Out There

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Erin “Billiard” Nappe


“Tell me I’ll never have to be out there again.”

In one of my all-time favorite movies, When Harry Met Sally, Sally’s friend Marie utters those words to her new love Jess. By “out there,” of course, she is speaking of that vast wasteland that is the World of Dating. I’m utterly convinced that dating qualifies as one of the levels of Hell.

Despite having been told, more than once, that I would never have to be “out there” again, I’ve been recently drop-kicked back into the singles scene. I decided to go at it with gusto, rather than wallow in my self-pitying misery for years the way I did after Ex #2.

So what’s a newly-single girl to do? Why, hit the local bars, of course.

My first bar experience, sans-boyfriend, was not particularly eventful, but it was mildly amusing. I was propositioned by a gentleman who was clearly much younger than I.

“How old do you think I am?” I asked him. I’m often thought to be much younger than I actually am, and I figured he had mistaken me for someone his own age.

“Uh… twenty… four?” he guessed.

I shook my head.

“Lower?” he asked.

“Higher,” I told him. This is sometimes fun.

“Twenty-six?”

I shook my head again.

“Twenty… eight?”

“Close,” I told him.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I love older women. My last girlfriend was, like, 30.”

Sweetheart? Referring to me as an “older woman” is not going to win you any points. Now, run along and watch Spongebob Squarepants or something.

The next evening, my friend and I were sitting at a quiet bar having a drink, and I noticed a gentleman sitting by himself at the bar. He had a sort of Michael Vartan-esque quality about him that I found intriguing. That is, until he opened his mouth.

He introduced himself (we’ll call him “Jim”) as a “certified painter.” He had a strange, oddly unidentifiable accent, and he lost me when he started talking about astrology. Not quite “hey baby, what’s your sign,” but it was only the tiniest of steps up. He gave me his card (yup, says it right there: certified painter) and asked if he could call me sometime. I ever-so-politely declined, claiming that my broken heart wasn’t quite ready
for that.

I thought that was the last I’d seen of Jim, but I was wrong. Oh, how wrong I was. We ran into him again a few weeks later. He remembered my name.

“Um,” I stammered.

“Jim,” he said.

“Right. Jim.” I looked at my friend. “Remember Jim?” She looked back at me blankly. “The painter,” I added.

“Oh. Jim,” she said. “It’s all coming back to me now. Like a bad Celine Dion song.”

Now, some might have taken that as an insult. Not Jim. He took it like a trooper and kept right on going. There was only one escape—the only single gal’s refuge—the ladies’ room. I hid until it was safe, and then resumed my seat at the bar.

But sometimes it’s even worse. Sometimes, you run into Stupid Men Who Can’t Take a Hint. I was sitting at the bar, and this gentleman says to me that I look like some actress whose name he can’t remember… finally, he comes up with Isabella Rosselini. Um, sure. I really wasn’t interested, but I was polite. I made small talk. But as the night went on, I had to apply the “three strikes, you’re out” rule.

Strike one: “Have you ever had your hair long?”

Okay, I am well aware that all men LOVE long hair and never want us to cut it. However, I have been wearing my hair short for years, and I like it. People who suggest that I should do otherwise tend to irritate me.

Strike two: (to my friend) “Do you always speak for her?”

Excuse me? I don’t recall you speaking directly to me and her answering for me. Has it occurred to you that I may be tired of talking to you?

Strike three: This, my friends, is the clincher—the one that shifted me from mild annoyance into downright loathing: “So… are you two a couple?” (to me and my friend)

Huh? Oh, yes, I see… because if I’m not interested in you, clearly I must be a lesbian. (Oh wait! I get it! I’m with a girl, I have short hair, and I’m not into you. It’s all so obvious…) I actually said, out loud, (foolishly thinking that he had sensed my displeasure and already walked away) “What the [expletive] ever.” He was still standing behind me. But did that make him go away? Of course not. He still felt the need to say “So, you’re not interested?”

Sigh.

And that, ladies, is just a small snapshot of what awaits us “out there.” If you’re in a committed long-term relationship, thank your lucky stars. Hug your SO and thank him/her for rescuing you from the fiery inferno of Dating.

If not, wanna meet me at the bar?

pencil

Billiard is ready for adventure on all fronts. As well as her recent foray into the dating world, she just started teaching high school.

The Mystic

Best of the Boards
Alvaro Alarcon


1

Alex was down on the bed, strapped in four-point restraint. Medical personnel surrounded him. One medical resident in fact got on top of him and injected him with something in the behind. Whatever it was, it made him fall asleep fast. He woke up again later, not knowing what time it was. He was in the hospital, again.

Those were the memories he had of being in the hospital in Montreal. Everything had turned out to be false, namely his involvement with the CIA and so forth, but the love he found in the hospital corridors turned out to be true. Her name was Sophie, and she had beautiful blond hair. She was a smoker, but that didn’t bother him. Another thing he loved were the tuna fish sandwiches his parents had brought him when they came to visit him in the ward. It was how the bread was toasted that made the sandwich so good.

That was 2001. Now it was 2003. Alex was no longer paranoid as he approached the confessional. He entered it and knelt down.

“Father, I have sinned,” Alex said.

“Yes, how?”

“I curse the Lord’s name.”

“That’s blasphemy,” the priest responded.

“I… I am not thankful for what the Lord has given me.”

Father issued no response, as if he was expecting Alex to say more.

Alex continued: “I don’t know whether to see an angel dressed in black is a good thing or a bad thing. My psychiatrist thinks it’s a bad thing. What would St. Joan of Arc think of it?”

“Well, I don’t know… is that all you have to confess?”

“Yes, I am not thankful for what the Lord has given me and my cursing of His name.”

“I give you a penance of an act of kindness.”

“Okay.”

The priest proceeded to minister Absolution to Alex.

After the rite was done, Alex said: “Good bye.”

Alex left the church, making the sign of the cross as he left the doors, and crossed the parking lot to his car. He was hungry for some fast-food and decided to go to a local burger joint, knowing that the quality of the food there was low but any repulsion he had for it was overwhelmed by a craving for fatty food. While in the car he kept on meditating on the meaning of the angel dressed in black. Could he really transcend the narrowness of modern psychiatric treatment and apply a spiritual dimension to what he saw?

He arrived at the burger joint and ate a hamburger. Once done with the French fries, he went back to the car and headed home. The late March air was warm, unseasonably warm. Once home he made himself a coffee, one of the good dark kinds that came out of one of the steel Italian stove top machines. With this coffee he sat down outside on the terrace with a piece of paper and a pen. He put the paper on a tray so he could write on a smooth surface, rather than the rough one of the table. It was time to write a letter to Sophie.

Sophie and Alex’s love did not last much longer than the hospital stay, but the friendship endured. They were bound by a common affliction, that of mental illness. As the sick and the injured, they got along well. Alex began to write.

Dear Sophie, March 28, 2003

I hope all is well in Montreal. I received your e-mail last week and for whatever reason decided to write to you in snail-mail, as they say in English. Today I went to confession. I know you are not religious; and I always marvel at the way the non-religious can perform good works better than the religious at times. My dad is like that. In any case, in regards to your question, I can go up to Montreal to visit you in two weeks, and yes, Isaac will come along.

In confession I discussed with the priest what I saw a few years ago. I remember seeing an angel in black keeping watch over me, observing me with neutral eyes. It is my goal in life to find out who this angel in black is and what he (or she) wants.

That was all Alex could write for now, even with the flow the caffeine through the fabric of his nerves. Sophie was a good friend of Alex, perhaps his best friend, and she would listen to whatever she had to say. Alex had been up to see her numerous times, and the last few times he had been up in Montreal with Isaac. Together all three of them were led on tours of the city by Sophie.

Alex was a student. He was six feet tall, had wavy brown hair with a reddish tint, had a few freckles on his face, and was lean, but not skinny. On the whole women found him attractive. Despite this, his relationship with Sophie was Platonic.

That evening, Isaac and Alex were in a bar. Heavy set, Isaac had blond hair and had played football in high school. He had been actually a star of the football team. He projected stoic resilience to the world, something that attracted the women. John, another friend of Isaac and Alex, decided that it was his attitude that turned off women. Either way, they were enjoying beers in the bar. The group of three sat at a table. It was 1 a.m. Saturday morning. The evening had been warm and pleasant, and Alex looked forward to the days when he could eat outside on his porch. The pleasantness of the evening ran away like mice caught in light when an old face appeared in the bar.

Or at least it appeared to be an old face. Alex had mistaken one man for another, possibly one saint for a sinner. No, that man in the corner was not Chad, the Chad the bully, drug dealer, and vagabond of Alex’s adolescence. He was merely a man who looked like him.

Soon Alex went home, walking to his house through a drizzling rain. He thought of his character. “That’s important, character that is,” he thought.

It wasn’t until Wednesday, when heading home from the college, that Alex thought of the angel. He did so while passing in the car the apartment of a friend. He was an older friend who went by the name of Bo. The weather had changed; it became cooler.

Alex parked the car. The temperature was cool and the sun was starting to come out of the clouds. He rang the doorbell of apartment 3B. Then came Bo to the front door. He was a tall, muscular, African-American man, a graduate of Harvard and a mystic of the Village School.

“Alex, ¿cómo va todo?” Bo asked jubilantly.

“Bien, bien,” responded Alex, who spoke much Spanish, which he learned at home from his dad. Bo too had taken some Spanish in college, enough to travel down to Mexico and take peyote.

“Come on in,” said Bo.

Alex went on in. The apartment was on the second floor and Alex had to go up a flight of stairs, poorly lit, to get there. Once on the second floor, Alex could hear music of some exotic country, he thought India perhaps, and the smell of incense.

“Come in, friend,” Bo said. He looked at Alex and smiled. Bo was dressed in jeans, which were quite large, and to use the vernacular, “baggy.” He wore an equally baggy sweatshirt. Bo had a shaven head.

Alex entered the living room. It too was poorly lit. The place smelled of a sweet incense. A plume of smoke came from an incense stick on the coffee table. The smoke seemed to get lost in the shadows of the room. The walls of the room were painted beige. In one corner of the living room there was a set of weights for muscle building. Near to the weights was a stereo. There was no T.V. Opposite the stereo by the other wall there was a couch. Next to the couch and by the window there was a set of low bookshelves, filled with books. The books were of all sorts, but there was a large section on mysticism and the occult.

Feelings of envy shot up in Alex’s worn-out soul. But they soon subsided.

“Would you like a drink?” Bo asked.

“Yes, please,” Alex responded.

“Of what, water, milk, orange juice, whiskey, beer?”

“A whiskey please, with ice.”

“A whiskey on the rocks it is,” said Bo.

Alex knew he shouldn’t drink, taking those damn pills day and night. But still, if the medication kept him okay, what fear need he have of alcohol? He’s not Muslim.

Alex had known Bo ever since high school. Bo was a few years older than Alex, but the two had gotten to know each other through intersecting social circles. Actually these social circles were different groups of pot smokers. Never underestimate the power of marijuana to bring people together in the spirit of pseudo-gregariousness. Alex had been off drugs for a while. Sex he preferred not talking about. Rock and roll he loved.

Bo also poured himself a whiskey. Alex was never sure how much Bo drank. He thought it was a small amount. Bo was in control. Bo had always seemed to be a man. He had a virility about him that was present wherever he went. Maybe it was the kicking the marijuana habit a few years ago and the beginning of the weight-lifting habit. Also, Bo had as a God-given gift a strong physique.

“So, you know I drink very rarely, and use drugs never,” Bo said.

“Yes, I know,” Alex responded.

“So what’s going on with you nowadays?”

Alex went right to the point: “I want to schedule a séance someday.”

“With Julia too?”

“Yes.”

“And who do you want to contact?”

“An angel. An angel dressed in black.”

“An angel…” Bo said, mulling the idea.

“Well we can do it.”

“Good. I want to see what I can learn…”

“I thought you were into all the rationalist ways of thinking…”

“What about being rationalist about the soul, the spirit? About the ways of the spirit? About God, has that been forgotten?”

Alex did not know what, or how he would confess the next time he saw the priest, Father Costello.

“Ahh, I see. What about your Catholicism? Won’t that keep you from using the séance as a tool?”

“I don’t know how, but ever since I saw that angel I’ve felt as if there is a riddle in my memory, a riddle that must be solved in order to get a greater understanding of the world…and also to have an easier time of my memories of the past, most of which are good you know.”

The conversation became quiet. Alex, at that very moment, felt as if he was far from becoming a Rotarian. Bo, his good friend, could never become one. Unorthodoxy felt good; it was the essence of life on this earth.

The next day the temperature spiked up into the 60s. Alex was walking through a forest, his dog by him. The sky above was a clear blue with quite a few clouds. It was 2 p.m., and Alex was happy that his afternoon class had been canceled for whatever reason. It was not the first time that semester that the professor had canceled class. Duchess, Alex’s dog, was a Black Lab, by all accounts amiable. The dog wasn’t on a leash, and appeared to relish being in the woods. Alex was using this time in the woods to think of how he could finish writing the letter to Sophie. By the time he arrived home, he was pretty much sure of what he wanted to write. He continued working on the same letter that he had begun on March 28th, just a few days ago.

In any case life does go on regardless of this riddle with the vision. I play around and I love life. No obstacle seems too great for me. I can conquer all challenges. I say this to tell you, to remind you that you too can be a conqueror of all in life. Have no fear Sophie, I as your friend will not let you down.

So soon I will visit you in Montreal. Isaac will come too, I’m sure. He always can. Maybe we’ll take the train, but that takes seven hours when by car it takes only four. I look forward to seeing you.

With good intentions,

Alex

Alex put the letter in the envelope, put the required amount of stamps on it, and placed it on the chest of drawers down by the entrance where all the outgoing mail in the family was placed. Alex S. was a happy man. This was in stark contrast to what he had been a few years ago, a man who had stood on the bridge crossing the Normanskill and looked down into the frigid January waters, which were partially frozen, entertaining grim suicidal impulses. “Oh how life changes, especially for the better!” thought Alex.

Oh, how Alex had changed… Emotions Anonymous had helped him change. He recalled reading the stories of survivors, survivors of emotional breakdowns, and how they had gone on to make better lives. In his room upstairs, in a private corner, he still kept his “Blue Book,” the handbook of Emotions Anonymous, which detailed every step of the program. By the grace of God he had stepped forward into a better world, one not fraught with tension. He had a little tension, but not so much. Emotions Anonymous, or EA as it was known to its members, was not a part of his life anymore. In its place he had developed an unsettled relationship with the Lord…

Perhaps he didn’t like EA anymore because of the man he met there, Brian, whom he had felt been a jerk. But the program was good, and it helped people put their problems in perspective. In any case, despite the riddle of the black angel, Alex felt that he had a serene place in the world, that he had peace of mind. Hemingway was right when he wrote in For Whom the Bell Tolls that the hero Robert Jordan was better off not worrying, that worrying got a man nowhere in life, that it was a waste of energy.

“Yeah,” Alex thought, “Hemingway would’ve been all right if he went easier on the liquor.”

 

pencil

“The Mystic” was first posted at Smiles and Soap, TC’s beginning writers board.
E-mail: alvaro.alarcon[at]lycos.com

Final Countdown

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Trena Taylor


“This is it, Private!” Doos shouted, barely audible above the shrill wail that assured them that Shrikes were descending for another attack. It was the almost nasal shriek of atmosphere being sliced wide in the darkening sky by a razor-skinned enemy.

“Three!” Ein called back, slamming her left hand down over his, her right arm useless and secured closely to her body, forearm blackened, having been infected by contact with of a victim of the creatures. She had learned to deal with the pain just as she had so recently learned to accept her commanding officer’s final decision; quickly and of necessity.

This wasn’t her life flashing, just the last 24-hours that had meant the end of it.

*

“Three!… Two!… One!… Happy—”

A happy new year was never wished, as at that moment red lights began to flash and claxons wailed across Fort Devon. And, above the bleating of the alarm, another sound, as if hell had opened its maw and howled its arrival on Earth.

Ein was the greenest Private on the base and immediately threw her back to the wall, eyes wide and bright with fear, as Drill Sergeant called out commands, almost intelligible over the rising din.

“…suited and OUT!” He saw her crouched low against the wall, and she watched as he shouted in her direction. “…your ass up… I’ll put a bullet in it!”

But she couldn’t move, couldn’t stand, certainly couldn’t launch herself into action. His scowl and her own fear and the madness all around had weakened her legs so that their only use was to push her further along the wall and into a dark corner. A moment later, the wall she had leaned against erupted into the room.

Ein hadn’t blinked since sinking to the floor. She watched silently as a sudden rush of charcoal-black shadow sliced past, no through, Drill Sergeant. His severed body fell and she watched his face blacken before it dropped from sight. Another hole had blown out of the wall opposite, the dark apparition having exited as swiftly as it had appeared, air shrieking behind it.

And more walls were blowing in, more officers falling, more walls blowing out. Heads flew, one sailing towards Ein, whose upraised arms protected her from being hit in the face by it. Limbs and bodies fell, all blackening before they hit the floor.

Then sudden silence. Not even cries or whimpers from the wounded. There were none. Every man and woman who had been attacked had been killed instantly.

Ein didn’t move, but dug her nails into her palms, focusing and centering her attention on that pain to keep from calling out, to avoid drawing attention to herself.

“What’s happening?!” she thought. “What IS this?!”

*

Daybreak found Ein huddled in the same position, knees drawn up, making a bony pillow beneath her cheeks. She struggled to her feet, taking in what was left of the hall. No sign of the previous night’s revelry remained. Instead, the room resembled an ashen block of Swiss cheese. Walls, ceiling, even the floor riddled with almost symmetrical holes, as if they had been cut through by massive diamonds. Daylight shone through, she made it to be early afternoon, and Ein made her way over the corpses and limbs, using peripheral vision alone to navigate her way, not wanting to catch sight of another blackened corpse.

Stumbling out into the light of day, she shielded her eyes and shivered in the winter air. Her arm dropped to her side, sore and leaden, as if it had been slept on wrong. All before her were the bodies of the slain. They looked charred, petrified from the inside out. She leaned closer to an unrecognisable victim and reached down.

“Don’t touch it!” a voice called out to her and Ein looked up, head snapping towards the sound. A hulk of a man stood across the courtyard, holding his arms out warningly to her. “Do NOT touch the bodies!”

She looked down again and backed slowly away, almost expecting the cadaver to spring to life, to make a grab for her, to emit that shrill cry that still echoed in her mind, because if the previous night had been real, Ein thought briefly, then damn near anything was possible.

She stood and waited as the man approached her. He loomed over her; must have been seven feet tall.

“Is this real?” she asked, voice rough, sounding foreign to her own ears. “Are you real?”

“Very,” he answered. “I’m Major Gen—. Call me Doos.”

“Major?” Ein was still wary of this perceived reality. “In a tux?” She reached out and forced a hand towards his chest, half expecting it to pass through, half still hoping it was all some horrible dream.

When her hand met solid silk-clad muscle she immediately snapped to attention, even though her arm still felt lame.

“Private Lissa Ein,” she saluted.

Doos frowned at the clumsy salute and knew she was fresh. Had to snap her into shape and quickly. “At ease!” he barked, and, arm falling listlessly to her side, Ein struggled to keep from blinking beneath the sudden hurricane of spittle from her superior officer. “You’re soft, Private! You’re soup sandwich! The one thing you need to know is this! You will do what I tell you! When I tell you! The one thing you need to do is this! What I tell you! When I tell you! Do you understand me, Private?!”

“Yes, sir, Major, sir!” Ein shouted back.

“Doos, Private!” he reminded her.

“Yes, sir, Doos, sir!” was her prompt response.

“First thing you need to do is put on some clothes! You’re out of uniform, Private!”

Ein looked down and caught her breath in surprise. She was still wearing the silver dress from the New Year’s Eve party. Light flashed into her eyes from the sequins, holding her entranced for a moment and taking her back. New Year’s Eve. Party. Shrieking apparitions. Black death. And pain. Pain in her arm now that felt like a white-hot skewer pressing through the bone. She instinctively reached for the arm.

“Don’t touch that!” Doos caught her left wrist. “Unless you want this hand to go the same way.”

“What do you mean?” Ein asked. She looked at the arm, at the source of the pain, a small darkly bruised patch of skin. “It’s a bruise.”

“You’ve touched a body. Can’t touch what a Shrike kills. It’ll rot you down to the bone and keep on eating away until there’s nothing left of you. Until you’re dead. Come on,” Doos said, his voice softening even if his face didn’t. He realised he had just informed the young woman that she was going to die and that it wouldn’t be pretty. “We’ll put something on that arm. At least keep you from infecting any other part of your body. Or me.”

Doos ushered Ein across the base, to the medical unit, where he deftly dressed her arm, binding it tightly against her torso, and found ill-fitting army greens and a pair of socks to protect her feet, as the strappy high heels were inappropriate and inadequate for the current situation. Since no boots were available, the thick socks would safeguard against contact with contaminated bodies.

Ein began changing clothes as soon as Doos handed them to her, as if on autopilot. She was acting rather than thinking, knowing that thinking would only lead to the thought of her own impending death. And how it would feel as, steadily and increasingly, her body withered and became useless. Would it have been better simply to have been butchered during the attack? What if she had never joined the Army? Would she have been safe off the base? A thought made her heart flutter.

“How many of those things are there?” Ein had reckoned that Doos’s complete self-assurance was caused by more than his rank alone. She felt he knew something about what had happened the previous night.

“How many are there?” she asked again, more forcefully. Doos raised a brow. “Did this happen anywhere else? The rest of the world?”

“I don’t know exactly how many there are.” He answered her, a more relaxed drawl entering his voice. “I only know what I needed to know and that ain’t too much, but I’ll tell you this. There is no rest of the world.”

Ein swallowed hard, not knowing if this was military bravado she was hearing in his voice or if he truly meant it.

“Those things slashed through us here and they kept going,” he explained. And they’ll keep going. Until they come back through us, again.”

“Why?” It was the only question she could think to ask and Ein steeled herself to concentrate on every word of his answer, hoping to still her mind and calm her heart, both racing now.

“That information I didn’t need to know,” was his brief reply.

“Well what the hell did you need to know?! You called them something; you do know what they are! What the hell is going on here?” Ein asked him.

“Remember your rank, Private!” Doos reproved her.

“No world, no rank, Doos!” she shouted back. “Tell me!”

He considered her words and her anger. She was soft. If she’d had any decent amount of military background she would have followed his orders, no questions asked. Of course, if Doos himself had had any life outside the military, he might not have so readily accepted what he knew now to be his fate. He would tell her. What was done was obviously already done and what had to be done would be. “I’ll tell you what I know, that’s the best I can do. Come on.” He directed Ein to the door and they made their way to Fourteen-Seven, an off-limits area of the base.

Doos explained, along the way. “You have to consider the very real possibility that everyone you know…everyone…is now dead or dying.”

He looked at Ein to gauge her reaction. She looked so undaunted that Doos knew she hadn’t fully accepted that the situation was global. He continued, pacing his long strides alongside Ein’s shorter ones.

“I don’t know where they came from, if they came from anywhere. I don’t know who made them, if they were actually created. I just know that they’re called Shrikes and no, I don’t know why. I just know that… Look, this is it.” He directed her into a small stark white room. “I need you to help me set this up.”

Doos sat before a small laptop and began to type.

“Good,” he said with a smile, when the machine began to feed him information. “We’ve still got our links up. We can do this.”

“Do what? What are we doing, Doos?” Ein asked.

Doos stood and sat Ein in his chair, saying, “You’ll see some numbers and letters come up on the screen, here,” he pointed. “When you do, you’re going to type them in, here. Just that. Type what you see. But no mistakes. There’s no margin for error. You mess up one code, once, and it’s over for us, you understand, Private? No mistakes.”

“I understand,” she said, and sat waiting for the codes to appear.

Doos settled before a larger console, typing his commands.

“There’s a contingency plan and right now you and I are executing it,” he explained.

Ein continued typing and asked, “What contingency plan?”

“Don’t you talk. Just type. Can’t have you hitting an L when it should have been a 1 on account of you’re talking. Can I assume you can type and listen at the same time?” Moment by moment, his voice was becoming more countrified. Ein knew he couldn’t actually be relaxing under their current conditions, so she assumed his verbal lapse was due to nerves, worry, possibly even fear. If Doos started to crack, what hope had she?

Ein paused and turned to face him. “If that’s levity you’re trying on, don’t. It’s not your size. And if you’re insulting me? Don’t. Maybe my fingers twitch when I’m insulted.” She smiled and resumed her input.

“I have been duly told,” Doos accepted, never once breaking the rhythm of his fingers on the keys, voice steadying out to the nondescript tones she had first heard from him. “What we are doing is programming a succession of satellites around the world. When all are aligned, we initiate their weaponry. That is the contingency plan.”

Ein opened her mouth to ask a question, but was stopped in her tracks.

“Not a word, Private. Type. You got only one arm to use so make the most of it. Before the Shrikes come back and it’s too late.”

His point was well taken and the only sound in the room for the next five hours was the rhythmic tapping of fingers on keys.

*

Codes entered, Doos and Ein sat back, fingers throbbing, eyes raw and itching.

“So, I can talk now?” Ein asked.

“If you have to,” Doos said, swiveling his chair to face her.

“How long before this,” Ein began to ask, gesturing to her pinioned arm, but then struggled to find her words.

“How long before it kills you?” Doos offered.

She nodded her head.

“It won’t,” he said.

Ein stared at him, incredulously, as if he had said, “You’re just dreaming, child.”

“But you said that it eats away until—”

“Yes, I said that and yes, that’s exactly what it does,” Doos said, calmly. “But, that’s not what’s going to kill you.”

“You mean the Shrikes? You don’t think this plan will work, do you?” Ein shuddered at the thought of being torn apart by the creatures.

Doos heard it first. The caterwaul. Time to tell her.

“Shrikes share a similar genetic code to humans. The armaments on the satellites will saturate this planet with a radiation purposely developed to target DNA. Shrike DNA. It will eliminate them all, almost instantaneously.”

Ein nodded her head, trying to ignore the wailing that was growing louder. She had the feeling she wasn’t going to like what Doos was about to say.

“Unfortunately, that particular genetic code is in human DNA, too. They go. We go. That’s the plan,” he finished.

Ein’s eyes had grown wide. “That’s a stupid plan!” She was now shouting above the roar. “Who the hell’s plan was that? We can’t do that!!”

“It’s my orders, Ein, and it’s the only way. The Shrikes will decimate life on Earth. All animal life. At least this way life on Earth will stand a chance! A new start! There’s no time! This is it, Private!”

Doos grabbed the lever, preparing to pull it down.

In that instant, with the wail of the Shrikes pounding in her ear, Ein made her final mark on a world that would not remember her.

“Three!” Ein shouted, hand over his.

“Two!!!” Doos counted, beginning the slow decent of the lever.

They called out together, as the lever hit bottom…

“One!!!!” …

pencil

E-mail: tntaylor101[at]hotmail.com

Facing It

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Liz White


Moira was so frightened she was certain her legs would fold under her and she would collapse in a pile of quivering terror. Her stomach first threatened to revolt, then followed through with the threat. She managed to lean over a large rock, protecting the only cloak she owned from what had been her meager breakfast, now being spewed over the ground. She clung to the rock with her eyes squeezed shut in the vain hope that when she opened them again, all would be as it had been five minutes ago. Five minutes, or a life-time, it was the same thing.

She knew it was still there. The fetid air, hot and dry on her neck, crackled with power.

“Well, what do you want?”

The voice boomed in her ear, its echo rolling away down the hillside and up the mountain across the valley to the east. But the terror that filled her mind edged over to make a little room for puzzlement as she tried to make sense of the question. Pulling together all of her courage, she turned toward the voice and opened her eyes.

“What do I want?” Her voice was little more than a whisper, but the answer came anyway, though the response was tinged with a bit of irritation.

“Yes, yes. You called me, so what do you want?”

“I called you?”

“Why do you repeat my words rather than answer me, are you stupid?”

“Not stupid, afraid.”

“Afraid of what? You’re the one who asked for me. I never eat those who ask for me, well, at least not usually.”

Moira’s curiosity overcame some of her fear. “Why would I call a dragon, especially such a huge and terrifying one? It hurts my neck just to look up enough to see your eyes! And your voice is so loud it makes my head hurt.”

The dragon let out a huge, rasping sigh that singed the leaves on a nearby birch. “You were sitting on that very rock. You said, and I distinctly remember this, ‘I wish I had a dragon.'” He was sensitive enough to soften his voice.

She started to tell him that was nonsense when a distant memory rose. She saw herself, a seven-year old girl with a dirty, tear-streaked face huddled in the shadow of the rock. In her memory, she was alternately pounding her little fist on the rock and picking at a scabby knee. The plaintive little voice came back to her, peppered with a mixture of sobs and hiccups. “I don’t want to be a weaver, I want to be a wizard. I would make wings and fly. I wish I could fly with dragons! I wish I had a dragon. I’d show them.”

She bowed her head with the painful weight of that long ago moment, and of the path she had been forbidden to follow. Dully, “Why do you come now, thirty years after I asked for you?”

“Look how terrified you are now. What do you think would have happened if I had appeared to a seven-year old?” Then, gently, “But I did come, many times, and always you ran from me.”

“You never did, a dragon is not a thing I would forget!” She flinched as she felt the heat from an exasperated expulsion of dragon breath.

“Let’s have a little talk.” He settled his huge haunches in a ravine a few yards away, leaned the rest of his hulk up the hill toward the surface, and brought his head down to where Moira could look at him without craning her neck. Warily, she settled herself next to the rock, in the very same place where, as a child she had sought refuge and comfort from her father’s discipline.

“You said you wanted to be a wizard, yet you have run from every opportunity to do so. You,” he pointed a very long, very bony claw tipped with a six inch talon at her, “are a coward!”

She looked down to see how much blood the talon had drawn, surprised to see no physical wound. It was only the dragon’s accusation that pierced her heart so deeply. She reacted in denial, “I’ve worked hard to be the best weaver around. I’ve supported myself since I was ten years old, and since my father has lived inside the mug of mead, I’ve supported him as well.”

“Bitterness does not become you, nor will it win you any sympathy.”

She saw the truth of the statement immediately, but wasn’t ready to concede, didn’t even know to what she would be conceding.

“You said you’ve visited me before, that I’ve had opportunities to change my path, but that I’ve run away.” She paused, starting to feel like she might know what he was going to say when he explained. “I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t want to know. The question is, are you ready to know now?”

“Yes, I am ready.” Her words sounded braver than she felt.

A long silence stretched as the great yellow eyes probed her own, seeming to search her heart, mind, and soul. With a slight nod of satisfaction, the dragon switched his gaze to his talons, examining them while he gathered his thoughts.

“You weave magick,” he began. Her mouth opened to protest such a ridiculous statement, but snapped shut again at the look he gave her.

“You are already a wizard. You just refuse to acknowledge it. You would rather hide in your safe little world, using your bitterness as a whip to lash out at your father, and ignore what others have to offer.”

Moira could feel the color draining from her face. She had spent years carefully constructing a shell around her inner core, and now, in a matter of moments, he was peeling it away as easily as if peeling an onion. She wasn’t sure she could stand it if he exposed her naked heart.

“You think you gave up your dream long ago, and have refused to see otherwise, even when someone comes along to show you. This is how you lost Robyn.” Moira could not suppress a cry at that. Robyn, handsome, strong, funny Robyn, who loved me, and whom I loved so dearly. Why didn’t I marry you in spite of my father? Why did I let him destroy our happiness? The dragon interrupted her thoughts.

“Now your cowardice is about to cost you your other dream.”

She sobbed, “It’s too late! Why are you doing this?”

Though his voice was quiet, it was firm. “I’m doing it because you called me, because you need to choose. Right here, right now, you need to choose to face your dream or lose it forever. If you don’t face it, if you run away again, you will have chosen by default, and that’s a craven, poor-spirited way to make a decision.”

“But I don’t have the time to do it now. I need to keep weaving cloth that people need. I need to make a living, I need to support Father. Besides, I’m too old to start learning wizardry now.”

Impatience laced the considerably louder response. “Stop hiding behind excuses! You can do it if you want to do it.”

“I’m afraid.”

“I know. I even know what you’re afraid of. You’re afraid to show people who you really are inside. But tell me this, what’s the worst that happens if you show yourself? Many people won’t understand you, perhaps most won’t. But Moira, some will, and for those who do, you can make a difference. You can touch their lives in ways neither you nor I can imagine, but almost certainly for the better. Isn’t that worth the risk?”

She felt frozen in place, her face a mask, but her heart and her mind whirled in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions.

“Here’s what you need to do,” said the dragon. “Go home now. Weave a kerchief with my portrait on it. Make it worthy of me, and I will wear it. Bring it to me here in three days.”

She didn’t really understand why he was asking her to do this thing, but somewhere in the midst of her confusion and turmoil was an inner voice telling her it was important. So, she picked herself up off the ground and started off down the hill to the village. As she drew near him, about to pass by, she paused. He raised a knobby, brow in question as she stepped up and gently, but bravely, reached out and touched his face before turning and hurrying off.

The next day she searched through all of her wool to find the finest she had, some midnight blue as soft as the summer night, and some pale yellow that sparkled as the sun on the leaves of the cottonwood trees.

For three days she concentrated on the weaving. She worked hard, weaving with a love she didn’t know she had, until finally, on the third day and in the golden light of late afternoon, she tied off the last of the threads. As she spread the kerchief to fold it she stopped to take a look at it, almost as if she had not seen it before.

In one corner was an exquisite portrait of the dragon and in the opposite one was a finely rendered image of herself. She had portrayed herself reaching for the stars, and she had given herself wings. Carefully she folded the cloth and set out for the hill to meet the dragon.

He was waiting for her when she arrived, so she immediately unfurled the large piece of cloth and spread it on the grass before him. He stared at it for a long moment without speaking. She watched his face carefully, but could not read it, and hadn’t any idea what his reaction was. Finally she let her eyes drift down to the cloth and gasped.

The shadows were climbing the hill as the sun slowly slid out of the sky, and in the last of the light the images on the cloth shimmered brightly. The pale yellow wool had changed to threads of gold. She looked back at the dragon in wonder.

“You see? You weave magick.”

“I did that? How? And what use is it if I don’t know what I’m doing?”

“Listen to me, and listen carefully. Your magick comes from your heart and soul. Don’t worry too much about your head for now. For now it gets in the way more than helps you. Trust your ability, and you will do well.”

Moira felt the old inner voices tug at her. “But..”

“Stop questioning and accept your abilities. Trust yourself.”

“But what about Father? How will we manage .”

“STOP,” he roared. “It’s time to choose, and a choice it must be. To become your dream, you must hold nothing back. You must decide to be what you are meant to be. You must wipe away all your doubts, right here, right now!”

“I can do it, can’t I?”

The dragon said nothing, but watched her closely. She was tingling all over, the skin on her back itched, and stomach was doing an uncomfortable little jig.

“Can’t I?”

“Choose!” said the dragon.

“I.I want to weave magick.” She tried to reach around and scratch her back, the itch was getting worse.

“You aren’t saying that like you believe it.”

“I want to weave magick,” her voice became steadier.

“Say it so I know you believe it, make me believe it.”

“I want to weave magick. I will weave magick.”

“That’s better, but it’s not enough.” She looked at him in frustration. “You see your picture on the kerchief? You see your wings? You feel the itch of them on your back?”

“Wings, MY wings? That’s what’s been itching?” Again, the dragon said nothing, giving her a moment to absorb the idea.

Finally he said, “It’s time to fly.”

Suddenly all the confidence drained right out of her. She could almost feel it seeping out of her toes and soaking into the ground, taking with it the golden image of the dragon and herself, and her childhood dream of becoming a wizard. She nearly collapsed in despair as she thought of how close she had come to grasping the dream and the impossibly difficult thing she had to do now to regain it.

Tentatively she flexed the unfamiliar muscles on her back. She felt the strange bulk of the new appendages so foreign to the body in which she had been so comfortable all her thirty-seven years. She looked pleadingly into his eyes, and though she thought there was some caring and sympathy there, it was not evident in his command.

“Choose Moira. Right here, right now. Fly!”

She flexed again, and this time the wings felt a little more natural, a little more like the arms and legs she was used to. He pointed off toward the spot where the sun had disappeared. “Fly that way, make a circle and return to me here.”

“Fly.” It was not really a question, more like a little voice inside her, there to give her encouragement.

“Choose to believe in yourself. CHOOSE!”

She poised on the edge of the hill, then, finally, putting her faith in the dragon and in herself, she worked the wings into a rhythmic motion and threw herself off the hill.

A moment of panic swept over her as she sank, and she worked the wings harder in an attempt to keep from smashing face first into the rocky slope. She recovered and found herself rising, her clumsy wing flapping smoothing to graceful arcs. She flew out toward the sunset, reveling in her new-found freedom.

When she returned, the dragon and the kerchief were gone.

She cut back on her routine weaving to make time for her magick. People grumbled at having to wait longer for their goods, but when they saw her new work, they were entranced. She began to weave cloth that healed, cloth that brought love, cloth that taught, cloth that told stories. She was sad at the loss of her friend the dragon, but happy with the strength she had found within.

One day, a month after her meeting with the dragon as she sat working at her loom, she saw a man walking up the path with a familiar gait. She ran out to meet him.

“Robyn!”

“I heard of the wonderful wizard who weaves magick into her cloth, and I had to come to see. I had to come back to the woman who learned, finally, to become who she was meant to be.”

Moira could not keep the tears away as she embraced the man she’d thought she had lost forever. “Dry your eyes on this, my love,” he said, and handed her a beautiful midnight blue kerchief with an exquisite portrait of a dragon in one corner, and a winged woman in the other, both woven in gold.

pencil

E-mail: lizwhite[at]netptc.net

First Steps

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Stephen W. Simpson


It’s almost time.”

“Don’t worry, everything will be ready. I just want to get more of Reagan’s cadence in his speech. Focus groups vote his voice the most trust-inspiring of all the twentieth century presidents.”

“Just hurry up. We can’t afford to screw this up the first time we go on the air.”

Connie was chain-smoking, not paying attention to where she flicked the ashes. George rolled his wheelchair forward so she wouldn’t burn his shoulder.

“We’re dead if another campaign finds out that you smoke,” said George.

“It’s only a misdemeanor. Besides, no one will ever see me.”

“I’m just saying—”

“I don’t pay you to say anything. We only have ten minutes left, so finish him up.”

George tapped in a new line of code and hit “Enter.” The American flag filled the screen of his laptop. A man walked in from the side and stood in front of the flag. He wore a charcoal grey suit, tailored to show off his broad shoulders. His hair was dishwater blonde and grey at the temples. His eyes were blue with crow’s feet at the corners.

“I love that smile,” said Connie. “It looks familiar. Oh no, don’t tell me—”

“Yep. The Mona Lisa. I just made the lips more masculine. Looks great, doesn’t it?” said George.

“Someone might figure that out.”

“No one’s going to catch it. You worry too much.”

“Can you put some red stripes on his tie?”

“The research says voters prefer solid blue.”

“I want red stripes.”

“You’re the boss.” George pulled up the clothing interface and punched some keys. Diagonal red stripes appeared on the man’s tie.

“Can I talk to him? Can he hear me?”

“Ask him anything you want.”

Connie pulled up a chair next to George and leaned toward the screen of the laptop.

“Hello, Mr. Bradbury. I’m Connie Hicks, you’re campaign manager.”

“It’s great to finally meet you Connie,” said the man on the screen. “You’re doing a wonderful job. How are Howard and Calvin?”

“Growing up fast. Calvin started football this year.”

“That’s so cute,” said Mr. Bradbury. “I’m sure William wants his son to play for Virginia Tech, just like he did.”

Connie laughed. “Yes sir. The poor kid is only twelve and Bill has his whole athletic career planned and-–”

“What’s the matter?” said George.

“How does he know so much about me?”

“Connie, I’m hurt. I thought you had more faith in me than that. When I told you that he’s linked to a broad database, I meant every database in the world that we could hack into. He doesn’t just know foreign policy, history, and economics; he knows something about every person he’ll ever meet.

Mr. Bradbury broke in. “You did an incredible job getting all those signatures on the petition. I think we’ll really be able to turn some things around on Capitol Hill and do some good for this great nation. I appreciate your help.”

“It was my pleasure. It’s an honor to be working for you, sir.” Connie said. Then to George, “Oh my God, I just called him ‘sir.’”

George laughed. “I told you he was good. He inspires deference and trust at the same time. It comes from the personality traits I threw in from Kennedy and Clinton. He makes you feel like his best friend. People will be tripping over themselves to vote for this guy.”

“Cut that out, George,” said Mr. Bradbury. “You’re embarrassing me. Besides, we have to get out there and earn every vote. We can’t take anyone for granted.”

“I’m sold,” said Connie.

A red light flashed on the corner of George’s laptop.

“The videophone is ringing,” he said. “It’s Nightline. Are you ready for your first public appearance, Mr. Bradbury?

“I’m ready and I think the people of the United States are ready for things to change.”

“Connie?”

Connie sighed and lit another cigarette. “I hope to God this works. These are our first steps toward creating the perfect politician.”

“I’m patching us in,” said George.

George rolled to a desk and turned on another video monitor that displayed polling data from test subjects watching the show. He created a wireless link between his computer and the one showing the polling results. Now Mr. Bradbury would know how he was playing to the audience and adjust his performance in response.

Connie collapsed into a recliner and picked up a remote control. She pushed a button and a plasma screen descended from the ceiling. She flicked ashes from her cigarette onto the floor and flipped the channel to ABC.

“Good evening,” said the anchorman. “I’m Mack Gibson. Welcome to Nightline.”

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” said Connie.

“Relax,” said George. “This is going to be fun.”

“Tonight, we have an opportunity to meet a candidate that has created the biggest stir in American politics in the last thirty years. His name is Jonathan Bradbury, the most recent entry into the 2020 Democratic primary. Tonight, he’ll be speaking with us by videophone from his home in Manassas, Virginia. He built his reputation by answering every e-mail interested voters sent him. He’s also known for returning their phone calls. It’s important to point out that he doesn’t delegate these duties to his staff, he does it all himself. Those who have communicated with him describe him as highly intelligent, personable, and responsive to their needs. Mr. Bradbury, welcome to Nightline.”

The video screen cut to the image Jonathan Bradbury in a charcoal grey suit, standing in front of the American flag.

“Hello, Mack. It’s great to be here tonight. This is a real treat for me. I’ve been a fan of yours ever since you did the local morning news for ABC in Cincinnati. I even followed your baseball career when you played third base for the Bear Cats. ”

Mack’s face lit up at the mention of his alma mater, but he soon regained is journalistic composure.

“Mr. Bradbury, let’s get right to the question on the minds of most voters this year. It’s a question that speaks to the issue of your popularity.”

“Shoot.”

“The terrorist bombing of the White House in 2017 and the assassination attempt that injured President Thomas have resulted in politicians all but disappearing from public life. Congress now meets in a secret, secure location and elected officials have ceased direct contact with their constituents. How do you account for being known as ‘the personal candidate’ in an age where there is so much distance between voters and the leaders they elect?”

“This is a new era in American Politics,” said Mr. Bradbury. “This is an age of fear and our leaders have reacted by hiding. But I try to live by the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning—”

“We just shot up ten points with college-educated women,” said George.

“Shh!” said Connie.

“’It is but to keep the nerves at strain/To dry one’s eyes and laugh at a fall/ And, baffled, get up and begin again.’ It’s time for us to begin again and laugh in the face of fear. But I will remain prudent. With the frequent terrorist attacks on public officials, I’m not so foolish as to make public appearances.” He laughed. “I need to stay alive if I’m going to change things for people all across this great nation. But I will respond by e-mail, and in some cases videophone, to anyone who asks for my time, even after I’m elected. That’s my number one promise of this campaign.”

“A bold promise indeed,” said Mack. “Now, Mr. Bradbury, onto the issue of the United States closing its borders—”

“These are my wife’s underpants.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Bradbury?”

“Male and female barely legal bi-curious teen sluts bare all.”

“Sir, that’s hardly appropriate for—”

“Big beautiful men in leather and sexy mature Asian amateurs perform for your pleasure.”

Connie sprung to her feet. “What the hell is happening?”

“I don’t know,” said George. “I think I can fix it.”

“Fat bottomed girls let it all hang out,” said Mr. Bradbury.

“You idiot! It’s too late,” said Connie. “We’re ruined.”

The television cut to a shot of Mack Gibson, his face calm but his eyes filled with panic.

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Bradbury. We’ll be right back after this commercial break.”

Connie smacked George in the back of the head so hard that he fell out of his wheelchair.

“You stupid gimp!”

“Ow! You didn’t have to hit me.”

“You’re lucky I don’t kill you. I’ve spent a year and almost two million dollars getting this campaign ready and you screw it all up in less than a minute.”

George climbed back in his wheelchair, checking himself for bruises. “It might not be so bad,” he said. “Maybe we can say it was a joke. Younger voters might like that.”

Connie slapped him again, in the face this time. “A joke? Did that car accident paralyze your brain too?” Connie grabbed George’s laptop and walked to the window.

“Don’t Connie! There’s data I haven’t backed-up yet.”

She ignored him and jerked the window open. She peered over the edge and looked past the seven floors beneath her to the bike path running next to the Potomac. She flung the computer into the air. It sailed over the bank and plummeted into the dark water below.

“Now get out of here before I throw you into the river with your computer.”

George gave a pull on his left wheel, spun around, and propelled himself toward the door. On his way out, he put his hand up in the air and stuck out his middle finger. He slammed the door behind him.

George took the elevator down to the lobby and pushed himself out the door. He found the silence on Seventh Street unsettling. Though most of the federal employees fled Washington three years ago, he never got used to the empty streets, especially at night. But he liked it. It was easier to get around when he didn’t have to maneuver through crowds and busy streets.

He got on the Metro at L’Enfant Plaza and took it to Dupont Circle. There were more people here, mostly college students lured to the deserted city by its still prestigious universities. He steered his way through groups of Friday night revelers until he reached the Brickskeller. When he opened the door, warm yellow light and the smell of beer enveloped him. He found a small table in the corner and shoved one of the chairs aside so he could slide in.

“Do you want the usual, Georgie?” said a passing waiter.

“Not tonight,” he said. “Bring me a bottle of champagne, not too expensive but not too cheap.”

“Big night?”

“Something like that. I’ll need two glasses.”

“Coming right up.”

George pulled a nicotine tab out of his coat and slid it under his tongue. It was a terrible substitute for smoking, but it kept him from gnawing his fingernails off until his drink arrived. He waited, shifting in his wheelchair to keep the blood circulating in his lifeless legs.

“That was amazing tonight,” said a voice behind him.

George smiled and turned around.

“That was nothing,” he said. “But I’m glad you liked it. Have a seat.”

LaHaye sat down just as the waiter returned with the champagne.

“Make sure you bring me the bill,” said LaHaye. The waiter nodded and filled a glass for the each of the men.

LaHaye raised his glass. George lifted his and clinked them together.

“That was hysterical,” said LaHaye. “How did you do it?”

“I programmed Mr. Bradbury to start talking gibberish ninety seconds into the interview. I set him to search for porn sites and read the titles at random. I doubt you have to worry about the President facing any serious challenges from the Democrats next November.”

“I bet Connie went into cardiac arrest.”

George laughed. “She beat me up and threw my computer in the river.”

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said LaHaye. “She’s a little bit nuts, like most Democrats. But this might ease your pain.”

LaHaye slid a thick envelope across the table. George grabbed it and it disappeared inside his coat.

“I think that will be more than enough,” said LaHaye. “It’s too bad the Reeve Center doesn’t take insurance for spinal repair operations.”

“It wouldn’t matter,” said George. “There aren’t good medical plans for people in my line of work. How’s the president?”

LaHaye frowned. “Not good. That bullet had a hollow tip. He’s on full life support now. We’ll probably pull the plug in a month or two, if you can do what you promised.”

“No problem. The program is ready. The President will remain in office long after he’s dead. In fact, I think you’ll like the computer generated President Thomas better than the real one. The voters certainly will. I guarantee a second term.”

“And the Vice President?”

“I’ve got her program ready too. She’s a sure thing for 2028. She won’t even have to campaign. The virtual version will do it for her.”

“Excellent,” said LaHaye. “As long as you keep up the good work, you’ll keep getting those envelopes. And they will only get thicker.”

“It’s my pleasure, sir,” said George. “I’m honored to perform this valuable service for my country.”

“Don’t be sarcastic,” said LaHaye. “For the first time, we won’t have to worry about a President who ignores a focus group or loses sleep over personal convictions. We can combine the best from every past politician and create a Super President, capable of changing with the desires of the voters or his advisors. He will never sleep or play golf. He’ll always be working for the American people. Just don’t forget who you’re working for now.”

“Don’t worry,” said George. “The Republicans will retain control of the Presidency for years to come. Jonathan Bradbury was first in the polls yesterday, but the voters will have a different opinion of him after tonight.”

LaHaye drained his glass and stood up.

“I have to fly back to Colorado. Let’s meet here again at the same time next month. Are you going to be OK?”

“I’ll be walking the next time you see me. What do you think?”

“I think you’re about to change American politics forever.”

“For the better, I hope.”

“Of course it’s better, ” said LaHaye, heading for the door. “For the first time, the American people will get exactly the kind of President they want.”

George wondered if that was a good thing. The leader of the free world would be nothing more than a bunch of smart and charming electrical signals and George would be the one responsible. But he would walk again. After the operation, he would take his first steps in twenty-four years. That’s all that mattered. He didn’t worry about the rest of the world. For them, little would change.

pencil

E-mail: simpsonsteve[at]earthlink.net

One Tree, A Field of Axes

Fiction
Sean DeLauder


Struggling in the frozen grip of death, Henry straggles across the Siberian tundra, gazing up from bluing hands across the blank, swirling whiteness in a wary, semi-conscious state for the threat of bears, Yeti, and other snowbound perils. In the haze of his mind he recalls Yeti are pseudo-fictional inhabitants of the Himalayas, not the icy Siberian deserts, but their inclusion seems appropriately hostile here as doom probes killingly with wintry stabs.

As he paws at the impenetrable terrain a corner of his mouth hooks into a smile, thinking someone ought to write a story about his heroism. Briefly, he thinks someone like Mindy Lacemaker might read and enjoy it. Mindy. With flaxen hair and screaming green eyes.

The smile tilts southward when an inadvertent elbow plows into his side. He chokes back a squeak of surprise and agony. Siberia melts away and rushes into a heating vent behind an empty row of chairs.

Henry sighs, quietly.

In truth Henry is seated in the lobby of an automobile repair garage, waiting for his tires to be changed. Minus bears, but equally hostile. He prefers the solitude of Siberia. Winter weather has made the light tread of old tires treacherous, and Henry hates to think himself as dangerous to others, himself, or the telephone poles lining the deep abyss of interweaving ditches around his suburban neighborhood. Bad weather makes him a reluctant comrade to a cluster of people in the tight confines of a bewintered lobby.

The room is stocked with typically seedy characters. A small, over-caffeinated fellow to his left with a greasy horseshoe of hair Henry names Bill Wiggum. Bill Wiggum stands every so often and treats himself to a Styrofoam cup of black java. The unground coffee beans look like beads of asphalt. On the other side is a middling woman in tight-fitting clothes better suited to a teenage girl determining the ins and outs of fashion through experimentations in gaudiness. Her face is thick with clashing makeup, a smearing of bright lipstick and dark rings below her brows as though her eyes were hollowed out of her head with a melon-baller. A far cry from Mindy. Her name, he decides, is Flaggy Mandible.

Henry’s hands are wedged into his coat pockets as if he were seated in a field of reaching thistles, hoping if he doesn’t touch anyone, no one will touch him. The air is filled with the sharp scent of metal, and it makes him edgy. It is cold in the lobby, but cold is easy to forget while imagining.

He pictures himself in a forest clearing, perfectly motionless, still as the husk of a bleached and lifeless tree. Squirrels dash playfully across his shoes playfully, and popinjays sit on his shoulder, peering into and tickling his ears for edible bugs. And still he is motionless. To move would scatter the calm and bring attention to himself. And Henry, like nature, feels safer when ignored by the skulking, suspicious eyes of humanity.

A joint in the seat whines faintly when his weight shifts. C sharp, he guesses. Trees think in music rather than words because trees never have anything interesting to say. Trees think in music, but never sing aloud because they prefer to amuse themselves.

Henry enjoys most sounds with tempo. The slosh of wet clothes in the washing machine and the sonorous tocking of a grandfather clock in the nighttime silence. Disjointed symphonic components. But here at Elmo’s tire store, with cold gushing through the squeaking door each time someone pushes through and pauses to stomp slush off their shoes, filled with the buzz of hydraulic wrenches and revving motors, the regular fidgets of Bill Wiggum with sharp elbows, simple harmonies are no more than a monotonous drone. And worse.

Not that Flaggy Mandible, her mouth hanging open as she works determinedly to pulverize a defiant bit of rubbery gum with noisy, intermittent smacks, would have been bearable in a different, less abrasive setting. No, even in a rainbow world of warless glee it would be a gnawing irritation, an inescapable torture, a noose he can feel strangling him in his seat. A hand reaches to the zipper of his jacket to relieve the choke catching air in lumps at his throat, but it is already undone. The chomping goes mercilessly on.

He stifles a sigh to maintain perfect stillness.

She doesn’t notice.

On and on it goes, a faucet droplet in an empty frying pan, and Henry’s grip clenches on the armrests as though he and the chair are falling chuteless through a cloudbank. Henry feels heat rising up his neck, a thermograph finger twisting slowly toward the red like an auto losing oil and overheating. Is she conscious of her peril? The chomping persists. An orange warning beacon lights on his forehead. Too late. The needle hits the pin and Henry, in the final stage of intensifying thermal activity, detonates in an agitated, cindersome shower of discomfited pieces. The world is obliterated with him.

“Hwuff!” he gasps.

A sharp blow in the ribs brings his attention back to Bill Wiggum, crossing and re-crossing his legs, threading the Styrofoam cup through the wanderings and probings of his angled limbs like a rabbit needling untouched through a field of briars. Henry wants to ask him to be still. But he is just a tree, Henry reminds himself. Do trees get irritable? Probably wouldn’t show if they did.

“Chomp chomp chomp smack smack chomp,” crackles Flaggy Mandible.

She is a creature, Henry thinks. A harsh, long-beaked bird whose obnoxious chirp sent others of her species to rapid extinction. Native Americans probably killed them in droves to cease the racketous yammering.

Henry’s head hurts. Maybe it is from squinting through a filthy windshield the wipers can never quite clear. For some reason they always rake a single swath through the filthy center, cleaning all but the peripheries, making everywhere but where he is seem an easier place to be. The world, in all its wonder, hides in the margins behind a layer of muck, afraid to show itself to him. Henry envies everyone.

Maybe his head hurts because he is a ping-pong ball, and those flanking him are the paddles, he thinks bitterly. Maybe he should bite one of them. No no. He is a tree. A tree.

“I’m a tree,” he breathes. Trees are notoriously toothless.

An ax drives hard into Henry’s trunk, making him gasp. He turns angrily toward Bill Wiggum, who appears oblivious that anything has happened at all. Instead, Bill Wiggum stands, strides across the room past the desk, where grease monkeys file in a door at one end of the counter and out another at the opposite, like plastic horses on a spinning carousel, and refills his Styrofoam cup. He drinks it empty, crushes it, and fills another before bouncing back into his seat.

He immediately jams an elbow into Henry’s side, who winces, nudging Flaggy Mandible.

“Watch it!” she snaps nasally and pushes to the edge of her seat furthest from Henry, eyeing him with wariness and disdain.

Henry bites his tongue trying to restrain himself.

I’m a tree. A tree. A nice tree, he thinks. Still and quiet, he could watch people go by in all their glory without chasing them away and sing to himself unharried.

“Chomp chomp smack chew smack,” says Flaggy Mandible, still glaring at him with deep, cannon barrel eyes over a long, broom handle nose.

Ah, but trees can only tolerate so much. From Henry there is a sudden, reluctant explosion of light, and he tries to tell himself they brought this upon themselves.

For an instant Henry is no longer a tree and his true form is revealed, towering through the shattered roof of the one-level building. A super tree. A colossus made of steel and stone and righteous vengeance. A super tree with eyes, he clarifies, blue with forked lightning. And a mouth. His voice is deep and resonant, transforming from its usual chime, and he addresses the tiny man beside him, who stares up in horror as one who sees their doom crushing down upon them like a bug beneath a boot heel.

“Heed my thunder and be still unto stone!” booms Henry with deified rhetoric.

Mortified, Bill Wiggum’s eyes glaze as calcifies obediently, crusting over with grayness until he is a motionless, cringing, awe-stricken rock holding a coffee cup.

Uber Henry turns ponderously to Flaggy Mandible, chomping with fevered fright.

“Doth the flavor of your meal match its foul music? Begone if the answer be nay!”

Flaggy looks up vacantly through the craters of her eyes that are like bowling ball fingerholes. Her chewing stops so she can peep in despair, then she curls and shrivels until finally winking out of existence.

Henry is suddenly alone. And he likes it.

There is peace in the universe and Henry smiles because everything is grateful. Henry is a tree again, and sparrows settle on his branches, appreciating his nearness. Deer paw close and nuzzle the twisted boles on his trunk because deer have no idea how else to express thanks. Their general reaction to everything is to throw their tail in the air and flee. Somehow that seems inappropriate now.

“You’re welcome,” says Henry softly, dipping his branches to caress the creatures gathered below. No longer steely and menacing, he is friends with everything.

“What?” asks Flaggy Mandible in a sharp voice. “Who’s welcome? Who are you talking to?”

Reality jumps onto his head and hooks its fingers in his nose. The stink of coffee and metal and vulcanized rubber returns and he is back in the tire shop. Nothing has changed. An elbow glances off his ribcage.

“Um,” Henry stutters, blinking furiously. The cold reaches him again, penetrating imagination. “No one.”

Flaggy gives him a look of disgust, edges a bit further, and returns to obnoxious chewing.

Of course he had not destroyed them. For one, Henry is not a tree God. He is just a tree with momentary outpourings of intense emotion, and trees are notoriously kindhearted and tolerant. Even if they had the power to smite, or maybe reduce axeheads to marshmallow, making foes less terrible, they would not. Better to avoid attention altogether. Henry would sit here and endure their obnoxious noise and invasive elbow pecks with quiet patience. His mind would rebel, but trees were good at ignoring their own vengeful thoughts.

Another rush of cold washes over Henry. Someone else has entered, but he doesn’t turn to look. He is a tree after all. Trees can’t turn and look. Most of their information is gathered through guesswork. Trees are quite sleuthsome in that respect. Henry tucks his feet under the chair, assuming the new guest will otherwise stride over and stand atop them to feel taller.

Footsteps near.

Night sweeps in like a black coat from left to right rather than the slow transition from light time. It turns and sits in the middle seat of the three across from Henry. Henry might have moved to that side, but once a tree sits it can’t very well get up again.

The fellow across from him is angry. His eyebrows are pushed together into a tiny bar with a point in the middle jutting toward the floor. Thin lips barely hold in a snarl that belongs at the end of a thick chain leash staked to the ground in a junkyard. His name, clearly, is Friz. And Friz is enough because when a person is so infused with intensity or malice or skill, such as talented soccer players who are all of the above but somewhat less angry than their fans, a second name is needless distinction.

Friz is seated only an instant before his gaze falls on Flaggy Mandible, her face billowing and contracting around a rubbery wad like a swimming jellyfish.

“Would you knock that off?” he snaps.

Flaggy Mandible starts and flashes him a dark look. Her mouth opens for an instant, then closes again. She is quiet. Still and so lovably soundless, albeit a gross caking of cosmetics and ill-fitting clothes.

Henry the tree likes Friz immediately.

“And you,” Friz says, turning on Bill Wiggum. “Sit still.”

Bill Wiggum is a bit more resilient.

“You can’t threaten me,” he squeaks, and lifts his cup like a chalice. “This is Canada!”

“How would you like me to chew you up and stick you to the underside of a coffee table?” Friz asks in a tone suggesting both his ability and willingness to do so.

The chalice wavers and descends. Bill Wiggum is frozen and says no more.

Henry feels as though he will race over and hug Friz, grimy and angry as he is. But he is a tree, and all he can do is smile daffily, enjoying the respite from long torment. It is a cool breeze after a year of toil in the windswept desert, a sudden handrail amidst an ice-covered sidewalk. A savior sweeping him from the mouth of the guillotine in unchopped wholeness. It is soothing and intoxicating and soporific and every missing component of absolute relief all arriving in a singular, overwhelming wash of perfect ecstasy. He feels as though he might turn to gel and slip through the floor heating grates to evaporate. Such is his utter satisfaction. Henry can feel his mouth opening, his voice swelling. Something epic is about to burst forth, and sonorous. He is certain it will be Amazing Grace.

“Stop staring at me, you stupid, grinning bastard,” jaws the man across from him.

Friz leans back in his seat, scowling, crosses his legs and tosses the draping wings of his coat over them. His axe is an unwieldy one, felling anything in reach of the reckless swipes.

The world darkens. Henry feels like he is behind the wheel, peering through muck clotted windows at the smeared world beyond. Amazing Grace, a firework under a running faucet, fizzles and expires.

“Kibble?” calls a voice from the counter.

Henry stands and approaches, noticing the blue fanny of another employee waving from beneath the desktop. He tries to ignore it.

“Mr. Kibble?” repeats the fellow behind the counter. Barry, according to the name embroidered on the dark, single-piece jumper. His face is lined with thin washes of black oil. Not so thick a makeup job as Flaggy, he notes.

“Kimble,” Henry mutters softly.

The mechanic’s eyes flick back to the repair list, eyes squinting, mouth quirking.

“Car’s all set, sir. Just parked it out front. Here’s your key,” says the mechanic, holding the spare shaft of toothed metal over the counter.

Henry reaches and reclaims the key.

“We checked your brake fluid too, and your patience is fine,” the mechanic adds.

“What?” asks Henry.

“The pressure, sir. It’s nothing to worry about. Your wiper blades were starting to wear so we put some new ones on. No charge. A swap for the long wait. Everything should be a lot clearer now.”

“Oh?”

“You’d be amazed what a new set of wiper blades can do for your attitude.”

Barry grins.

“And a haircut,” adds the fellow grease monkey hollowly as he probes beneath the desk, blue overalls bobbing as he squirms. Tunneling to Australia perhaps. It’s supposed to be summer there. Two more grease monkeys enter, pass the desk, and exit. The carousel is still spinning.

Barry nods in agreement.

“Makes the whole world seem a bit brighter,” Barry adds.

“Haircuts are a wonder,” the grease monkey continues with tangible sincerity. He stands, having found what he was searching for. A small round piece of metal whose purpose Henry will never fathom. The metal goes into a breast pocket lined with pencils and grease pens. He smiles and pushes through a door leading back into the garage. Henry notes the sheen from his head, reflecting the halogen ceiling lights, utterly hairless but for a few speckles of brown trying to reemerge.

*

It is only a short drive home, but straining through the cruddy windows makes any trip interminable. Time to test the handiwork of the repairmen.

He tugs on the wand jutting from the steering column, sending a spray of fluid across the window. The wipers follow and Henry is blasted back into his seat as the world explodes in his face. A perfectly clear swath of window glistens like crystal and he can see the decaying buildings and dead shrubbery lined by blackened snow shoved from the streets. Henry smiles, open-mouthed, in pure wonder. He can see everything. Everything! The world, he notes, is gray and disgusting. Astounding!

Such is his amazement he doesn’t know what to do. No fantasy seems appropriate. Flying, triumphing, and receiving accolades all seem so sub par. But still there is the compulsion to celebrate. Ah! A song!

Henry found himself singing noisily. The words he can recall, in any case.

“Amazing Grace, oh… hmm, hmm, yeah. That saved a wretch like me. I once hmm, mm. Hmm now am found, was blind but now I see!”

It is amazing how such small miracles can reverse the course of an entire day.

As Henry steps up the walk to the apartment complex he spots Mindy Lacemaker, a pretty girl who has just moved in, gliding in the other direction. She doesn’t coat herself in makeup and fits naturally in clothes Flaggy Mandible nearly bursts free of in a waterfall of frumpy flesh. No girl like Mindy Lacemaker will ever find Henry interesting because girls like Mindy Lacemaker prefer men who make them laugh and are overstuffed with a might that makes everything they wear seem much too small. It is no surprise that she scowls when he bends a smile upon her, skirting into the knee-high snow to avoid him on the adequately wide sidewalk.

Henry hears her sniff in disdain as she edges past.

Ah well. She is, after all, just a single shrub of many lining the yuck of the neighborhood. He can’t see the others yet, but they are there. He just has to look. Tomorrow. After a haircut, he decides.

Henry doesn’t feel much like a tree anymore. A tree can’t interact. Or won’t. They stay still because they think the world is better than themselves. Trees spend their existence covered over with leaves in a state of humble embarrassment. And trees, huge as they might be, never have the sense of growing Henry has now. He steps through the door to the apartment complex. His room is the first on the left.

“Oh. Hello, Henry,” says a dulcet voice from the level above him.

Henry looks up to see Bridgete, a smile with hair splaying away from her neck like an overused toothbrush. She is not as proportionate as Mindy, made plumper by the puffiness of a winter coat, but with a large smile. Smiles, he notes, are notoriously rare. Why had he never noticed her before? He ponders, then realizes he doesn’t know her last name. But he will find out.

“Hello,” Henry answers.

He stabs the key blindly at the doorknob. There is a wooden thunk as it strikes the door and a jangle when it falls out of his hand. He missed. Somewhat bedazzled, Henry stoops for his keys. The doorknob meets his forehead en route, but he doesn’t seem to notice. There are worse things. He slumps dazedly into a seated position. And better.

Bridgete flutters down the stairs.

“Are you all right?” she asks, stooping over him. She cups his face in her hands, very soft, and peers hard at his forehead with genuine worry. “It’s starting to bruise.”

“Ow,” he says with odd detachment. The world is a bit fuzzy, but he adds, “I’m okay.”

Bridgete stands, arms akimbo, staring at him, her mouth bending doubtfully.

“Well, if you say so,” she says. “I have to go. I’ll be back to check on you, though.”

With a smile, she turns, pushes out the door and heads to the parking lot. She glances back over her shoulder and Henry catches a wink before the door sweeps between them.

For an instant Henry sits dumbfounded, staring at the eggshell-colored door. He blinks. Twice. Not sure what just happened, happened. He has forgotten what he was doing, the image of Bridgete’s concerned expression burned indelibly upon his retinas. Oh yes. A song. Humming, he stands, grips the knob to his apartment and twists the door open.

Imagine Henry sliding across an arc of color suspended above the world, smiling with a contented broadness that borders on daffiness. From below, the world smiles back with crooked green teeth. Where he is going he doesn’t know. It doesn’t matter so much. They are a field of axes, he thinks, but he has escaped them. As he pushes through the apartment door, this is how Henry sees himself.

pencil

Sean writes quirky tales around 3 a.m. at his retirement home security job, behaves quirkily at his staff writer position at The Findlay Courier and is a strong supporter of the overuse of the word Quirky when penning brief autobiographies. E-mail: sidkhan[at]wcnet.org

Fingerprints

Flash
Dave Clapper


She’s got her fingerprints all over my body. Or my mind. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. She has her hand in everything, it seems, and consequently, her fingerprints seem to be everywhere. On the sides of buses, on the fuzzy tufts of baby birds’ heads when they’ve just peeked out of their eggs, sometimes on the air itself.

We used to play tic-tac-toe with an ink-blotter, mashing our thumbprints between the squares. Boom boom boom. Cat’s game. Boom boom boom. Cat’s game.

Until mysteriously, I started winning. She got caught up in making patterns and lost the rules of the game, like a child coloring outside the lines. The first few times I won, I exulted in my triumphs, but gradually I began to detect a pattern, a method to her madness, and now I can’t look at anything without seeing her fingerprints there.

When I look at a leaf, the lines of chlorophyll, the veins show her fingerprints. I smoke a cigarette and its blue fumes coat the air with her signature, her fingerprints. I cannot think, I cannot dream, I cannot speak without inky black smudges, whorls and loops engraving themselves on the insides of my eyelids.

I call her up, beg to see her. She agrees. I pull out a tic-tac-toe grid and an inkpad. We play. I win. We play again. I win again. But then…

Then I start to play her game, making pictures with my thumbs. She looks startled. The game goes on, neither of us winning, until the grid disappears, becomes one great black smudge. We’ve made our fingerprints vanish and I know finally that I can live my life freely again, that I’ll be able anew to see things as they truly are.

pencil

Dave Clapper is the Publisher of SmokeLong Quarterly and a founding member of Criminals From the Neck Up. Upcoming publications include LitPot, 3AM Magazine, Insolent Rudder, and Dead Mule. E-mail: dave[at]daveclapper.com

Kali Lily

Poetry
Lindsay Vaughan


I dreamt of standing in the centre of a room,
howling women whirling around and through me,
with fourth-dimensional bodies and smiles
that didn’t mean anything.
She pointed to the mirror at the far end of the room—
“They are becoming loud. Something is happening,”
and soon I was dead, and she was nervous,
and you left me there in fear and anger.

People don’t make any sense—we are elusive,
unkind/invisible/deceptive/illusory—
women hide each other in cupboards with knives,
while men wean children on bottles of glue.

We met at the top of the stairs, and walked together
to the ninth floor, where He had us draw pictures
of our fates—and you were in denial,
and we realised the transient nature of everything.

In drunken mania, we danced to raging techno music,
and this nonsensical thought entered my mind:
You are the ninth petal, of the ninth flower
I have plucked.

pencil

“I am a twenty year old American girl, currently living in Leeds, England. I work in a pokey little book store in the city centre, and spend most of my spare time reading, writing and meditating. My husband and I run an online literary publication, called dreamvirus magazine, and my personal website, Dharma Girl, is located here. I can be reached at lindsay[at]dharmagirl.com.”

Two Poems

Poetry
Ruth Mark


The Day of the Flat Pack

Wood flakes scatter like dandruff
on the carpet while she forces
a screw home, and another;
building the frame, watching
as the hull takes shape,
becomes ‘something’, transforms
after a few hours, sweat
muscles screaming, into
something of use, something
recognizable. Of course,
it doesn’t just stop there—
there are bulbs to plant,
both inside and outside
ones with roots, tubers, others
covered with glass wasp-traps.
Everything is filthy, dusty, while
blood, sweat, frustration and
finally resignation fills the air.
Her heart closes once more, she is
so frustrated she can feel
the blood in her arms
her fingers tingle, heart
pounds, teeth begin to grind
and there is nowhere to escape to,
to disappear, to calm down.
Just another day at the
mother-in-law’s, when enough
is never enough, when she bleeds us
dry emotionally at every turn
works us like donkeys, uses
her tongue for a whip.

 

Homage to Emily

How young you were to talk of death
as to-be-expected among
the wild moorlands surrounding
the Heights. Fever, a common cold,
getting your feet wet during a
spring-time ramble, could all
lay you low for weeks, months,
seasons melting one-into-the-other, the bed
the ship and anchor
in this world and the next.
Frank acceptance of the forlorn ground
earth piled in mounds, love unhindered
by the Reaper, spirits roaming freely.
Perhaps that is why death seemed
like a passage to you, a way to touch
paradise that could not be sampled
on Earth, the grave a home-coming for your
lonely spirit, as you became Catherine
fiction became fact, seclusion gave
way to unbridled freedom
as wild and free as the knotty heath.

 

pencil

Ruth Mark is a licensed psychologist, poet and editor. Her work has been published in diverse print and web venues including Riviera Reporter, Dakota House Journal, Poems Niederngasse, Midnight Minds, Snakeskin, etc. E-mail: balihai25[at]hotmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Ruth M. Malins


Memory

He can’t remember
how they fit together,
the curve of each other,
the crook of his arm—
a haven for her.
He can’t remember
the way she swallowed down
his easy comfort
or the snow,
a lace handkerchief
in her hair.
He can’t remember
his own name today.

 

Stop

She wants to stop the pain
that makes her fold into herself
like an old woman,
so many small injuries
bleeding into one another,
she hangs onto them
the way wet fingers
stick to an icicle,
her hopes flattened out
years ago, crushing her
with their weight,
her features fold,
face melting into hands,
her eyes curtain over.
pencil

“I am a 58-year old environmental educator. I recently began painting and writing. I am having the time of my life!” E-mail: RuthHVA[at]aol.com