Entertainingly Evil
28
Jan

AN OBJECT LESSON IN MISANTHROPY By Michelle Ann King

I’d always believed my mother was destined to become a certified Crazy Cat Lady, so the idea of her having a friend of any kind, let alone a boyfriend, took some getting used to. But once I met Bill, I liked him. He had a nice smile, good manners, and a cute Scottish accent.

God knew what he was doing with Mum. Since I couldn’t remember the last time she’d left the house, I had no idea how they could even have met. On a website, I suppose. He was some kind of lecturer or researcher at the university in Cheltenham, so maybe it was a science project.

He turned up—on time, of course—with wine and flowers. I put the first into the fridge and the second into a milk bottle, which was the closest thing we had to a vase. Mum was supposed to have cooked dinner—Fettuccine Alfredo, nice and simple; I’d even gone down to Sainsbury’s and got all the ingredients for her—but she spent the afternoon playing online poker instead. She did that a lot. Now she looked round the kitchen with her eyebrows raised, as if surprised there was no food on the table.

“I’ve ordered a pizza,” I said. “It’ll be here soon. Pepperoni, pineapple and anchovies.”

“Sounds great to me,” Bill said. If he was disappointed, he didn’t show it. Man had class.

Mum went to the fridge and took out the wine bottle. “Zoe was an accident,” she said. “I never wanted to have kids. Never thought I’d be able to—freaks of nature are usually sterile.”

Bill and I both blinked. Well, how’s that for a conversation stopper?

“Nina, love—” he started, but she held up a hand and his mouth snapped shut.

“You’re thirteen,” she said to me, pouring herself a glass of wine. “Adolescence, puberty, that’s when it kicks in. There are things I have to tell you. Teach you.”

I gave her my best you have got to be kidding me face. “I’m fourteen, since you’re obviously not keeping count. And are we seriously going to do the talk about the birds and the bees? Now?”

“Actually no, we’re going to do the talk about the genetically mutated enhancement of cognitive functions.”

Bill had been shifting in his chair. At that, he froze.

“Would you like to start, dear?” she asked him. “It is your specialist subject, isn’t it?”

Then she grinned at me. “You were right about all this, Zoe. Him. Us. A science project is exactly what it is.”

I stole a glance at Bill, who was starting to look a little red in the face. Had I actually said that out loud? Normally, I tried harder to keep my uncharitable thoughts to myself. At least one of us needed to understand the concept of politeness.

“Oh, I understand it,” she said. “I just don’t see much point in it.”

Okay. What was going on here? This wasn’t funny.

“No, it’s not. It’s not funny at all.” She drank her wine and looked at Bill. He was very still, only his eyes following her. “You found me though Ekstrom, didn’t you? I knew I’d regret letting that little bastard walk away.”

“Mum, for the love of God—”

“Oh, love of God never has anything to do with it. Love of money, yes. Love of fame, and prestige, and academic recognition. Love of power.” She tilted her glass at Bill. “Did you really think it was going to be that easy? That you’d bring me in with wine and flowers and sweet nothings? Do you really think you’re that good in bed?’ She laughed. ‘What am I saying? Of course you do.”

Bill still didn’t move. I touched his shoulder. “Do you have any idea what’s going on here, or is she simply trying harder than ever to convince me that she’s completely batshit insane?”

He stared at me, but didn’t reply.

Mum lifted the wine bottle and topped up her glass. “You can answer her,” she said.

Air exploded from Bill’s mouth in a rush. “Zoe, listen to me,’ he said. ‘My phone’s in my jacket pocket. Take it out and call Stefan. It’s in the contacts. Do you understand? Stefan. Call Stefan.”

“I’m sorry,” my mother said in a sing-song voice. “Stefan can’t come to the phone right now. In fact, Stefan won’t be coming to the phone for a long, long time.”

Bill’s eyes locked on her, and for the first time I realised he was scared. Really, genuinely scared.

“You know what always amazes me about people like you?” she said. “That you know, or think you do, what I am. What I can do. And yet still you come. Well, congratulations. You were right. And for your special prize, you get a first-hand demonstration validating all your theories. Aren’t you thrilled?”

Bill’s Adam’s apple jerked as he swallowed. It looked painful. “Nina,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Please. I’m sorry.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know.”

Bill silently, horribly, began to cry.

“Look at this,” she said, pointing at him. “Look at this, girl, and remember. This is how it is, and this is how it will always be. Men like him will come for you. Some will try to persuade you, some will try to use you, some will just try to kill you. But wherever you go, they’ll always come.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. My voice sounded very small. “I don’t understand any of this.”

For a moment her expression softened. But only for a moment. As Bill began to make choking sounds, she turned away. “Try harder,” she said.


Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her short stories, which have appeared at Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Podcastle, are being collected in the Transient Tales series, and she is working on a paranormal crime novel. Find more details at www.transientcactus.co.uk. This story was previously published in Untied Shoelaces of the Mind.




26
Jan

One Hundred Words by Eneasz Brodski

It started as a lark. It had long before been noted that the sapients of the sol system endlessly agonized over the purpose of their existence. Idle speculation arose over how they’d react to the true answer. As always, the final arbiter was experiment and observation.

The results were fascinating, and are oft replicated. It remains the most popular, if least important, aspect of the program.

On the hundredth day of a new “Human” ruler’s reign, they are visited by The Ambassador. The current empire calls its rulers “Presidents”. The Ambassador appears as a man and speaks one hundred words.


Denial

The man standing before the president finishes his message and falls silent. They’re alone in the oval office, in time stolen between seconds. Outside, the swirling autumn leaves hang fixed in place. Carter looks at him for long minutes before speaking.

“You mean to tell me no one is alive? That we’re just machines?”

The man had not said that. He reiterates that nothing has changed but Carter’s knowledge.

Carter smiles sadly. “I’m sorry to tell you that you’re quite mistaken. Our souls are thoughts in God’s mind, and He does not have fleeting thoughts. He died for us all.”


Anger

Nixon’s laughter dies away, slowly at first, and as he comprehends his face returns to its familiar scowl.

“It’s not a joke?”

The man has nothing to add. Nixon’s face hardens further. His hand clenches into a fist.

“Look here, I won’t have this! You think we’re powerless? We can destroy your whole little experiment from the inside!”

The man shrugs. They can roll back to prevent that. They have once before.

“It’s obscene!” Nixon slams a fist into the desk. “I’ll damn us all before I let this stand!”

He might as well rail against the sun for rising.


Bargaining

This president is optimistic. That will change. The man indulges him with amusement.

“Surely you can see how your actions seem strongly immoral to us,” Obama opens.

“Do you care for the moral concerns of ants?” asks the man.

“Perhaps we can come to an arrangement,” Obama offers. “There’s much our peoples can learn from each other.”

“What knowledge could you trade with an ant colony?” the man counters.

“We’ll be powerful one day, why make enemies of us now?”

The man smiles slightly. “For a people who want the meaning of life, you’re never happy when you’re given it.”


Depression

The younger Bush is at his ranch, alone. Clearing brush, all his previous life a distant memory. The words echo in his mind.

He crouches and grasps a handful of dirt. He opens his hand slowly, peers at it, watches it fall incrementally to the ground. Searches it for falseness. It is only dirt.

He looks up into the deep blue sky. Peers into it to find the artifice. But it is always only the sky.

Nothing matters, he thinks. I may as well do as I wish. Read stories to children. Land jets on aircraft carriers. All is vanity.


Acceptance

This president leans back and considers the man before him. His recent brush with death has brought him stark clarity.

“You know what I think of that?” Reagan says, reaching for a jelly bean. “Not a damn thing. You come here with your grand secret, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference, does it? We may be tools to you, but we still have to live. We still have to beat the recession and the Soviets, and your revelation doesn’t change anything.”

The world would continue regardless, for better or for worse.

“Get out, I have work to do.”


Eneasz Brodski lives just outside Denver with his fiancé and their two dogs. When  not at his day job or writing, he produces a bi-weekly podcast of rationalist fiction at www.hpmorpodcast.com. He’s been interested in politics from a very young age, as his parents fled their home country due to strong objections to communism.




21
Jan

The Business is Dying by Dantzel Cherry

Quentin turned on the lights in the embalming room to find the first body he’d seen there in weeks. It was his father, twitching on the floor with a gaping hole in his head, the gun a few inches from his fingers. He was already one of the undead he had resented so much in the last 18 months of his life – shuffling, clumsy bodies that only took a bite if you got too close.

On the counter was a handling pole, made to fit a human neck. Next to it sat a handwritten note, lightly sprinkled red.

Dear Quentin,

I’m sorry you’ll be the one to find me. The gun is supposed to take you pretty quick. I guess I’ll find out soon. I want you to take me to the zoo to be with your mother, and then get a real job – forget the family business. I hear the zoo is hiring.

Love,
Dad

Quentin dried his eyes on his sleeve and picked up the handling pole.

“Apocalypses can’t last forever,” he muttered, and snagged his dad’s neck. “Let’s go for a walk, Dad.”

Two shambling hours later, they stood by the old wallaby exhibit turned Deceased Last Names A-H Enclosure. The head zookeeper chewed a piece of hay and looked Quentin and his father up and down. A peacock cried in the distance. It was silenced, one way or another, by the moan of a zombie.

“So this is Henry the mortician,” the zookeeper said. “Were you his apprentice?”

Quentin dropped his gaze and nodded. “And his son.”

He whistled. “I’m sorry, kid. I’m Jack, by the way.” They shook hands. “You know how to hold a water hose?”

Quentin looked at the green hose and back at Jack.

“Can’t be harder than inserting a syringe into a squirrely vein,” he said.

Jack traded the hose for the handling pole, and pulled Henry toward the wallaby exhibit.

“They seem to like getting sprayed down every so often. Must feel good in this heat. Just keep ’em well watered and they’ll be happy enough.”

That day and for the rest of the week Quentin watered the zombies, built shelters to give the undead refuge from the sun, and took the most restless on long walks, collared with a six foot handling pole. On Saturday Jack presented him with an undead red parrot. It squawked and tried to bite through the cage.

“Freshly dead,” Jack said. “He’s always been a vicious thing. I figured you could – you know – use your mortician skills to hold his nasty little beak shut. Or something.”

“Not a bad idea,” Quentin said, and reached out to pick up a stray feather. He snatched his hand back from the snapping beak just in time. “Nothing a needle can’t fix.”

He brought the parrot back the next day with the beak sewed shut. With its most powerful weapon neutralized, the parrot gave up the fight and rode Quentin’s shoulder. He only occasionally dug his claws into Quentin’s skin as payback.

After several weeks Quentin felt comfortable walking two undead at a time, and soon after he worked up the nerve to hunt down his parents.

“Come on, Dad,” Quentin coaxed Henry.

He was jerked to the right and dragged forward several steps before reining his undead mother in. The parrot let out a muffled squawk in protest.

“Whoa now, Mom, we’re not going that way. You’re going to – well, not choke yourself, but it can’t feel very good. We can’t eat the monkeys today. Walk this way. That’s right, follow the parrot, just through this gate…”

Walking both parents meant double the pauses. They were easily distracted by birds chirping, flies buzzing, or any other reminders of tasty, living creatures, but eventually all three were safely home and Quentin had his father’s body strapped onto the embalming table. The old man wouldn’t rise anytime soon. Bloated, rotting hands scrabbled on the table, possibly seeking the comforting touch of his son, perhaps looking for lunch. Quentin chose to believe the former.

He checked that his mother was still secured in the corner and set the parrot down on the counter, out of reach of any grasping fingers. He gripped his father’s hand and steadied the arterial needle.

“I figured it out, Dad,” Quentin said, smiling into Henry’s bulging, darting eyes. “It took thirty tries over the last few weeks, but I did it. I can save the family business and give you peace at the same time. Just had to rearrange the embalming order a bit.”

He gave the pale hand a squeeze then slipped the needle into place. The formaldehyde forced the long-sluggish blood to action. Quentin opened a vein nearby and the blood spilled out, clotted but freed. Henry exhaled loudly and closed his eyes.

Quentin’s mother moaned from the corner.

“Don’t worry, Mom. You’re next.” Quentin smiled as his mother clumsily clapped her hands.

#

Within days of reopening the business, Quentin lost track of how many calls he’d received, and yet another call was coming in while he was teetering on the ladder, hammering a new sign above the mortuary door. He let it go to voicemail.

Quentin looked at the parrot and raised his eyebrows.

“Nothing a needle can’t fix.”

Quentin pounded a final nail into the sign, and climbed down the ladder to take a look.

– ETERNAL REST MORTUARY –
Ensuring your final rest stays FINAL
Now making house calls

The parrot made a muffled squawk.

“I like it too,” Quentin said, stroking the bird’s head. A few red feathers came away in his hand.


By day, Dantzel Cherry teaches Pilates and raises her daughter, and by night/naptime she writes. She is prone to dance as the need arises, and it often does. Her work has appeared in Fireside and Galaxy’s Edge. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@dantzelcherry) or her website at www.dantzelcherry.com. This story was previously published in Penumbra.




19
Jan

The Singer and the Song by Manny Frishberg

Even his mother did not hear him cry, his song was so different from all the others. I didn’t understand that at first.

I was elated. Just a lowly grad student out collecting data on a research vessel between semesters, and I had been the first to hear a new whale’s song. An undiscovered species? I thought they might even put my name on the paper.

I played the recordings at triple speed, gathering data points without even really listening. I could hear the difference, of course, long before I realized what I heard. –  creaks and squawks like the pods of blue and finback whales we had come to monitor, but in a vocal range far above either of their songs. A different song from the one the pods composed and sang together throughout the mating season.

Only the males sing, and only during their winter mating season. We can easily tell them apart. Blue whales sing at around 17 hertz and the finbacks an even lower 12 – a rumble at the very edge of hearing, more like a buzzing in your jaw until you speed up the playback. But even at triple speed his call was special, the way his voice rose and fell like an infant’s wail – to my ears at least, mournful.

I replayed the recording at normal speed and for the first time I heard the song just as the hydrophone had recorded it. A shudder swept up my back. It’s just a wild animal vocalizing, a mating call, I had to remind myself.

Since we were there for the season, I logged his movements in and out of the inlet where we lay anchored. His tone made him easy to single out, unlike the rest. The longer I listened the more I began to sympathize, though I’d been taught to try not to.

When I went back to school in the fall, I looked for earlier recordings. The project had been funded just that year so I searched other studies that might have recordings with for similar patterns. None.

I discovered that the Navy had tested sonar in those waters several years ago. It took a FOIA request and getting the ACLU involved to get the data. I heard his distinctive calls on their tapes.

I traced him back a dozen years. Working backwards I heard how his song evolved. In the first years, he sounded nearly normal. Still a calf, his tones seemed almost right; his vocal organs must have been so small. As years went by his voice changed – the tones increasingly wrong, mimicry made more bereft because to the others he was screeching.

All the whales in a pod sing a single song, composed each fall on the trek to the warm, tropical waters. There, the calves are birthed and their next year’s siblings are conceived.

Hearing his songs over those years, I sensed him losing hope. Each year he diverged further and each year he joined the blue whale pod later in the spring – like an exile condemned always to follow, never to join.

For my post-doc I tracked my whale through the next three mating seasons. The longer I listened to him, the more I felt a kinship grow between us. I wished I could tell him that I, too, am a solitary creature, adrift alone in an ocean of my own kind.

(I knew I had conjured this connection in my mind – how could he even know I existed; why would he ever care? Yet the whale had invaded my soul.)

By that time I actually sighted him, I had my name on several papers and an assistant professorship, well on my way to tenure. His body was the unmistakable blue the world’s largest creatures are named for, the same rounded body, but slimmer. Also unmistakable, the dorsal ridge that gives finback whales their name. He was not a new species but a hybrid, a mule. He shared many of the features of both species, but in the end he was neither. Now, seeing him, for the first time I truly understood. After that, nothing else mattered.

My grant was up and my new proposal was turned down. Even so, I had my plan. I knew I’d have to fund it myself.. I sold my house – too much space for a loner anyway – and bought a sailboat, equipped it with hydrophones and a synthesizer with underwater speakers. I set off, searching for a range, a tone.

I found it in the voices of Pacific humpbacks in the seas near Tongo. I stayed with them through the summer, learning to play their song until my synthesizer gave a pretty good approximation.

When the humpbacks accepted me, odd accent and all, I headed north. I found him, as I knew I would, still trailing the pod that he always did in their Arctic feeding grounds, still alone.

I followed them when the pod left for the Arctic, learning to play their new song as they created it. Then I taught it to my whale, transposing the notes and cords as best I could into a key he could sing.

He and I fell further and further back from the pod, changing course a bit at a time, luring him away. Out on our own, I started changing the blues’ song, bending it toward the one I’d learned from the humpbacks until my finback-blue sang only theirs.

In the southern tropics I began picking up the humpbacks calls and, little by little, I backed away. Somewhere near Kiribati I lost him. His voice had merged with the chorus.

These days I play my synthesizer for myself, adrift alone in the world.

I tell myself he is just a wild animal but I miss him like a kindred soul.


Manny Frishberg has made up stories since he started staring out windows. He has been learning to do it better for the last 30 years and inflicting the results on an unsuspecting public since 2010, along with numerous magazine feature stories over a long writing career. He lives near Seattle.




14
Jan

Tell Me by Edward Ashton

“Tell me how the world ends,” Ani says.

Michael shakes his head.

“Some things,” he says, “it’s better not to know.”

They sit across from one another, at a table in the back of a dimly-lit bar. His hands are wrapped around a half-empty bottle of Belgian beer. She lifts a martini glass, sips delicately at a drink that’s more fruit juice than liquor.

“You think you know everything,” Ani says.

Michael shrugs. It’s a statement of fact, not an accusation. They’ve only just met, but this much at least is already clear.

“I’m dying,” Ani says. “Did you know that?”

Michael hesitates for a moment, then nods. He looks up from his bottle and into her eyes. Ani doesn’t look like a dying person. Her skin is smooth and pale white, with a dusting of freckles across her nose and her cheeks. Her hair is long and full and red streaked with blonde, flowing over her shoulders in a billowing wave. The only hints at her mortality are a slight gauntness in her face, and a faint tremor in her fingers as they rest on her glass.

“Do you know what will kill me?” Ani asks.

Michael nods again, and takes a long pull at his beer. Lank brown hair frames his broad tanned face, and the week’s worth of stubble on his cheeks and his chin.

“I do,” he says, “but I’m not going to tell you.”

Ani laughs.

“I already know,” she says.

“No,” Michael says. “You don’t.”

Her eyebrows knit in annoyance.

“I do,” she says, “but you obviously don’t. You’re trying to be mysterious. It’s not working.”

Michael smiles, spins his bottle like a top, then catches it before it falls.

“I know you have malignant melanoma,” he says. “I know you’ve been told it’s in your liver and your lungs. I also know it’s in your brain, in your right temporal lobe. And I know that your doctor hasn’t told you that yet.”

Ani’s jaw sags open. Michael finishes his beer, waves a waitress over, and orders another. He orders a second drink for Ani as well, though her glass is still half-full.

“But…” she says.

“Right,” he says. “I know you’ve got cancer. You know you’ve got cancer. You think that’s what’s going to kill you, but it’s not.”

Ani scowls.

“It is,” she says. “My oncologist says it’s not curable. He wants me to do chemo anyway, says it could give me an extra few months, but…” Ani touches her hair absently with one hand, then shakes her head.

“I know,” Michael says. “You made the right decision.”

He leans his chair back on two legs, balances for a moment, then drops it back down with a bang. A song begins playing on the jukebox at the front of the bar. Ani smiles at the first few notes, then looks down at the table and blinks away a tear. Michael raises one eyebrow in question.

“My father used to sing this to me,” she says. “When I was little, and I couldn’t sleep, he’d come into my room, sit by my bedside and sing. I think this was the only song he knew.”

“It wasn’t,” Michael says. “It was just the only one that didn’t have the word ‘fuck’ in it.”

Ani laughs.

“You’re probably right,” she says. She slides her hand forward until their fingertips touch. “I still love it, though.”

“So do I,” Michael says. He pulls his hand away. “My father never sang this to me, but my first girlfriend did once.”

The waitress comes by with their drinks. Michael hands her a twenty, smiles, and refuses the change.

“She was dying, too,” Michael says. “My girlfriend, I mean. It was a summer thing. She was gone before Christmas.”

“What from?” Ani asks.

Brain tumor. She was sixteen.”

They drink together in silence until the song ends.

“So,” Ani says. “Are you going to tell me?”

Michael looks up, wipes at his eyes with one hand, and finishes his second beer in one long, bitter pull.

“Tell you what?”

Ani rolls her eyes.

“What’s going to kill me.”

“No,” Michael says. “I told you. Some things, it’s better not to know.”

Ani tries to meet his eyes, but Michael’s gaze slides away.

“Did you tell her?” Ani asks.

Michael closes his eyes, and bows his head until his forehead nearly touches the lip of his bottle.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Ani says. She looks around. The bar is nearly empty.  “Tell me how the world ends.”

Michael raises his head, and looks down at his hands. They lie on the table, palms up, fingers half-curled. His nails are short and ragged, bitten almost to the quick.

“You’re right,” he says. “It doesn’t much matter.”

The song on the jukebox now is a saccharine dance mix that nobody’s father or girlfriend would ever sing to them. As it spins down, a light flares through the window at the front of the bar. It grows brighter and brighter, until the whiteness seems to seep through the ceiling and the walls. Ani looks down. Her bones are dark tendrils in her glowing white hands.

“You see?” Michael says.

Ani closes her eyes.

“Tell me…”


Edward Ashton works as a cancer researcher in Rochester, New York. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, including Daily Science Fiction, The Future Fire, and Escape Pod. His first novel, Three Days in April, was published by HarperCollins in September 2015. This story was previously published in Every Day Fiction.




12
Jan

Plot Problems by Elaine Cunningham

I don’t always think things through. This time, though, I had a good excuse. The outline for my next novel is due next week, and I can’t figure out how to end the damn thing. So I was a little distracted when Stephanie called to chat about her demon-possessed condo.

Still, when your sister calls in hysterics, you back up your file, pocket the flash drive, and drive over to see what’s what.

Stephanie was sitting on her front step, stress-eating Halloween candy. Crumpled wrappers swirled around her feet like autumn leaves. She didn’t have her make-up on, so I knew things were dire.

“Walls bleeding?” Yes, it’s a cliché, but then, Stephanie’s last crisis was a boyfriend whose “wife didn’t understand him.”

“Not yet.” She wrinkled her nose in puzzlement. “Why do they do that?”

“No clue. So, what have you got? Floating objects, disembodied voices, an overall sense of soul-crushing dread?”

“Pretty much.” She pushed herself off the step. “I’m not going in there until you get rid of it.”

Her unshakable faith in my ability to solve her problems should have been heart-warming, but honestly? I had no idea how to unhaunt a condo.

Oh wait—maybe I did.

A few years back, I was researching an urban fantasy book and stopped by a new age shop for a Tarot deck. According to the website, the owner did psychic readings, so I figured she’d have an assortment.

The woman behind the counter was comfortably plump, with hair the color of a Twinkie and the face that said “former cheerleader.” She looked up when I came in, flashed some dimples, and chirped, “Hi, Hon. Tarot cards are second shelf from the top.”

Maybe that was a lucky guess, but it impressed the hell out of me. I came back often, took a few classes, and got lots of material that struck me as potentially useful. At the time, I didn’t expect to deploy any of it in a real-world scenario.

“Do you have any eggs?”

Stephanie looked at me like I’d just suggested she wear blue eye shadow. “Like, for omelets?”

I sometimes forget that my sister subsists on Doritos and coffee. Before I could explain, she snatched my car keys.

“There’s a 7-11 on the corner,” she said as she sprinted for my car.

Tires squealed, and there I stood, alone with Whatever.

The sooner I dealt with Stephanie’s latest issue, the sooner I could get back to the novel. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and marched up the steps.

A cold wind greeted me at the threshold, bringing with it a foul, acrid miasma. Not a scent, exactly. This registered deeper, on the ancient, hidden level of pheromones and instinct.

Life and energy drained out of me so fast I could almost hear the whoosh! It was a lot like the feeling you get from dealing with online trolls, which confirmed that we had an Evil Entity here.

Fortunately, one of my psychic’s tales seemed applicable here. She’d once banished an EE from a friend’s house by bringing in a houseplant, doing some incantations, and leaving the plant to absorb negative energies. Two days later, the plant was dead and the house was ghost-free. She thought an egg would also work, if you buried it after.

My car horn blared. I scurried over. Stephanie held out the egg carton while I selected one.

“You’re not going to throw that, are you? I just had the carpets done.”

I briefly explained the concept of energy transfer and returned to the condo, which promptly decided to start moaning and vibrating.

Awesome.

In the space of a few (very fast) heartbeats, the sound dialed up to the roar and shriek of a fast train to Hell. Dark shadows swirled madly. Pictures fell off the walls. A half-empty glass of merlot toppled off the coffee table and rolled.

So much for the carpet.

I set the egg on the table. The puddle of red wine gave the arrangement a certain ambiance. An incantation was called for, but the best I could come up with was, “Suck eggs, motherfucker!”

Don’t judge. I do my best work in revisions.

The noise dialed down, and the shadows converged to flow in a single stream toward the egg. I had no idea that dark energy could make an egg glow, but then, Infernal Physics is really more of a horror writer’s specialty. I have no excuse, however, for not thinking this plan through to what happened next:

The egg hatched.

I know, right? Of course it fucking hatched. That’s what happens when some idiot (that would be me) hands a disincarnate entity a ridiculously obvious portal to the material world.

Actually, “exploded” would be a more accurate description. Noise, smoke, eggshell shrapnel. Next thing, there was a black imp batwinging its way over to the fridge. It grabbed a bottle of sriracha sauce and squirted a long, red stream onto the wall. Black hands darted and whirled as it finger-painted a bloody nightmare. I watched, rooted in horrified fascination.

The painting threatened—or perhaps foretold—a horrible fate for Stephanie. That said, it was great visual storytelling, with a beginning, middle, and the makings of an inventively twisted end…

Hmm.

I fished my flash drive out of my pocket and plugged it into Stephanie’s open MacBook. Then I snapped that laptop shut around the preoccupied imp.

After a moment, I risked a peek inside. No imp.

I tried to open my outline.

<File in use>

Excellent.

I ejected the drive, wiped the sriracha mural off the wall, and strode out into the beautiful October sunlight.

Stephanie cracked open a window. “Is it gone?”

“Energy transfer complete,” I assured her. “Our problems are solved.”

I know what you’re thinking:

A ghostwriter? Seriously?

Okay, yeah—I probably should have thought this through. Asked for writing samples, maybe checked some references. But did I mention the outline is due next week?


Elaine Cunningham has two sisters, neither of whom inspired this story. (Evil Entities fear them both.) She is a history geek, a mezzo-soprano, and a New York Times bestselling author whose work includes 20 novels and about three dozen short stories. For more information, please visit www.elainecunningham.com.




7
Jan

Broken by Gerri Leen

Father has changed. I don’t just mean the way he looks, all dressed in finery, paid for by the jewels we stole from the witch’s house. I mean inside, something is…broken.

Hansel says Father feels bad. That it was all our mother’s fault, the woman who raised us, maybe not gave birth to us, but raised us from babies, and then threw us out. She left us in the woods knowing she wasn’t coming back.

Father did that too, though.

Hansel doesn’t realize that while he was in the barn fattening up for the witch’s meal, I was inside…talking to her.

“Eh, girl, and where are your parents again?” She loved to ask me that. “Threw you out like last week’s refuse, they did. Kept the pigs, I bet. And the cows. But not you two.”

She wasn’t wrong about that. The pigs, the cow, the horse, and Hansel’s cat and pigeon—although I haven’t seen the pigeon around so I think they ate it.

“Father didn’t want to,” I said.

“Didn’t want to but he did. At least your mother wanted to and carried through. I applaud that kind of wherewithal. But your father?” She spat. “Only cowards do things they know aren’t right.”

“He’s not a coward!”

“And he’ll come charging in here on his steed, swinging a sword at me any moment, eh? I’m shivering in my shoes, girl. Get a move on. Your brother needs his lunch.”

And so it went.

But…was she wrong? Father did something he didn’t want to do, and it wasn’t as if it was a small thing like selling off your daughter’s puppy even though she loved it as much as your son loved his cat.

What he did was much worse: he left us to die.

And now he is spending our money, the money we earned—or at least the money we suffered for. There is so little left, gone so fast it seems as if he’s thrown it out the window to let the four winds carry away.

I’m starting to understand why we never had enough to eat.

“Girl!” Father leans over the side of his armchair, and he looks for me, but the drink is making his eyes weak.

I say nothing.

“Girl, where’s this house you found the jewels in?” He laughs, a strange, hollow sound. “There’s probably more for the taking.”

I skulk outside.

Hansel is sitting in the far field; his red shirt and the white cat draped over his shoulder giving him away. I sit down next to him, trying not to shiver.

“He’s drunk again,” I say.

Hansel just nods.

I reach over and pet his cat, who stretches her neck so I can get under her chin.

“There was a cat in the witch’s barn,” Hansel says quietly.

“The orange one?” I saw her a few times and then she disappeared.

“She was a nice cat.” Hansel sounds funny, so I glance at him and see he is crying. “Didn’t you wonder where I got the bone I used to fool the witch? The one that made her think my finger wasn’t getting any fatter?”

I look down, and I wish I could feel something for him other than annoyance. It’s not that I’m not sorry for the cat. I am. But I’m not sorry for Hansel. He was in his little pen, left alone, while I had to listen to the witch, had to clean her house, had to eat crayfish shells as my only meal even as I fixed him sumptuous feasts.

Feasts he could have chosen not to eat. I’d have gotten rid of them later. If he hadn’t been such a glutton, he wouldn’t have gained weight, and his finger wouldn’t have gotten fat, and he wouldn’t have needed to kill a nice little orange kitty to cover up the fact that he had no self-control.

Why should I feel bad for him?

He’s just like our father.

I don’t tell him that, though. Hansel is getting a temper on him, when he isn’t crying over dead cats and lost birds.

Our father has a temper, too, but he doesn’t raise a hand against Hansel. Hansel gets to stay outside and work the fields and be with his precious cat while I’m stuck inside, listening to father go on, all his big plans.

When we first got back, he wasn’t this way. He was overjoyed, or so I thought.

Until I found the body. Buried shallow in the root cellar. Mother’s favorite dress poking out just enough. I’m not sure why I did it, but I dug her up. Her head was bashed in. Not a little, not like she slipped and hit her head. More like a rock had come down over and over and over.

I could almost hear father yelling at her, “You made me. You made me.”

The witch was right. He’s a coward.

I whisper, “He wants to go back to the witch’s house.”

“That’d be a good idea. Lots more to take—you saw how much. We should bring a wheelbarrow this time. Can bring more out that way, make less trips.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea.” I’m trying this out on him, seeing how much there is left of the brother I adored, the brother I looked up to.

He turns on me, and his cat jumps down with a hiss. At least his temper flares quickly and then burns out, unlike Father, who holds on to his anger for dear life. “No, we should go. Father is right.”

I roll up my sleeve and show him a bruise on my arm. “Was Father right about this?”

It is a test for my brother; I hate that I feel compelled to give them.

His look changes. He touches my arm gently and murmurs, “What did he do?”

I am happy he passes the test.

Hansel meets my eyes. “What can I do?”

There’s nothing he can do. But there is something I can.

I smile at him. “You’re right. We should go to the witch’s house.” I don’t tell him that I will skip ahead while they push their wheelbarrows. That I will light a fire in the oven and get it going nice and strong.

The oven’s plenty big enough for Father. No one will know anything. Not if Hansel and I tell the same story. I’ll make sure Hansel knows what I expect of him.

And if Hansel fails that test, well, the oven’s big enough for him, too.


Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. She has stories and poems published by: Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Grimdark, Athena’s Daughters 2, and others. She is editing an anthology, A Quiet Shelter There, which will benefit homeless animals and is due out in this year from Hadley Rille Books. See more at http://www.gerrileen.com. This story was previously published in Enchanted Conversation in 2010




5
Jan

From the Editor’s Lair by Jennifer Brozek

At this point, all of EGM.Shorts submissions have been gone through, all acceptances and rejections sent, and all of the authors have been paid. If you are waiting for something from me in regards to EGM.Shorts, please let me know.

If you missed it, the next project we will be accepting submissions for is Speculate! This will be our monthly fiction feature after May 2016. Submissions open on 1 Feb 2016. Please read the guidelines carefully.

For January, we have a lovely selection of flash fiction for you to enjoy.

“Broken” By Gerri Leen
“Plot Problems” By Elaine Cunningham
“Tell Me” By Edward Ashton
“The Singer and the Song” By Manny Frishberg
“The Business is Dying” By Dantzel Cherry
“One Hundred Words” By Eneasz Brodski
“An Object Lesson in Misanthropy” By Michelle Ann King

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





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