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26 Stories

26 Stories: Gods of an Empty Universe

A little lunch-time posting for today, as I managed to get this story out quicker than planned. It is short and does end without resolution, but one can’t just put a nice bow on the last battle of all creation, can one?

Gods of an Empty Universe
21st Floor

The armada sat at the edge of the known universe. Behind the massive fleet of dagger-like craft, all bristling with weapons powerful enough to destroy stars, Heracles Station completed its power-up. The station drew the last energy of the star it surrounded into its massive capacitors. The star, one of the largest and hottest discovered, extinguished. In its death rested the hope for all life in the known and unknown Universe.

On the bridge of the largest ship, the Perseus, the Supreme Admiral stared into the void. The black beyond was absolute; no stars existed past this point. The bridge was busy around him, his crew handling the preparations with a deftness that belied their nerves. Training and discipline were all that held them together, now. It had to be enough. A klaxon indicated that Heracles was starting the first phase of an operation that had taken thousands of years of human ingenuity, technology, and self-preservation. Determination forged in conflict and violence since man had made his first kill on the prehistoric plains of Earth came to fruition here, at this moment, in this infinitesimally small point.

When the Heracles triggered the device, a tear formed in the black before the Perseus. The Supreme Admiral drew in a breath. The moment was here. “All hands on all ships,” he said simply, “execute Omega. May whatever god you believe in watch over you.” There would be no rousing speech. No genuflection for posterity. If Omega failed, there would be no history to remember this moment, and if it succeeded, due to its secrecy, no one would ever know how close they were to obliteration.

The tear in space widened. Alarms sounded, but they were not unexpected. There would be no surprises. The enemy on the other side had abandoned subtlety eons ago. The fleet to his back had done the same. Trickery. Magic. Binding rituals that only bought time. Humanity and the Enemy were past all of that.

Now, it was all out war.

The ships—the Perseus, the Athena, the Hermes, and the rest—were not named as they were by accident. While the conflict with the enemy preceded the ancient heroes and gods of that time, they were perhaps the greatest of the warriors who pushed the Titans back and imprisoned them. Symbolism was important.

The rift opened wider, and even from here, the Supreme Admiral saw the things behind it, pushing to get out. Almost immediately, images of great, unspeakable horrors battered at his psyche. “Are the psych-fields holding?”

“Aye Supreme Admiral, operating within acceptable tolerance.” Every contingency had been planned for, including the mental assault. The shield circuitry was patterned after sacred runes of protection. So long as they continued to operate, the only effect would be unease, hardly unique during a life or death battle.

The first of the Titans tumbled out of the rift in space, something that looked like the bastard offspring of a starfish and a slime mold. Targeting algorithms struggled to lock onto it as the thing’s unreality confounded the computers. But the algorithms were only confused for a moment, and the sound of a steady lock sounded on all shops across the fleet.

“Fire,” the Supreme Admiral ordered.

The starfish-mold was annihilated in a conflagration of mystical and conventional fire. Whatever it was, whatever it had been, trapped for eternities in its prison, it was now nothing. Still, no one on any of the bridges cheered. It had been a small intruder. The gap was wider, now, and other things, countless in number and strength, were pouring through. Targeting tones were sounding in a cacophony, as well as warnings of incoming attacks. Lines of magical energy, columns of flame (the Supreme Admiral mused for only a second on how that shouldn’t be possible in the vacuum), and swarms of enemy targets rushed to meet the armada. Behind the vanguard of monsters, larger creatures reached through and tore the opening wide. Approaching fast were beasts that dwarfed the Perseus.

The Admiral readied himself for the end. One way or the other, creation had been occupied by Titans and humans.

By the end of this final battle, there would only be Gods in an otherwise empty universe.

THE END?

26 Stories

26 Stories: The Courier

This story… this one. I’m not 100% happy with it (I’m not 100% happy with anything, but this one more than others). I read it at my writer’s workshop last night and it generated some good, albeit somewhat extensive, critiques. Namely that I do too much world building (I cut out quite a bit before reading it, too) and the two characters have too similar voices. Both of those are valid issues that I didn’t even remotely have time to address before today, so you’re getting the raw version (and I’m certain that I came across two typos during my read, and now I can’t find them, so feel free to typo hunt).

This is a departure from the mostly horror stuff I’ve been toying with; it’s a move into dystopian future. It is also the start of a non-nuanced, not-at-all complex piece of political commentary disguised as an action piece that is destined to be Mad Max meets Smokey and the Bandit meets Michael Bay. It’s a potential chapter one of a longer piece, but I think it’s going to go to the back-burner in favor of something else (perhaps my favorite “don’t call him an ‘urban’ wizard,” Dominick).

Anyway, it’s faults aside, enjoy!

The Courier
20th Floor

Juárez: Day 1, 6:32 am

The Courier waited for his delivery, the engine running. The modified Hellcat was, like its namesake, ready to pounce. He hated to idle, given how critical fuel calculations were. Stopping for gas even one more time than anticipated—or worse, running out of fuel—could get him pinched by the police. These days, that meant summary execution by the side of the road. But the game was a calculation of seconds, milliliters, and inches. The difference of 0 to 120 was huge if he had to fire the engine up. Authorities shot first, rockets moved fast, and this job was hot and likely to attract attention.

About the time he started to think about cutting the engine, the door to the run-down house opened. A man came out escorting a smaller figure covered by a jacket across the street to where he waited. The man fast-walked his charge over to the passenger side of the car and yanked on the door handle.

The Courier shook his head and pushed a button on the dash, On the outside of a car, a small slot opened in the door. The Courier made the universal sign for “pay now.” The escort pushed a stack of bills into the open slot. The slot retracted, and the Courier counted his fee. The escort surveyed the empty street.

The Courier picked up his pistol, made sure it was very visible to the escort, and popped the lock. The door opened, the Fare was pushed into the seat, and without even a “thank you” for his effort, the escort slammed the door shut and fast-walked back to the house.

The Courier and the Fare sat in silence for a moment.

“Seatbelt,” the Courier said, breaking the silence. The Fare jerked in surprise.

“What?” a woman’s voice responded, muffled by the jacket.

“Please buckle up,” he replied. “Safety first. Also, you can take the jacket off.”

A slight hand reached up and pulled the jacket down. The girl sitting next to the Courier was young; couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen. “Christ,” he said. “I don’t run kids.”

“Excuse me?” English, accented, but slight. She either spent some time in an English-speaking part of the world or was educated at a pricy private school. Both suggested money, and money meant pissed off relatives.

“I don’t take kids across.”

“Isn’t the money good enough? And I’m not a kid. I’m sixteen.”

“Still a kid, kid.”

The girl’s face fell. Moisture pooled at the corners of her eyes. “Please, you don’t understand. I can’t go back to my parents.” Angry parents, probably monied, confirmed. “I can’t even go back in there,” she gestured to the house. “I’ve been abused. I’ve been-”

“Save it,” the Courier said. “I’ve seen better.”

“Fine,” she replied in a normal tone, the façade dropped. “I really can’t go back to my parents. They will kill me, and while I can see that you’re trying very hard to do the whole ‘stoic badass,’ thing, I can see through you, too.” He scoffed.

“Money’s good enough, I suppose. And I’d rather not leave you to someone else. They might not be as professional as I am.”

“I’m prepared to do whatever I need to get to Canada.” As if to prove the point, she put a hand to her chest and began to unbutton her shirt.

“Stop,” the Courier said. “I’m making an exception running you, but not this.”

“You’re already bending the first rule.”

“Second one’s non-negotiable.”

She relaxed. “Well, good.”

“Contract says your pick-up is in Toronto, so we’ll be going straight north to Canada, and then…”

“You should go straight to Toronto. That’s fastest.”

“No,” the Courier said, “we most certainly should not go straight through. You clearly don’t know geopolitics.”

“Fancy word for a driver to use.”

“Courier. Our best, safest bet is to go straight north to Calgary or Regina, then ease over to Toronto once we’re safely out of America. Canada’s borders are open to refugees. Hell, you could even take a bus once you’re there, and save money on me.”

“I don’t have that kind of time.”

“No one ever does. Listen, the idea is to get you to Canada as quickly as possible, and straight north is it. Oklahoma and Missouri ain’t safe. Diverting around to Kansas or Arkansas? Even worse.”

“I’ll double your money.”

“That’s ridiculous. I suspect you gave me all you had.” She reached into her shirt, and he stopped her. “I told you, no.”

“No,” she said, “not that. Try this.” She pulled out a pendant on a chain. It sparkled with several very impressive looking gemstones.

“Those can’t be real.”

“I assure you, they are.”

“Where did you get that?”

“My parents gave it to me on my birthday.”

“Hell of a present. I got a second-hand Nintendo once, from a garage sale. Sure you want to be running away? Life like that must be pretty easy.”

“Yeah, my parents—my father, really—are the reason I’m seeking asylum in Canada. Please, I have to be in Toronto in thirty-eight hours. It takes over fifty to get there through Regina. I checked online, and it takes thirty-hours to get to Toronto from here, and that’s driving speed limits. That’s eight hours of extra time even if you drove casually; you ‘Couriers’ are supposed to be fast, right?”

“Missouri isn’t safe,” he emphasized each word.

“All the more reason to drive faster then.”

The silence was painfully long; ironic given his previous worries about seconds, inches, and milliliters.

“I’m going to regret this. Those,” he pointed to her pendant, “had better be real.”

She let out a breath. “Thank you.”

He stepped on the brake, put in the clutch, and grabbed the shifter. “Thank me when we get there in one piece.”

The Hellcat roared and pounced.

*             *             *             *

               “Crossing,” the Courier said, “will either be very easy or very difficult.”

               “What makes it easy,” she asked.

               “If the right bribes went to the right people, we’ll pull in, our papers will be in order, and we’ll just drive on through.”

               “And if not?”

               “If not, you find out why this job costs so much. And we hopefully don’t die.”

               “I’d like to avoid that.” She almost meant it.

               “Risking dyin’ must be better’n what you’re running from.” She responded by staring out the window watching ramshackle houses race past.

               “Right.” He nodded ahead. “As your unofficial tour guide, I feel like this is the time to point out that the Wall is coming up. If you want to see it.” She did.

               The Wall was immense. She had been a toddler when the world watched as the Americans fought over whether the Wall was a necessity, weather it would be effective, and whether it was feasible. When the dirty bomb went off in Tucson, the debate ended. A state of emergency was declared, martial law was imposed, and the purges began. Fascism came to America in earnest, and construction began on the Wall immediately.

               A decade later, the southern border was closed. The Wall stretched two-thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. Everyone moving across the border was scrutinized, or they were supposed to be, but like any good, corrupt government, officials could be plied with enough cash.

               To cross any other way was risky, to say the least. Customs and Border Protection had shoot-to-kill orders. Armed drones thwarted most remote crossings, and scanning technology made smuggling through commercial checkpoints near impossible. That was, of course, if the scanners weren’t conveniently in maintenance mode. Harder to pull off, but doable.

               Getting across the Wall, which had been dubbed the “Concrete Curtain” in some circles, was easiest to do at the civilian crossing points, where inspections were still visual. It was easier to cloud the guards’ eyes with dollar signs then get a dedicated scanner to glitch out at the right time.

               The great wall of America was not at all impenetrable, despite its imposing gray profile, and the Courier knew who to bribe. He brought the ‘cat down to a respectable speed to merge into the line of traffic.

               “Fuck,” he said.

               “What?” The Fare was nervous.

               “Bribes didn’t work.”

               “How do you know?”

               “The STRIKE squads.”

               She looked around. “What? Where?”

               “There are snipers on the wall, twice as many visible soldiers as standard, and that van to our right? Fast assault units trying to be invisible.”

               “Are they here for us.” The Courier shrugged. “What do we do?”

               “We don’t do anything suspicious. We try to get through, as planned, and hope we’re on the all-clear list. If not, I find out if I can out-drive drones.”

“Drones?”

“Drones with TOW missiles.”

               “Can you?”

               “I said I’d find out if I could. I’ve never had to before.” The Fare sank down into her seat. “I would like to tell you that this is the hardest part, but since you’re insisting on going straight through the country to Toronto, that would be a lie.”

               The line ahead of them inched forward, and the Courier followed suit.

               “Can we go to a different checkpoint?”

               “They’ve already tagged every car in line. If we turn away and show up at another point, we’ll be flagged.” They crept forward again, the border a few cars ahead.

               “Can you run now? Why wait?”

               “As cool as the ‘cat is, she still has to obey the laws of physics, and other cars object to sharing her space. Second, even if there was a clean run up to the border, as fast as I can go, we’ll be slag before we get there. If I’m going to try and run, we’ve got to be at least on the American side. Preferably about a hundred miles in.”

               “We have to wait.” The car crept closer again.

               “Yup.”

               “But we run if it looks bad when we get up there?”

               “Yup.”

She looked around outside. “What if,” she asked, “we had a distraction?”

“We’re a little too late for a distraction.”

“Don’t count on that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Three cars behind us is a black SUV. In that black SUV are agents sent by my parents.”

“Have they spotted you?” They were one car from the front of the line that was finishing up its visual inspection. Timing was going to be close.

“I don’t think so.”

“Well,” he said, opening the sunroof, “let’s let ‘em get a good look at you.” She poked her head out of the sunroof, looked back, and smiled at the SUV. In the rearview, the Courier saw that the SUV’s driver noticed and gestured to someone else in the car. She popped back down just as the Courier pulled up to the start of the line.

Three things happened at once.

The Courier handed over his papers to the border guard when asked. This was as intended, and if the bribes had worked, nothing in their paperwork would be off.

As this exchange happened, four men in black suits, doing poor jobs of concealing the fact that they were armed, exited the SUV and advanced on the Hellcat.

Finally, as an agent on the passenger side tapped on the glass for the Fare to roll down her window—which she did—the Fare, with no trace of an accent, asked, “do those guys behind us look dangerous to you?”

The agent on the driver’s side frowned at the Courier’s papers, and reached for his radio, when the passenger side agent said through the car to him, “Johnson, we’ve got a problem, six o’clock.” Johnson looked away from the Courier’s papers. He handed the papers back to the Courier, his hand tightening on the grip of his rifle. “Sir, you can go. And you should go fast.”

“Gee,” the Courier replied, taking his papers. “I guess I can do fast.”

The agent pressed the call button on his radio. “STRIKE team, Delta 10-99, entry Victor Tango. Four targets. Armed and hostile.”

The Courier shifted into drive and was gone. They was a quarter-mile away before he heard the gunshots receding behind them.

Following the agent’s advice, the ‘cat hit one-hundred with the rumbling grace that her name implied, leaving the border and the chaos that they had set off well behind them.

“I’m Carolina,” the Fare said.

“And I don’t like names.”

“I’m not calling you ‘the Courier’.”

“Clint.”

“Very American name.”

“So,” the Courier said as the desert yawned before them, “who exactly are your parents?”

*             *             *             *

               Santiago seethed.

               It wasn’t just that Carolina had run off, though that was most of it. If cornered, or drunk, or high, or just in the right mood, he would admit that he hadn’t wanted the little bitch in the first place. Her mother thought differently, of course, but mothers always did. He’d wanted a son, someone to take over when he was ready to step down. Someone strong and resolute, not the sensitive, emotional child his loins had produced. Girls were trouble, destined to be shrieking hags. Boys turned into men. Leaders.

               That was bad enough. Perhaps he could have married her off to a worthy successor from one of the loyal parties in the government or the more influential cartels. But no, she had to fall in with the Socialists. She had to be public about her disdain for the State. Her rebellious phase had to be political instead of sex or drugs. Those, he could have handled (generous application of murder and torture of non-sanctioned dealers and would-be suitors usually did the trick). She had quite the following before he killed the State’s access to outside Internet. Supporters from here to Canada (especially dissident groups in the United States, a country too big for its leaders to properly crack down on resistance) had egged this on, and he hadn’t reacted in time.

               The mewling lieutenant on the other end of the call reported on the failure of his men to capture her before crossing into the United States. Not only had they failed to bring home one little girl, they had also managed to get detained by CBP in the process. He would have to book rooms in America’s president’s hotels at inflated rates if he wanted to get his men back. And he would, because he didn’t want their punishment to merely be rotting in an American prison. He would want to punish them himself. 

In the meantime, he had to reevaluate his strategy. The men he’d sent had been too obvious at the border. Slipping in more would be easy. The kleptocratic regime in charge of the US was on friendly terms with his own “democratic” rule, but they were too unreliable. If Carolina was going to where he assumed she would be in Canada, they would have to cut through the lawless middle of the country, meaning his erstwhile ally in America would not be willing to send extraction teams. If anything, they would just send kill drones or leave Carolina and whoever was transporting her to the savages and warlords. Santiago almost let it go at that, but the optics of it would be particularly bad, especially with the unrest in the north of his own country. Carolina was well-loved by easily enraged fools, and violent crackdowns never played well. His media would have a hard time spinning it.

No, she had to be brought home, safe and sound. He would “convince” her to make a very public show of reconciliation and embrace the State. Sometimes, political theater was easier than slaughtering dissidents, though admittedly less satisfying.

               Santiago made two calls. The first, to his contacts in the United States Embassy, who would oversee the proper means to get his men back, where he could deal with them. There would be a public execution to plan, but he had ministers to see to that.

               The second call was to al old friend.

               It was time for Carolina to come home.

26 Stories

26 Stories: He Doubts His Muse

As I was drifting off the sleep, I was jolted awake with the realization that I had yet to post this story, despite having written it over a week ago. I’m not going to say much more than enjoy this, the twentieth story of my accountability project. Six more to go.

He Doubts his Muse
19th Floor

               Jonathan Fredrickson watched the orgy dispassionately from the chair at his desk. The events, now occurring almost daily in his 19th floor suite, had long lost his interest. They weren’t for him, anymore, and he knew that. They were Cali’s. While the participants had come to him through his success; from the connections he’d made on Broadway and in Hollywood, the true admirers of his art, and from the hangers-on who wanted to bask in his reflected glory. All of which he owed to Cali, and these displays had her at the center. She continued to bring him success after success, however, and no matter how much he might have wanted things to go back to normal, or at least back to the days when it was just him and her, he had become addicted to success and recognition.

               They still did come for him, first, with Cali drawing energy from their admiration. He also wasn’t precluded from the scene that unfolded before him, night after night. His creative energy fed Cali; she just needed a little something else that he could no longer give on his own, but that his success could deliver to her.

               That, and he had suspected something else. He kept a growing list of missing and forgotten people carefully locked in his desk drawer. Julianne’s name had been the first on the list, but it had grown. It was no longer something he could ignore. He had initially added a name to the list only every once-in-a-while, but it had become far more common now. People coming to the parties, going off with Cali privately at some point, and vanishing shortly thereafter. They ceased to exist both physically and, it seemed, in the memories of the people who knew and loved them. Somehow, they were erased from existence, and somehow, Cali was doing it.

               As the pile of sensual, naked flesh writhed before him, he caught Cali’s eyes. She smiled, and his hesitancy nearly melted away. Those eyes told him that no matter whose hands caressed her body, she was his. It wriggled in his mind like a worm, hooking into his perception, trying to make him ignore any misgivings. He almost gave in; almost decided that whatever the cost was, that he would continue to pay it. He had sealed his fate years ago, and he was already in for the proverbial pound.

               Still, he watched from the fringes, and wondered. Wondered what Cali was. Wondered what awaited him when he faced his damnation.

               That night, unlike others before it, he exerted his will over his cowardice. While the orgy continued, he slipped into the bedroom that was more Cali’s than his, entered the spacious closet, and hid among rows of high-priced dresses.

               Tonight, he would witness the deal he made with the devil firsthand.

*             *             *             *

               As expected, after the sounds of the Bacchanalia subsided, he heard Cali and two others enter the bedroom. Someone giggled, a woman not Cali, and someone else—a man’s voice—weakly claimed to be “too tired” for anything more.

               “Oh,” Cali said, “I’m sure you can find the energy for a little more.” There was more giggling from the unidentified woman, and the sound of impassioned kissing.  Moments later, the soft moans of pleasure started. Jonathan fought against his own arousal, noticing that the desire to be drawn out of the closet was tangible. Without being aware, he had pressed his hand to the closet door and was about to open it and join in, before he stopped himself.

               As the sounds of pleasure grew to a crescendo, the need to be a part of it grew stronger. In that closet, he could believe that Cali was standing beside him, pressing against him. He wanted, more than anything, to be in that room—in that bed—but it was, surprisingly, her voice whispered in his ear that stopped him.

               “Not yet,” she breathed. “You want to see the price of your success, what your art has brought about, and I shall grant that; but wait for just another moment.” The noises in the room rose, louder and louder, as the participants experienced wave after wave of pleasure, giving into it again and again.

               Soon, the screams of ecstasy became screams of terror.

               “Now, my little artist,” Cali’s voice whispered, “now you can see.”

He walked out of the closet.

*             *             *             *

               Cali’s two partners, barely recognizable as a man and a woman, were subsuming into Cali’s porous body. Missions of small holes created a honeycomb like pattern across her body. From some of those holes, what appeared to be small eyes peered out, and the melting, oozing bodies of the man and woman were being drawn into the rest. They were melting, stretching out like putty, and separating into small strands as they were taken in to Cali, or the thing that she was (is?). Their screams had turned to odd, unhuman moans as their faces were pulled toward her, elongating their features into exaggerated, plastic masks. The man was fully devoured first, but as the woman’s misshapen head was torn into spaghetti noodles and slurped into Cali, she managed one barely understandable “help me” before she ceased to exist.

               With the feasting at an end, Jonathan finally was able to turn away. He retched, then, his sick seeping into the carpeting, causing a second round of heaves.

               “It was time for you to see it, Jonathan,” Cali said. He look up instinctively, expecting to see more horror, but instead, saw Cali, her skin smooth and unblemished on the disheveled bed. “You had to know by now that I wasn’t human.”

               “But what are you,” he managed, bile on his breath.

               “Your Muse.”

               “That’s not what…”

               “What a Muse is? Jonathan, I am exactly what a Muse is. I can’t help that your kind romanticized me and my siblings. If the earliest artists and poets and musicians hadn’t made us look like this, the pinnacle of human beauty, no one would call upon us. We’d have all starved millennia ago. The eons that passed without human creativity were very bad years for us; none of us want to go back to that.”

               “Starved?” Jonathan asked. “If you feed ff creativity, what the Hell was that?”

“You don’t get all your food from animals, right? You eat vegetables, too. Same difference.”

               “Those people…”

               “…were sacrifices. Your success requires great amount of energy. All this,” she gestures to the luxurious furnishings, “has to come from somewhere.”

               “If I had known…”

               She shrugged, “You were starving for your art the same way we were starving for artists. Before there were even primitive humans who we could push to draw on cave walls.”

               “I wouldn’t.”

               “I can leave. You can live the rest of your life off the success you accumulated. Not everyone can turn our inspiration into success. Van Gogh died a pauper, but he was satisfied with his legacy being grand.” She got off the bed and slinked to him. He recoiled at her touch. “Is that what you want?”

               “I…”

               “I don’t even have to kill you anymore. We used to have to when we were done, but the Age of Reason has very good to our kind.” She smiled, sadly. “A thousand years ago, talk of monsters masquerading as woman started so many ugly witch hunts. Now? Now they’ll say the fame finally got to you, and you snapped. Call you ‘crazy.’ Write you off as another sad, broken artist and leave you to die in obscurity. Meanwhile, I’ll find a new poet, and the world will turn.”

               Cali walked to the bedroom door. “You get to make a choice. I can walk through this door, or I can stay on this side and close it, and we can go to bed.” She stood on the threshold, expectantly. Jonathan looked at her and sighed.

               Cali smiled again, and gently closed the bedroom door.  

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: Killer App

For once, I finished a story earlier in the week, and this has afforded me the opportunity to post earlier in the day. I use Waze a lot; even on routes that I know just to possibly avoid traffic. I got to thinking, recently, what if a navigation app was good enough to not only reroute around existing traffic, but predict accidents. I grounded it, initially, in the idea of Big Data (something my current day job puts me in close contact with on the regular), but of course, it took a more magical twist. And if it’s not apparent what force or forces would be behind such a app, and why those forces might make it go bad, then I clearly didn’t make it obvious enough.

Enjoy!

Killer App
18th Floor

               The phone slid across Gary’s desk with more flourish than it deserved. “This,” Mark said, “is the goddamn future of navigation.”

               “Your phone?”

               “No not…” Mark sighed. “What’s on the phone.”

               Gary looked at it. “Mustard?”

               “What?” Mark yanked the phone back. He rubbed the screen with the bottom of his shirt. “Not the mustard, the app. ‘Wisp.’” He paused.

               “Should I know what that is?”

               “Well, no. It’s in development. Or beta, or something. I dunno. But it’s amazing.”

               “Okay,” Gary said, drawn out. “So why are you showing it to me?”

               “It’s an investment opportunity.”

               “Last time I checked, we were a FinTech company.”

               “Right, but what about diversification?”

               “GPS is a Hell of a leap from lines of credit.”

               “Well,” Mark said, “maybe we can tie it into auto loans?”

               “That’s a stretch.”

               “Just, look… try it out. I can send you the download link, and you can get it and use it yourself.”

               Gary sighed. “What makes it so great, though? I mean, my regular app works really well.”

               Mark smiled, sensing—correctly or otherwise—that the hooks were in. “It predicts traffic problems before they happen.” Again, Mark waited expectantly.

               Gary laughed. “That’s stupid.”

               “It works.”

               “Uh-huh. How?”

               “I don’t know,” Mark whined. “Advanced algorithms or something. Big Data.”

               “You can’t predict idiots driving.”

               “We can predict credit risk within a nearly insignificant margin of error.”

               “What we do is entirely different. You can’t compare the risk of some low-credit score single mom with a history of overdue credit card bills to moronic drivers.”

               “But I’ve seen it work. Just this morning, it diverted me for no apparent reason, and a little later, BAM! The radio reported an accident on my route.”

               “Clearly, you misinterpreted the timing. Radio is late for little things like fender benders.”

               “No, it was that big one, with the bus and the elderly people. They cut into their regular broadcast. Said it happened moments ago and shut down the whole freeway. I was diverted ten minutes before that.” Gary side-eyed Mark. “Yeah, I know, it’s anecdotal, and that’s not how we work. But listen, you know me. I wouldn’t be pushing this if I didn’t think there was something there.”

               “Fine,” Gary said, “send me the link. Maybe if it works even a little, we can buy their data and incorporate it into ours. Cheap data is useful.”

*             *             *             *

               The install was clunky. He had to download it from an amateurish website instead of a proper app store. He’d appropriated a tester phone from QA, so security wasn’t a huge concern, given how isolated those units were. He blindly accepted the usual terms of service and its wall of text that, if anything came of Wisp, legal would pour over anyway. Wisp also asked for access to a number of items on the phone—photos, location, contacts, and a litany of other services—which he accepted impatiently. Finally, Wisp launched, taking a moment to determine his location before dropping a small blue dot on a dynamically generating map.

               The first example of its full capability was, perhaps, the most impressive. Three days of using Wisp had proven useful, but nothing terribly mind blowing. Diverting around a few hazards here and there, as expected. It wasn’t until the accident with the fuel tanker that he thought that Wisp might be extraordinary.

               In an effort to give it a proper chance, he had decided to follow Wisp’s navigation even if it seemed unnecessary. When it told him to exit the freeway, even though he saw nothing but clear road for miles, he did. He was cursing the application as he sat at a red light on the feeder road while traffic roared by on the highway when the tanker raced by in the lanes he’d just been in, blaring its horn. He watched, incredulous, as seconds later and further down the road—likely right at the spot he would have been in had he stayed on the main lanes—it hit something and exploded in a fireball that lit the early morning sky.

               When the news reported the number of casualties, anecdotal evidence be damned, Gary was ready to personally fund Wisp if he had to, but he didn’t think he would. Not getting in on Wisp while it was some guy’s garage project would be mind-blowingly stupid. He didn’t understand what it was doing under the hood. Whoever wrote the algorithm had to be a bonafide data genius. Even if Wisp disintegrated into vaporware, he could hire the developer, move his department ahead by leaps and bounds, and be looking at a VP position for sure. Maybe even C-level.

               Two days later, when a “please review this app” notification popped up, he dismissed it without thinking. When an email arrived in the throw-away email inbox he’d register his Wisp account with, he didn’t even read it before deleting it. Neither of those casual dismissals crossed his mind until Mark ended up in the hospital after his accident.

*             *             *             *

               The head-on collision left Mark comatose, likely brain-dead, and—if he lived past the first 48 hours—maybe he’d live the rest of his life as a vegetable. Gary gave a solemn meeting at work to break the news to the team. A card was passed around for Mark’s soon-to-be-widow and a small cash collection was gathered. Mark’s personal items had been collected at the hospital, and his own QA phone, functional but with a spider-web pattern of cracks, had been dutifully returned to the office.

               That night, in an empty office, Gary fumbled with Mark’s borrowed phone. He hadn’t disliked Mark, but he hadn’t liked him, either. If he’d quit that morning instead, Gary would feel about the same. The best he could muster was a cold feeling of absence. These things happened, and life had to go on.

               He turned the phone on, thumbed in the default QA password, and was presented with Wisp’s map, showing the phone’s current location. It took Gary a second to realize that Mark was probably using it when the accident happened. Well, he thought, so much for Wisp’s brilliant algorithm. There was no way to spin this with investors, so that great plan was out of the question, as was hiring a brilliant data guy to pump up Gary’s career. The data might still be worth a purchase, though, and it had been working for him so far, so there might still be something salvageable. However, it wasn’t worth expending any major investment effort at this point. All it would take would be one accident on Wisp, and the lawsuits would come pouring in.

               The phone dinged as a notification window popped up. Gary almost dismissed it like he had all the Wisp notifications on his own tester phone, then stopped. The bright red triangle and exclamation mark caught his eye. “Terms of Service violation” he mumbled to himself. “Wisp will not work as intended until ToS compliance is detected.” Gary had blindly agreed to the ToS himself and found himself wondering what Mark had violated. Wondering if there was hope for this app yet (though an aggressive ToS that disabled functionality of a navigation app would have to be taken out… too many legal issues, especially if it somehow tied into Mark’s accident), he tapped on the “More” link provided in the window. The wall of text reappeared and scrolled down to what Gary assumed was the relevant section.

               “User must provide a review and a donation to developer’s Patreon at www.patreon.com/TirNaNogDev,” he recited. It was a bit aggressive for a beta application, sure, but he kind of understood. Reviews made or broke new apps, and Patreon donations could fund years of development, especially if this wasn’t anything other than one developer in his or her spare time.

               Intrigued, he withdrew his own tester phone, logged into the app, and navigated to the independent application store page. While he wasn’t yet ready to make a donation, he could throw down on a decent review. Four stars, at least, with the caveat that the ToS was too forward and required some tweaking.

               There, he thought. That should keep it working.

*             *             *             *

               It didn’t.

               His first near accident came completely out of the blue. Like the initial demonstration of the app’s prescience, he had seen nothing but clear freeway ahead. Wisp hadn’t suggested an exit, so he’d stayed on the main lanes dutifully. It was only a freak chance that he’d looked up from his own phone, about to respond to an email regarding one of the company’s latest initiatives, when he saw the sports car racing up behind him. He swerved to the shoulder moments before the car would have plowed into him, slamming him into the eighteen-wheeler and likely killing him in the process. The police reports had confirmed that the sports car driver had, in fact, been brutally annihilated.  

               When he managed to keep from swerving into an errant motorcyclist who moments later caused a ten-car pile-up, he started to think that not only was the app not applying whatever accident-avoiding logic it used, but that it might be using the antithesis of said code to try to direct him into an accident. At that point, he did what any sane person would do; he returned the phone to the QA department to be wiped and went back to his old standby navigation option. His days of considering making a mint off of Wisp had come to and end.

*             *             *             *

               Which is how he found himself on that chilly January day, in his car and following his regular navigation program on the way to work, when an unexpected notification chimed. He looked down, stuck bumper-to-bumper and in no danger of any manner of high-speed, lethal accident, and saw that Wisp was flashing him a ToS violation notification.

               “The Hell,” he said to no one but himself. “I didn’t even install you on this phone, so why are you-” A second notification popped up, informing him that he could still make a Patreon donation to meet the app’s ToS.

               “Okay,” he said. “No. I’m not going to bother donating to an app that I’m not even using, so fuck off.” He stabbed his finger at the “Don’t Show Me This Again” link, but somehow managed to flick the “Donate!” link instead.

               “Ugh,” he replied. “Goddamn it.” He backed out of the donation page and felt like he’d made it back to his regular navigation’s screen. With a shake of his head, he tried to dismiss his experience, vowing to find out what part of the application had sunk its claws into his personal phone.

               A few moments later, his own navigation app told him to exit the freeway, citing a new incident a few miles down from him. He did so, happy to be following the directions of a much more established program instead of some malware (as he now assumed that Wisp was). He diverted onto a side street and started to wind through an unfamiliar network of roads. Within short order, the neighborhood that he drove though was clearly not the kind of place he wanted to pilot his BMW through. As if to confirm this, he found himself behind a low-rider Cadillac at a stop sign that seemed to be in no hurry to go anywhere. Without thinking, Gary tapped on his horn, hoping to prompt the Caddy into moving.

               The four gentlemen who exited the Caddy seemed less interested in moving than they were in confronting Gary. Regardless of their intention, Gary jammed the gas, tearing off around the car and it’s exited occupants without giving it a second thought.

               At that point, perhaps irrationally though he had the sneaking suspicion not, he decided to ignore his own navigation app and just follow whatever streets the map displayed without consideration for the routing system.

               When he almost drove head-first into a sinkhole that would have swallowed his car, he grabbed his phone from its dashboard mouth and threw it out the window. He’d driven for years before GPS was common in everyone’s pocket, so why not now?

               When he got back on a completely different freeway, traveling in the opposite direction of his office, he allowed himself to take a breather. He wasn’t even heading toward his original destination, so how could any navigation system possibly predict what was going on with his route? He was now, in a way that was completely antithesis to his profession of assigning risk to potential customers, unpredictable.

*             *             *             *

               The truck driver who had been using Wisp swore before a judge and jury that he hadn’t been impaired when he’d slammed into the BMW on the highway that day, instantly killing the driver. He had merely been following the directions on his navigation system that he had not only downloaded but given a positive review and a Patreon donation to, given how well it had worked in routing him through the most efficient routes on his delivery. He felt terrible, for sure, that a man had died in the accident, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen a fair share of distracted drivers in his career, and he managed to get a simple dismissal of his case by pointing out that in fifteen years of driving, this was the first accident he’d been involved in. 

               Yes, the app he’d used was new, but it hadn’t steered him wrong before then, and he didn’t imagine that he would have any problems with Shamrock Shipping’s latest early adoption of Wisp in the future.

               These things, he’d reasoned, were just part of the hazard of travel.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: On a Dying Earth

This is probably the most slap-dash, rushed entry yet, as a number of other writing obligations (getting about 17 short plays together for a submission) took up my writing cycles this past week. Still, I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss a post (even if no one’s reading them) . So lacking any other ideas, I toyed in a very rough way with an intro to a Dying Earth novel idea I’ve had for a few years. This will almost certainly not survive as the actual intro, though, but you have to start somewhere, right? There are things in here that are mostly placeholders; terminology taken directly from what little I know of the genre that I plan to change later. And I don’t want to give away too much because part of what’s so awesome about this is the revelations that come in the full story.

So, really, this is just me throwing something out there with 2 inch wide margins and 16 point font so that I can turn in a paper on time. Yay me?

But anyway, maybe you’ll find something interesting in it. Enjoy!

17th Floor
On a Dying Earth

Aldric was picking through the remains of the abandoned city. It was not one of the Ancients’ cities—those were forbidden and, frankly, too dangerous go risk defying the Decrees—but one that had died within the past million years. Or two. Aldric couldn’t tell and didn’t care. The goal was, as always, survival. Find anything that could be traded for the planet’s rapidly dwindling resources or something that could be used to take them. Aldric preferred trade to violence, but an ancient weapon could fit either scenario, and it was good to have options when the Traders came to his village.

He dusted a thousand years of detritus off some alien object, one that certainly didn’t seem to have any value outside of curiosity, when the Memory attacked. He was thrown back from his perch on the mound of rubble with the force of the attack as the wave of energy slammed into him. He might have been bothered by the loud crack of his head hitting concrete, or by the warm trail of blood that ran down from the fresh wound, had he been aware of either.

The city was alive with people. Merchants in booths on the streets. Towering spires of sharply angled buildings. The murmur of voices so intense that it felt like the thrumming of a thousand insect wings. The streets were clean and smooth. Giant machines flew in the skies.

The Memory had slithered into his mind and latched there. He tried to force it out but was so overwhelmed that he couldn’t. He knew, from experience, that it was best to ride it out; to allow it to become disinterested on its own and leave as quickly as it had intruded.

Everyone occasionally was attacked my Memories, but Aldric attracted stronger ones than most. He’d buried that information and kept it from the Council of Elders. He didn’t want to be a prophet, but he would be pressed into service. Prophets burned and faded faster than others, and the expectations and demands on their ability to summon and control Memories allowed them no rest.

Initially, this Memory was hardly remarkable in what it showed. A vision of the past, before the lowlands were swallowed by the oceans and then reemerged as barren wastes when the sun began its slow death cycle. Before the holes started to appear in the sky. Before whole regions of the planet would merely vanish, excised from the land as if by careful application of a blade in a surgeon’s hand. These people were not Ancients, but they lived comfortably in their shadows. Using their technology and their knowledge. Better times, perhaps, but with their own perils.

Aldric saw himself look down at the device in his hand; or rather, the hand of whoever the Memory had burst from a thousand years ago. It was the same artifact he had found in the rubble, but restored to its original functionality, so he imagined. Though it was flat and mirror black on its surface, a glowing orb hovered above it. Words he couldn’t read, symbols, and images floated in space, transferring some vital information or another to the holder.

The Memory fixated on the images there, and Aldric felt a growing dread. Something that this artifact was showing was troublesome to its watcher. It conveyed a message akin to a revelation of doom. Aldric was suddenly struck with images of a cavernous space; some inexplicably large cavern where rows and rows of Ancient-built monoliths glowed and pulsed with energy. Whether the energy of the Ancient’s technology or some of the magicks from the dark regions of the planet, Aldric couldn’t tell. He could tell, however, that the monoliths were going dark, one by one. He sensed, carryover from the Memory squirming around in his mind, that there were no longer and Guardians to tend to these monoliths. Their darkening was counting down to a terrible outcome. As his heart raced, sharing the fear and panic of the long-dead witness to this brewing calamity, the Memory leapt from his mind, jolting him back to his reality. He managed to catch a glimpse of it, pulsing and throbbing in the air, a strangely insubstantial creature, before it was lost in the ruins.

It was of no matter, however, and Aldric knew he had to cut his scavenging expedition short. He could no longer run from his abilities. The Council had to know what he had seen.

He had seen the moment the sun began to die. More importantly, he thought there might be a way to save it.

26 Stories

26 Stories: Wonderful

Happy Holidays, readers! This story comes from an idea I had some time ago based on the premise that the George-less reality of Pottersville from It’s a Wonderful Life continued to exist; a lawless community where a mad man claiming to know people in the town and the funny little man who claimed to be an angel. What would Bert the cop think when the man he’d pursued to the bridge on the edge of town seemed to have vanished, and he had to go back to his life as a beat cop in Pottersville, which I assume became a den of iniquity during and post Prohibition. I may have to go back and clear up some details later, as even though I’ve seen the movie too many times to count, I still probably missed some details. But as always, this exercise is not about getting it right, but getting it write… er, written. Whatever.

A word of warning; this is my usual somewhat dark take on something, and some people consider It’s a Wonderful Life a beloved story brimming with hope, optimism, and sappiness. I may or may not horribly kill off characters from the movie, because of course I will.

Enjoy!

16th Floor
Wonderful

               Bert looked off the end of the bridge down at the water below. The river was rushing, swollen with the recent rains and wet snow. The kook he’d chased from Main Street was nowhere to be seen, all signs of him stopped where he now stood. Given the obvious, Bert figured that the body would wash up somewhere down river, hopefully far enough out of the township to be some other chump’s problem. It had been a strange night, to say the least, with the unknown jumper (who claimed—insisted—that he knew Bert) and the odd little man who had seemingly vanished out from underneath as he’d tried to apprehend him at the old house on Sycamore Street. Bert was ready to go home, crawl in bed, and not see daylight for at least two days.

               It was a luxury he wouldn’t get, however, as the week of Christmas to New Years in Pottersville was “all hands” for the authorities. Not that it helped, since most of the force was in the pockets of Potter, and the old man had a vested interest in the town’s lawlessness. Still, there were petty drunks and hooligans to bust, and they’d be out in force all week. There wouldn’t be a smidge of rest for Bert until sometime in mid-January.

               Worse still, his sleep was troubled. He dreamed of life in Pottersville, only it was clearly a different town. Pleasant, even, more like Seneca Falls than a town that never drug itself out of the bootlegging operations of Prohibition (funded, again, by Potter himself with the police and town leaders in cahoots). Ernie was there, which was at least something normal, though he had flashes of dinners with Ernie’s family; something that had never happened even before the shrew had taken the kids and split. The scene that struck him the most when he woke up was of himself and Ernie outside that run-down house where he’d tried to arrest the lunatic and his vanishing friend singing in the rain. He knew that they were singing to the crazy man he’d pursued (and shot at) last night and the spinstery librarian… Sarah or Mary or something he couldn’t recall. As nightmares had gone, given all he’d seen on the beat in Pottersville, it was rather tame, though it left him with a sense of unease.

               When he arrived at work next morning, the station house was buzzing. Someone had found Gower, the town drunk, dead in an alley behind what was once his pharmacy. It had been his family business until the incident, and after that, he’d spent time in prison and later on the streets. Bert assumed that he’d finally decided to kick off and do so at the one place that reminded him of a normal life, but based on the talk from the other officers, it seemed unlikely.

               Unless he’d burned his own eyeballs out, turned his tongue to mush, and shoved some sort of spice in his ears. Thyme or basil or something. It was being treated as a murder, but there wouldn’t be any real effort to solve it. Someone else could now take to occupying Gower’s regular bench in the drunk tank.

               Violet Bick was the next one they found, with similarly burned out eyes. Her lips had been sewn shut, and they found flecks of gold under he fingernails. It was determined that she had pissed off one of her “clients” the previous evening, and when the police had let her walk after a night in holding, he must have found her and exacted revenge. To Bert, it was clear that the two deaths were connected, but a homeless drunk and a dead prostitute didn’t exactly cause an uproar.

               When they found Nick, eyes jelly and his body shoved into the hollowed out remains of the jukebox that had also doubled as the entryway to his rum running operations, that’s when the force was tasked to investigate. Potter himself set the dogs loose. While Nick wasn’t an upstanding member of the town, he had been Potters top muscle. The orders were clear; whoever was killing citizens of the town now had to be stopped. Bert, having the most experience on the force, was put in charge of the operation.

               There were no leads, at first. Not until a coincidental report filed by a fellow a few blocks from the bridge. He’d been out that night and come home to one fewer trees in his yard. Bert just happened to overhear one of the younger officers who had drawn the short straw to deal with the insistent man talk about how a crazy drunk had claimed to have hit the tree with his car, even though the tree was fine. The drunk was insistent that not only had he hit the tree, but that he’d interacted with the homeowner earlier that evening. That triggered Bert’s instinct, and he took time out of his investigation to talk to the man.

*             *             *             *

               “That tree,” the homeowner said, “was the oldest tree in Pottersville.”

               “Yeah,” Bret replied, “you’ve mentioned that.” Several times already.

               “I think that drunk came back and pulled it out. Left nothing but that hole in the ground; not even roots or a pile of dirt.”

               “Now why would a crazy drunk dig up your tree?”

               “Because that’s exactly what a crazy drunk would do.”

               Bert sighed. “Could you describe the fellah, buddy?”

               “He was really tall. Eyes were crazy. He had a kind of, I don’t know, deep voice? It was dark out, honestly, and I had groceries to get in the house, and didn’t want to deal with him.”

               Bert jotted down the notes, but already made up his mind that the homeowner’s drunk and the man he’d chased to the bridge were one in the same.

               “Did you see him again that night?”

               “’course not. You think I’d go out there on Christmas Eve? I could, if you lousy bums did your job, but it’s a lawless slum out there. Dunno why I still live here, if we’re being frank with each other. I just want to know why a man would dig up another man’s tree. Did you know that tree was….”

               “…the oldest tree in Pottersville. Yeah, I get that.” Bert closed his notepad. “Thank you for your time, and if we hear anything, we’ll let you know.”  As Bert walked away, the man stopped him.

               “You don’t think he’s the guy that’s killing all those other folks, do you?”

               “I can’t talk about that.”

               “Well, he may have taken my tree, but it he’s killing bums and whores, then I can’t imagine he’s all bad. Doing your job, at least.”

*             *             *             *

               The police found that man the next morning, along with his tree, deep in the forest. In addition to the eyes, the tree had been hollowed out just enough to force the overweight man into the tree. The prevailing theory was that the killer had missed him when he went to deal with him, removed the tree, and came back later to finish him off.

*             *             *             *

               It got personal to Bert when they fished Ernie’s cab out of the river. Bert had to ID the body; what was left of it, at least, after the fish had taken their pound of flesh. At least there hadn’t been any eyes for them to gorge on.

*             *             *             *

               Bert was sitting in his patrol car, trying to come up with any leads, when the angel visited him. It had been abrupt; one minute, Bert was looking down at his notes, and in an instant, the little old man who had somehow wiggled out from under him and disappeared was in the passenger seat next to him.

               “Hello, Bert,” the little man said. Bert instinctively drew his sidearm. He fired a shot into the little man, who not only didn’t react, but didn’t seem to even be hit. Had the gun misfired, Bert had a second to think before the gun was just… gone.

               “Oh now, Bert, that wasn’t necessary. I am sorry I startled you.”

               “Who the hell are you?”

               “No, no, no… not Hell, my friend. Heaven. I’m an angel.”

               “You’re under arrest is what you are.” Bert reached for his cuffs.

               “They’re not there,” the little man claiming to be an angel said. Feeling nothing, Bert went for the radio. “No radio, either.” To Bert’s dismay, that was true. He pushed back to try and open the door, but it was jammed shut. “You can’t get out, and no… you can’t attack me, either.” Bert had been about to pounce on the man but found that he lacked the will to do so. “My name is Clarence,” he man said with a childlike smile, “and I have been sent down from Heaven to straighten all this mess up.”

               “If you’re an angel,” Bert stammered, “where are your wings?”

               “You’ll see them soon enough. They’re brand new. Thanks to my dear friend, George Bailey.”

               “Who?”

               “The man who hit you on Christmas Eve. The man you thought jumped from the bridge, and the man you were starting to suspect of all those murders in town.” The man’s smile was suddenly sorrowful. “That man wasn’t supposed to exist here, but I had to show him something. Something wonderful. To save him.”

               “Look, buddy, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble when I get out of here. You can’t hold a cop prisoner in his own car, you know?”

               “Have you had dreams, Bert? Dreams of a different place? A better place?” Clarence studied Bert’s reaction. “Ah, I can see you have. If it makes you feel any better about what’s going to happen, you have a very happy life, there. Here?” he looked outside the car at the “Pottersville” sign. “You’re a prisoner to this place, not to me.”

               “You’re nuttier than a fruit bat.”

               “You could have left any time you wanted, but you didn’t. You out of all your colleagues resisted Potter as much as you could. You tried to make the town better; to make it more like it was supposed to be. Like Bedford Falls.”

               “Like where?”

               “Do you know,” Clarence continued, “that once I had my wings, I was able to see so much more? There are infinite versions of this town; some that are better and some that are far, far worse. There’s a version of this reality that is nothing but a plane of endless, out of control cancer.”

               “You’re insane.”

               Clarence nodded in agreement. “Going a bit mad a little inevitable, really, when you can observe all those realities at once. But the one that mattered, at least this time, was the one George Bailey came from. I can assure you, he is not responsible for the unfortunateness here in town. George is a kind and loving man and has long since gone home. Back to his reality. To his wonderful life.” Clarence sighed, sad. “But, his presence here left ripples that I couldn’t foresee before I had my wings, and Joseph has tasked me with righting.”

               “You killed them.”

               “I did. It is, unfortunately, the only way to keep this reality safe from instability. Everyone with whom George interacted must be put out of their misery. Well,” he said with a chuckle, “the misery to come, at least, if the reality bleeds really kick in.”

               “What are you?”

               Clarence was suddenly out of the car, standing in front of it. Bert couldn’t move. “I told you, I’m an angel.” His body had begun to glow, and the light grew in intensity until it was blinding. Bert saw, before his eyes began to bubble in his skull, a fiery wheel sporting six wings. He did get his wings, Bert thought just moments before the blinding vision was replaced by the blackness of oblivion.

               Clarence stood before the police car, the job done. He had one more to take care of, and he did not look forward to this one. He’d tried to warn George not to seek this person out; that he “wasn’t supposed to tell him” where she was. Joseph had warned him there would be consequences, and he’d wanted to spare her from this. But, alas, there was a job to do, and it would be better than what would happen to her as her if he let her be.

               With a deep sadness, Clarence turned to the library, and began to walk, the sound of ringing bells carrying faintly on the wind.

 

The End

26 Stories

26 Stories: A Diner in OZ, 3 am

I am returning to a character that I know I’m going to come back to in the future, even after this project is done. My favorite urban wizard… sorry… “ritual practitioner,” Dominic. Who would probably be offended by the implication of the phrase “urban” wizard, since he’s African American (and also, not a wizard. Though now I absolutely have to work that line into a future story. Odd how, so far, my favorite characters are the spirit of a Pakistani woman from a strict Muslim culture, a black ritualist, and an Asian lesbian homicide detective (she’s coming back, too, and I think all three are going to meet, eventually). And me with all my straight, cis-hetero, white, male privilege. I’m sure nothing can ever go wrong with that.

Anyway, enjoy Dom’s continuing adventures!

15th Floor
A Diner in OZ, 3 am

               It was at the point that the kid said, “you’re a wizard, Harry,” to Dominic that he had decided he’d had enough of this conversation. He pressed his fingers to his sinuses in the universal sign of fed-uppedness while his late-night (early morning?) breakfast cooled. The diner was sparsely populated, mostly by drunks realizing that their evening was over and that the hangover was coming.

               “I am not,” he said, “a wizard.”

               “But you, you know.” He mimed flicking a wand around in the air. “Poof, magic, right?”

               “No.”

               “I saw you in that alley. When you made that scary dude vanish in the fire circle?”

               “That was a ritual that I’d spent a better part of the day preparing and you almost fucked it up.”

               “That guy was a demon or something, right?” The kid was far too excited and speaking far too loudly for Dom’s taste.

               “Okay,” he said, “three things. One, keep your voice down, because the drunks think we’re the weird ones. Two, demons aren’t real. Three, and this is critical, I am not a wizard—there are no wizards.”

               “Then what are you?”

               “I am a practitioner of ritual magic.” Dom said.

               “So, you do do magic.”

               “Yes, I guess.”

               “And how does that not make you a wizard?”

               “Because magic isn’t something that you do with faux-Latin words and a stick. Magic takes rituals, and rituals take practice. Hence, ‘ritual practitioner.’”

               “I don’t know, seems like you may as well be a called a wizard.”

               Dominic clenched his fists. If only I were a wizard, I’d set you on fire right now, you little piece of sh-

               “But, anyway, you still made that demon thing vanish with magic.”

               “It was a spirit. And what’s your point?”

               “I,” the kid said, “am producing a podcast, and it would be awesome to have an interview with a real wiz.. uh… ‘practitioner.’”

               “Can you at least use ‘ritualist?’ ‘Practitioner’ is sort of offensive.”

               “Is that like the n-word?” The kid, to his credit, cringed immediately. “Sorry, brother… I mean, sorry my man. Or, just man.”

               “Get on with it.”

               “Uh… right, the podcast. I’m covering local lore, and, well, I kind of saw the real deal.”

               “Local lore?”

               “That monster in the alley was something called ‘the Long Man.’ He’s supposed to be, like, a demon who was summoned during a botched sacrifice by some kids in the fifties when—”

               “He,” Dominic said, “was the spirit of a homeless man who died in that alley ten years ago.”

               “Murdered?”

               “Cancer. And a bunch of other issues. That alley was the only home he ever knew, and he was having a hard time leaving it.”

               “That’s… anticlimactic.”

               Dom shrugged. “We could all only be so lucky.”

               “Why’d you banish him?”

               “He asked. Politely.

               “Oh…”

               “Kind of kills the Long Man story.”

               “Eh, I’ll just make some shit up. Oh!” He snapped his fingers.

               “No.”

               “You can be the focus of my podcast!”

               “No goddamn way.”

               “I could shadow you and learn all about the magic arts. Maybe you could even teach me some.”

               “That’s isn’t how any of this works.”

               “Meeting you was fate!”

               “Okay, fine. I see where this is going.” Dom unscrewed the top of the table’s salt shaker.

               “I might even be the next, I dunno, chosen one or something.” The kid pulled a recorder from his bag and fiddled with it. “I could at least play that angle for the story. Blend of reality and fiction.” Dom carefully poured the salt around the kid’s untouched coffee mug, then shaped the salt circle into an octagon with his finger.

               “What’re you doing?” the kid asked.

               “You want to learn some basic magic?”

               “Yes!”

               “Great. Lesson one of one: every ritual involves at least two components.”

               “Wait, wait!” The kid grabbed a notepad and pen from his backpack. Dom paused dutifully until the kid was ready.

               “There’s a sympathetic component,” at this, he produced a flask and poured its contents into the coffee, “and the symbolic component.” Dominic adjusted the salt octagon around the mug.

               “Sympathetic… symbolic” the kid muttered, writing.

               “Drink this coffee,” Dom said.

               “What, with the booze in it?”

               “Yes.”

               “Why?”

               “Booze is also called a ‘spirit,’ a common linguistic designation that forms a sympathetic bond between the drinker and the spirit world. Plus, drunk people tend to experience the world differently.”

               “Do I have to get drunk.”

               Dom sighed. “Sympathetic doesn’t mean literal.”

               “Is this going to make me see ghosts?” Without waiting for confirmation, he chugged the coffee.

               “Yes. LSD or peyote would be better, but that’s hardly diner fare.”

               “And the salt octagon?”

               “That’s the symbolic part.”

               “Like, uh… are there eight planes of the dead or something?”

               “No. People expect mystical circles of salt. It actually doesn’t do shit, you just think it does.”

               “When will it work?”

               “Soon enough. I mean, it works right away, just, there might not be any spirits nearby. Oh, and,” he said off-handedly, “since people tend to drink to forget, you won’t remember any of this conversation later.”

               “What?”

               “Sorry, kid.”

               “But I’m recording it.”

               “Yeah,” Dom said, “about that. Magic came before technology. That will ‘forget,’ too, because it’s yours and the spell works on you.”

               “That’s not coo—” The kid looked past Dom to the front door. “Oh shit.”

               “What?”

“It’s working, but… what kind of ghost is that?”

               Dom turned. Any amusement at the kid’s situation fled as he saw the entity at the front of the diner. None of the other patrons reacted; only he and the kid could see it. Rippled in the air, as if they were looking at in an aquarium.

               “That’s not a ghost.”

               “Is it real?”

               “Very.”

               The thing turned what could generously be called its face to their table, and Dominic swore under his breath. It looked like a cross between a jellyfish and the rotted remains of the upper torso of a murder victim, left underwater for at least a decade. The human-ish skull’s jaw hinged open, and a raspy voice scratched and burbled.

               “Prrrrractitioner….”

               “Did the Snake send you?”

               “You haaaaave stolen knowledge that doesssssn’t belong to youuuuu.”

               “Right, definitely the Snake.”

               “What snake?”

               “Kid,” Dom said with forced calm, “now would be a very good time for you to clear out of here.”

               “I…”

               Dom stood, grabbed the kid by his collar, and yanked him out of the booth. “Move. Back exit. Now.” The kid moved. The waitress behind the diner managed a quick “hey” as he ran past her, through the kitchen.

               “What’s his problem,” she asked Dom.  Dom shrugged, not taking his eyes off the Snake’s hired muscle. A bloated purple tongue, or a close enough approximation to one, wormed out of its mouth and lapped at its nonexistent lips.

               “This’ll cover me and the kid,” Dom said to her, not taking his eyes off the monster and placing an old shopping receipt on the table.

               “I’ll be right back with your change,” she said, scooping up the receipt, unable to pierce the veil of the magic that made her think it was money.

               “Keep it.” She smiled at him.

               “Thanks, honey!”

He hated wasting the enchantment it on cheap diner food, but there were more pressing issues. “I’m just leaving,” he said, more to the entity than the waitress, “and heading outside.”

               “Well, you have a good night, darlin’,” she responded.

               “Uh-huh,” Dom replied, and edged his way around the other side of the tables, past the creature, and to the front door.

               “I will have you, practitionerrrrrrrr,” it purred.

               “Outside,” he replied, knowing that not seeing the entity wouldn’t save the people in the diner if it came to violence. Thankfully, things like this had just as much of a desire to stay off the radar as he did. He’d only make it as far as the nearly deserted streets, Dom knew, before it attacked, but that gave him time to at least contemplate how to get out of this. If he could get out of this. He hadn’t counted on a retaliation from the Snake this soon.

               He felt the thing slide out onto the sidewalk behind him, and abomination of a presence behind him.

               “Look,” he said, “I don’t see the harm in a little knowledge. I mean, isn’t that the Snake’s thing, anyway?”

               “You tricked ittttttt.”

               “Is it mad about the trick? Is that it? Because I’m pretty sure that’s kind of hypocritical on its part.”

               “You sssssshould not knowwwwwwww what you knowwwwwwww.”

               “That’s fair.” Dom put a hand into his hoodie’s pocket, fumbling around for anything that would work. “That said, given Snake’s place in the cosmos, I think that knowing things I shouldn’t know would be, like, its jam, right? Doesn’t it hate gods who hoard knowledge?” The thing across from him laughed, grating and slick laughter, like oil on water. Oil that was on fire.

               “Do no try to appeal to its hatred of pathetic human religions.”

               “So why did it send you, then? I didn’t know that the Akatharton were thugs for hi—” The thing lashed out with a blast of power that hit Dom with a mix of physical, psychological, and emotional pain. It cored his soul like an apple and drove him to his knees, gasping against the pain and a thousand images of his failure throughout life smashing into his memories at once. He had known that the savagery of the attack would be coming, but he’d hoped for at least a few more seconds to put together whatever weak defense he could. He’d had an idea of what he needed, but since it didn’t look like he’d get the courtesy of an evil villain monologue, his options were limited to dying or suffering whatever his attacker had in mind for him. And that attack was it going easy on me.

               “Stop!” The podcast kid stepped out from the shadows, his hands raised, placing himself between Dom and the monster.

               “Damn it, kid,” Dom muttered.

               “You leave this man alone.”

               “Who arrrrrrrre you?” it asked.

               “Me?”

               “Don’t.” Dom gripped at the trinket he’d finally found. Jacket pockets enhanced with mini-worm holes were, in retrospect, not very helpful when you needed something specific, fast.

               “I’m the protector of this ritualist. I’m the chosen o—” With little fanfare, the kid evaporated into a fine red mist in the street.

               “Insssssssect.” It turned to Dom, who now stood.

               “Yeah,” Dom said, “but to give him some credit, he did give me time to do this.” Dom withdrew his hand. He held a narrow, wand-like object in his hand. He waved it with a flourish, threw in a quick “abracadabra” for good measure, and tossed it to the creature. It caught it with a misshapen appendage and was mesmerized.

               The pen, bought at a truck stop somewhere in the Midwest, showed a pin-up girl in a plastic window along the barrel. Water held a plastic bikini top in suspension across her chest. The thing turned the pen straight up and down, and the swimsuit covering her breasts slowly drifted down. The creature howled in frustration as it found itself unwillingly frozen by the cheap titillation. The magic of the minor ritual that Dom had flung at it was enough to give Dom a fraction of a second of a window. To gather all of his will and respond to this manifestation of pure evil that had erased another human from existence without a second thought.

               Dom ran.

 

*             *             *             *

 

               Dominic knew that he was outclassed. An Akatharton had been sent after him, and would have massacred him, even if he’d had time to prepare. He might, in fact, have only bought himself a few days with the pen trick. Which made it that much more important that he get to Austin sooner rather than later.

               He took out the folded piece of paper he’d picked up in Atlanta; a flyer advertising an underground film festival. For most people who received the flyer, it was an opportunity to be a part of a schlocky, independent horror movie fest. He, on the other hand, had read the flow of magic in the printed words. It presented him an opportunity, and one he was now even more hard-pressed to take. What the Snake had shown him in Upstate New York was dangerous knowledge, and if he wanted to do anything but die with it (or worse), he had a lot of work to do, and decreasingly less time.

               Against his better judgement, Dominic would have to open a byway.

               It was far safer than risking an Akatharton.

THE END

26 Stories (Revised): Elevator

No, this isn’t my regular update. That’s not scheduled until the 29th, and I’ve been working on that one since my dreams laid the foundation for it a few nights ago. This is a revision of one of my earlier stories. These won’t be so regular as they will come as I feel like tackling them. Remember that a lot of these are simply raw writing exercises. From time to time, I may decide there’s something there to flesh out. Or I may decide that I just want a more polished version of what I already wrote. 

In any event, this story is a revision of my earlier story, Elevator. It’s shorter, a little more to the point, and hopefully more entertaining. Writing isn’t just about putting stuff to paper… there is a bit of revision required. And I suspect there will be more rounds of revision required on this and any given story. 

So enjoy, possibly again or possibly for the first time.

Elevator (Revised)
5th Floor

               Danielle rode the elevator from the fifth-floor, her laptop tucked into her messenger bag. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, hoping that the elevator didn’t make any stops. Stops would give her more time to think. She didn’t want to sabotage her presentation to the C-levels by overthinking. For a business analyst with barely three years at the company, this was almost unheard of. So much so that her boss had given her an awkward pep-talk before she headed off.

               “Well, Danni,” he’d said, calling her by the nickname she’d grown tired of insisting he not use, “this is a big step for you. I’d hate to think,” he continued, “that the team might lose you after this, but what is the world of business without sacrifice?” He’d tried to downplay it, but the mix of emotions was clear. If this went well, she could have passed him. She was also aware of his crush (not at all returned on her part) even though he thought he’d managed to hide it. She was looking to transition off the team, it was true, but not solely because of his unrequited feelings. He was content to be a middle manager. He wasn’t going anywhere, and if he didn’t go anywhere, she wasn’t going anywhere.

               She was moving up, literally and—fingers crossed—figuratively. Her insights into the data processing the company used to precisely target potential customers were groundbreaking. As the old building’s quaint elevator jolted to a start and began its slow climb, she ran through her presentation.  After some extra work in the evenings and weekends from her studio apartment, she’d managed to find something the company’s army of data scientists had overlooked. There had been a subtle and unique pattern that resolved into a perfect picture of behavioral trends. What the complex interactions between the sea of numbers meant (as she wouldn’t bore the executives with the minute details) was that she had found an entirely new way to target customers. Thanks to the company’s “Brain-icane” sessions, where even the most “out there” ideas were considered, she was now on her way to a one-on-six meeting at the very top level of the organization.

               She opened her eyes, hoping to see the floor indicator close to twenty-six, unable to contain her nerves for too much longer. She was surprised to see that she was only passing the sixth floor. How was it that time always went sideways under stress?

“Time is constant my ass,” she said to the empty elevator car.

               She leaned her head back against the wall.

               This is fine, she thought. Like Stewart said, this is just a small sacrifice. Her presentation was immaculate. Not too much text on each slide, no animations, and plenty of room for further explanation. She’d timed herself last night and the entirety of the initial presentation came to just around seven minutes (Toastmasters approved). She would be able to communicate the salient points and have more than enough time to entertain questions. The C-levels were too important to spend more than half an hour on any given topic—time being an immense amount of money when you factored how much each one made every minute; every second. Likely, she would be giving them back five to ten minutes. Her efficiency and conscientiousness would be noted. Things like that always were at that level.

               The elevator chimed, and she re-opened her eyes (she hadn’t realized she’s closed them again), expecting to be at least close to the twenty-sixth floor. The number on the display suggested otherwise.

               Six? She thought. That can’t be right. She stared into an empty elevator lobby, waiting for another rider. No one boarded with her. The floor was deserted. Just as a shadow shifted in the hallway, betrayed by the washed-out fluorescent lights, the doors slid closed.

               The elevator lurched again, her stomach pressing down as she went up. Not wanting to obsess over her presentation again, she stared down at the ugly 1970s pattern in the carpet. She tried to let her mind wander.

               When she checked again, the elevator display still showed six.

               It has to be broken, she thought. The display is malfunctioning, which wasn’t surprising. The building that housed her office was at least a hundred years old. The elevator was likely added sometime in the fifties. She tapped it, not sure how that would help but conditioned to do just that. It didn’t budge. Well, she thought, I can feel the elevator moving, so I’m not stuck. She’d reach the top floor where the doors would either open, or—failing that—she could call for help. There was an executive assistant (Tammy, she seemed to remember) right outside the doors, so it wouldn’t be hard to get her attention. It would be embarrassing, but she was skilled enough at speaking to spin it into a humorous anecdote. Furthermore, there were three elevators in the building. If the elevator stopped again, she could either take the stairs or wait for a different one.

Take some calming breaths, she told herself. Practice “mindful meditation” like your therapist taught you. You have got this. Those execs will be floored. At that, she opened her eyes, convinced she felt a slow-down in the elevator’s momentum, ready to razzle and even dazz-

               The display flipped from six to seven. She felt the familiar tug of an anxiety attack. Mindful meditation, she thought. Mindful meditation.

               As she wrangled her anxiety back down for storage in what her therapist called her “emotional quarantine,” she had a moment of clarity.

               “Right,” she said aloud. “Duh.”

               Right where she expected it to be, on the wall under the buttons, was a panel. She popped it open easily enough and picked up a telephone handset wired into the elevator via a corkscrew cord. She placed it to her ear. She heard the ringtone. After three rings, there was a click and a tired man’s voice.

               “Building maintenance.”

               “Hi, yes, this is Danielle Anderson. I’m on elevator number… uh…” She looked and saw the appropriate number. “Number four,” she finished.

               “Um… are you sure about that?”

               “Well, yes. I mean, it is the number listed right above this phone, right?”

               “It should be,” he said.

               “Then that’s the one. Can you figure out what’s going on? It’s taking a long time to get to the top, the floor thingy isn’t changing, and—”

               “Ma’am,” he cut her off, “I’d like to help, but if you’re in elevator number four, then a line got crossed somewhere.”

               “I’m sorry, what?”

               “Are you in the Waverly building?”

               “Yes.”

               “Ma’am, there are only three elevators in this building.”

               “Well,” she said, annoyed, “then the wrong number is on the panel. It’s the elevator furthest from the main door. Can’t you look on a status panel or something and see which one I’m in?”

               “I can, and I am, but everything is showing up just fi-” The man’s voice was cut off.

               “Hello?” she asked. No response.

               “Hello?” she asked again, an edge there.

               “Hell-” and then she trailed off. The line wasn’t dead, as she thought. She could hear—or thought she could hear—ambient noises. Quiet hums, or the steady whooshing of a fan or air conditioning from a ceiling vent.

               “Are you… is anyone there?” she asked. She was certain she heard something in the background. Voices engaged in a lively discussion far away? A child crying somewhere? With effort and strain, she latched onto a rhythmic sound. It started quietly but grew in pitch and volume. She imagined that this was what it felt like to stand on train tracks as a freight train bore down. As it intensified, she found herself pressing the hand-set so hard into her ear that the sound of her blood rushing with each increasingly frantic heartbeat first covered, then merged with, and was soon drown out by the noise. Something larger than even a train; a horrific mix of mechanical parts and fused flesh was rushing toward her. When it reached her, it would drag her screaming into the darkness of some other world, where elevators ran on forever. Just as her mind was about to snap, right when she was about to begin to scream and scream and scream, a vibration at her wrist shattered the spell.

               She dropped the phone and gasped for breath as she slumped to a sitting position and pressed against the wall. The vibration at her wrist persisted, and she looked down to the cause of the disturbance.

               “Wow!” her fitness watch told her, “Exercise Goal Achieved!” It showed her current heart rate, blasting at 175 (well into the “Cardio” zone, it cheerfully displayed). She stared incredulously for a moment, then laughed. Her panic attack had caused her fitness tracker to log her rapid heart rate as a workout. Already short of breath, she gasped between uproarious guffaws, aware that if the elevator doors opened right now, she would seem completely unhinged. Imagining the look on some poor schmuck’s face made her laugh harder. She laughed until tears streamed down her cheeks, which she wiped with the back of her smartly pressed jacket. After a few minutes of laughing, followed by the occasional aftershock of chuckles between deep breaths, she reassessed.

               “Still floor seven,” she said, the display taunting her. She put her head back, grateful for the wall’s tangibility. She looked at the handset she’d dropped, contemplating putting it back on the receiver and trying again. After all, the person she spoke to seemed to think there might be a crossed line somewhere, and the abrupt change to some other connection seemed to suggest the wiring was faulty. She could try again, and either get someone who could help or at least try to work out what was going on with the person she spoke to before. Also, she thought, it would be nice to talk to someone.

               The bulbous ends of the old-style handset stared at her, either curiously or maliciously, from the floor. The honeycomb of holes in the plastic bulbs made her skin crawl. She opted to leave it there for now.  

               It’s just a matter of time, she thought, before someone figures out that something is wrong with the elevator. Still seated on the floor, she brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The panic attack had made her tired; back when she had them regularly, she would end up sleeping for hours after. Up on the opposite wall, next to the doors of the elevator, the display still read “7” as the gentle vibration of the elevator lulled her to sleep.

*             *             *             *

               Danielle was jolted awake, disoriented, the fog in her mind lifting. Waking from a nap was too much like a hangover without the fun of getting drunk. When she saw the elevator display, now turned to nine, she sighed with relief. I just dozed for a second, and the elevator moved up two floors, she thought. Good… good, I only lost…

She checked her watch and frowned. Her meeting with the executives was scheduled for 2:30 pm, and while she’d suspected that the malfunctioning elevator would make her miss the meeting, her watch claimed that it was 6:23 pm. She ached from her awkward position on the floor. If she’d been here for four hours, surely someone would have come to find her. Standing, her knees popping in protest, she checked it again. It must be out of sync with my phone, she thought, and then practically smacked herself.

               “My phone! Holy shit!” She reached into the pocket of her bag. She pressed her index finger to the sensor on her phone and it came to life showing her… 6:23 pm.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said aloud, “whatever time it is, I can call someone to get me out.” She opened her contacts and swiped the screen down as quickly as she could to Nathan’s number and pressed the call icon. She held the phone up to her head, still mad at herself for not thinking of this earlier.

               Her phone was silent. No dial tone. No connection. No nothing, despite a full set of signal bars. Wondering if it would make a difference, she sent a text to Nathan briefly detailing her situation, explaining that she had no service, and that he needed to call or text her “ASAP.”

               She retrieved her laptop and powered it on. She watched as her laptop, curiously down to about 17% power, struggled to connect with the office network. She was sure, given how paranoid she’d been about the impending presentation, that she had fully charged the computer. It occasionally claimed to make a connection only to disconnect before she could even open her email. She slammed the lid down.

               “Fuck!” she yelled, pressing both hands to her forehead. People didn’t just lose time on elevators that refused to move above a snail’s pace. There had to be a reasonable explanation as to why she wasn’t getting anywhere, and why she was confused as to how long she’d been here. Was there a gas leak in the building? Was she dreaming? After all, it wasn’t like she didn’t have anxiety dreams about college, her relationship with her parents, or with the fact that she felt like she was an imposter in her job. Yes, she reasoned, this was all some intense nightmare. By letting herself slip into a semblance of sleep, she would wake up and be back in her apartment—or in Nate’s bed. They could laugh about it over breakfast.

               She slept again.

*             *             *             *

               She woke at 4:35 am, still in the elevator, and had a second panic attack.

*             *             *             *

               At 12:45 pm the next day—or someday—her fitness watch informed her its battery was low on charge. How did it drain in one day, she wondered, and cursed herself for not bringing her portable charger from its spot on her desk, and then found it funny that she was worried about that now. The humor turned from a roughly five-minute session of uncontrolled laughter into at least half an hour of uncontrollable sobbing.

*             *             *             *

               It was dead the next time she woke up.

               Her phone was on 4%, with no signal, and said it was 1:15 am. As to what day, she wasn’t certain. The phone was showing gibberish where the date would normally be. Sometime in her delirium, she had taken to using the far corner of the elevator as a restroom. She didn’t remember making the decision to shit and piss on the floor, so in a strange way, she accepted it as a decision made by someone else.

               After trying a few more times to get a call out, she resorted to playing one of those stupid color-matching games on her phone until it finally died on her. That even this small lifeline to anchor her to something normal was gone was in and of itself a relief. She didn’t find it odd that she wasn’t at all hungry, but really, the only feeling she still felt in her stomach was the ever-present downward push of maddeningly steady upward motion. Absent any other option, she curled up on the floor.

*             *             *             *

               She woke again. If she’d been lucky, she wouldn’t have done so. If she’d been lucky, she would have slipped away, into catatonia, a coma, or death. Any option was better. By rights, she should have been dead. Surely, she’d been in the elevator for days, if not weeks. She hadn’t had anything to eat or drink, and while she wasn’t completely up on her biology, she was fairly certain that you had to have food and drink coming in for waste to go out.

               Why up? The thought crossed her mind that at some point she’d died. Up didn’t make any sense. If she’d gone down, this never-ending ride might have made sense. She was a lapsed Catholic, after all, and damnation would fit (she’d fucked a couple of other people on the side when Nathan was off on business trips; and Hell, hadn’t they been living in sin, anyway?). Damnation was down, not up. “Up” was supposed to be good. “Up” was how she felt when the anti-depressants were working. “Up” was what it was like to wake in the morning with Nathan next to her, no matter how shitty she’d been to him behind his back. “Up” was good. “Down” was when she had hurt herself, before her therapy and the Zoloft. Back when she was cutting on herself. But now, here, up was madness and up was never ending. Salvation wasn’t up. Relief wasn’t up. Even death wasn’t up, because even if she’d had some means to end her own life (she thought about bashing her head against the elevator walls but knew that she’d just pass out and wake again), it wouldn’t stop.

               What is the world of business, a familiar but long-forgotten voice whispered in her ear, without a little sacrifice?

               “Sacrifice,” she said out loud, half laughing.

               At that, the elevator dinged, and the doors opened. She saw that the floor listed was “26.”

               She stood, tugged at her suit jacket, and hefted her messenger bag over her shoulder. She ignored the dried streaks of shit that ran down her thighs. She ran a hand over her hair, pushing a filthy errant strand into place over her right ear. It was time for her meeting. It might not go well, given the delays, but they would understand.

*             *             *             *

               Wind howled around Dannielle. Even after so much time ascending, she exited on the ground floor of a ruined building. Its skeletal remains reached up toward a starless yellow sky as if in supplication. Wind-born dust raced in spirals and twisted around half destroyed walls and supporting iron beams.

               She felt the presence of strange things pressing in on her, watching her with a hunger she could feel. She didn’t fear the shadows, though. She had, after all, a well-prepared PowerPoint and a scheduled meeting to make. The things in the dark—the trundling, oozing things—wouldn’t dare inconvenience the executives. Their time was infinite, and if time was money, then it had infinite value. What mattered was what she could bring to the table. What she had to contribute to the company.

               The two oak conference room doors stood before her just past the elevators. She stopped there, taking a final moment to confirm that everything was in order, cleared her throat, and entered, confident that her sacrifice would be appreciated.

               She was going places, after all.

*             *             *             *

               The doors opened into a vast conference room. The table was impossibly large and built at odd angles, but the six figures in severely pressed suits were somehow intimately close. They turned to her in unison, their faces nothing but vast, black holes that gave the appearance that someone had cut into them and scooped out the insides of their skulls like pumpkins on Halloween. Inside the holes, she could see the entirety of the universe, and many universes beyond. There was a moment of vertigo, but Danielle composed herself admirably. A giant obsidian rectangle appeared above the table. Danielle powered on her laptop, which screamed to life, drawing a fresh charge from an unknown source. The rectangle, the glassy blackness reflecting nothing of what was in the room, flared with blinding light, dimming back down until it showed the first slide of her presentation.

               “Business,” she said, “requires some degree of sacrifice…”

*             *             *             *

               Danni’s presentation killed.

               Keeping a public stock option, as Danni’s boss had rightly implied, did require some amount of sacrifice, and she would have the glorious role of providing it. Shareholders had to be continually assured that there were no uncalculated deviations in the direction of the company, yet they also had to see that continuous change was in the cards. After all, business didn’t move forward without big, hairy, audacious goals, so they said.  “BHAG,” one of those acronyms that corporate America was always coming up with as part of the secret, ancient language of corporations. She hadn’t realized just how ritualistic the repetition and overuse of the lingo was. She performed her part to the letter, laying out the sacred numbers of the data and cryptic diagrams of the occult process flows, all in the proper sequences designed to maximize ROI. As the C-level executives, in unison, chanted back to her the proper verses of “synergy,” “paradigm shifts,” and “scalable solutioning,” Danni felt the real power of what it meant to be one of the highest of the executive priests. She envied their power, wanted so much to join their ranks, but it wasn’t in the cards. Still, she would contribute to the overall success of the organization. She was a valuable member of the team, and as the presentation wrapped up and the executives finished summoning the Big, Hairy, Abomination of a God (B’HAG! B’HAG! B’HAG!), she welcomed it. It pushed its way through the obsidian screen, which opened like a dilating cervix. She was there—it was, in fact, her accidental discovery that made it possible to move the timetables up as much as they did with minimal risk acceptance—as the organization birthed its greatest solution (infinite scalability that positioned the business to organically maximize market share in all demographics), still covered in the fluids of its afterbirth. Danni held her arms out; while she wasn’t the mother, she would be the nursemaid. It would feed off of her until it was fully grown. Thanks to her status as an exempt employee, she would be “on call” twenty-four seven, which was a little severe, sure, but the health benefits were worth it. With a little dedication and—yes—a lot of sacrifice, she was sure to retire early, if she wanted to.

               The thing suckled from her, this twisted abortion of the American Dream, and she was content.

THE END


26 Stories

26 Stories: Flesh of my Flesh

The second half of this effort begins now with more goopy body horror elements. Also, I’m relatively sure that my sexual imagery is less subtext and just plan old text. I wonder what my therapist would say about this story?

As always, enjoy. Or be grossed out.

Or both!

Flesh of My Flesh
13th Floor

              “Is this one of those ‘War of the Worlds’-type things? It has to be, right?” Cal asked, fiddling with the antique radio.

              “This?” Martin replied. “These fire-and-brimstone preachers have been on these AM stations since Marconi played the mamba.”

              “Who did the what, now?”

              “You are so young.”

              “I’m not that much younger you. I’m just more cultured.”

              “The devil walks among us, children,” the radio preacher’s twang sounded like an angry child talking through a tin-can phone.

              “Grandpa used to play that shit all the time on this very radio. I wonder if he would find it ironic that it’s probably what made me gay.”

              “We are at war!” the Preacher shouted. “The communists, the freedom-hating liberals-“

              “Here it comes.”

              “The gays and their homosexual agenda.”

              “Nailed it!” Martin said.

              “The only thing on my agenda,” Cal said, “Is to eat. Aren’t you supposed to be making dinner?”

              “Crock-pot,” Martin said. “Been cooking for three hours.”

              “Oh,” replied Calvin.

              Martin kissed the top of Cal’s head. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”

              Cal stood, listening to the radio preachers continue his diatribe on the gays and the atheists and Democrats. “How did you survive growing up here?”

              Martin shrugged. “Deep closets.”

              “Speaking of closets, where are we going to start?”

              Martin scanned the living room of the ranch house. It was in remarkably good shape already on the outside, but too cluttered with kitsch and a hodge-podge of different eras of style. Martin also assumed that the details that were hidden in the walls would prove to be worse. Ancient pipes, bad wiring, thin insulation, and who knew what else waited for the tear-down. The storage company would be coming out in a few days to take the furniture away that they wanted to keep, the charity would come a few days after that everything else salvageable, and the waste management company would park a large bin outside for the refuse.

              “The bathrooms can be cleaned out pretty easily, but I suspect that’s where we’re going to find the most problems.”

              “Get the worst out of the way, then?”

              “Yeah, I think that’s the best approach.”

              “Okay,” Cal said, brushing off his hands. “You tend to that dinner and I’ll see what we’ve got in the master bathroom.”

              Martin left the room.

              “Temptation leads to damnation,” the radio preacher said. “When the merging comes, when the great Beast is birthed, the world be remade in its image of eternal Flesh.”

              “No gays though, I imagine,” Cal said to the radio.

              “All are welcome in the now world,” he said.

              “Yeah, I bet,” Cal walked away.

              “All, Calvin.” Cal froze.

“The change will not come in fire,” the preacher continued. “It will come in a rain of flesh and a changing of the body!” When the radio did not address Calvin again by name, he pressed his fingers to his temples. Convinced that he’d misheard, he continued on his way.

*            *            *            *

              Cal laughed over his half empty beer glass. “I can’t believe that he actually said that to you!”

              “I know, right? Straight guys are so awkward when they try really hard to be accepting. I guess I’m his gay friend he can use to prove his liberal street cred.”

              “We’re not exactly shattering the gay stereotype with all this catty talk, are we?”

              Martin laughed. “I guess not.”

              “Brothers and sisters, hallelujah!” a tinny voice said from the living room.

              “Didn’t you turn that off,” Martin asked.

              “I thought you did.”

              “Not me.”

              “Praise be unto Him, for I come with good tidings.”

              “I’ll get it,” Cal rose and headed to the living room, leaving Martin to take another sip of his Scotch.

              “Children,” the preacher said with a patronizing concern, “I know that I often talk about who stands against us; who we oppose. But make no mistake… this is not about hate. We hate no one.”

              “Sure,” hand on the dial.

              “The gays and their illicit lovers, living in sin,” Cal turned the knob to the left, diminishing the hateful voice almost fast enough, but not quite.

              “Fixing up the old farmhouse together. Making a ‘bed and breakfast’ to lure more of their kind to our good community. To pervert it. But we don’t hate them.”

              “Martin,” Cal called.

              “Yes?”

              “I think the radio preacher is talking about us.”

              “Not ‘about,’ Calvin. To you,” the preacher said on a clearer signal.

“What did you say, Calvin?” Martin asked from the doorway. “Did you decide that you still wanted to listen to that?”

              “I…”

              “Go ahead, Calvin. Turn it off. It won’t silence me.”

              “Did you hear that?”

              “Yeah, and if this guy is just going to repeat shit about the gay illuminati, he’s going to lose his followers to boredom.” Martin exaggerated a yawn.

              “No, I mean-“

              “Ugh,” Martin reached over and turned the radio off.

              “There. You coming back to the table?”

              “I told you,” the preacher said through the dead antique, still with a high-frequency hum. “You can hear the Word now, Calvin. You won’t be able to stop hearing it.” Calvin abruptly grasped the old power chord and yanked the plug from the wall. The action triggering a sharp pop and flash of a spark. Lights in the house flickered.

              “The wiring is going to be a real bitch to fix,” Martin said.

              “Yeah,” Calvin muttered.

              “The Word is truth, Calvin,” the preacher continued. “The truth of the Flesh is next.”

              Martin put a reassuring hand on Calvin’s shoulder. “Are you feeling okay? You look pale.”

              “What?” Cal asked, and then, “No, yeah… yeah. I’m just… tired. Too much beer, maybe.”

              “Don’t I know it,” Martin said. “Okay, we can get to work tomorrow.” He set his glass down on the top of the radio and planted a kiss on Cal’s lips. “Thank you,” he said.

              “Filth,” the radio said.

“For what?”

              “For helping with this.”

              “Sinners.”

              “Of course…” Cal tried to block out the voice in his head.

              “C’mon,” Martin said, taking Cal’s hand and leading him toward the bedroom. “Let’s go to bed.”

              “Fornicators.”

              “Sounds good,” Cal replied.

              “This is not how the Flesh is joined,” the preacher said to Calvin as the two men left. “But you will know soon enough.”

*            *            *            *

              Calvin stood on a vast expanse of skin. Tumorous growths rose around him like termite mounds, mottled pink, black, and blue. Scabs partially covered oozing sores. A fetid wind blew and carried with it the smell of putrescence. The land under his feet swelled and sank at regular intervals. He knew it was a dream instantly, albeit, it was a dream with a different quality than he was used to.

              “Calvin,” his father said, “I will not stand for this.”

              “Dad,” he replied, “it’s not like it wasn’t obvious.”

              “It wasn’t obvious to me!”

              “I played catch, dad! I dated girls. I did everything you wanted.”  

              “And yet you still fuck other men!” His father’s features ran and melted, oozing like putty left in a hot sun.

              “Daddy?”

              The puddle that was once his father reformed. The waxy pink fluid ran backwards, like a video reversed. As it took shape, Calvin stood face-to-face with man of about his father’s age, wearing a robe that wasn’t quite like a preacher’s vestment, but close enough.

              “Your father is with the Flesh, now. We all return to the Flesh. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… flesh to flesh.” The preacher reached out and put a hand on Cal’s arm. Where his fingers touched Cal’s skin, cancerous masses, red and angry, erupted. Fire burned under his skin as his flesh twisted and his bones were broken, liquified, and reformed. Into what, he didn’t know, as the dream faded.

*            *            *            *

              “Slime mold,” Martin said, standing in front of the hole he had hammered into the bathroom’s drywall. Glistening, biological goop had glommed on to the wall studs. “I knew there would be something disgusting back here. We did get masks, right?” Martin waited. “Right, Calvin?”

“Uh… yeah,” Cal nodded.

“Good. If this is here, you can bet there’s black mold and we sure as shit don’t want to breath any of that in.”

              “I’ll get them,” Calvin said, anxious to leave the room. In addition to grabbing a set of mases, he snagged the box of latex gloves, too. I’m not risking touching that.

Martin had started music on his phone. “Thank you!” he chirped, taking a mask and the box of gloves from Calvin. Martin slipped on the mask, pulled on the gloves and made a lewd gesture in Calvin’s direction. When Calvin didn’t laugh, Martin pulled the mask down.

              “Are you sick, or hungover?”

              “I didn’t sleep well. Nightmares.”

              “Oh. Well, they’re just dreams, right? Can’t hurt you and all that?”

              “Thanks dad… er… mom.” Calvin’s stomach churned with the memory of the dream.

              “Mmmm-hmmm,” Martin replied. “Does princess Calvin need a nap? We’ve got work to do, and good music to keep us awake.” The current song—some EDM music that Calvin never got into—ended.

              “Hello Calvin,” the preacher’s voice said from the phone.

              Martin smiled, “That’s my jam!” He started to dance to an unheard beat.

              “No,” Cal said. “No, no, no…”

              “Yes, Calvin. You cannot escape the Word.”

              Martin frowned. “I know this isn’t usually your music, but we can play your depressing rock songs later.”

              “I don’t want to hear this.”

              “Okay, Jesus.” Martin stopped the music. “What the hell got into you?”

              “The Word is inescapable. The Flesh is inevitable.”

              “Leave me alone!”

              “Leave you alone? Calvin, you have to be sick.”

              “Your father is here, Calvin,” the preacher said. “And he’s felt the change.”

              “My father is dead!”

              “Calvin?” Martin, concerned now, stopped the music. “What’s going on? Are you… do you need help?” He held Calvin’s face in his hand, turning to look into his eyes.

              “Yes, let him take you in his arms. Be of the same sinful flesh. Your father understands, now, the pressing and melding and joining of flesh. He doesn’t hate you anymore.”

              “Stop!” Calvin yelled, pushing Martin away.

              “Stop what?” Martin replied.

              “Why, you and your father could become close, Calvin. So much closer, if you just accept the Word and embrace the Flesh.”

              Calvin ran.

*            *            *            *

              He ran into the countryside until his lungs burned and his legs gave out, where he finally collapsed. He tried to rise, to run more, but cramps rendered his legs inoperable. So he lay there, on the ground, and cried.

              When he stopped, twilight had set in. He didn’t remember when he’d left the house or how long he had been out. He knew, at least, that there was no radio out here to talk to him. No phone to tell him lies. He took deep, hitching breaths, and tried to center himself.

              Ahead of him, above a cluster of scrub brush, a radio tower loomed. The tower. Its blinking red lights glared down at him. Each a malevolent eye. From somewhere ahead, a speaker whined.

              “Brothers and sisters our newest sheep has come to join the flock.” Calvin rose slowly to his feet. He trudged forward, toward the tower and the voice, not fully in control and too tired to fight it anymore. “He has heard the Word, the Word of the Flesh, and has come to us to find salvation.” As he pushed past the cluster of scrub, he saw the small steel shack with its single metal door. There had once been a chain-link fence around it, but it had long since fallen. Faded warning signs tried to turn him away, but he ignored them.

              “He comes to be cleansed of his sin, the sin of impure Flesh. The sin of order.” Calvin pushed open the steel door, which screeched in protest on rusty hinges, but opened none-the-less.

The gurgling screams of his father welcomed him.

*            *            *            *

              When Calvin returned, Martin was pacing on the porch. He rushed down the stairs to him, wrapping him in an embrace.

              “Oh thank God, Calvin. You scared me! Where did you go? I thought you were hurt or…”

              “I had to take a walk,” Calvin said.

              “A walk?” Martin pushed back. “You ran out like you were being chased!”

              “I had to talk to my dad.”

              “Your dad’s been dead for years. So, okay, new plan. We’re going to get in the car and go home. You need to get out of here. We can go to that brewery you like, and—“

              “Home?” Calvin said. “I am home.”

              “That was never the plan. You know that. Home is back in the city. We’re just fixing this up.”

              “Home is here. Home is where the flesh is.”

              Martin withdrew. “You need some rest, and we need to get you out of here. Let’s go inside and pack a few things.”

              “Yes,” Calvin said as he followed Martin across the porch and into the living room. “We can listen to the radio.”

              “That thing? I’ve had enough of that. It’s unplugged, anyway, remem-” The radio came to life, a soft glow behind the dials and display.

              “…sins of the Flesh. These are the sins that our lord warned against. The sins that both corrupt us, and cleanse us.”

              “What the Hell,” Martin said.

              “Not Hell,” Calvin said. “The living Flesh is so much more than that.”

              “Calvin, stop. Please. You’re freaking me out.”

              “He’s right,” the preacher said.

              “What? Who?

              “He’s the prophet,” Calvin replied.

              “How did that nutcase know my name?”

              “I know all about you, Martin, and your life here.”

              “I don’t know what kind of bullshit you’re pulling Calvin, but this isn’t funny.”

              “I know about your fumbling with the boy in the neighboring farm.”

              “That’s… stop it.”

              “He wasn’t even gay.” Calvin said.

              “You can’t possibly know about that. Please stop.”

              “He raped a girl to prove it to himself.”

              Martin hit Calvin with a closed fist. “I said STOP!”

              Calvin reached out, despite the discoloration already forming on his jaw. “It’s okay, Martin.”

              “It is, Martin,” the preacher’s voice said calmly through the radio.

              “You didn’t know.” Calvin continued.

              Martin began to cry. “You… both of you… please stop.”

              Calvin held out a hand. “You can be cleansed, Martin. When he comes… when flesh becomes flesh; when all is fused, we can be joined.”

              “What are you saying,” Martin asked, desperation in his voice.

              “We can be one in ways we never could have before.”

              “Listen to him,” the radio said.

              “I…”

              “Please, Martin,” Calvin continued. “Come with me.”

              Martin took Calvin’s hand.

              Calvin led Martin to the bathroom. Inside, in the hole Martin had bashed into the wall, the slime mold had grown. It had taken over the whole wall, spreading fleshy, throbbing tendrils. There was an opening, now; a vertical slit by angry red tissue and living tumors. Calvin stepped into it with one foot and turned back to Martin.

              “The choice must be yours,” the preacher’s voice said from nowhere and everywhere. “Do you want to know the Word and the Truth? Do you want to be one with the Flesh?”

              “Yes,” Martin said.

              “Then follow. In your sin, you shall be remade clean and whole.”

              Calvin fully penetrated the threshold, and Martin followed.

*            *            *            *

              A world of pain and cancer and fire awaited, yet to Martin, the pain was blissful. He was one with his husband. Their bodies merged, no longer in the figurative sense that had been part of their wedding vows. On the plane of skin and tissue, in the realm or tumors and yellow puss, the two men melted into each other, and in doing so, became one.

              “Flesh of my flesh,” the voice of the preacher of the Living Flesh said, “blood of my blood.”

              And so it was.

              And so it would be.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: He Makes an Offering to His Muse

This post is kind of a big deal to me. Weird floor numbering aside (I just had to start this in the basement), this is story number 13, which is the beginning of the second half of this little project I started to keep myself writing. Over half a year’s worth of material, for good or ill, is nothing to sneeze at for a guy who went in to therapy not too long ago for depression that was largely fueled by a lack of writing.

As such, this story is going back to the beginning, to tell the next (but I assure you, not last) story of poor Jonathan Fredrickson, who may or may not have summoned an actual muse (if you don’t know who Cali is, then… well, you probably should). Only, there may be something more sinister to this muse than merely inspiring the struggling writer who, as it turns out, may not be struggling much, anymore.

Enjoy!

He Makes an Offering to His Muse
12th Floor

John sat on the edge of his bed. It was a large bed; far better than the ratty single bed he’d had when he lived in the building’s basement apartment. On his still-new-to-him 12th floor apartment, the sheets were silk, the pillows soft, and his companion in it as lovely and inspiring as ever. As if she heard his thoughts, Cali stretched awake and rose to a sitting position. The sheets fell from her bare breasts, and as usual, she made no motion to cover them. She draped an arm over John’s and rested her chin on his shoulders.

                “Hey there,” she purred. “What’s got your mind all wrapped up?”

                “Taking in the view.” He smiled and looked at her naked body.

                “You’re cute when you deflect, you know?”

                “Yeah?” He sighed. “Truth is, I’m kind of tired.”

                “Then come back to bed,” she said, patting the empty space behind him. “If you need more sleep, I’m sure I can wear you out.”

“Not that kind of tired.”

                “I know.” She caressed his cheek. “Too much to take in, too fast?”

“That’s it, exactly. I wanted all this,” he gestured to the fancier apartment, the posters for several of his plays, and the short shelf of awards, among other accouterments of the successful writer he had become, “but I thought it would take longer.”

                “You need some help, I think.”

“But you are my help. And I’ve got Randolph to handle the business side of things. All I have to do is write, and I’m afraid I’m running on fumes.”

                “I can fix that, but if we’re being honest, I need a little help for that, too.”

John chortled. “What do you mean by that? You just being you is all you have to do for me.”

                “A girl needs a little more than that,” she said. She swung her long legs over the side of the bed and rose, still not bothering with modesty.

                “I worship you… what more could you want?”

                Her eyes sparkled. “Funny you should mention ‘worship.’”

                “I don’t follow.”

“Being worshiped by you is wonderful. That I can inspire you to the heights you’ve reached fills me with a joy that I can’t describe. You probably could, but for me, the words don’t come.” She strolled around to his side of the bed and sat on his lap, draping her arm around his neck. “That kind of feeling… well, it gets a bit addictive. And, just like you draw inspiration from me, I provide that inspiration because of the pedestal upon which you’ve placed me.” She traced a circle on his chest with a long, delicate finger.

                “Okay, so what needs to change.”

“I need more—how did you put it?—worshipers.”

                “What does that mean?”

                “I can give you so much more inspiration, John. If you think you’re at the top of the world now, just imagine the heights I can propel you to with a little more… juice.”

                “I don’t understand.”

                She closed her eyes. “Go out there, into the world, and bring more people here. We’ll have a party!” She jumped up, excited.

                “I thought we were keeping us a secret.”

                “That was then, in the beginning. But I want to have a party.” She pouted at him. “Are you going to deny me, your goddess, a simple party?”

                He shook his head. “No. No, of course not.”

                She clapped her hands together in glee. “Wonderful! And invite that pretty little thing that answers Randolph’s phone, will you?”

                “Julianne? I… I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think she has eyes for me, since she doesn’t know I’m in a relationship.”

“That’s why I want her to come. Consider it… a gift to you.” Cali sauntered back toward John. “After all, I’m asking you to share me with the world. The least I can do is let you share our bed.”

                John was taken aback. “What? I’m not going to step out on you.”

“Who said,” she whispered, “I wouldn’t be there, too.”

*             *             *             *

The party was a roaring success. Hangers-on in Johnathan’s orbit were more than happy to finally get to spend time with the reclusive playwright (soon to be screenwriter, as well). Randolph was thrilled to invite not only Julianne, a lithe girl who couldn’t have been a day older than twenty, but others on his staff, and several “very important people in the entertainment industry” (as he conspiratorially put it to John, a little louder than intended thanks to the copious amounts of booze flowing that night). Johnathan was uncomfortable with the festivities, as they were still something outside of his usual comfort zone, but it was Cali who was the star of the night, and he was happy, to a degree, to stay out of the center of attention. He was also jealous of the way the other men would comfortably put a hand on her lower back and stand too close, but he remembered her promise to him. Remembered that she had suggested Julianne come, too, and based on the way she was staring at him, cheeks flushed by her own cocktail, Cali may have been working some magic on the girl, too.

                And what magic it had been. The party began to die down at two o’clock in the morning. Guests staggered out of the apartment, leaving half-full glasses behind. Still roaring with merriment all while struggling to stay conscious. Cali had made an excuse to engage Julianne in a lively and flirtatious conversation to keep her there long enough for only the three of them to be left when the door closed at two thirty.

True to her word, Cali had convinced the girl to stay. And true to all expectations, that night was by any definition an awakening for John in more ways than Cali had been before. While the three of them had made love on that bed, Cali had seemed to glow. To John, the glow was too tangible. In his semi-drunken state, clouded by the orgiastic pleasure he was experiencing, he felt that a light was indeed emanating from Cali’s body. The light streamed out through a million tiny holes in her skin. The holes, in a honeycomb pattern, seemed spongy and malleable, and even while light radiated from them, there seemed to be a darkness there, as well. Or perhaps, he though, revulsion trying to fight past the intense physical sensations he was experiencing, light was being drawn into the porous membrane that he skin had become. But before he could think on it further, the culmination of the act of wild and previously forbidden sex sank his consciousness into a blissful blackness of its own.

*             *             *             *

Julianne was gone in the morning. Cali said she didn’t remember when the girl had left, but didn’t seem too bothered by it, though John felt that something was hiding behind her bedroom eyes. He casually caressed her skin and was happy to see that it was whole, and not a sponge of tiny holes. It did, however, seem less pale than it had before.

                “It’s true what they say,” she said, again seeming to know his concerns before he voiced them, “about the afterglow.” She kissed him before getting out of bed and sauntering to the bathroom. “We simply must do this again,” she said as she closed the door behind her. In a moment, John heard the water running.

                “Yes,” John muttered.

When he called into Randolph’s office that afternoon, an unfamiliar voice picked up and transferred him to Randy. When John asked who the temp was, and if he knew if Julianne made it home safely after the party (stumbling slightly over his words to avoid revealing too much about the evening), Randolph claimed no knowledge of any Julianne. “Catherine,” he replied, “has been answering my calls for years, now. Are you, perhaps, hungover from last night?”

                John, concerned, conceded that he may in fact be, and ended the call as quickly as possible.

He turned, worried, as he heard Cali singing to herself in the shower; something melodic and… something old.

Before he did anything else, he grabbed his journal (where he took notes as ideas struck him, which was often these days), turned to a page near the back, and wrote “Julianne?” on the paper.