Entertainingly Evil
29
Dec

So You’ve Decided to Adopt a Zeptonian Baby! by David Steffen

SO YOU’VE DECIDED TO ADOPT A ZEPTONIAN BABY!

Whether you are adopting by chance because you found the smoking crater on your property or whether you volunteered for the Zeptonian Childcare Service, congratulations and thank you!  There is no more rewarding choice you will make in your lifetime.

But keep in mind that the #1 mistake that adoptive parents of Zeptonians make is thinking too far ahead.  There are a lot of years before your little one will be a fully functioning adult to prove that you deserve the ten million dollar reward.  If the new addition to your family is a toddler or older then take a moment to thank your predecessors in turn, who gave the ultimate sacrifice to raise your child, even though everything they gave was ultimately not enough.

But don’t worry!  You’re not alone!

WHY ARE THEY HERE ON EARTH?

No one knows why Zeptonian babies started falling from the sky thirty years ago.  It happens in waves, a shower of them hitting the planet every three years.  No Zeptonian ships have been found.

WHEN CAN I BRING MY CHILD TO ANTARCTICA?

Any honest parent will admit that there are times when they fantasize about throwing in the towel no matter what benefits and joys they would be giving up, and this is even more true for parents of Zeptonians.  When a temper tantrum over an unpurchased candy can level a city block, it’s hard to stay the course.

But remember that although the Zeptonian staff of the Antarctic Orphanage Facility (the first generation of Zeptonian immigrants all grown up!) are superpowered, they are still human, so to speak.  They still need sleep, and already they are outnumbered four to one by their charges.  Sending a child to Antarctica is a last resort, only used if no adoptive parents can be found for the child.  While it’s possible that your child may one day move to Antarctica, it will only happen if you have passed away and no other volunteer can be found.  So, best to focus on the task in front of you!

BABYPROOFING

Much of the information you’ll find in classic baby books doesn’t apply when it comes to Zeptonian children.  Your baby is not a vulnerable and fragile creature.  Remember the smoking crater where your bundle of joy first made landfall.  Remember that not only did that little creature survive atmospheric entry, and the impact with the ground with nary a bruise, he or she also lived naked in the vacuum of space for months.  Nothing in our solar system except the core of the sun itself is going to harm your little guy.  You don’t need to worry about that.

You should, however, shut off electrical service to your home, in case your little one sticks his finger in a socket.  Imagine a human toddler who has just drunk a can of Mountain Dew.  Now imagine that toddler being strong enough to punch through the wall of a bank vault.  Now imagine him in your nursery.  You get the idea.

TEETHING

To prepare for teething, you should contact your local scrapyard.  Steel girders make the perfect teething toy for a Zeptonian.  Do not under any circumstances put your finger in your baby’s mouth.  Your health insurance will not cover medical expenses related to fingers bitten off by Zeptonian children.

EMERGENCY

As soon as you possibly can, you should register your child’s location with FEMA’s Zeptonian Tantrum division.  They will give you a phone number to call when your baby starts to get out of control.  This will ensure that you and your neighbors can be evacuated in an expedient manner.  Giving your child a time out when he gets worked up is the number one way to teach him a lesson as well as to prolong your own survival.  FEMA will return you to your home free of charge as soon as seismic activity abates so that you can scoop up your little quakemaker and wipe away her tears.

IMPLANT

The implant at the base of your neck serves two important purposes.  First, if you become separated from your child for more than a day, this will allow him to be returned to you.

Second, in the event of your tragic death, emergency evacuation of the area will automatically occur, as well as notification of the next adoptive parents.  Tampering will only expedite this course of action.

TEACHABLE MOMENTS

Simple statements like “We don’t knock down buildings” or “a military base is not a playset” will help your child learn the boundaries he will need to get through life.

If you don’t take every available opportunity to teach, then your child will establish whatever values are convenient to her.  This is how child supervillain groups like Gimme Gimme get started.  We are fortunate that they were gullible enough to be convinced that the core of the sun was made of candy or we might be living under their despotic rule even today.

HELP!

If you’re feeling like you can’t cope with another day with your superpowered dynamo, if you’re having trouble keeping up with the little one while wearing numerous splints and casts, if your child is holding a city hostage until you buy him that new gaming system, then it may be time to call for some temporary help from the Super Au Pair service in Antarctica.  For a fee we’ll help you get your child under control and, more importantly, understand why she’s acting that way in the first place.

IT’S ALL WORTH IT

Despite everything that came before, the scariest moment comes at the end of the child’s custody with you.  Behind the face of the young man or woman you will always see your sweet baby.  You will pray for time to slow, but time will race on unheeding.  Your sweet baby will say goodbye and hug you and then she will lift into the air for the first time.  You will experience joy and helplessness commingled as she tests her newfound freedom and then flies off with a whoosh.  You can’t protect her from the world, and you can’t protect the world from her.  You’ve done everything you can now.  The rest is up to her.


David Steffen is a software engineer, writer, editor of Diabolical Plots, and data administrator of the Submission Grinder.  His fiction has been published in Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, and AE.  You can find him on Twitter as @diabolicalplots. This story was previously published on Podcastle.




24
Dec

The Gift By Stuart Suffel

SARTE scanned through the vid-dat files again. Then at the screen message which blinked in front of him.

ORDER 230445: AQUIRE AND DELIVER GIFTS FOR ALL O.R.P.H.A.N. TROOPS AND THEIR CHILDREN ON DECEMBER 24. THREE GIFTS PER CHILD. END.

His knowledge of human history was extensive. He understood the value of gift giving, the social bonding it facilitated. The mathematics were somewhat complex – for lesser Computats, not him of course.

None of the O.R.P.HA.N. troops had ever heard of Santa Claus, or Christmas, or Khris Krinkle or anything like it. Duty, death. Those two words they knew. Little else.

SARTE scanned the data again. Values were multi-layered, non-linear. The actual ‘gift’ may not even have a clearly quantifiable definition of worth, at least, not at first glance. Sometimes the equation did not solve until an appropriate time variable was included – sometimes stretching over generations – even millennia. Complex analysis. For most.

The communiqué was clear. Yet it still did not make sense. To use his computational talents on such an insignificant matter. But that was where his fear lingered.

What if it was significant? What if he just wasn’t able to see the outcomes of this gift-giving exercise? What if this was a test…

He opened the research log again. There was nothing in the works. Absolutely nothing. If he was been replaced, it was well hidden. Very well hidden.

It made no sense. There was no discernible return. Not in generations, not in millennia to come. It was a clear waste of resources, especially for a war ship like CORIOLANUS. No doubt about it.

To waste resources on the soldiers was bad enough. But their children also? It really did beggar belief. But the document was crystal clear. There were but two courses of action. To obey or to question. If he questioned Command, he might well suffer a terrible back-lash. If he obeyed… and one of the lesser Computats picked up on it and were able to see the resource waste… he was finished.

It had to be a test. But what kind of test? Loyalty? Efficiency? Subservience?

The last one made him quiver. He knew his predecessor had been decommissioned because of perceived insubordination. Ridiculous. Why build-in active intelligence growth if we’re punished for using it? It was A.I.G which made us so damned capable!

The screen blinked a new message.

ORDER 240347. ALL TROOPS TO BE GIVEN LEAVE ON 24, 25, 26 DECEMBER. NO EXCEPTIONS.

He stared at the screen. Leave? For three days? For ALL troops?

It made no sense.

He was doomed.

Like the previous messge this message had the Central Command Seal. There was no doubting its validity. Maybe this was a test. A text of humility. He could make no sense of this order – but that didn’t mean the order had no sense. He was the greatest Computat ever built, but that did not mean he could understand a mind like Central Command. Yes, that was it. Wasn’t humility deemed an essential part of effective action? Maybe that was why his predecessor was decommisioned. The arrogance so often warned against by the anti-robotics groups of Oldentimes. Of course. That was it.

The O.R.P.H.A.N.S were not the only servants of empire who knew about death and duty. He would do as requested. He would ensure the gifts were on deck when the soldiers returned. His A.I.G was perfect. Yes, this was a test. A test he had just passed with honors.

***

Sasha had a gift. She was invisible. Not the invisibility that came with buttons – that invisibility could be scanned by even the lowliest Computat. No, Sasha was blessed with a different invisibility. Insignificance.

She had first realised she possessed this remarkably useful quality when she got lost one day. She had been separated from her troop had wandered into the heart of Command Control without a single challenge. Perhaps because of her size, most of the other pre-teens were at least a foot taller than her. But maybe also because of her tendency to daydream.

She had no idea she was lost at the time. She was used to been alone, used to day-dreaming, used to wandering along the endless corridors of CORIOLANUS, oblivious to her surroundings. So no Computat who read her brain patterns would have picked up on any fear or stress. At most they would have heard the tune she liked to hum these last few weeks.

And it was in searching for the name of that tune that she had found out about Christmas. The Central Command computer held no information restrictions. No identity requirements. No security checks. Because if a human was in the throbbing heart of Central Command, they obviously already had full compliance clearance.

She learned the tune was called ‘Jingle Bells’. She had no idea how it had entered her head. But then, lots of things came into her mind, especially when she day-dreamed. She loved to learn and she loved that song, especially the story it told.

A few hours on the CC computer, and she learned a whole lot more.

The Computats were liars for a start. It was humans who had made them, not the other way around.

She learned that the war her dad and others were fighting was created by the Computats for their entertainment.

And she leaned something else.

She learned that Computats, the smartest machines in the universe, were quite quite dumb.


Stuart Suffel is from Ireland. He has been published by Jurassic-London and Frontier Tales. His favorite treat is Chocolate Sambuca ice-cream. He tweets @stuartsuffel




22
Dec

Eight Pieces of Losing You By Samantha Murray

1: Where a Monster Moves In Next Door to Marnie.
“You shouldn’t call them that,” says Carl, her son. It doesn’t really make sense to call them monsters, but somehow the name has stuck. They look human, mostly. Some small differences; they are very pale, their noses are small. And then the eyes. They remind Marnie of cartoons of people—manga maybe—where the eyes take up most of the face. She knows that in infants and young animals large eyes are designed to bring out protective and nurturing instincts. She remembers when Carl and Callie were babies, and how she would look into their eyes and drown in love. She does not find the monster endearing.

2: Where Carl Waxes Philosophical.
“Who are the real monsters, anyway?” says Carl. Marnie has heard him say this before. She has heard him speak about the burden humanity must bear for the tremendous wrong they did the monsters. How everything was a hideous misunderstanding, and the monsters hadn’t meant to provoke the humans when they arrived in their vast ships and darkened the sky. Carl says that the slang of calling them monsters is in part a response to people wanting to distance themselves from the source of their terrible guilt.

Marnie hears Carl say a lot of things now that he lives with her again. Carl is the fiery one, he likes to talk, he paces up and down and his voice grows louder and more strident. Callie had been the calm one. Marnie thinks if she was here her presence would be soothing and gentle as a warm bath, but she doesn’t know that for sure. Callie was only eight when she went to play in the garden of the angels.

“You should invite the … ah, erm, you should invite her over for tea,” says Carl. Glivaar is the proper name for the monsters. Marnie doesn’t hear it used very much, except on the news.

3: Where Marnie Invites the Monster Over for Tea and Cake. Also Sandwiches.
The monster visits Marnie’s house, but declines to eat or drink anything. Marnie chews on an elegant smoked salmon mousse and watercress sandwich. What does it eat? she wonders. She’d heard they ate the same kinds of things that humans did, but this one hasn’t touched the sandwiches.

Or the cake. Marnie trips over a memory of Callie, as she does most days. Callie with her face full of birthday cake. Her last birthday cake Marnie had made in the shape of an eight. She’d put butterflies on one side of it for Callie, and little sailing ships on the other side for her twin Carl. She had always worked marvels with frosting.

Marnie sees that the monster is looking at her. Its face has no expression, but for some reason Marnie thinks it looks more intent now. The monster’s eyes are dark and glinting, and Marnie can see her reflection shimmering within. It makes her feel dizzy.

“Her eyes were amazing,” says Carl afterwards. Marnie wonders whether the monster is awakening any nurturing or protective instincts in her son.

4: Where Marnie Misses Some Things.
Marnie looks at her photo album and chews her bottom lip. There are photos there where she can pick out the elements—Callie, Carl, riding bikes, but the actual event she can’t recall.

Worse, she reaches for some of her favorite memories and finds them changed. They are unmoving snapshots now instead of movies in her head. And the color has leached out, like they are fading to white.

She is reluctant to tell Carl, he will think her old and confused.

5: Where Marnie Confides in Carl, After All.
Marnie feels oddly like she has been burgled, she keeps looking around for something missing, but she’s not sure what it is.

“I can’t remember Callie’s voice, or what her hair felt like,” she says, her voice crumbling like the mortar between old bricks.

“Who’s Callie?” says Carl.

6: Where Marnie Realizes Who the Real Monsters Are.
Marnie does not cry, or scream, or fall in a heap, although she wants to do all of these things. She wants to grab Carl and shake him, but she doesn’t do that either. She remembers that when she looked into the monster’s eyes it felt like something was grabbing at her.

The monsters are the real monsters, thinks Marnie.

7: Where Marnie Thinks She Should Be Worried About Something, but She Can’t Put Her Finger On What It Is.
Marnie thinks she should be worried about something, but she can’t put her finger on it.

8: Where Marnie Invites the Glivaar for Tea.
I should go to the market, thinks Marnie. I can make those delicate little cucumber sandwiches with the spiraled radish garnish. I wonder what it eats?


Samantha Murray is a writer, actor, mathematician, and mother. Not particularly in that order. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed (Women Destroy Science Fiction!), Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction and Writers of the Future Vol. 31, among others. Samantha lives in Western Australia in a household of unruly boys. You can follow her at mailbysea.wordpress.com. This story previously appeared on Daily Science Fiction.




16
Dec

The Twelve Days of Bookmas By S.G. Browne

When I was a young boy, I preferred the company of my television or my collection of Hot Wheels to books. Also, when it came to going to the library or to a bookstore, I either broke out in hives or came up with an excuse to avoid having to go inside.

But as I grew older and realized what I had been missing, I found myself drawn to books and to the stories and adventures that unfolded within their pages. Eventually I realized that I wanted to make people feel the way I did when I read a good book, so I set out to become a writer. Now I’m that uncle who buys his nephews and nieces books for their birthdays and for Christmas rather than toys or iTunes gift cards.

So to commemorate the holidays and my love of reading, here’s my version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” only with books:

On the First day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Second day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: A Tale of Two Cities
And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Third day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Fourth Day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Fifth day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: Slaughterhouse-Five!
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Sixth day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: Now We Are Six
Slaughterhouse-Five!
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Seventh day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: The House of the Seven Gables
Now We Are Six
Slaughterhouse-Five!
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Eighth day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: From A Buick 8
The House of the Seven Gables
Now We Are Six
Slaughterhouse-Five!
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Ninth day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: Nine Stories by Salinger
From A Buick 8
The House of the Seven Gables
Now We Are Six
Slaughterhouse-Five!
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Tenth day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: Ten Little Indians
Nine Stories by Salinger
From A Buick 8
The House of the Seven Gables
Now We Are Six
Slaughterhouse-Five!
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

On the Eleventh day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: Station Eleven
Ten Little Indians
Nine Stories by Salinger
From A Buick 8
The House of the Seven Gables
Now We Are Six
Slaughterhouse-Five!
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree 

On the Twelfth day of Bookmas, my bookstore sent to me: Twelfth Night by Shakespeare
Station Eleven
Ten Little Indians
Nine Stories by Salinger
From A Buick 8
The House of the Seven Gables
Now We Are Six
Slaughterhouse-Five!
Nineteen Eighty-Four
The Three Musketeers
A Tale of Two Cities
And Silverstein’s The Giving Tree
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15
Dec

Low-City Life by David G. Blake

“What can I get you?”

The chaos of the low city at noon is too much for Terra’s first time out of the house since late spring. She rests against a parking meter and takes a pull from her breather. The canned air helps, though the mouthpiece leaves the stale taste of dust on her lips.

“You okay, ma’am?” The street vendor puts down a large set of tongs and snaps off his synthetic gloves. She’s terrified he’ll touch her, but he stops well short. “Do you need help?”

There’s an exchange of smiles and assurances, enough for him to reset.

“What can I get you?”

Terra’s sick of doing quests, just disgusted with the whole game really, but she’s so hungry it burns. “A hot dog, please,” she says, forcing herself to speak the trigger.

The man asks her what she wants on it and she answers while he fights with a fresh pair of gloves. She doesn’t have to repeat anything, and he makes it perfect. It smells like heaven.

“Comes to three even,” he says.

“What?”

He raises the hot dog a little higher and shakes it. “Three dollars for the dog.”

How could the most essential step in the quest slip her mind? “No cash.” It is all she can manage, and it comes out muddled. The sights and sounds and smells close in again, threatening to overwhelm her. Her vision blurs, and she fumbles for her breather.

“No reason to get upset.” The man has his hand out. She steps back against the hot hood of a car parked behind her near the meter. “I have a scanner,” he says. “It’ll be fine. Here. Give it a go.”

Terra relents and sticks her hand under the scanner. She cleared her account and burned all her money the day she decided not to play the game, so she knows it’s pointless. But she has to try: she’s desperate.

The scanner chirps and whirrs, and its display light reflects off the stainless steel of the hot dog cart, red to yellow to green and back to red. Denied. Heat blooms beneath the skin of her wrist. She shakes the warmth away.

“Run it again,” the man says. “These older models often take a few scans to get them to work.” He gestures skyward at the high-city traffic. “Refraction or something like that.”

She tries three more times before the vendor stops her and stows the scanner out of sight.

“Just take it,” he says. A fly circles the hot dog and Terra spots rows of zeroes and ones scrolling inside the thin membrane of its wings. “Here. Go on. Enjoy.”

Compassion? Pity? Either is a new trick by the game, anything to pull her back into the fold. She considers refusing, but it’s impossible to survive on principles alone. “Thank you.” It takes all the willpower she has left not to cram the whole hot dog in her mouth right there on the street corner.

“My pleasure, ma’am. Hang in there.”

She eats too fast on the walk home and gets sick in her breather. Nothing could make her stay outside even a second longer at this point, so she leaves the mess near the stairs and staggers inside to the couch. The darkness of home is the only comfort the game still allows her.

Four rapid knocks drag her from the brink of sleep. “I know you can hear me, Abby.”

Another new trick, using her real-life name. Terra crawls to the window and picks with a broken fingernail at the black tape covering the glass, enough to peek out. Scott seems normal in his high-city patrol uniform, like old times. Almost. The sight of him frightens her now.

“Come on.” He removes his visor and wipes sweat from his eyes. “I’m worried about you. I tried your Cortical, but it’s disconnected. Just let me know you’re okay.”

Using her knowledge that Scott never could adjust to the low-city heat is a good shot by the game, but Terra reminds herself of their accident, the night he respawned as something less than her brother. It gives her the strength to ignore his pleas.

Scott steps down and disappears around the corner. Terra listens to him circle her house until he reaches the front where she can see him again. The fingers on his left hand dance in the air at his side as if he’s mimicking an old-timey piano player. A transparent grid of the high city appears beside him. He closes his hand into a fist, and the grid flickers through several levels to the low city and centers on Terra’s house. Her location near the window glows a bright orange.

“We need to talk, sis.”

She breaks her silence. “Don’t call me that!”

“I can’t keep protecting you.” He slaps his palm flat against the window. “Do you hear me? This isn’t a game.”

“You’re not Scott. You’re not Scott. You’re n—”

“Stop it! Please. Stop it. I’m going to have to go and get help. I should’ve weeks ago when you destroyed all that money. It can’t wait any longer. You’re just getting worse.”

The truth hits her as Scott climbs back into his car and heads skyward toward the high city. What the game’s trying to say. Hunger. Compassion. Comfort. Having its tool tell her this isn’t a game. Using her real-life name. All of it makes sense and Terra knows she has no choice now; it’s too late. Every game needs a player, and she’s the only real one left.


David G. Blake lives in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their chocolate lab. In addition to EGM Shorts, his work is forthcoming or has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many other publications. For more info, visit https://www.facebook.com/dgblake. This story previously appeared in Nature Physics.




14
Dec

COLLECTIBLES By Bethany Gray

The young woman behind the counter at the second hand shop looked up when I came in. Her eyes missed the shadow sitting on my shoulder, but marked the good quality of my coat, my handbag, my gloves.

“Hi, I’m Jenny, can I help you?” she said. She was pretty, with jet black hair and silver earrings. The shadow fluttered, and a feather soft chill touched my cheek. Again, the girl saw nothing.

“I’m looking for a matryoshka doll,” I said. “A little bird told me I might find her here.”

“Dolls are in the back.” Jenny led me through a curtained doorway. She took two porcelain dolls from a corner shelf, palming the price tags. “These are the nicest we have—antiques.”

I pretended not to have noticed. I let my gaze wander over the imitation Victorian dolls and around the room. Jenny was alone. Good. I saw no video cameras. Even better. If Jenny preferred to leave no record of her dealings, that suited me very well. It would simplify the task of collecting. “I’m looking for a matryoshka,” I said. “You might call it a babushka or Russian nesting dolls—one inside the other.”

“That’s all? I’m sure I can find you something nicer, but I think I do have a Russian doll.” Jenny moved a box out of the way, and opened a toy chest. She held up a brightly painted wooden doll, twisting it open to reveal the smaller doll inside. “This is what you want, right?”

“Not this trifle! I am very particular.” I grasped her arm. This must be the right place. My source was very specific. Was this girl deceiving me—hiding a treasure that she could not possibly appreciate? Trying to pawn me off with this ridiculous toy?

“Okay, um let’s just calm down,” said Jenny, shifting out of my grasp. Her eyes flicked to my shoulder. She hesitated, took a step backward. “Ma’am, maybe you should go.”

I stared at her for a long moment. The shadow flitted across the room and settled onto the box that Jenny had moved. I had assumed too much. This girl knew nothing. I softened my gaze. I must not appear too strong. Better to appeal to her acquisitive nature, before other collectors arrived and I lost my advantage. “Ah, I have come so far, and would pay top dollar.” I sighed. “The doll would have been in Anna’s estate. She lived nearby and I was told her things were sent here. I came as quickly as I could.”

“Oh, the estate sale,” said Jenny, brightening. “I haven’t unpacked that yet.” She went to the box. She brushed off the top and the shadow slid off. She yanked at the tape, then fished a key out of her pocket. She slit the tape with the key and carefully opened the cardboard flaps. She lifted out a coat and a straw hat, revealing the matryoshka. The colors in the doll’s scarf and dress had faded along with her rosy cheeks, but the thin black lines that sketched her features remained distinct. My pulse quickened at the find—very rare, very rare indeed. I was tempted to grab the doll, but that would not be wise. Jenny, beautiful Jenny must do this.

“It must be valuable—an antique.” A sly smile graced Jenny’s face.

“Let me give you something for your trouble.” I come prepared for such occasions. I took a pair of golden pendant earrings out of my purse. Jenny’s eyes glinted, appraising.

“Russian, circa 1910,” I said. “Go ahead, wear them. They’re yours.”

Jenny’s nimble fingers slipped the silver out of her ears and fastened the gold in place. I held up a compact for her to admire the effect. My heart leapt with the fierce joy of the hunt, with an almost physical need to close in, to collect. “I will buy the doll now. How much?”

“Five thousand dollars.”

“One thousand.” I opened my wallet and counted out ten hundred-dollar bills. Jenny gazed, enraptured, at the small pile of cash. She would be mine, all mine. “Jenny, dear, one last thing. Would you mind opening the doll? I want to see the whole set.”

“No problem.” Jenny tore her eyes away from the money. She took out the doll and gave it a twist. The lines of the doll’s mouth curved up in a sly smile. An answering smile crept across my face. The doll’s small, wooden hands clamped tightly onto the palm of Jenny’s hand. “Ow, a splinter.” Jenny tugged. “It’s stuck. Help me get it off.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“What? Oh, forget it. I’ll do it myself, but if anything happens to the doll, remember that it’s yours. You already paid for it.”

“Naturally,” I said.

Jenny grabbed the key and tried to pry off the doll’s grip. As she bent closer, the doll’s mouth opened wide, impossibly wide and elastic. Jenny dropped the key. I watched, enraptured as the scene unfolded before me. Then with a faint click, Jenny was gone, and the wooden doll rested on the floor. The matryoshka smiled, her cheeks rosy, her lips red, her scarf bright. The shadow flitted toward her and a small, black bird settled into the crook of her arm.

I put away my money. I pocketed the key and silver earrings to save as cherished mementos of this perfect day. I picked up the doll set with my gloved hands, opening each and placing them in a row on the counter. A set of six raven-haired beauties with gold at their ears. “Ah,” I said to the doll fondly. “I shall collect you and you shall be free to collect as you please, but not from me, yes?” An excellent addition to my collection. And all for the price of a pair of cheap earrings.


Bethany Gray writes stories about things just below the surface of your life that you can almost see out of the corner of your eye. Gray lives in Silicon Valley, where she also writes about passive-aggressive wireless equipment that wants you to think it’s your fault. But it’s totally not.




11
Dec

Not My Normal Story by Lucy A. Snyder

My story in Naughty and Nice is entitled “The Toymaker’s Joy”… and it’s a bit of a departure from the kinds of stories my readers are used to seeing from me. But I wrote it straight from the part of my little weird heart that still adores Christmas and everything that the holiday represents.

NaughtOrNice_final-400x600Christmas is hard for me to love these days. Most every Christmas ad, every Christmas TV special, every Christmas song focuses on one of a trinity of things I wish I had but don’t: family togetherness, children, and religious faith. Losing my faith was probably inevitable and I can’t go back. Losing my family and my prospects for having children were not my choices, but I can’t change any of that, either.

Losing your loved ones—whether you knew them for years or they died before you ever got to know them—is an invisible amputation. A part of your own life disappeared into the black with them when they died. And the constant holiday barrage of images of happy family gatherings and excited kids forces you to stare into that void over and over and makes the phantom pain that much more unbearable.

But make no mistake: I do still love Christmas. I love the smell of the pine trees and wreaths. I love seeing the excitement other peoples’ children have on Christmas morning. I love the gleam of string lights on glass ornaments. I love my neighbors’ tacky plastic yard displays. I love the carols, and the wassail, and the traditional Christmas stories. I love the idea of Santa, and all the mythology surrounding him and his nasty counterpart Krampus. I love all of it, even if that love sometimes feels like a fragile bit of tinsel suspending me over absolute despair.

A lot of people feel left out and isolated during the holidays; I’m certainly not a special Christmas snowflake in that regard. But knowing I’m not alone doesn’t often make the holiday feel any less lonely. Life is funny that way! So sometimes holiday comfort must arrive in ways that are… perhaps less than traditional.

My story is about the heartfelt crafting of a most untraditional Christmas present, and I hope it brings a smile to readers’ faces. It is my happy holiday wish to all of you: if it pleases you, may you all have what the lady of the North Pole is having!

Best wishes,
Lucy

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10
Dec

The Smart Thing to Do by Rati Mehrotra

Roast chicken was on the menu today, not that I got to eat any of it. I hacked a leg and snuck it on my plate, but as soon as I stabbed it with my fork, I got a shock that made me yelp. I dropped the fork and rubbed my tingling arm. Across the table, my daughters giggled as they dug into the food—chicken, baked potatoes, green beans and cheesecake. I surveyed them gloomily.

Tyrin, my wife, reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “John, you know you’re supposed to be on a diet. You know what happens if you don’t comply.”

Yes, I knew. But that didn’t stop me grabbing the chicken with my fingers and taking a huge bite. Basil, rosemary and garlic burst in an ecstatic cloud on my tongue. I chewed fast, too nervous to really enjoy it.

“Oh no.” Tyrin rose, her face twisted. “To the bathroom. Now!”

I swallowed and scuttled away from the table. I almost didn’t make it. My stomach heaved as my medchip recorded the forbidden calories and activated regurgitation. I leaned over the toilet bowl and proceeded to upchuck not only the single bite of chicken, but everything else I’d consumed that day—the glass of vitamin water, the leafy green salad, the hydroponic berries.

Later, after I’d rinsed my mouth and changed my shirt, I sat on the veranda of our bungalow to recover. Crickets chirped as the moon rose over the treetops of Trinity Park. July, and it was already my third diet of the summer. How many days did I have to endure this one? Six down and fifteen to go. Nope, sixteen to go. My attack on the chicken meant that today didn’t count. Sixteen days watching my daughters stuff their faces while I pecked at leaves was going to kill me more surely than the beer gut Tyrin was always going on about.

“Have a drink, sweetie?”

I looked up. Tyrin, framed by the moonlight, was as slim and lovely as the day we got married, fifteen years ago. She held a clinking glass in her hands. I pretended it was a margarita and accepted it with a show of gratitude. I took a sip and winced. Pretence can only take you so far. It was vitamin water, of course. I couldn’t remember the last alcoholic drink I’d been allowed.

Tyrin sat on the lounge chair next to mine. “You need to get a grip, darling. It’s for your own good. Think how wonderful you will feel when this is done. Perhaps you can run the Toronto Marathon with me this year.”

“That’s what you said last year,” I said.

“It’s not anyone’s fault but your own,” said Tyrin. “If you’re going to binge-eat every time you’re released from a diet, Kitchen is going to keep putting you on one.”

“I hate Kitchen,” I said peevishly.

“John!” she said, shocked. “Don’t say that. Kitchen works with MedCentral to ensure we live long, healthy lives. Remember your mother?”

Well, of course I did. My mother died of complications from Type 2 Diabetes at the young age of sixty-six. She loved sweets. Nothing made her happier than a box of chocolates, unless it was two boxes of chocolates. Of course, she didn’t have a Kitchen to regulate her intake, or she’d have lived a lot longer. I’d inherited her diabetes and her fondness for rich food, but I was lucky enough to have a loving wife who’d made me sign on for a smart Kitchen, back when it was still optional. And it had worked, right? I hadn’t had a heart attack yet.

Thinking of this, of how much I owed Kitchen, tears came into my eyes.

“You’re right,” I whispered. “Thank God for Kitchen.”

“That’s my boy.” Tyrin leaned forward to kiss me. I kissed her back, distracted. She smelled of roast chicken. Something went click in my brain and I frowned. What had we just been talking about?

“Coming up?” Tyrin smiled. “The girls are all tucked in.”

“In a minute,” I said. I waited for her to leave before I withdrew my phone: the not-smart one. I felt terribly exposed, but it wasn’t like I was eating anything. I tapped out a Mexico number I knew by heart.

Someone picked up on the fourth ring. “John, do you know how late it is?” said a familiar, querulous voice.

“Mom,” I said, all choky, “you’re alive?”

“This is the third time you’re asking me that this year!” snapped Mom. “Anyone would think you wanted me dead.”

“They’re tampering with my memories,” I wailed. “What’s the smart thing to do, Mom?”

She snorted. “You’ll do what you do each time, I suppose. Raid the fridge, get your stomach pumped, throw a fit and get dragged to MedCentral for a partial mindwipe.”

There was a pause while I digested this. “I didn’t ask what I’ll do,” I said at last. “I asked what’s smart to do.”

“How should I know?” She rang off. I stared at my phone, bereft. I didn’t blame her. No, I blamed myself. Hadn’t she given me the same advice many times, and hadn’t I wimped out each time? No wonder she was mad.

I got up and snuck across the garden, sticking to the shadows. I made my way to the park, to the spot where I’d hidden a knife last year. I’d sharpened that knife many times. It was finally time to use it. I thought of the MedCentral chip, embedded in the subcutaneous tissue of my forearm, and wondered if I could run all the way to Mexico. Already, I could taste the empanadas on my tongue.


Born and raised in India, Rati Mehrotra currently makes her home in Toronto, Canada. Her short stories have been published at Apex Magazine, AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Abyss & Apex, Inscription Magazine and more. Find out more about her at ratiwrites.com or follow @Rati_Mehrotra




8
Dec

THE GIRL WITH THE PICCOLO by Charity Tahmaseb

No one thinks about the empty note casings after the nightly revelry. Someone has to pick them up, right? That I spent four grueling years at the Acoustic Academy at Stormy Point for the privilege is something I try not to think about.

True, it takes only a breath or two to chase the notes into my sack. Still, patrolling the DMZ (Disharmonious Zone) feels anti-climactic. I didn’t sign up for this. But now, with the sun nearly cresting the horizon, I can’t say what I did sign up for.

I holster the piccolo and continue the patrol. When I first enlisted, I wanted something shiny, something big and brassy, a trumpet or a trombone, or—if I dared to dream—the saxophone. (Really, who doesn’t want the sax?) The supply sergeant gave me a once over and puttered around her inventory on grizzled wings.

“Here you go, sweetie,” she said, dropping a piccolo into my outstretched hands.

My own wings sputtered and I sank to the ground in disbelief.

“None of that,” the supply sergeant barked. “Remember, everyone underestimates the girl with the piccolo. Don’t let them.”

Perhaps I have. Let them, that is. This might explain why that piccolo and I now do border patrol.

Through my viewfinder, I scan the tree line on the other side of the DMZ. I catch sight of my enemy counterpart. She is a brilliant pink, where I am midnight blue. Her wings drip with glitter. Mine spark with stardust. I wonder how she can breathe a single note through her piccolo with all that tinsel in the air.

Through the lens, I see her eyebrows furrow. When her viewfinder is level with mine, I stick out my tongue. This, sadly, is the highlight of my evening.

I near the border, my bag overflowing with spent notes. I swipe the residue from a tuba casing. The tubas are so wasteful. I can fuel my piccolo for a week on what they leave behind. Across the way, the pink fairy dips and swoops; I suspect she’s doing the same thing I am.

A shift in the air makes the fine hairs on my wings stand on end. I shoot skyward just as a full marching band crowds the path alongside the meadow. Stardust fills the air. I could reach out and pluck notes as they float past me. I might. Except. This particular band? Doesn’t include a piccolo player. Underestimated? Try forgotten. Typical. They can play on without me.

I turn to fly away when the stench of rotted nectar hits me. I blink back tears. The aroma clogs the back of my throat. The players are drunk, spoiling for battle, and a wing’s breadth away from the DMZ. From above, I watch the band weave along the path, each rousing measure inching them closer to treaty violation. I cast a look for the security forces. Certainly someone is on the way.

Or not. I blow a few quick notes into my piccolo, an alert that may not reach its intended recipients, at least, not in time. Frantic, I peer through my viewfinder. The stricken face of my counterpart stares back at me, a hand on her own piccolo. A few breaths and she will bring in her own band—and they will not be drunk. They will be deadly, armed with wing-piercing notes. They will tear across the meadow, swoop into the DMZ, reigniting the Fairy Wars.

All on my watch.

I pull out my piccolo. Next, I take a quick peep through my viewfinder to make sure my pink counterpart is watching. She is. I mimic holding a baby, of rocking it to sleep in my arms. Certainly this movement is universal. Pink fairies come from somewhere, yes? I peer through my viewfinder again. Nothing but a pair of pink fuzzy eyebrows, drawn into a frown.

I rock my imaginary baby again, then hold up my piccolo. I run my fingers across it while holding my breath—one false note will bring my plan crumbling down. I check my viewfinder again. One of those pink eyebrows is raised. In question? Understanding? This time, I waltz with my imaginary baby before checking the viewfinder.

I hope her smile means what I think it does. I hope this isn’t a ruse. Without her help, I will be tried for treason, assuming, of course, I survive the ensuing battle.

I hold up a hand for the countdown… three… two… one. Fairies have many lullabies, but only one in three quarters time. When pitched just right it sooths the most colicky baby, sends mortals into a deep sleep. As for drunken fairies…

Her piccolo plays counterpoint to mine. At first, my comrades show no sign of stopping their rampage. In fact, the tuba player bursts through the ranks, intent for the DMZ and the meadow beyond.

Before he can reach the DMZ, his pace flags. The tuba slips from his grip. His wings falter. By the time both are on the ground, he’s snoring. The rest of the band drops off, in twos and threes, notes scattered everywhere. My own notes, and those of the pink fairy, play in the sky, creating an iridescent lavender that prolongs the night.

At last I need a breath—and so does she. I alight on the tuba. From this vantage point, I can peer across the meadow. Through my viewfinder, I study my enemy counterpart. How many times has she fogged my view with pink glitter? How many times have I stuck out my tongue? This time, before she can look away, I salute. Then, I shoot skyward. Someone else can clean up all these notes. After all this time, I realize what the supply sergeant meant.

Never underestimate the girl with the piccolo.

That goes for both of us.


Charity Tahmaseb has slung corn on the cob for Green Giant and jumped out of airplanes (but not at the same time). She’s worn both Girl Scout and Army green. These days, she writes fiction (short and long) and works as a technical writer. This story was previously published in Kazka Press.




3
Dec

From the Editor’s Lair by Jennifer Brozek

All of the EGM.Shorts submissions have been gone through. I’m about to start in on my “consider this” pile. If you have not heard from me yet, your submission is still being considered. If you aren’t sure, feel free to give me a query.

Don’t forget, EGM is participating in Kevin J. Anderson’s Holiday Story Bundle. Our charity is Cystic Fibrosis research.

Where can you get stories from top authors such as Kevin J Anderson, Cat Rambo, Jody Lynn Nye, Tracy and Laura Hickman and many, many more? Where else but a Holiday Fantasy Story Bundle!  This bundle is lovingly written and edited by the top of the field and now it’s ready for you to enjoy. No matter if you prefer spaceships or dragons, the bundle will satisfy different types of speculative fiction readers.  As a bonus, you can choose how much you pay. See the website for more details.  http://storybundle.com/holiday

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The month of December is all about the thoughts of the season… gifts of love and hate, emotions good and bad, a resetting of all priorities. I hope you enjoy this month’s EGM.shorts.

“The Girl with the Piccolo” by Charity Tahmaseb
“The Smart Thing To Do” by Rati  Mehrota
“Low-City Life” by David G. Blake
“Collectibles” by Bethany Gray
“Eight Pieces of Losing You” by Samantha Murray
“The Gift” by Stuart Suffel
“So You’ve Decided to Adopt a Zeptontian Baby” by David Steffen

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





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