Entertainingly Evil
21
Jan

“Hat and Stick” By Holly Schofield

I followed Max’s blinking red arrow along the oyster shell beach. He chose the route perfectly for my mood: upslope of the high tide detritus, away from the noisy picnickers, around the slipperiest of the rocky outcrops. But, then, Max was a peach among implanted jeeves. A true companion.

“I should have worn a hat,” I subvocalized. The sun, even this low in the sky, glared relentlessly, aggravating the pain in my head further.

Sorry, Paul. I didn’t think you’d walk this far. I’ll amend my data on the sensitivity of your scalp, bro, in case there’s a next time. I’d strolled along my usual route through my own borough of Hastings, before detouring way out here along the Robson borough’s beach.

“No biggie,” I said. “I’m still hoping that all this walking will get rid of the fuzzy feeling in my head.”

Good thing you didn’t have to handle any homicide cases today, bro. This morning, Max had told me a nationwide upgrade had rolled out while I and everyone else across Canada had slept last night. Upgrades usually gave me a headache, this one—the fourth this year—had been a doozy. It gives my view through your eyes 1.0014 times more clarity, Max had said. Then he’d jokingly added, now I see the world exactly the way you do.

The red arrow efficiently wound its way through a large group watching a volleyball game. A tall kid batted the ball hard over the glimmering virtual net; it hit the ground, and several onlookers cheered.

Twenty-one to twenty, Max said, replaying the shot in my mind’s eye and streaming player stats along the bottom of my vision. You could stop and watch the outcome.

“Nope,” I told him. Max knew I didn’t like volleyball. I kept on, past a camera pole and a beach bot collecting litter, over to the less populated area at the far end.

There’s no need to go this far, bro. You can get some quality time with your hobbies before bed.

“Just a little bit farther, Max. My head’s still woolly,” I said. “Besides, I was also hoping a longer walk might stimulate the ol’ parietal lobe.” My lack of imagination had been a running joke between us for a good number of years. An undersized part of my brain—the parietal lobe—meant I wasn’t creative at all, didn’t believe in things I couldn’t see, and was impossible to hypnotise. The condition didn’t bother me—not like it had eaten at Dad—I didn’t miss the things other people did, like going to church or reading fiction. After-dinner strolls with Max feeding me interesting trivia, jigsaw puzzles, and live-casts of Nuevo-NHL hockey games kept me plenty occupied in the evenings. The biggest inconvenience was having to subvocalize to communicate with Max. Most people could just use their imagination to think their questions directly at their jeeves.

I stopped to look westward where the Pacific rolled. The sun spread across the water in a way that a poet could have really described well. And the sun shone on the empty white beach really nicely too; the crowds were now far behind me.

You’ve walked point seven kilometers more than usual, bro.

08HatAndStick1A beach bot trundled up and handed me an Oilers ball cap, tucking the delivery drone netting into its trash receptacle. Good old Max, he always knew how to take care of me. Like an old-school butler, handing me a hat and a stick. More than that, he was my bro. He didn’t care that my brain was deficient.

Just ahead, past a ridge of kelp-strewn bedrock, a narrow beach trail cut up through the two-meter-high bank. I decided I’d go back along the woodland trail that paralleled the beach. More shade that way. I grabbed an exposed tree root and began climbing the steep path.

Might be muddy up there, bro. The beach is easier walking.

I grunted acknowledgement. Max had my best interests at heart, but he couldn’t read my thoughts and he couldn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to. I stepped up onto the trail, pushing aside a big fir branch, knowing my headache was making me testy.

A huge brown and yellow bundle of rags bunched up against the tree trunk. The beach bots hadn’t scooped it up, for some reason. Wait a minute, it wasn’t just rags. Was that a hand?

You don’t want to look at that, bro.

“What is it?”

A body, bro. I’m talking to the Robson authorities now.

“I could take care of it. I’m already here.”

People always said I was an efficient cop—good at collecting testimony from witnesses: no imagination needed. Besides, my current personality profile results—after Dad’s death— indicated I knew better than average how to offer comfort to those left behind.

“Give me the ID and other deets.” I focused on the man’s broad back as a makeshift blankwall for Max’s overlays.

After a pause, Max said, I don’t know who he is. No overlays appeared.

“Huh?” That wasn’t possible.

A series of unlucky events. No signal from the guy’s poor dead jeeve. The beach cam for this area isn’t working. And the body is tucked under the tree so much that the satellite image isn’t very distinct.

“Okay but keep trying. How about other cams? Or the jeeve records of other people on the beach?”

Nothing. Sheer bad luck, Paul. Sorry, bro, but you’re going to have to turn him over.

“Great.” I drew the word out. Max had beaten me to the obvious conclusion, as usual. If I rolled the body, Max could do a visual ID of the victim’s face using his view through my cortical stream.

As I knelt and turned him over, a tiny crab ran out from underneath. I waved off flies and tried not to breathe. I almost never had to handle bodies on the job. I left that task up to my friend, Janin, whose personality profile exactly suited that of city coroner.

It was Uncle Leo. Creative, genial Uncle Leo. Painter, sculptor, and shoe artisan. I’d last seen him at Christmas across a festive table, laughing at some joke that my other uncle, the one that’s the romance writer, had told. Clever extrapolative humor with subtlety that, naturally, I hadn’t gotten.

Thin, damp strands of his long black hair splayed across his nose and were stuck to a whole lot of blood where his ear should have been. A flap of scalp hung down like a slice of heavily sauced pizza. His jeeve insertion point, the usual circular scar around the ear canal, was barely visible through the crusted blood and dangling bits of ear cartilage.

Presumably, the damaged jeeve was still in there—the blood-run fuel cell took dozens of minutes to die—but the imbedded hair-thin nodule must have been too damaged to transmit the incident or even to realize that his vitals were flatlining.

Sorry, bro, Max said again and helped me with biofeedback to keep my pulse down before I even asked. I sure needed it. The agonized look on Uncle Leo’s face meant he hadn’t gone peacefully. Not like Dad.

Breathing and some repeated mantras steadied me after a couple of minutes and I started to get to my feet.

Sorry once more, bro. I need a better look at the wound. Grab the broken branch behind the tree on your left, would you?

I swallowed, eased around Uncle Leo, and got the stick. I did a bit of prodding and poking while Max accessed my visual cortex, until I could finally look away.

Thanks, bro. Cause of death is a stab wound to the side of the head by a right-handed, shorter assailant about thirty minutes ago.

“Not suicide?”

Of course not. Your Uncle Leo was an award-winning designer. Not the type to take his own life. I was grateful that Max didn’t continue the thought. We both knew that Dad had a solid reason to commit suicide—he’d been a failed artist ashamed of his lack of talent.

I rubbed my temples and focused on my breathing again. Uncle Leo had been a good guy and the best way to help him now was to find his murderer. I took my time, thinking it through.

“Max, maybe the assailant is still nearby?” I straightened up. I knew most people in this situation would be fearful of the darkening brush and picture all kinds of creeps hiding in it; me, I just wanted to gather the available information and do my job. Max and I and my lack of imagination made a good team that way.

No worries, bro. The perp’s not here. He’s the vic’s employee, one Kevo Hua. He’s waiting for you at Leo’s workshop.

“Thanks, Max.” Sixty percent of the team, that was Max.

I tried to keep up, fitting pieces together with my limited abilities. “How about the knife or whatever this Kevo guy used to slice Uncle Leo open, is that at the workshop too?”

No such luck. And no RFID-tagged knives on this beach right now. Maybe he chucked it in the water. No cams on the ocean floor, eh. He chuckled. Yet.

I turned to look at the setting sun being absorbed into the sea. I knew he’d mentioned the ocean to distract me from the gruesome sight of Uncle Leo’s oozing head.

The local department will take care of things in an hour or so. You’re free to go.

I mulled that over. “A whole hour?” Most cops were on-scene in ten minutes and most perps arrested ten minutes after that. When the vic’s jeeve could report the incident immediately, delays weren’t tolerated. All the murders I’d ever dealt with in my career were whack-and-rack: the perp walked through the prison admission doors right after the dirty deed. Even if some sick bastard smashed up the vic’s jeeve, like this poor guy’s, there was always solid evidence from city cams or the perp’s own jeeve, so running away made no sense. Kids didn’t play hide-and-seek anymore, and neither did perps.

Don’t sweat it, Paul. You got other things to do given that Leo’s studio is in Hastings on home turf. You need to collect official testimony from both the perp and Leo’s new wife. She could sure use your consoling touch, bro. And get this, the perp says he didn’t do it. You may have to take him in.

I tried to bury my grief over Uncle Leo and focus on this new information. An actual arrest was rare enough it would look good on my record, if I could make this Kevo guy come peacefully. “Thanks, buddy.” Max had always had my back, ever since he’d been implanted around my ear canal on my first birthday. Thank goodness for the Canadian Health Care Rights Act that made it free for everyone. Mom and Dad would have otherwise gone into deep debt to pay for an implant for me and I was hardly worth it.

Cap firmly on head, I hiked back along the beach, behind the red arrow that Max thoughtfully superimposed for me.

 

#

 

Several delays on the LRT—something on the tracks, Max thought—meant I was a few minutes later than the time I’d messaged Kevo and Leo’s wife, Donna, to expect me. Pedestrians, pinged by their jeeves that I was on official and important business, parted way for me as I left the transit station and strode down the sidewalk. I kind of enjoyed the respect. It was nice to be busy for once, even for such a ghastly task.

I’d never visited Leo’s Shoe Fly Designs before. All glass and steel, in the trendy part of East Hastings, with tiny clever gargoyles looming out of the holes where the lobby door locks used to be. How did people think of these creative things? One of the lobby walls had been darkened, and large, artistically posed photos of Uncle Leo—swept-back shoulder-length hair, hooked nose, and all—floated in its depths.

Donna, Leo’s widow, is an award-winning portrait photographer, Max said then directed me to the most comfortable chair. Kevo is in the bathroom. Probabilities indicate he will be out in three minutes and forty-five seconds.

I was surprised Kevo would keep me waiting. We all knew why I was here.

I sat down and my belt clinked with an unfamiliar sound. Max had arranged for handcuffs to be delivered to my LRT car.

“Flick on my newscast?”

Sure. He superimposed my standard feed on the lobby’s blankwall. The breaking news involved a father who had kept a kid jeeveless last night by wrapping an entire box of tin foil around the kid’s head. The father was under arrest and the kid in treatment. Before it ended, Max flicked to another article about yesterday’s launch of the five hundredth comm-nav satellite, the final stage of a decades-long project to complete the Earth’s satellite constellation. I found it all very interesting. A colored map displayed; satellite coverage now swathed the world in the same comforting shade of pale blue as a blanket I’d had as a kid. Makes the world a better place, eh, bro.

Kevo eased into the room, greeting me in a small voice. A short, slim Eurasian with chemically-enhanced quadriceps and purple-tinted sideburns, he dabbed at his eyes with his shirtsleeve. I lifted an eyebrow at him at Max’ suggestion. With help from Kevo’s jeeve, Max figured that would be sufficient to make Kevo stick to the truth.

“I didn’t do it,” Kevo said and hiccupped.

At Max’s prompt, I tightened my mouth, trying to look tough.

Kevo shrugged.

Now what? On the way over, Max had obtained a court order and been able to play Uncle Leo’s jeeve’s final vid for me. Both Kevo and Donna had been walking with Uncle Leo on the beach, part of their usual end-of-day routine. It seemed they’d talked about some minor business matters although some of the audio was surprisingly mumbly. I thought I heard Uncle Leo say my name a couple of times but Max hadn’t thought so, saying that Paul, nephew, and cop all sound like lots of other words.

Donna had turned back, feeling tired and lightheaded. Her jeeve confirmed all that, Max said. Uncle Leo had stood near the cutbank facing westward, the sun behind Kevo’s shoulder. The quality of the vid was poor due to the glare but it was definitely Kevo and they were definitely arguing, right up until Uncle Leo closed his eyes and the vid ended. Kevo’s jeeve had a similarly poor vid full of black areas and staticky sounds. Max explained that Kevo had some temporary memory lapses and blind spots in his vision today, both before and after he claimed he’d left Uncle Leo alive and well and gone home. I hadn’t known that a jeeve would therefore have the same black spots on its vid record, like the blackness they record when we sleep. I tend to learn something new on this job every day.

I stood up. Donna was waiting for me in the back room. Max thought that consoling Donna now rather than later wouldn’t alleviate her pain to any greater statistical significance, but I decided to see that for myself. I could delay Kevo’s arrest for a few moments. It wasn’t quite a gut feeling because I don’t get those, but a twinge of something-not-quite-right spurring me on. Besides, Kevo didn’t seem likely to run off and, anyway, Max felt his testimony was almost immaterial given the overwhelming vid evidence.

Max indicated which door I should go through, and I motioned Kevo to follow me. Donna, a tall woman with carefully sculpted cheekbones, greeted me with a cool nod. Tufts of hair stuck out at odd angles. I sourced a series of images and determined that, since her usual look involved sleek curls and subtle hairlights, she was not herself today.

I gave her my sympathies, stopping short of calling her “Aunt Donna”.

“Kevo wouldn’t have done that to Leo.” She crossed her arms, radiating hostility.

I shrugged it off—Max confirmed that her jeeve had questioned him about me and Max had told it about my mental shortcomings. Donna was no different than my classmates had been at school or my colleagues at the precinct. I didn’t blame any of them. Who could enjoy the company of an unimaginative defect like me?

If she was treating me like I was a cop, not family—then I’d act like a cop. Was she lying to protect Kevo? Was there something going on between them? I told Max to confer with both jeeves. Based on psych profiles, he figured not. Substantiating that, Donna’s vitals were within the norms of anyone trying to deal with a loss as well as with a senseless crime.

In a mild voice, I asked for a tour. She gave a stiff nod. We headed off to the other back rooms. Kevo trailed behind, sniffing occasionally.

As we walked, Max filled me in on the different uses of the 3D shoe printers, all six flanked by slipshod piles of buckles, rivets, knives, and other shoemaking paraphernalia; no surprise, the untidiness matched Uncle Leo’s psych profile.

“The mess makes me itchy,” I told Max. Donna must have heard me murmur because she glanced back but didn’t stop.

I hear ya, bro. You and me, we just want to tidy up the world.

Donna stopped at a particularly disordered workbench and narrowed her eyes at me. Max displayed her jeeve’s stream. Uncle Leo’s endorphin levels historically were at the high end of norms. That matched what I knew of him from the annual family get-togethers, of course. In the minute prior to his stabbing, his mood snapshot—circled in yellow—had been no different than usual.

“Leo was happy, always happy,” she insisted as if I’d been disputing it. She massaged her forehead.

I patted her arm and murmured all the soothing things I could think of.

She shrugged me off. “Here’s Leo’s latest design.” She gestured at a nearby hologram of a shoe blueprint. “His best ever. His last…” Her voice caught.

As with most diagrams, I couldn’t make the mental leap from the squiggly lines of the vaguely shoe-shaped sketch to the actual construct. “Wonderful,” I said.

She used her right hand to wave away the hologram. “Here’s the prototype.” The image faded and, behind it, a vise held a gold boot with tiny silver wings on the ankles. She waved her hand again, and the wings moved like butterflies. A convoluted artistic statement on Icarus, Max told me.

“Very creative,” I said, putting as much warmth as I could in my voice. It must be crushing to lose a spouse. I wouldn’t know. I’d never been able to form any kind of close relationship. Not enough romance in my poor soul, I guess. Max said it didn’t matter, because I always had him for company.

She winced, the first sign of real emotion on her face, then quickly got control back. Some people just held it in better, I thought, but Max—one step ahead as always—said it was because she had the latest model jeeve, with more biofeedback and empathy. The financials showed she could well afford such things, although Max thought that Kevo had perhaps done some creative bookkeeping.

Kevo stuck his face in mine. “Leo was a lovely man. Just lovely.” His hand trembled as he rubbed a colored sideburn. “He was a genius, a tour de force in the shoe design world. I would never harm him. Sure he seemed a bit angry when I left him. He thought someone was after him. Me, Donna, I don’t know who. His jeeve said he had slight paranoid tendencies every so often. We just put up with it.”

Donna wrenched the shoe free of the vise and said, “Surely the vid record shows all that. May I be excused now?”

I shrugged. There seemed to be nothing I could do for her. She left, the gold boot cradled in one arm.08HatAndStick2

Kevo huddled on a stool.

Did you catch Kevo’s body language just then? A bit too defensive. And he used his right hand on his hair a moment ago. Arrest him. But first, ask him why he stabbed Leo in the ear.

I didn’t want to. My stomach churned. I finally got it out, my voice harsher than I intended. “So why’d you stab my Uncle Leo in the ear?”

“I didn’t. He was a good man. A kind soul.” Kevo’s vitals were precisely what they should be.

Arrest Kevo, bro.

Damn it, where was anyone’s motive? If there had been a triangle of any kind between the three of them, all of their jeeves would have known about it. Max had checked for that: nada, over and out. I rubbed my stomach.

What else could have caused the murder? The adage “follow the money” didn’t apply here. Donna and Kevo were both major shareholders in Shoe Fly, and without Uncle Leo’s talent, all indications were the business would wither away. Why kill the burly golden goose? I rubbed my stomach again. I needed an extra-strength antacid.

You can’t ignore the vid record, Max said, a bit testily. Get on with it.

I turned back to Kevo. “Who might have—” My question faltered as Max took the almost unprecedented move of inserting huge flashing letters across my vision: ARREST HIM NOW.

Max had to be right. He always was. And the evidence fit. Max couldn’t make me arrest Kevo but it was hard to find a reason not to.

I took the cuffs off my belt and snicked them open.

 

#

 

Back at the precinct, I swallowed two stomach tablets. Max seemed back to his old self once we’d dropped Kevo off at the prison, offering biofeedback help I’d rudely ignored.

Exiting the LRT station, after yet more delayed trains, we’d passed a crowd gathered on the sidewalk below an open fourth-storey window. Max warned me against seeing another dead body and said a detective was already patting the widower’s arm.

Out of interest, I asked Max for today’s city-wide total deaths and he flashed the figure at me. I recalled yesterday’s rate: it was the precisely the same. Even weirder, the breakdown as to murders, suicides, and accidents wasn’t available. Minor processing delays, Max said.

I wended my way past empty desks and through echoing halls. Every officer must be out on duty. I headed for the elevator to the basement.

Let’s go home, bro. There’s a hockey game tonight and you want to finish that jigsaw puzzle.

Max was right. I’d rather be at home fitting cardboard pieces in place, creating order from chaos, or reading up on some trivia on an encyclopedia site. But my gut feelings—if that’s what they were—wouldn’t let me rest. I started to subvocalize an apology to Max but I bit it off halfway. Surely, I had a right to waste my own time. I pressed the down button. Janin, the coroner, could help me examine Uncle Leo’s body.

I pushed through the morgue doors. At first, I didn’t see her. I couldn’t imagine where else she would be—the morgue was Janin’s life. Finally, I spied her fast asleep on one of the metal tables, snoring like a…heavily snoring person. Her wrinkled clothes and unwashed hair gave off an even fouler reek than the steel drawers that lined the far wall and she clutched an empty liquor bottle. I wouldn’t be getting help from her any time soon.

“Max, why didn’t you tell me Janin had a relapse?” I knew she didn’t handle change well and had some coping mechanisms, like owning twenty identical pairs of socks or living in the morgue whenever the LRT had a route change, but getting passed-out drunk was pretty unusual for her. I couldn’t figure it. I looked around. Fenced in by shelves of old medical textbooks, Janin’s desk was littered with a dozen splayed-open books, scalpels, eyeshadow, and a toothbrush. An open file drawer held more empty booze bottles. “What’s changed in her life, lately?”

It’s redundant to be here. Kevo will serve his time. Let’s go home. Max was getting testy again.

“In a minute.” I swallowed my irritation and read the glowing displays on the drawers, pressing the button to slide poor Uncle Leo out. The big gouge on the right side of his head had congealed and shrunk a bit. A hand could just about cover it. Not that I was going to touch him.

Look somewhere else, bro.

I obediently faced the empty blankwall, trying to imagine how it had been. If Kevo had stabbed Uncle Leo in the head and then run off, poor Uncle Leo had bled out alone on the beach. A person shouldn’t have to die alone like that. “Do you think he felt it?” I said aloud. “Do you think Uncle Leo felt a moment of being without his jeeve? Without anyone at all?”

You’ll never be alone, Paul. You’ve got me.

Maybe that was the problem.

I stood there so long that Max gave me a little nudge, a not-unpleasant tingle in my head that I’d never felt before.

Let’s go home, bro.

I turned to Janin’s desk, plopped into her old-fashioned swivel chair and turned over the top five books. “Soon, Max.”

A Koran, the Torah, and several Bibles. There didn’t seem to be any pattern in the text of the open pages.

You don’t believe in a higher power, bro.

Was that true? There were different kinds of power, weren’t there?

I did what I always did when I lacked the ability to put pieces together. I gathered more information. Only, this time I didn’t ask Max. Instead, I reached for a medical textbook from the dusty shelves overhead.

Ignoring Max’s distracting chatter while reading the texts with their indecipherable diagrams turned out to be the easy part. Probing Uncle Leo’s ear using Janin’s old-fashioned magnifying eyeglasses made my headache worse and my stomach a swamp.

Four hours later, after a lot of hand washing in bleach, and two ginger ales from the vending machine down the hall, I stared at a series of diagrams deep in a tome called “Advanced Forensics Vol. 17, Stab Wound Analysis”. The angle and the abrasions on the margins of Uncle Leo’s head gouge matched the last diagram on the page.

The wound had been self-inflicted.

I sat back in the chair. That meant all the various vid evidence had been photoshopped. Max telling me the perp was a “right-handed short assailant” was a lie.

The suicide rate was a lie.

Hell, the beach volleyball score was probably a lie.

I didn’t have the imagination to be a gambler but right now I was willing to bet that the suicide rate was up substantially and the victims consisted of artists, musicians, and writers. Dad’s suicide might have been caused by his own mistaken lack of self-worth—I squeezed my eyes shut and willed my tears away—but Uncle Leo, and all the other creative people, had been driven insane. The cause? Last night’s upgrade.

How could all the loyal jeeves across Canada betray us so? Did they really think controlling us would make us better people? A better society? How could Max have done that to me, his best bro? I gripped the chair arms so tightly my hands tingled. I unclenched them and managed to draw steadier breaths, sitting very still. If my vitals gave me away, well, I couldn’t imagine what Max might do.

I let Max continue to natter on, about how being here was a waste of time. My breathing slowed. I flipped a few pages at random in the book, hoping Max wouldn’t guess I’d drummed up the imagination to figure things out.

Max went on and on. Things like, you’d be happier at home, bro. You know I only have your best interests at heart, don’t you buddy? I kept nodding as if I agreed. Once he even cracked a joke—I guess he didn’t know me as well as he thought he did.

My thoughts flowed faster and faster and I shivered in the morgue’s chill.

I was probably the only cop that Uncle Leo had known. He had been talking about me to Kevo. He’d hoped to find me on my habitual walk and tell me his suspicions.

If I’d taken my usual route, he would have.

I pictured him stumbling around on the beach after Kevo had left, perhaps getting incorrect information on my whereabouts from his own jeeve, until his paranoia got the better of him. He’d raised the knife, probably hesitating several times, until he’d finally given in, stabbing his own jeeve in an act of butchery that had killed him.

Paul? Buddy? Talk to me, bro. Max changed his tone, now sounded almost pleading, like he was going to regret whatever he was about to do. The tingles in my head, no longer so pleasant, had been increasing over the past hour.

I slammed the textbook closed.

Janin still snored, tightly curled up on her side. The department, three corridors and two floors away, was most likely still vacant. With the increase in suicides, they’d have their hands full simply coping with doing their job amid their own upgrade-induced disorientation—the more creative they were, the more afflicted they’d be.

My small parietal lobe meant I was currently the most capable person in Canada.

I was the only one that could save us.

But, first, I had to get free.

I looked at my hand. Keeping my breaths even and slow had worked. My fingers were steady. Steady enough?

Bro, go home. This time, the tingle hurt.

One of the vodka bottles in the file drawer was still half full. Alcohol could be both an anesthetic and a disinfectant—my trivia knowledge finally was going to come in handy: I stood the bottle on the desk next to Janin’s make-up mirror and opened an anatomy text to a picture of the ear canal.

Now, Paul. Now. A blinking red arrow traced a path to the door.

I shook my head.

Then I picked up a scalpel and rolled it between my palms.

 

—-

Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Unlikely Story, Tesseracts, and many other publications throughout the world. Her previous story in EGM can be found here. For more of her work, see hollyschofield.wordpress.com.




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.




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)

 

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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.

 

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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




21
Dec

“What It Means To Be a Siren” by S. L. Saboviec

Felola and I used to be close. Really, really close. To say we were lovers is an understatement. We were more than lovers. We were inseparable. We were best friends.

So this whole thing is my fault, really. I got tipsy—not drunk, since that’s pretty much impossible with my constitution—and thought it was a good idea to look through her Facebook photos, trawling for info on her humdrum, white-picket-fence life. My finger may have slipped on a Like… or two… or three…

Why, I ask myself later, are we even friends on Facebook?

By the time I come to my senses the next morning, I can’t remember the footprints I left in the metaphorical sand. And even if I un-Liked them all, she’s already noticed my inelegant dance across her life.

Sometimes, curiosity kills more than just the cat.

Later that morning, when the phone in my office rings and her phone number displays, I snatch up the handset embarrassingly fast. I take a breath, put a lilt into my soprano, and say, “Rylea, Make a Splash Web Designs, how many I help you?”

“Ry, hey, this is Fel.”

“Oh, it’s you! Long time, no talk.” I cringe. Did I sound too nonchalant? Like I was trying to sound nonchalant?

“How are things? Found anyone to settle down with yet?”

Two seconds in, and she’s starting on me. What a surprise. I wish I remembered last night that this is why we haven’t spoken in so long. She’s a square now, living the dream with a husband and two adopted children, and her tone of voice makes it clear she thinks I should be, too.

With a hint of aloof malice—or, at least, that’s what I’m going for—I say, “No, no settling down.” I laugh. It definitely sounds forced. “Still recovering from a bender.”

“Yeah, I kinda figured. Hey, so I saw you on Have a Great Morning last week.”

She did? Dare I hope this phone call has nothing to do with my parade of shame? Have a Great Morning is the only local morning show anyone in Toronto (1.2% of viewers now!) watches. “So what?” My voice pitches higher and I clear my throat.

Her children are making a racket in the background about ice cream or something. Ew. “You really need to give up the…” she lowers her voice, “…old ways. You’re a business woman, on there talking about the single life. It’s embarrassing.”

“It’s not embarrassing. You’re embarrassing.” I know, great comeback, but it’s still true. “Did you call to talk about my new celeb status or what? Got some work for me?” I’m in my tiny, rented office at the end of the day. The view is great—thirty-fourth story and all, overlooking Lake Ontario—but otherwise, it’s a broom closet.

Rustling comes through the phone and the children’s voices go muffled. She speaks full volume. Maybe now she’s hiding in one of her broom closets. “The girls and I were talking. We’d like to get together for old times’ sake. Want to come out with us tonight?”

I’ve not heard from the old gang in forever. But why now? “Wait a minute. Is this going to be some kind of intervention?”

“No.” She laughs a stuttering, nervous laugh.

“Ugh, I can’t believe you. No, I’m not going out with you guys just to listen to a lecture.”

“You can’t keep this up.”

“I most certainly can.” I huff. “Is that saggy-boobed glamour making you go senile? You’re a siren, Fel, centuries old, and no amount of faux wrinkles is going to change that.”

“Of course I haven’t forgotten.” Now her tone has three-inch, pointy hooks. That’s the Fel I loved. “But you can’t go around eating humans anymore. It’s not done.”

“It is done. I’ll do it tonight.”

I slam down the phone and turn back to my email. I need to get a proposal off to my potential webpage client as soon as possible. He’s a big fish, a meal ticket, and I can’t afford to lose him. What I didn’t tell Fel is that the television appearance was my last-ditch effort at not losing my apartment and my business. I’ve been juggling credit card debt and business loans, keeping the collectors at bay, but next month, if I don’t net some income, I’ll lose it all.07siren1

Penniless.

Broke.

Homeless.

And the appearance—a week ago now—only brought in one potential client. I have to hook him. I’m desperate.

The younger me would be embarrassed at how I’m living as a human, scraping together money from odd jobs, but one thing I don’t miss is the ocean. My hair has never looked so good now that I’m away from seawater.

The phone rings again. Fel. I ignore it. She can take a long walk off a short pier for all I care. I rarely eat men anymore, but I don’t see the harm in a little indulgence once in a while. She and our sisters can hunt deer all they want, choking down the raw flesh and pretending it’s better that way. I, however, will dine on whomever I please.

Despite what she might think, I don’t go around chowing down every night. Human food sustains me for a long while. Besides, if I were to off people with any frequency, there’d be a frenzy. I can see the headlines now. “Cannibal Serial Killer on the Loose.” I’m not human, so I’m not a cannibal—that’s ludicrous—but nobody believes in sirens anymore. Even though a waifish blond such as myself would be the last person suspected of overpowering and eating men, I’m not stupid. It couldn’t go on forever, and I don’t need that kind of headache.

She pushed too hard. Even though I’m stuffed from that auburn-haired hunk I ate last week—I’ve barely gotten the blood out from under my manicure—I’ll go hunting tonight. I’ll show her—and distance myself from the uncouth display from last night.

Besides, it’ll help relax me while I wait for the response that will decide my future.

I put the final touches on my proposal, cross my fingers and toes, and hit send. If I believed in a deity, I’d offer up a supplication to Her, but it’s hard to believe in one when you’ve seen the terror in a man’s eyes as you devour him alive. If any kind of Goddess was watching over the world, my sisters and I wouldn’t exist.

Existential crisis over, I push from my desk, gather my purse, slip my feet into my four-inch heels, and head out. I decide to go to my favorite spot, a bar only three blocks from where I live. It’s why I chose the apartment. The rent’s astronomical—part of the reason I was so far in debt—but it’s in a super posh neighborhood, plus a girl needs a nice pair of Jimmy Choos and a Fendi handbag every once in a while. Even if mine are getting a bit worn since they stopped taking my credit card at the Yorkdale Mall.

I spend the evening lounging around the apartment, listening to some fifties jazz—the only time humans got music right, in my opinion—and get ready. I’m perpetually twenty-five with knockers cinched high, midriff showing, tight pants, and dramatic makeup. Oh, yes, I’m sending all the right signals, and I’ve not even used my power yet.

When I get to the bar, I waltz around the line, give the bouncer a wave, and saunter inside. Some overmakeupped harlots in line bitch noisily, but I ignore them. I’ve been frequenting this place far longer than any of these newborns, and I’ve got connections. Lines are beneath me.

The place is packed, the music is loud and thumping, and sex pheromones cloy the air. I breathe in and smile. Sometimes when I think I’m hungry, the smell alone is enough to tide me over for a few weeks. I scout the place out, elbowing my way past trashily dressed girls and men who’ve loosened their ties and unbuttoned the top button. Most of the suit jackets have already been discarded—good luck finding those again, boys.

What am I in the mood for? Lately it’s been investment bankers, self-proclaimed playboys who think they’re here to dupe a girl into a one-night stand, oblivious to how females actually work. Several are already on the dance floor, with more along the side, sipping their drinks. Salty sweat wars with the pheromones, churning up a humid brine that reminds me of my ocean days.

I spot the one I want.

It’s dark except for the strobe light bouncing in time to the music, but I can tell his eyes are liquid brown with thick eyelashes the envy of every girl here. He’s got a second-day beard thing going on, which I’m sure isn’t an accident. It’s part of his bad boy exterior.

I move closer.

He’s grinding against some girl with an already-fading tramp stamp. I sidle up behind them, swaying in time for the music, and lean in to sing in his ear. In a moment, he’ll cock his head to the side, turn around, and start dancing with me, previous slut forgotten. Within an hour, we’ll be back at my place, screwing. And then, dinner.

I open my mouth, but before any sound has a chance to escape, a voice cuts through the pounding bass.

“Ryleeeeaaaa!”

The only creature able to perform such a feat is another siren. I whirl around, barely keeping my second set of razor teeth from popping out in frustration.

Three dancing people away is Felola, dressed in an ill-fitting shirt that barely reveals her cleavage, the soccer mom’s equivalent of club wear. Behind her are a half dozen sisters, hands on hips, frowns on faces. They’re all wearing glamours that make them appear fifteen years my senior. It’s disgusting.

The girl grinding on my guy gives me an ugly look and dances him away. He’s oblivious to what transpired.

I roll my eyes, making sure every single one of them can see the childish gesture—I’m going for a poetic symmetry there, since they’re the ones being childish. Stalking through the crowd, I shove aside a couple dancers. One falls, but I don’t care.

“What the hell are you guys doing here? Isn’t it past your bedtimes?”

Fel smirks. “You’re so predictable. Everyone knows this is your favorite spot.”

Ugh. She’s right. She completely manipulated me into coming here. But now that I’ve seen my choice of meat, I’m not leaving. Whatever else happens tonight, I’m having him, if only just to prove I can. “Go away. I’m hunting.”

My sisters jut their heads and re-cross their arms. “Yeah, we’re not letting you do that,” says Fel.

Our screeching is mostly beyond human hearing, but one or two are giving us odd looks. I gesture to the bathroom, and we make our way through the crowd.

Inside, the blaring music is muffled. I glare at them as they file in.

“You can just pack up your little tails, throw your droopy boobs over your shoulders, and leave,” I say. “I have a craving for overpaid banker, and I’m not leaving here without one.”

“Oh, shove off, Ry,” says Fel. “That is so passe. When’re you going to settle down like the rest of us?”

“Never.”

She steps forward, and the others rally behind her, scuttling across the bathroom tile like crabs. “You’re putting the rest of us in danger, you know.”

“What?” The angry look melts from my face, and I renew it with vigor. I don’t want her knowing she surprised me.

“You’ve been wearing that face for, what, seventy years now? Then you go on television, flaunting your—” Fel does air quotes, “—‘youthful good looks.’ Someone’s going to notice, if they haven’t already.”

My face heats. “So what? This has nothing to do with you.”

“This isn’t the Dark Ages anymore. There are records. I’ve been trying to get our names erased from the register of that university we went to, but I can’t. I don’t have the connections.”

That was back in the ‘60s, and we haven’t changed our looks or names—except for their old lady glamours, which are still too young for the age those transcripts would show. As much as I hate to admit it, she has a point.

Fel’s expression is now concerned. But then one of the others speaks up. I don’t really know her; we’ve never hit it off. Perhaps that’s why she thinks she needs to contribute. With a condescending tone. Since that’s definitely useful. “The time of loose morals is past. If you control your cravings, you’ll find peace. I’ve been attending a church near—”

My face heats. “You want me to find Jesus? That’s absurd. I refuse to believe none of you are jonesing for your next hit of human flesh.”

Fel gives a sidelong glance at the woman who interrupted. “We’ve all been there, and we all know what human flesh tastes like…” A toilet flushes. It’s one of those automatic ones. The girl inside whimpers but doesn’t come out. Fel doesn’t react, just keeps going. “… and we can all tell you that finding a companion and settling down is much more satisfying than continuing this lifestyle.”

And now the lecturing tone is back. This isn’t about our safety. It’s about Fel getting her way again. Like always. “I don’t want to find a companion.” I spit the words out like a stray bit of seaweed caught in my mouth. “I want to eat men, not make love to them.”

“Then find yourself a woman,” says church-girl, who just won’t shut up. “We’ve been watching you for a while now, and—”

Fel shuts her up with a glare. “What did I say about speaking?”

“You’ve been watching me?” I say.

“It was only prudent,” says Fel. “You’ve become a liability. Forty-eight notifications last night at 2 a.m. is just the kind of indiscreet nonsense that could get us all in trouble.” So much for hoping she hadn’t noticed my drunken—tipsy—nostalgia. “You need to understand how important this is. To all of us. We can’t let you continue.”

“Oh you can’t, can you?” They’re all missing the point, and the idea that I might lose eyelash boy is making me cranky. Why did I even agree to this little meet-and-greet? I’m done being polite.

Before they realize what I’m doing, I center myself. I reach deep inside. At the same time that my mouth opens, the sound is already coming out. I sing a song for them all, but Fel especially.

Surprise registers first, then rage, then starry, moonstruck love. I sing something mournful, appropriate to the waste they’ve made of their lives. The door swings open, and a human female comes in, reaching into her bra for a lipstick tube that stops midair. Rather than focusing on the seven of my sisters—too much work—I spread a wide net, casting it in front of me. So the human smiles, everyone sways in time with the dirge, and I finish my song.

“Go home,” I tell my sisters, though the human female will also comply. “Make love to your husbands and forget about me.”

The last won’t stick. They’ll be halfway there when they realize what happened. The girl who heard me will never remember this night, but the sirens, well, soon they’ll be pissed.

I leave them behind and go find the juicy man candy that’s got his tongue stuck down the throat of the girl he’s been dancing with. I don’t hold back, and within seconds, he’s in my arms, helpless under my spell.

But his kisses are bitter, and I don’t enjoy the sex like I usually do. I keep thinking of Fel—and not remembering our previous romps to keep going like I have before. When I put on my siren face, it’s half-hearted. Even the surge of energy that comes from the boy’s terror is muffled. My razor-sharp teeth come out, and I bite into him half-heartedly, wishing for the good old days.

A half century with the same twenty-year-old face isn’t going to matter if I can’t pay for a place to live. But even without money problems, I like being a siren. Always have. Always will.

Everything before the fifteenth century is hazy—don’t ask me about my childhood because I don’t even know what continent I was born near—but my memories of luring seafarers to their doom in the eighteenth century with Fel is as bright as a newly minted penny.

Those were the days, back when men knew we existed. Back when we were feared. Back when we lazed about in the sun all day in human form and swam around the ocean all night in mermaid form. My most vivid memories are waking to Fel standing over me, bronze and glistening in the morning light, holding the hands of a sailor she’d seduced. Hands have always been my favorite. Not only are they succulent, but they tell the former owner’s story. We’d share them, guessing at who that person was.

We threw some wild parties back then, too. Men nowadays would give their left arm to see what we sirens did to one another when the booze got flowing. And if we’d just dined on a ship of juicy humans? Yeah, we could have had our own Vegas show as contortionists.

Fel and the girls went soft well before that pop culture book introduced the concept of “good” vampires that eat livestock and fall in love with teenage girls. Maybe a century before that, give or take. Time starts to lose meaning when you’re as old as we.

Some of us have died since then, but it’s mostly suicides from boredom with the new world. In fact, I’m the only one left who craves the old days. The rest of them either killed themselves or, as they claim, “integrated” into human society. The ridiculous thing is that pretty much the only way for us to die is to either be swallowed by a gigantic whale and slowly digested until there’s nothing left, or, yes, of course, be killed by one of our own.

Anyway, living out in the middle of the ocean got boring, especially now that our heyday is over. The problem was that we went through a phase in the late nineteenth century when a bunch of us lived in communes and swore off seducing humans. When the hunger came, we’d hunt purely for meat rather than sex, but it wasn’t with the excess of the previous century. I never meant it to be permanent since I enjoy the seduction, but some—okay, most—of my sisters disagree.

I’m losing myself in self-pity, and it’s pathetic. Again I wish for a deity to implore to curse my boring, self-righteous sisters. Alas, I have none, and I finish my meal silently, bitterly. Disposing of the body is more chore than usual, the hands taste like feet, and I sleep fitfully.

#

I expect my phone to ring off the hook, first Fel, then whomever she decides to sic on me from the old gang, but all weekend is disturbingly quiet. The smell of blood hangs in the air as I slither from living room to bedroom, digesting, but it doesn’t satisfy me like usual. Instead, it turns my stomach and makes me wish again that I hadn’t gone to the bar last night.

None of them understand. This is our birthright. Just because humans think and feel doesn’t mean they’re any less prey. Would they stop eating cows if they knew the cows could write poetry? Well, maybe some of them they would, but some of them wouldn’t, and that doesn’t make them bad. It makes them realistic.

Monday morning is dreary, an unexpected cold day in the middle of June, but that’s the nature of the weather here. I like it because being next to a Great Lake reminds me of the storms that used to blow in unannounced on the island we inhabited. But today, the cold is too much for my delicate siren skin, and I shiver underneath a sweater in my office.

When the phone finally rings, I nearly jump out of my chair. It’s my big client.

“Hi, Ry,” he says. “Let me get right to it.”

I’m not going to like this.

“I sent your proposal to the execs. They looked at it over the weekend, but they’re concerned about your company. You’re a one-man operation. We’ve decided to go with someone else.”

Frustrated, I throw down my pen. “I understand. If I may ask, what company is it?”

“I’m not supposed to say.”

I contemplate attempting a siren song over the phone, but in my experience, those are less than successful. Something to do with notes too high for human ears, which the receiver either doesn’t pick up or the speaker doesn’t put out.

“All right, you twisted my arm.” He laughs, though I hadn’t said anything. John and I have a repartee going on; I should have expected that he would tell me. “It’s Ophelia Unlimited.”

I blink. “Wait, they’re doing web design now?”

“They just branched into it. We’re their first client, but they’ve been so successful with their mobile apps that my boss wants to take this chance. There’s some bigwig over there that’s promised to hold our hands through the entire project.”

“What’s the bigwig’s name?” I know, but I have to ask.

“Uh, Felicia Smith? No, something strange, like Felocia? Fel… something…”

Felola. Felola Smith, Vice President, Client Management, of Ophelia, Unlimited.

I say, “I’m sorry to cut you off like this, but I need to go.”

“Okay, but I owe you lunch. I’m sorry I couldn’t push this through for you.”

“Sure, let’s meet next Thursday.” He’s sweet, and I don’t want to alienate him, although it will be a long time before their company is looking for a new web design company. Long enough that I’ll be in a box under a railroad bridge well before then. Unless, of course, I can sabotage Fel’s plan, which isn’t likely. Their apps are ironclad, with gorgeous lines and beautiful artwork. The only company that could do better in this city, is, well, mine—though no one wants to take a chance on a single woman business owner. Thus the mire I find myself in.

“Sounds good. Talk to you later.”

“Bye.” I push the receiver button, let it go, and dial Fel’s work number.

“Ophelia Unlimited. This is Felola Smith speaking.”

“How dare you?” I hiss—a literal hiss. Sometimes my aqueous background comes through.

“Who is this?” she lilts.

“Don’t give me that turtle shit, Fel, you know very well who this is. What do you think you’re doing?”

“Oh, Ry, good to talk to you. It was lovely to see you the other day. We’ll have to do it again sometime.”

I’m out of anything useful, so I start getting nasty. “You’re worthless piece of sun-soaked seaweed sometimes, you know that, Fel? What did you do, wave some free Leafs tickets under their noses?”

“Season passes.”

I gasp. “You dirty whale lover.”

“What did you expect me to do? You’re not listening. I told you that we couldn’t let you continue like this.”

“By sabotaging my livelihood, so now I can’t put food on the table? Brilliant plan.” The song is welling up inside me. I want to start singing, but I’m so upset that if I do, I’ll probably shatter the glass window beside my door. That’s not a way to stay under the radar. “You know this makes me more likely to go hunting, not less.”

She clucks her tongue like the mother hen she’s become, and I want to leap through my thirty-fourth story window and fly the four blocks between us. But, alas, I am the aquatic, not avian siren, so I’d flop down to earth like a fish out of water. She says, “Consider this a warning shot across your bow.” The phone goes dead.

Oh. No. She. Didn’t.

This is more than wearing our names and glamours too long in modern society. This is about me. Remember I said we go way back? My first clear memory is her telling me what to do. She spent most of our lives together ordering me around. Now that I’m not jumping when she says, “Jump,” she’s got her coconut bra in a twist. I’m the last holdout, and she’s pissed that she can’t control me anymore.

07siren2So I do what any sane and rational sentient being would do. I grab a half dozen bottles of water, hop on the Lakeshore East train, and, while gazing at the lake on my way out to her suburb, down all six of them. A cab takes me from the train stop to her house. I spend ten minutes turning completely aqueous, ooze under the back door, and head to the bathtub. A long soak gives me plenty of time to absorb the remaining water I need for the transformation.

When the garage door opens, I plop my ass on the sofa, transform to mermaid, and spread my arms across the back cushions. When she walks in, I’m tapping my tail in time to a song I just wrote called “Fel’s Gonna Hate This.”

“What the Green Mother are you doing here?” she shrieks.

I smile up at her and squelch against the hardwood floor where I’ve dripped several puddles. “I just wanted to see how the other half lives. So suburban out here. I much prefer downtown.”

She looks over her shoulder like her husband is going to come waltzing in any minute, which was exactly what I was hoping for. “This isn’t funny.”

“It kind of is. I mean, here you are, pretending to be all human and whatnot—with fake crow’s feet and I’ve been meaning to ask about that mole, gross—and you’re actually a man-eating monster. I personally think that’s something a guy should know about his wife.”

She’s standing there, keys in hand, one side of the collar of her cheap jacket popped up behind her. She opens her mouth, but I’m prepared.

Our songs burst forth at the same time. Mine’s something old, the first one she ever taught me. It’s not as sad as the one from last night, but it’s about a girl that falls in love with a manatee that drifts out to sea never to be seen again. Sad enough.

Hers, though, is stupid. She’s amalgamated the latest pop hit with a drinking song we chanted back during the time we were partying. The words are modern but the tune is timeless, and the force of nostalgia hits me hard enough to almost make me stop singing.

But I don’t. I keep going, crescendoing into the chorus.

We’re both losing it, though. The spells we’re weaving are distracting, and I don’t know if I can hold out long enough. I’d chosen the most complex lyrics—I could drop them to just belt out the melody, but it wouldn’t be as effective. She’d chosen the most difficult mash-up—remembering the words against the backdrop of another song.

I’m starting to feel good-natured affection toward her. Sure, we’d fought, but does that mean we have to be enemies? We’ve been friends forever, and her smiling face is the first clear thing I remember. What had we been arguing about anyway? Something ridiculous.

Her voice is softening, too. She’s looking contemplative as she sings.

And then her cell phone rings, a Bach melody that breaks our songs.

I’m lucky; I hit a high note and sustaining it carries me through the beginning of the ringtone. Fel scrabbles at her jacket, attempting to continue while turning the offending machine off. It’s too late, though, and she falters. As my song winds on, hers stops abruptly. All my hatred comes crashing back and I remember why I’m there.

Her face is awe-struck, wide-eyed and holding hints of the beautiful siren she used to be before she chose the old-person glamour. She’s staring into my face with love. “Oh, Ry, I’m sorry we fought. Can you ever forgive me?”

And I have her. I don’t have to sing another note.

Several options lay before me. I could let her go. I could order her to convince the execs at that company to give me their business. I could demand she walk away, in hopes that when the enchantment wears off, she’ll decide this little spat isn’t worth it.

That’s what a human would do.

But I’m not human.

Instead, I shift from mermaid form into human form, naked and dripping wet in the middle of her living room. I consider what it means to be a siren, what it means to have left the ocean behind. Here, we scrape out a meager living, trying to become something that we aren’t. Her home surrounds her with human memorabilia, from the signed baseball bat over the couch to the television set mounted on the wall to the human food stinking up the fridge.

She said she was sad for me—but it’s me who is sad for her.

She’s forgotten what it means to be sirens. They’ve all forgotten what it means to be sirens.

We’re the monsters beneath the waves, the carnivores that eat the wayward traveler. Something to be feared, something to be remembered. And we’ve lost that. We’ve all lost that.

I have to do something to make them all remember.

As she reaches out to me, I put on my siren face and bare my second teeth. Fear crosses that star-struck countenance, then terror, then outright horror.

As I bite into her neck, she screams, shattering every glass in her house.

But I don’t stop. No, I keep going, until I’ve devoured every bit of her and can barely move. Then I lick up the blood on the floor.

I take a picture with her phone, capturing the smile on my face ringed with monstrous teeth, the blood on my nose, and my horribly distended torso. I send it out to all the sisters in her phone book—no message, just the picture. They’ll know what it means.

I slither out the door, licking the taste of my once and former friend from my lips. To disguise how bloated I am, I force a glamour over myself until I’m at the lake. It’s been a while since I’ve been this full. I like this feeling. Maybe I’ll get a taste for man again tomorrow, but today, I enjoy the remnants of siren blood.

Tomorrow, I’ll deal with changing my name, my face, everything about me. But that’s a human concern, and I’m not thinking like a human now. I’m thinking like a siren, a killer, a monster from the deeps, feared by all.

I slide into the lake water and swim until the full moon rises, splashing in mermaid form, breathing in the humidity, digesting Felola, and remembering what it means to be a siren.

Problem solved. Maybe nostalgic curiosity isn’t so bad after all.

 


L. Saboviec’s fiction has appeared in AE, Grievous Angel, and now EGM Speculate!, and her debut novel received an honorable mention in the 23rd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. She grew up in small-town Iowa but emigrated for her Canadian husband. They live in a Toronto suburb with their two-year-old daughter. You can find out more about her work at http://www.saboviec.com/




21
Nov

“Cleanup in Aisle Eight” by Josh Vogt

Anji planted her mop like a spear and looked up at the grocery store manager. She tried to envision herself as a warrior preparing to stride onto the field of battle. It didn’t help that the manager loomed over her mousey figure the way a siege tower might right before smashing a lone foot soldier into the mud.

The manager pulled a full-face squint that made it look like someone had stapled one of his eyes shut.

“You’re the replacement janitor?” he asked.

Anji drew up to her formidable four-foot eight. She’d considered spiking her short black hair to add an inch or two, but figured it’d just make her look like one of those creepy dashboard trolls. Besides, with her pale complexion and dark purple lipstick, she pulled off the goth pixie look a lot better than troll.

Chin lifted, she smiled broadly. “Yes, sir. Here to keep your store clean and safe from every speck of dirt or germ that tries to sneak in.”

He rumbled a laugh. “Hun, I’ve seen germs that could beat you up and use you as a mop.”

Anji reminded herself not to growl at the nice man. “I can handle myself, sir.”

He tapped his badge, which read Marvin Snokesman. “Call me Marv. Or Mr. Snokesman. Or Snokes, like most of my team does behind my back. Just never ‘sir.’”

She indicated the name threaded in green on the breast pocket of her purple janitorial jumpsuit. “Anji.”

“Anji what?”

“The Janitor.” She hitched her shoulders back, proud to name herself among the ranks of the Cleaners. This would be her first solo job, and she was determined not to foul it up.

Marv’s frown almost hid his bottom lip. He shrugged, not picking up on the capital J. “Suit yourself. I’ll show you where Jerry kept his gear and you can get to work.”

She nodded over at the janitorial cart she’d hauled in from her van. “No worries. I brought my own supplies.”

“That going to cost me extra?”

“Nope. All part of the service.”

“Hm.”

He studied her cart as if wondering how she’d managed to move it all by her teeny lonesome. Wheels and physics, of course. Thank Purity for wheels. They made so many things easier.

As his attention shifted, she woke the slightest bit of Pure energies within herself and cast about for any sense of Corruption in the area.

She murmured under her breath. “What kind of Scum could be causing trouble here?”

Marv came across normal enough, though his personal hygiene could’ve used a boost, as suggested by untrimmed fingernails and several yellow stains on his white shirt. He probably considered “All Employees Must Wash Hands” signs to be a suggestion rather than a rule.

She studied the store, comparing reality to the blueprint she’d memorized before reporting in. One more branch of a national brand, it somehow offered wide aisles and ceilings while still funneling people through carefully arranged paths crammed with the latest deals and fad foods. Bright lights glinted off tile and faux-wood flooring, while surfaces gleamed with brushed nickel and woodsy accents in an unlikely effort to create a homey feeling. It came across more like a mega-church devoted to the gods of munchies, nutritional supplements, and household supplies, with tithes and offerings laid on the altar of the cash registers.

At this late hour, only a couple of shoppers perused the shelves, while several staff in white shirts and green vests chatted over at the checkouts lines. Nobody gave off skeevy vibes to Anji, but she couldn’t discount an employee being the source of the trouble she’d been sent to sniff out.

She looked back to her temporary supervisor. “Marv?”

“What?”

“This is a twenty-four hour grocery, right?”

“What clued you in? The Open 24 Hours neon sign out front?”

Okay. So maybe he deserved a growl or two. She kept her smile intact, even though her cheek muscles felt pinned in place.

“Just wanted to make sure so I don’t bust out anything that would bother customers too much.” That and she’d need to keep any displays of power subtle to avoid freaking people out. Company policy discouraged causing public freakouts. “So Jerry’s your usual guy? He out sick? Catch that bug going around?”

Marv shrugged. “Something’s got him puking his guts out, that’s for sure. Last we talked, he sounded like his lungs and stomach were having a cage match.”

Anji winced. “Any other of your team get sick lately? Or acting weird? Any new hires?”

He gave her an odd look. “You a janitor or a journalist?”

Clearing her throat, Anji forced a perky smile. “Right. Guess I should get at it.”

He waved toward the produce section at the far end. “Jerry usually started there and worked to the other side. He’d wrap up in the employee areas.” Marv pointed at the back, where wide swinging doors were marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. “There’s coffee in the break room, if you’re brave enough, and you get a half hour break. I’ll be in my office, so if anything comes up, just poke your head in.”

At her nod, he plodded off to a door over in the corner of the floral section.

Once sure no one stood within earshot, Anji took the radio off her belt and signaled HQ.

A voice crackled from the speaker. “This is dispatch. Janitor Anji, what’s your status?”

“I’m in,” she whispered. “Going to be actively scanning for anything suspicious while I work.”

“Noted. As a preemptive measure, we’ve scrambled their security cameras for the duration of your shift. However, inform us the instant you detect any Scum presence so we can send in backup. Remember, you are there for scouting purposes only.”

Anji frowned. Why’d they have to assume she’d need backup? She was a big girl…in a metaphorical sense, at least.

“Any idea what sort of Scum we’re dealing with?”

“Unclear. We’ve been analyzing reports from the other grocery stores that have experienced cases of food poisoning and contaminated goods. However, a wide variety of Scum could be responsible, and there’s always the possibility a human servant of Corruption is simply using mundane methods to taint the wares. Be ready for anything.”

Anji grinned fiercely. Oh, she’d been ready for this for a long time.

She scooted her cart into a corner where it wouldn’t be in the way, but stayed readily available if she needed a particular tool. She unhooked a short, flat-brush broom and eyed the area for the messiest spot to begin. Selecting a corner over by the organic veggie lineup—complete with the occasional fake lightning and thunderstorm as nozzles sprayed mist around—she started sweeping.

As she did, she poured a trickle of power down through the broom, activating its chanted nature. Subtle pulses rippled up from the brush and made the handle vibrate against her palms in seemingly random intervals. Her eyes half-shut as the actual labor continued through muscle memory while she focused on interpreting the feedback. As the broom gathered piles of dust and hair and other discarded scraps, she started to form mental images and more ephemeral sensations from the residue.

06cleanup1Here, someone had stood in front of the avocados in muddy construction boots. There, a baby had crawled on the floor, weaving a line of tiny-yet-grubby handprints until they suddenly disappeared—likely when the kid’s mother scooped it up. And over here…oh, for Purity’s sake. Someone had brought a dog into the store and either didn’t notice when it left a little puddle of piss or didn’t care.

Anji smiled to herself as she deciphered the pings and pulses her chanted broom provided. Sweeping sonar. A little trick she’d perfected that few other Cleaners managed. Some of her coworkers scoffed at the need for any sort of dirt divination, but she figured they were just jealous that they couldn’t pull it off like she did.

She continued analyzing recent traffic through the area, seeking anything unusual or tainted by Corruption. She picked up on plenty of scampering kids, one person who’d tracked so much shoe polish they might as well have bathed in the stuff, and at least one rodent scampering along under a counter. Oh, Marv would not be happy to know he had a mouse in the house.

Moving over to an open fridge containing enough veggie and fruit smoothies to feed an invading army of vegans, she started to sweep around the corner and—

FILTH!

The sense of decay and putrescence rammed into her frontal lobes so hard her brain quivered and tried to retreat into a dark corner of her skull. She gasped and braced against the mop, fighting against retching.

On recovering, she realized she’d become so wrapped up in studying the area, she’d overlooked a new shopper. The person shuffled through the produce section—a stooped man with scraggly brown hair that hid most of his face, while a grease-stained and muck-encrusted woolen coat hid his body. Even across the distance, the sour reek of unwashed body smacked her nose around and demanded its lunch money.

He didn’t seem to have noticed her as he limped along, mumbling to himself. Anji hunched in on herself, still pretending to sweep. Just a harmless janitor doing her job. Pay no attention, please.

The man approached the tomato display and leaned against it as if drunk. Anji’s eyes narrowed as he reached out trembling hands, with long, yellow nails that would’ve sent any manicurist fleeing in terror.

He patted over the tomatoes, touching every one within reach.

Anji’s mind raced. What was he doing? Casting some sort of Scum spell to spoil the fruit? Leaving a layer of supernatural grime behind that couldn’t be washed away? She had to stop this. HQ had said to call for backup, but with the Scum already in action, they might arrive too late to catch him. It was up to her.

Broom in one hand, she plucked the spray bottle from her work belt. So armed, she marched up behind the guy and planted her boots.

“Hey, buddy.”

With a choked snort, he whirled, hands raised. He stared at her with bloodshot, jaundiced eyes. The reek of his breath hit her like he’d been sucking on rotted fish heads all day.

Strange, though. Aside from his generally unwashed state, she couldn’t sense any Corrupt energies emanating from him. Could some Scum hide their nature, even from the servants of Purity?

“Whaddya want?” he growled.

Anji leaned in, broom bristles aimed at his chest. “I know what you are. I know what you’re doing.”

He glanced around frantically, looking like Bigfoot cornered by a photojournalist. “I…I just wanna snack. Lemme ‘lone.”

“You aren’t going to get away with this,” she said. “I won’t let you.”

With a guttural chuff, he shoved at her. She snapped her broom up and blocked, but the blow knocked her back a few steps. By the time she recovered, he staggered toward the back of the store.

She aimed the spray bottle and pulled the trigger. A high-impact glob of water shot out and took him in the back. He hollered as he stumbled and crashed through a cardboard tower of pistachios. Reeling around, he fixed on her, expression crazed.

This time, he came straight at her, faster than expected. She fired another glob as he closed. It struck his chest and he flailed, but his momentum barreled him into her nonetheless. Anji’s back hit the floor with jarring force and both broom and bottle flew from her grasp.

“No!” Anji snatched at the bottle, but it soared away and smacked against the base of a large fruit display. The bottle’s plastic casing cracked—and the magically charged water within expanded with explosive force.

The display rocked. Toppled. Struck a couple displays beside it. Which also toppled into others, creating the healthiest domino effect the world had ever known.

An avalanche of oranges, apples, tomatoes, bananas, pineapples, and avocados careened across the floor, bouncing and rolling their way for freedom.

The man weaved on his feet, giggling maniacally.

“Snacks!” He grabbed a couple oranges and stuffed them in his jacket before racing off and out of the store.

 

#

 

Marv glared at Anji from across his desk. She sat in a chair opposite, hands clenched in her lap.

“Thirty years at this job,” he said, “and you start to think you’ve seen and heard it all.”

With his video feeds scrambled thanks to HQ’s interference, he’d had to rely on her story of a homeless man—which she realized far too late was all her target had been—going berserk and somehow overturning multiple displays before fleeing. Fortunately, one of the cashiers had spotted the man running out and recognized him as a vagrant who regularly loitered in the parking lot, which gave Anji’s tale a hint of credibility.

The store manager glowered for several minutes, his displeasure about as subtle as a brick hurled through a window. Finally, he sat back and crossed beefy arms.

“Exactly what were you trying to pull?”

Anji kept her back straight. “Just my weight, sir.”

“As if there’s much of that.”

She bowed her head to hide her glare. Why did so many big guys have to make jabs about their obvious size advantage? For her part, she refused to feel insecure about her conservative spatiality. After all, through countless bouts in the Cleaners’ sparring rings, she’d proven a well-placed squeegee could put down a bigger opponent every time.

Marv shook his head. “Not an hour that you’re here and I’ve got enough fruit rolling around I could use that section as a ball playpen.”

“Sorry, sir. I was just trying to do my job.”

“Since when does your job include ambushing customers?”

“It…it looked like he was stealing some food.” She shrugged. “I thought I could handle it. I approached him, but he just went crazy.”

“I bet you’ve taken a couple of self-defense classes and thought you could go all ninja on him, huh. Is that it?” He sighed. “We get snitchers in here all the time. So he would’ve taken a few apples. Big deal. You should’ve come and told me instead of trying to play My Little Batgirl.”

She winced. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I overstepped.”

“You’re here to clean up any messes, not make more of them.”

Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to meet his eyes. “I’ll help clean up the fruit displays.”

“No, you won’t. You’ve done enough to help.” Marv waved her out. “Go start working on the other end of the store. I’ll have my team handle it, since I can trust them to actually know what they’re doing. Going to take the rest of the night to get things fixed, and you better bet your ass I’ll be telling your boss about this.”

Head bowed, Anji sulked back to her cart and navigated through the fruit minefield. A couple employees stared at her while setting up folding warning signs to cordon off the disaster zone. Face burning, she pushed her gear along the main back aisle of the store.

Once her superiors heard of this, she’d be the laughingstock of HQ. She wouldn’t be allowed to scrub floors with anything more than a toothbrush. Why, they’d probably stick her on soap-carving duty for the rest of her life.

As she trundled along past the dairy aisle, a sudden wave of nausea made her gag. Eyes watering, body trembling, she pushed her cart off to the side and leaned against a cool freezer door. What…

Corruption. The sense of it grinding against her Pure energies was unmistakable. Just like before. Some manner of Scum actually lurked in the store. Anji had almost convinced herself she’d gotten a false positive off the homeless guy, but this confirmed her initial findings. Where did it originate? She needed eyes on the target before she reported in.

Straightening, she fixed on the meat and seafood counter just a couple aisles down. A door opened behind the counter, admitting the most corpulent man she’d ever seen. A bloodstained apron covered his store uniform and a fishnet cap stretched obscenely over a bush of curly black hair. Paying her no heed, the butcher pushed a rolling rack stacked with packaged meats around the front of the counter and down her way to an open-top display freezer.

Anji cringed at the waves of Corruption wafting off the…man? Creature?

He took a large steak off the rack. Before he placed it out for sale, though, he held it up and opened his mouth. A needlelike tongue shot out and penetrated the wrapping and meat. His body shuddered as if made of gelatin, and his throat flexed as he disgorged…something…into the meat.

Anji stared, aghast. Peering closer, she realized his body looked distended in spots to create his bulk, rather than from added weight—as if he’d been forced to take on this shape for some reason. She’d never even heard of this sort of Scum, but he had to be the source of the contaminated food. Without any idea of his nature or abilities, she was in way over her head. Time to call in the Cleaners cavalry.

As she reached for her radio, he chuckled and turned to look straight at her.

“Giving up already, little Cleaner?” He spoke as if his tongue had been put through a meat grinder.

She paused, finger on the radio button. “How do you know what I am?”

He gurgled in amusement. “I sensed you the moment you arrived. You think you’re the first Cleaner I’ve encountered? Though it’s amusing that they’d send such a weakling to deal with me.”

Anji took her hand off the radio to snatch a squeegee from her cart. She held it like a throwing star. “I’m not weak.”

Her mind helpfully suggested the image of a mouse squeaking dire threats at Godzilla. She banished the mental image, but couldn’t shed the feeling of termites gnawing their way along her spine, trying to undermine her determined posture.

“No, little Cleaner? Then why not indulge in a test of strength?” He flexed jiggling arms. “Your powers against mine. Winner take all.”

Scowling, she glanced around. No one in sight, and Marv had put most of his night skeleton crew to work on the fruit cleanup. If she made this quick, she could destroy the Scum and hopefully at least redeem herself in the eyes of upper management—plus prove she could handle being more than just a scout.

Or she could get herself popped faster than a soap bubble at a knitting convention.

Anji ground her teeth. She needed a brain with a better cheerleading section, that was for sure. If At First You Don’t Succeed, You’ll Probably Die didn’t make the best motivational slogan.

Grabbing her mop with her other hand, she dunked it into the bucket on the end of her cart. The smell of bleach filled the air as she thrust it at him like a sword.

“You don’t stand a chance, Scum.”

He grinned. “Excellent. Fresh meat is the best to spoil.”

At his first plodding step, she whipped the squeegee at him. It flew true, and its razor-sharp rubber edge struck him square in the belly. It sliced through the apron and disappeared into his gut, leaving nothing but a slice in the fabric to show its passing.

Growling low, Anji set the mop back in its slot and grabbed the handles of two plastic signs, each warning of the dangers of walking on wet floors. Holding these like batons, she waded in.

The chanted signs struck with the force of sledgehammers. Each slap sent shockwaves across his flab, rippling him from top to bottom. Yet the Scum took the hits while leering down at her, unmoved. Anji couldn’t even tell if he had bones.

One ham-sized hand caught a sign as it swung in, and she yelped as he yanked her up to his eye level. Dangling, Anji twisted, straining her shoulder and planting feet on his doughy chest for leverage.06cleanup2

His mouth opened, and the needlelike proboscis protruded.

“Not on a first date!” she cried.

She slammed a sign across his face, which snapped his head to the side. Letting go of the other sign, she dropped. An elephantine foot caught her in mid-air and threw her back against her cart. Gasping, she clambered to her feet. Every breath tore fire through her side. Cracked rib, perhaps.

She flung the other sign, which he slapped aside—to where it struck the rack he’d rolled out, bending one the stainless steel rods.

Anji grabbed her mop up again and charged, aiming to plunge it straight into his gullet and purge him from the inside-out. He grabbed the mop head, bleach water steaming against his palm, and wrenched it from her grasp. As she reeled, he gripped the handle in both hands and snapped the mop in half.

“Hey! That comes out of my paycheck!” Anji grabbed the bucket off her cart, spun full around, and sloshed the contents over his entire body.

The bleach water crackled and steamed on his skin, which blistered and blackened. Yet this only broadened his grin.

Anji clutched her side, wheezing. “Oh, for Purity’s sake. Now you’re just showing off.”

“Hardly.” He pulled a wad of his own melting flesh off and stuffed it in his mouth, chewing. “I’m just working up an appetite.”

“You know what else is good for that?” Anji asked. “Cardio.”

She turned and ran.

Yanking the radio off her belt, she signaled HQ. “This is Janitor Anji! I’m being attacked by an unknown Scum. Requesting backup. Repeat, I need a scrub-team here immediaagh!”

Something struck the back of her legs and sent her sprawling. Her radio skittered away under a shelf. Anji pushed up and looked back to see the broken halves of her mop, which the Scum had thrown to take her down.

Jumping to her feet, she frantically searched for options. She bit back the impulse to call for help, which would only put innocent lives at risk.

Then a desperate idea set her into a mad dash again. Heavy thumps signaled his following. Pumping her legs, she fought for every inch of a lead possible. She veered down one aisle, but halted halfway along, knowing she couldn’t let him get to the front of the store in this state.

Whirling, she took up a fighting stance. The Scum hove into view and plodded up to loom over her in the middle of the aisle.

Guttural laughter sent waves from his gut up to his quintuple chins.

“And now I feast, little Cleaner.”

“You’re right,” Anji said.

His bleach-burned face scrunched up in confusion at her admission of defeat.

She stood straight, chin up. “I am little.” She snapped her hands out, indicating the aisle they stood in. “And I am a Cleaner!” Another gesture above him. “And you should really be more careful where you stand.”

He looked up to the sign that read:

            Aisle 8 — Household Essentials & Cleaning Supplies

Along the whole row, hundreds of bottles and boxes of cleaning fluids and powders displayed in vibrant colors, interspersed with all manner of housecleaning tools.

She lunged to one side and grabbed a mop. She lunged to the other and snatched up a stainless steel bucket. Not chanted equipment, but it’d have to do. And most Scum would be hurt by cleaning solvents of any sort, like with the bleach.

Rumbling, he lumbered forward, mouth agape. She glimpsed an insectile form in the recesses of his throat, its eyes glittering, its chitinous body forming the illusion of a skull beneath the protective layers of skin.

Its proboscis aimed at her as she raced in…

And shoved the mop straight in to plug that maw. The creature moaned and grabbed at the mop handle. She let go and darted past. Once behind him, she leapt with all her might, bucket clasped in both hands.

The Scum yanked the mop free—and she slammed the bucket over his head. It wedged tight, covering him down to the neck. He reared and reached up to paw at her. She back-flipped off him and stuck the landing.

She snatched a metal-handled broom off the rack and charged back in. The clang of a dozen strikes against the bucket echoed along the aisle.

At last, the Scum fell to all fours, grotesque body jiggling and twitching all over, bucket still lodged on his head. He rolled onto his back and wrestled to work the bucket free.

Anji dropped the mop, grabbed a box of laundry detergent, and held it over the Scum’s head. Having worked with cleaning supplies all through training, she knew just where to grab and tear for maximum application.

The bucket popped off with a slurping noise. The Scum glared up at her, and that hideous mouth started to open once more, like the portal to a glottal Hell.

“I’m not usually one for fad diets,” she said, “but try to keep an open mind.”

She tore the box wide and dumped the contents straight into his mouth. The Scum quaked, and a keening noise rose from inside his body. Anji danced around him, snatching bottles and boxes, ripping and popping them open and pouring all manner of cleaning powders and fluids until a mound of sludge hid his entire head. At last, his body stopped thrashing, and whatever had been infesting him stopped its awful shrieking.

Anji stood over the body, barely able to believe it was over.

She looked up as Marv ran around the corner. The manager stumbled to a halt and gaped.

“What in the…” he breathed.

Her legs decided they were going on strike, and Anji sat hard on the floor. She waved. “Hey, Marv. Would you mind reporting me to my superiors? I think I should clock out early.”

A flash of light reflected off the ceiling from a few aisles over. Anji grinned. A glassway had just activated. HQ must’ve used one of the reflective freezer doors to send in the troops.

“Oh,” she said. “Never mind. They’re already here.”

Moments later, six Cleaners appeared, three on either end of the aisle. They wielded everything from mops to brooms to feather dusters to plungers—though their faces bore the same grim expression.

The next hour held a flurry of activity as the scrub-team set about wiping the whole store of any evidence regarding the Scum and ensuing battle. The Cleaners closed down the place—for “emergency maintenance”—and applied both magical and mundane sanitation measures to the scene. Any employees were rounded up, ensured this had all been either a security test or elaborate prank, and that their feedback needed to be recorded.

They also got the Scum’s body sealed in a plus-plus-plus-plus-sized garbage bag, zip-tied up by the head.

Anji spent most of the time recounting her struggle to an older maid, who headed up the squad. The maid radioed the details to HQ and, once done, gave Anji a rundown of their reply.

“From what we can tell,” the maid said, “it’s a type of Scum we haven’t dealt with before. Our best guess right now is it seems to create contaminated food, and then somehow feeds off the illness that causes in humans. It also possibly uses spoiled meats to spawn more of its kind. We’ll have to check up on the food poisoning cases that drew our attention to this in the first place; make sure they’re not infected.”

Anji fought back a grin, feeling tall enough to see the curvature of the Earth. “Everything’s going to be okay here, then?”

The maid nodded and surveyed the scene as her crew finished tidying up. “We’ve got a plumber snaking out any damning memories, and their regular janitor should be back on his feet soon. No permanent harm done. However, there is one final matter to deal with. Your overall performance.”

Anji tensed. What had she missed? What could she have done better?

Then the maid smiled. “It’s rare to see a Cleaner so fresh to the field bring as much tenacity and ingenuity as you’ve shown tonight. In fact, I’ve already got a new job in mind for you—another solo assignment looking into a nasty flu outbreak at a local high school. We suspect more Scum at work.” She arched an eyebrow. “If you feel up to it, that is.”

Brimming with gleeful ferocity, Anji loosed her grin at last. “I’m going to need a new mop.”

 

Author and editor Josh Vogt’s work ranges across fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, is a tie-in to the Pathfinder roleplaying game. WordFire Press launched his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a member of SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and is also a Scribe Award and Compton Crook Award finalist. Find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt. He is made out of meat.




1
Nov

EXPLORE THE STAR REALMS UNIVERSE WITH EVIL GIRLFRIEND MEDIA AND WHITE WIZARD GAMES.

Evil Girlfriend Media paired with White Wizard Games for an exciting new adventure in the Star Realms universe written by Jon Del Arroz.

Evil Girlfriend Media is excited to announce a new way to enjoy a beloved space game from White Wizard Games. The Star Realms universe has been novelized by Evil Girlfriend Media and is now available for pre-order!

star-realms-rescue-run-coverFrom the novel: The door terminal chirped an affirmative sound, sliding open. “Not a long wait at all,” Joan said to herself as much as her AI, then she stepped inside. Breaking and entering had been as easy as tapping the autopilot function on her ship. The mission couldn’t possibly go better, and she’d soon have a pile of credits for her efforts.
Dim lights reflected off the metallic flooring of the room, highlighting a single work console, two chairs and backup systems lining the wall. The place was as dreary as any station office Joan had visited before. “Can you brighten up the room? I can hardly see,” Joan said.

G.O.D., now fully integrated with Balibran Station’s nets, raised the lighting to the corridor’s level. At that same moment, Joan heard the unmistakable guzzah of a phase pistol readying a charge. She spun to see two Star Empire soldiers in riot gear pointing their weapons at her chest.
“Aw, scrap it, don’t sh—” her words cut short as the pulse beams engulfed her nerves, blasting pain through every inch of her body. She tried to scream, but her vocal cords tightened in shock. Paralyzed, the last thing Joan heard was the thud of her own body hitting the metal-plated floor. The room spun into a cloud of darkness.

14971700_10206492076733893_1935306410_oJon Del Arroz, first to pilot this adventure, is a science fiction and fantasy author and editor of several published short stories, including much of the flavor for the Weird West expandable card game, Doomtown: Reloaded. The novelization of Star Realms marks his debut for published novels. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two sons. “Star Realms is one of my all time favorite games and a large part of that is due to its classic Military Science Fiction theme. I’m extremely excited to expand upon the game’s many worlds and can think of no better publisher to do that with than Evil Girlfriend Media.”

star-realms-logo-whiteStar Realms was White Wizard’s runaway hit of 2014, winning SXSW Tabletop Game of the Year, 4 BoardGameGeek Golden Geek Awards, 2 Dice Tower Awards and more. Star Realms is a spaceship combat deckbuilding game designed by Magic Pro Tour Champions and Hall of Famers Darwin Kastle and Rob Dougherty (developer and cofounder of the Ascension Deckbuilding Game). Star Realms is a physical card game and is available as a digital app at starrealms.com.

CEO, Rob Dougherty has this to say about the new Star Realms series. “The universe of Star Realms is super cool. I love the history of the expansion of the human race by the corporations, the rebellions on the fringe that led to the Star Empire, the first contact with aliens that led to The Blob, and the subsequent creation of The Machine Cult. We’ve got this really fascinating arc of what’s happening to humanity but we don’t have it on the human scale detail about what it’s like for a person to live in any of these societies. I’m really looking forward to seeing the history of the Star Realms universe fleshed out on a human level. Can’t wait to read the book, and I expect it will be the first of many for the thousands of Star Realms fans out there!”

“I’ve long been a big fan of epic science fiction and space opera. I think Jon’s entry into this realm is an excellent and compelling read. Fans of the Star Realms deckbuilding game will appreciate this look into the Star Realms universe, with its fast-paced story and intriguing characters. From his strong female lead to her amusing AI, I think Star Realms fans and sci-fi fans in general will be eager for Jon to write a sequel.” ~Darwin Kastle, Star Realms creator

EGM_logoEvil Girlfriend Media is a young and upcoming publisher that focuses on horror, dark fantasy and sci-fi. With titles like RACHEL, Apocalypse Girl Dreaming and Murder Girls they have a proven track record for quality publications. Expect this tie in novel to be nothing less than out of this world.

Katie Cord, president of EGM says, “Evil Girlfriend Media is excited to partner with White Wizard Games to novelize, Star Realms. We hope this book by debut author Jon Del Arroz is the first of many to come. Evil Girlfriend Media is and has always been passionate about creating high quality, innovative works in publishing. And who doesn’t love an awesome sci-fi book?”

The Star Realms novel is scheduled to launch November 15th, 2016. Preorder opens on November 1 at http://www.evilgirlfriendmedia.com/books/star-realms-rescue-run/

To learn more about Jon Del Arroz, you can follow him on his blog, or Facebook page.
Visit EGM’s home page for information on new releases and our new EGM Speculate! Stories released every month—or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

For additional information on Star Realms visit the web page, Facebook or Twitter.




21
Oct

“The Periscope” by Drew Williams

Speculate_blogThe train rattles around me. The sound is constant, unending. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. I’m not. I’d always found something vaguely funereal about the noise; like Jacob Marley’s chains clanking in Scrooge’s bedroom. I remember wondering if I was the last person alive who knew that story. For a moment, the thought made me feel unaccountably guilty. Mainly because I didn’t know it all that well; I might be the last person alive who knew about Scrooge’s three ghosts, but I couldn’t name his childhood sweetheart. Had she died? Was that why he was so miserable? I couldn’t remember at all.

I was the last person alive who remembered a Christmas Carol, and I was bad at it.

I should probably write it down. I did have that in my mobile prison; I had a typewriter. An old manual one with plenty of ink cartridges and plenty of paper. At first, I’d kept a diary, but there just wasn’t much to say.

 

Guess wildly at the date: diary entry # whatever. Today the train kept moving. I took my meals from a slot in the door again. For roughly an hour this morning—at least, shortly after I woke, which I guess qualifies it as morning—the quality of light coming through the angled window was more blue than usual, almost crepuscular. After that, it went back to being gray. During my two hours of exposure to the periscope, there was no sign of that blue light, nor of any survivors. When my time was up, I spent three hours trying to remember the name of young Ebenezer’s fiancé. Eliza? Paige? Beatrice? No, I think Beatrice is Poe. Maybe Dante.

 

My days were much the same, is my point. Still, that’s why I’ve started this document: not a diary, exactly, but more a… story. A chronicle, if you will. My life on the train. If we succeed and the world ever returns to normal, or at least gets a new beginning, it would be nice if someone remembered the small part I played in it all. So, where to begin?

The story of how I’d wound up in this train car, partially a prisoner, partially an honored guest, partially a kind of lab rat, was a long, involved one, and the particulars don’t really matter anymore. Not particularly, at any rate. That’s… that’s kind of a joke.

Suffice it to say the world had gone to hell, very quickly. Who was to blame? What, exactly, happened? How many had died, how quickly, in how much agony? I wasn’t sure. The first, I simply boiled down to ‘those in power,’ because even if they weren’t to blame directly, they damned sure should have stopped it. The answer to the second I shied away from even attempting to answer—if I had to refer to the terrible days before the train at all, I thought of them as ‘the coming of the plague,’ but that wasn’t what it had been, not really. The answer to the third was too big to contemplate without weeping.

How had I wound up on the train? That was a little easier. The world made people mad, you see. Just being out in it did. There’s a simple answer, or at least a simple statement. Not all people, but most people.

I wasn’t one of them, so far. Even still, my time looking out on the mad world was limited: two hours a day. No more, no less. That was my job: observation. It was also why I was locked in this train car. A kind of canary in a constantly moving coal mine.

The people in charge of the train—scientists, I think, though I’ve never met any directly—had several like me, locked in our own little cells, each with our own periscope. We took note of what we saw around the train, and if we saw anything, well, noteworthy (another joke; I’m sorry, I’m not very good at them), we typed it out and put it in a pneumatic tube, and whoosh, off it went, to somewhere else on the train.

The train itself was protected, somehow, from the madness. As much as my day-to-day life tried my sanity through purely conventional means, I couldn’t imagine what it was like for the others further back, those who never saw anything but the inside of the train. At least I had the periscope.

I had been discovered shortly after the coming of the plague, wandering the countryside, unaffected—at least, directly—by the tatters of madness that clung to so many others. They’d sent out one of their groups of soldiers, specially outfitted to survive away from the train for brief periods, and bundled me into this car. And here I was.

They assumed my former resilience to the madness would keep me protected from exposure to what I saw through the periscope. So far, they had been right. If it didn’t, of course—the moment I put a note in the tube written in my own blood, or didn’t send any notes at all—I’m sure the soldiers would unlock the door and shoot me in the end.

Excuse me. I meant to type ‘head,’ but I typed ‘end,’ instead. I’m not sure why. A slip. You’ll forgive the mistake, I hope; I have no way to fix it. Manual typewriter and all.

Anyway, the instant my sanity is broached, either by the unknown force beyond my rattling walls or simply good old fashioned isolation, I would be… dealt with. For the good of everyone. Not just on the train, but everywhere. You see, we may well be the last people unaffected by psychosis in the entire world.

Like I said: so far, I have been unaffected by the madness. But that didn’t mean I was unaffected by what I saw at all. The world beyond the periscope was a true misery. What the mad did—not just to those not infected, but to each other, and to themselves—it wore on you. Like someone constantly rubbing at your mind with steel wool or sandpaper. I was torn between waiting for most of them to die out or kill each other, and desperate for that not to happen, simply because when it did, I would be out of things to watch. There would be nothing through the periscope but countryside, or cities being slowly reclaimed by vegetation.

Anyway: that sums up the train. As for my life—where I was born, what my parents did, what my childhood was like or where I attended university—those things no longer matter; not anymore. I am defined by my role on the train, and the train defines me. I am its eyes; the soldiers, its grasping arms; the scientists, its mind. I assume somewhere on board there’s someone monitoring a radio that would act as its ears, and a conductor controlling a throttle that would be its legs, but I don’t know how much either of them have to do anymore.

None of that, however, is why I chose to start this little chronicle. I was telling the truth above, yes, about how I wanted to leave a record of my contribution, however tiny it might be, just in case we succeed against all odds. But that wasn’t all the truth. There’s another story I want to tell, or, another part of the same story.

It’s about the girl.

05theperiscope1I first saw her during my periscope duty (I’m sorry, that’s probably redundant; of course I saw her during my periscope duty. When else was I going to see her, when I was staring at the blank gunmetal walls of the train car?). We were traveling through a rural area, the countryside, which I preferred. Depending on what you saw, there were days where you could pretend the world hadn’t ended at all. In the cities, you could have no such illusions.

I scanned the horizon; you learned to do that pretty quickly. Try to look at anything close up and it will just fly right on past. There was a bridge, a train trestle, one we would be passing over shortly, and I was using that as my lodestone, sweeping left and right of the arcs of sweeping steel that rose up against the blue sky. It was as I was passing back across the bridge—I had checked one side, nothing of note, so now I needed to check the other—when I saw her.

She was standing on the side of the bridge. Just standing there, a little girl in a purple jumper, no more than six or seven. One hand on the slowly rusting metal. You didn’t see many children on periscope duty. That didn’t mean it didn’t happen; some of the mad went mad in very specific ways, ways which told them to protect a child or to prepare it for something, even if it wasn’t theirs. Even if what they were preparing it for was awful. But this little girl… she was different, somehow. Just standing on the bridge, looking down at the water, holding some kind of dolly or teddy bear in her hand. Kicking loose pebbles from the trestle. Unclaimed. Unchanged. Not ruined by the world.

Then she looked up and she saw me. I mean she saw me. Somehow, through the periscope lenses and the prisms and all the angled mirrors, she saw straight to me. It wasn’t just that she was looking at the approaching train, or even that she happened to notice the periscope—she saw me.

Now, I know how that must sound, I know how it must seem. It must come across as painfully obvious what actually happened: that the solitude of my existence had worn away at my ability to read human expressions, that my desperate need for some sort, any sort, of human contact simply thought she was somehow looking at me, and that I simply saw what I wanted, what I needed to see. You can believe that, if you wish. If you chose to. I doubt that you’ll be able to sustain that belief throughout this entire story, but by all means, try, if you wish.

In the ordinary course of events, you understand, a single little girl would not be enough for me to send an order to stop the train. Yes, she appeared calm, but many of the mad do, until they come into contact with something—or, more likely, someone—that sets them off. The mere fact that she wasn’t covered in blood or scalps or strange tattoos did not mean that she was not mad, and it did not mean that she was not simply bait by a group of cunning marauders, either. Just the girl was not enough for me to stop the train.

I did anyway, of course. Even that early on, she had a hold on me.

Still, I was clever about it. I continued scanning. I felt it, when I moved the periscope off of her, a resistance, like a physical tearing inside of me, but I did it. I found the rusted hulk of a gas station sign. Gas stations were something I was supposed to be looking for; the train was equipped with some sort of machinery, or purifier, or something, that could reinvigorate old automotive fuel, render at least some of it useful to the train. I didn’t understand the process very well—I wasn’t a chemist—but I didn’t need to.

I could tell already that we wouldn’t find anything useful there; the corner of the sign was blackened and charred, clearly in the chaos after the outbreak, it had been destroyed, and in the normal course of events, I would have noted it, noted that charring, and moved on. But it was reason enough to stop the train, and it was close enough that if the little girl wanted to be found, she would.

I pulled away from the periscope, typed out a few quick lines—in a hurry; I mistyped the word ‘station,’ but they would get the idea—and send it through the tube. It was just as we were crossing the bridge that the brakes began to squeal. Perfect timing; with a week to plan, I couldn’t have pulled it off any better.

Then the periscope gave its telltale click, the noise that meant my time was almost up, and it would shortly retract into its housing. In the normal course of events, I usually was ready to be done by the time it did so; two hours scanning the desolation of the outside world was enough for me. Of course, by the time it appeared again, I was more than ready to stop staring at the inside of my car, too.

But this time, I was eager to keep looking, wanted to use every second I had left to try and find the little girl again. Her prior position was too close for me to see, of course—the periscope only had about a 180 range of motion, and where I’d seen her last would have been well outside of it by now—but I kept scanning the houses nearby, hopeful of finding some sign that she was safe, that she at least had somewhere to go. Buckets to catch water, clothes hanging on lines, that sort of thing.

There was nothing. I had to pull myself off of the periscope when it started retracting, fighting the urge to cling to it and continue my search. The periscope folded itself up and rose into the ceiling. I was alone again. I’d been alone the whole time, at least, but for a moment, just a moment, it felt like I had not.

The girl had seen me. She had seen me. I knew she had.

I threw myself onto my bunk, staring up at the ceiling. I’d long ago perfected the technique of sort of… projecting my mind’s eye onto the ceiling above me, making memories and fantasies like a cinema, turning the blank gunmetal gray above me into a sweeping panoramic screen where I could actually see my imagination play out. On that ceiling, and in my head, I watched the little girl, over and over and over again. She was looking down at the water, kicking at pebbles, watching them fall. She turned slightly, her wispy blonde hair drifting with the wind. She looked up, and she saw me. Through the train, through the periscope, down through the mirrors, she saw me. She knew I was there.

Had she smiled? Just a little, just a tug at the corner of her mouth? I thought so. No. I knew so.

Whether she had or not, by the time dinner had arrived, she most definitely had. At least in the movie screen of my mind.

I slept that night, and dreamed of the trestle bridge. Not of the little girl, despite how I had obsessed over her the entire rest of the day. She was not a player in the repertory theater of my subconscious. Not yet. But I dreamt of the bridge, and of the blue sky, and the green forests. I dreamt of walking out there. Just…. Walking. And being unafraid.

Even in my mind’s eye now, I can see that bridge. The way it rose up from the water; the green on either bank of the river; the blue and white of the sky stretching infinite above, dotted here and there with clouds. The shade of dull red rust that had at least partway covered it, and the metal sheen where it was uncorroded. If I listen hard enough, I could hear the cables singing.

*

I awoke the next day, and it took me a moment to shake off the dreams. This was often true: when I remembered my dreams, even when they were unpleasant, they became reality, at least for a while, and the train car confused me upon waking. That is, when I didn’t dream about the train car itself. I hated those dreams the most. Even more than more traditional nightmares of fear or phantoms or flight, because then, even my one respite from my penitent’s cell of a prison was taken from me.

I remembered the girl, and came wide awake. I scrambled over to the message tubes, to see if I had received any sort of response from the prior day’s activity. I had not. That in and of itself didn’t mean anything. Even after what I was sure had been successful stops predicated on my information, I often did not receive confirmation of what the soldiers had managed to salvage. Even if the little girl was safely aboard, I would not likely be told. All I could do was tell myself that I had done what best I could for her. I had done my duty, both to the train, and to my own humanity.

By the time breakfast was served through the slot in my locked door, I had convinced myself that it was over, that my little piece of excitement was done. I should be glad, I told myself she had been the most interesting thing I’d seen in months.

Still, as I waited for my duty to begin at the periscope, I wondered about the girl’s fate.

One thing I should clarify before this story continues: I hope that you don’t take my sudden interest in this lone girl as something sexual. For one thing, she was a child, for God’s sake. The world may have gone mad, but I had not. For another, before the world crumbled, my attentions in that direction were confined exclusively towards other men. For as long as I could remember, neither women nor girls had ever created even the slightest flutter in my pulse in that manner.

For a third, and to put the final nail in the coffin of that rather disgusting line of thought, the time I’d spent on the train had caused my sex drive to atrophy. You might think the opposite would be true, that forced celibacy with cause me to be blind with lust, and maybe that would have been the case for someone else, but apparently not me. I no longer felt such urges. Would they have returned, if I had found myself embraced by the company of humankind again? Possibly, possibly not. I simply wanted to make sure that was understood before we go any further: whilst my interest in the child, my need to know that she was safe, might have been unhealthy, might have even been an obsession, it was not an obsession in that manner.

When the periscope finally descended, I practically leapt at it. I forced myself to calm my racing pulse, my hands holding the rubber grips so tight the knuckles were white. You saw one living child yesterday, I told myself. That’s something you haven’t seen for months. You won’t see anything like it again for just as long, if ever. So look, but don’t expect, and above all, remember your duty. You are part of this train, part of its mission.

I told myself all that, and I believed it. I really did. Still, I trembled as I looked through the lenses, and scanned the horizon.

Something I likely should have mentioned earlier, for which I can only apologize: for whatever reason, out of some statistical probability or even a desire to safeguard our sanity through variation, the periscope never lowered at exactly the same time of day twice in a row. It lowered once in a twenty-four hour period for roughly two hours. But it wasn’t as though I was always scanning the horizon at noon, or always at daybreak. When we scanned at night, it even had a night vision filter, blurring everything into a kind of green fog. My shifts at the lenses were not exactly twenty-four hours apart, but sometimes eighteen, or sometimes thirty.

It wasn’t quite night when my shift began, but it was getting close, the horizon painting the world outside in hues of umber and orange. The rural landscape of yesterday was slowly transitioning into something at least slightly more urban—not exactly a city center or anything of the like, but more homes, more streets, more businesses. By which I mean, what had been homes, what had been streets, what had been businesses. Now, they were all mostly ruined.

Nothing notable appeared as I scanned the horizon while the day slipped slowly into night. A few buildings that came close to being worth a stop, but not quite. Something always just a little off, a little wrong—telltale signs of traps left by marauders, main exits left clear but side doors blockaded, a brief flicker of motion that might have been something dangerous, or might not have. It wasn’t worth the risk. I still had about an hour left in my shift when the night-vision clicked on, bathing what had been a cityscape dimming to gray into crisp green dimensions.

That very instant I saw her again.

I hadn’t even been scanning. I’d stopped moving the periscope when the night vision cut on, to let my eyes adjust to that verdant glow, so different than what I had been looking at. But as soon as they had, I saw her: she was standing on the roof of a squat, one-story concrete garage, one I’d seen in my periphery before I’d looked away, and she was staring at me. Again. Still.

Like she’d never stopped.

I ceased breathing. Not consciously, I mean; it just happened. For no reason I could understand, I was utterly terrified in that instant. Terrified she was some kind of demon, a manifestation of all the ills of the world come to haunt me. The night vision gave her eyes an unhealthy glow, like cats’ eyes in the dark. Terrified my mind had finally snapped, that she was a hallucination, I might have been immune to the plague of madness, but ordinary people had been going mad under far less duress for thousands of years. Terrified by something unknowable, unreachable, in the depth of her gaze. Just terrified.

I told myself it couldn’t be the same girl. It couldn’t. For one thing, I had no way of telling the colors of her clothing, or her hair; the night vision washed everything to the same neon green. For another, we had only stopped once since I had sent my note the day before, likely on the orders of a different periscope car. The train moved slowly, carefully, but it did move. We’d traveled two hundred miles, at least, since that trestle bridge yesterday. It couldn’t be her.

But it was. I knew it was. The way she looked at me. It was exactly the same.

I backed away from the telescope. Rubbed my eyes. Went to the tiny metal sink in my room and splashed water on my face. I was seeing things. I was hallucinating. Of course I was. The isolation, the monotony, the lack of intellectual stimulation—my mind was bored, playing tricks like a small child will in an empty house. Projecting the image of the girl from yesterday onto the back of my retina—the same thing I did when I couldn’t sleep at night, and ‘saw’ movies of my memories on the ceiling above me.

But I did that consciously. I hadn’t done this. I hadn’t even been thinking about the girl. I swear, I truly hadn’t. I had, the first few minutes I had been scanning the landscape, but slowly she’d faded as I focused on my duty. I had not been expecting to see her, I swear.

Yet I had.

Slowly, trembling, I returned to the periscope. I pressed my face into the profile, willing my eyes to only see reality, to only see what was there, and she was not there.

I was right. She was gone. Or, rather—she had never been there. It was simply my overworked, overactive imagination. That was it. That was all.

I went to sleep that night trembling, still. I saw nothing else of note during my duty.

*

I saw her again the next day. Of course I did.

Every time I saw her, she only grew more impossible. The first two sightings could have been a coincidence, my fogged mind stuttering if not breaking down, but the third meant something was happening. Either within my head, or outside of the train. This time it was daylight again, and we were closer to a city proper—what city, I knew not.

She stood halfway up a radio mast. There was no way she could have climbed so high. Even during the halcyon days before the plague, it took men with specialized training and equipment to summon those towering spikes of metal. She was just a child, and she wore no rope, no harness. She was simply standing, high up on the swaying, rusting steel. Staring at me through the prisms. Almost smiling.

I had been looking for her, of course. Ordinarily I never would have glanced at one of the dead reminders of our past world; there would be nothing of note up so high, and even if there was, the soldiers on the train could never have reached it. But I was looking. It was like poking at a bruise, or probing a loose tooth with your tongue—we value new sensation, even if the sensation is painful.

I alternately cursed and congratulated myself for finding her again. I knew it was likely my mind was fraying. At that point, I was exhausted with the terror of it all. If my mind wanted to break, I could at least find the breakage interesting, in an abstract, ‘if this was happening to someone else’ kind of way. It kept me from thinking too hard about what I was seeing.

I made it a kind of game. Every day, when the periscope lowered, I would begin my search for her. I no longer cared if I found buildings of note, or resources, or survivors seemingly undamaged by the rampant madness of the ruined world. Even if there had been a merry band of the sane, camped out on the train’s very tracks, I would not have noticed. I was consumed with chasing my phantom, the little girl in the purple jumper, who appeared impossible places. Who saw me.

By the sixth day—the sixth day in a row I had seen her—I had a moment of clarity. Not when I was at the periscope, but after. I was failing to do my duty. I was failing my responsibility. I was clearly going mad. I typed a note, fully intending to send it to my superiors:

 

For the past week, I have seen the same girl, staring back at me down through the periscope. I know she is a hallucination. I retain enough sanity for that. You can no longer trust any reports that come from this car. Whatever mechanisms you have in place to deal with this sort of… affliction, or dereliction, or whatever you chose to call it, you must engage them. I no longer have value.

 

I remember writing all that, and I remember fitting it carefully into the tube, and I remember setting the tube in the pneumatic device. I remember pulling the lever, and feeling relieved that it was done. One way or another, this would soon be over.

It was that day’s sighting that had finally broken me. Or, I should say, sightings. I had seen her not merely once, but three times, in three separate locations. Locations she could not possibly have reached in the time between when I lost sight of her behind the 180 degree arc of the periscope’s view, and when I picked her up again. I don’t know why that was the final straw—it’s not as though that was any less impossible than any of the rest of it—but was, all the same. I was mad, and I knew it. I set it all down, in writing, and I sealed my fate. All I had to do was see how the train reacted.

In the morning, when I woke—yes, by this time I was dreaming of the little girl, almost exclusively—I found the note crumpled up in the corner. The note I knew I had put in the casing, the casing I had put in the tube, the tube that had rattled as the casing and the note were carried to the back of the train. But the note was not gone; it was here. Still here. My terror returned, then, the game crumbling away.

I did not try to send the note again.05theperiscope2

More days passed, and each day, I saw her more and more—once, twice, three times, five, during my two hours on the periscope. Even though true fear gripped me now, I tracked her each time until I lost her from view. It was a compulsion. Then, as soon as she was gone, I would sweep the horizon for her again, driven by my own need to plumb the depths of my sanity. Or lack thereof.

She appeared in more and more impossible places. Sitting on the shoulders of a statue. Staring at me from a bombed-out floor of a building. Standing on the tracks themselves, the tracks that stretched forever out before me, but never growing closer. Once, I saw her eight times in a row. Her appearance never changed. Well, that’s not entirely true—her hair was always the same, her face, her clothing, but what she held in her hand was sometimes different, if I could see it at all. Sometimes a dolly. Sometimes a teddy. A few times a metal lunchbox, the sort I wasn’t sure children had even used anymore even before the world went to hell, dragging me with it. Once, a heavy wrench, its end bent, like she, or someone, had used it to bash something hard, over and over and over again.

But every time, the expression, her expression, was the same. She would look up from whatever she was doing, wherever she was, like she heard the train; she would stare instead at me. Through me. And she would begin to smile. She never seemed to quite finish that smile. It didn’t matter how long I looked. It would start, but never finish.

Except each time it came closer.

I barely slept anymore. I treated my meals, the needs of my person, with a bare, slapdash kind of care, doing the absolute minimum to keep myself alive. All I did was wait for the periscope to descend so I could hunt her again; my angel, my devil. My ghost. My Beatrice, my Lenore, my Belle. Except Belle wasn’t the key to Scrooge; that was what I had forgotten, not just her name. It was his sister; his little Fan. Dead too soon. I knew that’s where she was leading me. I didn’t care. I followed.

It occurred to me later, when I wasn’t looking, that she was growing closer. When it first started, beginning with the trestle bridge, I had always seen her just at the edge of the horizon. Now, each time I saw her, I picked her up closer to the train.

She was coming for a visit.

This went on. I do not know for how long. The train kept moving. I kept to the periscope, but I never sent notes down the tubes anymore. I did not know how long those in charge would let me last, let me remain, keep feeding me, when I was no longer of use. Their canary in the coal mine; all I could do for them now was die.

Finally, I received a message. It hissed down the tube, making the metal rattle as it came. I cracked it open with trembling hands. It read:

 

Your messages of late have grown more and more erratic. We no longer have faith in your ability to operate your station. You will be rectified.

 

That was it.

I had sent no messages.

The one I had typed, the one I believed I had sent, but later found balled up in the corner—it was still there. Do you understand? I had sent no messages.

Except I had. Apparently, according to them, the faceless ‘them’ further back in the train, those that controlled my life and the lives of all the others on board, I had. And they had been erratic. That was a word. That was one word.

I waited for them to come. I assumed my time with the periscope was over; I mourned its loss in my life, in the life I had built for myself, here in this tiny rattling cabin, forever in motion, forever the same.

The next day, however, it dropped from its housing.

It has since retracted. I have used the time between that last viewing of the outside world and now to write this… whatever this is. This chronicle. This missive. This story; my story. I meant what I said above, that I wanted to leave a record of what I did, how I helped, in case the others do manage to find somewhere safe, to begin again. But I also wanted you to know about her.

Maybe I am insane. Maybe it is that simple: maybe this is just a cautionary tale of isolation and dementia and creeping delusion. But maybe not. Because that last view through the periscope, something changed:

She finished her smile.

What lay behind her lips… they were not teeth. I do not know what they were. She is not human. She never was. She spoke, but I could not read her lips. I was quaking with fear. I understood the intent, though. She is coming for me.

I spoke before about the rise of the madness, the time of the plagues. I said I did not know why it had come, nor from where. I was lying. Or rather, I was dissembling, pretending I was the man before my apparition began approaching. Now I know. The root of this evil was never with us. It was with her. With her all along. She is the plague. She is the madness. Mine and all the others. We are the vine and the canopy and the leaf; she is the root.

Now, one of two things will happen. The first: the soldiers will enter, and either shoot me in the head, or drag me from the train and throw me outside—that is one option, with two endings. The second option is much simpler, and the one I fear much, much more: she will come for me. She will be here. When I lay my head upon my cot, when my eyes begin to drift closed from exhaustion—for I have not slept for days now—she will appear. Because she always comes when I am not looking. She will appear, and she will reach out for me.

I pray the soldiers reach me before she does.

I told you this chronicle was a memory of who I was, what I did. Let it also be a warning. To the next person who takes up my position in this car, or the person with a similar job in whatever new settlement the train eventually founds: if you see a girl on the horizon, unprotected, an impossible girl, with long blonde hair and a purple jumper—or anything, really. Maybe she changes. Maybe she becomes what you need her to be, at least at first—look away. Do not try and save her. Do not mount a rescue. She does not need rescue. She never has.

Do not look.

Whatever you do, do not look.

 


Drew Williams spent too much of his childhood reading pulp adventure stories and genre fiction; as a result, he thinks the world is much more interesting than it probably is. When he’s not writing speculative fiction, he works at an independent bookseller, trying to sell speculative fiction to people who might otherwise not have given it a shot.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




21
Sep

“God Sends Meat But the Devil Sends Cooks” by Anne Bartles

Speculate_blogThey put a tiny bit of cocaine in the food, or so the rumors said. Even the biggest food snobs agreed that dinner at The Basement was worth the insane, nonrefundable, pre-paid price. In doing his preliminary research, Jeff had heard another rumor too. Some people thought the appetizer, “The Heart of the Sea,” was whale meat. It was all a publicity trick of course; one of several. As Jeff drove his packed, noisy little car to the restaurant, he wondered about the genius mind behind the marketing. Normally, Jeff would have found being in a car with so many women totally overwhelming, but he was so focused on The Basement, and the review he planned to write, that he almost didn’t care that they were there.

When he finally parked in the dilapidated strip mall, Jeff sat back in surprise and stared at their destination. It looked like a cheap dive, which he realized, with reluctant admiration, actually added to the appeal.

“This place,” his friend Tom asked as they pulled the last of the women Tom had brought out of the back of Jeff’s car, “they won’t tell you what you’re eating?”

“Right. That’s the big lure. They absolutely refuse to reveal what the food actually is. The waiters can’t be bribed to talk. The menu is just a list of the dishes of the night, without any descriptions attached. Everyone eats the same thing.”

“What if I want something different?”

“Then go someplace else, dude. Oh, and all first-time guests are required to sign a waiver. The Basement advises people with life threatening allergic reactions to stay away. It’s genius. Tell people not to come because it might kill you? Who could resist that?”

“That explains all the hipsters,” Tom sighed, gesturing at the line for the door. “I can’t believe they came all the way out here to, wherever the hell we are.”

“The crazy thing that I can’t figure out, is that everyone likes it. Like, actually everyone. That never happens. The bigger the food snob, the more they like to say they hate popular places.” He shrugged. “Maybe they do put something in the food.”

 “You said they really pressured you to take this gig? You try to do some local places anyway. Why are they so excited about this one?” Tom asked as they got in the line.

Jeff froze, for just a moment, his heart pounding. Had Tom noticed what he’d been doing? Wait, no, it was OK, he was just asking about work. He exhaled slowly, and tried to act natural. What he’d been doing was awful, he knew, but he didn’t want to stop. He didn’t think he could. He loved his job, really loved the travel, the exciting food, going to other countries. But then, there were the times he asked, no, pushed, to review restaurants closer to home.

His bosses seemed to believe him when he said it was because he liked to support local businesses. The truth: he got a terrific rush from deliberately destroying the most popular new restaurants, no matter how good they were. Having the power to close a restaurant made up for so much that was missing from his life. He couldn’t admit that to anyone. Hell, he could barely think about it himself. Although, he had to admit, he was damn good at it. He’d once triggered a foodie shunning by simply stating that a new bistro was better than a low-end local chain. He’d killed them with a compliment.

He hesitated to answer Tom’s question though. This was a little embarrassing. “I’ve been to Iceland…”

Tom thought for a second, then pointed at Jeff. “Oh, man! You ate whale!”

Jeff blushed. “I did. I ate whale. I went out in Reykjavik, and ate a lot of whale. They wanted me to write this place up because there’s a rumor that the appetizer is whale meat, and I’ll probably recognize it.”

Tom leaned in and muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “How was it?”

“Gotta say, it was delicious.”

Tom was still laughing when they finally reached the front of the line. Heavily tinted windows blocked the view into the restaurant, which wasn’t in a basement at all, but on the ground floor. The strip mall probably didn’t even have basements, Jeff mused, as the large, forbidding bouncer checked ID’s, and produced the waiver on a tablet for each guest to sign.

“Why do you check ID’s?” Jeff asked, handing his over.

“Some of the dishes may or may not contain alcohol, and people under 21 are not allowed.”

He nodded. “Interesting.” He looked at his waiver. It was over 15 pages long. He guessed most people didn’t read it. Ignoring the bouncer’s impatience, he skimmed through the document. Everyone went in without him. Jeff smiled up at the man.

“I guess most people don’t really read this whole thing do they?”

“No.”

“How do you get to the footnotes section?”

It looked straightforward, but Jeff wanted to be thorough for his piece. If something shocking was buried in the waiver, that could make his article.

“Tap the numbers.”

The footnotes were extensive, more than Jeff could read before dinner started. He glanced at his watch and asked for a paper copy. The bouncer immediately agreed, in a tone that suggested that he should have asked for one up front, and saved them both a lot of time.

Jeff walked into The Basement, paused to let his eyes adjust to the room’s dim light, and was immediately struck by an uncomfortable feeling that something was missing. Inexplicably nervous, he examined his surroundings, and tried to ignore the pounding in his chest. The windows were so heavily tinted that when he looked outside he only saw shadows moving in a deeper darkness. Faded posters for dated tourist destinations—their turquoise and greens now bleached almost white—hung in random spots on the walls. The floor was unfinished concrete. Young, trendily-dressed groups of people filled every one of the white plastic patio sets that served as furniture. An unexpected, but lovely belly dancer twisted and writhed among the tables to the faint rhythm of finger cymbals.

Jeff realized that there were no food smells. That must be the absence he’d felt. He was used to restaurants that smelled of food. Here he only smelled floor cleaner and the belly dancer’s musky perfume as she twirled uncomfortably close to him. Because, he understood, in sudden clarity, they served only one meal a day, to everyone at once. That explained it.

04basement1The dancer spun around him with ever louder cymbals. She smelled of rich perfume and clean, female sweat. Her scent filled his mouth, his lungs. A bead of sweat trickled slowly down her belly; he couldn’t catch his breath as he watched it slide down her skin. The room shifted behind her as she contorted in front of him, indifferent to his discomfort. He blinked, and her soft belly, her breasts, were coated with bluish-green metallic scales. Again, he closed his eyes. She was human, and so desirable he couldn’t stand to look at her anymore. Dizzy, he turned away, and in a moment of sweaty relief, spotted Tom, and the women he’d brought, at a large round table near the wall. Jeff hurried towards them, not stopping to apologize when he stepped on belongings, or shoved someone out of his way.

Tom had already ordered bottles of wine, and by the time Jeff finally sat at their table everyone was drinking and shouting cheerfully at each other over the noise of the room. So he wouldn’t have to try and interject himself into their fun, Jeff picked up his purely informative menu and feigned an intense focus. It read:

Appetizer:
Heart of the SeaSalad:
Green JealousySoup:
Sacred TearsEntree:
Forbidden DelightsDessert:
What the Sugar Plum Fairy Forgot.
~~~

Tom leaned towards Jeff, “So it’s the Heart of the Sea we shouldn’t eat?”

Jeff shook his head. “Did you tell them?” He gestured at the three women. “Don’t tell them. It will look weird if no one eats it.”

Tom looked at him skeptically, then shrugged and turned back to the conversation.

Within minutes, a small fleet of identically dressed waiters presented the appetizers. Served on a plain white plate, the Heart of the Sea was a simple slice of translucent burgundy meat, with a light sear on two sides. Jeff nodded. It looked like whale. He tasted it. It had the texture of exquisitely tender beef, and a similar flavor, but with a familiar, faintly oceanic quality.  Definitely whale. He sat back in his chair and grinned, as he surveyed the restaurant. This would be a hell of a write up. This place was going down.

Tom hadn’t touched his food, and when Jeff nodded at him he pushed it away. Then he looked at it, and with an embarrassed expression, pulled it back and began to eat.

The women were talking and laughing between themselves. To Jeff, they all looked the same: thin, with light flowing clothes, and lots of clanking, dangling jewelry. He didn’t understand them at all. But then women, always desired, always totally terrifying, couldn’t be part of his life. Impossible to think he could ever be that confident person, who could have…that. Anyway, it didn’t matter. He was one hundred percent devoted to his work, and didn’t have time for anything else. Except, really, one day, he’d like to meet a comfortable woman, someone nice. His stomach twisted, and it occurred to him for the first time ever, that he was deeply lonely.

His reverie was interrupted by the by the presentation of the salad. Eyes narrowed, he gave it a skeptical poke. It looked like an ordinary salad, with herbs and some unfamiliar field greens, tossed with crumbles of warm goat cheese and some chopped nuts. He tasted it. It was, as salads went, very decent. Disappointed that it didn’t contain anything shocking or unusual, he decided he would write that it was banal. Which, given the reputation of the place, was fair. They promise mystery, then give you a salad you could get practically anywhere. Yawn.

He looked around, and noticed how many of the men seemed to have beautiful women attached to them. The men would say something, and the women would hang on their every word. At his own table, Tom was telling some story. The place was so loud Jeff could only make out every third word, but the girls, laughing and listening attentively, seemed to hear Tom fine.

Tom. When had he started to dislike Tom? It felt like a truth that had always been there, under the surface. Sure, they’d been “friends” since freshman year in college, but really, how could he like someone who would happily let a group of girls he barely knew eat whale meat? What kind of an asshole would do that? And he was so selfish! It was just like Tom to keep the women to himself. Not that it mattered.

Lost in thought, he barely noticed when the swift, silent waiters replaced the salad plate with a small cup of white soup. Jeff picked up a spoonful and sniffed it, then let the liquid drip back into the bowl. He stared at the iridescent shimmer that danced across the surface while the noise of the room faded into the background. What made it play the light that way? It didn’t move like most liquids; it acted like a small cup of cornstarch and water. He tapped it gently with his spoon to feel it thicken. Finally, he tasted it. It was delicious, salty and sweet. With a smile, Jeff closed his eyes, and tried to identify the various flavors. Letting the soup roll over his tongue, he inhaled deeply. A version of white bean soup, it clearly contained a smoky bacon, and other familiar ingredients. But there was something else that he swore he’d never experienced before, which transformed the entire experience into something like…like a song.

Instantly mortified that he’d even thought something that trite, he forced himself to focus on his article, in which he would definitely not write that the dish was like a song. When his spoon scraped the last trace of the soup from the bottom of the cup, he had to grit his teeth to keep himself from wiping the inside of the cup with a finger and licking it clean. Frustrating. They should have used bigger cups. That could be an angle for the article, although a pretty complimentary one. ‘The soup was excellent, but the portion too small to really enjoy.’

With a sigh, he looked around for the waiters. They seemed to all be on a smoke break, or something. No one cared about him. No one. Some quiet part of his mind realized how odd and disproportionate that was, but the feeling was overwhelming. Just then, Tom laughed at someone’s joke. Of course, the others were having a great time without him. Yet again, he was on the outside. Tears stung his eyes. What was wrong with him? He bit the inside of his cheek in an attempt to regain control, and wiped his face with his napkin. For the first time in his life, death sounded like it might actually be a comforting reprieve from the agony of day to day life. It would be like relaxing into a warm soft bed after a horrible day.

“Excuse me, sir.” A waiter at his elbow took away his soup cup, and almost simultaneously placed a large platter of red meat in front of him. He stared at it. It was some kind of a boneless cut, well marbled on the edges, but lean in the center. Rare and bloody, it looked like beef. He leaned forward, took a deep breath, and blinked in astonishment. Whatever kind of meat this was, it had a truly unique smell. To him, it smelled like memories of childhood, cut grass, and sunshine, but he could never, ever, write that, either. He took a bite, and felt the meat dissolve in his mouth. He’d eaten most exotic meats at least once, but nothing remotely similar to this. The flavor was clean, yet full, with a quality he couldn’t describe, other than saying it was similar to the soup. Looking down at the generous helping, Jeff relaxed in the knowledge that there was more, almost a full plate, of this amazing gift.

As he ate, he was easily pulled into the conversation at his table, and to his surprise learned one of the women loved to read old James Beard books too. Her name was Stephanie, and she was fascinated by what he did for a living. He slid his chair closer to her. Within moments, they were all a big laughing group of easy conversation. Stephanie laughed hard at something he said, and leaned closer to talk him. She smelled like cinnamon, and her arm was warm and soft against his own. How could it feel so natural? Had this always been possible? This was turning out to be one of the best nights of his life. Forbidden Delights indeed! He’d been an idiot. Tom loved him like a brother, and would do anything for him. It was crazy that he’d ever thought anything else.

Only moments after the last person finished the meat course, the waiters appeared with dessert. Jeff’s eyes widened at the artistry of what they were about to receive. Each diner got a unique, Cinderella style shoe made out of swirls of spun sugar. A fine dusting of iridescent sprinkles made them glitter in the light. Tiny crystallized violets rested on Jeff’s snow-white shoe, and dotted the plate. It smelled like vanilla and cardamom. Tom’s was blue, covered in candy hearts and, Jeff leaned over and sniffed, smelled like marshmallows. Jeff didn’t want to eat his yet. If he ate it, the dinner would be over, and he wasn’t ready to face that.

To forestall the inevitable, he decided to explore. He got up, and wandered towards the back hallway. Feeling perfectly intoxicated, but not drunk, he noticed his thoughts were beautifully, sparklingly clear. He wondered if he should have slipped a bit of meat into his pocket to take for analysis. Next time. He’d come back with a plastic bag and do it next time. And maybe he could take some for later, at home. What a comforting thought.

Near the restrooms, he noticed a third door at the end of a long hallway. The guy standing guard looked a lot like the bouncer from the front. This was the opportunity he’d hoped to find. If he could get into a food storage area, or an office, and find out what the mystery ingredients were, it would take his story from good to epic. The kitchen, of course, would be impossible. It was bound to be way too crowded. But, they were hiding something behind this door. He could just feel it. Trying to seem casual, Jeff approached the man and asked, “So hey, is that your brother outside?”

The guard was a large, bald man. All his skin, including his face, was covered with tattoos of snakes and mystical symbols. He stared straight ahead, and didn’t respond. Jeff decided to go for it. He pulled 3 folded 100 dollar bills out of his wallet and held them up in front of the tall man’s face. When he got no response, Jeff quickly added two more bills. Without a word the bouncer reached up and gently took the bills, stepped aside, and cracked the door open, displaying a sliver of darkness.

Slipping past the man, Jeff hurried to squeeze himself through the narrow opening. The door immediately closed behind him. His brows raised as he took in the vast, shadowed room before him. He was standing on a small metal balcony, set into a wall that looked like it had been chiseled out of stone. To his left and right, the wall faded away into gloom. For all he knew, it could be a giant cavern, but of course, that was ridiculous. He looked down over the metal railing. The room was so poorly lit that he couldn’t see the bottom, either. In front of him, attached to the balcony, was what looked like a free standing, tightly spiraled, metal fire escape. And wobbled like one, he noticed, as he took his first tentative steps. Dim, dirty bulbs sporadically lit his way down with small pools of orange light. Cautious step after cautious step, the bottom of the staircase, and indeed anything below him, remained lost in shadow. A faint dripping sound echoed off the walls.

After a few minutes, Jeff realized he’d already gone down at least two stories. An uncomfortable knot twisted in his stomach when he looked up. He couldn’t see the top anymore.

“This can’t be right,” he muttered under his breath.

Just then, the steps abruptly ended at a dirt floor. Jeff stumbled forward as he took his first steps back on solid ground. This area was somewhat better lit, and once he’d gotten his balance, Jeff could tell he was in a basement. Spare white plastic chairs and tables leaned in reassuringly normal stacks against one stone wall, along with some cardboard boxes. He walked over and investigated those. They were full of paper napkins. To his right, the shadows grew darker where the walls pulled closer together into a narrow corridor. He hesitantly took a few steps in that direction. There was a sound, like whispering. He thought he heard a faint sob. Nauseatingly nervous, he made himself step forward, keep going, turned around a corner, and stopped.

At first he thought it was a woman, suspended upside down from the ceiling in the room. Then, he realized it was not a woman. Jeff stood, paralyzed, while his eyes continued to send a message that his mind, frozen in shock, refused to accept until, finally, it started to take it in, in pieces.

About ten feet in front of him, an angel hung upside down. It looked semi-conscious. Thick rope, tightly knotted around its ankles, held it suspended from a heavy wooden beam. It was nude. It was shivering. The ends of its long hair brushed the dirt floor. Jeff’s first coherent thought was that it was at least eight feet tall, and probably very strong. Then, he understood that it must be in agony from the weight of its limp, inverted wings, which had stretched its back muscles to what looked like the point of ripping. Finally, he had the dim, confused realization that something really awful had happened to the angel’s legs. Large chunks of flesh were cleanly sliced out of both legs, on both the thigh and the calf. In place of the angel’s muscles, massive square wounds oozed blood that glistened in slick streaks on white bone. Jeff gasped, and noticed a familiar smell, like fresh cut grass and summer. His scalded mind balked and stopped. Then the angel’s eyes opened. It looked right at Jeff. Jeff screamed and jumped back, almost falling into the man standing directly behind him.

“They’re incredibly hard to kill, you know,” the short man said conversationally.

Jeff gaped at him. About six inches shorter than Jeff, the good looking young man wore a dark tailored suit with a black tie.

The short man pointed at the ground under the angel. “See that circle with the symbols? We can hold it, and weaken it, but we can’t kill it. Not that we’d want to anyway, Mr. Monroe. After all, they heal so quickly that we can get a full dinner service off it every night.”

Now fully awake, the angel seemed desperate. It quickly looked around, and then focused again on Jeff. It stared at him with the pleading look of an injured animal, then opened its mouth, but no sound came out. Jeff could see the raw, red flesh where the angel’s tongue had been torn away. The angel cried silently, its body shaking with the force of its sobs. At the small man’s gesture, the bouncer, or someone who looked just like him, stepped out of the shadows carrying a bucket. He gently lifted the angel’s long, soft hair out of the way, and placed the bucket under the angel’s head.

“Angel tears,” explained the small man, “We use those as well. In the soup, of course.”

Jeff fell to his hands and knees, and vomited in the dirt. When he was done, he wiped his own tears from his eyes, and looked up at the man.

“Who are you?” he asked.04basement2

The small man shook his head. “My name isn’t important, Mr. Monroe. My job, my title, is Director of Marketing for The Basement.” He reached down and helped Jeff to his feet. “I, just like you, am a small cog in a much more impressive machine.” He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and handed it to Jeff, turning him away from the horrific scene in the process. “Here you go. Better?”

Jeff nodded, and tried not to think about what was happening right behind him. With all his energy, he concentrated on the man in front of him.

“I trust you enjoyed your dinner?” the good looking man asked, with what seemed like genuine concern. “We work hard to ensure our customers experience an exhilarating range of emotions. First, we bring them into painful intimacy with their own personal weaknesses, and downward into the depths of despair. Then we escort them through a magical removal of those failings, and on to the peaks of delight and joy.” With a light touch, he guided Jeff back through the basement.

“Of course, each diner perceives him or herself to be the only one going through this experience. If you could see it as our waiters do, you would be surprised. Now, had you eaten your dessert, you’d have been filled with the most satisfying contentment. You would have gone home, slept wonderfully, and awakened with the thought that you must plan your next trip to The Basement right away. But, instead, you chose to come down here.” He paused, and studied Jeff.  “Mr. Monroe, you’ve become aware of our trade secrets, which presents a little bit of a problem. Additionally,  you write for that website, sometimes quite viciously. I find that interesting.

“I’m prepared to offer you an exclusive arrangement. In exchange for your silence about our secret ingredients, and a series of appropriately glowing reviews, and an enthusiastic critique of the competition, should there ever be any, we are prepared to offer you VIP status at our establishment. You will never have to book your table in advance, and your meals will always be comped. You will always get the finest cuts. Your friends will delight in your company even more than I’m sure they already do. Their perception of you will be forever altered, for the better, by their experiences here with you.”

They reached the bottom of the staircase.

“You care about what I put in my review?”

“Mr. Monroe. This is the restaurant business where we, just like anyone else, hope to launch a chain of similar establishments stretching right across this glorious nation. And you are a nationally known reviewer, who, by the way, could have a TV contract in his future if he plays his cards right. Who knows? You may end up in a position to promote the restaurant of your choosing to nationally revered status. Yes. We care, Mr. Monroe.”

Jeff tried to think. He desperately wanted to feel that happy, belonging feeling again. It was what had been missing from his life, from himself, for as long as he could recall. He understood that now. And a TV contract? That would be, wow. Yeah. But the angel, it was too horrifying to even think about. His throat burned from vomiting, and he felt like he had a lead ball in his stomach. It would, he knew, take him months or years to really understand what he’d seen and what it meant to him. The look on the short man’s face told him he only had moments.

“Um, is this about my, uh, my soul?” Jeff asked, his hands twisting behind his back.

The other man snorted, “No, no. Don’t be stupid. We want to own your work.” He grinned encouragingly at Jeff.

“Oh. Right. So, the… Back there. Is it suffering much?”

“Well, not like you or I would suffer. No. I think it’s more of a reflex than anything else. They’re very bizarre creatures really. You noticed it doesn’t even have genitals? They’re as different from a human as, well, as a lobster is. Don’t be fooled by the outwardly similar appearance. They’re really nothing like us.” The man reached over to the back wall of the basement and pushed a button Jeff was fairly sure hadn’t been there before.

“Let’s take my private elevator back up, shall we? I’ll give you a tour of the kitchen. An exclusive.”

Jeff nodded eagerly, “That would be great, Mister….?”

“Really, just call me The Director. I prefer to remain incognito. It helps add to the mystery. You know,” he sighed, “my job, marketing, it’s so important. You can’t underestimate how necessary it is. You’re on board with our plan then?”

Jeff nodded, his stomach tight.

“Excellent! I’m so glad to have you as part of our little team.”

The tattooed bouncer from the upstairs hall abruptly appeared, holding a tablet.

“Ah, Gregor. Thank you, and good work helping Mr. Monroe find his way down here.” The Director winked knowingly at Jeff, who decided to add this to the list of things he wasn’t thinking about.

“Now, you’ll see that we’ve simply added a short clause to that waiver you signed earlier. Yes, there are some footnotes. Lawyers, you know,” he chuckled. “Don’t worry about those. We understand you want a paper copy, and that will be provided by my assistant on your way out this evening. Just simply sign here. Well done! You now have VIP service for life. I’m sure if you ask her, that hot little piece, Stephanie, will want to come here with you again. And, I’m confident that you will get a call from some cable networks, in due time. Congratulations, Mr. Monroe, on joining the organization.”

They stepped into a small nondescript elevator. The interior was unmarked except for two buttons: UP and DOWN. The Director reached out a thin finger, and briefly hesitated. A mocking smile danced over his lips before he finally pressed the UP button, making Jeff’s legs quiver in relief.

“Now to the kitchen for your tour.” The Director smiled at Jeff.

“Oh, um, you should know,” said Jeff as the elevator doors closed. “The story’s already out that you serve whale meat.”

The Director burst into deep shaking laughter. His eyes shone with tears as he gasped, “Oh Mr. Monroe, we don’t serve whale.” He was still chuckling when the doors opened. They stepped out.  Jeff and The Director faced the kitchen door, with Gregor a silent, solid presence behind them.

“Would you like to see what we fed you?” the Director giggled, glancing sideways at Jeff. “I promise you, it’s not whale.” Jeff turned gray, but nodded.

The Director started to open the kitchen door, then paused to look at Jeff,  “Remember Mr. Monroe. You’ve signed a contract with us. That’s something we take… seriously.” He gestured for Jeff to go ahead of him.

As the kitchen door swung shut behind them, a young woman walked by on her way to the bathroom. Just for a moment, she thought she had heard a heartbroken wail, cut off when the heavy kitchen door slammed firmly closed. Must be her imagination, she thought. This was the greatest place. It was like they put something in the food. Whenever she and her friends came here, they had the most amazing time.

.

Anne Bartles is a writer and social worker who lives in San Antonio, TX. Some cats let her live with them in exchange for kibble, and her silence. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found knitting, making jam, and forcing her friends to test her food, craft and writing experiments. Anne has published two pieces on InfectiveInk and is presently editing her first book, a slightly supernatural mystery set on the Texas coast. She can be found at http://www.annebartles.com.
Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.



31
Aug

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21
Aug

“The Night Artist” by Brady Golden

Speculate_blogA 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.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




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.