Court Ogilvie earned his M.F.A. in 2009 and then became an Behavior Interventionist for Desoto County Schools working with special needs students on behavior and social skills. At night, he teaches beginning writing classes at Park University and Southwest Tennessee Community College.
LUNCH LINE RULES
Oak Hollow Intermediate School was modeled after the asterisk. Third grade hall was a straight line to the left. Fourth grade hall was a straight line to the right. Fifth grade hall ran smack dab down the middle and stretched all the way to the playground. All points led to the cathedral-size foyer where Maria Carpenter waited for her meeting to start. Embedded in the floor beneath her was the school seal, courage in the face of adversity. Maria was afraid. What if Kramer saw her? If her son discovered she was on campus, he’d want to go home. If she refused—Lord Jesus, what would happen!
Down the cafeteria hall, a class awaited their turn to enter the lunchroom. Maria quickly stepped out of view. Was that Kramer’s class? She couldn’t tell. Did he see her? She heard no shiver me timbers. No, blows me down. Sounded like everything was okay. No screams. No crying. Mrs. Farr’s classroom was down the arts hall. Luckily, her meeting didn’t start for another couple of minutes—two minutes and fifteen seconds to be precise. To reach the arts hall, she’d have to pass in view of the class. Best just wait it out. Let the kids file in and get situated. All hell would break loose if Kramer saw her.
Taped to the cafeteria entrance was a poster listing the Five Expectations for Lunch Line Behavior:
Rule #1: Respect personal space.
Hot peanut butter breath moistened the back of Martavious’s neck. He so wanted to spin around and let him have it—one time, just one time! That’d be sweet. Bet everyone in class would fist-bump him. Bet his teacher Mrs. Browning would add five tokens to his behavior chart, shoot him a sly little wink--always wanted to do that. That’d be a good day. But then Martavious remembered that morning’s talk. How everyone had to be patient with Kramer.
“Eyes on me,” announced Mrs. Browning. “Three, two, one. Zipped lips and promises.”
Martavious held up his right arm as if swearing allegiance. He pressed his left index finger against his lips and remained as still as possible. Kramer’s face suddenly appeared next to his. Their cheeks were practically kissing.
“Have I got zipped lips and promises?” Mrs. Browning said. “From everyone?”
The class stood in line on cafeteria hall. They were last to lunch that day. Beginning of the school year, they were fifth from last, but Kramer kept running out the back doors. Said he saw some Bluto kid hogging the swings. Trinitee Banks said Bluto was Kramer’s supervillain like in a comic book or something. But Trinitee lied a lot.
“Dame’s a regular drill sergeant,” Kramer mumbled. Martavious turned around. Kramer rocked back and forth on his black Buster Brown’s. His navy shirtsleeves were rolled all the way to his biceps, and he wore a white sailor’s cap, or was it a captain’s cap? It was some kind of boat hat. That’s what somebody told him. He didn’t have zipped lip and promises.
“…all I can stands, cause I can’t stands no more…, ” Kramer whispered.
Kid was so weird. He squinted his right eye all the time, talked out the left side of his mouth like a pirate. And he talked to nobody. Nobody listened to him and still he talked all through class—bugged everybody.
“Kramer!” said Mrs. Browning, a familiar sound.
“I AIN’T SAYS NOTHING,” Kramer shouted back. God, that kid was loud, always. And he walked funny. Swung his arms like he was dropping elbows on John Cena.
“All right, Mrs. Browning’s class,” said Mrs. Browning. “Remember the lunch line rules.”
“Respect personal space,” the class recited. Kramer cupped his ears.
“LOWERS YA VOICES,” he barked. “Kew.” Mrs. Browning didn’t move like she was hit with a freeze ray.
“What’s the second rule?” she asked the class, but eyeballed Kramer.
Rule #2: Be patient. Don’t go unless tapped.
Two years ago, Anita Hernandez was hired by Oak Hollow to be their English as a Second Language instructor. The Mexican population was booming in Hernando, Mississippi and she loved county insurance—had newborn twins for goodness sake. But Mrs. Farr and a few other choice teachers convinced the school board to repair and reopen the abandoned railroad station off Goodman, transfer all the ESL students into a special school. Mrs. Hernandez lost her classroom that year and had to settle for Personal Care Assistant. She tried transferring to the new school, but Farr blocked her. Said she needed an assistant if Kramer Carpenter was going to be in her room.
“Sorry, I’m late. Sorry,” said Mrs. Carpenter shuffling into Mrs. Farr’s room. Mrs. Carpenter was a wisp of a lady, blonde and well to do, a diminutive Barbie doll.
“Not at all,” said Mrs. Farr. She practically cooed bootlicking. Farr and Carpenter’s monthly meetings were always a stressed-filled affair. Not surprising what the meetings were about.
“Still following Kramer’s Behavior Plan?” Mrs. Carpenter asked. She fiddled with her purse.
“Well…” said Mrs. Farr. “We’re working on it. Giving him that good ole college try.” Anita was a professional, graduated Ole Miss with honors, passed all her PRAXIS tests on the first try. Yet, here she was, a nursemaid to a white lady’s brat. No, they weren’t following the behavior plan. They were just trying to keep the kid from freaking out all the time.
“Myself and Anita—Mrs. Hernandez and I,” struggled Mrs. Farr. Carpenter was the only person Anita knew made Farr nervous. Lawyering up in education did that. “Now, that’s what I wanted to tell you—so happy I can finally give you good news. We’ve had tremendous progress with Kramer’s academics since—“
“You are calling him Kramer?”
“Oh, of course, of course. Right Anita?” Anita smiled from her small desk in the corner, a lie like every other. No, they weren’t calling him Kramer. Kramer wouldn’t respond to Kramer. They had to call him what he wanted.
“You’re not singing the song?” Mrs. Carpenter said. “Dr. Hampton said—“
“No, no, everything’s grand. We’re really are making progress,” said Mrs. Farr. “Though. Honestly. We’ve struggled consistently—consistently, mind you—calling him Kramer. Sometimes we have to call him—“
“No,” ordered Mrs. Carpenter. For an undersized Barbie, even Anita was intimidated. “No, we agreed—agreed as an IEP committee. You and Mrs. Hernandez were going to call him Kramer. Everyone must call him Kramer. Understand me? That’s what his IEP says.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Farr. “I know that but he’s—we’ve figured out how to get him to do his work. His class work. He’s passing. Can you believe that? Passing English. He’s writing! Trying to. Right Anita?”
“Si,” Anita whispered.
“I’m not interested in his grades. At the meeting, we didn’t talk about grades. We talked about social. He’s here for social. We agreed as a committee—my lawyer stated—“
“Yes, yes, but the rules,” pleaded Mrs. Farr. “He follows the rules more. Stay an arm’s length apart—he does that. Sometimes without prompting. Be patient. Right? Wait until—these rules are important to the school environment, Mrs. Carpenter.”
Rule #3: Always use a polite tone of voice.
On the north end of the cafeteria, glued to the white cinder block walls, were kitchen tiles hand-painted to look like American flags. Above the tiles was a Merry Christmas banner; Snoopy happily danced around a Christmas tree. Taped to the cafeteria window was a small menorah cutout. Long white cafeteria tables, with their pristine counterfeit tabletops, lined side-by-side in regimented columns. Mrs. Coker’s third grade class rose on command, gathered their empty Sun Chip bags and Little Debbie plastics and innumerable Lunchable kits and lined up single file, ready to exit the cafeteria.
Trinitee Banks vomited—or at least, she pretended to. Half of Coker’s class watched. They were third graders. They couldn’t help it. They watched Trinitee heave and heave and ho and ho, and then make an ungodly, totally disgusting barf sound underneath the table. Trinitee spilled some of her apple juice, hoping the babies bought the act. When she overheard earsplitting ewwwws! and one beautiful Gross! she returned to her bench a proud woman. Mrs. Coker shooed her disgusted class out of the cafeteria as quickly as she could.
“WHERE’S ME SPINACH?”
It came out of nowhere and it was loud, real loud. Louder than Trinitee’s vomit noises, louder than the fourth-grade boys who always got in trouble, louder than dropping a textbook on the tile floor, louder than firecrackers on the fourth of July. It was so loud it was gorgeous.
“ME SPINACH,” bellowed again. Principal Townsend scurried into the food area.
That’s when Trinitee spotted Olivia Onion. Olivia Onion was the smallest fifth grader at Oak Hollow. She always wore a solid colored dress with a frilly collar and she always kept her dark hair in a ponytail. She had the most irresistibly dismissive lisp.
“Olivia,” called Trinitee. “Olivia. Across from me. Sit here.”
“ME SPINACH!” came again. A silence erupted throughout the cafeteria. Faces turned to faces, wide eyed and smiling. Everyone knew who was shouting. Startled, Olivia quickly picked it up the pace and sat across from Trinitee.
“Kwamma sounds mad,” she said.
“Don’t worry. I’ll protect you,” Trinitee lied.
When her father died in a car wreck two years ago, Trinitee discovered the joys of little white lies. Like the ones she told her teacher to get out of class--just feeling sad today. Mrs. Browning didn’t hesitate. Off she went. Or half lies like I turned in my homework already, which she did two weeks ago, old homework. Two weeks counted as turned in already by her definition. But after a while, she liked lying because it bothered adults. She didn’t like adults. When she got caught skipping, they told her it was because she missed her dad—like that was why she didn’t want to come to school. When she pushed Cathy Wrings in the mud puddle, they gave her lunch detention, but apologized for it—like she couldn’t help it, it wasn’t her fault. How ridiculous! When she told Mrs. Daniels, she wasn’t doing any more homework, any more class work—nothing. School was boring. The principal and counselors and Mrs. Daniels surrounded her in the third-grade hall and said nothing. She was ready, ready to take them on, but they didn’t punish her, didn’t argue with her, didn’t yell, didn’t say anything. They just stood there and stared, and she hated them for it.
“He’s not bewwy nice,” Olivia said. Trinitee wondered how a kid who sounded like a three-year-old made Honor Roll every nine weeks.
“Don’t worry, kid,” Trinitee said. “I got you.”
“He won’t weave me awone.”
Kramer strolled out of the lunch line, tray in hand. Lunch was a barbeque sandwich with a vegetable cup, pound cake for desert—only it wasn’t pound cake but some recycled cornbread with frosting. Trinitee noticed Kramer’s vegetable cup lacked the mandatory broccoli floret and celery wedge.
“Good morning Kramer,” called Principal Townsend.
“Don’t what’s me. Say good morning. When someone says good morning, you respond. That’s the rule.” Kramer snarled. “How do we respond Kramer?” Kramer gritted his teeth. “How do we respond Kra—”
“GOODS MORNINGS TO YA,” he said and marched towards the cafeteria tables.
“Kramer!” called Mr. Townsend.
“WHAT’S. I SAYS ME GOODS MORNINGS. WHATS?”
“Your cap. It’s not Hat day. Take your cap off please.”
“BUT ME HAIRS UNKEMPT.”
“Lower your voice,” said Mr. Townsend. He looked left, looked right like a burglar making sure the coast was clear. “I’m not asking again.” He adjusted his glasses and took a deep breath. “Those are the rules, Kramer. Students may only wear hats on Hat day. Please remove your cap or I’ll take it.”
Kramer snatched his cap off his head and shoved it in his back pocket. Mr. Townsend said thank you and shook his head. Trinitee knew that look. Townsend was tired of Kramer. Why? Cause Kramer was different, a handful. How many times did adults shake their heads at her? Poor Trinitee. Even if they didn’t say it, she knew that’s what they were thinking. Kramer might as well have been surrounded by the principal, the counselor, Mrs. Browning. They were all staring at him, and she hated them for it.
“Kramer,” she called. “Sit here.”
“Noooo,” Olivia said. “He’s not awwowed too. Mws. Bwowning said.”
“Kramer,” Trinitee said and waved. Kramer spotted Olivia and—what looked like an old man having a heart attack while eating his favorite ice cream—smiled. His gruff exterior melted. His loud voice softened. He blushed. He actually blushed. Tray in hand, he made his way towards Trinitee but he didn’t swing his elbows like usual. Trinitee couldn’t be sure but it looked like he danced his way over.
“Kwamma’s not awwowed to sit with me at wunch. Mrs Bwowning said so.”
He stopped right behind Olivia and kewww-ed. Trinitee loved it. The kid looked so weird. He was bald for goodness sake. A fifth grader? Bald! And not on purpose. It looked like he shaved all his blonde hair off except for a small, curly tuft just above the forehead. Even better, he drew these giant black anchors on his forearms. They stretched from wrist to his elbow.
“AHOY,” he called and then he said “Hellos me sweets,” to the back of Olivia’s head. The guttural drag in his voice vanished. He wasn’t as loud as a peacock. There was something sweet in his voice, a shyness unusual for the boy who once punched Principal Townsend in his big ole fat stomach.
“No, Kwamma,” Olivia said without turning around. She nibbled on her Dorrito chip.
Kramer convulsed and gyrated, bobbed his head and bent his back. He looked like someone was repeatedly punching him in the stomach, and he liked it. The space next to Olivia was all clear. Kramer gently placed his tray down like it might shatter the table to pieces. Olivia slapped her hand on the empty bench seat.
“No, Kwamma,” she said. “Teacha’s wules. You’wa not awwowed to sit next to me anymowa.” Warmed by her voice, Kramer hid his silly grin and mumbled quietly, Ag-gag-gag-gag.
“No Kwamma. Teacha’s wules. You can’t sit hewa.”
“YER LOOKING PARTI-CH-ERLY BE-YOO-TIFUL DIS MORNINGS,” he said. “ANDS YER VOICE—“
“Kwamma,” Olivia shouted, but stared at Trinitee. “Go.”
All at once, Kramer’s body slumped. His shoulders dropped and his knees bent. His eyes fell. His chin bowed. What looked pleasant before, punched repeatedly in the stomach, looked deadly now, as if Olivia was the Bluto villain Kramer fought on the playground and she just delivered the most devastating knockout punch Trinitee had ever seen.
She knew how he felt. When her father died, Trinitee was sitting in class, working on bell-work. Mr. Townsend knocked on the classroom door. Mrs. Daniels, her third grade teacher, stepped outside. Trinitee saw another lady, a lady she knew worked at the school but had no idea what she did. Then Mrs. Daniels covered her mouth. Her eyes were as big as paper plates. She looked at Trinitee, and it hit her. That gut shot that told her something was wrong. In the hallway, they spoke quietly, told her about the car wreck, about her dad. Said they were sorry. Did she need anything? Mom’s on the way. The other lady told her she was a counselor; it was okay to talk about it. But no one talked. They all stood in the hallway staring at her, waiting for her to do something, and she hated them for it.
Kramer lumbered his way to the end of the cafeteria table and plopped down on the bench. None of this affected Olivia however. She continued staring at Trinitee munching on that same Dorrito chip as if the rest of her day went ahead full steam. Everything was okay, her dad was still alive and well and waiting at home.
Kramer didn’t touch his food, didn’t say a word. Nearest kid was three spaces away. Looked like on purpose too. None of his peers knew what to do with someone that sad, especially if it was Kramer. Mostly because it was Kramer. How do you cheer up a natural disaster? But Trinitee understood.
Olivia continued munching on that same Dorrito chip staring at Trinitee. And Trinitee hated her for it.
Rule #4: Remember the Golden Rule—treat others as you wish to be treated.
“How many times this week—since the meeting have you called him Popeye?” asked Mrs. Carpenter. “Answer me! This is serious, Mrs. Farr. He’s spent thousands of hours in therapy. We’ve spent—the IEP states that under no circumstances was anyone at this school to call him Popeye. No circumstances.”
“Mrs. Carpenter,” Mrs. Farr said. “I’ve an obligation to the state to make sure he reaches academic—“
“We’ve been fighting this for—you were there! We told you. You agreed.”
“Now, Mrs. Carpenter,” said Mrs. Farr. “Please understand that—“
“Have you sang the song?” asked Mrs. Carpenter. ““Have you been giving him anything green?”
My Christmas Wish worksheets were tacked on the wall behind Mrs. Carpenter. One particular worksheet was a large can of spinach drawn in crayon. This woman had to know, Mrs. Farr thought. She had to know her son was a holy terror—an unrelenting disturbance. How else was the boy going to learn? He couldn’t contribute to society if he didn’t learn, didn’t get a diploma. What about the other students?
“Yes,” Mrs. Farr said. She crossed her arms, stood her ground. “Yes, we have. I needed work out of him. I needed data. He’d work if I’d give him a green gummy bear.”
“I can’t believe this,” said Mrs. Carpenter. She paced the classroom, marched up an aisle of student desks, marched back down. “Is he outbursting? Have you put him in a restraining—why haven’t I been getting calls about outbursting?”
“He hasn’t been,” Mrs. Farr said. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. It’s a miracle. He’s been doing class work, actual class work. And on grade level! Math word problems. Vocabulary worksheets. Coloring the countries of Europe. Fifth grade class work, Mrs. Carpenter. It works. It’s working.”
“NO GREEN!” shouted Mrs. Carpenter. Anita tiptoed out of the classroom. “You know what happens. You know what happens.” Mrs. Farr could hear the tears in her voice.
“I do,” Mrs. Farr said. “I really—and if he outbursted once—just once—we’d have stopped. But he didn’t outburst. He didn’t. It was like…,” she looked to her ceilings tiles. High school art students painted them animal themed. One tile had A for aardvark. Another B for beetle. Her ceiling was a mosaic of color and shadow, two contributors to child brain development according to the latest research.
“It motivated him,” she confessed as if asking Jesus into her heart. “Maybe he felt smarter rather than stronger? I don’t know. I half expected an outburst. I really did. But he did his work. He did all his work.”
Two weeks ago, as usual, Kramer did nothing in class. He argued IT AIN’T’S ME THING and did whatever he wanted. Sometimes it was Legos. Sometimes he drew spinach cans. His Popeye obsession so worried his parents that they waived academics in favor of social development. Whoever heard of a student who went to school to make friends? It was ridiculous. But Mrs. Farr abided. Until two weeks ago. While her special needs students diligently worked on their assignments, bettering themselves and their future, Kramer played with Legos. He refused to stop, to obey. They couldn’t even get him to write his name—simply write his name on a worksheet. Anita held up her hands and said que a hora?
“Mrs. Farr,” Mrs. Carpenter said. “I know my son is difficult. I know this. I’m sympathetic to your—I get it. You just want to teach him. That’s your job. I get that. Really. But what good is an education to someone—“ She inhaled her lips, cupped her eyes to hold back the tears. “No one talks to him. No one wants to be his—we can’t go anywhere because he’s like this—acts like this. Do you understand? We have to get him to stop. Dr. Hampton agreed, we have to get him to stop!”
And then Mrs. Farr decided to pick a fight with Kramer. She gave him a choice: lose recess or do you work and get a gummy bear. A green gummy bear she promised. Anita looked like an alligator crawled into the classroom. But Kramer stopped. He stopped playing with the Legos and sat at his desk, took up his pencil, and wrote his name.
“For two years we’ve been doing this—dealing with this problem,” said Mrs. Carpenter. “I have to scout locations ahead of time and make sure there’s nothing green there to eat. That’s my life. That’s what I have to do now. And that’s fine, I live with it. But you’re making my job harder. Do you understand? He can’t get better if you’re feeding into this.”
“Mrs. Carpenter, I understand,” Mrs. Far said. “I totally understand what you’re—but how’s he going to get a diploma if he can’t do his multiplication tables? What good are friends—they won’t take care of him when he’s twenty, thirty, fifty? He can’t hold a job—can’t read! Seriously, Mrs. Carpenter what’s more important?”
For a long time Mrs. Carpenter stared at Mrs. Farr, her eyes glossy from the truth. Mrs. Farr knew she was right. God told her she was right, and despite the data and the research and all that hullabaloo, the boy needed an education. No man or woman was worth their salt if they didn’t have an education.
Rule #5: Eat your food like you’re eating in church.
Principal Townsend gained two pounds. His scale told him that this morning.
The scale was an evil thing, a devilish contraption—a Christmas gift. He only got the darn thing because he accidentally told his wife he overheard some of the kids talking about his belly. It was right after Kramer punched him. Some fourth graders said that belly stop a tank. He pretended he didn’t hear them. Then he made the mistake of telling his wife. Kids being kids. No big deal, honey. The scale was wrapped and hidden in a tackle box.
Bobby Stevens cackled, chunks of Little Debbie dribbled out of his mouth. Will Thomas yelled in his twin sister’s ear just to annoy her. Individually, kids weren’t loud. But put them all in one room and the noise could shatter eardrums. Townsend had to carry a bullhorn just to keep kids tolerable.
Mr. Townsend stood by the food area entrance in the cafeteria thinking about the weekend. Big fishing trip planned. Great outdoors. Sardis Lake. Absolute silence for hours. No screams. No cries. No kids. Townsend patted the walkie-talkie clipped to his hip.
Barnes Jefferies exited the food area. On his tray were two barbeque sandwiches, two bags of chips, two vegetable cups and three slices of cake. Couldn’t believe his parents paid for all that every day, but Barnes was a big fifth grader, bigger than most. Middle school football coach already rang Townsend’s phone wanting to know about him.
Suddenly, someone screamed. A girl. Over by the window. Townsend jolted, scanned the room. Betsy Manchester slapped Carlos Gomez’s arm. Looked like he spilled some chocolate milk. No big deal. An assistant principal had to snap fast, get there before things got out of hand. Luckily, false alarm.
“All right you two,” Barnes said through the bullhorn. “Number 3 voices in the cafeteria.”
Screams usually meant Kramer. Townsend scanned the room again. Couldn’t believe he forgot about Kramer. He always had to keep an eye on Kramer. Mrs. Browning’s class was by the window. He didn’t see Kramer. Still scanning, he moved towards the back doors. If he didn’t spot Kramer soon, he was calling Code Blue, sprinting towards the playground.
Kramer was at the end of the cafeteria table, spotlighted with loneliness. No one talked to him. He was hunched over his tray, lifeless. Townsend thought about going over there, asking how he was, but that could agitate Kramer, might get him all riled up. A good day was an absent Kramer.
Barnes Jefferies plopped down next to that Olivia girl—last name escaped him. Cutest thing ever. The way she talked with that lisp. Really was adorable—at least, until the IEP meeting reminded everyone Olivia had a disability. We treat everyone equally here at Oak Hollow Intermediate he promised.
Barnes shoveled a barbeque sandwich in his mouth—the whole sandwich! Oliva scooted away. Michael Battles and Arnie Lewis cheered him on, laughed and slapped the table. Olivia scooted some more, but Tamera Williams was chatting it up with Brandi Meyers, oblivious to the whole affair. Townsend remembered Mrs. Browning stopping him last week in the great hall. Warned him about Olivia. Something about Kramer. He couldn’t recall.
Barnes bellowed like a volcano. Barbeque bits and bread spewed like lava. Olivia slapped his arm and yelled stop it! That’s gwoss! That egged the boys on. They started mocking her, Barnes hardest of all. Gwoss! Gwoss! Gwoss! Then, Townsend remembered Olivia was Kramer’s Olive Oyle.
Kramer wasn’t at the table. Townsend scoured the aisles, the exits, searching for a Popeye in a sea of Waldos. He unclipped his walkie-talkie. Kramer stood by Carlos and Betsy. They looked like Frankenstein was about to eat them. Kramer reached over Carlos and grabbed his vegetable cup off his tray.
“Kramer!” yelled Townsend through the bullhorn. “Stop! Stop that this instant!” It was too late. Kramer inhaled the broccoli floret and celery stalk, flexed his biceps. Townsend yelled Code Blue! Into his walkie- talkie.
Rule #6: Throw trash in the garbage.
“We actually changed the code word for emergencies for Kramer, if you can believe that,” said Mrs. Farr. “It was green. Now it’s blue. We’ve bent over backwards for this child. Changed procedures, lunch schedules—we’ve literally removed students from their homeroom all to accommodate your son. What more do you want from us, Mrs. Carpenter?”
No one understood. Ever since Kramer was born, no one understood her child. He was special, brilliant. He learned how to program the DVD player when he was six, learned how to work a computer better than his father. His only problem was social. He didn’t know how to talk to people. He used to think singing was how people talked—at least, that’s what Beauty and the Beast taught him. He sang everything he said in kindergarten and everyone ignored him, thought he was weird. She reasoned it was a phase. He’d grow out of it.
“So I imagine you’ve ignored every protocol?” said Maria. “Every accommodation on his IEP?”
“Of course not,” Mrs. Farr said. “He gets extra time on assignments. We’ve taped off a small area in the back for his safe place. We’ve also been—“
“None of that matters,” said Maria’s. “Only thing we cared about—god, I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you’re doing exactly the opposite of what we talked about.”
In first grade, he watched a Batman movie, thought talking like Batman would work. He’d walk up to kids, to complete strangers and with a husky voice declare I’m Batman. Kids would just turn away, go back to climbing the monkey bars, pretend he didn’t exist. Strangers would continue walking like he was trash on the ground.
“Kramer has to have an education, Mrs. Carpenter. That’s the only way he’ll survive. And he can do it. He’s smart. Smart enough, obviously, to do fifth grade work. Look.”
Mrs. Farr scurried to her desk, snatched a worksheet, and shoved it in Maria’s face.
“Look at that. That’s a timed multiplication test. Now look at that.”
Written in green crayon were the correct answers. All fifty of them. As a mother, she should have been proud but how could she be proud of a child who kissed her cheek but bit her hand? How could she love a child everyone knew but no one liked? She didn’t know what she did to deserve Kramer—God, she promised herself to never think that again.
In third grade, they decided as a family to try trick-or-treating. Dr. Hampton suggested new identities might help Kramer transition out of Batman. But they had no idea what to try. Costume store was a disaster. Kramer grabbed two plastic swords and whacked four kids, two mothers, and the cashier. They didn’t even have to talk the police. Cops already knew Kramer.
Afterwards, Kramer, as usual, grabbed his tablet and watched YouTube. For hours, he watched movies, cartoons, TV shows, everything he could. His father couldn’t understand why a person who didn’t know how to act like other people watched other people all day long. Then they heard the song.
Kramer smiled. His eyes lit up. Popeye the Sailor filled the screen—corn pipe and spinach cans, burgers on Tuesday and Olive Oyle’s lanky frame. Something about those ridiculous characters touched him.
It all clicked. The Halloween problem was solved. Kramer was Popeye. Mom was Olive Oyle. Dad was Bluto. They went trick-or-treating and no one ignored him. He knocked on doors and roared, well blows me down and the adults laughed. They loved it. Kids were howling—funniest thing they ever saw. Peers asked how much candy he got. That night he traded a Snickers bar for a box of candy corn. It didn’t matter how bad the trade was. Somebody traded with her son!
“Mrs. Farr,” said Maria. Her voice sounded strained like she had been choked. “Our therapists—Dr. Hampton recommended all the techniques—that document grants my son federal protection and it means you—YOU!—have to provide all accommodations. Or you’re breaking the law!”
By Christmas, they knew something was wrong. Kramer never snapped out of it. Day and night, Popeye. They removed all the plants. No more vegetables at dinners. They hid all the markers—no more anchors. It was just easier that way. Dr. Hampton warned them about the song. The theme song was the trigger he theorized. Music coupled with heroism and fantasy is a powerful antecedent. The consequence was Popeye. Kramer’s dad bought it—because men bought the easiest answer to every problem—but Maria knew it was more than some damn song and a funny voice. People paid attention to him, good or bad. Whether he knocked over the Little Debbie display at the grocery store or somebody giggled when they heard him say I yam’s what I yam’s, Kramer wanted attention—any attention he could get. She was sure of it. He was her son after all.
“Code Blue! Code Blue!” screamed Coach Davis running past Mrs. Farr’s open door. Maria knew it was Kramer. It was always Kramer.
As Maria ran down the hall, she passed a robot Fathead informing the kids four quarts make a gallon. She ran past the choir room. The children sang “It’s A Small World After All.” She ran past a Kobe Bryant Milk ad and a vending machine that only sold soda and sports drinks. Painted on the wall was the school mascot, a knight wielding a mighty lance riding a majestic white mare. She turned right past the fire extinguisher and the school guidance counselors safely watching on the other side of a glass door.
Inside the cafeteria, Mr. Townsend and Coach Davis surrounded an abandoned cafeteria table—the teacher’s table to be sure. Abandoned Lean Cuisines and blue cheese salads in Tupperware littered the counterfeit tabletops. And there was Kramer, his cap on his head, his sleeves rolled to the biceps, those damn anchors on his forearms again, standing atop the vacated table, swinging and kicking, daring anyone to fight.
“GETS BACK. ALL A’ YAS.”
He kicked a Styrofoam takeout box, manicotti and French bread scattered across the floor, obvious leftovers from a nice restaurant. Coach Davis managed to grab Kramer’s wrist but Kramer tried to bite him. Coach Davis quickly let go. This was Maria’s son. Her one and only.
Hanging on the cafeteria walls behind Kramer were three different armed forces posters. All the soldiers looked happy hauling gear, wearing head-to-toe camouflage, standing on a mountain cliff overlooking the hostile barren valley at sunset. Proud boys, all of them, and surely, at home, proud mammas.
On the wall in Maria’s living room were pictures of her and her husband before they married. Trips to Florida beaches, camping in Arkansas, standing in front of the Washington monument. Then engagement party, wedding shower, Christmas. Her favorite was the wedding photo, the important one. Then Kramer. Kramer in his father’s arms the day he was born; sitting in his high chair; walking around the zoo; the one birthday party he was invited to before they were asked to leave.
“Coach,” shouted Mr. Townsend. “Get to the other side of him.” Coach Davis maneuvered so they boxed Kramer in.
“I’M STRONG TO THE FINCH CAUSE I EATS ME SPINACH.”
“I got’em. I got’em,” said Coach Davis.
Then, the pictures changed. Therapy Christmas party. One of Kramer and Dr. Hampton smiling. Special Olympics team photo. Personal Space merit badge award ceremony. Family portraits without dad, without mom, always Kramer.
“Damn it,” Coach Davis shouted.
“You all right?” Mr. Townsend said, circling around to make sure Kramer didn’t make a run for it. “He’ll get ya if you’re not careful.”
“Caught my eye,” Coach Davis said, pressing his fist against his left eye. Where Kramer hit him.
Teachers hurried their students out of the cafeteria. Most of the boys watched in awe. The girls whispered to each other, pointed at Maria. Their teachers shooed them on, don’t look at him like he was a car accident and they were trying to be respectful. Maria hated them for it. She wanted to give it to them all one time—just one time. They didn’t know what he was like on good days. When he offered to sweep the house, mop the kitchen. When he sat down beside her and rested his arm on her leg—God! How she wanted him to stay that way forever.
“I got his feet,” said Mr. Townsend. Coach Davis grabbed Kramer’s wrists, smudged his anchors. They fought her son and her son fought back. He screamed—Lord Jesus, it was such a horrible scream. It wasn’t Popeye, wasn’t Batman, wasn’t Beauty and the Beast. It was a voice she hadn’t heard in a long time, a voice she forgot existed. It was Kramer’s voice.
Maria fell to her knees. She felt gutted, her life splayed on the floor bleeding shame. Kramer fought and fought. Coach Davis held him in the restraining hold. Mr. Townsend supported Kramer’s head so he wouldn’t bang his skull against the tiled floor.
It was never going to stop. Every day would be like this. Her son would never fit in. It was her responsibly to take care of him, her burden for life—but wasn’t there parole? Didn’t most parents feel some kind of reward raising their child?
Mrs. Browning escorted her class out of the cafeteria. Maria saw Kramer’s Olive Oyle, Olivia Onion. The poor girl was crying and it was because of Kramer—she knew it. Maria imagined Olivia going home, telling her mother about Kramer. Her mother comforted Olivia, held her in her arms—Kramer wouldn’t even let Maria touch him, only he could touch her. Maria imagined Olivia standing behind a podium giving the valedictorian address. She made fun of her own lisp in her speech. Where would Kramer be at that moment? The last to leave the cafeteria was a large boy pressing bloody napkins against his nose.
“He’s not stopping,” said Coach Davis. Kramer scream as if tortured.
Dr. Hampton advised calling him Kramer, never Popeye. Popeye reinforces the fantasy, rewards his choice to act. But the song solidifies it, because, after studying the cartoon—which I did proudly for three weeks—we see Popeye’s triumph is not transparent after eating spinach. Spinach is a catalyst, a consumer symbol really. Most of the time in the cartoon, Popeye actually retains his superhuman strength without it. Spinach is the reminder he can win, not he will win.
No, it’s when we hear the song that we know Popeye’s going to triumph. Kramer wins as Popeye, because Popeye wins when the song is played. The audience knows Popeye is going to win when we hear the song. Don’t let him hear it. Never. The song signifies triumph in Kramer’s mind. He wins even if he’s losing. In fact, more so. It’s the equivalent of an addiction to gambling. Gamblers receive the same amount of endorphins winning AND LOSING. Don’t sing the song.
The song was Kramer’s switch. It turned him off. In the costume store, he finally stopped hitting people with a sword when his father fell on his knees and sang the song. When Kramer knocked over the Little Debbie display, he tore through the aisles, none of the employees could catch him. Maria had to get on the loud speaker and sing the song until Kramer stopped. It was one year to the date when Kramer last heard it, and Maria knew she didn’t have a choice. She had to sing the song.
“I’m Popeye the sailor man.
I’m Popeye the sailor man.
I’m strong to the finish cause I eats me spinach. I’m Popeye the sailor man.”
Kramer stopped. Coach Davis and Mr. Townsend deflated. The empty cafeteria sounded hollow. Maria saw the Menorah cutout taped to the far window. The yellow flame on the candle caught her eye, hypnotized her. She pretended the flame was real, dancing, warming, burning her flesh, a baptism that would release her from the one duty she never thought she’d regret, being a mother. Kramer was her life now, for better or worse, and she could never leave it.
“Blows me down,” Kramer whispered.
Alexander Beisel is a writer and illustrator. He and his wife Catelin live in the most Normal part of Illinois with their two cats: Audrey Hepburn and Mr. Bingley.
CASSANDRA LAUGHS TOO
All the talk about moving in together, all those months were faster than the move itself. Ruth initiated it by accident. Slipped up once and said “when” instead of “if,” and Aaron liked the way the word sounded. The night before the furniture arrived, the two filled an empty apartment with words like “ours” instead of “yours.” An alien vocabulary for the two of them. The first night was sweaty and dark. Aaron’s battery-powered lanterns set in the corners. Ruth’s heavy quilt spread across the hardwood.
“This thing is hideous,” Aaron said with a mouthful of pizza. It tasted the way the air smelled: packing dust. He had ordered it special for Ruth.
“My grandmother made this for me,” Ruth said painfully. Her cheeks were full of pizza,
and Aaron tried his best to take her seriously. “She stitched this for me on her deathbed, Aaron.” Her chewing filled the silence, and at length, the clop-schlop of it gave her away. She burst into laughter.
“I bought it at flea-market,” she confessed. “What’d you do with the body?”
Ruth stared at him.
“The body it came with,” Aaron said. “Only reason someone would buy this thing would be to store a dead body before hurling it into the sea.”
Ruth dragged a finger across the cheese-less pizza and wiped the tasteless sauce on his forehead.
“It’s pretty, you dick!”
“You’re pretty.” He said it with the cadence of insult. She kissed him with more sound than lips. Ruth’s eyes wandered across the room. The lantern’s white halo made the ceiling seem vaulted and cathedral like.
“Is this your—the studio then?” she asked.
“Good a place as any—you want to put your books in here?”
“In here, with you?”
“Where else, Charles?” That was his pet name for Ruth. She couldn’t remember when it started, but she knew what he meant by it. He always called her Charles when he thought she was being stupid.
“Are you crying, pretty lady?” “Yeah.”
Ruth snorted, sucking back the tears with noticeable hitches in her shoulders. She sneezed: packing dust.
“Because you don’t like my grandma’s quilt!” Aaron laughed and Ruth felt the lie in her chest. She lied to herself: she wasn’t ready to be honest. He can’t know, she thought. Not yet. I don’t even know anymore. It was hard work forgetting it all. She’d lie to him then. Cover that broken body and hurl it into the wine dark sea.
“We can put your horses in here, too,” Aaron offered.
“I have a lot of them,” Ruth said. She filled the room with bookshelves in her mind. Two—maybe three. Literature on the window side. Graphic novels by the door. Breyer mares running across the top. Anything to keep her mind occupied.
Ruth battled the stairs one at a time. Each arm was laced through the ringlets of awkwardly weighted bags, and she leveraged each step by swinging them as a counterweight. No reason to make the trip more than once, she thought. Her knees and elbows knocked against the walls.
“Shit. Damn it.”
“Do you need help?” Aaron asked. He waited for her at the top of the stairs. Aaron always asked if he could help.
“Nope—I got it.” And Ruth always refused. She kissed him on the stair landing and shuffled past him, careful not to bend her haul. She dragged her collection behind her like the wake of a ship, unloading it on the bed with a pronounced grunt.
“What all did you buy?” Aaron asked. “We haven’t even unpacked the kitchen yet.”
“You’ve got pencil all over your face.” She ignored his hovering, and began to unpack her things methodically.
Aaron rubbed his face, looked at his fingers, and then rubbed his face again.
“What are you doing?” he asked, holding open the door that wanted to close behind her. Ruth placed a thick sheet of cardboard across her grandma’s quilt. She pulled a pair of scissors from the bag before deciding the cardboard lay slightly crooked. She reset it. And again. As she emptied the bags she ticked items off her list.
Cardboard, scissors, aluminum foil, tape
She’d told him it was her system. Kept her sane, she said. If she didn’t write it down, meant it never happened.
“Do you have any Xacto blades?” Ruth asked.
“Yeah.” Aaron hurried back to the studio to find them and Ruth followed after him when he took too long to come back. The path through the kitchen was choked with boxes marked: tack, boots, old pictures. She managed the path perfectly. Huntress. When she found him in the studio, he was reexamining his sketches.
“You think she’ll make out okay?” he asked, pointing to vitruvian diagrams of Ruth’s characters. She’d wrote voraciously stories that she’d never finish. She’d read them aloud to Aaron to check for syntax errors, and he’d draw them in spectacular detail. The walls of the studio were papered with them in various stages of completion. Characters and creatures Ruth had conjured that meant something once. Enneas was her favorite one so far. She’d explained to Aaron that Enneas was a genetically engineered soldier equipped with personnel armor and he’d crafted her into an icon, and hung it from every surface of the studio—pinned to the walls like specimens. Portraits. Exploded view of her armor. Aaron had seen right through her, she realized. Read her words and turned it into something real. It was always real. It was just mine. Only mine. The ink was still drying on the Bristol board: Part I: The Medusa, it read. Below the title, Enneas gawked at the eponymous death machine towering over her. She’d likely never escape. How could she?
“Shit—sorry.” He rifled through pencil cups and ink washes for a fresh blade. She found the list she’d forgotten. Left it underfoot of a model elephant he’d named Ruth. He never played anymore, and she wondered what happened to all the soldiers that marched with her once.
new meter, test strips, glucose—cherry
“Here you go.” Aaron handed her the blade, point first. “Are you sure I can’t help?” Ruth took the blade carelessly and hurried back to the bedroom, tripping on a box marked: Nimrod’s Arrows.
“Alright—what are you doing, Charles?” Aaron was watching her from the door frame, careful not to cross the threshold. Ruth struck down another item on her list.
“J’ewel’ll shee.” She used her teeth to cut a length of tape. Aaron watched her for a minute, curious. Maybe concerned.
“Maybe try the blade instead of your teeth?” The words came out laced with laughter. Something like doubt. She measured a length of cardboard in her mind. Used her wingspan to compare the tape with the cardboard.
“Do you want a tape measure, Charles?”
“No! Now go—it’s a surprise,” she said. Aaron raised his hands as a sign of surrender. He left without a word, but they shared a smile before she closed the door in his face. He spoke through it.
“You’re not wallpapering are you? If you’re wallpapering, might I advise against yellow?” Ruth laughed. “Fuck off,” she said.
Ruth covered his eyes with her hands. They were shaking at the edges of her fingers.
“Annnddd…open!” She tore her hands away from his eyes and sat on her grandma’s quilt.
“It’s a camera obscura…” she whispered. The bedroom was dark, the windows blocked out by the wide sheet of cardboard. She had taped it over the window, foiled the edges where the light bled through, and cut a pinhole through the center. All the light of creation flooded through it. The university skyline was cast across the high spaces of the bedroom. Upside down. Filtered through the dull light of the evening sun. Like stained glass.
“Isn’t it awesome?” Ruth asked. She pressed her palms together and squeezed her hands
between her knees. She was close to giggling.
“You turned our bedroom into a camera obscura…” Aaron was startled.
“Don’t you like it?”
“I love it, Charles.”
Ruth stood to kiss him. She hated the smoking but loved when he tasted like it. We’ll look like a Picasso when we fuck, now. The clock tower fits his face. But he’s hard to kiss in this light. Her lips fell on the XII that folded around his. He was waiting there for her. She gripped a tuft of his hair, forcing his head down but he was already moving that way. Ruth shuddered.
Ruth thought the drug store harnessed some sanitary white light that oddly made her feel
sick. A dingy, humming thing that managed to complement the medicinal smell in the air. She skirted the cashier--don’t have time to talk with Marge. Always too friendly, she thought.
Straight to the pharmacy where Derrick--no, Dominic? D...something—D something always used her name to say hello.
“Ruth—back again,” D something said. She looked for a nametag but D something didn’t wear one. Had a sticker instead that read “Ask me about Flu-Shots.” She wondered what she’d wear if a sticker had to sum up her occupation. Ask me about literature. Ask me about French. No. I don’t remember enough of it. Ask me about the patriarchy.
“Hey…you. I called about my prescription?” Ask me about comics. Fuck it—ask me about Cthulhu. Oh—no! Horses! Ask me about horses!
“Yes, ma’am. I’m getting it now. Be just a minute.”
“Okay.” Ask me about accountability. Fuck, I need to eat.
TP, shampoo—little bottles pens-blue, black, red glucose—cherry flavor.
Peppermints for Sophie
Ruth rounded the aisles, stopping at the "As Seen On TV" products. She grimaced at the
knee straps and elbow straps and those back straps that Shaq used to sell. Knock-off sodas. Knock-off candy. Peppermints for Sophie Cheap toys. Wonder if Aaron needs this for his game. I’ll wait. Christmas lights. For his studio! He’ll hate them—basic bitch. Who cares. Ask me about yoga pants and pumpkin spiced lattes and neck scarfs.
She ran her fingers along the magazines, noticing they transitioned into dime novels about Amish women fucking faceless cowboys. Ask me about metonymy.
She was too close to the register by now. Marge could probably see her, and then she’d be trapped in another polite conversation. She leered over the aisle toward the register. Marge wasn’t working today. They’d hired someone. He didn’t say anything. She didn’t know how long he’d been watching her.
He was stone. Just watching her. There was no guilt in him at all. He’d forced it all inside her.
Sixteen again. Fingers raked and ripped. Desperate, clumsy things. No—I said no. No! Don’t! Helpless. The stars from the bed of a truck. Blurred. The rise up and down. Up and down. Six times. Sick—Sickening—Sickened—just waiting for it to be over. Six times, up and down, up and down. Finished—drive home—silent. And I kissed him after.
“Customer pick up.”
Wounded. You should have known.
“Customer pick up.”
Stupid girl. Broken.
Aaron was bent over his drafting table, lost in his work. His pen scratched and clawed across a woman’s face. She was terrified of something he hadn’t drawn yet. Something lurking just beyond the edges of the Bristol board. Ruth knew what it was. She wrote it. And she wasn’t sure she understood it like she once did.
It’s cliché—what the hell was I thinking? I can’t end it with a ticking clock. Might as well be a mirror catalogue: scars, cellulite, hand graces protruding belly—nothing but metonymy. Nothing but a body--cliché. He’s staring at me. What’s he thinking?
“What are you thinking?” Ruth asked.
“Nothing.” Aaron told her once that a man’s natural state of thought is nothing. Blank. Void.
“I believe that.” Ruth turned away from him. Cold.
He said a woman’s mind was like all the stars in that void. A matrix of gravity and light. Bending and folding around the edges of time. Ruth said she’d love to think as he does—not thinking. What would that be like? Lonely, I bet. Cold. Silent. Like the sea, maybe. I’d drown in all that nothing.
“I don’t know,” Ruth said, pacing. “Ending the chapter with a ticking clock?” Ruth was already bored with Enneas. Not board. Through with her, though. As she’d written it, Enneas’ next chapter ended with a bomb’s ticking clock. She’d crossed it out and replaced it with a self-deprecating note: Lowest. Common. Denominator. She clicked her thumbnail against her mug. Arrhythmic at first. But gradually it found its place.
Aaron looked back to his drawing and gingerly stabbed at all those horrified faces rendered in grayscale. The pen fell from his hand, rolling along the surface of the drafting table. Ticky-ticky-ticky-ticky-ticky-ticky. The guard caught it before it could hit the floor. Ticky-ticky-ticky-kloc.
She heard the groan from his stool as he stood and the shuffle of socks past a tower of stacked boxes. Already her boxes were becoming furniture. The important bits are done at least: the books have a home.
Press-wood bookshelves filled her studio and made her collection look grand. All alphabetized by author. Organized by genre. She filled them with all her favorite stories about women swooning on the moors. Dying of broken hearts. Each of them were beaten and scarred with Ruth’s consistent margin notes:
victim “fallen woman” = antonomasia
uxorious—no feminine equivalent
Mad women in the attic. Blighted stars all. And Ruth loved them all for what they were: cliché. Cliché cliché cliché. As she looked around his studio, she wasn’t sure what that word meant anymore. Stuffed in boxes like coffins. Tombstones shackle the soul in place.
cliché isn’t something we’re tired of. It’s something we’re tired of hearing.
Once victim, always victim. That’s the law.
Aaron staggered back into the studio sipping loudly from a mug. He set his cup down atop a box labeled Hail Satan. He nudged the box. It breathed out heavy, clanking noises.
“What’s even in here?” Ruth heard him but was far away. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Far away. On the banks of Allan Water, None so gay as she. He sipped his coffee again. She clamped the book shut.
“Anyway—the clock—I think we need to change it,” she said.
He watched her lips fold under her teeth, listened to her fingers play atonal music against her ceramic mug. She was somewhere out in the universe; lost in space in search of Hesperia.
He told me it was like watching stars being born. But it’s like a crashing wave. Up and down. Up and down. Rise again. Fall again. But I’d drown in all that nothing. On the banks of Allan Water, None so sad as she.
“Why?” Aaron asked.
“Why no clock?” He wriggled past the boxes on his way to his desk and touched Ruth’s hips as he passed her. He didn’t notice her flinch.
“Because, it’s cliché and—I don’t know—Enneas shouldn’t be dictated by time.”
Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb . “I feel like she’s better than that.” Aaron sipped his coffee again.
“Aaron—you’re drinking your coffee at me.” He turned on his stool without a word. They sat in silence, their pens screaming in chorus with one another. Aaron crossed through more failed panels. Ruth:
Read: Lit Crit chapters 6,7 Tess chapter: 14 Revise: Ennead Part II (clock doesn’t work)
Doctor: new meter, test strips, pump
“I don’t know,” Ruth said. She was answering something else in her mind. Some new
doubt, some new question that no one had asked her. She’s not supposed to be just another blighted star. She’s not a victim—you’re not supposed to say victim—she’s a survivor. “I don’t want—I don’t want this to be just another story.”
Aaron turned. Ruth hadn’t moved from the window. She was watching her toes wriggle in her gladiator sandals. Like the lumbering dead rising from the wine dark banks of Styx.
“So—no clock then.” She heard him but it was white noise. Like waves crashing. He can’t swim. He never learned how. I think I’d drown in all that nothing. Better to stay on shore with all the old men missing limbs and the widows missing...Widows walk the widow’s walk.
“I don’t know—no—I don’t know.”
Aaron sighed and scrubbed his greasy fingers through his hair. “You’re the writer,” he said, resigned. His smile was bruised with gray and black fingerprints, his face streaked in a way that resembled war paint. War with something leviathan. Something you could destroy but never defeat. Ruth licked her fingers and scrubbed at the war paint. Her fingers were calloused from all the needle pricks, her palms clammy. She kissed him and sat atop a box facing her bookshelves. She’d marked it: The ghosts of dead gods. Aaron cut a new page of Bristol board to shape. The cutting and biting of the blade stretched out across their silence. I’d like a garden, I think.
Store: Seeds: Azalea, Anemone, Sage, Violets.
“What if we keep the clock?” Aaron asked. “We just give it a twist. Something the reader doesn’t expect.”
“Yeah.” It just didn’t work. Too cliché. She’s supposed to be a warrior—a strong woman—strongwoman—master of her own destiny. The world isn’t something that happens to her—it’s something she owns, something she can control. God! It’s fucking hot.
Ruth couldn’t read her list anymore.
⇪⇨⇨◀↕ ⇦↙⇨⇦⇨▽ ↹↕↓↙ ⌃⇨▲⇨
“Did you hear me?” Aaron was mouthing the edges of his pen. He was desperate for a cigarette. So weak that he can’t go five minutes--
“When was the last time you ate?”
“I ate already.”
“When was it?”
“I don’t remember.” I don’t need him.
“Let’s get you some food. Where’s your meter?”
“I said I’m fine.” I do need him. I need him—what does that mean? I hate that—I hate that I need him.
Ruth stood immobile, watching the autumn scatter the summer to the winds. Her eyes couldn’t settle on one aspect of her reflection. She watched as Aaron took up her fingers and pressed a needle to them.
His hands are filthy. Schtick. I don’t feel them anymore. Too many sticks. I don’t even have fingerprints anymore. All those ridges and valleys, all that DNA coding, all that physiology slaughtered—death by a thousand cuts.
“Heh!” She stood petrified, laughing at her own reflection. Cliché.
No fingerprint left. Might as well have never had them at all. Born as no one. As nothing at all. Jane Doe.
“You know, Aaron, I think I’d drown in all that nothing.” Deet-deet-deet. Deet-deet-deet. Deet-deet-deet.
“Jesus, Ruth. Come on—in the kitchen—let’s go.”
It must be low.
“Fine—wait here then.”
He worries too much. Uxorious. There’s no male equivalent.
“Come on—I need you to eat this.” It tastes horrible.
“No, no—the whole thing, Ruth. Ruth—the whole thing—come on. Goddamn it. Ruth? Can you understand me? Do you know where you are?”
It’s all just white noise. I can hear it. Like the ocean. I can see it but it’s all fog. Fog on the ocean. Leviathan deep. The widow walks the widow’s walk. Chiasmus. He always worries too much.
Ruth could smell her own sweat. It cut along the sticky ridges of her chest as water cuts through a vale. She sucked on another glucose packet: orange flavor; a sad, synthetic thing brewed up by chemists who must have only ever read about oranges. Her face burned and she couldn’t know if it was from the seizure or embarrassment.
“I’m so sorry, Aaron.” She could feel tears in her eyes. Embarrassment then.
“What are you sorry about, pretty lady?” He pressed a cold compress to her chest. The shock of it hurt in her mind.
“I don’t know—I’m really sorry.” It shouldn’t have happened. I should have seen it coming. Stupid. I hate that I have to care about it. I hate that it’s part of me.
“Do you want to sleep?”
“No.” It’s alien—not alien—it’s me—it’s my body and my body has betrayed me. Just
something else in me that’s betrayed me. I don’t even have fingerprints for fuck sake—hacked off and sold—no—stolen.
“Why are you crying? It’s okay, pretty lady. Everything’s okay.”
“I feel…broken!” Ruth said. The words came forced, well known but never said. “You’re not broken, Ruth. You have diabetes. Lots of people have diabetes. It’s nothing to be ashamed of—”
“Not just fucking diabetes, Aaron!” “What then?”
“I just…I hate that I have no control. I don’t even own my own body.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t fucking get it.” “Tell me, then!”
“I don’t want your help, Aaron.” I’m not going to be your burden. “I’m not a damsel for you to rescue.”
“I’m sorry—I just wanted to—” “Don’t. It’s my problem.”
“No—it’s our problem, Ruth. You’re not broken, pretty lady.”
“You don’t know…”
Like a wave. Up and down. Up and down.
The evening was cut-up and scattered across the clouds. Purple and blue bruises. Orange and pink wounds at the edges. The moon just watched it all from the far side of the green hills.
The university’s horses grazed up there.
Ruth fed them three times a week for extra cash. Vacation, she called it. Aaron hated it when she’d do it at night. Said it was dangerous. Dangerous was lying in bed just waiting to feel it all again.
Sixteen again. And all that skyline hanging upside down above her. Cathedral light and that mote of packing dust that mimicked sunbeams. Just like the oranges—life for someone who only read about it. Jane Doe.
She rounded the rings and parked by the tack room. The horses all knew her car and trotted down the hills in a blur of painted light. Like a mistake someone had tried to color over. Palimpsests. All braying and crying. She shook off the tears and turned off the engine.
“Hello, ponies,” she whispered. Chaucer forced Socrates and Biscuit to yield. He poked his dumb grey face through the fence and waited for Ruth to bring him the peppermint candies he wasn’t supposed to eat.
She offered him a peppermint, and when he took it she pressed her face against his, blowing hot air against his muzzle. The candy cracked and popped in his toothy mouth. Never made sense to me: Horses the children of Poseidon. Horses don’t swim and Poseidon doesn’t ride. Athena might have been better. No. Fuck her—poor Medusa. Artemis. The only real goddess if ever there was one. Ask me about man-made religion.
“Sophie Girl!” Ruth called. She never came right away. Ruth always had to find her in her stall where she waited impatiently. She couldn’t walk anymore. Feet all gone from
Cushing's. Only half a paddock now, too. All boxed in and she finds a smaller box to hide herself in.
“Hi, Sophie Girl!” Ruth breathed against Sophie’s face. Sophie snorted in reply and Ruth
chuckled at her stubbornness. She was old and tired. Unwilling to admit she was happy to see Ruth. If for no other reason than to be fed. Ask me about nothing at all.
“It’s very good to see you again, Ms. Sophie.” At least she’s not lying down again. Wish I could ride her. Feet are already at an 8—she’ll be lame at 10. I can’t ride her. I can’t even take her around the ring anymore. She’ll be lame soon.
“Not lame—you’re not lame, are you Ms. Sophie?” Ruth began to braid Sophie’s mane before deciding she didn’t have time to do it all, and it was all or nothing.
Ruth threw a flake of timothy hay into the feeder and Sophie reached out her neck and
picked at it with a mouth that was all incisors now. I’ll give you two flakes—you’ve earned it. Since you can’t even graze anymore.
Ruth ran her hands down Sophie’s back, touching her dock as she left her behind to feed. She walked the perimeter of Sophie’s paddock, kicking over clumps of dirt where the harrow chains had ripped out the grass that once grew there.
Ruth balanced herself on the rotten planks of the fence and read while the light lasted.
Tess chapter: 14
The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself.
The night metastasized and Ruth began her walk back to Sophie’s stall. She passed the tractor that had scoured Sophie’s field. The harrow was up-righted and the chains hung over the fence like a gallows. Thick hanks of grass clung to the rusted loops. Ruth watched Sophie turn out and walk into the evening with careful steps. Her withers hitched with each step, her legs bowed out. Sophie laid down before the harrow and snorted in the dust. She craned her neck and pecked out the bits of grass that clung to the chains.
Ruth knelt beside Sophie and brushed her forelock out of her eyes.
“I know, Ms. Sophie,” she said. “I know.”
Ifeanyichukwu Eze writes fiction and nonfiction. His works have appeared on : TSSF Journal, Expound, Parousia, Brittle Paper, African Writer, Afridiaspora, Tuck, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Storried.
He likes travelling, teaching, volunteering, and building libraries. Elsewhere, he plays on Facebook @ email@example.com.
He pulled. She struggled. He pressed. She wriggled. Harder he pressed himself on her, ruffling her, taming her wriggling to be free. She screamed a muffled note that whispered a muffled plea.
Her hands flailed as they struggled from being held down. She weakened. They went down.
Don't you dare shout.....I'm not hurting you....
Sir. ..Please. ...
Her face felt a clap of his clammy palm on her left cheek, and on her right too. She went lame. He stood above her on his knees, unbuckled his belts, unbuttoned his trousers, pulled down the zipper, feverish with speed.
She laid thinking. What would she do? She caught his ravenous eyes. Red! She remembered her legs. They were under his astride thighs. Numb! But she moved them anyway. They obeyed. They lifted, jammed the underside of his loins, his hungry yonder. She hit again, and again. The force surprised her. She wanted to hit again, to keep hitting those balls.
He went weak with fury, lolled over beside her, grabbed the balls of his worm, and grinned loud with pain. She dragged herself up. He reared up and grabbed her legs. She steadied her hand on whatever she felt it had grasped. He lounged. She swung. His head received the smash. The glass shattered on it. Blood trickled.
Now I am here. My breathing is thumping the walls of my chest. I have not run like that for years since I won medals for my school at the inter-house sports. I am called lady bolt. I bolt like a spark. It did not matter if I am behind. I sprint pass like a flash. They say I have long legs. And I'm tall and slim, and beautiful.
I am walking now, down the road. Cars drive pass once in a while. I look to see if any is coming for me. None stops, perhaps for now. It's 00:00am. I stop at the bus stop. I sit myself down. I stare. I stare at nothing but blankness. I touch my face, feeling the flesh of my cheeks. The pain is still there. It's not the first. It's just a new one on an old pile.
His wife doesn't satisfy him or what? How is that my concern? I heard her on phone the other day complaining to a friend that her husband doesn't satisfy her. Worst still, he is seeing other women. She feels imprisoned in the marriage. He doesn't allow her go out except in his company. But how is that my business?
I wash their cloths, their dirty cloths. I clean their shit. I cook their food. I am always in the house. I can only sleep when everyone is asleep. 00:00am! 1:00am! And I have to resume work by 4:00am. I wake up late sometimes. Most times! Have I come here to sleep? How can I even sleep when the children are a bunch of rodents, ages thirteen, eleven, and seven. Senseless noisy busybodies! Their voices like enchanted parrots buzz in my head, even in my sleep.
Is your name Billy like our dog?
Where are you from?
Are there lions in your country?
What about monkeys? I can't see your tail
Why are you hiding it?
Why is your skin black? Is it a result of the dirt and dust in your country?
I say nothing. What will I say? They wear new cloths everyday. I wash them everyday. I stay awake and nod my head sleepily while they play video games or watch TV. I nod. They laugh. They tickle my ears with thread. I slap the disturbed ear, sometimes with anger. But, only to feel the pains of such anger. They laugh. I force my teeth open.
Hey, my hands ache, you have to feed me. I'm hungry.
Have you washed my cloths...?
Clean my lips .There are stains of food on them
Clean mine too. ..and wear my shoes for me. ..
Must you touch me when you rub the cream on me?
Hey! Stop touching me, you smelly thing....
I will tell baba to stop paying you.
You are lazy
You will go back to your country...your poor wretched country.
Mama, she is sleeping.
They pour cold water on me while my head dances on my weak neck. I wake with a start, struggling for breath. I rub my right palm down my face with haste. They laugh. My eyes dance from one curious face to another. That is the only regard they have for my presence. They can't stay still. Their voices ring out, clashing against their decibels. Their legs carry their slim bodies here and there, hiding and seeking.
Stop that. You will hurt yourselves. Hey ...stop.. stop...stop.
They kick an imaginary leather ball at each other; they climb about, jump down, scamper about. Their din is an eternal hum. The play becomes playfully intense. A scuffle of two bodies ensures. One mouth sinks it's teeth into the naked arm of the other. The owner charges, pounces on the other body, sits on top of the body and punches away without mercy , like they do in video games.
Stop. Stop. Stop.
I pull them apart and stand between them. I am angry. I want to beat the hell out of them. They don't care. They want to continue.
The child is crying and you are here?
Get your black ass here.
My face receives it. She owns my face. She slaps it as she likes. She gets a whip. It's special for me. She swings. I dare not make her miss. I duck. She misses. She has to start all over. Sometimes I feel she borrows one or two moves from her childrens video games. I gnash my teeth to kill the pain. Not this new pain, but an old one. She owns my body. The scars on my back have become designs like tress, fruitful tress, wet fruitful trees of pain.
What were you doing when they were running around?
....and he is bleeding?
His brother bit him...and they didn't want to stop.
Did you tell me?
I wash the brat up. We go to the hospital. He is still whining. I pet him. I snuggle him to myself. He doesn't stop. He will not stop. And I have to make him stop. I didn't give him birth. How do I mother him like this? Tomorrow is another school day.They have their cars. They have monthly salaries. Why do they need to go to school. Why study?
Mama, you have to take me to school in my own car...
Mama, I don't want to go to school today....I am not going...no mama..
Baba, my teacher beat me yesterday because I was talking. No, he said I was playing in class....
They call the police. The teacher is asked to leave the school premises before the police arrive. He is never to return. He has lost his job it means. Why didn't he know that teachers are like puppets in this country? How could he smack the child with his dirty black hands? You dare not fail any child even. Every child must get promoted to the next class. And the kids are unteachable.
I have only one free day in a whole month. Just one day. It's a day I go and do some shopping at the mall. Does it matter? Thankfully I am allowed to go on my own. I don't buy nothing. I just sit and look. The day comes and goes like it never comes. Work cycle takes me away again. I sleep. I don't sleep. I wake. I don't wake. I clean. I scrub. I wash. I cook. I pet. I get beaten.
I remember his face. The agony stricken face, is staring at me like he is here. Squeezed! His deep groan still floats about me like he is close by. The redness of his eyes resembles the red that trickled out of his head, red with fury, red with hunger, hunger for me. The same way they look when he comes unobserved into the kitchen or anywhere around the house. He smacks my ass like he owns it. Perhaps, he uses it as a rehearsal for his long-tennis sessions. My breasts are a constant leisure for his hands. Maybe, he has to remind himself of his biking skills with my breasts.
They will call the police. How dare you raise your dirty foreign hands on the citizen. The locals? You stinking black shit. I will be put to jail before they fly me back to my country on the plane of shame. My madam wouldn't plead for me but for her business. She can replace me with someone better. I am not good for business.
I have rarely seen her since I came here. I don't know her much. She is the one who receives my salary. How much? She gives me whatever she likes through an agent. The agent is answerable to another agent. There is another agent. I don't know which is which. No. My business is to work: to keep them in business. Sometimes, I get nothing.
Maybe they don't exist. Maybe my madam is all the agents. She is responsible for my coming here. I must pay her off. She has my passport as a collateral.
Morning is drawing near. I can't sleep. Sleep will make it come faster. I want to stay awake and control its speed, to delay its coming. But sleep will come and morning will come anyway. When it comes, they will know that some black maid has smashed the head of her white employer and ran away. They will find me. And I will answer whatever charges they present me.
John (“Jake”) Cosmos Aller is a novelist, poet, and former Foreign Service officer having served 27 years with the U.S. State Department serving in ten countries (Korea, Thailand, India, the Eastern Caribbean (Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts, St Lucia, and St Vincent) and Spain. Prior to joining the U.S. State Department, Jake taught overseas for eight years. Jake served in the Peace Corps in Korea. He grew up in Berkeley but has lived in Seattle, Stockton, Washington DC, Alexandria, Virginia and Medford, Oregon. He has traveled to over 45 countries and 49 states. He has been writing poetry, fiction, and novels for years. He has completed four SF novels and is seeking publication. His work has appeared in numerous literary magazines online. His poetry blog can be found at https://theworldaccordingtocosmos.com
There is a secret gateway to hell. It lies beneath every city in the world, usually linked into the subway systems or sewage system of the city. A secret underground under the underground so to speak. The underworld is called by some Hell, by other Hades, and a thousand other names, all conjuring up images of darkness, depravity and evil. To the residents of hell, it is simply their home.
The underworld has existed for thousands of years and grew up parallel to the over world which is what us denizens of hell refer to the sunlit world above our heads. The underworld is vast, dark, dangerous, violent, yet has a savage beauty all its own.
It is ruled over by an overlord, an immortal creature some call Lucifer, some call Satan and a thousand other names. Few in the outer world know his true name, Cthulu.
Cthulu is not a human being nor is he a mortal being. He is an immortal being, a real devil so to speak. Cthulu and his followers came to earth thousands of years ago from the planet Sirius. They crashed landed on earth as they were fleeing an interplanetary war and needed to get away fast and chose the earth because the earth was a primitive planet without an obvious civilization and not one would be looking for them there. They had to destroy their ships so their presence on earth would not be discovered.
They founded the city of Atlantis and ruled the humans they found their as their overlords. They were seen by the primitive humans as gods and indeed they were Gods so to speak. Cthulu soon grew dissatisfied with the ruling elite of Atlantis. They were content to live out their lives in exile on earth and made no attempts to rebuild the ships and leave the earth. Cthulu felt that the war was over and he wanted to head back to Sirius.
Eventually Jehovah, the leader of Atlantis, and Cthulu had a massive falling out. A world wide war broke out and Cthulu and his followers were banished from the over world for 10,000 years. Cthulu and his fellow Sirians along with some humans retreated and build an alternate world underground. They would occasionally send spies out to the outer world to keep an eye on things.
Jehovah and his fellows joined the humans and tried to civilize them. The end result was that most of Jehovah’s fellow Gods were killed by jealous humans. Eventually most of his fellow Sirians intermarried with the local humans. Sirians and humans are both humanoids. And it is hard to tell the difference unless you run DNA tests. The main difference is that Sirians are long lived, the average life span is 10,000 years and a few are close to immortal. Cthulu claims he is immortal but who can believe him anyway. ? He is the master of lies, deceit, and the dark magic arts of controlling other’s minds.
Jehovah’s descendents live on in small communities across the globe. Most are religious leaders. Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Sai Babai were all Sirians.
Jehovah is worried. The 10 thousand year curse he had put on Cthulu is due to expire next year and Jehovah knows that Cthulu is plotting something horrible. And indeed he is. I know. I was one of Cthulu’s senior leaders. I am what you humans call a defector. I am writing this statement to alert you humans to the dangerous times coming down the pike and to warn you that Cthulu’s goal is the total enslavement of Mankind forever. And then he will lead an army of Sirians and Humans back to Sirius to reclaim the throne of the Emperor. You see Cthulu had been the next in line to the crown when he was over thrown.
About five of your earth years ago I was a senior clerk in the office of Imperial Propaganda. Our job was to send spies and saboteurs out into the outer world and stir up trouble. We were behind WW1, WSW11, the Korean and Vietnam and Iraq wars and of course 9-11. Bin Laden- one of ours. You can’t find him because he retreated to the underworld and is working out of an office located underneath Karachi.
I knew all about 9-11. It was one of my minor projects. None of us expected it would work, and none of us expected that the US would be so stupid as to get involved in the Iraq war. The terrorism, the lost of civil liberties, the constant fears. That is golden for our work. And the religious belief that Armageddon is coming is music to our master’s ears. For Armageddon is indeed coming and Cthulu is getting ready.
Sam was very angry - as angry as a part human, part Sirian, Android cyborg could ever be. He was sitting with the senior staff of the Cthulu organization - the secret society that runs the world in their top secret base located at an undisclosed location 10 miles beneath the White House and the Pentagon.
Sam was the senior policy advisor to the President and was often called the President's brain. Most of the senior advisers were in the room with him - most but not all were fellow Sirians. The president was a puppet whom they controlled mentally which is why one of his advisors had to be with him at all time. The Cthulu overloads met nightly after the President's mental conditioning was turned off and he was allowed to sleep. Even while he slept, someone was watching him for signs that he was waking up and asserting his human side, but fortunately the President seemed to be unaware that he was a puppet for an alien race plotting to enslave mankind.
The two factions fought for years and finally they ended up almost destroying the entire planet in a nuclear and biological war. Both groups survived and hid out among the native people. The green group tried to civilize humanity and usually failed miserably. But they continued throughout the centuries. The red group hid out in the wilderness areas and bid their time. They reentered human history when they joined forces with the Romans and taught the Romans the art of warfare.
Both groups however were hampered by the fact that it took a lot of mental energy maintaining their false human appearance, which was part costume and part holographic projection. Interactions with humans were always fraught with problems as few humans could handle the truth and most humans simply went mad when they encountered a Cthulu unmasked.
Although Sirians were hominid in appearance, they did have a greenish skin color and bluish hair.
Only in recent years had the Cthulu grow in power and strength that they felt that they could rejoin their ancient battles. Although Cthulu himself could not yet escape his imprisonment under ground, members of his red group were able to settle in the U.S. and began associating themselves with prominent political figures, subtly shaping their agenda and their world view.
The master plan was to trigger another world war, and after destroying most of mankind, enslave the rest of the world, and then build space ships so Cthulu and his Sirian cohorts could rejoin their brethren in other solar systems. The Sirians were unable to contact any one back at home and that worried them. Then again they lacked interstellar communications and space ships so they were stuck on earth for now.
Sam was the default leader of the Red faction. Sam was the result of an experiment years ago to create a hybrid human-Sirian android. By doing so, the theory was that the aging Sirians could live essentially forever. The plan did not work as all of the hybrids developed too much human awareness. Most of them ended up being destroyed or going over to the Green side. Sam was the last of the androids and the most successful. He was perhaps the most evil minded Sirian that ever lived. He was determined to destroy most of the human race, and then leave the earth behind.
So on that particular day, Sam was very angry. Their latest plans - divert media attention away from plan Armageddon with a series of meaningless media diversions were not working. With these dismal thoughts racing through his head, Sam started the meeting as he often did by yelling at his staff.
"God damn it. We had a perfect distraction in the John Mark Karl case - they found the Jon Benet Ramsey killer after 10 years and he was a child sex pervert living in Bangkok! That story was made for operation diversion. Why or why didn't we check it out to make sure that the story would last through January ? Remember people, we have to keep feeding the media shit so that they will keep their eyes off our plan Armageddon. Now, I am not going to play the blame game - today. What we need is another diversion media story. Ideas?
George, a pure bred Sirian, who remembered everything he ever heard or saw, piped up. "Sir, there are several stories we could use. There is one that is particularly good. A little girl in Austria was kidnapped ten years ago by her next door neighbor. They just found her alive and he is dead. She claims that he was not human, but some sort of evil monster from outer space. And she is right. He is a Cthulu, one of the renegade ones that we encounter every so often. This story has everything we need - sex, depravity, mystery, violence, greed and proof that aliens are among the humans! We can pump this one up for months. We could link it to other mysterious sightings of UFO's and aliens and start a real media frenzy. Then we could have the President announce that the USG would lead the fight against the menace of space aliens. We can double or triple military spending, enact even more draconian laws, and increase the fear factor by orders of magnitude!"
Sam stopped the discussion, and thought to himself, this is indeed the way to go. They could step up the fear factor, terrorize the population, increase defense spending and divert attention from plan Armageddon.
Without much further discussion, the plan was approved. The media team went to work creating false stories to plant through out the world. The propaganda department worked up the propaganda points to be made. Sam and his senior staff met and worked on what to tell the President and then the general public.
The propaganda wars continued, with fake news stories erupting up out of nowhere. All to keep the masses confused, and distracted while the real plans were laid down.
Sam had an appointment with Cthulu himself and was ready. He had to brief him on the final plans for Armageddon. Sam went into Cthulu’s office, located deep under the Pentagon building. He gave Cthulu the latest intel on the Mideast and the array of forces ready to blow up. Time was right, it would be very simple to edge one of the Middle eastern leaders to say or do the wrong thing, and the whole place will blow up.
Cthulu’s agents were arming terrorists who were prepared to unleash a wave of suicide bombing throughout the U.S. At the same time, he would have one of his agents blow up a nuclear bomb. That would trigger all out nuclear war.
Cthulu and his generals went outside to inspect the troops. They were ready – all 5 million of them – humans, Sirians, androids. As son as the Nuclear war was over they would emerge and take over the world.
Time was running out.
Escape from Hell
This is a true story. Hell is a real place, with real demons and real
punishments. It is a lot worse than any of us imagine and it is both more real
and unreal at the same time. It exists and does not exist at the same time in a
weird parallel universe. Once someone dies, and he ends up in Hell he
continues to live on in a manner of speaking; he does not die but he cannot
live in this world during the light of day. They become the undead and are
like the vampires of legend (who exist but that is another story). So, the
condemned live on in eternal torture and turmoil and they also must
work. Hell is full of workers working as slaves to keep the
machinery going. And Hell is a growing place – most people on earth end
up there. Running Hell requires lots of workers. And being a slave in the
Hell is no picnic my friends.
Despite its reputation as a place as a lawless place, Hell is a very legalistic place. Satan uses an army of lawyers (no shortage of fresh lawyers) and bureaucrats to run his domain. Despite his rules and regulations and lawyers, Hell is a bureaucratic nightmare run by evil, mendacious, corrupt and incompetent demons. But, there are a few loopholes in the rules, and a few strange quirks to the law and even Satan must obey these special rules. One of them is rule number Nine: If a person goes to Hell by mistake because of a screw up in the computerized system that runs both Heaven and Hell and the whole other computer systems that run this world, and someone from our world gets to Hell and back out with their loved one in tow, both the condemned and the lover who rescue them may live a long life in this world and will ascend to Heaven upon death as cosmic compensation for the screw up. They have only evoked this rule one time, about a hundred years ago. Many people end up in Hell each year due to computer errors and a few people end up in Heaven by mistake. Many people have died to try to go to hell to try to take advantage of rule number nine, but only one person made it out. But there are ways, my friends. There are ways. Jack found the way, and this is his story.
Jack was a tall youthful-looking man for man in his 60’s. He still had hair and intense blue eyes and although he walked with a limp, he was in fairly good shape and worked out every day. Jack had retired from a lifetime of government service and was living in San Franciso as a pensioner. He had dreams of being a writer but was not getting too far with his various novels. One day his spouse went to the store and was blown up when a suicide bomber blew up in the car in front of her. Just another victim of the constant terrorism that had bedeviled the world since before the second gulf war.
Jack was devastated. He could not imagine life without his spouse. They had been married for almost 35 years by then and he was looking forward to the remaining years together. They had no children but still had lots of friends from around the world from their days in government service and from the old neighborhood that he had grown up in.
Jake had met his wife through a dream. He fell asleep in a class in high school and saw the most beautiful women in the world staring at him. He yelled out,
“Who are you?” and she disappeared from the dream. He continued to have the same dream month after month for eight years. One day he had to decide whether to go Korea or Thailand in the Peace Corps. He had the dream then and realized that she was in Korea waiting for him. After the Peace Corps, when he was teaching ESL for the U.S. Army, he had the last of the dreams. She told him that he would meet her soon. That night she walked off a bus and into his life. They married 35 years later.
Throughout his life, he often thought of the dream. And when they were separated he would dream that she was right there in the room watching over him. So, Jack knew that he would soon encounter her in yet another dream.
That night after the terrorist attack that killed his wife, Jack had a dream that would haunt him for about a year. Every night the same image – his wife was in Hell and was screaming while being tortured by demons wielding whips and chains. She was yelling repeatedly that she was not supposed to be there. Her tormentors, five or six demons wearing red suits and white ties, laughed and said that she was right – it was a screw up in the computer programs that sent her there. She was due in heaven but hey once she was there what could they do about it? She might as well get used to the idea. And then the torture started again, and she faded away. The dream continued night after night.
Jack knew that she was contacting him in his dreams just like she had for eight years before he met her. He believed that she was in Hell. He decided to do a little research into this Hell business. He got on the internet and read as much as he could find, and hit the occult bookstores in the city and in Berkeley and after a few weeks of reading everything he could find on the subject concluded that were three basic schools of thought:
Hell was a myth and did not of course exist (majority opinion)
Hell might have existed in ancient times but not in this enlightened modern era. (minority opinion)
Hell existed and was real. The only problem was almost no one ever went there voluntarily and came back. (this was the majority belief among the occult writers and other assorted nut cases). He became obsessive about finding out everything that had ever been written about Hell. He continued haunting these stores and visiting all the various internet sites that he began to be well known as the “man who wants to rescue his wife from Hell.” Jack will tell people the story repeatedly and most people thought he was a harmless old man gone batty because he had lost his wife in the terrorist bombing.
Most of his friends advised him to forget about it and get on with his life. They told him to get back to work on his novels. Some tried to fix him up with girls, but he refused all such requests. He was truly a man obsessed.
He finally found a few obscure references to the way to Hell in some writings in the Necronomicon (Al Asif) by the mad Arab poetry, Abdul Aliased, and other long banned occult texts as well as references in various occult publications and writers including Crowley and others. He also read the founder of the Church of Satan claimed he had been to Hell and back. After consulting these references, Jack decided he could locate Hell. Jack sat down one Saturday night and did a final re-reading of all his numerous volumes of material in Hell. His apartment was filled to the brim with books, articles, printouts of web pages and the like. Jack worked all night and at last, he shut down his computer. He poured himself a cup of coffee and looked at what he had written.
Jack decided he had a decent plan of action. He had learned from his readings of rule number nine and decided to pull it off. The last attempt that was successful was in the 19th century. Hell, it seemed had several portals that interconnected with this world. One theory was that Hell existed in a parallel universe as did Heaven. There were several places where Hell interconnected with Earth. Quite a few sites came to mind, some of them were even listed on various internet sits as “gateways” to Hell. What distinguished them all was they were in neighborhoods and regions of the earth where evil things seem to happen for no reason. In other words, the gates of Hell ran through neighborhoods denounced as “Hellholes.” And every big city had them. Some more than others.
You see the demons and other lower level functionaries of Hell occasionally needed to get out of Hell. The rules were that they could leave Hell once a month on the full moon but had to be back in Hell by sunrise. If they did not make it back in time they will be condemned to Hell themselves as an ordinary inmate, not as demon functionary. And in Hell you did not want to be a “defrocked devil” so to speak as the other inmates would make your life a living Hell and of course, your fellow demons would mock you forever as a loser.
So, the devils would dress up as humans and leave Hell and wander the dark corners of big cities, and engage in crime and random violence including rape, robbery, drunken brawls and the like. But they needed cash to do so. Hell did not run on currency; everything was paid for by the State. It was, in a way, a perfect communist society.
One-day Jack came upon a description of Hell written by a man who had gone to Hell to find and locate his wife. He managed to get out of Hell alive but without his wife. He had a very detailed map of Hell. According to this book, published in the early 30’s, Hell had a stop on the NYC City subway line, deep underneath the Hell’s Kitchen area of NYC.
The author also described the details of Hell’s horrific, terribly corrupt bureaucracy. He said everything was for sale, and the currency of choice was U.S. dollars. Many of the lower echelon officials dreamed of escaping Hell and many manage to bribe their way out for a weekend of fun in NYC. That is why NYC has always had very strange crimes reported now and then. The denizens of Hell while on earth look like humans but are very wild, violent, and crazy, as if they are very high, and most of them are. There are drugs in hell and they are very popular but must be smuggled in from earth. Hell does not actually produce anything, even the food and clothing are all imported from earth. One of the most popular jobs in the hell is to be part of the weekly courier runs that go to NYC to pick up supplies including illegal drugs. After the courier run is over, they get an extra day in NYC and must be back by sunrise the third day. So, after their duty night is over, they come out and commit horrific crimes and then disappear into sunlight.
The stories all agreed that the undead demons are instantly vaporized with the first light of the sun. The author said this accounts for the various stories about vampires. He said that there were other portals to Hell, one in SF, one in Berlin and one in Romania. He also said that Satan and Hitler had both died and were brought back by the devil himself and had almost succeeded in opening a permanent portal to the netherworld. That is why in Hell all the guards wear 30’s gangster clothing as that was Satan’s favorite period of US history.
Sam read another old legend dating back centuries that stated that there was only one known method to enter Hell alive and come out alive. If one goes to Hell to retrieve a lost relative and manages to return to the surface he will be given 50 years additional life as well as 50 years for his spouse, child or parent. But of course, if he fails to return to the surface he will join his spouse in Hell forever. And only a few brave mortals had ever attempted the journey. This was a bylaw written by Satan himself as Satan appreciate such acts of selfless courage.
Jack’s plan was simple – recruit 10 of his oldest and best friends to come with him on his rescue mission. He knew that none of them would believe him until they entered the gates of Hell, but he was sure they would stick with him to the bitter end. He read somewhere that the immunity from future stays in Hell would apply to them as well as to him. Jack started talking with his friends and eventually recruited ten people to his crusade. They, of course, thought he was crazy but perhaps he was telling the truth and besides it beat the Hell of staying at home enjoying retirement.
Jack called together about ten of his friends from all over the world and explained the situation to them. They all said that he was crazy but what the Hell. It sounded like a lark, so they were in. Jack told them that he believed Angela was there and they had to try to rescue her.
Jack had prepared an extensive list of items for the journey. I had bought ten zoot suites complete with fedora hats and had managed to find some antique but serviceable Tommy guns through a friend of mine who had contacts in the underworld. The story was slowly making the rounds that there was this crazed American who was convinced that Hell was real, and his wife was there, and damned fool that he was he was going to rescue her.
Of course, no one believed this story, including those agents of Satan that lived everywhere lurking among the gangsters and criminal elements, so the story was never reported through official channels. And Hell, Central never heard the story, thank God.
Finally, the day came. Jack had consulted several astrologers, tarot card readers, mediums, and the like and they all agreed that the plan was audacious but doable. We had to crash through the subway gate, tell the guards that if they let us in we would bring them out and pay them in real currency. That should work. We had the clothes, looked the part of internal inspectors (the feared Gestapo of the underworld). One contact made up some official looking identity cards that identified us as special agents undercover on the surface world who had to interrogate a suspect deep inside. We had to bring her to the surface to identify a traitor to the satanic cause. All my contacts in the occult world thought that might really work but no one really knew as no one had ever come back alive.
Jack’s books advised taking thousands of dollars with him, so he could bribe his way into Hell and back out again. Jack decided he needed two to four million dollars. He put up his property, liquidated his assets and had about four million in cash. It took some time to get all the cash together. Due to various anti-crime and anti-money laundering bills, it was very difficult to withdraw large amounts of cash. Jack had to finally go to a loan shark and pay for his cash with cashier’s checks. But he finally had the cash in hand, in 20-dollar bills.
Jack called his gang of followers together for a planning meeting. 10 people showed up. General G. Patrick, ex-marine, was the first to show up. He was a tall muscular man who looked like an ex-Marine colonel should, almost from central casting. His wife, Betty was also ex-military but had retired as a general and was on the board of USAA. Pat thought that Jack was crazy and had been since high school, but hey if he wants to play a game, he was in.
Bob, the retired actor, showed up next. He was also a big guy could have been a football player and had a tough look to him. He often played a villain on stage and in TV and movies. He fancied himself a baadass. He also was quite amused by the whole thing but thought what the heck. It might be fun.
Keith came in next with his wife, Maggie, and child. Keith was a minor millionaire developer. He was the one who had introduced Jack to the money launderer. He was tall, blond hair and looked like a younger version of Donald Trump who was his hero. Maggie was from Colombia. Ken was 11 years old and they all agreed that having a kid around might prove useful as no one was suspicious of people who had kids with them.
Matt and his wife were there as well. Matt was a retired financial planner and was a logistics whiz. He was also tall and had a beard and looked like the kind of guy who knew his way around computers and financial spreadsheets. Matt would serve as the computer cracker and document reader if they need those skills on the job. Margaret was a retired nurse and would serve as the medic if they needed a medic. Jack planned on making Matt the second in command.
And then there was me, Roy D. I was an old writer friend of Jack’s from college and had helped him with his research. I was the first of what we called Jack’s Hells Angels to be brought into the cosmic conspiracy as we dubbed it.
Jack started the meeting off.
“Guys, thanks for coming. I know I have been boring the “Hell” out of you, pun intended, for the last four or five months. But, what you don’t know is that I have found the gates to Hell and have located where my wife is. I also know you don’t believe me when I tell you the dreams I have been having. I went to UC and had them record my dream onto a disk. It is amazing what they are discovering now a day. I heard that they had just invented that technology. Anyhow, I’d like to play it for you. Afterwards, you can decide if you wish to come along on the adventure of the century or not. For if we succeed in proving Hell exists and come back alive we will be the most famous explorers in history and of course, we will also be exempted from ever having to go there again and get 50 bonus years at our current age. And guaranteed admission to Heaven which most of you were going to go to except for Keith whom I am sure was headed to hell. So, let me play the dream.”
Jack puts the disk in the computer and plays the program. His wife, Angela was Korean and looked young for her age. She was short and still a stunningly
His wife appears in a pit of flames. There are four or five demons like creatures whipping her and telling her to work harder. She is mining something out of the wall. There are hundreds of people in the mines, most of them standing in a pit of burning flames. She is screaming, “I am not supposed to be here. There must be a mistake. I demand to see the manager.”
The head demon walks over, and barks out, what is your name?
“I see,” he says, consulting a palm held computer. “Oh, here we are. Yeah, you should be in the other place. Must be one of those computer glitches. Well, it is too complicated to fix and too much paperwork. If you had some money on you, say 100,000 dollars perhaps I could fix it. But where in Hell are you going to get that kind of cash?” He laughs and laughs.
Angela turns and screams out “Help me. Save me from Hell. I am in Pit number 5720279 Sector Bravo, Unit 524.”
The head demon laughs, and the demons start whipping her again and again. The image fades away.
Jack turns to his friends and says, “I have had that dream every night since she died. As you know I dreamt about meeting her for eight years before I met her and so I believe she is telling the truth and that she is in Hell in that pit and that if we can make it to Hell and bribe her head demon we might be able to make it back alive with her. So, whether you believe me or not, I want you to join me in this crusade. Are you in or not?”
We fly off to NYC and get a hotel in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on the lower West side. We set off on our big adventure one Friday afternoon at rush hour and entered the subway system. We assemble at the appointed spot in the subway system and I chanted the mantra from one of the books of Hell. A doorway opens in the air and we climb through. The door closes behind us and we are in a mirror image of the subway entrance. A board booth attendant looks at us and comes to attention.
I tell them we are on a special mission and must locate an Angela Lee who was sentenced six months ago. He looks it up on the computer and hums and haws. We give him 500 U.S. dollars to not report that this has occurred and promise him 500 more and an opportunity to join us on the other side if he kept quiet.
He grins and says
"You got it my man, but the price is not right. Gona cost you 500 dollars per person or say 25 K. You see I have lots of people to bribe to pull this off ".
Jack pays him off. He turns and says,
“Good luck and all that shit. You will need it.”
He said to take the A train to Hell Central, get off and transfer to the B train and stay on to the central coal pit, then get off and tell the chief super there that Bernie says we are okay. He will help you find your lady, but you got to know that if HE, the MAN downstairs, finds out you will all fry. I ain’t putting my neck on the line for you guys not at all. And the super, Mr. Black will need at least five G’s to look the other way…
We thank Mr. Bernie and enter the next A train. The train leaves the station and we gasp as we enter Hell. Miles and miles of open pits with fires burning everywhere and sounds of people screaming in endless agony. All along the streets of the city are filled with desperate looking people, dressed in rags. Guys in zoot suits dressed like us walk about shooting people for fun. The dead die again but come back to life so to speak minutes later in even worst pain.
There are bars on every corner selling all sorts of illegal drugs and prostitutes are everywhere promising all sorts of sexual delights for a price. Some of our company, the guys are talking about stopping off for a drink or two. I stop them and remind them of the mission and say that if they as much drink a drop of Hell booze they will never be allowed to leave. That shuts everyone for a while.
The train soon becomes a roller coaster and goes up and down up and down. People get on and off, but everyone avoids looking at us. My friend Robert waives his Tommy gun in the air a couple of times when people get too close. We get off at Hell Central which is a mirror image of Grand central but incredibly crowded, noisy and smelly as Hell. We finally find out the way and transfer to the B line, and it takes us deep into the cavernous pits of Hell.
I had heard a story that Satan had a deal with the coal companies where he mined coal using slave labor and export the coal to a mine somewhere in Pennsylvania coal country where it was brought to the surface. The coal companies sold it at market rates and kicked back the profits. The same person told me that Satan had lots of connections with politicians, businessmen and the like and his spies were everywhere on earth. Satan was plotting to take over but somehow never quite made it.
The other side he said also had their angels on earth as well. Good and evil were ever in constant battle and good seemed to have more magical power than evil. But Satan was gaining his power. Part of it was that no one believed in him anymore which gave him plausible deniability, a phrase he had taught the CIA, which he had set up as his secret army on earth as a secret organization within the CIA. They reported to the President and to Satan and did “wet work “missions for both. Most of the agents were demons who were temporarily assigned to earth and given special dispensation to allow them to work on earth. Such duty was highly sought after.
We keep going deeper and deeper into the bowels of Hell. The stench was overpowering but we were all wearing masks infused with garlic which was supposed to prevent us from becoming overpowered by the demonic stench.
Finally, after two hours we entered the coal company site. We walk up and demand to see the super. Robert waives his Tommy gun around. I scream and the rest of us look mean as we could possibly manage. The super comes out, a big, burly black guy. He says, yeah, Bernie’s cool. We were Hell-mates came into together with the service. What can I do for you fine gentlemen and ladies? He leers at the ladies in our group. They glare back.
I explain the situation. He says well let me see. I need some paperwork. I point the gun at him, saying it is urgent top-secret work, covert shit and all and we would pay him 3 g’s in Earth money if he just found the girl and looked the other way.
He looks at me and says make it 100 g’s and you got a deal. I offer ten and we settle at twenty-five, plus 40 G more as he had some people to bribe. We settled at 50 k. I think to myself we owe Bernie a tip. Mr. Black calls an assistant and says take these gentlemen to sector 214 B, subsection 212 A 6 C. That is where we would find the lady. He then turns to me and says look I can lose her for a day or so. You must have her back within 36 hours or all sorts of heads will roll. And if I must report this I don’t care who the Hell you all are. I ain’t being demoted to being one of them Hell no. I ain’t. You understand me, dude?
We come to an agreement and slip him another 5 gs. He then says he has some TV to watch and would give us 30 minutes to get her and get back on the train. I tell several of my group to stay behind with Mr. Black.
Pat, Robert, Keith, and Matt, all old high school buddies, and I get on the mini-tram and go into the pits with the guard, Mr. Ramesh, a former Indian customs official.
He turns to me and says,
“Hey, did you used to live in Bombay? Did I say yeah, I was undercover at the time poising as a US diplomat? You got a problem with that?”
I slip him 2 g’s and he smiles and says
“This solves most problems. 3 Gs more and I forget who the fuck you are.” Jake slips him some more money and we follow him down into the pits.
We find Angela staying in a pool of stagnant water. She is haggard, tired, and looks like shit. She is digging coal out with a shovel. We walk up to her and start yelling at the guards, that we have a prisoner to take for questioning. One of the guards looks at us and
“Back off or we shoot your ass. Your choice.”
He turns to pick up his intercom and we shoot him. He drops dead and we know it will take a day or so for him to recover. The four other prisoners in the work detail beg us to take them with us. I tell them my mandate was to tell Angela, but we would give them each 5000 g’s to keep quiet and forget what they had seen. They take the money.
“Man, good luck with that shit. Angela was a great woman and was always talking about her husband. We could not figure out how she got here. Maybe just a screw up in the computer files. Happens all the time, man. But hey we did not see anything, right?”
They wander off.
We get back on the track to the main office. When we get there, we decide we should take out Ramesh and Mr. Black for the time being. We thank them and then shoot them saying it was for their own good. That would buy us a day as it would take a day for them to come back to life. We debate whether to take the money back or not but finally decide to let them have it as they had kept their end of the bargain.
We get on the train and head back to Hell Central. We get back to the exit and find Mr. Bernie waiting. He has a few police types with them. They had some questions for us. I decide to bluff. I tell them that this was a covert mission and I did not have to answer to anyone other than the MAN downstairs. And if they interfered it would be painful as I would have to shoot them first, then turn them over to our torture specialists, and I pointed out several of our more macho looking guys in the group.
They demanded paperwork. I told them the only paper they would be given would be green backs. They demanded 5000 g’s a piece and were adamant. I gave them 5,000 apiece and we shot them dead.
“You coming? “
We say the mantra and find ourselves in the NYC subway early in the morning. I tell Bernie you have until dawn to get back. I tell him where the nearest bar was and that it was just in time for happy hour. And gave him 5,000 bonus cash.
He said, “yeah, I head of that place.” And he runs off in search of the nearest bar.
When we leave the subway, we are faced with a reception committee. Two special agents from Hell are standing there looking at us. They take us to a safe house in Harlem. Finally, we meet the agent in charge of NYC.
He looks familiar,
“I say, didn’t you used to work for the US government as a diplomat.”
He said yeah,
“I did. You used to work for me. Worst subordinate ever. I recognize the two of you. I always wondered what would happen to you. He then says, okay, now that I know you are human beings you had better tell me the truth and you know I hate your guts. And I know you are a lying scumbag and should be in Hell someday. “
I said, okay,
“David here’s the God’s truth” and tell the whole story.
When I tell him, he gets on the computer, and looks up the special rules and says, “holly shit. You are right. You are your friends all are given 50 bonus years at your same age and you will all be going upstairs when you die. But you must pay me 50 k to keep quiet for the next twenty minutes while you escape. Listen, as a favor to us don’t publish this story. You know what kind of trouble that could cause us?”
Jack pays him off and promised him that he would never publish this story, but hey he lied.
Jack and Angela make it back out of Hell and back to SF. His friends all made it out too, and Satan honored rule number nine because even Satan must follow the cosmic laws that govern Heaven and Hell.
Ghoul Haunted Woodlands of Weir
Sam Hill woke up freezing cold outside in a howling wilderness of tall dense trees, covered with dense fog. Sam did not know how he got there, wherever there was, nor did Sam remember much of his prior life. Nor did Sam recognize the trees – they were different from any trees he had ever seen. All Sam knew was he was Sam Hill, late of Berkeley, California where he ran a restaurant.
And last night was lost in a fog of weed, drugs, and perhaps wild sex. Sam simply could not remember much of that night. After closing his restaurant, he went out with some friends and ended up in a club somewhere in SF. He had gone to the club where he smoked weed, snorted what he thought was cocaine, and drank way too much. Might even had dropped acid – he did not know what he had done. His friends left him at the club. He went home with a strange bosomy Indian woman he met at the club, but the rest was foggy at best. He did remember that she was hot – brunette, middle age with curves to die for. And she had a sexy come hither foreign accent – she was a devilish attractive woman from India. in short, she was Sam’s fatal attraction.
Sam suddenly remembered that he had been married before and that his wife had left him when she found out that he had been cheating on her. But Sam could not remember his wife’s name nor recall her face. Nor who he had cheated with. But he remembered the women last night, did not remember her name or whether they had sex – he think he did but damn everything was foggy. He wondered if she had slipped him a mickey? In any event, it was all a blur.
But that still did not explain how he had woken up here in the forest. He could tell that he was no longer in the Bay Area because of the strange unearthly trees and the landscape. It was clear that he was in a wilderness area but where he could not figure out. Sam got up off the damp forest floor and stood up to survey his situation. Frankly, it was not good. He had the clothes on his back, a backpack containing a coat, a book of Poe’s poetry, a pen, and a bottle of water. He had nothing else he would need to survive in a hostile wilderness, - no matches, no weapons and most importantly no food. He did not know how he had gotten back pack, nor why he had a book of Poe’s poetry in the backpack.
Sam looked around the woods and saw that he was in the middle of a dense grove of tall trees, of a strange species he had never seen before. Most of the trees were green evergreen but he swore that some of the trees were purple and some were red. It seemed like it was an autumn day as there was a crisp autumn like breeze in the air. He recalled that it was November 1 back in the real word, the day after his birthday. He almost felt that he had been transplanted to another world. As far as he could see in the dense fog the forest went on and on.
It was a cold, damp morning. But he felt that it could get warmer despite the autumn chill in the air. The sun was sneaking over the horizon so in any event it was about 6 am. But there was something weird about the sun – just did not look like the sun on earth and it had a faint reddish glow to it and seemed bigger than the Sun on Earth. Then the other sun dawned, and he knew he was not in Kansas or anywhere else on earth. He glanced at his watch, it seemed to be working. His cell phone had no signal – nada, but all the other features that were not dependent on an internet connection seemed to work.
Sam decided that the only thing to do was to walk to the end of the forest and see if he can find any signs of civilization, or at least get some food and water somewhere. Sam started walking and walking and the forest seem to go on and on. As he walked he recalled some of his boy scout training decades ago and headed in the same general direction, south he thought but the two Suns in the sky threw his internal sense of direction off. At least he was not walking in circles he thought.
He heard creatures stirring in the woods, but he did not encounter any wildlife. And Sam was unprepared – as he had no weapons other than a rock that he had picked up just in case. After an hour of walking he heard a noise. And the woods ended. He came up to a cliff and saw through the fog that there was a stream running down at the bottom of the steep canyon.
He was contemplating whether to try to walk down the canyon when he heard a noise. He looked up and saw two big ravens staring at him. Sam yelled at them, “Say, bird, do you know where I am?” Sam was surprised when the birds turned to him and laughed at him. Mocking birds, he though. But then then spoke.
The birds laughed at Sam. One then says, “Sam, you are in the ghoul haunted woods of Weir.”
Sam said, “Where?”
The bird said, “Precisely, where. The ghoul haunted woods of Weir. There is no escape from here. All who enter die. So, sad, we’ve seen it all before. Love to help but there is no escape. You are doomed to die here all alone except for the ghouls who will hunting you soon for their evening meal.”
Sam looked at the birds, and said “am I dreaming or on drugs? Is this real?”
The birds laughed and laughed
“Sam, my human friend. This is as real as it gets. You are not on drugs although you had some drugs last night. That women drugged you and left you for dead. But at least you got some sex out of it. You humans and sex. God. You guys are horny dogs. In any event, this is a real as any nightmare, but you will never wake up. You are doomed to die here. Might as well wait for the end to come. The Ghouls come out at dusk to feed.
But, Sam, since we like you, we can give you some advice. Try to get down to the river and follow the river to the town at the bottom of the river. Once you get there the ghouls can’t follow as they are banned from entering human towns. Once you get there the people might be willing to take you in. But probably not. Human, probably you are going to die. Well, nice talking to you, best of luck all of that. We have to get going places to be people to see and all that rot.”
Sam asked the birds a final question,
“what the fuck is a ghoul?”
The birds looked at Sam, and said,
“Your worst nightmare human. They used to be human at one time but now are what do you call it, zombies. The living dead. They haunt these woods and prey on the unfortunates who find themselves here.
“How and why am I here?”
“God only knows, and he is not telling. All we know is that every day some human finds themselves where you are and by the end of the night the ghouls get to them. None escape with their life. Well, we really need to get going. Best of luck, Sam. You will need it.”
And the two ravens flew off cackling to themselves.
Sam looked down at the canyon wall and saw a faint outline of a path that led down to the river and at the bottom of the river he saw some logs – perhaps he could fashion some sort of raft from the logs and make his way down stream. Sam did not want to come face to face with a Ghoul or zombie or whatever the hell haunted these woods. Sam did not trust the birds were telling him the truth, for some reason these birds seemed to omen of bad luck. Sam got to work and slowly picked his way down the steep path towards the bottom of the canyon and finally made it down. It was mid-day then and the fog was starting to lift.
Sam looked up at the cliff above and thought he saw something moving through the trees. Something large, and vaguely wolf like. He stared but did not see anything more. Then he heard the howling of the wolves and saw them – a pack of them on top of the cliff. The ravens flew overhead and landed next to the wolves. Sam also heard the ravens and the wolf like things talking. The Ravens pointed out Sam and seemed to wave at him. The wolf creatures growled but made no attempt to come down the path.
It was time to go. He walked over to the logs and found that two of the logs could be wrapped together with some reeds growing on the side of the river. After an hour of work, he had a serviceable raft and started floating down the rushing river. He floated for hours with the forests on top of the cliff never ending, but the fog had lifted a bit.
Finally, it was getting dark and Sam needed to stop for the night. He pulled up on a sand bar. He noticed some bushes had some blue berries on them and Sam tried them. After realizing the fruit would not kill him, Sam ate as much as he could stand and drank some river water. He then got some twigs and tried to make a fire. Sam finally got a bit of a flame going and made a bon fire and fell asleep.
He woke up at dawn and saw that he had gone a long way down the river. He looked up and saw the birds flying above him. He called out, “Mr. Bird, I’m still alive.”
The birds turned to him and said, “Sam, nice to see you. The ghouls missed you last night; the werewolves too but everyone is ready for you know. We had to tell them where you are and where you are heading. We are spies so to speak. Nothing personal we like you, Sam, but we all have our jobs to do. That is the way of the world. There is no escape. Have a nice day.” The birds flew away.
Sam got up and ate some more berries and drank more water. Then he got on the log raft and continued his journey. All day he kept hearing the howling of wolves and strange yapping sounds which he assumed were the sound of the ghouls. He did not see anything, just heard the ghostly sounds in the forests on top of the cliff.
He turned a corner in the river and saw a town ahead. At least it looked like a town; just a few huts along a road and a boat landing. He pulled up and wandered into the little town. He entered the first hut and found several dead bodies piled along the side of the hut. Shot to death executive style. Sam backed out quickly as he realized the killers could be nearby as the bodies looked relatively freshly killed. He entered hut after hut and found death everywhere. He counted 100 dead bodies. The bodies appeared to be human like and were vaguely middle eastern looking, but there was something off about them as well and he realized that they were humanoid not human. He was about to leave the village when he heard a sound of someone crying. He ran inside and found a little child still alive somehow. He grabbed the boy and gestured for him to follow him and he left the hut. In the next hut, he filled his backpack with provisions – food, water, weapons, extra clothing and matches. They had guns that apparently were earth made. Everything else was alien in origin. That was strange.
He gestured to the boy to follow him and they left the town and walked down the road. As they walked the kid and Sam bonded despite the lack of a common language. Sam taught him a few English words and he seemed to be picking it quickly. He was about 6 years old.
About an hour later they came upon a bigger town. In this town, all the people were dead as well, but were buried in a communal grave at the end of the road. Mangy dogs were feasting on the dead bodies, but they ignored Sam and the boy whom Sam leaned was called “Abdul.”
They decided to camp out in the field outside of town and watch out for the return of the bandits who had destroyed the town. Sam was also worried about the werewolves and ghouls in the forest left behind. Sam made a bonfire and they ate their provisions and fell asleep. In the middle of the night Sam woke up and saw the ghouls eying him. They were tall, human shaped creatures all white in color with bright red eyes. He asked them what they wanted.
They laughed and said, “Sam, you are very lucky. You’ve survived so far. And we are forbidden to harm you once you are in the human zones. But now you are in the realm of man again and perhaps won’t be so lucky any more. You see the way back to your world is back up in the woods between the worlds. Down here you are stuck forever. And you can see what kind of violent world this is. You are in the middle of a war between two war lords. If you manage to make it through the battle field, you might live. But we wanted to see you. The birds like you and we like the birds. Usually the birds don’t intervene, and we get our reward – the opportunity to eat human flesh. We are disappointed that the can’t eat you and your kid tonight. But the rules are the rules and we can’t harm you. “
Sam asked the ghouls,” Will you let me and my companion travel back to my world?”
The ghouls laughed and said, “Sam, we’ve never allowed anyone to get this far from your world before. What makes you think we will let you go?”
“Well, I run a nice restaurant back home and can cook you all a decent meal. And if you want you can visit my world. We can do a deal; make you a celebrity put you on TV even.”
The Ghouls laughed and told Sam that they would not bother him any more as he was out of their territory but if he came back through the woods they would have to kill him because no one was ever allowed to leave the woods of Weir alive. That was the rule of the ghoul master himself. Nothing personal – they liked Sam a lot. Perhaps if Sam manages to get to the doorway they might not kill him and take him up on his offer. No ghoul has ever been back. The ghouls were once human or humanoid in another world. The place where Sam came to is the woods between worlds. There are gateways to other worlds scattered throughout the woods. The ghouls hunt people who are in between the worlds. If they make it too far they can live
Sam said, “Fair enough” and invited them to join him for. The ghouls declined and started walking away. Sam called out,
“Wait. I need to know what’s going on.”
The head Ghoul turned around and said,
“okay. We’ll break protocol and share your breakfast. And fill you in. But please don’t tell the birds – you can’t trust them. They work for the evil one that controls this world. Okay we are ghouls we came from your world and were taken by other ghouls and well we become immortal. Our job is to track down humans who manage to come over from you and other worlds and kill them. Once a human manages to break through and enter the human zone we must let him go. Few make it and we were surprised that you made it as far as you have.
There are two waring states in this area. You just walked into a battle field. Zorn is on the march and making a play to take over the entire planet. Then he intends to launch an attack on your world. He may want to take you alive, so he can use you for his nefarious purposes. That’s all we know. Well we must go. If we see you again we will have to kill you. Nothing personnel just what we have to do you know.’
Sam said, “Fair enough” and invited them to join him for breakfast. The ghouls declined and disappeared.
Sam and Abdul made breakfast and walked down the path. They entered town after town. Each town had been a sight of horrific mass murder. Hundreds of dead bodies. Sam stopped at each town and picked up more provisions and weapons. He got a pack for Abdul, so they could carry additional provisions including clothing, and what appeared to be local currency. He made it clear that if they were separated the food, water and weapons in his bag were for his survival. So, he must not lose the pack.
They encountered lots of dead bodies and Hyenas and wolves feasting on the newly dead. The snarled and five of them rushed Sam and Abdul. He told Abdul to climb a tree then Sam faced the wolves and a few wolves and as he shot them they turned back into human form before dying as they were all werewolves. The rest of the pack backed off and resume eating the dead bodies.
About noon they entered an intact town. This was a trading post and had Zorn and Torians working side by side. They appeared to tolerate each other but there was an undercurrent of hatred palpable in the air. Then Sam saw a fellow human and came up to him and introduced himself.
“So, who are you and how long have you been here? How did you get here? “
“Well my name is Jerimiah Moore. I have been here a long time. It seems that time here and time there are not the same at all. What year is it where you came from?”
“I came yesterday through the woods from Berkeley, California. It is 2017. “
“My god. I have been here since the great quake. I fell through a hole and found myself in those woods with the damn werewolves and hyenas following me everywhere. I met a local gal and settled down here in this town which is a neutral town. I have two girls who run the inn and we can put you for free. Everyone must work here. So, I can hook you up for a job. What do you do topside?”
“I run a restaurant.”
“Great. Clyde is another human from London and he runs a bar and grill, but his cook got caught smuggling and was thrown to the werewolves as punishment yesterday. Come let me introduce you.”
Jerimiah was a tall fellow looked like a mountain man with thick hair, beard and a beer belly. He obviously liked his beer. Seemed like a decent enough chap but had seen a lot in what a lawless wild west kind of country was obviously. He told Sam that he felt only ten years had gone by since he arrived due to the difference in time between the worlds. He said that there were many humans living there and they all got along and helped each other out. But, he said, there were rumors that the King of the Torians was determined to launch an invasion of Earth and that he would do it soon as there were periods every thousand years when the two worlds were close to each other and the walls between the worlds opened for a few weeks. Last time that happened hundreds of Zorian and Torians had escaped to the earth perhaps five thousand years ago? Or 500 years ago according to local time. And then the Vikings had come through, and prior to that the Romans and the ancient Chinese. The Chinese still had a China town and had the best food around.
But lately it has been people dropping through the holes in the world occasionally. They usually are killed by the Ghouls and werewolves. Sam was very lucky to be alive.
Sam felt lucky that he was alive but first things first. He needed food and he need a beer to recover his sanity. Clyde turned out to be a nice fellow, a younger London hipster who came over last year or in 1966 or so. He ran an English fish and chips bar that was the center of the human settlement. Clyde hired Sam on the spot and gave him a room and hired Abdul as well. Child labor was common in Zorn, schools were reserved for the well to do. Sam explained that he had rescued Abdul and therefore felt responsible for him. Clyde said,
“Say no more. We’ll consider him your adopted son. Adoption is easy to do, just register at the local city hall and pay a bribe. Everything works according to how much you are willing to bribe. I’ll take you over later today. Having an adopted kid will help on your taxes. And it will help gain sympathy with the ladies both the humans and the humanoids. Interspecies sex is quite nice.”
Sam was curious though at how the animals all spoke English and most of the humans did not.
“Well,” Clyde said, “the Ghouls, werewolves and the birds are all telepathic, so you hear their thoughts as if they were speaking English. And they hear you in their native language. The humans are not telepathic. Everyone speaks Zorian which is easy to learn, vaguely like Spanish. The humans mostly speak English, but some speak Chinese and Spanish. But the people who you must be aware of the most are the Bornean. They are lizards and are mean mothers. They work for a creature called Zed who is a monster who is worshiped as if he is a God. He runs the world with the Ghoul Master, and the head of the Werewolves. The Zorian King reports to him as does the Torian king. The rumors are that they were not pleased with the recent war and that the two sides are being told to stop the fighting to prepare for the coming battle against the earth. The Zorns and the Torians are different species from different lands. The Zorns are very similar to humans, and Torians are a bit more different. Interspecies sex is common and there are many half breads. Borneans and the humanoids don’t get along very much. Sex with them is difficult but worth it as the women are hell cats in bed. But they are only fertile once a year and during that time have many lovers of any nationality. Once they get into you though they don’t want to let go. And they have no concept that humans and humanoids need sex more than once a year. The few that manage to marry humans usually take drugs to make them fertile all year long and they have wild sex with their partners. They often go for MMF threesomes as they are insatiable in bed. The highest priced call girls are Bornean followed by recent arrivals from Earth, Zorn or Toria.”
Sam was enjoying his second beer and his first Zorian cheeseburger and learning about the sexual habits of the humanoids and Borneans when five Bornean lizards walked into the bar. They picked up Sam and Abdul and told them that their boss, Zed the merciful, wanted a word with them.
They stepped outside and a black Cadillac escapade circa 1970 pulled up and they were hustled away. Clyde yelled,
“If you make it back, you still have a job and a place to live for you and your son. Good luck and all that rot.”
Sam tried to engage the Bornean in conversation. The head Bornean turned to Sam and said,
“Human shut the fuck up. We don’t like you and if it was up to us we would kill you now and throw you to the wolves and collect our winnings from the birds. Now we are going to lose money because you ain’t dead yet. So, I advise you to shut up and enjoy the ride. And here has a beer on us.”
Sam drank his beer in silence and took in the sights. The town was substantial and looked like someone had created it circa London in the 1920’s. Perhaps they had given the history of secret exchanges between the worlds. There was even a mini underground tube. He saw humans, ghouls, werewolves, hyenas, Zorian, Torians and Boreans all walking about.
They pulled up to a huge mansion and he was hustled out. Abdul was told to wait by the car.
He was brought into a large room where a giant lizard dressed in green military uniforms sat on a thrown. He growled at Sam,
“Human. You just came over. You are going to tell me everything about your world. As you know time is different in your world. By the time we get back 25 years might have passed so you need to tell me everything including future speculation. We picked you because you are well known about town and seem well connected. If you do, you will come with me as my special advisor and will be given riches beyond your imaginings, and Zelda whom you met is ready, willing and able to continue the affair you started. You were her first human and she liked it. If you resist, well you will beg to be thrown to the werewolves. And we will let you keep your adopted son. It seems that you have been bonding and it would be a shame if something bad happened to him after he lost his entire family. If you refuse to cooperate we will kill him first while you watch as we torture the poor boy. Then we will send him off to brothel as some people like young boys. Your decision. Ten seconds.”
Sam thought about it and realized he had no choice. But he would try to figure out how to get a message out to the earth. Clyde might know, or the birds might be able to get through. They seem to be willing to work for all sides.
Sam told Zed he had a deal. And spend the rest of the afternoon telling Zed all about the earth. He told Zed that Zed did not have a chance given their level of technology and that Sam was not a technical kind of guy. Zed said he could send some agents to earth and kidnap some technical chaps and that the Zorians and Torians were smart and could bring them up to speed very quickly. They did have some special weapons though – poisons that they used on earth people. He had been brought here by one of their agents. They decided if he lived that he would be worthy of saving if he died there were plenty of other suckers they could kidnap.
Sam realized that Zelda, the woman whom he had been with was a Zorian and that he had probably had inter-species sex and that thought turned him on. He turned to Zed and said
“Well I suppose we have a deal.”
Keyahn Vedadi is an aspiring 20-year-old writer. He has lived everywhere but currently resides in Winter Park, Florida. He is currently enrolled at Full Sail University in it's creative writing program. Keyahn has been writing non-fiction since he was in the fifth grade and has always had a passion for dark material such as crime dramas and revenge tales.
ONE WAY TRIP TO HELL
Henry sat on the edge of a long, curvy road wondering how he had gotten to this point. How had he fallen so far? He had everything he could want in life just a few short months ago. Now it was all gone. He didn’t even know where he was. Somewhere in New Mexico maybe? It was in the middle of the desert with plenty of cactuses in view so it had to be somewhere in the Southwest . He didn’t care. He just wanted to find himself a ride to his next fix.
In the distance, he saw a minivan. He jumped to his feet and waved his hands. After a minute, the van came to a halt right in from of him. It carried a fresh faced couple. In the backseat a boy and a girl read books. They all looked as if they had just left church. The man in the driver’s seat talked first. “Where you heading to?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere I guess,” replied Henry.
“Well, we’re heading to Los Angeles, taking the kids to go see all the stars on the sidewalk. You’re welcome to join us,” said the man.
Henry thought about it for a moment. He’d never been to Los Angeles. He used to live in Tampa so he thought it could be similar. He loved the idea of being somewhere that reminded him of home. “Let’s go!” Henry shouted, startling the whole family.
The sliding door of the van opened and Henry climbed inside. He satin the backseat. The two kids were in the aisle seats in front of of him.. The van pulled away.
“So what’s your name, stranger,” said the woman.
“Henry,” he replied.
“Well, hello, Henry,” said the woman. “My name is Lindsey. This is my husband Patrick, and our two kids Hannah and Jackson.”
The two kids looked back at Henry with cold faces. Henry stared for a second and then looked away.
“So what kind of work are you in, Henry?” asked Patrick.
“Well,” Henry replied slowly, “you know, odd jobs. Whatever I can find—”
Patrick stopped him. “Oh well, you’re on the right track then! Los Angeles will have plenty of opportunities for a fellow just as yourself!”
Henry stayed silent. He was creeped out by them. They seemed familiar. Like plenty of families he’d known in the past. Henry felt tired. He had been out in the baking sun all day and couldn’t remember the last time he gotten a decent amount of shut eye. He slowly nodded off as the family sang some weird, made-up song that he couldn’t quite comprehend.
“Wake up Henry!”
Henry woke up startled. It was the two children yelling at him. Henry was very upset but didn’t express it. He looked out the window. It was nighttime. Tall buildings and lights were everywhere. Pedestrians strolled along the sidewalk taking pictures. He was in Hollywood! Henry couldn’t wait to leave this family behind and find his next fix. It had been close to day since he had last gotten one and he was overdue for another. “You can stop here,” Henry blurted out.
No one in the van replied.
“Hello?” Henry was dumbfounded. It was as if they were all taking in the sights and forgotten him.
After a moment, Lindsey replied, “We think it’s best if you stay with us until you get things sorted out.Los Angeles can be a very harsh place for a newcomer .”
“Henry became angry. “No!” he shouted. “I’m fine. Just let me out!”
Everyone remained silent. The van moved at around forty miles an hour, showing no sign of stopping. Henry relented and hastily sat back in his seat.
Thirty minutes later, the van pulled onto a dirt road. This did not look like somewhere that a family would live. There was nothing else in sight except for the large mountains on the horizon. The van drove down the dirt road before pulling up to a large, rough looking building.
Henry froze in silence. Patrick and Lindsey exited the van. A large, gruff looking man stepped out of the building followed by two other men. As they talked, Henry saw something tucked under the seat in front of him. He pulled it out carefully so Hannah and Jackson wouldn’t notice. As he pulled it out, Henry gasped. “Dianetics” by L. Ron Hubbard. Henry knew this book very well. He had been forced to read it growing up. This was no ordinary family like he thought. They were Scientologists, like he had once been.
Henry didn’t think for a second. He jumped out of his seat, slammed open the sliding door and ran as fast as he could from the men at the building. He heard them behind him shouting. Then there was barking. Henry ran faster. He was running out of breath and slowing down.
He felt a great amount of pain in his right leg. He fell over to the ground, landing his face in the dirt below. When he looked up, a German Shepherd loomed above him, barking ferociously. If he moved, it wound pounce on him. Henry knew he was trapped. He thought for a long moment and then stood up. He walked over to the men. They cuffed him as he walked into the rough looking building, defeated in his attempts to leave his old life but realizing he had nowhere else to turn.
Matthew McAyeal is a writer from Portland, Oregon. His short stories have been published in the literary magazines "Bards and Sages Quarterly", "cc&d", "The Fear of Monkeys", "The Metaworker", "Danse Macabre", and "Scarlet Leaf Magazine". In 2008, two screenplays he wrote were semi-finalists in the Screenplay Festival.
Pandora couldn’t sleep. She kept thinking about that box she wasn’t supposed to open. And was it past midnight by now? If not, it was still her first day of existence.
She thought back to how her day and indeed her life had started. Up on Mount Olympus, Zeus had ordered Hephaestus to create Pandora from water and earth. As soon as she was formed, the other gods started giving her gifts. Aphrodite gave her beauty, Hermes gave her the ability to talk, and Athena gave her fine clothes to wear. She was also given necklaces, jewelry, and a tiara. At this point, Pandora was feeling really good about herself. It was only her first day of existing, after all. She must be really special for the gods to be giving her so many wonderful gifts!
After all the other gods had given her a gift, Zeus himself stepped forward. He handed her a magnificent box and told her not to open it.
“Why not?” she asked. Being so new, Pandora’s mind up to now had felt like it wasn’t fully formed. It was a sensation like being only half-awake. That moment, when she questioned something for the first time, might have been when she finally started to develop real, concrete thoughts.
“Because I have ordered it,” said Zeus.
“But why?” Pandora persisted. This didn’t make any sense to her.
“I am the king of the gods and you will obey me,” said Zeus. “You are also to go down to earth and marry a man named Epimetheus.”
“What does ‘marry’ mean?” asked Pandora.
“Marriage is a beautiful thing,” said Hera. “It means you devote yourself to someone else and you two become partners in life.”
“But I don’t even know this Epimetheus!” Pandora objected. “How can I marry him?”
“You were created to give him companionship,” Zeus explained.
And so, Pandora walked down from Mount Olympus, carrying the box which she wasn’t allowed to open. She had only just been created and already she had a lot to think about.
If her purpose in life was to give companionship to Epimetheus, she supposed she ought to do it. But why were thoughts counter to that swimming around in her mind? She found herself thinking that maybe she didn’t want to marry Epimetheus, that her being ordered to do so wasn’t fair. If giving companionship to Epimetheus was the purpose for which she was created, why had she been given the ability to think these thoughts? It didn’t make sense.
And what was in the box? Why wasn’t she allowed to open it? If Zeus said not to open it, he must have had a good reason, but why wouldn’t he share the reason with her? Why was the box given to her if she wasn’t allowed to open it? Would she be allowed to open it when she got to Epimetheus? She hoped so. She was really curious about it. She kept wanting to take just one little peek inside, but resisted it. She told herself that if she was supposed to open it later, she would feel really bad about opening it now. She could be patient. She could be good. But why had she been given the ability to think of doing otherwise? Could she actually do otherwise?
Pandora stopped walking, suddenly overcome by doubt. Who was she? Well, that seemed pretty straightforward. She was Pandora. She was created by the gods. She was to be the wife of Epimetheus. She was the person carrying the box she wasn’t allowed to open. This was her whole identity, literally everything she knew about herself. If she deviated from that, she would know nothing, almost be nothing, but the only identity she did have was full of questions and contradictions. It was so scary. Who was she? Who was she, really?
Pandora shook herself and continued on down the mountain, still not opening the box.
Finally, she got to Epimetheus. She hoped he would have some answers. She had decided that she would do what she was supposed to. She would marry Epimetheus. She would give him love and companionship. She would be good.
“Hello,” she said to him, trying to smile pleasantly. “I’m Pandora.” Suddenly, her hands, still holding the box, started to shake. She felt really nervous!
“Zeus sent you here, didn’t he?” asked Epimetheus.
“Yes!” Pandora exclaimed and she ran forward. Finally, her questions would be answered! “Do you know what’s in the box? Zeus told me not to open it.” She handed the box to him.
“I don’t know,” said Epimetheus, “but I know I wouldn’t open it.” Pandora’s hopes crashed, but she felt glad that at least the box wasn’t only her problem now.
“I’m supposed to marry you,” she explained eagerly.
“Of course you are,” Epimetheus replied rather cynically. Pandora felt like her heart was being crushed. Marrying Epimetheus was supposed to be her purpose in life! If he didn’t want her, what meaning did her life have? Who was she if not Epimetheus’s wife?
“I… I d-don’t understand,” she said, her voice shaking.
“Let me explain it to you,” said Epimetheus. “I helped my brother Prometheus steal fire from the gods and give it to humans. Zeus was very angry and punished him by chaining him to a rock. And now he’s sent you down here to punish me.”
“I don’t want to punish you!” exclaimed Pandora at once.
“Well, that’s what you were created for,” said Epimetheus.
Pandora didn’t know what to think. She had only existed for a few hours and already she was being told that her entire identity was a lie! What was she to believe? What was she to do? Who was she? If she was just a tool for delivering punishment, why could she think? Why could she feel? Why did she want to be good? Why could she ask who she was?
Finally, she decided to tell Epimetheus the truth.
“I don’t know why the gods created me,” she said. “They told me I was supposed to give you companionship. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll be your wife if you’ll take me.”
“I believe you are sincere,” Epimetheus replied. “I will marry you.”
As they were married that afternoon, Pandora continued thinking. The gods had told her to marry Epimetheus and had not explicitly told her to punish him, so she could be a good wife to him without being in defiance of the gods. She had decided that that was what she would do for now. If both Epimetheus and the gods agreed on something, she supposed she ought to do it.
But would the gods come along later and tell her to punish him? If they did, what would she do? Would she defy the gods? Whose side was she on? Being new to the world, Pandora felt she had no way of knowing who was right and who was wrong. Punishing Epimetheus felt wrong to her, but maybe it was right if that’s what the gods wanted. Or was Epimetheus wrong about her being there to punish him? Maybe he was just paranoid. If he was paranoid, why would he think that and why would Zeus want to give a wife to such a person?
As she lay in bed that night, Pandora was still thinking about these things. It was really quite a cruel thing to create a being for the purpose of delivering a punishment and then give that being the ability to think and feel and question. She thought of how confused she had thought she was when she had been walking down Mount Olympus. That now felt like a long-ago age of innocence, a time when her life had a clear purpose.
And what was in the stupid box? She had spent the first hours of her life carrying that box all the way down from Mount Olympus. She felt like the box was almost part of her, and now it was clear that she would never find out what was actually in it. It wasn’t fair! But Epimetheus and the gods had both told her that she should not open the box, so she supposed that she shouldn’t.
Pandora sat up. Her life made no sense! Since she had been created, she had had a million questions and nothing had been explained to her satisfaction. She was mad. Why had the gods made her like this? She could dimly recall the beginning of her life when she had thought that she must be very special, but she sure didn’t feel special now. She still had all that gold and jewelry, but now it meant nothing. She didn’t want pretty clothes and jewelry. She wanted answers!
She got up, walked across the room, and picked up the box. What was inside the box? Did it contain the answers? It would at least contain the answer to the question of what was inside the box. Why shouldn’t she open it? Because the gods told her not to? Why should she listen to them? They hadn’t treated her right. They had given her a life full of questions and explained nothing. She felt more confused than ever about who she was and what the purpose of her life was supposed to be. They should have explained those things to her, but they hadn’t. If they weren’t going to explain anything, then she was going to find out on her own! That would show them!
Pandora opened the box and all the evils to plague humanity were released, just as Zeus had planned from the beginning.
Matt Ingoldby works as a copywriter in the UK. His stories have appeared in The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Next Review, the Lowestoft Chronicle, Crimson Streets and one or two anthologies, working his way up to a novel. He is an active member of the Waterloo Theatre Group, and a keen runner. He currently lives in London.
THE THREE EDAKIS
Everyone you’ll meet here knows the myth of EdakÏ, which has been told more often than remembered. Of course, there was only ever one, whose notoriety is proven by a hundred other stories swapped and shared across the Waylands; even now, some vestige of his tribe remains, though greatly reduced in both infamy and number. But the legend that concerns us happened long ago (a more exact date has never been agreed), and a thousand miles east of this crowded coastal bar.
Lyle is nineteen – sallow with hunger and almost asleep atop Glory, his horse. It’s been three years since anyone has known his name to say it, a time filled with violent episodes too various to list. (Save one, of some symbolic consequence: Early in his wanderings, at a bar in South Utaba, Lyle watched – unflinching – as a knife fight claimed the lives of all three of its participants, rival traders now slumped in a closed triangle.) He left home a pale boy beset with intimations of adventure, now his neck is armored with black bristles, his shoulders are broader, and his eyes repel the dust. His appetites have only sharpened.
Now he rests at Little Yna’s Tavern, day’s earnings wasted on ale brewed from root vegetables, his hat – the spoils of his own, more recent, knife fight – pulled down to the bridge of his nose. The door slams wide; the forest howls and dispenses to the bar a party of four men, rowdy with victory, who order drinks the owner knows will not be paid for, and provoke the dozing piano player to equal their mood with a tune. Only Lyle sees the owner confer with a stranger vanishing out through the back. Drinks are served; a halting melody begins.
To all eyes, Lyle sleeps – his eyes were shut, his other senses taut and wire-sharp. A door closes softly. The Raiders now intimidate the owner, then the frightened villagers of the day’s raid. A gifted opportunist, Lyle waits for a peak in the laughter to disappear outside.
In the moonlight, a thin figure – the owner’s friend – dives at him with a blade. Lyle parries with his bare arm, trips the attacker and wrests the weapon from knuckles shattered with kicks. Their struggle is brief but loud; soon the four raiders block the light from inside. They move closer; passing Lyle to stamp on the man’s neck, then turn him over to inspect his face and recognizing him, or recognizing leastways who his blade was waiting for, kick the cutthroat into lasting paralysis. Only then does their evident leader (if only by merit of his terrible scar, whose appearance depends on the teller), address Lyle directly.
That night, the four men became five, drinking until dawn. The cruelest of them, who had first attacked the prone party’s face, was Presta Culé, who spoke in a higher voice than became his stocky build; and beside him Jorge, who giggled and spoke little, and Bren, whose teeth were so black he might have swallowed ink. The scarred man introduced himself with one name pronounced to its fullest advantage: EdakÏ. He laughed when Lyle only nodded. “You must have traveled far,” he said, “to hear that name and not run for the trees.” He went on proudly: Wherever you are in the Waylands, one name means fear, loss, and bloodshed to all who hear it; never had the region suffered so dire a plague as that attributed to him. The four men filled Lyle with stories, wilder as the night progressed. But even though he sensed a certain joke hovering in the air above him, Lyle undertook an oath to ride out with them before midnight swung over the sky.
The next morning, horses plundered from the stables at daybreak, the five rendezvoused with the rest of EdakÏ’s men – and one woman, a sinewy, expressionless mute with a horse of her own, whose vacant gaze the men seemed to avoid. No introductions were necessary; the group rode north at once and in good spirits.
At first, it was hard for Lyle to reconcile this shambolic band with the terror that they claimed to inspire. By night they stole chickens from small forest farms and bickered over whose piece was biggest – unlikely behavior, he thought, for marauders of their magnitude. But there was tell of a larger farmstead only two days’ ride north, where EdakÏ’s men would surely prove their true savagery, and Lyle, his worth in their ranks.
The air became hot, the trees thickened and grew slick with botanical drool. Clearings in the forest were scarce. After three days, they heard a dog’s bark up ahead. With no more provocation, EdakÏ drew his rusty blade, let loose a bestial shriek and spurred his horse into a gallop. The rest of his party followed suit; a pandemonium erupted into a glade where a mid-sized farming settlement lay empty and smokeless and littered with fifty or so corpses.
“We’ve been going in circles,” EdakÏ called out. “Let’s see what we might have left behind.” His men nodded to themselves.
The concubine stayed at the forest edge while the rest of the party explored the dead settlement; the lacquered earth, the stables deserted, the blacksmith a burned-out husk. Presta Culé rode in circles, laughing, a pig’s head skewered on the point of his sword.
From the melee came a cry of distress. Lyle was the first to discover EdakÏ on his back, thrown from his horse, which had bolted. He clutched his leg – broken – hissed for a drink. Lyle rode inside the tavern and filled a flagon with ale, setting it now to EdakÏ’s lips. “Faithless beast!” the man cried. “Quickly, boy, find me a bed.”
Lyle lifted him, both wincing, up the tavern stair to a warm windowless bedroom just over the bar. The concubine was there to lay her hand on EdakÏ’s forehead. Culé came also, took one look at his bedridden leader and laughed.
The raiders quartered there for a week. Lyle brought liquor and cuts of meat three times a day to the injured raider, who devoured them without thanks. EdakÏ’s bonhomie soon gave way to jealousy, impatience, and exacting neediness. Twice he accused Lyle of glancing too long at the mute, now referred to as his bride. She never left his side. For Lyle, it was a vague humiliation to wait on so feeble a man; but he was young, and he could afford to wait. With him to lead the men, he dreamed, idly at first, there would be true glories, hard-won but never forgotten, that would make the Waylands tremble at the rumor of his name.
Predictably, Culé had slaughtered every animal in the first few minutes of their bloodlust; now their carcasses had rotted to a poison, and resources ran low. Their leader’s room now reeked of fever and infection. In his heart, EdakÏ knew he had either to wait to be abandoned, or issue the order to desert him. He forged a compromise that depended on their loyalty. Go north, he told Lyle, take the men you need and bring back food and medicine and the allegiance of those towns to my name.
Lyle rode out within the hour, followed by all but the mute. Quickly the forest engulfed them; light fell haphazardly or not at all through the shiftless canopy. Presta Culé, who after EdakÏ was the longest serving member of the group, began to bark orders which were followed chiefly because they coincided with what the men were already doing. Lyle ignored this, for now. He was entranced by dreams of power and infamy, and respect won through violent reputation – all, he imagined, within his present grasp. It was he who decided where to camp down – rulings that Culé would loudly reissue once he saw they were heeded. With excitement came discipline; talk was all practical, and they bickered no longer.
After three days of uninterrupted forest, they began to pass way-markers that entailed a sizeable village nearby. At the knock of an axe from ahead Lyle raised his hand. They halted, who had also heard it. In a voice that implied, falsely, some experience in the matter, Lyle advised the men to form a half-circle around the glade and, at his signal, to attack from all sides at once. Even Culé saw sense in this conceit and took his place. The signal came; they flooded from the trees and filled the air with wild noises.
It is not necessary to record every aspect of the massacre, the images of gore, the hacking and wailing; let us keep as blind to those details as the riders themselves, who followed, as leaves on a river, the deep surging current of instinct. Within minutes the village was an open wound leaking blood, smoke, and survivors in all directions. There were screams: “EdakÏ!” “The forest!” “Get out! Get out!” until the uproar withered and went limp, and the village was theirs.
Lyle dismounted, looked around for an ambush and saw Culé burst into a hut from which the last screams were heard. Lyle followed. Inside: a girl – adolescent – her mother pressed to a bed by Culé’s weight. Lyle slew Presta with a stroke – he did not need a second. The girl seemed then to come alive. She whispered a name and then vanished.
The eight reconvened at the sodden central pyre where a skinless boar swung messily. “More towns lie to the north,” Lyle told them. He invoked their leader’s name, in whose glory their blades were now dripping. He said, “We ride before dusk.” Their leader himself was forgotten. They unhooked the hog, emptied the village of ale and faced their steeds once more towards the forest.
What followed of their northward progress varies with the teller; some say it lasted a month, others five years (which is a recurring figure in our myths). I am anxious not to embellish without basis, even as we drink and darkness, the ideal climate for invention, is climbing in over the sea.
EdakÏ’s men were like fire, swift, single-minded and chaotic; they tore through the trees without slowing, some say without sleep. No town was too large to resist them. Their blades flickered red to rust to red again faster than the blink of day and night. In time, Lyle’s gift for strategy eclipsed any doubts the men had held, and because of this, he found himself referred to and even addressed as ‘EdakÏ’ – an error he did nothing to correct.
Once or twice, the fastest horse was sent ahead to panic the upcoming town, only to find it empty of all but livestock when he arrived. This strategy, however, denied him the pleasure of witnessing that fear for himself. And with each of his raids, their ranks grew. Many survivors pledged their lives to the men who demolished their homes.
(From one of these men Lyle learned the origins of EdakÏ: Brought up the heir to a largely unknown kingdom somewhere in the east, his father, nearing death, was endowed with eternal life by a shaman who sought the king’s favor. Denied of his birth right, the prince took a new name and fled the palace with a dozen of its guards. He would make the realm accept his reign by force, and set out to take what was his.)
Eight men became fifty or more; the woods resounded with the rumble of their hooves, their epic songs, and the clatter of scabbards on bridles. Lyle’s fiery will, once the reason for his nomadism, now helmed a veritable army.
And yet still, one matter gave him pause: the power of EdakÏ’s name was tough to reconcile with the wretch he’d left to perish in that first despoiled hamlet. Nor did the legend of the vengeful prince seem likely to be built on such a man; but then, a legend fills a vacuum where no truth exists, or if that truth is unsatisfying. Now they forged a new legend, overshadowing the first.
As each of his followers rightly – if secretly – surmised, the abandoned EdakÏ was dead within a fortnight from his own self-suffered idiocy. (Of his concubine there is no sign as yet, though loyal mutes are common in our folklore, so her presence here invites doubt. Some characters cross freely between legends, as if to make up for the lack of freedom these legends afford them.)
In a mill-town by a nameless river, the life of a local shaman was spared in exchange for interpreting Lyle’s fortune. The shaman struggled to read his runes, cast them thrice, murmured the words “fever” and “poison” before stating with evident uncertainty that death would fall on Lyle from above. Unsuperstitious and disdainful of gods, Lyle shrugged and kick the man into the water, stones and all.
On they rode. A two-hundred-mile stretch fell to blood and ash beneath them, conquered as much by fear as by the skill and might of the men.
At the northernmost border where the forest gave out, suddenly, to blank and uncompromising desert, the men reared their mounts and returned South to the last ransacked town, which would serve as both stronghold and trophy of their long campaign.
The town of Irma lay as it was left. Although the smoke had thinned, Lyle – it is said – could smell bitterness on the wind that unsettled him. As night fell the note sharpened, and sent eerie dreams among the men, and strange flurries in the fire shaped the faces of those they had slain, then Lyle’s own face, wildly altered. He knew that night he wouldn’t sleep.
The gaze of the moon froze the grass and rooves and blackened the forest; a mist of bats took flight in a sudden frenzy; all else lay inert as a boneyard.
At once there came a harsh inhuman cry, so loud and so unnatural they were uncertain if it came from within or without. Now darkness bled from every point of the tree-line, accompanied by thunder, and again that battle-horn replaced the air, and figures whose shrieks could now be heard; some two hundred (others say two thousand) armed marauders rose from nowhere to hang the camp in a swift black noose. Some were gutted where they slept under the stars. The more domesticated raiders woke to find their huts aflame and death rampaging at them fast as darkness after light. Lyle snatched a bridle from mid-flight, mounted crudely, turned the horse with desperate strength toward a chink he had glimpsed in the oncoming horde, lashed – then swung his sword and with more luck than skill upset a rider – shocked by his mortality – and galloped into the black forest.
Jagged branches rent his clothes; the earth sent up roots to topple him. His horse had found him; he clung on by the neck. He did not imagine the snarling from over his shoulder. With the blazing town still heating his back, Glory faltered, its hind leg slashed. Lyle was tossed to the floor in one pinwheeling second; scrabbled, rose and found his face mere inches from a hostile blade. Time in its horizontal hurry seemed to rocket skyward; again he fell in a fresh assessment of his folly. The hooves behind him slowed; a man dismounted, without haste.
A shaft of moonlight illumined the rider’s face: A goatee, sharply groomed, surrounded a lipless gap below a sharp nose and eyes that were fully black; a thin silver crown was strapped around the man’s chin to keep it from falling, and his black tunic tinkled with concealed metal plates. “So this is EdakÏ,” he gloated. “Scourge of the Waylands, the dread prince, the Scarlet Raider. Do you know me, boy?”
Lyle made no reply. The sword-tip marked his throat.
“Only one can bear that name.” the man declared. “I am he: Edaki, Red Prince of the Waylands. Tell me, boy, before you die, what name should mark your grave.”
Something stirred in the canopy. A sword fell like the verdict of a god, impaling the prince through the eye of his crown – he dropped. Someone landed next to him, her dark hair matted with the dirt of many weeks. First she retrieved her sword. Then she plunged the point into the earth and with great deliberation, so there could be no doubt as to her meaning, knelt before Lyle and once more uttered his name.
It was she who had survived Presta Culé. Others say it was the mute, her loyalties revised since the loss of her master. Sadly, it wouldn’t matter. Behind them, the cries of battle gave way to victorious cheers.
Lyle in command of both armies, under one name; Lyle crucified by those loyal to the prince; Lyle’s savior taking up EdakÏ’s crown… our legend ignores these poetic opportunities.
By cruel fate, the prince’s sword was alloyed with the resin of the Caler tree – its brief intrusion into Lyle’s blood was sufficient to kill him, after sending him delirious. A detail, no doubt apocryphal, is added here: Before he died, Lyle saw himself reflected in a stream and did not know his face, nor the origin of its distinctive scar. He died alongside his horse.
Now dawn is here or will be soon, and I have no moral to satisfy you – only the fate of a name. Who took it next is unknown – some monikers require only the courage to adopt them. I am grateful to you for listening – and that you haven’t asked for mine.
Catherine Arra is a native of the Hudson Valley in upstate New York where she lives with wildlife and changing seasons until winter when she migrates to Florida’s Space Coast to commune with alligators, palms trees, and the occasional rocket. She is the author of three chapbooks, most recently, Tales of Intrigue & Plumage (FutureCycle Press, 2017). A former English and writing teacher, Arra now teaches part time and facilitates a local writers’ group. Find her at www.catherinearra.com