeah.  So anyway.  Rex went out every month and came back all bashed up.  Sometimes, she told me stuff, like about the station wagon that hit her and then they stopped it and got out to look for her body, and she had to run away before she could lose control and attack them.  One time, she got run over by a fire engine and an ambulance.  We were roommates all our sophomore year, and the only thing we fought over at all was cleaning.  Well, and the bookshelves.  Her big fat science books were taking all the space and about to break them, and I just had a bunch of little paperbacks.  Didn’t seem fair.

Right.  Rex and I are juniors now, and we’re rooming together again.  Yesterday, I was going to Target in the evening to get some more food.  I have a meal plan at school, but some days their food is terrible, so I need stuff to eat in the room.  I had to take the Orange Line to get to Target, but I was going to take the Red Line back.  It stops in a different place.  My timing was really bad, though.  I should have taken the Orange Line back, but I didn’t know it was almost there when I was on my way to the Red Line stop.  I couldn’t see it.  The bus stop isn’t that well lit.  It should be.  I could probably sue someone, but I don’t want to be that person, you know?  It’s dark over by the Red Line stop, though, because it’s away from the Target parking lot, closer to the highway.

So I was just crossing the road to get to my stop, and suddenly the Orange Line comes up out of nowhere.  I mean, it was right there, going to run me down.  I remember something tackling me out of the way.  It felt like I got hit by a flying mattress.  And then, something much, much harder hit – I guess hit both of us.  That must have been a car.  I don’t know where Rex went.  She must have gotten knocked out of the way.  They didn’t find her, did they?  Good.  Then she’s fine.  She’ll be here tomorrow.

So I guess I got hit by at least one more car.  I mean, that’s what the nurses told me.  They thought maybe more than that.  They must have given me something really hardcore in the IV, though, because I feel like this should really hurt more.  Hey, I’m not complaining.

Actually, the needle feels funny, though.  Is it me, or – hey, look, it must have come out!  It’s still taped down, but the needle is out.  Weird.  I guess the nurses will have to put it back in.

So, what are you going to print about this, anyway?  Is it still a heroic dog story?  I wouldn’t blame you, I guess.  Makes for good copy, probably.  “Heroic Dog Knocks College Student Out of Path of Bus.”

No, she definitely knocked me out of the way.  We went flying into the front of a car in the other lane, like I said, remember?  There was no dragging.

Well, then, your “four separate witnesses” are wrong, aren’t they?  I was there.  If they found me on the sidewalk, I must have gotten thrown over there by one of the cars.

Look, I know I wasn’t that coherent at the time, but I think I would remember if a werewolf was dragging me around.  Plus, wouldn’t I have, like, teeth marks in my shoulder if she had been pulling me anywhere by it?

Well, would you look at that.  Teeth marks.  I’d have expected it to hurt more.

But really, none of this hurts too much.  I mean, considering that I got hit by at least two cars or whatever, you’d think I’d be in way more pain.  And bleeding more.  This isn’t so bad, really . . .

Mostly just bruises.