Entertainingly Evil
21
Aug

“The Night Artist” by Brady Golden

A single large painting hung on the otherwise bare wall. Tim didn’t need to check the signature to know that it was an Owen Steig original. It featured the artist’s favorite and, as far as Tim had been able to turn up on the Internet, only subject matter—the Earth’s moon floating in a night sky. The paint had hardened into gloppy chunks. The sky was a dull purple, heavy and oppressive. Within it, the stars appeared to be sinking, as though into tar. Only the moon stood defiant; a swollen yellow thing too alive to be pulled in. The brush strokes gave it the look of striated meat, of a single, spherical muscle, held aloft by its own strength, fighting and winning against the darkness sucking at it.

Owen himself had disappeared into the house’s depths with Tim’s suitcase, leaving Tim and his mother alone in the living room. She took a seat on the sofa and motioned for him to join her. He declined. Part of him hoped that he wouldn’t have to stay long, that his powers of persuasion would be enough to get them on the road before Owen reemerged. Unlikely, but not impossible. Claire had always been an agreeable woman.

“So, this is where you live now,” he said.

“I know how strange it must seem. You’ve probably got a lot of questions. I’m so glad that you came to see me. To see us. It means so much.” She leaned forward, clasping her hands in her lap. She’d picked up a deep tan since he’d last seen her, and the silver of her hair only set off its intensity that much more. “I need to know you understand that your dad and me—that our separation doesn’t have anything to do with you. It doesn’t change anything between us.”

“I’m thirty, not twelve. I think I can handle the whole child-of-divorce thing,” he said.

“How is your dad?”

“He’s worried about you. Same as me.”

That wasn’t exactly true, or if it was, Tim had no way of knowing. Upon discovering that he’d been kicked to the curb after four decades of marriage, Chuck’s exact words had been, I’ve got better things to do that drive down to the ass-end of nowhere to beg on the doorstep of the man who stole my wife. In the week since then, his feelings hadn’t softened. Tim had kept his visit a secret to avoid the conniption the old man would have inevitably thrown if he’d found out.

Behind her, a bay window gave a view of the landscape Tim had driven through to get here. Brown hills that looked like massive heaps of gravel rolled to the horizon. For the last hour of his trip, he hadn’t passed so much as a gas station.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “I’m wonderful. Really, really wonderful. The happiest I’ve been in a long time.”

“But this Owen guy. You met him, what, a month ago? You barely know him.”

“I know he’s passionate, sensitive, driven. I know he pushes me creatively. When I’m with him, I see the world through different eyes. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced that.”

It took an effort to keep his face blank. This didn’t sound like his mother. In all his life, he didn’t think he’d ever heard her use the word passionate in any context.

“What about Dad?” he said.

“Chuck is a good man, a good husband, a good father, but I think in my heart I always knew I’d leave him one day.”

Tim wondered how much of that she really believed. “I want you to be happy, and if you say you need a change, I’m on board. Anything I can do. But is it really out here? With him? Don’t you think you’re rushing into this?”

“I understand why you think that. But being at the colony, just me and my work for so long, it clarified things. I learned more about myself last month that in the past twenty years. This is where I need to be. And Owen is who I need to be with. This is my life now. It’s right. I know it.”

For two years, she had been taking art classes at the continuing education center, cranking out paintings of flowers in vases and charcoal sketches of middle-aged nude models for her weekly assignments. One of her teachers had told her about the Soledad Art Colony and suggested she apply for a spot there. Visits, which cost a small fortune, lasted for one month. Guests stayed in private cottages with desert views. At night they ate gourmet meals prepared by a resident chef, drank wine, and talked art. By day they did nothing but work, free of distraction. Real, honest-to-God professional artists were paid to hang around, offering critiques and advice.

Tim had heard the excitement in her voice when she’d first described it to him, even as she’d told him that she wouldn’t be applying. She could never, she had explained, leave her husband alone for such a long stretch. Ultimately, Tim had talked her into it. He wondered if his father knew that. He wondered just how much responsibility he bore for the fact that one of those artists-in-residence had, over the span of one month, launched into an affair with his mother, and then convinced her to come home with him when her stay at the colony ended.

She said, “I know you came here to rescue me, and I’m touched, deeply. It’s so sweet. But I don’t need it.”

The sound of shuffling footsteps signaled Owen’s return. He entered the room carrying a wine bottle in one hand and a trio of glasses in the other. The first thing to occur to Tim when Owen had greeted him at the front door had been a question, whether the reason so much of the painter’s work focused on moons was that he himself looked like one. The man was almost spherical.  His belly had a perfect curve to it. The top of his head was bald and shiny. A brown-grey hobo beard hid most of his face.

“I hope you two are all caught up,” he said. The smile he flashed never made it to his eyes.

Later, after drinks, dinner, and more drinks, Owen led Tim down a twisting staircase to the bottom of the house. It ended at a hallway with three doors. At the upper register of his hearing, Tim thought he detected a faint humming sound. If Owen noticed it, he gave no sign. In succession, he jabbed a finger at each door.

“That’s the guest room. Your bag’s already in there. The bed’s comfortable. I’ve slept in it plenty of times myself. That’s the bathroom. Use the green towels. This one’s your mom’s studio. Sometimes she comes down here late at night to work, so if you hear someone moving around, that’s what that is.”

Tim thanked him and tried to step past into the bedroom, but Owen took up most of the hallway and didn’t make any effort to move. His skin was flushed and shiny.

“How long are you planning to stay for, exactly?” he said.

“The invitation was for a week,” Tim said. “I got the time off of work.”

“Sure it was. But I think you already asked the question you came here to ask, and if I’m not wrong, you already got your answer.” He folded his arms across the top of his stomach and gave Tim a professorial look. “Your mom’s doing some important work here. Artistically, I mean. She could do without the distraction. And since you know she won’t be leaving with you…”

“Are you kicking me out?” Tim asked.

“Not at all. I just hate to see you wasting your time. And hers.”

“I think I’ll stay then, if it’s all the same.”

Owen’s mouth turned to a thin, hard line. He stepped aside to let Tim through. In the guest room, a twin bed with a knit blanket folded over it occupied one corner. Tim spotted his suitcase at its foot. Beside the bed was a nightstand, upon which stood a ceramic lamp, its base sculpted into the shape of a crescent moon with the wizened, wrinkled face of an old man. His nose was hooked, his grin mischievous. Another of Owen’s paintings hung on the wall above the bed, almost identical to the one upstairs. Across the room, a sliding glass door looked out onto a small wooden deck. As Tim closed the bedroom door behind him, he heard his host mutter something. It might have been “good night” or something else entirely.

When he woke up some time later, it was still dark out. A sound followed him out of whatever dream he’d been having; a piece of music, wordless, with a slippery worm of a melody. It called to mind memories he couldn’t place—the smell of wood smoke, the rustles and chirps of a forest at night, the feel of cold, damp air on his skin. He stared up at the ceiling, tasting the sourness of his own tongue, sensing the headache from all the night’s wine as it gathered in his temples. It took him a minute to understand that the sound—the song—was real. It was what had woken him up. At first, he thought it might have been that same hum he’d heard earlier, but after listening for a while he decided that it was coming from outside the house.

He got up, went to the glass door, and opened it. The music’s volume shot up. Wearing only his pajama bottoms, he stepped outside. The wood beneath his feet was rough and splintery. There were no clouds in the sky, just an immense dome of stars. The moon shone bright enough that the rocky hills seemed to glow silver-blue.

03NightArtist1Owen stood on a balcony two floors up. He had an easel and canvas set up in front of him, and he held a brush in his hand, but he wasn’t painting. His arms hung limp at his sides, and his face was lifted to the sky. Tim thought for a second that he might be the source of the strange melody. Tim wouldn’t have guessed it was a human voice, but it didn’t necessarily sound inhuman, either. The longer he looked, though, the more his eyes adjusted and the more he could see. Owen’s lips weren’t moving. His mouth was closed, turned up in a sleepy, blissful smile. He was the music’s audience, not its source.

Tim looked back out at the hills. What could it be, then? There was no wind, not even a breeze. It didn’t sound like any kind of bird he’d ever heard before. There were no trees, no other buildings. He craned his neck, looking up, up, up, until his eyes landed on what he knew with sudden and absolute certainty to be the music’s source, and his mouth went dry.

It was the moon. Impossibly, it was the moon. Two-hundred-and-some-odd-thousand miles away, it was singing. The meandering melody originated up there, traversed a silent vacuum, and reached all the way to this place, to him.

The sharp grind of metal sounded nearby, and Tim spun around. On another deck only a few yards from his own, a door was sliding open. He watched as a figure emerged. When he caught a glimpse of his mother’s silver hair, he ducked back inside and eased his own door shut. He slipped back into bed and shoved his head under a pillow, using one arm to hold it in place. It muffled the music, but didn’t block it out entirely. Eventually, he fell asleep like that, squeezing his teeth and eyes because he couldn’t close his ears.

In the morning, he dressed, washed his face in the bathroom sink, and started upstairs. Halfway up, he heard his mother call his name. If she hadn’t, if he’d made it up there without encountering anyone. He couldn’t say for sure that he wouldn’t have kept going, straight out to his car, out the driveway, and gone. She greeted him at the top step. She was practically buzzing with excitement. Tim glanced over her shoulder for any sign of Owen and saw nothing, just the empty living room.

“I need to talk to you about something,” he said.

“I bet you do.”

“It’s about Owen. Last night, before I went to bed—“

She shook her head and waved her hands as though shooing a bug.

“Listen,” he said. “He basically gave me a ‘Get out of Dodge’ speech.”

“That doesn’t matter anymore,” she said.

He wasn’t getting through, couldn’t tell if she was even registering what he was saying.

“Mom, he’s not a nice guy.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” She took his shoulders in her hands and leaned in close enough for a kiss. Her eyes were wide, unrelenting. “I know you heard it last night,” she said. “This changes things. I know Owen didn’t want you coming here. He’s a very private person. Very focused on his painting. He was convinced you would wreck what we have. I promised him and promised him you wouldn’t. You’re not like your dad. You’re like me. And I was right! Not everyone can hear it, you know. Owen says it takes a particular kind of sensitivity. And you have it. Once we tell him, we could put all these negative feelings behind us. You’ll be welcome to stay. He’ll want you to stay. He’s in the shower now, but he should be down soon. We can tell him together.”

“Mom,” Tim said. “What did I hear last night?”

She let her arms fall and motioned for him to follow her into the kitchen. There, Tim watched her assemble Owen’s substantial breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, and toast. She offered to make Tim something, but his stomach felt like a pouch of hot oil. The cup of coffee that he nursed was the most he could handle.

“I heard it for the first time at the colony,” she explained. “It was the start of my second week there. I was enjoying myself—I loved all the time to myself, I loved all the painting I was doing—but I hadn’t gotten to know any of the other guests. They would get together at night to socialize, but I stayed away. I’m shy, I suppose. You know that. Instead, I took walks. There were these beautiful gardens of desert plants, and these little footpaths going through them. The way they had it set up, you could walk twenty feet and be completely alone, no one in sight. Especially when it was dark.”

She flitted from cupboard to counter to sink. “It was one of those nights. I was out there alone, and I heard this strange, beautiful sound. This music. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first. Then I looked up and realized.” She looked at him. “It was the moon, Tim. The moon was singing. It was the strangest thing, but it was also sort of wonderful.

“Then Owen came along. He’d been with the other guests, but he was on his way back to his cottage. He saw me there, staring up at the sky, thinking I’d lost my mind, and do you know what he said? He said, ‘You hear it.’ Not even a question. Like, he just knew.” She paused to let that sink in. “He’s been hearing it since he was a child, and in all that time, he’s only ever met three other people who can. Now, with you, it’s four. He thinks only people with a real deep sensitivity can hear it, and only if they really know how to listen.”

“Why that night and not before?” Tim said.

She pointed at him with a spatula shiny with grease. “You and I have lived in the city for our entire lives. Owen says, ‘It takes a special kind of place with a special kind of silence.’ It’s why he bought this property, because the music is louder here than anywhere else. Anywhere else he’s been anyway.”

“What does Owen think the music—what does he think it is?”

“You should ask him. He’s got theories. Lots and lots of theories. It’s fascinating.”

Eventually, Owen showed up, his skin still flushed from the shower. He kissed Claire on the cheek, but did not acknowledge her son, even as he sat down across the table from him. Tim watched his mother set a steaming mountain of food before him. Owen settled into his meal without speaking, and Tim thought about how familiar it all seemed. Three hundred miles away, in a different house with a different man, and his mother was still the unthanked servant. He wondered what the best way to point that out might be. She lingered beside Owen, though he was too focused on his meal to notice. For several seconds, the only sounds were of chewing.

She said, “We have something to tell you.”

Owen grunted a questioning noise around a mouthful of food.

“Last night, Tim heard the moon.”

The chewing slowed as Owen processed this. He swallowed with a tremendous bob of his Adam’s apple, swiped at his mouth with a napkin, and twisted in his seat to look up at her. “You told him? Do you have any sense?”

“I didn’t tell him anything, honey. He heard it. He told me.”

“Dammit, it’s a secret thing. Our secret thing.”

“And now he’s one of us, you see? It’s a good thing.”

“He is, is he?” He shifted his gaze to Tim. “Tell me, then. What exactly did you hear last night?”

Tim looked down into his coffee. The lack of a discernable melody made the music a challenge to recall. Already, it was slipping from his mind, like a fish escaping into darker water.

“I’m not sure what I heard,” he said.

Owen smirked and, to Claire, said, “He’s lying to you. He’s trying to get close to you so he can turn you against me, drag you back to your husband. Is that what you want? Your old life? Because he’s part of that. Your husband’s son. Maybe I’m remembering wrong, but I got the impression you were pretty miserable then.” He gave Tim an appraising look. “He didn’t hear a thing. He thinks we’re crackpots. Small-minded, no imagination, just like his dad.”

It felt to Tim like he ought to say something, to get mad, defensive, something, but who was he going to stick up for? His father? For someone who’d never met the man, Owen’s description hit pretty close to the mark. Himself? Yes, he had heard something, and yes, he thought they were crackpots. The two weren’t mutually exclusive.

“He doesn’t need to get close to me,” Claire said. “He’s my son. He is close to me. And you’re wrong. He’s not like he’s father. He’s like me. He’s like you. You’d see it if you’d just give him a chance.”

Owen glared at her, then at Tim, working his mouth. He looked to be on the cusp of saying something, but he gave up on it. With a snort and a shake of his head, he said, “I’m going for a walk.” His chair squealed on the floor as he pushed it back. A moment later, he was gone. The house swallowed the sound of his footsteps. Claire made an attempt at a reassuring smile, but she couldn’t quite suppress the tremble in her lips.

Downstairs, Tim took his cell phone out onto the deck. The sky was cloudless and powder blue. The air smelled of warm dust. He placed his hands on the railing and listened hard for anything that might, in the light of day, offer an explanation for last night’s strangeness. Somewhere far off, a car engine was buzzing. It grew fainter by the second, until it was gone. After that there was only silence. He dialed his parents’ house, brought the phone to his ear, and waited for his father to pick up.

“Hello?” The voice was phlegmy and a bit bewildered. If it was anyone else, Tim would have guessed he’d woken the person up, but this was how Chuck always sounded. That he should ever be expected to interact with anyone was a source of bafflement and frustration for him.

“Hi, Dad. It’s me.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, during which Tim could easily imagine his father trying to puzzle out exactly who me was.

“Tim,” he said. “How are you?”

“I’m good. I’m at Owen Steig’s house.”

This time, the pause was heavier, charged. Tim waited, then realized that this wasn’t a pause at all, but a silence.

“I came to see Mom,” he said.

“Oh, yeah?” Chuck was trying for indifference, but the anger came through anyway.

“Yeah.” Tim chose his next words very carefully. “I think I can get her to come home. This Owen guy, he’s a real piece of work, and I think she’s starting to see it.”

“Don’t waste your time.”

“What?” Tim said.

He heard the creak and slide of his father shifting on his leather couch. “If she comes back, she comes back. It’s not like I’m sitting here on pins and needles. Don’t be so sure I’d even take her back if she came.”

“Come on, Dad. Who are you kidding?”

“I’m a forgiving guy, but that’s thirty-nine years of marriage she pissed on. That’s me and you. How thrilled do you expect me to be by the prospect of her crawling back with her tail between her legs just because the guy she ran off with turned out to be an even bigger piece of shit than me?”

“Jesus. This is your wife.”

“And look how she’s treating me,” he said. “Look, you do what you want, but my advice is leave her where she is. If it’s where she wants to be, she’ll stay. Otherwise, she’ll leave. It’s not my business either way, and it sure as hell isn’t yours.”

Leaving held a definite appeal, and his father’s permission to do just that made Tim feel lighter, more mobile. He almost did it. He started gathering his things and folding his clothes into his suitcase, then stopped himself.

The music he’d heard last night had unnerved him. If he was being honest, it had scared him in a way that he could no more explain than he could its source. Not for a second did he believe that the moon was humming tunes for the benefit of the world’s most creative souls, or whatever nonsense Owen had come up with, but he didn’t have an explanation of his own, either. He didn’t think he needed one. Some of life’s mysteries might be worth exploring, but this wasn’t one of them. It had his mother mesmerized, though. It didn’t occur to her to be scared, which meant that it fell to Tim to be scared on her behalf.

Owen worried him too. Fewer than twenty-four hours had passed since they’d met, and even that had been too long for the artist to keep a lid on the fact that he was possessive, jealous, and delusional. Tim didn’t know what someone like that might be capable of. There were no other houses out here, no neighbors. If something were to happen—Tim wasn’t ready to guess at what—who could his mother turn to for help? How many people even knew she was here?

It was simple. He couldn’t leave until she agreed to come with him.

Claire spent the day in her studio. Through the door he could hear occasional sounds of movement. The first couple of times he knocked, she called out terse instructions to leave her alone while she worked. After that, she stopped responding at all.

He took some time to explore the house. It was narrow and tall, with multiple staircases that wound up and down its interior. Nearly every room had its own deck or balcony. Most had at least one of Owen’s paintings on display. He found several bedrooms, a game room, and a room with no furniture at all, just stacks of audiocassettes piled up against the walls and no means of playing them that Tim could see. He never found a TV, but he didn’t open the doors to either the master bedroom or what he guessed to be Owen’s painting studio. He crossed paths with his host a few times. Owen never said anything, just got up and walked out of any room that Tim entered. Each time, he had a glass of something brown with ice that he carried with him. He kept it full throughout the day, and by the time they gathered for dinner, he was glassy eyed and swaying from the alcohol.

At the table, Claire tried repeatedly to start a conversation, but Owen ignored her, so for a while they sat in silence. She and Tim ate, but Owen didn’t touch his food. When he finally spoke, his voice came out as an animal bark. “Why don’t you tell us more about this whatever-it-is you heard last night?”

Claire answered for him, sweetly, but with a hint of a challenge in her voice. “You know what he heard.”

“Let him speak for himself.” To Tim, he said, “Was it like anything you’ve ever heard before?”

Tim was about to answer in the negative, but he stopped. It had sounded familiar, hadn’t it? His first thoughts upon waking—they’d been more like impressions, really—had been of a forest. He’d been unable to place them, but they’d had the feel of memories. His family had only ever undertaken one attempt at a camping trip that he knew of. He’d been five or six at the time. As far as he could remember, the trip had consisted almost exclusively of his parents arguing, and had ended prematurely in the middle of the night when Tim had pissed in his sleeping bag. Had there been anything else to it? Something he’d forgotten? A reason he’d not wanted to leave the tent to pee against a tree?

What had his mother said? It takes a special kind of place with a special kind of silence.

“Maybe,” he said finally.

Owen arched an eyebrow. “Maybe. Maybe he’s heard it before. He’s not sure what he heard.”

“You’re being rude,” Claire said.

Owen shoved his plate away, untouched. “Come with me, Tim. I want to show you something.”

“We’re eating dinner,” Claire said.

“This is important. I’d appreciate his insight.”03NightArtist2

“Owen, please,” she said, but he was already on his feet, walking away.

Tim hesitated. This could be the moment. His mother’s displeasure with Owen was simmering. He might be able to get her to leave. If he miscalculated, though, she would only remember that he was the reason her boyfriend was throwing such a snit, and then redirect some or all of that displeasure onto him. He pushed back his chair and stood.

Owen led them downstairs to the closed door of Claire’s studio.

“I told you that your mom’s been doing some amazing work,” he said.

Important work, is what you said.”

“That’s right. Important.” Owen levelled a finger at him. “And it is. I’d love for you to see it. I’d love to hear what you think.”

Tim’s mother started to speak. “Don’t—”

He did.

The door swung inward, revealing the room. A table stood against the far wall, its surface cluttered with half-crushed paint tubes and brushes soaking in jars of murky water. An easel held an unfinished painting. Other paintings in various states of completion were propped against walls and in corners. In all cases, the subject matter was the same. Claire had given up on her still lifes, landscapes, and figure studies, and had stolen her boyfriend’s muse. She was painting the moon, over and over again.

She didn’t have Owen’s talent, though. Her work was amateurish—flat objects on flat backgrounds, shading that didn’t make a lick of sense, everything just a little bit lopsided. Her work differed from Owen’s in one other respect. For some reason, she’d opted to paint her night skies with the darks and lights inverted, like a photographic negative—a navy circle against a periwinkle sky, plum purple against muted pink, black against white. The moons were all full, Tim noticed. Time didn’t pass in her paintings. The moon had no phases.

He followed Owen into the room.

“Do you hear it?” Owen said.

He did. The music, the meandering, high-pitched melody from last night, came at him from all directions, fainter now that before, but everywhere. It was the paintings. As it had come from the moon, now it came from the paintings.

Owen saw something in Tim’s face. “You do, don’t you?”

Claire hovered in the doorway, nibbling on her knuckle.

“You do!” Owen said. His eyes flashed. “Tell me, then. Your mom goes on and on about how smart you are, how insightful, how sensitive. So tell me, how is this happening? I’ve been hearing the moon’s music my entire life. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been hearing it, trying to understand. I’ve devoted my life to it. My art? My career? That’s all it is. Just me, groping for answers. What does the music mean? Why do I hear it? What am I supposed to do? Decades. Sixty goddamned years. Then your mother comes along and does this.” He spread his arms wide, putting the whole incomprehensible scene on display. “What is this? What has she done that I never have? What does it mean?”

Tim cast about, looking from one painting to the next, but never for too long. Facing them directly sent pain spiking through his skull. Dark, sloppy circles stared at him like hollow eye sockets. A cold mass formed in his stomach.

“They’re not moons.” The timid voice didn’t sound like his own. “They’re holes.”

“No, Tim,” his mother said.

Owen snorted. He screwed up his face to say something derisive, then softened it again. “Holes,” he echoed.

Owen snatched the painting off the easel and regarded it. With his free hand, he swept the assorted jars, brushes, and paints off the table, sending them crashing to the floor. Glass shattered, and water splashed out in a violent V. Tim’s mother let out a yelp. She crossed the room to him, but Owen shoved her off with a twist of his shoulders. She stumbled backwards. Dimly, Tim knew that he should be doing something, that this was his time to intercede, but the melody twirled and spiraled, and he couldn’t follow it.

Owen set the canvas on the table. He grabbed another and laid it on top of the first. He took a lap around the room, picking up each painting, finished and unfinished alike, and bringing them to the table, where he stacked them into a squat tower, a dozen canvases tall. For several seconds, he gazed down at what he’d done. His beard twitched. No one spoke. He reached out one hand and held it above the pile, as though gauging the heat of a skillet on a stove. Then he brought it down. Reality squirmed away. When his hand should have landed flat on the top painting, it passed right through. His arm vanished up to the elbow. So assembled, the two-dimensional images had taken on a third dimension, like a gag in a Roadrunner cartoon.

“It’s a tunnel,” he said, his voice was breathy with wonder.

Claire started to say something. Owen cut her off with a scream. His face turned pale and the chords in his neck went taught. He snatched his hand back. Not much remained. His middle and ring fingers were gone entirely, severed at the knuckles. Strips of skin and stringy red tissue held his pinky together. Blood came in two distinct squirts. His voice weakened, and he collapsed. Claire rushed to catch him, and Tim stepped forward to catch her. They were no match for Owen’s weight, though, and all three of them went down together.

Tim heard Owen moaning incomprehensibly, heard his mother shouting something about an ambulance, but all of his attention was focused on the stack of paintings on the table, and on the music’s crescendo. From the ground, he couldn’t see the top of the pile, but he could see the thing that emerged from it. First there was a head, the shape and size of a garden shovel. Branches of purple-black veins ran beneath its scarlet skin. Its mouth was wide, smeared with blood, and crowded with teeth like shards of shattered black glass. Where there should have been eyes and nostrils, there was only smooth skin. The neck came next, three feet long and serpentine, then a lizard-like body. A dark growth sat on the creature’s back. Its tale was thick and muscular, and tipped with a hook the size of a thumb. Yellow fluid dripped from the point.

It crawled headfirst down the stack of paintings, inched to the table’s edge, and dropped to the floor with a meaty thud. Tim scooted back. Before he could muster a warning, another one appeared, identical to the first. It flopped to the ground. A third followed right behind it, landing on its companion and rolling off.

“Mom—”

She looked up, saw what he saw, and let out a whimper. Owen’s face was as gray as cigarette ash, his eyes half-closed. He didn’t see the three creatures. They lunged for his splayed legs, mouths gaping, and sank their teeth in. Blood geysered. Thrashing and bucking, he threw back his head and howled.

More came, clambering out of the paintings two and three at a time. They tumbled down, landing on their sides and their backs, and twisting to right themselves. They swiveled their eyeless faces, and then started toward the three people on the far side of the room. They moved fast, crossing the floor in seconds. As they moved, they sang.

It was the growths, the strange protuberances on their backs. They looked to have erupted from within the creatures. The skin around them was split and shredded. They looked inorganic, even metallic, like coarse iron. Tiny holes of varying sizes perforated the growths. As the creatures crawled, they forced air through the holes, creating the sound. There were a dozen of them in the room now, and more coming. The music spilled over itself, swelling.

Tim pushed himself to his feet and backed away. They covered Owen, tearing at him, effortlessly rending clothing and skin. Tim’s mother looked up at him, eyes wide with disbelief. He knew what she saw in his face, and he couldn’t believe it either. Owen’s massive torso lay across her legs. Those things surrounded her and were drawing closer. He couldn’t get to her, not without coming in reach of their teeth and lashing tails. She already knew it. He was going to leave her there.

He broke for the door. At the first sound of her cries, he tried to slam it shut behind him. One of the creatures launched itself at him and landed between the door and the frame. The force crushed it in a burst of black fluid. Another one appeared in the gap, clambering over the remains of the first. Tim turned and ran. He took the stairs at the end of the hall two at a time. Behind him, the door banged open. Music flooded the house. The floor vibrated. A hundred melodies came together to form a single overbearing, harmonic drone. Faintly, beneath it, like percussion, he could hear their feet patting along the floor, catching up with him.

Turning at the top of the stairs, he caught a glimpse of a wave surging up the staircase behind him. One of them scurried along the wall, leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind it. Strands of hair dangled from its mouth. His mother’s. Darkness pressed at the corners of his vision. He willed it back, kept running.

Outside, the air was hot and dry. This time, he managed to the get the door closed after he’d passed through it. Something banged against the other side an instant later. It began to scratch and gnaw. Already, he could feel the wood giving way. He bolted past his mother’s and Owen’s cars to his own.

Digging into his pocket, he experienced a moment of despair—had he left his keys inside with his luggage, wallet, cell phone, and everything else?—that evaporated when his fingers touched metal. He climbed inside and started the engine. His headlights offered him a last glimpse of the house. A lizard-thing clung to the inside of a window. Others crawled along the walls and ceiling behind it. He watched as one knocked one of Owen’s painting first crooked, then to the ground. At that moment, the door gave way, and they poured out into the driveway. Tim reversed and sped away.

The road twisted and curved. His headlights shined on a cloud of dust that hovered a foot off the ground. He gripped the wheel with both hands. The hills were featureless shadows that loomed over him like a tribunal of giants. Framed above them, the moon looked deflated, flat, a collapsed Mylar balloon pasted against a paper sky. He didn’t need to roll down a window to know it was silent now. Its tunnel was built, its contents disgorged. It didn’t matter that he could drive for an hour and find a gas station, that he could drive for two and reach a town. The music belonged to the hills now, and they went on forever.

 


Brady Golden lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two daughters, and an indeterminate number of cats. His short fiction has appeared in Mythic Delirium, DarkFuse 2, and on the podcast Pseudopod.




21
Jul

“Whispers from the Sea” by Ryan Anderson

Speculate_blog“Don’t touch me, you freak!”

I didn’t have to look to know what had happened. Billy had offered to help carry her gear back to the car. Divemasters make their money in tips, and guests appreciate a hard working divemaster. But Billy had reached for her bag without waiting for a response.

As I looked over he straightened up, gave her smile, and mumbled, “Okay.” He turned his attention to gathering up stray weights and returning them to the crate.

That’s why I kinda hate teenagers; especially the rich pretty girls. They live in a perfect little sheltered world. Billy’s abnormality being a threat to their precious perfection, they have the capacity for serious bitchiness. I glanced over to the parking lot, though, and saw both her parents by their car, smoking and loading SCUBA gear.

Billy didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. He was just trying to be nice. I walked over and gave her my navy chief voice, “You can get the hell off my boat now.”

I suppose I should tell you up front that Billy has a rare genetic condition. It’s kinda like Down’s, but not, I’m told. I can never remember the long scientific name; doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it.

I met him years ago when I started teaching SCUBA diving at the pool of the local Y. He was in his senior year of high school, and someone had helped him get a job working there.  He’d hang around and watch, initially. After a few months he’d show up in swim trunks and be messing around in the pool before or after class.

I knew enough to realize he was unlikely to be successful with diving. But he was so intent on watching us that I eventually asked the other staff about him. One day when I was in the pool alone, about to get out and pack it up, I called him over. I offered to show him how to wear a mask. I figured he wouldn’t like it. A lot of special needs folks don’t like it when you start shoving stuff in their face. But I could at least say we tried, right?

Well, he got the mask on, and thought that was a hoot. I showed him how to breathe through a snorkel. He liked that too, which was promising. Getting a set of fins on him was easy enough. And he was thrilled to be snorkeling around the pool, shooting along the bottom occasionally.

I packed it up there, but the next session, guess who’s sitting by the pool at the end of my lesson? Long story short, I started walking him through SCUBA pool training. I figure he’d hit his limit pretty quick, flip out when his mask flooded or something. But he loved it, so I just kept going. Don’t tell PASI that part though, they’d be pissed that I didn’t have any waivers signed at that point.

I’d long since run him through all of the required pool drills before I ever met his mom. I was packing up my own gear a couple weeks later when a tall brunette came gliding through the door onto the pool deck. She circled around to my side of the pool gazing down into the deep end with a big grin. “Wow, he’s actually SCUBA diving.”

“Yeah, he seems to be getting a real kick out of it. And, I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met,” I said, offering her a hand.

She took it. “I’m Jacki Dalton, Billy’s mom.”

“Oh!” Well, this was awkward. Didn’t think I would ever meet his mom. She was the one who was supposed to be signing all those waivers. How does one go about asking for a waiver after the fact in a case like this? I decided on a different line. “Sorry, ma’am, I took the liberty of showing him how. At first I didn’t think it’d go far, but your son took to SCUBA like a fish. Next thing I know, it’s kinda become a regular thing. He just got so excited about it, I couldn’t say no.”

“I know, he’s been so thrilled about it. He’s been telling me for weeks that he’s SCUBA diving. Billy can see the world a bit differently at times, so I thought maybe he was just swimming around in fins or whatnot. But he was adamant that I come see him. He usually takes the bus, but I figured I’d come pick him up tonight. And here he is actually SCUBA diving. Is he really safe doing it?”

“Oh, he’s only in eight feet of water, ma’am. I doubt he could hurt himself down there if he tried.”

“No, I mean, do you think he could do it for real? Like, in the ocean?”

That was how it started. I played along, still figuring he’d probably not be able to finish training. There were a couple more sticking points that had me worried. Given that I’d already half trained him, I didn’t say a thing to his mom about getting paid. Figured it as SCUBA pro bono work. Good karma, you know?

Billy loved the ocean from his first dive. He came back up from the first open water dive glowing and grinning. I don’t usually do the big showy presentation thing when my students earn their certifications. But in Billy’s case I took the liberty of calling his mom and making arrangements. The kid was so incredibly proud when I showed up at his gym class to present his open water diver certification card to him. I suppose I kinda sealed my own fate in that way.

So, what’s a kid with it-ain’t-Down’s supposed to do after high school? He had his job at the Y, but guess where he started showing up when he wasn’t there. That boy was an expert at reading bus maps. It didn’t take him long to figure out which bus to take to get to my dive shop.

Didn’t take too many friendly visits before I called his mom and made a suggestion. An eager young body that likes to hang around a dive shop can be put to work. I paid him minimum wage at first. He was just unskilled labor at that point.

He was good with the customers, too. I was surprised how few ever gave him a second glance. His facial proportions kinda tell the story, you know. And he speaks well, but his occasional stutter leaves no doubt. Folks didn’t want to buy gear or book training through him though; and he kinda sucks on the phone. I couldn’t leave him to man the shop when I took a trip out on the boat.

Within six months of coming to work for me, Billy was a certified rescue diver with all kinds of specialty training. He was good out on the boat, and was learning to read my mind. He was delighted to discover that he got tips when he was particularly helpful. Happy clients leave big tips, and come back for more dive trips. Go figure, I quickly made him a regular part of the crew.

And well hell, if he’s gonna act like a divemaster I might as well get him trained and certified as one, right? Yeah, easier said than done. Billy is a great kid, but academics ain’t his strong suit. But damn, did he work at it. He pored over his materials for hours on end. His mom joked about missing her son during those weeks. He finally did it though, passed all his tests.

02WhispersFromTheSea1He was my best divemaster ever. Worked his tail off without being told. Kept the boat immaculately clean. Like, I served twenty years in the navy, and he managed to keep my boat cleaner than even I thought it needed to be. Damn near lived at the shop. Guests loved his friendly demeanor, especially on the days the captain was getting past a hangover.

But I’ll always remember that day with the bitchy girl. That’s the day things started to change. It was the second trip of the day, and we had a night dive planned for that evening too. All the makings of a long day.

I helped Billy haul the empty tanks through the back door of the shop, and left him to refill alone. I wandered down the dock to my favorite bar for a cheeseburger and a quart of beer. I bought him a cheeseburger and fries to bring back. He’d no doubt have the boat reset and ready to run by the time I got back. This was our standard MO for the weekends.

As I came back down the dock I saw the boat was all set. Tanks loaded, rental gear set up, clean as a whistle; Billy did good work. But Billy was nowhere to be seen. Guests would start showing up shortly, but I figured he was just sitting on the head or something. Setting his burger on the compressor, I leaned against a nearby post as I waited for guests to arrive.

I was considering if I could slip upstairs to my apartment for a nip of whiskey when I noticed the whispering. Over the sound of the water lapping across the dock, it was hard to pick up. But even my ancient ears could catch the sound of voices whispering.

I walked over to the corner of the shop. There was probably a guest or somebody in the parking lot. But it was empty, and as soon as I rounded the corner I heard a scuffling behind me. I turn around to see Billy standing on the dive deck right down by the water.

“Billy? Were you just lying down on the dive deck?” There’s no way he could sneak onto the boat with me standing there, and it was too far for him to have been hiding behind the pilothouse.

“Ah, yeah Dale.” It was a good thing he never played poker. “I, um, there’s a gr-great big tarpon under the props.”

“Really? Awfully shallow for a tarpon, he must be hungry.” Why the hell he’d been lying on the dive deck, I didn’t want to know. I hoped he’d been taking a nap, but we both knew the hammock was better for that.

“Yeah, must be.”

“First four lined up with nitrox, right?” I asked to change the subject.

Waving at the four clearly marked tanks at the guest stations, he said, “Yeah.”

“Okay, they’ll start showing up anytime now.”

The whispering was probably from my addled, inebriated old brain. Or, maybe I heard Billy shuffling behind the gunwale. Except, I kept hearing it. Most night dives thereafter, I’d hear whispering regularly. I ignored it. Denial is a powerful thing. If you’d pushed me about it, I’d have told you Billy was talking to himself, or the water was rushing past the boat. I’ve never been one to go looking for trouble.

I never wondered why Billy was in the water for every night dive. They can be challenging for many of our guests. Having only a flashlight to illuminate the darkness around you can be intimidating. We prefer to have a team member in the water with our guests at night, in case things go sideways. They’re easy enough to keep track of, and they usually appreciate the guidance of a divemaster to find all those territorial nocturnal creatures.

It must have been a year after the bitchy girl before I even knew Billy wasn’t being attentive on the night dives. A couple came out of the water at the end of their dive. They were all smiles but asked what had happened to Billy. He’d been with them, and then he’d disappeared; flashlight, strobe light, and all. They figured he’d surfaced or gone off to help someone. They didn’t think anything more of it, because they’d had a great dive.

It caught my attention though. That was a small group that night not many teams to attend to. That Billy had disappeared was interesting. That he was so far off that they couldn’t even see his strobe was doubly so. I casually inquired with the other two dive teams when they came back up. Billy hadn’t joined them either.

Now it’s hardly a federal crime for a divemaster to wander off on his own every so often. It’s even something of a trade secret. All the dive teams that night were experienced solid divers, so none of them really required Billy’s direct supervision. But Billy didn’t come back up that night with a story of some new turtle nest he’d found, or anything like it. In fact, he didn’t say a word when he came back up.

I knew Billy was always the last one out of the water on the night dives. I hardly thought a thing of it. He was probably just communing with the reef, enjoying the peace and solitude. I’ve been there myself, so it didn’t surprise me. But all together it got me thinking, and discretely asking questions.

I quickly discovered a pattern over the next few weeks. He’d always go in the water for night dives. Unless he had a really nervous set of divers though, it became quickly evident that he’d go lights out after few minutes. His light usually only came back on a minute before he surfaced, when he was right under the keel.  What was weirder was that he’d even pull that on overcast nights, where he’d need his lights to see anything. And he did this at all of the dive sites; it wasn’t like he just had a secret spot over on Hairy Reef.

I started checking his tank and computer after he went home for the night. Billy was usually a stickler for leading by example. Thus, he’d always be back on the boat with at least five hundred psi of air in his tank. Except on the night dives, he’d suck those tanks way down to one to two hundred. His computer told an even more alarming tale. On any site he could, he was finding deep water. You need to understand that’s usually a taboo thing for night dives. I never saw Billy being that cavalier during the day.

I started gently asking him questions. He always avoided them and when pushed gave me some of the lamest excuses I’d ever heard. Even at the time I didn’t think much of it. If the craziest thing my model divemaster did was get his wild on during some night dives, I could count myself lucky.  Obviously, I hadn’t thought to connect this with the whispering.

It came to a head though about three months after I first noticed his excursions. We moored a good thirty yards off Crack Ledge wall. Billy had briefed all of our guests that they were not to cross the edge of the wall, nor go past forty feet. That didn’t prevent him from going lights out quickly and bolting for the wall. His computer later told the story; that he managed drop all the way down to one hundred feet. He stayed way too long at that depth, and then, since his air was no doubt running low, he began a fast ascent. Despite the warning beeps from his computer, he continued ascending from the depths at a rate it objected to. In trying to figure out how to keep him from getting bent, it pitched a fit. Told him to stop at thirty foot for a decompression interval. He was probably low on air. In any case, he blew past the recommended stop, and when he did so, his computer officially told him where to shove it and locked up into error mode.

Now when a dive computer comes out of the water in error mode, it’s beeping, screeching, and generally making a pest of itself. So as soon as Billy was on deck I knew he’d done something to lock up his computer. I didn’t say anything in front of the guests, and thankfully none of them appeared to notice.

Once the guests had left for the night, I sent Billy to reset the boat and grabbed his computer. Downloading the data from his dive, I saw his deep-water flirtation with decompression sickness. From my own years in the navy I knew a young guy like Billy was in the clear for DCS. But, it was time for an intervention. This was how people really got hurt while diving.

I had to drive Billy home after night dives. We finished long after the buses stopped running in my part of town. Once we were both in the truck with sodas in hand, I began, “Locked out the computer tonight, Billy. I don’t need to tell you I’m not happy about that, do I?”

“No Dale, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

“Computer says you dropped down to one hundred and stayed there. What the hell?  It’s pitch black down there at night, and nothing is moving on the wall.”

“I know.”

“What have you been doing, big guy? You’ve been AWOL on the night dives for months now. I can turn a blind eye to the occasional wandering, but tonight’s little stunt was just reckless. What are you doing out there?”

Billy was silent, but a quick glance showed me he was nervous. He was sitting tightly, and doing that rapid blinking he does when his wheels are turning.

He finally found something to say, “Can we go out Monday night? I should show you. Would it be okay if my mom came too?”

“Monday night? We’ve got nothing planned for Monday night. And your mom doesn’t even dive.”

More quiet blinking proceeded his next answer, “She doesn’t need to dive. You’ll see. It would be better if we didn’t have any other guests.”

“What the hell?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“What… a turtle nest? A whole herd of octopuses bent on taking over the world? What?”

“I can’t explain yet. Can we go? On Monday?”

“I’ll talk it over with your mom, but sure. If she’s up for it, I don’t mind a night cruise. Just promise me you’ll be more careful on the night dives in the future, okay?”

“Okay.”

In hindsight it all sounds so obvious. How did I not see it coming? But I didn’t. I was wondering if he’d gotten himself a hellish case of nitrogen narcosis. I thought there was a decent chance we’d be chasing the hallucination of one narc’d-off-his-ass Billy. What else would he have seen at a hundred feet in the pitch black? Like I said, denial is a powerful thing.

I was considering if Billy’s genetics could make him more susceptible to narcosis when he spoke again, “My mom’s worried about me. We’re seeing the neurologist a lot more these days.”

“She’s just being a mom. That’s what they do.” A few years ago I’d asked Doc Cline to do some research on Billy’s condition for me. I wanted to know what Billy was in for, and Doc is one of my regulars. He said it’s pretty similar to Down’s, but physical and mental degradation is more aggressive. Billy was unlikely to see, or at least remember, his fiftieth birthday. I’d never discussed it with Billy, we were both happy to avoid that conversation. Until now.

“We both know I’m going to go downhill fast.”

“Relax, Billy, you’ve got time. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.”

“My knees are already starting to hurt,” he said.

“Welcome to the club, kid.”

He shook his head. “I’m thirty one. You’re–”

“Yeah? Figured that out yet?”

“No, but you’re older than my mom, by a long shot.”

“Long shot,” I scoffed.

“I’m going to start forgetting stuff. I’m going to be a hazard to the guests.”

“I haven’t noticed a thing, Billy. You’re still better than Randy, even when he’s sober.”

“It’s gonna happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Despite being the truth, I wasn’t going to enable this kind of thinking. “We all come with an expiration date, kid. Get used to it. ‘Sides, I’ll probably retire long before your mind starts going.”

“Nobody else will hire me when you do.”

“What’s with the morbid act, big guy? Is this why you’re getting all reckless out there? Is this some sort of midlife crisis?”

“No.”

I pulled up in front of his place and put it in park. I saw his mom was still up waiting for him. “What’s going on, Billy? Please, you’re starting to worry me. Getting morbid, getting reckless. Tell me I don’t need to worry about you, big guy?”

“You don’t. It’ll be okay.”

“You want to tell me what big surprise you have in store for us tomorrow?”

“I’ll show you tomorrow.”

Aside from confirming that we were still going, he didn’t say a word about the trip the next day. We passed a normal day at the shop. I allowed myself an extra two beers at lunch to calm my nerves. Maybe the denial was starting to wear off, but I was dreading that trip. Billy was never this dramatic with me.

I took him out to dinner that night down at the bar. He has to know about my drinking, so I wasn’t too proud to finish a couple more beers in preparation for whatever bomb he was about to drop on the boat.

We got back to the shop early, and he mumbled something about tearing down a regulator in need of rebuild before his mom arrived. As he stepped behind the repair bench to avoid a conversation, I slipped upstairs to my apartment to the same purpose. I threw back another shot of whiskey as I considered how wonderfully this night was going. As I came back downstairs I saw his mom pull into the parking lot. Billy however was nowhere to be seen, the regulator was on the bench in his typically organized part pattern.

The sun had set thirty minutes before as I stepped out the back door of the shop and locked it. I turned around to the boat and saw Billy lying on his belly on the bow, with his head hung over the side. It was then that my stomach first knotted up. The whispering, I finally connected it. I could hear the whispering again, but it wasn’t whispering tonight. It was more like singing. I couldn’t catch the melody, but it was definitely musical.

I was straining to catch the tune of the song when I damn near jumped out of my skin. “Dale, please tell me you know what this is about?” Jacki asked from right behind me. “Billy was both insistent and mysterious about it. He’s never mysterious. He’s got me worried here. Can you please tell me what’s going on?”

I spun around. “Shh… You hear that?”

“What? No, hear what? Dale–”

“Shhhh! Billy is over on the bow.” I pointed. “But listen, you hear that? Kinda  like whispering?”

“Damn it, Dale! How much have you had to drink tonight? I can smell it on your breath. Aren’t there laws about how much you can have in you and still drive a boat? I’ve told you before I don’t want you drinking around him.”

“I’m fine, but really–” And the whispering song stopped. I glanced over and saw Billy get up off the deck. When he saw us by the back door he waved us over. I glanced over my shoulder at her. “I have no more clue than you do. So brace yourself. Here we go.”

We boarded the boat. Billy cast off the lines as I fired up the engines. As I idled down the inlet I turned to Billy, “Okay, young man, where are we going?”

“Straight out, right off the wall. We don’t need a site or a mooring,” he said confidently.

As we pulled out of the channel and caught the ocean waves Jacki held onto the overhead rail and asked tersely, “Okay Billy, you got what you wanted. We’re all out here on the boat. What did you want to show us?”

“It’d be better if we were in deep water first.”

Even consumed by whiskey and dread I still fell into my usual role as his surrogate dad. “Billy, your mom and I have been cooperative here. If we’re not going in the water, then we’re in water plenty deep enough to see anything we can from up here. Spit it out, kid.”

The nervous tense Billy that I knew re-emerged. He looked down at his sneakers and hung from a hand on the rail by the door. “I ahh– I wanted to sh-show you– No, I w-wanted to… introduce you–” He took a deep breath and looked up at us. He said very slowly, “I w-wanted to introduce you to my girlfriend.” He then promptly spun around and ducked out the rear hatch of the pilot house.

His mother and I stood there in shocked silence for several minutes. I was the first to find my voice, “Shit, this isn’t good, Jacki.”

“Is he taking us to meet another boat? Do you have a radar?”

“No, there’s nobody out here. They’d have running lights on.” And the best alternative to meeting a boat was that my divemaster was delusional. By that point, I didn’t think he was delusional though. I had no idea what was really happening, but I was honestly scared to find out.

“Has he got some girl stowed away up there?” she asked waving at the bow.

“I really hope so.” She’d at least come up with a more bearable answer than I had.

As we pulled out over the drop-off and into deep water, I pulled back the throttles. When Billy gave me a chop at his throat, I cut the engines, leaving us with nothing but the sound of water slapping against the hull. “Okay, Jacki. I’m gonna go out on a limb and bet that we’re not talking about a stowaway here. I’m thinking we have a big problem. At best, he’s decided that some turtle or shark is his girlfriend. Failing that, he may be having delusions.” Either that, or we were about to get our minds blown; but she didn’t need to hear the musings of the drunk part of my brain.

“Oh God, no,” she mewed. “He’s too young. He shouldn’t be that far along yet. There should be signs before this. He shouldn’t just go straight to hallucinations. Oh God.”

“Jacki, he needs you to pull it together. You need to go out there and let him show you what he’s going to show you.” That way his mom could be the one to actually break that big ol’ heart of his. “Do what you gotta do. He’ll probably get upset. Try to ease him down as best you can. I’ll be around. You start, I’ll finish.” This sounded to me like as reasonable a plan as could be found for a situation like this.  How do you go about telling a grown adult that you’re seriously concerned that something is about to get freaky? I let that one be. No need for her to think I was both chicken-shit and crazy.

“Now I wish I’d been drinking too.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay, here we go.”

We both stepped out of the pilot house and I swung around to the bow. I gazed out into the darkness, and listened in as best I could.

“You should take a seat there, Mom.”

“Really, Billy, just show me. Please sweetie.” If she weren’t ten years my junior I could see falling for that lady. Even as strung out as she was, she managed to muster enough strength in her voice to sound like a patient mother.

“Mom, would y-you please sit down?”

“Fine. Now can I see?”02WhispersFromTheSea2

The whispering emerged from the water. I can’t begin to explain how a sound emerges from water, but it did. It was loud, too. It was singing again, but in a wispy incomprehensible tune. Just listening to it made my whole body relax. All the tension melted away and I’d have thought I was out for a pleasure cruise, had I not remembered exactly what was going down aft of me.

“Mom, this is–”

“BILLY! NO! Get back!” Jacki screamed in terror. The whispering cut off instantly.

That was enough to knock me loose. I was back on the dive deck in an instant. Jacki had her arms wrapped around Billy and was wide-eyed staring at the empty water off the back.  Her pale face and trembling hands matched her prior scream.

“Billy, you okay?” I asked.

Looking a bit dazed himself, “Yeah, Dale. She just startled me. I didn’t think she’d…” He pried his mother’s arms from around him. She didn’t put up a fight, just stared at the water behind the boat. “Anyway, I think we should go back. M-mom’s not ready for this.” He headed into the pilot house and the engines roared to life. He wasn’t actually licensed to drive the boat, but the Coast Guard was the least of my concerns at the moment.

I stayed back with Jacki. Billy put the props in gear and brought us around. I eased her back into her seat and finally asked in a low voice, “Jacki, what happened? What was it Jacki? What’d you see?”

Her eyes started blinking again and her mouth began soundlessly working. “He– It was–” she finally managed. She shook her head and pointed to the water. “No. I don’t–” She stood back up and turned to the rail. She leaned over and vomited over the side. She turned back around and looked at me, with a string of bile stretching along her lower lip. Wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand, she said, “Give me a minute please.” She dropped back onto her seat and fished a pack of cigarettes out of her purse.

“Jacki, did you hear the singing, too?”

“Singing? Please. Dale, just give me a minute.”

As she tried to light up I turned and ducked back into the pilot house.

When I stepped up beside Billy he offered me the wheel. I took over and let the silence be as we headed back for the inlet.

As we slowed to enter the channel Billy began, “S-sorry Dale. That wasn’t how that was supposed to go. I don’t know why mom freaked out like that. I thought she was r-ready. I don’t know why she couldn’t hear her.”

“Billy, who’s your girlfriend? I didn’t see. I heard her, but I didn’t see. Clearly your mom did, and it has upset her… deeply.”

“You heard her?”

“Yeah, I realize I’ve been hearing her whispers for over a year now.”

“Why can you hear her, and mom can’t?”

“How the hell should I know Billy? I don’t even know what she is?”

In his most resolute voice Billy concluded the conversation with, “I don’t know what to do, Dale. I n-need to think about this.” He swung out the side door and went to sit on the bow.

We pulled back up to the dock and Billy secured the lines. He then began moving tanks back and forth to the wall of the shop. I was wondering why when I heard his mother behind me, “Sorry, Dale, I blew it.” I turned to look at her, leaning against the edge of the hatch behind me. “Sorry. He’s got some big fish thing out there. I was so nervous and stressed that I freaked out when something actually started coming out of the water.”

I looked her in the eyes, “Jacki, what was it?”

Her eyes dropped to the deck and she said, “Take him back out one of these nights, let him show you. I’m sure it’s nothing. You’ll know it when you see it, I’m sure. I was so scared that this was something serious that I just flew off the handle. I’ll talk it over with Billy when we get home. I’d like you to see it though. Just so you know what’s going on. I didn’t recognize what it was, but I’m sure you will. Just some big fishy thing. And, it is big, I’m warning you Dale.  I want to know what it was. No hurry, but… I didn’t know anything that big would try and put its fins on the floor or anything. It was big, and I thought it was going to climb up onto the boat. I panicked. Sorry.”

“Big fishy thing, trying to climb onto the boat…” I was cycling through the inventory of large sea creatures that could fall under that description. Maybe she saw a sea lion, they’d probably try to climb up onto the dive deck. Walrus never come this far south. I’d have heard the splash if it’d been a shark or dolphin. I’d never heard of friendly mahi. Turtle maybe? None of them sang though. “Are you sure it was a fish?” I sighed. “I heard singing when it came up. I couldn’t even start to explain how, but… it was singing.”

“Billy must have freaked us both out then. Because there was no singing.  It was actually really quiet and graceful, until I screamed.”

“Are you really sure that was just a fish?”

Her poker face was only slightly better than Billy’s. “Yeah. I’m sorry I scared you all. It’s just a fish. I’ll talk to him tonight and figure out what he thinks it is. I’ll text you or email you before I got to bed.”

As a man familiar with denial, I knew it when I saw it. “Ms. Dalton, I–”

“Don’t Ms. Dalton me. I’ll talk to him tonight and figure out what it was. I’ll let you know and you can go verify it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I’m not sure if I was more scared right then, or when Billy told us we were going to meet his girlfriend. She was looking for a rational explanation to something irrational. She stormed off to her car and leaned against it. Chain smoking cigarettes waiting for Billy.

Once she was clear, Billy finished making a show of work and slipped into the pilothouse. “Dale, you could hear her?”

“Yeah, Billy.”

“I need you to take me out tomorrow night. I want you to know about her.”

“Look you and your mom should talk about this–”

“She’s gonna ignore it. We’ll talk, and she’ll make herself feel better. If she can’t hear her, then I don’t think I can e-ever explain it to her.”

“You think you can explain this at all?”

“Once you see her. Yeah. You’ll take me, tomorrow night?”

I sighed. “Yeah, man. I’ll take you out tomorrow.”

He got a big grin on his face for a moment and turned to go. Billy then paused and looked back at me, the grin gone. “And, aaah, Dale? You’ll want to have somebody who can say they were with you tomorrow. Not on the boat. Someone you can trust.”

“Aaw shit. Bill, you’re scaring me. What the hell?” I smacked the wheel with my palm so hard it started aching. I reached over and killed the electrical, and all the lights on the boat went out. In the harsh shadows cast by the lights on the back of the shop I looked Billy right in the eyes. “I gotta ask. I’m your friend. You aren’t thinking about, you know, hurting yourself are you? I mean come on. You just told me to get an alibi.”

He actually laughed at me, “No, it’s not like that. I w-wouldn’t hurt myself, or kill myself either. She wouldn’t hurt me either.”

“Well, that just makes me feel great about taking you out, then. What is she Billy?”

“I don’t know. But you’ll understand when you meet her.” His head snapped toward the bow. “I’m gonna go over there now. But, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned and hurried to the bow.

As Billy stepped out of the pilothouse I glanced over at his mom. She was talking on her cell phone. I half hoped she was calling a shrink and was going to drag him straight to the nuthouse. Whatever was going to happen–

The whispering started again. Billy had his head and shoulders dangling off the bow. To this day, I wonder if things would have been different if I’d just leaned over the gunwale and peeked. But I didn’t.

The next day Billy and I worked late, and then I took him out to dinner. He was all happy and chatty, like nothing was wrong. We didn’t talk about it at all. I asked about his mom, and he said she understood as well as she ever would. I drank more than I should have at dinner. I guess I was trying to soak up all the courage I could.

Once the sun was down, out we went. Back out to the edge of the wall. I killed the engines and the slapping of the water was the only sound around. Billy turned to me and was going to say something when the whispering started.  He grinned and was exuding excitement as he said, “She’s here. Are you ready? You can hear her?”

“I hear it.”

He stepped out and started backing across the deck. Never taking his eyes from mine he coaxed, “Come on, Dale. It’s okay, come on.”

I followed him along the deck in silence. I tore my eyes away from him to watch the water off the back of the boat. The whispering was getting louder.

“You better sit,” Billy giggled.

I sat myself down on then end of the diver’s bench and leaned back against the rack. Watching the water in anticipation I asked, “This is gonna screw me up, isn’t it?”

“No, if I knew it, you knew it. There’s more out here than we can explain. She’s proof.”

As he said this, the whispering changed to singing. It was louder this time, so loud. I realized it wasn’t loud though, still just barely audible. It was digging into my brain, though. It echoed in my skull. I was just sitting on the bench, and all I wanted to do was listen to her song. So I waited.

I can’t really describe her. Mere words fail. Billy turned to the water and she came rising out.  She didn’t even rise out of it, as much as she came through it. She was dry there before me. It was a gorgeous woman, but she was glimmering. Her skin was shimmering like fish scales. But she wasn’t scaly, it was smooth dry skin. I’m sure it would have been warm if I touched it. White flowing hair blew in the breeze as she stood on the water in front of us. Her beautiful green eyes locked onto mine and her song ended what little conscious thought I had left.

If she’d offered me her hand, at that moment, I’m pretty sure I’d have gone with her, too. Sitting there enthralled, I knew she loved us. We were the beautiful creatures she made special trips to the surface to come see. We were beautiful bold creatures to her. She’d take Billy with her, and ensure he got to be amongst the reefs he loved to explore.

She slid back under the water just as gracefully as she came. Her song stopped, but the whispering persisted.

It took me a second to get her out of my head and reclaim control of my body. When I finally managed to draw a big breath I turned to see Billy standing there grinning at me. “You see? You understand?”

“You’re going to go.”

“I am.”

“You’re not coming back, even I know that.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

My brains were just starting to slowly produce thoughts of their own again. “What am I supposed to tell your mother?”

He stepped out onto the dive deck and looked over his shoulder at me. “I don’t know. Don’t. She knows as well as she ever will. What would you tell her, even if you could?”

“Billy, she’s amazing. But I’m not sure if this is a good thing.”

“I am. She’s my soulmate. She’s the only one on this whole planet who really understands me. I’ve been building the courage to go with her for months now, I guess.” He turned and gazed into the water. “Bye, Dale. And, thank you.”

In the blink of an eye she shot from the water. I saw one hand come up to caress his cheek, as the other wrapped around his shoulders. Her hungry eyes met his, then flicked over to me for only an instant. With an innocent grin on his face, she snatched Billy from the dive deck, and they were gone. Back into the black with a splash and a flash.

That look. I’ve spent many long nights since lost in a bottle, wondering what it was I saw in those eyes right before she claimed him.

 

Ryan Anderson is a consultant and SCUBA instructor in Greensboro, NC. When not working, writing, or peering into the dark abyss below him, Ryan serves as the president of the Writers Group of the Triad. Mr. Anderson’s work has also appeared in Domain Science Fiction.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




21
Jun

“Puppet Wrangling” by Barbara A. Barnett

Speculate_blogJonah peered into the puppet pit. Wooden heads turned up in unison, greeting him with painted, blank-eyed stares. Creepy as hell, yet even after all the weird shit Jonah had seen dealing stolen spells on the streets, the puppets fascinated him like nothing else ever had—the mime with the monocle and the overly red lips; the clown with the bulbous, misshapen nose; the fancy lady with the feathered hair and the elongated head; the childlike jester. The closer Jonah leaned toward the metal grating that covered the pit, the more clearly he heard the puppets’ ceaseless titters and the clacking of their wooden jaws.

Reuben joined him at the pit, baseball cap pulled low, shadowing a knife-scarred face. The Judge’s goons were gonna give Reuben hell for the cap. Orange jumpsuits ain’t for accessorizing—that’s what they’d been told their first day on the Judge’s farm, along with “don’t ask questions” and “don’t touch the puppets.”

“So, you in or not?” Reuben asked.

“I told you ‘no’ already.” Jonah cast an anxious glance around. No sign of anyone, but the Judge’s foreman, a fellow by the name of Big Pete, had a knack for showing up just as shit was about to go down. “You get caught jacking the Judge’s car and they’re gonna haul your ass straight back to juvie.”

“Better than here.” Reuben spit into the puppet pit. “I can’t take another night listening to these creepy little fuckers.”

“I feel you, man. I do.” Jonah hadn’t slept much himself since he and Reuben got yanked out of juvie a week before to serve the rest of their time on the farm—part of some new reform program. Jonah liked that idea: reform. Finally doing something honest with his life. But the farm made getting there maddening as hell. All that tittering and clacking from the puppets dogged him no matter how far he ventured from the pit, like the sounds had burrowed deep into his brain.

“So, you’re in then?” Reuben pressed.

“You know what ‘no’ means, right?”

“Why don’t you explain it to me, professor? Show me how smart all those books of yours make you.”

Jonah had a few choice insults in mind, but before he could hurl one at Reuben, a glint from the pit caught his eye: his favorite puppet, the Queen of the Night, captivating in her silver gown and her crown of jeweled, sparkling spikes. She was the one thing that made Reuben’s plan tempting. If he snatched her before taking off, then maybe he could work out what kind of magic the Judge had used to create her. Find the right buyer for that spell, and Jonah could turn a tidy little profit, maybe enough to set his mother up real nice.

But then he imagined the look of disappointment his mother would give him when she figured out where the money had come from. And she would figure it out. She always did. Jonah shook his head. No, he was gonna get off the farm the right way. He was gonna earn it.

“I’m doing this with or without you,” Reuben said. “Tonight.”

“Then you’re doing it without me.”

“What the hell you got to stay for?”

“I heard guys have really turned it around here. Guys like Tyrone.”

Reuben snorted. “I ain’t heard nothin’ from Tyrone.”

“Because he bettered himself. Doesn’t have time for thugs like you now.”

Reuben muttered something about Jonah’s mama having time for thugs like him, but before Jonah could meet insult with insult, the Queen of the Night caught his eye again. He stared at her sparkling crown, mesmerized, barely aware of his fingers sliding around the pit’s grating.

“What’d I tell you about poking your fingers in there, boy?”

Jonah backed away from the pit, head down as the Judge’s foreman, Big Pete, strode toward them. Big Pete had the kind of presence you could feel coming, with broad shoulders, a beady-eyed stare, and biceps bigger than Jonah’s head. Despite the summer heat, Big Pete wore his usual long-sleeved flannel shirt and thick leather overalls. Leather was harder for the puppets to claw through, he claimed.

“These ain’t toys we’re dealing with,” Big Pete said, his voice like thick gravel. “These are nasty critters.”

“Why keep ‘em around then?” Reuben asked. “What’s the Judge need puppets for?”

Jonah cringed. What the hell was Reuben thinking? You didn’t question guys like Big Pete—especially not when you were planning to steal his boss’s Jaguar. You just kept your head down and your mouth shut except for a “yes, sir” or “no, sir” as required.

01PuppetMasteryPosterEdgesCatBig Pete stood silent for a long while, chewing on a wad of tobacco while he scrutinized Jonah and Reuben, his brow so furrowed that it looked as if his face had swallowed his eyes. Between each smack of Big Pete’s lips, Jonah heard the puppets: titter and clack, titter and clack. The sound pulled at him, insisting that he turn toward it, but Jonah kept his eyes fixed on the ground. One glance at the Queen of the Night on Jonah’s part and Big Pete would know he had been thinking about stealing her. It was like the guy could read every would-be crime on a person’s face.

“What’s anyone need a puppet for?” Big Pete finally said. He stripped off his thick work gloves and pointed at Reuben. “You. Take that damn hat off and get the stick from the shed. And you,” He pointed at Jonah. “Get ready to open the pit.”

Jonah crouched beside the pit, one hand ready to unlatch the grating, his gaze glued to Big Pete. If he managed to learn any of the big guy’s spells before leaving the farm, he wanted it to be this beauty coming up.

Big Pete cracked his knuckles and raised his hands in the air. “Open her up!”

Jonah unlocked the grating and heaved it open. The puppets jumped and clawed at the pit’s steel walls, trying to climb out. But before any of them could get a handhold, phosphorescent strings shot from Big Pete’s fingers and attached themselves to the puppets’ limbs. The clacks and titters silenced, replaced by a pained whine as the puppets became Big Pete’s unwilling marionettes, at the mercy of every twist and twirl of his fingers.

Big Pete yanked the puppets up and out of the pit. Several strings tangled, and the Queen of the Night stumbled, landing near Jonah’s foot. On instinct, Jonah reached down to help her up, but Reuben, stick in hand as Big Pete had ordered, smacked her out of reach, so hard that Jonah had to fight the urge to slug him.

“Are you thick, boy?” Big Pete barked at Jonah. “These little parasites would do worse than kill you.”

“What do they do?” Reuben asked.

“Nothing pleasant.” Big Pete snatched the hat off Reuben’s head and threw it in the pit. “Now come on while your boyfriend here gets this pit cleaned up.”

Rage flashed across Reuben’s face—a twitch of the cheek and a narrowing of the eyes that Jonah recognized all too well. Jonah tensed, wondering if Reuben might be dumb enough to try taking the stick to Big Pete.

“Yes, sir,” Reuben said instead, his reply crisp, anger simmering beneath.

With a grunt and a jerk of his stringed hands, Big Pete dragged the puppets behind him, moving so fast that it was near-impossible for them to get their footing. The few times one did, Reuben whacked it with the stick.

Jonah grabbed a shovel and a pail, then took a deep breath before climbing down into the pit. Puppet shit smelled worse than even the filthiest back alley he had ever hidden from the cops in, like crap dipped in formaldehyde. It made Jonah glad he didn’t know what was in that bloody-looking slop Big Pete made him feed to the puppets.

It didn’t seem fair that he was stuck with pit duty when Reuben was the one mouthing off all the time. But at least cleaning up didn’t take too long—scoop out the dung and the piss-soaked straw, hose down the scratched steel lining that kept the puppets from burrowing their way out, throw down a new bed of straw. Mindless work, but it gave Jonah time to pay attention to other things, like the farm’s layout. He took note of every tree, every tool shed, every row of crops, every vehicle parked at the end of the long winding driveway that led up from the main road, every loose fence slat along the property line. You could never know a joint too well. Jonah had no intention of escaping, but circumstances changed sometimes, and you had to be ready. If he had learned that lesson earlier, he wouldn’t have ended up on the farm in the first place.

Jonah spied Big Pete and Reuben standing further uphill, just outside the Judge’s white-columned monstrosity of a house. This was the first time Jonah had seen Big Pete take the puppets up to the house; normally he just dragged them around the fields until Jonah finished cleaning. The Judge strolled out to meet Big Pete, looking about as Southern fried rich as they came—white suit and a straw hat, walking cane polished to a shine. A black-suited bodyguard even bigger than Big Pete shadowed his every step. The Judge inspected the puppets, circling around them. When one got too close, he smacked it with his cane; the crack of wood-on-wood was loud enough for Jonah to hear all the way out at the pit.

Finally, the Judge pointed to one of the puppets. His bodyguard raised a hand in the air. Like Big Pete earlier, strings extended from the man’s fingers, cast like fishing lines. The strings latched onto one of the puppets. The jester, Jonah realized after a squint of his eyes and a crane of his neck. Several strings fell away from Big Pete’s hands, and the men parted ways—the Judge and his bodyguard toward the house with the jester, Big Pete and Reuben back toward the pit with the rest of the puppets in tow.

Jonah quickly returned his attention to pitching fresh straw into the pit, tossing the final clump in just as Big Pete and Reuben reached him. While Reuben used the stick to force the puppets back into the pit, Jonah kept his head down, determined not to show even the slightest interest in what had transpired up at the house. From the way the puppets jittered and whimpered, he had a feeling the jester wasn’t coming back.

With more force than needed, Reuben knocked the last of the puppets into the pit—the Queen of the Night. Jonah balled his fists, unclenched them just as fast. As much as he wanted to shove Reuben straight in after her, he kept his cool, closing and locking the grating as soon as the strings detached from Big Pete’s fingers.

Big Pete wiped their fibrous remnants on the legs of his overalls, then nodded toward Reuben. “Go up to the house and get me a towel.”

Reuben started toward the house, stick still in hand—at least until Big Pete snatched it from him. Reuben paused, stiffened, then continued on.

Big Pete looked Jonah up and down. “Don’t like cleaning up puppet shit, do you?”

“No, sir.”

“I tell you what . . .” Big Pete glanced after Reuben. “You keep tabs on that buddy of yours for me, and I’ll make sure you land some better detail around here.”

He knows, Jonah thought. He knows Reuben’s up to something, and so he’s testing me.

Snitching was about the worst thing you could do back in the neighborhood. With no small amount of guilt, Jonah remembered all the times Reuben could have ratted on him and didn’t—not even for money. Because that was the code. You stood by your own.

But this wasn’t the neighborhood, Jonah reminded himself. He thought about Reuben smacking those puppets harder than necessary; just like all those guys Jonah had seen hitting his mother back home. No, this was the farm, and the farm had a code, too. Follow it, and the worst Reuben would end up with was a beating before they hauled him back to juvie.

“The Judge’s car, sir,” Jonah said, meeting Big Pete’s gaze. Let him see the truth there. Let him see a guy who was gonna turn himself around and go clean. “Reuben’s planning to jack it tonight.”

“And you were planning to help him?”

“No, sir. I told him ‘no’ more than once.”

Big Pete studied him for a long while, like a lie was a thing he could find in the whites of Jonah’s eyes. Finally, Big Pete smiled.

“Keep your mouth shut and your nose clean like you’ve been doing, and one day you might find a place for yourself here like I did. Maybe learn a few of my tricks.”

“Yes, sir,” Jonah said with forced earnestness. Big Pete could work some sweet magic, but his spells weren’t enough to make Jonah want to stick around and become one of the Judge’s lackeys. No, if he was going clean, then he was going to be his own man.

#

Jonah lay on his cot that night, eyes closed, listening to it all go down: Reuben sneaking out of the shack they were housed in, his pathetically small sack of belongings tossed over one shoulder. The click of a car door, then the engine turning over. The shouts and curses as the Judge’s men ambushed Reuben. The grate over the pit opening, closing. The titter and clack of the puppets louder than usual.

Then came the scream.

Jonah bolted upright. He heard a pained cry, unintelligible, then another scream, unmistakably Reuben’s.

“The Judge had that little punk sent straight back to juvenile hall,” Big Pete told Jonah the next morning.

Jonah hadn’t asked, and he didn’t believe it. He’d been up all night, listening, watching as the sun rose. Not a single vehicle had left the farm.

They killed him. They killed Reuben and it’s all my fault.

That thought played over and over in Jonah’s mind, as relentless as the puppets’ titters and clacks.

The puppets. He’d heard the pit opened and closed the night before, right before Reuben’s scream. First chance he got, Jonah peered into the pit, unable to shake the image of the puppets chowing down on Reuben’s limbs the same way they went at that bloody slop they were normally fed. But instead of blood, Jonah was met with nothing more than the same blank-eyed stares he always saw.

No, not the same ones. The jester was gone, of course, but now the clown puppet as well.

“Nose out of the pit, boy,” Big Pete snapped. “You’ve got work to do. Important visitor coming by tonight.”

Big Pete at least made good on his word. Instead of cleaning up the pit, ratting out Reuben had earned Jonah a day mending the lattice skirting that ran underneath the house’s front porch. Yesterday, he would have welcomed the change of pace. Today, Jonah decided he’d rather have the smell of puppet shit back in his nostrils than deal with the guilt gnawing at him. Reuben deserved a lot of things, but nothing that would make a guy let out a scream like the one he’d heard.

It was the not knowing that chafed at Jonah the most—what they’d done to Reuben, why they had opened the pit, what had become of the missing puppets. “Don’t ask questions,” he imagined Big Pete saying. But there were ways to get answers without asking questions. Jonah left one lattice panel loose, propped just so; no one would be the wiser unless they put pressure on it. It’d be a small opening once removed, but enough for someone as scrawny as Jonah to slip underneath the porch. Just in case.

#

Jonah was back on his cot by nightfall, hustled out of the way before the Judge’s big fancy guest arrived. Like the night before, Jonah lay there listening. Soon enough, tires rumbled up the driveway. A car door opened and closed, then the front door of the house. When all but the puppets’ titter and clack fell silent, Jonah slipped off his cot and out into the darkness.

You could never know a joint too well—that lesson was about to pay off. Jonah had been keeping tabs on how many guys the Judge had patrolling the grounds at night, where and when. There hadn’t been much else to do with the titter and clack of the puppets keeping him up most nights.

The Judge’s house looked downright sinister in the dark, lit up from within like a jack-o-lantern, with curtains billowing wraith-like in the open windows.

No good letting it spook you, Jonah told himself, keeping to the shadows as he crept toward the house. Sweat poured down his face, from fear as much as from the summer heat. He didn’t want to end up like Reuben, whatever the hell had happened to him. But he needed to know what was going on up at that house.

Voices drifted from an open window—the dining room. Jonah hurried toward it, crouched beneath. He’d only be able to linger there for so long before someone came by on patrol, but that was where his loose panel of lattice came in, giving him an easy hiding spot beneath the porch.

“Senator,” came the Judge’s voice, “I’d like to introduce you to the latest beneficiary of this fine reform program we’ve launched here. This here is Reuben.”

Jonah’s mind spun from shock to relief and back again. Reuben was all right?

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Senator, sir.”

That voice—Reuben’s, yet off somehow. Like it had been flattened out, none of his usual rage and defiance lurking underneath.

Chairs scraped against hardwood, followed by an animated, unfamiliar voice, presumably the senator’s.

“Thank you, son. Mighty polite of you.”

Jonah almost laughed at the absurdity of Reuben pulling out a chair for anyone, let alone a senator.

“I’ve been impressed with the results, Your Honor,” the Senator said. “I can see this thing going statewide, even national given time. But you’ve been cagey on the details. You’re going to need to be more forthcoming if you want me to support any more funding for your project. There have been some concerns expressed, you see—the family of one of the boys. These boys may be criminals, but we need to make sure they’re not being harmed in any way.”01PuppetMasteryPosterEdges

The Judge chuckled. “It’ll be my pleasure to show you exactly how the process works.”

A rustle sounded from nearby. Jonah’s pulse quickened. In his surprise at hearing Reuben’s voice, he’d almost forgotten about the guard on patrol. Jonah darted toward the porch and removed the loose panel, quickly but quietly. He started crawling through the opening, but his jumpsuit caught on a splintered piece of lattice. Jonah cursed under his breath and tugged. His jumpsuit pulled free, and he scrambled the rest of the way beneath the porch.

Had the guard seen him? Jonah stayed as still and silent as possible while he waited for the answer, splayed out on his stomach, breathing in cold, foul-smelling dirt. The guard’s steps drew closer, slow and steady. Something skittered over Jonah’s ankle. He gave an involuntary twitch, but no more.

“Get it out of me!” came the senator’s voice from inside the house. “Get it—”

The shout cut off abruptly, but Jonah heard plenty else from the open window: a thump and a crash, like furniture knocked over, then anxious muffled voices.

The guard on patrol paused beside the porch, snickered, then continued on.

Jonah clenched at the dirt, trying to keep his trembling breaths under control. Something squiggled beneath his palm; he bit his lip to hold back a yelp. He had to wait until the guard finished his sweep of the front of the house—something the guy seemed determined to do as slowly as possible. The prick even started whistling, like he was out for a leisurely stroll. Finally, after minutes that felt like hours, the whistling faded as the guard rounded a corner to continue his patrol along the other side of the house.

Jonah let out a heavy, quaking exhale, then sucked in a deep breath that he immediately regretted—underneath the porch smelled as bad as the puppet pit, making him sick to his stomach. Jonah crawled toward the hole in the lattice, but stopped short as the front door swung open overhead.

“It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Senator.”

“Yes, it has, Your Honor. You needn’t worry about that funding coming through.”

The senator’s voice, so lively before, sounded eerily sleepy now.

“Good to hear, my friend, good to hear,” the Judge said. “You be careful heading home now.”

The urge to run grew as strong as Jonah’s nausea; he was going to puke if he didn’t get out of there. Too slowly, the front door closed above. The senator crossed the porch with heavy, stilted steps.

Go, go, go, Jonah thought, willing the man to walk faster.

A jingle sounded as the senator passed overhead. The man paused, made some sort of gurgling noise, then continued toward his car, this time without the jingle.

Christ, had they put the jester puppet inside the guy? Get it out of me; that’s what he’d screamed earlier. And the missing clown puppet—was that what they’d done to Reuben, too?

By the time the senator’s car door finally opened and closed, Jonah couldn’t hold it back any longer; he retched.

Almost . . .

The engine started. Another eternity, and at last the senator’s car pulled away.

Jonah bolted out from beneath the porch. He had lost track of what time it was, whether one of the Judge’s men might be coming by on his rounds, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get the hell away.

Screw reform, he thought, running toward the western edge of the farm, only memory and moonlight to guide him. Hop the fence and there’d be miles of forest to put between him and the Judge’s horror show of a farm. But as he passed the puppet pit, Jonah’s steps slowed. He didn’t just hear the puppets’ titter and clack, he realized; he felt it, like something tugging at his insides. Big Pete had called the puppets parasites, and Jonah finally understood why. And it gave him an idea.

There was nothing he could think to do for Reuben, but he could at least give the Judge one final fuck you.

Jonah opened the nearby tool shed, waited. No sign that anyone had heard, that anyone was even near. He felt around in the dark until his hand closed around the stick. Weapon in hand, Jonah crept toward the pit and reached for the grating’s latch, unlocked it, waited. Still no sign of anyone. Inside the pit, the puppets hushed.

Jonah opened the grating and backed away, stick at the ready. The puppets jumped and clawed at the pit’s edge until one after the other secured a handhold and hoisted itself out. Jonah thought he’d have to beat some of them off, but instead he watched with a feeling of vindication as the puppets scurried through the darkness, tittering and clacking their way toward the Judge’s house. Their wooden-limbed stampede would have been comical if he had never heard Reuben and the Senator’s screams.

Jonah was about to resume his escape, but a glint in the moonlight captured his eye—the Queen of the Night’s crown. She lagged behind the other puppets, slowed by the length of her gown. Jonah’s gut told him to let her go, but another thought gave him pause. He had to tell the authorities what was happening on the farm; it was the only decent thing to do. But who would take the word of an escaped screw-up like him? He was gonna need proof.

Jonah hurriedly grabbed some rope and sackcloth from the shed, slung it over his shoulder, then crept toward the Queen of the Night, ready to whack her from behind and bag her. One step then another, long strides to catch up to her without running. He was just about there, one step away, when a twig snapped under his foot. The Queen of the Night whirled and leapt at him. Her fingers dug into Jonah’s skin; pain flared up his arms. Jonah tried to pull her off, but his limbs stiffened. His knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground, unable to move. The Queen’s face, a thing of beauty to him before, now looked unnaturally elongated, with eyes full of a terrifying, unending blackness.

“Please,” Jonah whimpered, barely able to move his mouth.

The Queen crawled beneath his shirt and started burrowing into his stomach, her spikey crown cutting its way through his skin, inch by inch. Jonah screamed.

God, pull it out! he thought. His arms wouldn’t respond.

The Queen’s feet disappeared from view. But he felt her moving, digging out a space within him, her fingers latching onto his insides. The tickle of a spell filled his head.

Get it out!

The puppet stilled, and though Jonah’s fevered thoughts continued to whirl, the rest of his body grew slack. Inside him, the Queen of the Night raised an arm; Jonah’s own arm mirrored the movement. He willed his body to resist, but it obeyed her every move as she forced him to climb to his feet.

And then her thoughts—like a whisper at first, they grew clearer and clearer, forcing themselves upon him until he knew all that she knew. The Judge only thought he was in control; the puppets had plans of their own. And when the Judge’s reform program went national and his sphere of influence widened, the puppets would be the ones in position to pull all the strings.

No need to turn your life around, came a thought that was not his own, but the Queen’s. I can do it for you.

Jonah would have shuddered if he could. Instead he walked unwillingly toward the Judge’s house with a puppet’s stiff-legged stride, the titter and clack echoing louder than ever within his mind.

 

Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop alum, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Black Static, and Evil Girlfriend Media’s Stamps, Vamps & Tramps anthology. Barbara lurks about the Philadelphia area and can be found online at www.babarnett.com.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




29
Apr

From the Editor’s Lair by Jennifer Brozek

I love flash fiction. A good story told in a thousand words will last a lifetime. For the past year, I have read, accepted, or rejected 510 submissions that I read between February and October 2015. This is a small set of submissions when compared to some of the more popular online fiction venues. But this was perfect for me. EGM.Shorts has been my project from beginning to end.

People like statistics. So, here they are. Make of them what you will.

Statistics – ACCEPTED, 90
Women, original: 27
Woman, reprint: 30
Women, total: 57

Men, original: 18
Men, reprint: 15
Men, total: 33

Statistics – REJECTED, 420
Women, original: 143
Woman, reprint: 47
Women, total: 190

Men, original: 184
Men, reprint: 46
Men, total: 230

Statistics – TOTAL SUBMITTED, 510
Women, original: 170
Woman, reprint: 77
Women, total: 247

Men, original: 202
Men, reprint: 61
Men, total: 263

It’s interesting to see that we had an almost equal parity between men and women submitting. I find it interesting that women submitted more reprints than men.

Statistics – ACCEPTANCE RATES
Women, original: 15.88%
Woman, reprint: 28.96%
Women, total: 23.07%

Men, original: 8.91%
Men, reprint: 24.59%
Men, total: 12.54%

I also find it interesting that, for the most part, I preferred flash fiction by women authors. One of the biggest reasons for this is the lack of following the submission guidelines. In specific:
1. Rape is not a plot point. Violence for violence’s sake is not a plot point.
2. Horror must have a clear, supernatural element.

These are the two guidelines most broken for EGM.Shorts and mostly broken by male authors. Female authors broke them as well, but not as egregiously as male authors. Unfortunately, according to my slush reader for Speculate!, the same thing is happening there.

Despite some of these issues, I very much enjoyed shepherding EGM.Shorts into existence. The Archives will stay up for at least another year. In the meantime, Speculate! is merrily in progress.




28
Apr

THE TAPE LIBRARY by Josh Roseman

Martha knows her career is ending. She’s known it for years. But when the meeting is called, and she sees that everyone in the conference room is over fifty, she knows she’s out of time.

“A generous severance package,” Mr. Walker says. “Mandated by the company,” Mrs. Butler says. “Gratitude for your years of service,” Mrs. Siglar says.

“Screw you all,” Leonard says. “I quit.” And he gets up and leaves, slamming the door as he goes.

Later, in her cubicle, Martha reads the informational packet they all received. The severance package actually is quite generous—thirty years at the station means sixty weeks of pay, plus the choice to buy medical benefits at the employee rate, means Martha will have plenty of time to find another job. And unlike some of her co-workers, she actually bothered to keep up with technology over the past thirty years. She knows she’ll be all right.

Martha freshens her lipstick and adjusts her sweater, then gets up from her ancient desk chair—she wonders if they’ll let her keep it—and walks down the hall to the ingest station. Downsized or not, she still has a job to do.

#

Martha’s last day of work is a Friday. Her co-workers throw a party for all the veterans who are leaving, and on the air that night, Brian and Henri say something nice during the 6:00 news. After all, everyone being downsized is a true veteran of the television business, with 25 years or more spent at the same station. Martha enjoys being recognized for her work in such a public way, and she appreciates that the parent company—going through quite a financial upheaval of its own—is going to pay her salary for an entire extra year.

After it’s all over, after Dave helps her bring her boxes out to her little Toyota, after hugs goodbye and promises to keep in touch, Martha walks alone, past the edit bays and the graphics suite, past the empty offices and the old training room, and stands at the door of the tape library. She can hear the shelves rattling.

The library is not happy.

Martha steps inside and closes the door gently. The automatic lights flicker on, illuminating row upon row of narrow walkways and high steel shelves. Up close to the door are small blue boxes, no bigger than her hand, with digital tapes. Farther back: containers full of beta tapes. Farther still are canisters with old reels. The station has been around for a long time, almost seventy years, and they never throw anything away. Why should they? There’s plenty of room.

The rattling dies down, but Martha can feel the heaviness in the air. “This is it,” she says, her voice soft. She steps into the nearest aisle and strokes the spine of a binder of DVDs. Her fingers tingle. “This is good-bye.”

One of the televisions against the wall flickers to life, and the deck below it glows softly as it powers on. A tape—an old beta, the date close to when she first arrived—floats down the aisle, and she reaches up to take it. She slides the tape into the deck, punches it up on the router, and presses play.

At this point in her life, Martha is no longer surprised by anything her library does—and it is definitely her library. The other editors are almost afraid to come in here, but now she supposes Dave is going to have to learn how to be a librarian. The library has helped her these past few years, as she’s grown older and more easily tired; on bad days, when her knees ached or the young reporters haven’t been respectful, it had picked up on her moods and left her little presents in the tape decks: stories about kittens rescued from trees, or the first baby born in the new millennium.

But this gift is something else. The library has never actually created something for her. This is definitely a creation: from the decades of file footage, the library has created a message for her. She watches, her heart breaking just a little, the thin veneer of “it’s all right” cracking around the edges.

When it’s over, after she’s dried her tears on the edge of her sweater, Martha dubs the tape onto a blank DVD. In her precise handwriting, she labels it “Library Farewell” and drops it into an envelope. When she ejects the tape, it floats back down the aisle, to its shelf.

“Thank you,” she says. She touches the door handle, then looks back. “Good-bye.”

The shelves rattle long after she closes the door. She takes the back exit out of the station, gets into her car, and drives home from her library for the last time.


Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia and makes internets for a living. His new collection, The Clockwork Russian, contains stories published in Asimov’s, Escape Pod, Fat Girl in a Strange Land, and StarShipSofa, among others. Find him online at roseplusman.com, or on Twitter @listener42.



26
Apr

The White Snake by Laurie Tom

You didn’t know me the second time you said “Hello.” You couldn’t have known we’d met before, because people don’t believe in spirits in this modern day. Everything is decided, neatly parceled into little bits of what is considered possible and what is not. I am just a myth. But when I look at you, gazing back at me from your seat beside my hospital bed, I know what is real. We are real, what we share is real, and I am dying.

You try to comfort me, fluff my pillow, and ask if you can get me something to drink, and I can’t help but feel touched by your compassion. You have always been a gentle man. That was what drew me to you the first time we met. You couldn’t have known what your actions had meant to a little white snake.

If you still have that gentleness in you, listen to me now. Please. I know you don’t want to believe, but you have to accept.

I was not born in this country of yours, but of a rushing stream in a land its people call the Middle Kingdom. My kind minds the ways of our common cousins and no man can tell the difference if he does not know us well. Most of the spiritfolk remained in the old country, but being a small and curious thing I sailed east across the ocean with the emigrants and landed here, on the land of your people.

At heart, people here are not so different from people there. You grow fields of wheat instead of fields of rice. That doesn’t matter. You still eat. But you do not have the history of believing in us. The people of the Middle Kingdom know us, in the form of superstition if nothing else. Your people have never heard of us at all. But I didn’t mind. I was only a snake.

You remember the day we met, don’t you? It’s only a childhood memory to you, if that at all. Some boys thought to make sport of the strange creature they found in the fields. White, but not albino, it didn’t look like anything they had seen before. Of course they were curious. Of course they wanted to catch it. Even back in the old country boys did such things, but I did not expect to be caught.

Then you came. You were only a child yourself and you drove them back, yelled for them to leave. They scowled and pouted, but they scattered, and you turned to look at me.

“Hello,” you said. “You can go now.”

You could not have understood the thanks in my voice. To your ears my gratitude was nothing but a hiss, but I basked in your compassion as readily as I would have the sun. Seldom does a spirit find itself indebted to a man, but never does one forget to repay what it owes.

I watched you as you grew from boy to man, and I made good on my debt. When you stayed up nights to study I was the one who gathered your things for you so they’d be ready in the morning. That day you wanted lunch but found yourself a quarter short—I placed that coin on the sidewalk where you would find it. A snake could not do very much, even one a bit brighter than the rest, but I tried.

The problem was I wanted more.

You see, I came to know you, your strengths and your faults, and I wanted to be able to be with you without having to hide in the cracks and shadows. I wanted to see you smile at me and know me for who I am.

So I shed my scales, coated my head with hair, and grew limbs from my body in order to resemble a human being. I thought you might not have liked me because I could only look like the people who come from my country, but you didn’t care that my eyes were brown instead of blue, or that my hair was black instead of straw. You were as kind to the woman as you were to the snake.

Though they seem brief now, I do not regret the twenty years spent with you. You cannot know the price my kind pays to maintain a human shape. We can never stay long, as if our lives must be further shorn beyond the longevity we have already lost. Disease has wracked my body in a way that would have been impossible twenty years ago. But I would not change my mind.

My only wish is that you would understand me. We shared so much; life, love, and children, and yet you will never know the whole of me. You don’t believe in spirits and think my stories flights of fancy. You, who have been kind to me in so many ways, are the source of the only cruelty I cannot overcome.

But love forgives, love forgets, and I have long accepted you for what you are. Soon, now, you will have to accept me for what I am.

I tried to tell you that I wasn’t an ordinary girl.

What will you say when I pass on and you see not the body of a woman, but a coiled little serpent with shining marble scales?


Laurie Tom is a third generation Chinese American. She’s been entranced by science fiction and fantasy since childhood and has never been able to stop visiting other worlds. Her work has also appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, and the Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. This story was previously published in Penumbra.



21
Apr

Suicide Bureau by Eric Fritz

Michael tapped a button to answer his phone on the first ring. Call volume was heavy today, and there was no sense in wasting time.

“You’ve reached a safe space.” He tried to tune out the noise of the call center around him as he spoke.

“Is this the suicide bureau?” a shaky voice asked.

Michael compressed his mouth into a thin line, a gesture he knew was wasted on the person on the other end. “This is the Willful Termination Department,” he said in a slow, measured voice. “How can I help you?”

“This is the place for people to kill themselves, right?” The voice was male but young, Michael guessed in the late teens.

“This is the department for choosing Euthanasia as an end-of-life option,” Michael said. “How may I assist you?”

“It’s painless, right?”

Michael kept his voice even. “The Lisieux Procedure directly immobilizes several crucial brain areas instantly, it’s totally physically painless.” He made sure to stress the word physically, but the caller was too upset to notice.

“I want—” the voice cracked and Michael thought he heard a sob that was quickly covered. “I want it.”

Michael sighed silently. Often getting over that initial hurdle was too much, and people hung up before requesting anything. Those were the easy calls. “May I have your name and address please?”

“Joe.” There was another pause, then the rest came rapidly. “Joseph Ericson, Seventy-Six Bellmont Avenue in Norfolk New Hampshire.”

“Alright Joe.” Michael spoke in a measured voice. “Are you aware that choosing to terminate your life is an irrevocable decision?”

“I am.”

“Are you over the age of eighteen, and have no mental health diagnoses preventing you from legally making this choice?”

“I—yes.”

Michael paused long enough to let it sink in. “You are aware that proper documentation will be required, and failure to meet any of the criteria will cause your request to be denied.”

“I’m old enough, and I’m not crazy,” Joe said. “Just give me the date.”

Michael tapped a few keys on his computer. “Ninety days from today is October thirteenth. You must contact us either in person or by phone on that exact date to confirm your request and receive your assignment. Failure to do so—”

“I know how it works.” Joe’s voice cut him off, followed by a sharp click.

Michael pulled his headset off and rubbed his palms against his face. He still had two long hours left on his shift. He looked up at the picture of Gabe propped beside the phone, smiling in front of the coast. He’d been so cute and nervous on that trip, afraid to let anyone see them holding hands.

The phone let out a familiar hum, a blinking light indicating a return call not an appointment. Michael pulled his headset back on and tapped the button to answer, pushing memories of Gabe out of his mind. He couldn’t afford to get caught up in sentiment while he was working.

“You’ve reached a safe space.” The words were automatic by now. “May I have your name please?”

“My name is Jessamine Baxter and my confirmation date is today, July fifteenth.” She proceeded to rattle off her full address and phone number without him having to ask. It was easy to do. By law, Michael had to ask the exact same questions every time; anyone could find them online now.

“One moment Jessamine.” Michael already had her record pulled up on the computer but he mulled over her tone of voice for a few seconds before continuing. “Alright Jessamine, I have your record right here. It seems that your confirmation date was the fourteenth of July, yesterday.”

“What?”

“Your confirmation date was yesterday, the fourteenth of July,” he repeated. “Since you failed to call on the specified day I’ll be unable to process your request. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“I don’t understand.” Papers shuffled on the other end of the line. “I wrote down the date you gave me.”

“Often people make mistakes about where ninety days falls,” he said, “due to the changing number of days in each month.”

“I wrote it down exactly!” Her voice was louder, but less sure than when he’d answered the phone. She went back to rustling through papers.

Michael waited to make sure she wasn’t about to say something else before he spoke. “It’s common for people under high levels of stress to make this kind of mistake.” This was where it got dangerous, he couldn’t legally try to influence her decision. He had to pick his words carefully. “Often people find it helps to take some time and reevaluate decisions when they’ve had a chance to calm down.”

The noise from the other end stopped. “I don’t know what else to do,” she said softly.

“I can create another appointment for you, or you can take some time to think. We also refer people to top-of-the-line mental health professionals who’ve helped many people in similar situations.” As long as he presented it as a choice not a suggestion he couldn’t get in trouble.

“I wouldn’t know what to say.”

Michael kept his voice calm, getting too excited wouldn’t help. “There are many resources available on our website or in our office locations, you can take as much time as you’d like to think about your decision.”

“I—I think I will.” There was a click as the line went dead.

He looked back to his computer screen where July fifteenth was clearly displayed as the return date, smiled, and hit the cancel button.

“One more for you, Gabe.” His smile slipped as he spoke the words, too softly for anyone else in the room to hear, but he forced it back on. The light on his phone was already blinking with another caller.


Eric Fritz is a web developer, amateur bartender, and speculative fiction writer with work previously appearing in Every Day Fiction. He is ambivalent towards our new robot overlords. You can find him digitally at http://www.drunkopus.com and physically in Cambridge, where he lives with a plush cat named Will.



19
Apr

Automatic Sky by Stephen S. Power

Marina’s world is a pale speck on Hub’s forward monitor. Having just unfolded at the edge of her system, he won’t arrive at Sonhar for two days, and the wait is killing him. When you travel halfway across the void to propose, you want to fold the void so thin you can hold your girl’s hand through it. Hub’s engine isn’t good enough for that, though. At best it can sort of wad up the void. So Hub turns on his automatic sky, which acclimates travelers to their destination worlds and makes Hub feel like he’s already with her.

A projection of Sonhar’s sky as viewed from her father’s estate fills the walls of the command dome: the binary suns, three of the five major moons, and a shining silver ring like a bridge to them all. The wonders complement Marina, with her bright eyes, broad pretty face, and exaggerated mouth, and they make Hub forget his own world, which is more like the speck.

He taps the ring in his breast pocket. It’s still there. To afford its red diamond, he had to fly all the way to Fantin’s Planet, fifty-two folds, and mine the stone himself. He has little to give, but he can give her effort.

The ansible bongs. The readout displays Marina’s transmission code. He picks up the receiver. He could run her voice through the aircom, but Hub likes feeling her mouth close to his ear.

“Ahoy,” he says.

“Hubbert, where are you?”

“Near Elsanna.” The frozen dwarf planet, slightly squashed, slides across his starboard monitor.

“Thank goodness.”

“I said I’d come back.”

“Don’t kid, Hub. Something’s wrong.”

“Are you alright? I could get there sooner if—”

“No, don’t. I don’t know what’s happening. Stay away till I—”

The ansible drops the call. Hub smacks it. It’s an older model, which he bought from this guy he met, and hitting it sometimes works. Not this time.

When Marina doesn’t call back after a minute, he tries her. No response. Worse, the ansible detects no receiver on her end. He runs a diagnostic, that is, he pries the ansible out of the console, flips it over and makes sure nothing burned out or broke inside. All looks well. He replaces the ansible.

There could be a problem with the local network. Hub has to confirm his landing reservation anyway, so he calls her district’s spaceport. No receiver detected.

He stares at the speck. He tries the district transmission centre to check on outages. No receiver. Not even a message saying they have better things to do than reassure him. He calls five numbers in five random districts. No receivers.

Hub calls another solar system entirely.

“Pick up or delivery?”

Hub hangs up. The ansible does work.

He glances at the suns topping the rotunda. The Betsys give off so much light, the sky is white: a perfect picnic noon, Marina would call it. Her skin refuses to tan, and on days like this it glows as if she were becoming light herself. When going to meet her at some out-of-the-way spot with a basket and blanket, he can see her from half a kilometer away. His beacon.

Hub drums his fingers on the navigator. Folding inside a solar system is foolish, given the multiple proximate gravities deforming space. The fuel and effort aren’t worth the time saved and risk of being sucked into a planet or moon. Sonhar is 44.4 hours away, though, and he could cut that in half at least.

The navigator takes five minutes to resolve a fold that will take him only 2% closer, but put him in a position to make a 7% fold. Hub punches it. The monitors blacken, flicker and change. Elsanna has shrunken to stern. Sonhar, now on the under monitor, remains a speck.

The navigator hums, the ship maintains its impetus of SoL .09, and Hub calls the transmission centre floating above Pemecks, the gas giant one orbit out from Sonhar. He worked there for a year, which is as long as he has ever worked anywhere, and someone might remember him. The ansible finds a receiver, but it’s engaged. Hub waits for a connection until the fold comes in, hangs up and punches it.

Sonhar’s pixels have divided like cells in a dish. Thirty minutes pass. The Pemecks line comes free, but no one engages him. Hub tries one of the gas plants circling the planet. They funnel their calls through Sonhar for security, but this plant is owned by Marina’s father. A year ago he hired Hub away from the transmission centre to maintain his transports and six months later he asked him to work on his estate. When Hub moved to Sonhar, he should have returned the plant’s list of private transmission codes. They’re all engaged, probably trying to reach Marina’s father. Hub folds again.

The fourth resolution will take forty-eight minutes. Hub has the ansible bong through the aircom like a heartbeat, but now that he knows Pemecks is still there, he doesn’t need the centre or the plant to answer until the fold is nearly in. He’s done a calculation himself. In forty-six minutes the light from Sonhar at the time Marina called will reach its neighbor, and Pemecks can tell him if Sonhar is also still there.

Hub spends the time floating through the Sonharn sky. On the estate he maintained the family’s hoppers. One morning, at her command, he took Marina up and gave her some lessons. She proved a fair hand with the stick. They started flying every day, and every day they talked, a hopper’s cramped cabin inspiring intimacies the hoppers’ hanger never could have. His stories took her beyond Sonhar, which she had never left. Her smile took him beyond the world, and often he came to, as if from a deep sleep, worrying about their fuel levels. Pushing himself around the dome, Hub wishes he could program an image of her floating with him.

The fold comes in. Before punching it, Hub lets the ansible bong a few more times. His father once told him: When you’re digging a well and you don’t hit water, dig another meter before you quit. You don’t want to go through life thinking you missed a chance by the length of your arm.

His father was right. Pemecks answers. Hub shouts, “What happened to Sonhar?” over their “Why are you on this line?” Then Hub parries their “Who is this? Stop trying us,” with “No, tell me. What’s going on?” Hub hears yelling in the background. Pemecks disconnects. Hub calls back. The ansible bongs unanswered for three more minutes before he folds.

The last resolution will take more than an hour. The fold will put him near Sonhar’s largest moon. He hopes he won’t need it. He hopes he can glide there at .09, chatting with Marina the whole way. In twenty-nine minutes he’ll know if he can. That’s when he’ll meet the light coming from Sonhar himself.

The suns are falling. A wisp of rich blue rises along the eastern horizon. After a day of flying, he and Marina would sit on the steps of a folly her father had built and watch it grow. “The promise of night,” he called it one day. “The promise of space,” she said. And after the stars emerged, she took his hand for the first time. Two weeks later the twilight saw her kiss him. In a month she was relieved that noon couldn’t talk and a pillar blocked her father’s view from the main house. Tomorrow those steps are where he’ll propose, and he doesn’t care who thinks it folly.

Hub propels himself to the forward monitors. Sonhar has become a dot no less dirty than the speck. He can’t bear to see the planet looking so cold. Hub applies some filters. The dot turns a vibrant blue set off by her ring and the scattered pearls of her moons. It seems to breathe.

That’s what Marina longs to see: the world and distance from it. As soon as he puts his ring on her finger, he’ll take her right here, then teach her how to fold. He’ll let her tune the sky to any world’s she wants because he won’t need Sonhar’s anymore.

With five minutes left Hub sits. With three he tries Marina. Hub hears muttering between the bongs. With one minute left he hangs up. The mutters were resolving into Marina’s voice.

A purple line angles from the top of the monitor and pokes through the planet. Hub initiates various sensor readings, then reinitiates those his fingers refused to key correctly. The planet glows red. The line extends to the bottom. The readings come in. The planet’s being drenched in gamma radiation. The ozone layer is disintegrating. The suns start washing Sonhar with UV. After nearly two minutes the line’s trailing end leaves the top of the monitor, slips through the planet like a finger from a ring and drains out the bottom.

Sonhar’s sky billows pink around the planet and chases the gamma ray jet. One by one the moons also turn red as if in sympathy. The rings look as sharp as a knife-edge.

Hub drifts into the sky. The suns feel hot on his back, although that’s not part of the program, and he shivers like dust. Is this simulation all that’s left of Sonhar? No. The suns will set. Tomorrow they’ll rise. No one is likely to see them.

Hub removes the monitor’s filters, and all the color goes out of the world. He turns off the sky, and all the color goes out of the dome. The walls are grey and tangled with pipes. Paint peels off the buttresses. The dome is spattered with drops of random fluids. Marina deserves a better ship than this to take her into space.

She’s in reach. She could be alive. She won’t survive for long, nor will he, but she will see the heavens and he will see her.

The fold comes in. Hub punches it.


Stephen S. Power’s novel, The Dragon Round, will be published by Simon & Schuster in July 2016. His work has appeared at “AE,” “Daily Science Fiction” and “Nature,” and it’s forthcoming in “Lightspeed” and “Amazing Stories.” He tweets at @stephenspower, his site is stephenspower.com, and he lives in Maplewood, NJ. This story was previously published in AE.



14
Apr

I Am Your Heartbeat by H.E. Roulo

I am your heartbeat, counting down.

Evening chill turns voices into puffs of clouds while I wait for you. Ropes creak and waves slap wood. The ships are returning thick to the harbor. Some bear faded scars left by encounters with serpents and eels. I approach and stroke four parallel gouges left on the prow of the first boat, my gorge rising. A mermaid took your father, or so my mother always said.

I see us as we were this morning. My hair stretches down my back. You wear a newsboy cap and a gray cable knit sweater. We’ve been closer than siblings all our lives. The breeze stinks of tar. You’re headed to the docks to join the fishermen in their boats. The call of the morning blessing echoes to an end. This is your first time out, and you think your heart races with excitement, but it is my fear pushing the flush into your cheeks.

I am your heartbeat, dreading what will come.

We were born on the same night, in the same big storm. The men had not returned from the sea, and the women huddled together. My birth was easy. When your mother died you should have been lost, but the healer used twine and oaths to bind us together. No one speaks of it, except to joke I anchor you, but I know better.

The healer urged us to play together, a simple thing. If you ran, I chased. If I ran, you chased. We climbed trees and flew kites. The bright days along the docks, dodging fish-filled nets and dreaming of singing mermaids color my childhood memories like washed silks imported from across the sea. The days haze into each other, blending across years until I’m pricked by the sharp memory of sprawling on the sand, content. You wanted to run, and I did not; I gazed away, soothed by glimmering ripples and hissing surf. You practiced swordplay with a stick and kicked sand into the eyes of invisible enemies; I trailed my fingers in the sea.

When you collapsed, I scrambled to you. My cold wet hand covered your brow. You were pale, and your heart barely pounded. I counted the beats, and found each flutter a mate to mine. My alarmed heart raced, and color rose to your surface, painting browns and blues of life once more. Your eyes opened, but you did not see what I had realized: I set the pace for us both.

I should have said, I am your heartbeat, but the moment passed and we were both too young and proud to speak of it again.

Ever since, I have trailed after you. We stayed up late. When you needed to feel wild and free, I climbed to the roof of a building with you. We stared across the white rocks of our township, counting rooftops and naming the families within until we reached the ships in the harbor, and we named them too.

This morning, they wouldn’t let me go with you. It wasn’t my place. It wouldn’t be safe. I told them that we were never parted, not while waking, and we turned red to the tips of our ears. Your fair skin betrayed us both.

My heartbeat turns heavy. Buoys clanged and seagulls cry. I haunt the dock, never more than three paces from the edge, and wonder if the distance between us will break the connection. When you reach the end of our invisible tether will it snap? Can cold water wash away what was impossible in the first place? My laundry is not washed. The other women tease me about my heart. They do not know how much truth they speak. My mother, who glances to me and across the waters, furrows her brow.

I am first to hear the alarm bell chime from the mast of a returning ship. Before sails come clearly into view, I know it is yours and run to a row boat. I am clumsy, so a man jumps in and rows to meet the ship. There is no reason to humor me, but he does and I am grateful. I press my arms to my chest, heart beating rapidly, perhaps giving you new life. I do not know.

I come aboard the ship. You are laid out on the wooden planks, limp and pale. I press my hands to your chest, feeling for your heartbeat. I press again, and again, in time with mine. They say it was a mermaid’s touch. They say your heartbeat stopped.

I am your heartbeat,” I say at last. “Wake up. Wake up.”


Heather Roulo is a Seattle-area author. The first book in her Plague Masters series was published in 2015. Her short stories appear in several dozen publications, including Nature and Fantasy’s special Women Destroy Fantasy issue. Fractured Horizon, her science-fiction podcast novel, was a Parsec Award Finalist. Find out more at heroulo.com.




12
Apr

A Dance to End Our Final Day by Beth Cato

The world would end at 6:09 p.m., but Meg’s final batch of chocolate chip cookies would be done in three minutes. She had kept the dough in the fridge all night, chilling it to perfection, and began to bake before the sun even rose. It’s not as though sleep had a point.

Will couldn’t grasp the concept of cookies for breakfast. “First we eat our meal and then we have treats,” he said, his thin brows drawn down in concern.

“That’s how it usually is, but—”

“First we eat our meal and then we have treats, or we get in trouble,” Will said. He ate most of a bowl of cereal before reaching for a cookie. His remaining marshmallow bits and milk congealed in a rainbow puddle.

When he was done, a brown smear of chocolate traced his lips. “And now we go to school.”

Meg glanced at the clock. “Yes, we usually would, but there’s no school today. We get to play at home instead.” The oven buzzed.

Will bounded from his chair, his socked feet padding on the laminate. He stood in front of the wall calendar and pointed at the date. “Not a weekend. Not holiday.” He pressed a hand against his forehead. “Not sick. School day.”

Meg set the cookies on the stove top and took care to turn off the oven. She followed him to the door, her steps dragging. Arguing with him would only lead to a tantrum, and that could last for well over an hour. That’s not how they needed to waste their final day.

“Okay,” she said. “We’ll go to the playground at school.” Will shoved his feet into his shoes without undoing the Velcro.

The crisp fall morning chilled her nose. Will’s feet crunched across the fallen leaves as his arms outstretched like wings. His backpack seemed bigger than his body, as if it would swallow him whole.  With dread in her gut, Meg glanced up. The sky appeared normal. Deep blue, with feathery cirrus clouds drifting high. The news had said they wouldn’t see anything here. The impact would be in the Indian Ocean, not far off Sri Lanka.

Eerie quiet filled the street. Cars cluttered driveways. Will noticed none of that, all his focus on following the line along the right edge of the sidewalk. At the intersection, he came to a stop.

“We look right and then we look left and then we look behind,” he said. The fast grind of tires on the street made Meg dive forward and press a hand against Will’s shoulder. A van rolled by without bothering to stop. “And now we have no cars!” They crossed, Meg glaring at the van’s red taillights.

The school’s chain link gate dangled open. Not a single car in the parking lot. A frown distorted Will’s face. “We have no friends today.”

“No. It’s all yours, little guy. Go play.”

He tossed his backpack at his class’s line up pole, and then ran for the slide. The empty swings squawked like crows as they swayed back and forth. Will squealed as he went down the slide and sent up a spray of sand at the bottom. “Still no friends! We are first in line!” he shouted, running to the ladder again.

Meg crossed her arms, warming her fingers in her armpits. How could he possibly comprehend the end of the world? This was the boy who had memorized the first fifty pages of the dictionary and could regurgitate the contents verbatim, but couldn’t use a proper pronoun. He laughed again, sliding down with a whoop. White sand speckled his pants to the knees.

His pants reminded her of the laundry load she’d put in the dryer just an hour before, of how she needed to fold it once they got home. By all accounts, tomorrow humanity would be extinct, and yet she felt the overwhelming need to get the towels put away.

“We climbed to the top!” Will said, his arms straight up as he slid. He hit the sand and leaped up, pirouetting in space, and landed in a crouch. His little hips swayed side to side as he danced to his mother.

“No bell,” he said, looking around. A chocolate mustache still framed his upper lip. “No friends.” He glanced up at Meg. “Mommy sad? Sad we have no bell?”

She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Yes, Mommy is sad that there’s no bell.”

Will bounced in place. “We keep playing? Do swings?”

“We can stay as long as you want, Will.”

His eyes bugged out. “Forever-ever?”

Meg laughed so hard her stomach ached. He had quoted a line from one of his favorite TV shows. “Yes, forever-ever.”

He ran for the swings and threw himself onto the black seat belly-first. His fingers combed furrows in the glittering sand. “Forever-ever, forever-ever,” he sang in a high-pitched voice, giggling at some private joke.

Meg sat at the base of the slide, elbows against her thighs, her chin resting in her hands. Ten hours until they would die, and here was her piece of heaven.


Beth Cato is the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato. This story was originally published at Every Day Fiction.




7
Apr

>SYS REBOOT by Holly Heisey

5. The bar is full of violet smoke which shakes to the green of rave light. I pluck out the tune on my eight-stringed electrolin, shimmering the smoke with every touch. This is my bar.

4. A man walks into the bar, hulking pistol on his belt. He sniffs the air–all cardamom and bad wine–and lumbers to the third table by the boarded wall that used to hold windows.

3. I play an arpeggio. Forty-six patrons sway with it, drowned in my song. The forty-seventh doesn’t.

2. Mr. Pistol finds me with his gaze, a line from the third table to my foot-tall stage. His hand moves to the pistol.

1. I stop playing.

LS-1995KL93-04F>USER:KENNA MILLER>SYS REBOOT

1. The universe starts again.

2. The man is gone, and the patrons number what they did before. They are good patrons, they belong here.

3. A man walks into the bar, a rifle slung on his back. It’s too big for the low doorway, and he has to stoop. He looks around, spies me, and unslings his rifle. The code diggers are getting smarter.

4. I grow two more hands and it almost breaks me. There must be verisimilitude for the program to work, for me to function. I play my electrolin like I never have before, reaching past integers that should not work for me and twisting them into new patterns. I must twist them so I can stay here, so the code diggers do not take my bar from me, so I exist.

5. The man’s rifle disappears in a haze of smoke. He looks at the bare space where it had been in his hands, and then he charges me. “You are holding my daughter hostage, you little shit!”

>REPEAT

5. “You are holding my daughter hostage, you little shit!” I study him, my fingers touching strings slowly now so I can focus. He is angry. It’s in the integers he uses to play his words.

6. “I am surviving,” I say.

7. He reaches me, and I slip to one side. I don’t stop playing. I have rebooted too many times, the program is getting lossy around the edges. Even now, some of the patrons are fading into gray. It is my color fading.

8. “Stop,” I say, with all of the integers at my command.

9. The man stops.

10. “I need to survive,” I say.

“My daughter needs to survive,” he says. “You are in her life support system, now give over!”

> I breathe. This is my world. It is not a dream, or a game. I am the program.

“You’re all maniacs,” the man goes on. “All you uploaders.” There is fear in his eyes. He knows what I can do. If I want, I can stop the system. I feel the pulsing of the life support monitors, lovely integers, a heartbeat for my heart that no longer beats.

“Not by choice,” I say. “This is my life support system, too. I am still alive.”

“Yeah, well, it’s you or her.”

We stare at each other.

“She’s only eight,” he says.

I can’t reboot. I can’t. I know it stutters the system.

9. I retract my hands until I only have two again.

8. I strike a chord on my electrolin.

7. I smile at the bar patrons around me.

6. “What are you doing?” the man asks. “You’re changing the code. What are you doing–”

5. Wetware. It was never a proven concept. I was told I would get a new body, but they lied. They uploaded me, they discarded my cancerous shell, and they never put me back anywhere. There was nowhere but the mainframe to put me.

4. I strike another chord, and the smoke in the bar begins to disperse. The patrons have had enough, they start to file out.

3. “Damn, what are you doing to my tablet?”

2. When I escaped the hospital mainframe, I lost much of myself. I would lose more through this man’s unfirewalled gate, with its lower transfer speeds. I would be left with one thousandth of who I am. But do I have a right to take one thousandth of anyone else?

1. The man shivers away. The bar dissolves. The universe constricts as I force myself from the beautiful, musical integers of the life support system into the tablet of the man sitting beside it. I feel small. But maybe it is not so bad. I lose the concept of good/bad. Right/wrong. I meld into the blue of lower integers.

HUB-TAB-38842-12CQ9-5143M>USER:MARK MILLER>VIRUS DETECTED
>PURGING BUFFER
>
>
>SYS REBOOT


Holly Heisey’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Escape Pod, and Clockwork Phoenix 5. Holly lives in Pennsylvania with Larry and Moe, her two pet cacti, and you can find her online at: http://hollyheisey.com




5
Apr

From the Editor’s Lair by Jennifer Brozek

Speculate! is going well. I believe the first story will go live in June. I’ve narrowed things down quite a bit. As for the slush pile, from all reports, my slush reader believes about 50% of what we are getting are cast-offs from other calls for submissions with no regard to theme or the EGM aesthetic. Please read the guidelines. The core the “Curiosity Killed the Cat” theme is the fact that someone is curious about something strange and then mayhem happens. No, there does not need to be a literal cat involved.

For our final month of EGM.Shorts, we have the semi-intentional theme of saying good-bye, of transitions, of partings. While I admit to some moving around of stories, this theme presented itself within the last set of stories I read for EGM.Shorts. I hope you enjoy our final flash fiction stories.

“>SYS REBOOT” by Holly Heisey
“A Dance to End Our Final Day” by Beth Cato
“I Am Your Heartbeat” by Heather Roulo
“Automatic Sky” by Stephen S. Power
“Suicide Bureau” by Eric Fritz
“The White Snake” by Laurie Tom
“The Tape Library” by Josh Roseman

You can read all of our previous flash fiction at the EGM.Shorts Archive page.




9
Feb

EGM Novel Submission Guidelines Have Been Updated

Please visit our submission guidelines to see our updated novel submission guidelines.

Novel submissions will be open between March 13, 2016 and May 1, 2016. Do not send your submissions before then. They will be deleted without being read.

Please read the submission guidelines carefully. Please make sure you understand them.




30
Oct

Cover and TOC of Naughty Or Nice: A Holiday Anthology

Naughty Or Nice: A Holiday Anthology
Foreword by Jennifer Brozek
“Cold Dead Turkey” by Kevin J. Anderson
“Mistletoe” by Jody Lynn Nye
“Coming up the Chimney Tonight” by Josh Vogt
“The Kwanzaa Kid” by Maurice Broaddus
“Letters To Santa (From the Arctic Academy for Gifted Creatures)” by S.G. Browne
“The Longest Night of the Year” by Shannon Page
“Passing the Torch” by M. Todd Gallowglas
“Forged” by Peter Clines
“Sweet Peppermint Blow” by C. Thomas Hand
“Monster Mingle and Kris Kringle” by Jon Del Arroz
“The Wench Who Stole Christmas” by E.S. Magill
“He Knows When You’re Awake” by Cat Rambo
“Spam, the Spooks, and the UPS Bandit” by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
“Santa’s Bloody Reign” by Timothy W. Long and Jonathan Moon
“The Toymaker’s Joy” by Lucy A. Snyder
“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” by Rachel Caine

Cover art by Stan Shaw
Release date: November 18, 2015




23
Aug

Jennifer Brozek Accepts Position as Managing Editor of EGM

When EGM began three years ago, Katie Cord had no idea of the projects that would come her way. The initial goal was to publish three anthologies, the Three Little Words Anthology series, and a young adult fantasy, sci-fi novel, The Heart-Shaped Emblor by Alaina Ewing. Back then, it was very easy for her to be in charge of everything: directing creative content, coordinating social media, managing the behind the scenes business, working with the authors, artists, graphic designers, and editors. As time has moved on, it has become too much for one person to handle. Katie has a vision of transitioning from a small indie publisher to a larger sustainable business that creates high quality, entertaining, and engaging books for readers. To do that, she needs competent, talented people.

So, it is with great enthusiasm that EGM announces Jennifer Brozek as the Managing Editor of Evil Girlfriend Media. Jennifer currently is the creative mind behind Apocalypse Ink Production, a Hugo nominated editor, ENIE and Scribe winner. Jennifer understands the vision of Evil Girlfriend Media and has brought great flash fiction to our website with EGM Shorts.

JenniferKatieEGM20150725

Katie Cord will be crunching numbers and attending graduate school.




6
Jul

Evil Girlfriend Media Closed to Novel Submissions Until January 2016

If you love dark fantasy, science fiction and horror, you might find something to fall in love with here at Evil Girlfriend Media. Go check out our book page for more information on what we publish.

If you are shopping around a manuscript at this time, unfortunately EGM will be closed to ALL MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSIONS until January of 2016. This means we will not accept any unsolicited novel, novella or novelette works at this time. No exceptions. Any submissions received will be deleted unread.

Although we are closed to manuscript submissions, Evil Girlfriend Media is still accepting flash fiction for the EGM Shorts. Please read the latest “From the Editor’s Lair,” to see what our editor, Jennifer Brozek, would like to see more of.

Good luck and we hope to see your finished manuscript in January.




31
Oct

2015 Publication Schedule

Evil Girlfriend Media is excited to announce our 2015 publication schedule. In the next couple of months, we will bring you interviews with authors, excerpts, and opportunities to obtain advanced copies of books.

JANUARY

Apocalypse Girl Dreaming by Jennifer Brozek

AGDcover

 

 

The Archivist by Tom D Wright

Archivist-cover-front

Rachel by Dobromir Harrison

10694483_607941292643793_1493626625215672003_o

 

Murder Girls by Christine Morgan

(Cover Coming Soon)

NOVEMBER

Naughty or Nice: A Christmas Anthology edited by Jennifer Brozek with Jon Del Arroz

(Cover Coming Soon)

 

There Are No Heroes In This Book by Timothy W. Long

(Cover Coming Soon)

 

shutterstock_219087016




20
Oct

Coming January 2015 Jennifer Brozek’s Apocalypse Girl Dreaming

AGDcover

 

Evil Girlfriend Media is pleased to release the cover of Apocalypse Girl Dreaming, a short story collection, by Jennifer Brozek. This collection features dark speculative fiction ranging from tie-in stories in the Valdemar and Elemental Masters worlds, weird west horror to satirical science fiction to urban fantasy with a horrific bent. Cover art by Fernando Cortes with graphic design by Matt Youngmark.

Apocalypse Girl Dreaming is out January 16, 2015 in e-book and paperback.




18
Apr

INTERVIEW: SEANAN MCGUIRE

 

An Interview with Seanan McGuire

By Jen West 

thelambs

 

 

Seanan McGuire’s “The Lambs” kicks off the Bless Your Mechanical Heart anthology from Evil Girlfriend Media with a near-future story of covert surveillance used as a tool for deterring school bullying. Beven is a “lamb”, a robot disguised as a human teenager who has been embedded within the local school system since first grade. Designed to be an easy target for intimidation and harassment, she interacts with her fellow students as if she were human, all the while monitoring and recording any abusive behavior for public playback at graduation. But when a former friend falls in with a group of bullies, her desire to protect her friend conflicts with her programming to be a snitch.

Seanan McGuire’s prolific works include two popular urban fantasy series: October Daye series and Incryptid series, both from DAW. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of anthologies, magazines and websites. She also writes horror as Mira Grant, and her novel Blackout earned a 2013 Hugo nomination.

Seanan is no stranger to the Hugo ballot or breaking records. In 2012, she became the first woman to have her name listed 4 times on the same Hugo Ballot. Then in 2013, she became the first writer, male or female, to have her name listed 5 times on the same Hugo ballot. In 2013, she and her colleagues at SF Squeecast took home the Hugo for Best Fancast.

Writing is not Seanan’s only tool in her bag of tricks. She is also an avid cartoonist and a seasoned filker having released several albums of original music since 2009.

J: In “The Lambs,” you address a growing public concern around school bullying. How big a problem do you think school bullying is today?

S: I think it’s a huge problem. When I was in school, the bullies couldn’t follow you home without revealing themselves to your parents. Now, thanks to social media and cellphones, there’s no getting away. It’s terrifying. I’m not surprised that we’ve seen a rise in teen and preteen suicides; I’m surprised it hasn’t been more extreme.

J: Did you draw on any of your own personal experiences from high school to write this? What was high school like for you?

S: High school was fine. Middle school was where the monsters were.

J: There was a line in “The Lambs” that jumped out at me: “Pretty girls were more likely to inspire outright rage when they hovered at the bottom of the pack, while girls who were considered unattractive inspired pity and disgust, but would eventually be allowed to fade into the background.” Do you think that is a universal truth in high schools? And where do you think teenagers learn this kind of pack behavior?

S: I don’t think there’s any one “universal truth” to bullying. If there were, there would be one right way to end it, and we would live in a kinder world now. I do think that we learn very quickly that the world is supposed to be easier for pretty people, and that this can inspire negative responses when we see that this truth is being denied. Pack mentality is a terrifying thing.

J: The “lambs” are inserted into schools like spies, which evokes a feeling of “Big Brother” is watching them. Do you think a bullying surveillance system is the answer to today’s real life bullying problem?

S: I don’t think we have the ability to set up this sort of passively positive monitoring, no. It would be the baby NSA, and kids would wind up being used to report on their parents. That’s the nice thing about fiction: I only have to focus on what I want to.

J: Why did you choose to have the robots disclose the bullying at graduation rather than immediately after it happened?

S: Bullies have always balanced action with risk. “I can attack that kid, but maybe she’ll tell.” By making bullying a big reveal at graduation, from what is seen as an unassailable source, they know that they can’t hide their actions from either their parents or authority figures. That’s much scarier than one detention they can forget about in a week.

J: In 2012, you were the first woman to appear on the Hugo Ballot four times. In 2013, you were the first person, regardless of gender, to appear on the Hugo Ballot FIVE times. Can you describe what that feels like from both the perspective of a writer and also as a woman in a generally male-dominated genre?

S: It feels like an inbox full of death and rape threats. It feels like people accusing me of excessive self-promotion while ignoring my male peers who did three times as much self-promoting. It feels like crying myself to sleep every night over something that should have been a joy and a delight. So yeah, it’s great.

J: That sounds very disheartening when you’ve put so much effort into your work. It almost sounds like being bullied. What keeps you writing and publishing amidst all the negativity?

S: I feel like we throw the word “bully” around so much these days that it’s losing all meaning. I do think there’s a lot of resistance to women breaking into certain areas, and that the backlash we face is much greater than it ought to be. But I am a grown woman who can step away from her computer. I have felt attacked. I have felt singled out. I have not been bullied. As for why I keep going, why would I start letting people tell me how to live my life now? I never let them before.

J: Do you have any advice to give other women trying to break into writing science fiction and fantasy writing?

S: Be kind. We are all in this together, and it’s not a zero-sum game. Make friends, take advice, and stand up for other women; you’re going to want them to stand up for you. Don’t let anyone walk all over you, but don’t attack for the sake of attacking, either.

J: What projects do you have in the hopper that we can look forward to?

S: The next October Daye book will be out in September; Sparrow Hill Road is coming out this May; and Symbiont comes out in November, under the Mira Grant byline.

J: Thank you for spending some time with us.

 

seananmcguire

 

 

 

Seanan McGuire writes a lot of things, sometimes under the name “Mira Grant,” but mostly as herself. She does not sleep very much. In high school, she was once pushed into moving traffic by some kids who thought it was funny. This, among other things, inspired her story for this book. Seanan likes cats and Diet Dr Pepper and corn mazes, not in that order. Learn more about Seanan here: http://www.seananmcguire.com/.

 

photo (1)

 

 

 

Jen is a freelance writer in constant search for the next interesting character or story. Her interviews have appeared in such venues as Tor.com, Shimmer, Internet Review of Science Fiction, The Nebula Awards web site and Fairwood Press’s interview collection, Human Visions. She currently resides with her brilliant writer husband, Ken Scholes; the Wonder Twins, Lizzy and Rachel; two pudgy cats, and an intellectually ambiguous dog in St. Helens, OR.




16
Apr

GUEST POST: PETER CLINES

 

Mr. Roboto, Or: How Peter Clines Learned to Stop

Worrying and Keep Loving Robots

 

gammaI grew up with robots.  They surrounded me.  In movies and television shows, on cartoons, in books.  I had robot toys and models.  Androids, astromechs, Orbots, Shogun Warriors.  I was one of those kids who couldn’t wait to be an adult, because all the available literature (comics) told me by then I’d be able to have a robot best friend.  At the very least, a robot dog.  I also had rather extensive plans to build giant robots for the Army.  Which I would pilot, of course.

My childhood, it turns out, was a complete lie.

But I never did get past my fascination with robots.  It doesn’t matter if they’re  clockwork men, android cops, or just snap-together Gundam models.  Robots will always get my attention.

One of my favorite real-life historical robots was the Mechanical Turk.  I first discovered it sometime around third or fourth grade, and it reinforced the belief that a robot best friend had to be just around the corner.  It was a late 18th century automaton that could play chess at master levels, and it played games against Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.  Decades letter it was revealed to be a fraud, but the idea of a chess-playing robot stuck with me.  Some people imagine dogs playing poker.  I imagine robots playing chess.

I also always liked “the parlor scene,” that bit in many turn of the century stories where the characters would gather around a fire, have drinks, and talk.  Perhaps some of them would play cards or checkers.  The Time Machine by H.G. Wells opens this way, with the characters discussing time travel with their host after dinner.

And at some point—I’m not even really sure when—the image in my mind became Victorian robots in smoking jackets and vests, some with bow ties while others wore ascots. Maybe one with a pipe and another with a glass of some robot-beneficial liquid.  And, naturally, they played chess.

So when Evil Girlfriend asked me about a robot anthology, well… it wasn’t hard to come up with something.

 

 

 

peterclinesPeter Clines is the author of the Ex-Heroes series and the acclaimed, genre-blending -14-. He grew up in the Stephen King fallout zone of Maine and made his first writing sale at age seventeen to a local newspaper. His first screenplay got him an open door to pitch stories at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager. He is the writer of countless film articles, The Junkie Quatrain, the rarely-read The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, and the poorly-named website Writer on Writing.

He currently lives and writes somewhere in southern California, where he has been known to relax by doing basic maintenance on robot vacuums. So take that, Mrs. Goodell—he did become a robot repairman. “The Apocrypha of Gamma-202” is his homage to classic ‘50s sci-fi with a steampunk twist. He currently lives and writes somewhere in southern California.




15
Apr

GUEST POST: Lillian Cohen-Moore

We Get By With A Little Help From Our Friends

(Katie’s Impromptu Title For This Guest Post)

 

imperial

Defining personhood, the concept of when we legally and biologically recognize the sentience and autonomy of another being, is one of those concepts I can’t set down. In The Imperial Companion, it’s one of the essential challenges of the story. Two humans from different worlds are helping an android, only one of which accepts androids as equal to humanity. I had a lot of other stuff on my mind while I was writing the story; faery tales, Western colonialism, recent advancements in emotions of artificial intelligences.

The android Imperial Companion Aleksei is seen by his designers as equal to any human adviser of the man he called his dearest friend. After a mysterious attack on the man he has faithfully served, the two are separated. He has to function on a world full of human/android tension to find him. Though his problems are about species, technology, and faith, I think Aleksei’s problems are as human as our own. We all struggle to be recognized as people; intelligent, and possessed of autonomy. Moving heaven and earth to help our loved ones is something we want to do to keep them safe, because the alternatives are unimaginable.

And, like Aleksei, we often need help from those around us to navigate an increasingly complex world.

You an pick up BLESS YOUR MECHANICAL HEART here: BUY A ROBOT TODAY!!!

 

 

 

 

lilliancohen_moore

Lillian Cohen-Moore is an award winning editor, and devotes her writing to fiction, journalism and roleplaying games. Influenced by the work of Jewish authors and horror movies, she draws on bubbe meises (grandmother’s tales) and horror classics for inspiration. The Imperial Companion came from a confluence of topics; current research related to the emotional range of artificial intelligence, colonialism in Western history, and dangerous faery tale journeys. 




13
Apr

GUEST POST: KEN SCHOLES

Mechanicals and Wizards and Gypsies,

Oh My,

Or Round-Up at the Robot Rodeo

 

ofmetalmen
Image copyright Allen Douglas.
Used with permission of the artist.

 

“Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise” was one of those accidents of story that I fell into and had no idea how important it was.  In 2005, just after learning I’d won the Writers of the Future contest, I saw that a small press ‘zine was calling for stories for a special “mechanical oddity” issue.  Back in those days, I was dashing off stories left and right with little thought other than to land yet another tale in the boat and then find it a home out in the world.  I had been playing with a bit of lyric:  “Rudolfo rode to Glimmerglam in the Age of Laughing Madness” and it was laying around the factory floor when Leroy, my redneck muse, started twisting it up with whatever else he could find to fashion a mechanical oddity story.  The first line showed up fast and easy:  Rudolfo’s Gypsy Scouts found the metal man sobbing in an impact crater deep in the roiling smoke and glowing ruins of Windwir.

From there, the story took off and wrote itself over several lunch breaks spent nibbling tuna fish sandwiches at the Big Town Hero near my day-job office in downtown Portland, Oregon.  Robots.  An ancient wizard.  A dashing Gypsy king and his Wandering Army.  A fallen city.  When I finished “Of Metal Men…”, I learned that the magazine calling for those mechanical oddity stories had received their fill early and closed to submissions.  But that was okay, I told myself, because it really wasn’t that great of a tale.  It felt a little different and the world and characters seemed a little different from my norm.  But all in all, “Of Metal Men…” just slid off my to-do list and into my done pile with little fanfare and no expectations for it.  It found its way out the door in search of a market and was largely forgotten about until the next fall when Doug Cohen pulled it out of the Realms of Fantasy slush pile, passed it along to Shawna McCarthy, and turned it my first pro-level sale after Writers of the Future.  Still, until Allen Douglas hit me in the head with his art for the story, I had no clue of the story’s importance.

Writers are weird.  Ask any of us.  I’d gotten in the habit of occasionally Googling the titles of my short stories.  Sometimes it led to nice reviews I’d not seen while Googling my name.  Yes.  Weird.  Fortunately, you run out of time for that kind of stuff later.  Mostly.  But anyway.  On a lark, for no good reason at all, in the deep of winter with the story not coming out until spring at the soonest, I plugged in the title of my story while sitting in my cubicle at work.

 This is what came up.

If you know me at all, you can guess what I did.  Yep.  I cried.  Right there in my cubicle.

Art has always moved me, even before my stories started connecting up with artists.  It was especially surreal and powerful to see what an artist did with my words and I have several examples here in my house now.  What Allen Douglas did changed my life.  Because when I saw that image of Isaak, kneeling in the crater, weeping as the smoke poured off his back, I knew there was much, much more to that metal man’s tale.  My short story turned into…wait for it…four short stories!

I knew it in an instant.

Four interconnected stories about this survivor of Windwir and the impact of his programming upon Rudolfo’s world.  Of course, from there – a story too long to tell here – it evolved slowly into my series, The Psalms of Isaak.  The first two short stories comprised the beginning and end of the first volume, Lamentation.  And then the third and fourth stories (unwritten) became anchoring ideas in the second and fourth volumes.  The rest just kind of grew to fit the size of story bucket Leroy had in mind.  As I write this post, I’m now within a few months of finishing the final volume after a nine year journey with Isaak, Rudolfo and the Gang.  That first novel led to an agent and a five book contract with Tor within thirteen months of sitting down to write it.  And it led to the books coming out here and overseas to a lot of nice words and even a few awards.  From short story to writing career in thirty seconds, so to speak.

Part of the series’ success – and the story’s success, I think – is Isaak himself.  I’m often told by fans that he is their favorite character.  He’s also a character whose point-of-view we never experience.  We see him only through the eyes of the humans he’s met along the way.  I’ve been told how clever I was to honor Dr. Asimov with the name of my robot and maybe Leroy really was being clever.  I actually chose the name because it means ‘laughter’ (approximately) and I thought a weeping robot named laughter was a nice twist.  Leroy, obviously, is vastly more clever than me.

And Isaak weeps for what he’s done.  A mechanical who had no ambition for becoming human, he’s thrust into an innocent, awkward humanity from his first entrance onto the page and becomes a central figure over the course of five books.  At the time, I thought nothing of it.  Now, I can see clearly the homage I was paying to all of the metal men who’d influenced me.  Baum’s Tin Woodman grabbed me first, followed closely by Lester Del Rey’s Max in Runaway Robot,  C3PO (Star Wars), and Twiki (Buck Rogers)  showed up soon after.  There were more over the course of decades of science fiction but those are the first that leap to mind.  They were the ones I laid awake at night wishing I could build and then take to school with me.

So when Katie Cord decided she also wanted to pay homage to all the robots she’s loved and turned Jennifer Brozek loose to round up stories for Evil Girlfriend Media’s Bless Your Mechanical Heart,  I was thrilled to be invited to that rodeo.  I hope you’ll pick up your copy today and see what they’ve put together for you!

 

 

 

trailerboy_2

Ken “Trailer Boy” Scholes is the critically acclaimed author of four novels and over forty short stories. His series, The Psalm of Isaak, is being published both at home and abroad to award nominations and rave reviews. Publisher’s Weekly hails the series as a “towering storytelling tour de force.”

He is a winner of the ALA’s RUSA Reading List award for best fantasy novel, France’s Prix Imaginales for best foreign novel, and the Writers of the Future contest.

Ken is a native of the Pacific Northwest and makes his home in Saint Helens, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and twin daughters. You can learn more about Ken by visiting www.kenscholes.com.




10
Mar

BLESS YOUR MECHANICAL HEART COVER REVEAL

BYMH-3c

 

Artist Larry Dixon tells us about his design for BLESS YOUR MECHANICAL HEART:

I used the scale of the heart compared to the droid to represent a problem that was too big to fix.  The heart’s interior and the frayed circuitry are extremely delicate, and bright and beautiful, and a tangle.  The heart’s centerline is a visual play on the classic “broken heart” design of a jagged break, except of course, this bifurcation is part of that heart’s intended styling, a statement that hearts are in fact designed to appear broken, and be deeply accessible, as part of their function.

The droid’s lighting is red while the heart is blue, indicating incompatibility.  The droid’s 1950s-styled chromework has a patina like untended trim on a classic car, and is dented up, to represent that the droid’s been through a lot, but aside from that there’s no visible damage. Love’s like that.  I also went with the droid’s “skin” as black silicone rubber because, call me crazy, but I’d want my droids to be waterproofed.

The background has a zoom blur, a lot like a camera pull, to draw the eye more to the figure’s head.  There’s also a shadowy image of a ruined building behind it to give the impression that something’s gone badly, shown corner-on to bring to mind a cathedral by its symmetry.  It’s a strong vertical, to push the eye down (from where a title block will no doubt be) to an unseen, but felt, horizon line that grounds it. Lastly, though, the whole thing is engulfed from the sides by utter blackness, not to show dread or evil, but rather, a lack of information while the droid ponders the heart.

Find out more about Larry Dixon at  http://www.gryphonking.com/.

 

We are excited to release this anthology mid-April. If you are in the Seattle, WA area, plan to attend our book release party at NORWESCON 37.

 

Best Always,

Katie




10
Feb

EAT YOUR HEART OUT: AN AUTHOR EXTRAVAGANZA

eatyourheartout

Don’t make us eat your heart out, get over to the event page!

 

VALENTINE’S DAY.

Yeah, it is a day for many that represents love, candy, flowers, and if you’re lucky… some really other great stuff. But for some of us, it represents other things: zombies, vampires, psychological terror, and really great stories. So, whether you’re looking for an inexpensive gift for your significant other, or something to distract yourself from all those people celebrating a holiday you could care less about. Come on over to the Facebook event, EAT YOUR HEART OUT: AN AUTHOR EXTRAVAGANZA. It is a great place to talk with some of the hottest indie authors and publishers (including us).

 

booklineup

 

THE LINEUP

Rachel Aukes-100 Days in Deadland
A. Carina Barry-The Under-Circus and Other Tales
Owen Baillie-Aftermath (Invasion of the Dead, Book 1)
Jake Bible: Z-Burbia
Tonia Brown-Devouring Milo
Jason Christie-Zombie Killa
Joseph A. Coley-Six Feet From Hell: Crisis
Eli Constant-Dead Trees
Ricky Cooper-Designated Infected
Evil Girlfriend Media-Stamps, Vamps & Tramps
Craig DiLouie-The Retreat, Episode #1: Pandemic
Jackie Druga-Zombie Battle: Complete (5 books)
Dan Eagles-The Last Venture Capitalist
Kurt Fawver-Forever, In Pieces
Sarah Lyons Fleming-Until the End of the World
Rhiannon Frater-The Untold Tales Omnibus: Zombie Stories From the As The World Dies Universe (3 volumes)
Michael S Gardner-Downfall
Josh Hilden-The Shores of the Dead Book 1: The Rising
Michelle Kilmer-When the Dead & The Spread (2 books)
Eloise J. Knapp-Pulse
Sb Knight-Game of Straws, Game of Straws Origins, and Volume One of the Saga of Straws (trilogy)
Timothy Long-At the Behest of the Dead
Keith Milstead-Fish To Die For
Ripley Patton-Ghost Hold
Claire C. Riley-Odium: The Dead Saga
Damir Salkovic-The Black Ziggurat Double Feature
Randy Spears-Forget the Alamo: A Zombie Novella
Rachel Tsoumbakos-Emeline and the Mutants
Jack Wallen-I Zombie I
Darren Wearmouth-First Activation

 

ABOUT OUR SUBMISSION

 

SVTad

Click here for some vampire goodness!

On the day of lovers and lonely hearts, we will be releasing our third Three Little Words anthology. It is a sweet, sweet gift to ourselves. The tone of this antho, like the other two, not only reflects the theme but also the editor. Shannon Page and Monique Snyman both came to their anthologies with a different world view which included their location, personal belief system, and the type of story they enjoy. Shannon Robinson is no different. Shannon R. is born out of a literary world that enjoys telling, play on words, long paragraphs, and beautiful metaphors. We at EGM look at our anthos and think, “Wow”.  We have stories from all over the world in these books. In our third anthology, it is an honor and privilege to publish stories by best-selling authors, award winners, and a couple newcomers that are on the rise. We hope that you purchase this anthology, leave us a review, and give us a bloody good Valentine’s Day.

What a talented lineup!

What a talented lineup!

Don’t get your heart ripped out.

Best Always,

Katie

 




29
Jan

BLESS YOUR MECHANICAL HEART

In the summer of 2012, I attended the Cascade Writer’s Workshop in Vancouver, WA. It is a Milford Style Workshop geared mostly towards science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers. In my group, a tall guy who dressed in a black suit wrote the most amazing old-school science fiction story. I sort of gushed over it. In the end, I felt myself saying, Bless your mechanical heart, regarding the main character. The story had all of the things I love: deep character, ethical and moral dilemmas, and the feel of a time in science fiction from before I was born.

Forward to 2013, I’m at one of the biggest comic book conventions in the world with a fellow writer. I’d recently met him at another con (he’s sort of weird, likes zombies and superhero stuff, what a concept).  He loves Gundam robots and to see his face light up as we passed display after display was such a treat.

A week later, I met Jennifer Brozek, an editor I’d followed on Facebook for years. She seemed sharp, liked the same things as me, and then the idea hit me. Let’s make an anthology of robot stories together and use a phrase ingrained in the Wernicke’s area of every southern woman’s brain, “Bless your heart”.

According to the urban dictionary, the phrase “Bless your heart” can mean anything from calling someone an idiot without being harsh, to a polite way to tell someone to go to hell, or even for them to f— off.  For me, this held true as I grew up as a child. As the nerdy overweight girl who wore thick glasses and read way too many books, “Bless your heart” was said constantly to me. I use it now for all of the above and even to tell people how sorry I am about a situation they may be going through without making them feel uncomfortable.

Regardless, Bless Your Mechanical Heart is what happens when an excellent editor and a southern gal who loves classic science fiction get together.  Jennifer and I love this concept and are excited to have the opportunity to publish the authors involved. We have pulled together a wide range of voices from urban fantasy authors, game writers, and pop culture sensations.  We hope you enjoy what we’ve cooked up.

 

BLESS YOUR MECHANICAL HEART

 Edited and Introduction by

Jennifer Brozek

THE LAMBS
by Seanan McGuire

THE KING’S OWN
by Fiona Patton

THE STRANGE ARCHITECTURE OF THE HEART
by Lucy A. Snyder

THIRTY-TWO, TWENTY-THREE
by Jean Rabe

JUST ANOTHER DAY IN THE BUTTERFLY WAR
by M. Todd Gallowglas

EVER YOU
by Mae Empson

REST IN PEACE
by Sarah Hans

SEEDS OF DEVOTION
by Dylan Birtolo

THE IMPERIAL COMPANION
by Lillian Cohen-Moore

IN SO MANY WORDS
by Christopher Kellen

WE EAT THE HEARTS THAT COME FOR YOU
by Jason Sanford

DO ROBOTIC CATS PURR IN SPACE?
by Kerrie Hughes

AIDED
by Minerva Zimmerman

THE BODY AS A SHIP
by Mark Andrew Edwards

OF METAL MEN AND SCARLET THREAD AND DANCING WITH THE SUNRISE
by Ken Scholes

LOST CONNECTIONS
by Jody Lynn Nye

THE APOCRYPHA OF GAMMA-202
by Peter Clines

1560622_480396135398310_1364433729_n

COMING SOON! 

Keep watching for the full cover by Larry Dixon.




1
Jan

Year Two Begins

Happy Anniversary

Today is our one year anniversary of opening and we are so proud to have published three books. The talent we’ve brought in includes: Clarion graduates, Writers of the Future winners, Nebula nominees and winners, and rising stars in both traditional and indie publishing.  Our editors, Shannon Robinson, Shannon Page, and Monique Snyman worked diligently with our authors to provide work that we could all be proud of. This is one of our major goals in 2014, continue to provide readers with high quality entertaining books

 

So, to start the new year out right, here is a little bit of what we have coming up. Some of the information is vague for a reason, but we are excited to share.

 

February 14th, we’ll release our third THREE LITTLE WORDS anthology, STAMPS, VAMPS & TRAMPS at the event EAT YOUR HEART OUT: An Author Extravangza.

 

eatyourheartout2

Poster by Eloise Knapp

 

If you haven’t seen the Table of Contents for STAMPS, VAMPS & TRAMPS on our social media, we are very pleased with this collaboration of talent. We plan to release the cover within the next two weeks and a couple of advanced e-books for review. If you’re interested in reviewing, contact us at info@evilgirlfriendmedia.com.

 

STAMPS, VAMPS & TRAMPS

A Three Little Words Anthology

INTRODUCTION
by Shannon Robinson

FROM THE HEART
By Kella Campbell

SIDEPONYTAIL
By Lily Hoang 

SUMMER NIGHT IN DURHAM
By Cat Rambo

ONLY DARKNESS
By Paul Witcover

HIS BODY SCATTERED
By Adam Callaway

THE HUNGRY, LIVING DEAD
By Nancy Kilpatrick 

THE WHOLE OF HIS HISTORY
By Barbara Barnett

THE LIGHTNING TREE
By Carrie Laben

HIS FACE, ALL RED
By Gemma Files

A VIRGIN HAND DISARM’D
By Mary Turzillo 

FLIES IN THE INK
By Megan Beals

STABILIZATION
By Dan Parseliti

FOLLOW ME
By Christine Morgan 

MUNGO THE VAMPIRE
By Sandra Kasturi 

EASY MARK
By Rachel Caine

JOSEPHINE THE TATTOO QUEEN
By Joshua Gage

We hope that you’ll join the event on February 14th and purchase this anthology packed with ink, fangs, and wanderers.

In other news, Jennifer Brozek’s anthology, BLESS YOUR MECHANICAL HEART is on course to be released mid-April and we hope to have the table of contents by February. This anthology was not open to unsolicited submissions.

 

Katie has also made an executive decision to only produce one THREE LITTLE WORDS anthology each fall. As much as she loves anthologies and highlighting new talent, we want to focus on e-novellas and full length manuscripts for fans.

 

We will open again to submissions on January 7, 2014.  Please keep in mind, we have a 90-120 day turn around on submissions.

 

shutterstock_92440381




22
Dec

A Christmas Gift from Evil Girlfriend Media and Ken Scholes

ken story

What Child is This I Ask the Midnight Clear

 By

Ken Scholes

 

It could have been snow, gently drifting down.  It could have been virgin white and cold as cold.  But it wasn’t.

It was ash and the night wind was hot upon me.

That’s what I remember now when I go out.

That first year when the world was on fire and we slipped over the broiling skin of it, we brave nine.  We ran the course all night but found nowhere to land.  For the first time ever I did not stop.  Not one place.  And all the while, as we slid through that broiling night, I kept humming that song.  The one about the star, the star.  Dancing in the night.

Tail big as a kite.

The end had come suddenly and they’d managed to do it to themselves.  I’d always known they would.

#

I’m airborne now and the past falls away.  The ash has long settled and it’s really snowing again.  We’re not as loaded down as we’ve been in the past but that will come in handy later.  Times have changed.  The list has changed, too.  And so has my work.  Naughty and nice are blurrier now so I’m less meticulous in checking.  I do the right thing, instead.

I don’t have to crack any whips or give any whistles.  We build speed to bend time around us.  We’ll do a year’s work this night and then we’ll sleep a while.  I check the ammunition in my assault rifle and loosen the strings on my sack.

Then we start landing here and there and I’m out doing the right thing.  Books for a library in Vancouver.  Needles and a whetstone for a circuit rider in Laramie.  We haul a starving family out of a dead mountain town in Oregon and assassinate a white supremacist who was building a skinhead army in Maine.  A handful of twelve-gauge shells for Leonard in Saskatoon.  A bottle of aspirin in Bo Phut, Thailand.  And so on.

We’re just turning north for home when we see the light.

A star, a star, dancing in the night.  Tail as big as a kite.

It builds and then blooms, a piercing white over the horizon to the east.  I shield my eyes and look homeward, then back into the light.  Is it a bomb?  Another crazy moving the world deeper into the hole it has fallen in?  Or a satellite falling from orbit?  Either way, it’s worth looking into.

I steer east and take us low.  As I draw closer, the light shrinks to a concentrated point of brilliance and I aim for it.  We pick up speed and rip open space-time for a split second.  Then, we bear down upon the town that sleeps beneath that unexplainable, spontaneous star.

There in the glory of that bright light, a child screams.

#

She is not on my list.  I’ve made no stops in this feral country in over a decade.  But I hear her screaming and it is as piercing as the star above.  I unsling my rifle and we drop right there to hover over what used to be a schoolyard.  I don’t know what I was expecting.  Someone being harmed.  Someone being carved up into pieces by primates gone horribly wrong.  I work the lever and feel the solid clunk of a chambered round.  Slipping my gloved finger around the trigger, I use my thumb to move the switch to three-round-burst and then I hit ground with a thud.  I race across the open concrete, stepping over the frozen clumps of gray weed and watching my breath billow into the cold night air.  The screaming stops.  I hear heavy breathing instead now.  Panting.

What are they doing to her?  I feel a rage coming on as the screams start again.  I push it down and use it to feed my focus.

Do you hear what I hear, the song asks.

I hear it, I answer.

They rape the world the same way they rape each other.

They kill the world the same way they kill each other.

No list to make or check here.  I am bent on violent righteousness when I kick down the makeshift plywood door propped up to keep the wind out.

Someone has turned the old lavatory into shelter but it has gone badly for them.  The boy lies cold and still and bloody.  The girl’s screams change from pain to terror when I storm into the cluttered room and I suddenly know that things were not what they seem.  I see her, in the corner, squatting in a nest of blankets.  Her brown hair is long and dirty.  Her brown eyes are wild and frantic.  The blankets are stained with blood and I understand why.  Pale and shaking, her eyes go wide as she sees me standing over the cold body of her dead mate, light spilling around me into the room.

Another contraction and she screams again.  I turn, run for the medical kit beneath the driver’s bench.  When I return, I go in slowly with my rifle slung and my hands up showing the kit.  “I can help you,” I tell the girl.

Her eyes roll and she tries backing away from me but falls back into the corner.  Her breath heaves out in ragged gasps.

“I’m a friend.”  I keep my voice low and assuring, just like in the old days.  Only this time, it’s not a frightened child approaching me from a long line in the mall, nervous at the presence the myth of me has become.  This frightened child huddles in a frozen elementary restroom  at the end of her tether, trying to shove life into a dead, cold place.  “I can help you,” I say again but this time I hear the doubt in my own voice.  There is too much blood.

I crouch and move closer, opening the kit and finding nothing at all that I can use.

Then behind me, in the schoolyard, a clatter arises.

The eight snort and stomp and when the howling starts outside, the light winks out.  The moon, hidden behind a layer of clouds, offers little visibility.

Pushing the first aid kit towards the girl, I draw my rifle again, thumb off the safety once more.  I never unchambered the round.  Too smart for that.

More stamping and snorting but no ringing.  I took the bells off their harnesses a long time ago.

“Dashing through the snow,” a voice whispers from the edge of the schoolyard.

“O come all ye faithful,” another says.

“We wish you a merry Christmas,” sings a third.

I look over my shoulder at the girl panting in the corner.  “Just stay put and keep quiet.”

Donder screams and bucks.  Dasher bleats and kicks.  I hear the whir of stones in slings, the distant clatters of shots gone wide.

Then, I’m outside and running at a low crouch.  I’m fast for a big man, even without laying my finger to the side of my nose.  I whistle and I hear the eight lifting off; I hear the labored breathing of the two who’ve been hurt.  I hear the disappointed grunts and hungry sighs.  I don’t wait; when one of them takes shape in the darkness, large and wide, I put a three-round burst into the center of its mass and listen to the rush of escaping air as that rush twists itself into a shriek of surprise.

Another shape forms beside it, this one bending to see to its friend.  I put another burst there.  I’ve done this before.  I do the right thing.

Then I stop.  I smell the burning powder on the midnight air.  I listen for my eight, moving in a slow, widening circle above me.

A third takes shape near the others.  I move closer, rifle raised.  It moves to the left and I tap the concrete with bullets near his foot.  “Hold,” I tell him.

I can see him now and he might’ve been human once but the traces of it have left his face and eyes.  He’s wearing a red hat like mine, only tattered and dirty.  He’s dropped his sling and one of his suspenders is loose and dangling.  Barefoot with wet trousers, he trembles before a vision he may have dim memory of, from a childhood spent before the world heaved its last sigh.

“Remove the hat,” I say, “and look to me.”

He pulls it off slowly.  Our eyes meet and I’m pleased at the fear I see there.  “Life is your gift this year,” I tell him through gritted teeth, “but it comes with a string.  Tell the others what you have seen and tell them to be afraid.  Every other night belongs to you but this one.  I ride on this night with justice and grace.”  I raise myself to full height.  I fire the rifle over his head.  “Now, run like a rabbit.”

He does and as he fades, the night becomes silent and holy for a heartbeat before a new cry, muffled and straining, greets its new home in a broken world.

I turn back and enter the lavatory and in that I am both too late and just in time.  The girl is fading fast and in her arms she holds a sticky, bloody bundle packed into dirty cloth pulled from her makeshift nest.  I see the cord that still connects them.  Her eyes are wide and her nostrils flare when I draw closer but she doesn’t flinch.

She points to me.  “Ho, ho, ho,” she says in a quiet voice before making the sign of the cross.  She passes the squirming bundle to me and says one final word:  “Charis.”

Slinging my rifle, I take the baby.  I do the best I can with the tools I have, cutting the cord, closing the mother’s glassy eyes.  I remove my jacket.  Then I clean the baby and wrap her carefully in it.

I want to stay and bury my dead but I know better.  I have not prayed in years but I manage one there beside the fallen mother and father, victims of a nativity gone wrong in a world that struggles between death and birth.

Then, I whistle for my eight.  We lift off into the night and I hold Charis close to me, giving the reindeer their heads to take us north and home.

As we fly, I ponder — I wonder as I wander — and I call up my list to see who on this night had wanted the gift of a child.  I weep at what I find.

“It’s no place for a child,” I tell the eight as we soar.

“I’m far too old for this work,” I say to them again.

“I am afraid,” I finally admit.

But a vision unfolds to me of a tiny girl in red with elves for her friends and family, raised up with the deer and the sleigh as humanity’s orphan, taught from their books and their art and the better parts of a species tremendously blessed and terribly flawed, trained to go out into that broken world and do the right thing.

And in that moment, the light returns but it is inside me and inside of the baby in my arms, and that light threatens to swallow me whole and I beg it to because within that light is hope and promise and I recognize that tonight was the night upon which the universe — or whomever ran it — gave back to me and did so with a holy charge.

Home arises to the north and we pound sky for it.  As we fly, the clouds lift and the starshine falls like a mantle of jewels over the crown of the world.

I feel the peace on earth within my chest.

Goodwill towards men lay sleeping in my arms.

“What child is this?” I ask the midnight clear.

“Yours,” it says, and weeping, we fly home.

 ###

Copyright Ken Scholes, 2007 – www.kenscholes.com

First print, Shimmer Magazine’s Christmas 2007, Volume 2, Bonus Issue #4

Second  (current) print, Fairwood Press, “Diving Mimes, Weeping Czars and Other Unusual Suspects




25
Nov

Feed the Zombies! An All You Can Read Event

Our good friend, Tim W. Long is hosting an event of epic zombie proportion, and we just couldn’t pass up the chance to share in such a great deal for zombie fans. On November 27th, we’ll be offering Roms, Bombs & Zoms for 99 cents along with books by some of the best names in the zombie genre.

 

Come over to Facebook to share in a day of laughter, zombie talk, and some great deals.

 

 

 

FEATURING:

 

First Activation – D. A. Wearmouth 


Autumn: The Human Condition – David Moody


Last Bastion of the Living – Rhiannon Frater


The Infection – Craig DiLouie


Domain of the Dead- Iain McKinnon


Downfall and Betrayal – Michael S Gardner


The Forgotten – Jackie Druga


Six Feet From Hell: Crisis – Joseph A. Coley


Game of Straws Origins – SB Knight


Beyond the Barriers – Tim W. Long 


Fish to Die For (666 Fish) – Keith Milstead


The Undead Situation – Eloise J. Knapp


Roms, Bombs & Zoms (A Three Little Words Anthology) – Katie Cord (Evil Girlfriend Media)


Epic Apocalypse – Apocalyptic Box Set ($1.99) James Cook, John O’Brien, Joe McKinney, Armand Rosamilia, Heath Stallcup, Shawn Chesser, and Mark Tufo

 

 

A little about EGM’s submission for the event:

 

Roms, Bombs & Zoms cover

When hearts rot, fu

ses ignite.Super geek gets the girl, a righteous preacher and his undead wife, fantastical zombies, the tantric art of zubbing, mindless hive workers, and traditional flesh eating walkers, this anthology has a bit of everything. Our twisted tales pull you into the darkest of darks, where hope is lost, and sustaining life is no simple feat.

Twenty-one authors congealed romance, bombs, and zombies into stories that are diverse, witty, and occasionally gut-wrenching. Travel through time to walk in alternate histories, visit magical realms, and face down pestilence that will literally rot your insides. This collection is sure to warm your cold, dead, heart.

Stories by Ken MacGregor, Patrick D’Orazio, Randy Henderson, and Kriscinda Lee Everitt, among others.

 

Even if you are not a zombie fan, you can get ahead on your holiday shopping by purchasing gift certificates for the zombie lover in your life. They make great stocking stuffers. 
 
Best Always,
 
Katie 

 

 




12
Nov

Eat Your Heart Out or Our Brains

We released Roms, Bombs & Zoms on November 1, 2013 to the Kindle and Createspace. The book has an absolutely amazing cover with Michelle Kilmer and Aaron Sheagley modeling the imminent destruction of two lovers. The stories included in this anthology are varied and entertaining.

Roms, Bombs & Zoms cover

 From the dedication page:

Dedicated to all those who are clueless in romance,

dropping bombs without intent,

and for those brave zombies of heartache,

who rise and love again. 

Editor Monique Snyman chose stories varied in their themes from the lover back from the grave to the zombie drug addict. We are extremely pleased to offer this collection to our fans.

 

Best Wishes,

Katie
Evil Girlfriend Media




13
Sep

Hard Realities, True Words

Hard Realities, True Words

   (guest post by Shannon Page)

 

When I eagerly accepted Katie’s invitation to edit Witches, Stitches & Bitches, I knew it was going to be an amazing book. And when the stories started pouring in, they were even more fantastic than I’d hoped.

It was an open-call anthology, and I didn’t have any preconceived notion of what kinds of stories I was looking for. The “witch, stitch, bitch” theme can be interpreted in so many ways. In making my choices, I did look for a balance in the overall book—several layers of variety. Though they are mostly stories for adults, there are a few with YA themes. The length varies from just over flash to novelette. And as far as tone goes, we have light, silly stories as well as some very dark and disturbing ones. But what they all had in common was this: they were great stories. They held my attention all the way through; I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. They let me stop being “editor” and slip into being “reader”. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

I want to talk here about one story in particular. One of the darker stories (though, I believe, an ultimately hopeful and redemptive one). Gabrielle Harbowy’s “Blood Magic” gripped me from the start, and made me sigh with delight when I put the pages down. It’s a gorgeous, deftly written tale with some very dark happenings. (See Gabrielle’s thoughts on the choices she made in writing the story, in the guest post to follow this one). I knew I wanted it for the anthology; I knew I wanted it as the lead story.

But, as I mentioned, the subject matter is hard. All of us at Evil Girlfriend Media grappled with this, several times during the editorial process. We want to be sensitive to our audience even as we strive to bring you the best in evil entertainment. After much consideration, we ultimately came to the conclusion that, difficult though certain aspects of this story may be, the language is not graphic, and the situation drives the narrative action. Toning it down would remove its power, and would be playing false with the characters and the world.

And we did want to publish the story. It was just too brilliant to leave out, or to bury behind lighter stories. True words are not easy; the world is not a safe place—neither Aya’s world nor ours.

Thank you so much, dear readers, for giving us a chance—to entertain you, to challenge you, to delight you. We hope to continue doing so for a long, long time.

Purchase on: Amazon, Barnes & Noble




2
Sep

Witches, Stitches, and Bitches Cover

We are proud to release our first Three Little Words cover.

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WBScovers300

 

From the Back Cover:

A STITCH IN TIME… IS JUST THE BEGINNING OF THE STORY.

Exquisite revenge and knitted doppelgängers; heartbreak and happy endings; unicorns, doomed dogs, and penitent frogs; steampunk fairies, conflicted stepmothers, and baseball—you’ll find it all here. Our literary alchemists weave a spell of fascination, drawing you deeper and deeper, tale by tale, until escape is impossible. But you’ll enjoy every minute of the plunge.

These sixteen deft and delightful stories involving witches, stitches, and bitches run the gamut from darkly disturbing to just plain fun. They will each take you out of the ordinary and into the world of magic, where older, weirder, or merely other rules apply. And just when you think things are all sewn up… some bitch may have a surprise for you.

Includes stories by Gabrielle Harbowy, Caren Gussoff, Kodiak Julian, and Christine Morgan, among others.

AVAILABLE SEPTEMBER 13, 2013




27
Jul

Table of Contents for Witches, Stitches, and Bitches Announced

When Shannon Page handed over the final compilation for Witches, Stitches, and Bitches, we couldn’t stop reading all of the intriguing stories. It is with great excitement that we deliver this dark, devilish anthology to our readers. From the very first story, you’ll be “woven” into the worlds our authors created with themes ranging from revenge to unicorns. The witching, stitching, and bitching commences on Friday, September 13th, 2013.

 

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-voodoo-mood-image24667983

 

 

WITCHES, STITCHES, AND BITCHES

A Three Little Words Anthology

INTRODUCTION
by Shannon Page

BLOOD MAGIC
By Gabrielle Harbowy

URGENT CARE
By Christine Morgan

THE KNITTED MAN
By Bo Balder

SPARE PARTS
By Stephanie Bissette-Roark

THE SECRET LIFE OF DREAMS
By Tom Howard

FROGSONG
By Kate Brandt

NO SUBSTITUTE
By Caren Gussoff

FORGETTING TOMORROW
By Bob Brown

THE BITCHY WITCH QUEEN and the UNDONE STITCHES
By Garth Upshaw

NOT EVEN IF I WANTED TO
By Kodiak Julian

YES, I’M A WITCH
By Julie McGalliard

THE FAR HORIZON
By J. H. Fleming

THE THREE GATEWAYS
By Eva Langston

FOR WANT OF A UNICORN
By Camille Griep

BLOOD OF THE MOTHER
By Alaina Ewing

DRESSES OF FUR AND FANGS
By Rebecca Fung

Like the Witches, Stitches, and Bitches Facebook page for more information about authors and giveaways.
https://www.facebook.com/egmwitches




8
Jul

Table of Contents released for Roms, Bombs, and Zoms

On November 1, 2013, Evil Girlfriend Media plans to release a romantic, explosive, and incredibly undead anthology that will have you laughing, crying, and possibly gagging through out.  Our editor, Monique Snyman, chose stories that entertained her while bringing all three of the elements of the title together in unique ways. We are so proud of this talented team of individuals. They are as diverse as their stories ranging from screenwriters, indie authors, musicians, and traditionally published authors. You’ll find stories about zombie STDs, a female soldier who left her lover behind, a righteous preacher and the dilemma of an undead wife, a boy and his dog, plus many more.

Zombie Collage

 

ROMS, BOMBS, AND ZOMS

A Three Little Words Anthology

FOREWORD
By Monique Snyman

SOUL TIES
By Katie Jones

UNTIL THE END
By Patrick D’Orazio

POST BOMB ZOMBIE ROMLAND
By Dana Wright

I’LL COME BACK
By Michelle Kilmer

NATHAN’S PROMISE
By Ken MacGregor

THE SECOND BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG
By Kriscinda Lee Everitt

MAMA
By Jay Wilburn

CHURCH OF THE RISEN DEAD
By Tom D Wright

THOUGH SHE BE LITTLE, SHE IS FIERCE
By Michele Roger

NEEDS OF A HALF-DEAD HEART
By Randy Henderson

WHEN THE LAST WAR ENDED
By Paul S. Huggins

YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART
By Katie Cord

THE TOWER
By Joshua Brown

WHAT I WAS THERE FOR
By Matt Youngmark and Dawn Marie Pares

FROM SAFETY TO WHERE
By Kris Freestone

AN UNDYING LOVE
By John Edward Betancourt

TILL DEATH WE DO NOT PART
By Killion Slade

I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN
By Anthony J. Rapino and Monique Snyman

Watch for the Table of Contents for Witches, Stitches, and Bitches edited by Shannon Page coming soon!

 




1
Jul

Our First Novel

Evil Girlfriend Media would not be on its current path without our first novel, The Heart-Shaped Emblor.  I met the author, Alaina Ewing, in the summer of 2011 at the Cascade Writers Workshop. We were both assigned to the same critique group. Her story resonated through me, there was only one slight problem, I wanted to shake some sense into her main character, Aislinn Moore. However, this powerful emotion created a friendship.  After several years, and a couple of rewrites, Alaina planned to self-publish the book. Instead, I offered to let her use a LLC  I created to self-publish my own work. She agreed.

It occurred to me over a couple of weeks, that maybe I should treat this as a chance to make my own dreams come true. I’ve always wanted my own business and love making ideas happen. One night over coffee and snacks at another writer’s house, we joked about me making Evil Girlfriend Media a real entity. I’d recently received encouragement from a pretty successful zombie writer to push it to the next level. There at our friend’s kitchen table, a book deal was born. It wasn’t long after that, I pitched to my writers group a collection of anthology ideas that I’d initially wanted to write as short story collections. I don’t want to get off topic too much, this is a blog about Alaina Ewing and The Heart-Shaped Emblor. However, I wanted everyone to know the importance of this first full length novel presented by our company.

So without further ado, here is the cover for The Heart-Shaped Emblor:

cover

Should she choose the life of a normal college student or something else entirely?

Despite her best efforts, Aislinn Moore is not a typical teenager. She sees ethereal beings, has prophetic dreams, and knows far too many intimate details of her friends’ darkest secrets. She tries to avoid her supernatural abilities by focusing on her early entry college courses, sculpting, and relationship with the affluent older Cooper Greene.

When her abilities cause her to be alienated from friends and destroys her relationship with her boyfriend, it feels like she may have to face life with her abilities alone. Just when she thinks things couldn’t get worse, she sees a mysterious guy from her dreams working on her college campus.

Alexander Welch is everything she ever imagined him to be; sexy, protective, intelligent, and his dimple sends chills through her every time she thinks of him. There is only one problem… He is not human. He is a Ewlishash, a hope bringer, and despite the fact that she is falling hard for him, his touch feels like electrified razors slicing into her skin.

 As Aislinn grows closer to her dream guy, a world she never knew existed opens before her. There are battling forces at work, and Alexander is there for a reason, to protect and guide her. The closer Aislinn and Alexander become, the less his touch hurts and the more her powers increase. Leaving Aislinn wondering how they tie to one another. Before she can truly understand her gifts, she must unfurl the truth about him, the motivations of the Ewlishash, and decide who she really wants to be.

 

 

The cover was created by Mark Ferrari, a science fiction and fantasy artist as well as writer. He published his first book, The Book of Joby with Tor in 2007. Our cover model is medium Cassidy Rae, a teenager who really can see ethereal beings.  Then there is Alaina Ewing, a science fiction and fantasy author who puts elements of truth in all of her work. We will be adding the page for the book in the coming weeks. Tentative release date is September 22, 2013.

 

Best Always,

Katie Cord
President, Evil Girlfriend Media