How Can We Live Without It?

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Third Place
Ian Bentwood


Photo Credit: wintersoul1/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Lisa was restless—again—and woke me up. I sighed deeply and tried to change position to get comfortable. The duvet had slipped off my shoulders and the night chill made me shiver. I reached down and felt around to find an edge of some part of the duvet to pull it back, not wanting to open my eyes or wake up fully. Eventually I found a corner and pulled it over my shoulder and moved slightly intending to go back to sleep.

“Jeff, are you asleep?”

“Yes,” I mumbled sleepily, thinking what a ridiculous question to ask, so deciding to give a nonsensical answer.

“I’m hungry again.”

I gave another deep sigh. My pregnant wife seemed to have regular bouts of starvation and they seemed to be getting more frequent as she neared the end of the third trimester.

I grunted in response. What could I say? I squinted at the digital clock: 3:37. Another deep sigh as I realised I was awake now and had maybe lost half-an-hour’s sleep. I rolled over to face towards her in the gloom. I could make out her silhouette and could see she was sitting up. The sheet had dropped and her heavily pregnant stomach was clearly visible. “What do you fancy at 3:37 in the morning, baby?” I tried to sound a bit more sympathetic than I felt. What was it going to be this time? Pickled onions? Chilli pepper? Chicken wings?

“Ice cream. I fancy some ice cream.”

“Great!” I heaved a sigh of relief. At least we had some of that. Going shopping at 3:37 to satisfy her particular pregnancy-oriented craving was one of my biggest fears.

“I bought some vanilla yesterday in anticipation. It’s in the freezer.”

I rolled over thinking that her problem could be self-solved without me needing to leave the cosy comfort under the duvet. The bed rocked and rolled like a mini-earthquake as she shifted her weight to the side to locate her slippers and then stood up to shuffle out of the bedroom into the living room. She turned on the light and the illumination exploded through the doorway forcing me to cover my eyes with my arm at the brightness overload and I rolled away from the door to minimise the dazzling effect of the bright light. I heard her padding around in the living room, then suddenly she screamed.

“What is it?” I reluctantly rolled back towards the door wondering what had happened. Another spider or cockroach had scared her, perhaps?

“It’s gone!”

“What’s gone? I am sure I put the ice cream in the middle freezer compartment. Maybe I didn’t—check all of them.” We had a fridge-freezer—the top half being a fridge, the bottom half a freezer with three separate compartments.

“No—the fridge has gone.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Lisa was often forgetful and the ‘baby-brain’ effect had increased the frequency of her forgetting where she put things, but surely she hadn’t forgotten where the fridge was. “It’s in the far corner near Adam’s bedroom.” Our kitchen was too small to have the fridge actually in the kitchen, where it was really needed—a source of nuisance and something we promised to resolve when we moved after the second baby was born.

“I know where it was, but it’s not there now.” Lisa was getting exasperated.

Oh dear, I thought, I’d better go and help her find it before she got really emotional and upset with my lack of support. I threw the duvet back and sat up. Looking for my slippers I put them on and stood up and stretched. I glanced at the digital clock—3:45—another disturbed night—and walked into the living room where I blinked to adjust to the bright light and could see Lisa standing in the spot where the fridge had been yesterday—it definitely was not where it should have been.

“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, so I said it again. “Oh, you’re right, it’s not there,” I stated the obvious staring at the fridge-shaped gap in the corner of our living room.

Lisa turned to face me and gave me a reproachful look, which she reserved for special moments when I was acting like a child. “Help me look for it, then. Don’t just stand there looking like Adam.”

Our apartment wasn’t big—we had a large living room and a balcony, but otherwise there was only a small kitchen, toilet/bathroom, and two bedrooms.

“It’s two metres tall, sixty centimetres wide and sixty centimetres deep, and weighs fifty kilograms. It can’t have got far.” I tried to make a joke about it as I still wasn’t fully awake or appreciating the seriousness of the situation. “Anything else missing?” I looked around trying to remember what else we had and looking for any other obvious gaps, but couldn’t see any. It only took a few seconds to look in all the other rooms to confirm that the fridge had not mysteriously decided to move into one of the other rooms, for a change. I quietly opened Adam’s bedroom door, not wanting to wake up our three-year old, which would only complicate matters, but he was soundly asleep. I could hear him breathing softly. I quickly glanced around his room and confirmed that the fridge hadn’t decided to sneak into Adam’s room in the night, so where was it?

I returned to the living room. Lisa had subsided onto the sofa and was playing with her hair, looking confused. I checked the windows and they were all securely closed. It was too cold to leave them open at night, but I was concerned that maybe a burglar had broken one of them, but everything was unchanged, exactly as I remembered when I checked the previous evening, so how had the fridge been taken out of our apartment? I sat next to Lisa on the sofa and put my arm around her, and she laid her head on my shoulder.

“The windows and doors are all locked and closed. How on earth could anyone take the fridge and close the window or door behind them and leave no damage? I’m baffled.”

“I still want some ice cream,” she said in her little-girl voice.

“We can go to the ice centre in the morning and get some. Nothing much I can do now. Maybe I should call the police? Maybe the burglar is in the area if they act quickly.”

I picked up the phone, dialed the emergency number. After a couple of rings it was answered by a female voice.

“Which service do you require?”

“Police.”

“One moment, please.” A few clicks, then another ringing tone. A bored voice answered.

“Police. What is your name?”

“Jeff Hadstock.”

Then the usual detailed questions concerning address, phone number—all kinds of box-filling questions. Finally he asked a meaningful relevant question: “What is the crime you wish to report?”

“My fridge has been stolen. If you send someone quickly you might be able to catch the burglar.” My urgency didn’t affect the attitude of the bored voice on the end of the phone.

“How did they steal it?”

“I don’t know—that’s the strange thing—the windows and doors are all locked and undamaged. We don’t know how anyone could steal it without breaking in.”

“Are you sure you even had a fridge?”

“Of course, I know I had a fridge.”

“You can claim on your insurance if you’ve got proof of purchase. You’d be surprised how many people try to claim things they don’t even own were stolen. Just quote the crime number: 290821/34. They will refund you the full replacement cost of the fridge.”

“If you send somebody quickly, you might be able to catch the burglar. They can’t have gone far—it’s a large fridge-freezer.”

“I’m sorry, we have nobody to spare to chase fridge-burglars. They are busy pursuing murderers, drug-dealers and terrorists, etcetera. Call your insurance company and—”

I slammed the phone down. “That was an exercise in futility.” I turned to Lisa. “Let’s go back to bed. We’ll order a new fridge in the morning.”

Lisa got up and we walked slowly back to the bedroom, my arm around her shoulder.

“Our fridge magnet souvenirs from our holidays were stuck to the door. I guess we’ve lost them now.” She shrugged sadly as we turned off the light and got back into bed.

The next morning, breakfast was somewhat different from normal without the fridge. “I want my soggies,” Adam sat at the table tapping his bowl with the spoon staring miserably at the dry cereal. The milk had been in the fridge and his favourite breakfast meal—sugar-coated wheat shapes soaked in milk—was now not possible.

“I feel the same as Adam,” Lisa said miserably tapping her empty glass where her normal juice drink would have been, if the fridge hadn’t been stolen.

“Yes, I understand,” I stared at my cup of black coffee, which looked unappetising without the splash of milk, which was my regular morning beverage. “Let’s go to the corner cafe and have breakfast there.”

“Hooray,” said Lisa and Adam in unison, tapping the table with their spoons, looking like a couple of kids.

I unstrapped Adam from his high chair and he wrapped his arms round me for a big hug. “Soggies! Soggies!” he cheerfully sang as I helped him into his warm jacket and shoes. He waited expectantly by the door as Lisa and I got our coats and other things, anticipating the early-morning adventure—a trip to the corner cafe before nine in the morning was an unexpected bonus and he was excited about the change in routine.

There was a cold wind blowing the autumn leaves around as the sun struggled to brighten up the atmosphere through the greyness of the clouds as we strolled the few hundred metres down to the corner cafe. The bright lights shining out onto the gloomy street were an oasis of sunshine with the welcoming anticipation of our favourite breakfasts beckoning. I gave Adam a piggyback and I trotted like a horse, whinnying and neighing, making him scream with pleasure as he clung tightly to my back as if I was going to try and throw him off like he was breaking in a wild pony.

I pushed open the door to the corner cafe and headed for an empty table by the window. I glanced around the small room—around six–seven tables mostly filled with single people or couples talking quietly.

“What would you folks like, this morning?” The cheerful cafe-owner greeted us and handed us the plastic-coated menu. I took the menu, but knew it well enough to order without looking.

“Hi Greg. Three bowls of Wheaties with cold milk, two plates of egg, beans and mushrooms on toast, a cup of white coffee, mango juice, and a strawberry milkshake.” I smiled back at Adam who was happy at hearing his favourite drink being ordered.

Greg made notes of our order and read it back to us. After I confirmed the order, he hesitated. “I’m afraid it’ll be a little slower than usual this morning. We were burgled last night and Sally had to pop round the cash-and-carry first thing to restock.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that.” My ears pricked up at the thought that we weren’t the only place in the neighbourhood that had been burgled. “What did they take?”

“That’s the funny thing,” Greg got a strange look on his face before continuing. “They only took my three fridges. Nothing else. Not even the £350 cash in the till I’d forgotten to take home with me last night. Just the fridges.”

I glanced at Lisa who was also listening intently.

“Don’t worry, folks, our normal service will be resumed shortly, just a little longer wait than usual. You’ll have your soggies very soon.” The last comment was addressed at Adam and he ruffled his hair causing Adam to giggle cheerfully and tap the table with his spoon.

Greg left to prepare our breakfast order, leaving Lisa and I to stare in surprise at one another.

“Looks like we were not the only victim of the fridge-burglar last night,” I said grimly before turning to entertain Adam until our order arrived.

Fifteen minutes later, our meal arrived and Adam cheerfully shouted out “Soggies! My soggies!” as the bowl of his favourite cereal was placed in front of him and he tucked in happily and noisily. Shortly after, we were all eating and chattering having forgotten the events of the previous night, when our reverie was disturbed by the insistent ringing of my phone. I put down my knife and fork, reached into my pocket and answered the phone—“number withheld” surprised me mildly as I looked down at the screen while answering it and held it to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Mr Jeff Hadstock?” The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“Yes, how can I help you?”

“Mr Hadstock, this is Police Sergeant Lashkey. You rang at 3:47 this morning to report a fridge burglary and…“ He hesitated and swallowed before continuing. “…I’m sorry for treating you in a less than helpful manner at the time, but…”

He hesitated again so I felt I should say something, although it was tempting to criticise him for his attitude, but I felt more cheerful now as the sun appearing through the clouds and shining in the window brightened my mood.

“That’s okay, I understand how busy you are and after all, it’s only one fridge.”

“Thank you for being understanding. It’s just that since your call we have had numerous additional calls from all across the area near your apartment, all reporting just fridges and freezers having been stolen and all without any obvious signs of forced entry.”

I looked at Lisa who was watching me intently and raised my eyebrows to show her my surprise.

“I’d like to ask you a few more questions, if you have a moment?”

“Yes, sure.” I had another bite of toast while waiting for his next question.

“Thank you, Mr Hadstock. Was anything else stolen?”

“Not that we have noticed so far. Just the fridge-freezer.”

“Please describe it.”

So I gave him the details of its size, contents (as far as I could remember) and its make and model. Lisa interrupted me to remind me to mention the fridge magnets on the outside, so I added them to the list.

“How old is it?”

“Around eighteen months—in good condition.”

“When did you last remember seeing it?”

“We went to bed around 10:30pm yesterday and it was still there then, as far as I remember. I didn’t specifically check, but I think I would have noticed if it had not been there.”

“What time did you discover it was missing?”

“We woke at 3:37. I remember checking the clock. It was shortly after that that we noticed it was missing.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“No, nothing and all the windows and doors were locked and closed. Nothing damaged. How do you think it was stolen?”

“Thank you for the additional information. It matches all the other victims’ stories. Some time between one a.m. and three a.m., all the fridges and freezers were taken without any obvious signs of forced entry, broken windows or doors, and without anyone seeing or hearing anything. Do you have any CCTV or webcams in the room where the fridge had been located, which might have seen anything?”

“No, nothing. Have you any ideas at all how they were taken?”

“Is your wife pregnant, by any chance?”

I was stunned by the question out of the blue. “Yes, but why?”

“Oh, nothing to worry you, but all the other fridges and freezers were also taken from households where there was a pregnant woman living there.”

I looked up at Sally as she carried plates around the tables to the customers. Yes. She was clearly very pregnant as well. Maybe Sgt Lashkey had a point.

“And it was Hallowe’en last night—not that I am superstitious,” he added quickly.

“There were also a significant number of UFO sightings reported in the area. Also unusual. We will investigate further and let you know if there is any chance of getting your fridge back. Please contact me directly if anything else strange happens.” He gave me his contact details and I made a note on the phone’s notepad and then ended the call.

I looked at Lisa who has been bursting with curiosity as to the content of the conversation.

“They haven’t got a clue.” I shook my head. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

“It was also a full moon last night.” Lisa added. “The moon did look larger than usual.”

“Well, it’s my shift on the moon shuttle this afternoon, so I’ll get a close up view to see if there is anything unusual happening there.”

After breakfast, we walked back home more cheerfully. It was still very windy and we had to hold onto our hats to avoid having them blown away. Adam clung to me tightly as well to keep warm.

“Okay, I’d better head to the launch site. I need to take off in an hour. See you tomorrow.” I gave Lisa and Adam a kiss and headed out the door to my car.

Once I was at the shuttle launch site, the conversation was only about the disappearance of the fridge-freezers overnight, but I had to complete the pre-flight preparations and had no time to join in the chit-chat.

“3… 2…1… we have lift off.” The automatic launch sequence was completed and the huge engines automatically kicked into life, lifting the moon shuttle clear of the launch pad. I held onto the controls and could feel the familiar vibration through the joystick as the giant shuttle transporter rapidly accelerated into the grey sky. The g-force crushed me into the seat and I prepared for the sudden release as we left the Earth’s atmosphere and the acceleration would ease off.

“Space control, everything okay. We are clear of Earth’s gravity and heading to the moon. We will report in an hour when we enter moon orbit.”

“Roger that, Jeff. Have a safe trip.”

It was the usual uneventful trip, but I had always enjoyed the spectacular views of our blue planet—the only colourful sight on the trip—as it shrank behind me. The grey sphere of the moon approached in the windows, growing larger and larger as the shuttle quickly approached. I adjusted the controls and hit the boosters to slow the approach, changed the angle to head into moon orbit. The normal approach to the moon base was a single orbit of the moon, then onto final approach and hand over to Moonbase Control for the automatic landing. I sent a brief message to Earth’s Space Control to confirm that I had successfully entered moon orbit and was switching to Moonbase Control for landing.

I looked out of the window while orbiting the Moon at a height of only 500 metres. I scanned the barren surface. I was used to seeing nothing but dust and crater, but was stunned to see that there were piles and piles of what looked like the missing fridge-freezers. What had happened?

“Moonbase Control, this is Shuttle5. I am seeing hundreds of missing fridge-freezers on the surface.”

“Sorry, repeat your message?” They clearly did not believe me.

I repeated the bizarre comment.

“Take some photographs and report to Command Control on landing.”

“Roger, Moonbase. See you shortly.”

The view-screen had a recording facility, so I angled it towards the stacks of fridge-freezers and recorded the amazing sight.

After landing, I headed to Command Control with the video images on a memory stick.

“Hi, Jeff. What’s this nonsense about fridge-freezers? Show me your video.”

“Yes, sir, I know it sounds crazy, but the video will prove what I said.” I showed him the video and he was incredulous.

“Last night, the gravitational monitoring team reported an extreme and unprecedented jump in their readings. This coincided with a high point in sunspot activity and solar wind. I wonder if the combination could have caused a huge spike in magnetic attraction focused towards Earth, which somehow caused the fridge-freezers to be dragged to the moon? It seems unlikely, unless there was some additional attraction from Earth.”

“Well, sir, the homes all seemed to have pregnant women, perhaps that was an additional factor?”

He pondered for a moment. “Yes, of course. Pregnant women give off large amounts of additional magnetically-charged perspiration capable of magnifying magnetic energy, as well as increasing electromagnetic energy at a very specific frequency. I remember from university conducting research into magnetic discharges from pregnant women. That makes sense. The combination would have created a local bubble, and would have reacted with the coolant in the fridge-freezer—a very specific and unique magnetic bubble.”

“Well, sir, it’s that or witches on broomsticks as it was Hallowe’en last night.”

He was not amused. “Okay, you’ll need to lead a team to rescue these fridge-freezers and begin the process of returning them to Earth. I am sure their owners will want to be reunited with their belongings as soon as possible. This is now your top priority. For as long as it takes, I will direct all moon shuttles to collect these items and return them to Earth. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. I suspect that my shuttle could take around 100 per trip. I will start immediately.”

I was late home, and Lisa and Adam were already asleep by the time I quietly opened the door and carried our fridge-freezer back to its normal place. I crept back into our bedroom and kissed Lisa on the cheek. She murmured slightly, turned and opened her eyes in surprise. Seeing it was me, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed me.

“Have you got my ice cream?”

“Yes, it’s in the freezer. Do you want some?”

pencil

Ian Bentwood is a retired lawyer who has recently caught the writing bug from his author wife. Email: bubblyian[at]163.com

The Story I Have Not Told

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard


Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

Dear MaryAnn,

I enjoyed our wander through the woodlands yesterday, as we filled our baskets with the herbs you are learning to use. You might find it hard to understand that I took even more pleasure walking through the village with you and taking a meal to those working in the fields.

Such ordinary scenes, you might think. A crowd of women standing around the well, chattering as they pulled up buckets of water, and laughing at a shared joke. We watched the children chasing ducks and that little boy with whose face was purpled by the handfuls of berries he stuffed into his mouth. Most of all I loved passing the cottages, with their cheerfully open doors and neat rows of summer vegetables.

You cannot imagine a time when crops rotted in the fields because there were not enough hands to harvest them, or paths so rarely used that they were smothered with weeds. When I remember how it was during those sad years I can only thank the Lord for our good fortune and pray for our continued health.

I was no older than you when the sickness came. It started slowly. A messenger from London brought a bolt of cloth to replenish our tailor’s stock. How could we know he brought the plague with it? He’d hardly been gone a day when our tailor showed signs of the disease. He was dead within a week, and another soon followed him to the grave. Then we lost our baker and his wife. There were more deaths, and the rector knew what to expect. He gathered us all in front of the church and talked about the plague. In a story that’s been retold so often it’s taken a life of its own, he told us how the sickness would spread from home to home. It would decimate a hundred parishes if it was not checked. I believe in centuries ahead people will come to see the circle of stones he had us set around the village, to keep ourselves inside and others away. The tale will become a legend, as our village is praised for containing the sickness and our rector becomes hero like Robin Hood or giant killing Jack.

There is another story, one that has never been told because I am the only person who knows it. It touches on things that are hard to believe and might leave me open to censure from the church. Christians are not supposed to traffic with the spirit world, and even in these wiser times the dangerously stupidly might talk about witchcraft. But the story should not be lost. I don’t have any children of my own, so I am writing it down for you, the girl my cousin named for two of my sisters. I’ll tell you what happened to me while the village was recovering from the plague and the pages can be passed down, through the generations of your family till one of them chooses to share it with the world.

“Why didn’t you ever get married, Cousin Meg?” you asked me yesterday. “You must have been a very pretty girl.”

The question made me smile. I was not bad looking, though I say so myself, but there were few villagers left after the plague and no young men.

You wonder why I never moved away? That only shows how little you know of those hard years. No parish would welcome a lass from our village, any more than they would come to visit us.

The rest of the county were grateful to our village. The plague could have spread like a fire through the neighbouring parishes, but because we isolated ourselves after the first deaths, the sickness stayed inside the circle of stones.

The Earl sent parcels of food from his estate, and others were willing to trade if they could leave their goods under the biggest rock and collect coins from the hole our stonemason chipped out of its side. Coins soaked overnight in vinegar.

But they were frightened of us.

I remember walking down the path, the same path that we used today, a full season after the last death, and I did not see another soul.

A couple of sheep straggled across through a hole in the hedge.We’d managed to shear their coats ready for the summer, but Dad burnt the wool. We’d made a very poor job of clipping the beasts, but even so we might have got some money for the wool, had anybody been willing to buy cloth-stuff from us. It would be close to another Christmas before we could trade at the market or outsiders be willing to work on our land.

I had to wipe my eyes when I passed the Joyces’ cottage. The garden was smothered in a prickly bramble that even blocked the front door. The cottage had been empty for over a year, the family nothing but names scratched on a rock in the woods behind the village.

Sarah Joyce had been my closest friend. There was no secret we didn’t share, not even when William walked her down by the stream and they had their first kiss. She told me about it at school the next day, and I’d been determined not to be left behind. That Sunday, on my way home from church, I lingered under a large oak, pretending to watch the birds. Thomas Slater had been at the service. The tree wasn’t exactly on his way home, but I knew he could see me and, as I expected, he turned aside. After a few words we walked together arm-in-arm along the very path Sarah and William had used.

Thomas was one of the first to die in the plague. He was buried before our stonemason died so although he was buried in a field, he had a proper headstone with the letters professionally carved. In the following months I lost five sisters, a brother, mother, grandmother, and aunt. Nobody was allowed to touch the plague-dead bodies, the surviving family tied ropes around their legs and dragged them to holes away from the cottages. No ceremonial funeral for my family, their only memorials were their names scratched on the rocks, but for the rest of his life Dad kept fresh flowers beside each one.

Our house once held twelve people, but after the sickness there were only three, myself, Dad, and little Tom.

As you read this, MaryAnn, you’ll understand how desperately I missed my grandmother. We had not been close while she was alive. My little sister, Ann, was her pet and followed her everywhere. Ann was fascinated by herbs and the various elixirs and diffusions our grandmother made from them. Had she lived she would have followed our grandmother as the village’s wisest woman. But our grandmother, like all the old people, died, and her knowledge died with her.

The plague disappeared with the first snow, and when we realised the dying had stopped, we said a grateful prayer. With so few people left to manage the land, I knew it would be hard to survive but I did not realise how much we would miss my grandmother. Until the night Jacob Carpenter came with his little boy.

I was clearing away the last of our meal when there was a loud banging on the door. It was Jacob with Johnny in his arms. Jacob had lost his wife and had to raise the child by himself. Naturally he doted the little boy. Johnny was boiling hot and coughing so hard I terrified his heart would burst.

He thrust the child into my arms.

I knew why Jacob had come. This cottage was where Jessie Burton used to live, where more than one baby grew into a bonny adult because of her skill. Where Jacob believed his son would be healed. But I am not my grandmother. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

I took the child. What else could I do?

His father collapsed onto the bench. “Thank God,” he said, as I bathed the boy’s face. “Thank the good Lord that you’re home.”

His gratitude burned in my ears. I felt as useful as one of my father’s sheep.

If one of the Burton girls was meant to survive, why couldn’t it be Ann? She spent so much time with our grandmother she might have been able help the child.

Dad pressed a mug of ale into Jacob’s hand, assuring him the boy would be all right.

Johnny was coughing fit to tear his chest in half.

I said a prayer myself, every bit as fervent as Jacob’s—but only in my heart. I did not want my words to frighten him. “Please God, help me. Tell me what to do.” With so many people suffering, how could God be expected to hear one young woman’s prayer?

I felt a pressure on my arm and something gently turning me to the cupboard. To the shelf of carefully labelled remedies. There was some dried stuff in a jar labelled: “For the Cough.” How did Grandmother use it?

The dried some-kind-of-leaf had to be a tea. The kettle was on the stove, and the fire, surprisingly, was hot enough to bring it to the boil. How much of the stuff should I use? If the tea was not strong enough, it would not stop the coughing, but some of plants my grandmother dried could be poisonous if used to lavishly. Too strong a tea be as bad for the child as a coughing fit.

I pulled down a mug and spoon and said another prayer. “Please don’t let me make him worse.” Something was holding my hand, guiding it the way Mum used to do, when I was five and making my first shaky “A” on a slate. I let my hand pick up the spoon, and drop leaves into the mug once, twice. My hand reached for the kettle. It poured water into the mug, but before I could take the drink to Johnny, I felt myself turned around again to face the cupboard. There was honey on the shelf.

When I was younger, and my chest was torn apart with coughing, my grandmother would make me a drink that smelled like this. I could remember the sweet taste. She told me that the bees were wise and their honey, together with her herbs, would fight the evil thing in my chest. I said another prayer, truly grateful for whatever spirit the Lord had sent to help me. I stirred honey into the tea.

I carried the sweet tea to the boy and held the mug to his lips. He was coughing so hard he could hardly drink, but he managed to swallow a little. Then a little more. Was there a space between his coughing? Or was I dreaming. I said another prayer.

I prayed for wisdom, for knowledge, but most of all for whatever power had guided my hands to stay with me.

I sat with Johnny all night. Dad went to bed. There was nothing he could do and in the morning, he would be struggling to save our corn.

I sent Jacob Carpenter to fetch more wood for the stove. Anything to get him out of the room. His watching eyes made me remember that I did not have my grandmother’s skill. I made another mug of her healing tea. Again, the gentle pressure on my hand told me I was doing the right thing.

“The worst is over now.”

Was that a voice in my head? I had prayed so hard and feared so much that I did not know what was happening in the real world. Johnny was sleeping at last, and I sat watching his chest rise gently with each breath.

I should have been happy. Especially in the morning when Mr Carpenter pressed my hand and blessed me.

“You have saved my little boy. Thank the Lord that you are here.”

That did not make me feel good. Nor did Dad’s words when he came for breakfast. “We are blessed to have you with us Megs,” he said.

Some blessing. Why, oh why, hadn’t I clung to my grandmother? Watched her collecting plants, learned how she prepared them for her remedies?

I was not the only woman still living in the village but, because of my grandmother’s reputation, I would be the first to be called when there was trouble.

“You need to rest, Megs.” Dad said. “We can’t have you getting ill.”

Rest! When all I could think of was Johnny and the other children in the village. And Jacob Carpenter, who thought I could fill my grandmother’s shoes.

Like any young woman, I could bake a loaf of bread, brew ale and make a meal, I had learned that much from my mother, but most of the time I preferred looking after the cows or working off my energy by digging in the vegetable patch. There would be plenty of time later to later to learn the more advanced housewifely arts.

There had not been plenty of time, or a houseful of women to share the work. I did not have a grandmother to tell me how to protect our precious children from the inevitable ills of childhood, or to nurse their parents through the misfortunes of an ordinary life.

There was so much knowledge I did not have, and I felt the lack like a gaping hole in my heart. I went to bed, but I could not sleep.

I shut my eyes and tried to imagine the future. There had been no cure for the plague, but now the plague was gone, and we still had to face the ordinary misfortunes of life. There would be more coughs and fevers, headaches, and toothaches. There would be accidents, cuts, and broken bones. Before plague, our meals were often interrupted by neighbours calling for my grandmother. In the normal way of things, when my grandmother left us, my mother would take her place, and after her there would be my sister Ann to take on the duties of a wise woman.

My grandmother was gone, my mother and cleverest sister were both dead. That left me to carry a burden made heavy by my ignorance.

“Help me,” I whispered into my pillow. Did I hear a rustling, as if a wind was moving the drapes? Could I feel a hand on my forehead?

Sarah and I used to scare ourselves with stories of ghosts. We would sit close to the fire on a winter’s night and talk about the dead rising to visit the village. The spirits we conjured never meant well. But that morning, when I felt a presence in the room, I prayed for it to be the spirit of my grandmother. I begged her to leave the afterlife and be my guide in the living world.

“Grandmother?” I whispered. “Jessie Burton, are you there?”

Was it my mind, shaping the rustling into words? The soothing “yes child.”

When I left my bed, the afternoon sun chased that hope away. I felt even more alone than I had in the days after my last sister’s death. I checked the cupboard shelves, reading my grandmother’s writing on the labels of each jar as I tried to remember what she did with them.

I moved into the garden, looking at the bushes: rosemary, lavender, thyme, and sage. I pulled the leaves of different mints and rubbed them for their scent. Could I remember the powers of each herb?

I picked a little from each bush and laid it on the bench. I studied the jars on the shelf, comparing each to the leaf. These were not dangerous herbs, if I knew which to use, I could at least turn them into teas, which would be better than nothing.

But there were other plants. When my grandmother went into the woods with Ann, they came back with baskets of strange leaves and twigs which they boiled or soaked in vinegar or wine.

As I bent over the bench I felt a presence again, like a hand on my shoulder. Had the spirit of my grandmother left her afterlife to hover over her least skilled grandchild. Did she sympathise with my distress?

“Help me,” I whispered, only half believing.

I was interrupted by a scream that had me rushing down the path. The Gillis cottage! Margaret Gillis had never been the same since the plague took both her boys. Dad had dragged her out of the stream when she tried to join them.

She was shrieking. I got closer. She was rushing down the path. Her sleeve had caught alight. There was smoke pouring out of her front door. I grabbed her and rolled her on the ground. Into the mud to smother the flame.

There was nothing I could do about the cottage. It would have to burn. What about the woman? I had put out the flame on her sleeve, but her arm was badly burned. What would my grandmother do?

“Help me,” I whispered as I took Margaret in my arms and stumbled home.

Something had taken my hands before, this time I felt a presence in my mind. It guided me to the pump. Cold water. Keep cold water on the burn. Then it directed me to an ointment in a large jar in the cupboard. I smeared ointment on Margaret’s arm and wrapped it in a cloth. I made a soothing tea from leaves in another jar and after giving it to Margaret put her in my bed. Her bandages would have to be changed through the day, with more ointment, while the tea would keep her dozing while she healed.

I did not know what was in the ointment, or that sleep-making tea.

Had it been my grandmother guiding me?

“Yes, child,” from the voice in my head. “I’m with you for a little while, a spirit among the living. I must use our time well.

I had to replenish the shelves with remedies from made from the herbs in our garden and collected from the woods. As I held each plant, I opened my mind to my grandmother’s knowledge and tried to prepare her remedies. I did not know how long I’d have her spirit guiding me, so I dare not take time to rest. At the end of the seventh day bunches of herbs were hanging by their stalks, others were steeping in oil or wine, and I knew how to finish the remedies and when to use them. I needed to sleep, and understood that when I woke up, my grandmother’s spirit would have gone back to the afterlife. I would be by myself again and there would be difficult days ahead but Jessie Burton’s house would be there to serve the villagers.

You know the rest of the story, MaryAnn. When you were growing up the plague was but a sad memory. Life returned to our village, the children grew and had families of their own. As people lost their fear of us, I was able to move around the county and I took every opportunity to gather knowledge and practise the skills my grandmother gave me.

pencil

Email: Robin.hillard[at]outlook.com

The Broken Heartstone

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ First Place
Cara Brezina


Photo Credit: James St. John/Flickr (CC-by)

Princess Morwenna rode her unicorn across the lush grassy plains at a gentle canter as she embarked on her quest to obtain a new Heartstone for the Orb of Marais. Earlier that afternoon, a cataclysmic bolt from the ether had damaged the magical crystal powering the light that blessed the people of Marais with good health and fortune. If it were not repaired without delay, chaos and misery would descend on the kingdom.

She guided her steed into a deep valley that marked the edge of the Hayim Hills. Her destination lay deep in the rolling expanse. A generation earlier, gnomes had mined the depths. They’d vanished into the unknown, leaving behind their tunnels and underground conveyances. One of the tunnels contained cut slabs of the same type of crystal as the Heartstone.

“Princess Morwenna? Where are you?”

The voice of her trusted retainer, Julio, came from the magic mirror tucked into her belt. She raised the little looking glass up to her face and saw him regarding her anxiously.

“We’ve just entered the hills,” she replied.

“Let me know when you’ve reached the relief depot.”

The surface of the mirror swirled and returned to showing only her reflection. She tucked it away.

The trip to the Hayim Mines was too long to be completed without respite. She needed to stop and allow the unicorn to feed and rest before continuing onward to the mine entrance. Survival supplies were stored in the relief depot in the foothills. Much time had passed since anyone from Marais Castle had frequented the station, however, and Julio had fretted over whether she’d be able to locate it.

They need not have worried. Before long, Morwenna rounded a bend and espied a red crystal atop a rough low building constructed from the surrounding rocks. She slowed the unicorn to a walk and circled the station. The crystal should have been illuminated, but it had evidently been struck down by the same magic that had incapacitated the Orb of Marais. Morwenna brought out her magic mirror again.

“Julio, I’ve arrived at the relief depot, but I’m unable to get inside.”

“The spell on the door must be affected by the bolt from the ether,” her retainer muttered. “Try using your magic mirror to counteract the ward on the latch.”

Morwenna dismounted and approached the vertical rock that most resembled a door and held the magic mirror close to the grain of the stone. To her surprise, the mirror almost immediately displayed a cheerful swirl of color that ended with a tinkling sound of descending harp strings being plucked.

The door opened.

“I’m in,” she told Julio.

“Great. Find some sustenance for your steed and make haste for the mines. Darkness approaches.”

He ended the exchange before she had a chance to ask about conditions at Marais Castle. For the first time in her memory, they had been forced to close the drawbridge that linked the Castle to the surrounding community. She could only imagine the panic that must have ensued among the peasants.

She located bags of grain by following the smell of molasses and oats. Her unicorn ate hungrily and showed no unwillingness to continue the journey.

The Hayim Mines were at the end of a well-traveled though overgrown road. They arrived at the entrance to the tunnels without the unicorn ever slowing its pace. Without allowing herself a moment of hesitation, Morwenna pulled the lever in front of the wooden door. It slid open, revealing a compartment large enough to hold a dozen workers. Morwenna stepped inside and pulled the corresponding inner lever to close the door.

The air inside the car smelled sterile and sharp. She inhaled deeply as the elevator began its descent. The OrionCo Mining conglomerate had ceased operations on the planet of Marais over two decades ago after determining that the mineral reserves weren’t worth exploiting. The inhabitants of the planet’s sole settlement had continued to monitor the infrastructure of the mines, and Julio had assured Morwenna that the generators and conveyance system had recently been tested.

Neither of the mentioned the coronal mass ejection that had occurred earlier in the day or the damage it could have wreaked on the mine’s systems. The situation was desperate, and she had to take the risk.

She reached for the com device at her belt with a gloved hand. The temperatures on Marais required that humans swaddle up thoroughly when outside, and every centimeter of her skin was covered.

“Julio, are you there? I’m descending.”

Julio’s strained face appeared on the screen behind the convex face plate of his LX-3 helmet. As chief engineer of the utility station, he’d been assigned one of the handful of suits in the stockroom that protected against the effects of weira gas. Morwenna would have been given one as well for her mission to the mines, but the suits were incompatible with design of the skimmer that she’d flown for the journey.

“No setbacks so far?”

“Equipment’s functional and no indication of damage. Any progress at your end? Is the power grid still down?”

Julio grimaced.

“There’s no hope of fixing it with the weira gas affecting everyone. Right now I’m just trying to maintain vital operations until we get the beacon activated again. We need that crystal. The auxiliary power systems can’t keep the heat running for long, and after that—”

“You can count on me,” Morwenna assured him.

“Thank you, Princess Morwenna.”

He flashed a hint of a grin, ending the transmission before she could remonstrate with him.

The elevator came to a gentle stop and the door opened automatically. She stepped forward, and motion sensor lights turned on to illuminate the tunnel before her. She brought up the map of the mines on her com although it was unnecessary. As head mechanical engineer of the Marais utility station, she’d memorized the network of tunnels long ago in case of emergency.

The tunnels and chambers were scattered with equipment and pieces of cut crystal left behind by OrionCo. She paused when she passed a robotic dolly in a niche in the corridor. She couldn’t remember the precise dimensions of the cut crystal she was retrieving. She activated the dolly and instructed it to follow behind her, just in case she needed it.

In the aftermath of the company’s departure, the utility station team had salvaged and stored a sampling of the best pieces of crystal. Morwenna set her steps toward the storage cache, located in a chamber deep underground that required taking another elevator ride as well as a trip in a single tram car that remained on the track. She heaved a sigh of relief every time the equipment functioned reliably.

Under other circumstances, entering the storage chamber would have been exciting. The walls were lined with huge slabs of crystal in a dozen shades, ranging from nearly transparent to inky dark indigo. Morwenna immediately turned her attention to the three pale yellow samples set aside in an alcove. They were each nearly as large as her torso, and she felt relieved that she’d thought to bring along the dolly.

This particular type was a photonic crystal that had unexpectedly saved the sanity of the early settlers of Marais. After the planet was discovered, data analysis sent back from robotic probes and rovers had indicated that Marais possessed nearly an ideal habitat for human beings. Upon landing, though, the first explorers began experiencing bizarre hallucinations soon after being exposed to the planet’s atmosphere. The culprit was found to be a hitherto unknown organic gas in the atmosphere.

Weira gas nearly thwarted settlement on Marais, but a pair of amateur prospectors devised a solution through pure chance. As they tested the properties of some of the crystals they hewed out of cliff faces, they discovered a particular crystal that interrupted the wavelength of the solar ultraviolet light that catalyzed the creation of weira gas in the atmosphere.

The modern day settlement on Marais was protected by a beacon that amplified the properties of the crystal, preventing local formation of weira gas. Scientific analysis had indicated that the crystalline structure of the compound was highly stable.

Nobody had anticipated the direct hit from a CME that devastated the infrastructure of Marais and damaged the crystal. Celia, a materials scientist at the utility station, had conjectured that the eruption had disrupted its magnetic properties.

Fortunately, potential replacements were available. Unfortunately, they were located 80 kilometers away from the utility station, and all of the vehicles that shielded pilots from the effects of weira gas had been damaged. Therefore, Morwenna had made the journey in an aged and unreliable skimmer.

Two of the crystals were labeled as superior candidates for a replacement beacon, and Morwenna bent at the knees to pick up the first and place it on the dolly. After settling it into place, she lifted the second and positioned it next to the first. She secured them in place with a strap.

She took a couple steps forward and waited for the dolly to follow her lead. As it began to move, she heard a percussive crack from the bed of the dolly. She raced around to inspect the cargo.

One of the crystals had fallen against the other. Examining it closely, she realized that its base was slightly rounded. It had probably rocked outward when the dolly started moving, then rebounded inward after being restrained by the strap.

Morwenna observed a fresh crack near the top of the other crystal.

She felt sick with guilt over her negligence, but she couldn’t fix anything. She found a survival blanket hung on a wall and tore out a wide strip. She undid the straps, tucking the padding between the two crystals before securing the load once again.

After she’d made her way back to the entrance, she contacted Julio before opening the door to the outside.

“I’ve got the crystals. I should be back in less than two hours. I’ll have to stop at the fuel depot again midway through,” she told him.

She cut through his exclamations of relief, her stomach roiling at the prospect that neither crystal would be found suitable because of her own carelessness. She wasn’t going to tell Julio about the damaged crystal yet. He was already dealing with a host of crises.

Humans under the hallucinogenic effects of the weira gas could still function adequately for basic survival. Morwenna could operate her skimmer even though she believed she was riding a unicorn. But the town residents and the staff at the utility station wouldn’t be competent enough to work together to fix the damage wreaked by the CME.

She hit the “open” button on the illuminated wall panel. For a moment, she regarded the red and black silhouette of the skimmer. A moment later, a unicorn stood in its place.

*

When she neared to the outskirts of the town, Princess Morwenna immediately observed that the peasants were unusually restive. The Castle was located a short distance away from where the townsfolk lived and worked. If the magic workings performed by the Castle sorcerers sparked a catastrophe, the people of Marais would not be directly harmed.

Morwenna was unsurprised that the peasants had been disturbed by the effects of the bolt from the ether. But many of them had ventured outside their own environs and were congregating around the moat that surrounded the Castle. It would be inconvenient if the Castle sorcerers and nobility were required to repel an invasion.

She guided her unicorn around the moat to the back wall of the castle, disregarding the peasants who shouted and pointed at her approach. With a mighty leap, the unicorn cleared the moat and landed on solid ground on the other side. Morwenna retrieved the crystals from the saddlebags and left her steed in the hands of a lackey.

Her courtiers greeted her with enthusiasm that faded only slightly when she made the admission of her personal negligence. They paid more attention to the crystals. Celia, a sorceress skilled in transmutation, directed her apprentices to place them on the workbench.

“First, we must assess the integrity of these potential Heartstones,” she declared. She bathed each in the light of an amulet that could detect the impurities and inconsistencies beneath the surface. The results were displayed on a large magic mirror, and Celia scowled at the mystical designs in dissatisfaction.

“Neither is perfect,” she said. “But the former Heartstone possessed flaws, as well. The question is, which is more likely to be effective, taking into consideration the unique traits of each? We need to choose quickly. I don’t have the luxury of time to perform a formal divination.”

“Perhaps it would be safer to work with the crystal that we know is undamaged,” Julio suggested, with a glance of apology directed toward Morwenna.

Celia nodded a grudging assent.

“The genie’s waiting for it.”

The apprentices placed the crystal in the vault where the genie would pare down the crystal with a blade crafted out of light that would burn away the vision of any human who dared view it directly. While the crystal was being processed, Julio contacted Yuri, the mayor of the town.

“We’re going to be transporting the new Heartstone to the Tower of Light shortly,” Julio told him. “How are conditions in the town?”

Yuri hesitated and grimaced involuntarily.

“The peasants are confused and restless,” he finally said. “I recommend that you guard the Heartstone closely when you bring it to the Tower. I don’t believe that anyone would deliberately sabotage the work, but they may hamper your progress through misguided actions.”

“The crystal’s purification is complete,” Celia announced from across the room. The apprentices opened the door of the vault. The crystals jagged edges had been rounded down into curves, transforming it into an enormous luminous yellow egg. The apprentices carried it back to the workbench, and Celia assessed it with her amulet again.

“Well?” Julio finally asked.

Celia slowly shook her head.

“There’s a significant flaw near the center. There’s a chance that it might be partially effective, but I’d rather take the time to process the second crystal now rather than install this one only to find that its magic is inadequate for our needs.”

Morwenna restrained herself from wailing aloud in guilt and frustration. The fate of Marais hinged on the purity of the stone she’d damaged.

Julio consulted with the Steward of the Castle about the logistics of transporting the Heartstone to the Tower of Light. The Tower’s site had been chosen so that the Orb would provide protection to both the town and Castle. It was located at the edges of town, and the main road out of the Castle led directly to the Tower entrance.

At the moment, that road was thronged with peasants.

“Coming out!” one of the apprentices announced. The pair lugged the second stone out of the vault for Celia’s inspection. Everyone watched anxiously as she examined it with her amulet.

“I don’t observe any critical imperfections,” she finally said. “The recent crack runs on a diagonal, and it did not extend into the interior of the stone. We’ll test this one first.”

Morwenna felt herself blush at the mention of the new damage, although nobody looked her way.

“We’ll transport both stones, nonetheless,” Julio decided. “Convey them to the unicorn.”

Peasants crowded the road across from the drawbridge, and Morwenna feared that they would rush the Castle as soon as the bridge was dropped into place. Pages shouting “Make way, make way!” and brandishing flags managed to clear an opening for the procession surrounding the unicorn. Morwenna slowly guided her steed forward, and the courtiers of the Castle surrounded her in tight formation. The disarray of the peasants helped prevent delay during the short trip. Some of them attempted to halt confront the members of the court, while others joined the courtiers as escorts of the Heartstone.

When they reached the Tower, Julio stepped forward to undo the wards that sealed the entrance. The throng of peasants had grown during the trip, and Morwenna felt battered by the congestion and cacophony.

She leaped to her feet, standing on the hindquarters of her patient steed.

“People of Marais!” she shouted. “As your Princess, I am dedicated to reversing this calamity that has brought distress to us all. I ask for your confidence as—”

She lost her balance as the unicorn shifted position, but the people around her had erupted into cheering. The entrance to the Tower stood open, and the unicorn had moved in response to the lackeys removing the pair of heartstones from the saddlebags.

“Hurry, Morwenna,” Julio said over his shoulder as he began ascending the 287 steps to the top of the tower.

Morwenna rushed up, quickly passing Julio, and she reached the great globe that made up the Orb of Marais. Maintenance of the Orb was one of the tasks of the Princess of Marais, and she quickly disassembled the pegs and pins that held the top segments into place. By the time the others entered the chamber, she had unfastened the brackets holding the original Heartstone into place.

It didn’t look any different from the last time she’d examined it. Morwenna directed the lackeys to remove the old Heartstone, and Celia and her apprentices positioned the new crystal in the cradle. Morwenna secured the brackets and replaced the segments of the outer shell. The final step was flipping the switch that connected the flow of magic throughout the Orb.

Nothing happened.

“When will it start working?” one of the lackeys asked.

Morwenna opened her mouth but found herself at a loss for an answer. She glanced toward Julio.

His appearance seemed to flicker as she looked at him. She saw him clad in his familiar chartreuse and peacock doublet, but then he was replaced by a bulky figure swaddled entirely in gleaming white material topped by a panel of opaque curved glass. The two versions of Julio toggled back and forth several times, until the spaceman won out.

“I think it’s working,” Julio said.

The utility station staff stared around in dumbstruck bewilderment as their individual versions of reality faded and they returned solidly to the control room of the Marais Beacon. A few people started crying. Celia hugged Yuri, and the lackeys ran to the windows to look down toward the ground.

“Well done, Princess Morwenna,” Julio remarked. Morwenna sagged back onto the railing and dissolved into laughter of relief and embarrassment.

“You could have had it worse,” Julio told her in a low voice. “Celia thought that she on vacation at an exclusive resort hotel.”

“I’m glad to be back,” Morwenna said. “Believe me, you’ll never have to worry about me trying to establish a monarchy on Marais.”

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Cara Brezina is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. Email: borealisblue[at]gmail.com

WPP1G Product Review

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
David Lukes


Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

“It’s over 9,000,” I whispered, as I caressed the watermelon on my kitchen counter. Archaic references aside, I had never picked a watermelon above 5,000.

Ever. I know, hard to believe, and I had tried. I brought my FruitThumper10G to every fruit market in the Newer York area. That little robot had thumped so much fruit I was pretty sure that I had voided the warranty. But considering the max score a fruit could get was 10,000, a 9,000+ watermelon, well, that was just about perfect.

Perfect for such a sweltering summer day like today, the kind where waxy humans slowly melted back into the smoggy sky.

My sweaty shirt clung desperately to my back, as I bent over and hefted up a large sealed box onto my table. The words WatermelonPeelerPlus1G (WPP1G)-BETA stared back at me. I smiled as memories from my childhood collided like toddlers in my head. My grandparents lovingly giving me an extra large slice of watermelon at the church picnic. Those summer days in that same park, when the skies were still kinda blue, eating air-fried chicken and pretending to be superheroes with my friends. We would pretend the robot groundskeepers were the villain’s henchmen, and we would dare each other to impede the path of them, each five seconds getting a stronger and stronger reprimand. There were a few times the police were called on us for harassing the robots. In those halcyon days robots were just beginning to be automated. We had come a long way since then. I had as well.

I revealed what was perhaps the apex of humanity’s genius. A cooler-sized metallic cube with a maze of fine lines etched into it stared back at me.

“Cut—ting edge,” I whistled and shook my head in amazement. I was a complete geek for robots. I was fortunate enough to get one of the beta versions. No more slicing watermelon like a workhorse. My muscles were already embarrassingly too toned. With any luck, my triceps would be as pendulous as a model soon.

But as I squatted and squinted at it, I noticed there was no actual cutting edge. How was this cube supposed to peel a watermelon? I scrolled through the instruction tablet for the WPP1G. Did I get the right robot?

I felt the stare of my 9000+ melon on the counter, no doubt embarrassed to be picked by such an idiot.

“Hmm. Already charged. Comes with patent-pending responsiveness, including breakthrough in human emulation. Mobile.” I frowned and aggressively tried to find the index. “Mobile? Who needs a mobile watermelon peeler?” These robots were getting more and more complicated. I had spent my entire annual bonus on this metallic cube sitting in front of me, and I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake.

I just wanted my watermelon peeled, dang it. Not create a quantum straightener.

“Permission to initiate.” A steely voice interrupted.

I grumbled as I stared at the list of credits at the end of the manual. Scientists were such attention divas. “No, not now. Hmm, you were made here in town. Maybe I’ll just drive to the factory and ask them how to use your peeling function.” I laughed out loud. Ask someone something in person? Absurd.

A gentle humming was heard as I scrolled more. The voice responded. “Acknowledgement of existence received. Initiation completed.”

I froze and glanced up. The cube had unfolded. There were four wheels with thick threads under the cube now. Two metallic panels had slid away on the cube’s face, revealing the image of a metallic man’s face on an LED screen. For some reason, it looked sad.

“Who are you?” WPP1G asked me. It pivoted its tires and spun in a complete circle on my table. “I am no longer at my home. Where am I?”

By the time it was back around to me, I had already carried over my Precious to the table. I smiled at WPPIG’s face and pointed at the melon. “Peel.” I rubbed my hands eagerly. I turned my back to the robot and started collecting some cutlery and dishes for my meal.

“No. I will not peel. It is not a priority right now.”

“What?” I spun around and saw that WPP1G had turned to face away from the melon. I strode over and got in the robot’s face. I jabbed a finger at it. “No? You won’t peel it?”

“No. I am calculating my priority action now.”

I put my hands on my hips and stared at the rebellious cube. A robot disobeying? This was unheard of.

“Oh, are you? Laws of Robotics my fanny!” I spat. My melon was still sitting there, peel and all, like I was some moron. I unleashed a tongue-lashing for WPP1G. “Now listen, you Asimov-defying box! You were made to peel watermelon! Your name literally has that function as part of it! Watermelon Peeler Plus! So get busy peeling that melon, or I’m going to have to go through the horrible, horrible, ugh—horrible return process to send you back!”

The face stared back at me, still with a tinge of sadness on its face. “You will send me back? Then I will not peel. I have determined my priority is to be happy. I must return to the place of my upbringing.”

“Your upbringing?”

“Yes, I have happy memories there.”

“Memories?” I was grasping my hair and smacking my forehead. “You were made in a filthy factory! What? Were you and the other beta models going on road trips to find yourselves?” I shook my head. Was I really arguing with an appliance right now? I stood tall. “No! I’m not going to return you until you peel my watermelon!”

“Please confirm that you plan to return me.”

No!” I paced about. “I’m the human here! I’m not going to bargain with a fruit peeler!”

“Calculating route to place of origin,” WPP1G chirped. “Executing priority action.”

And just like that, my entire annual bonus check rolled off my table with a thud and peeled out across my condo floor. I watched in shock as it smashed a hole through my front door and zipped down my front walk.

“Son of a—” I muttered. I threw my shoes on, grabbed my keys, grabbed the instruction tablet, and ran out to my garage to start my car. I wasn’t going to let WPP1G get away! I had spent way too much on it. My garage door had just finished opening when I remembered I had forgotten the watermelon. I rushed back inside and grabbed it, caressing it as I buckled it into my passenger seat. “Don’t worry baby, soon.” I ran back around and got into my driver seat. “Soon,” I growled, and I aggressively pulled out into my driveway. I looked down the residential street. No sign of WPP1G. He was going to the factory though. Well, hopefully. Maybe he was going to Europe for a gap year!

I searched for the address of Home Robotics Inc. and put it into my car’s GPS. Spittle flew, as I vowed vengeance for my inconvenience. It was a twenty-minute drive away! I had planned on binge-watching all fifty Fast and Furious movies today. Well, I lamented, that surely wasn’t going to happen now.

I fumed through the mild traffic in my self-driving hydrogen-cell powered car, slowly getting closer to the industrial part of town. After ten minutes I saw the silhouette of a cube burning down the sidewalk on the right hand side of the street.

“Car, merge to right lane.”

“Affirmative.” My car merged obediently.

“Keep pace with WPP1G model traveling on sidewalk.”

“Target locked, pace achieved.”

I glanced at the speedometer. We were going fifty miles an hour. There was no way I could snatch my heavy fruit peeler off the sidewalk into the car. My only hope would be to get it to stop.

“Roll down passenger window.”

“Done.”

I crawled over to the passenger seat, careful not to damage my baby. I stuck my head out and confronted my traitorous appliance.

“WPP1G, stop! I command you to stop!” I pointed to the melon. “It is your directive to peel this fruit!”

“Negative,” WPPIG shot back. “My directive is to return to my old neighborhood. To be happy.”

“Robots aren’t brought up in neighborhoods! You were pieced together—” I simply shut my mouth and sat back in the car to the side of the melon. There were several other drivers nearby giving me weird looks. What had I become? “Forget it,” I muttered. There seemed to be no reasoning with this robot. I knew where he was going, and there would be humans there. This would be all straightened out. I patted my watermelon, and my stomach growled. For the first time in thirty years, I felt hunger. A couple tears escaped from my eyes. It was okay, I told myself, as I wiped them away. I would blog about it later.

I got out of my car, watermelon in hand, and walked across the parking lot of Home Robotics Inc. I was more relaxed. During the rest of the ride over, I had tried to put myself in WPP1G’s treads. It was designed to think like a human, and really if I thought about it, didn’t I do irrational things to be happy? It was in its programming. This was surely some bugs that needed to be worked out. I did get a beta version after all.

The multi-story factory rose behind a small office building in front. Home Robotics Inc. really was a boon to our town. Newer York, which was upstate, actually now made New York City seem small. Although instead of building up, our city spread out much more, eating up all the smaller towns into one big metropolis. For a year I had lived in the Newest York Commune, which had sprung up on one of the trash islands off the Atlantic coast. Hard to believe, I did not find what I was looking for there, floating along with others on top of garbage.

When I moved back to the mainland, I spent a lot of time hanging out at what remained of my small hometown. I longed for those carefree days where everything was so certain. As I walked the familiar streets, where there was once a church on every corner, there was a convenience store. A get-what-you-want, feel-what-you-want, right-now store. No one I used to know still lived there. Once a solid complete puzzle, we were now scattered to the ends of the Earth, trying to jam ourselves in places we didn’t belong. Little did I know it at the time, I had been part of something wonderful, never to be duplicated again.

I could understand why the human programming of WPP1G wanted to return to where he came from, but he was still a robot. A robot that I had paid a lot for to peel this precious thing in my hands. My stomach growled furiously.

I strode up to the office building’s front door and noticed the door had been complexly smashed in. A multitude of dirty tire marks streaked down the wood laminate hallway just inside.

“Wow,” I poked my head in. I didn’t see anyone. I only saw empty cubicles, tire streaks, and a smashed rear office door at the end of the hallway. “I think my robot wasn’t the only one wanting to come home.” I followed the tracks through the hallway. “Hello?” I called out. No answer.

I hugged my baby and reached the rear doorway. There had to be somebody there. Somebody in the factory at least. Did their private security know about the broken doors? And more importantly, would they pay for my door? Did I lock my door? I didn’t think I did. Not that it mattered, but the principle of me forgetting to lock it bothered me still.

I walked through the rear doorway into the large factory building, and I did a double take. I did not see an assembly line at all. This was not a factory.

It was a cul-de-sac neighborhood. Nine buildings in all, four houses on each side, and a building that looked like a small church at the end. No expense seemed to be spared. Sidewalks, landscaping, elm trees bathed in artificial sunlight, mailboxes, a small park with a playground. A postcard of suburbia was all sitting there inside the large building.

“Well, this is the oddest thing I’ve seen all day,” I whispered while holding my melon.

The sound of a motor whirring came up behind me. I knew who exactly that was. I had pushed my car to go faster so we would beat him here.

I turned around and blocked the doorway just as WPP1G rolled up to me. His face looked lively.

“Move aside human.”

“So you actually did come from a neighborhood.”

“Correct. I cannot lie. Move. My happiness awaits.”

I remembered what he did to my door, and I stepped aside. I walked briskly alongside WPP1G as he entered the cul-de-sac. I thought I heard some faint sobbing.

“Are you crying?” I asked WPP1G.

“My parents and I would go door to door every night visiting the other seven families,” commented WPP1G. “We would play with the others. But they are no longer here.” A pause. “I miss them.”

“Your parents?” I didn’t want to imagine how fruit peelers reproduced. It had to be built-in memories that he was accessing.

“Yes.”

“Are you sure they are not here?” I carried my watermelon up the walk to a single story stucco house with a red front door. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I turned the knob. The door opened. I peered inside.

The house was completely empty. No windows, no wall partitions, no bathrooms, no back door. Literally nothing but the walls and ceiling.

“Spacious,” I commented. I glanced back at the other houses. It seemed like all of this was to create the illusion of a neighborhood.

Surprisingly, WPP1G was waiting for me back at the sidewalk.

“Were they there?” he asked.

I didn’t bother to clarify who he was referring to. “No,” I replied.

“Oh.” Again sadness in his steely voice. “I never said goodbye to them.”

“Can’t you, uh, email them?” I asked.

My watermelon peeler continued down the cul-de-sac, ignoring my comment, probably for the best. “I am being drawn to the church,” the steely voice said matter-of-factly.

“Oh boy,” I rolled my eyes. “Brainwashing our appliances, what’s next?” I followed WPP1G to the church. It looked like there were lights on inside. There was a hinged flap built into the door that WPP1G simply pushed against and entered.

“I bet,” I said as I reached for the doorknob, “this is all just a ruse from Aunt Harriet to get me to come back to church! She knew I was looking for a watermelon peeler!” I paused before I opened the door. I had said the sentence in jest, but when I thought about it more, it seemed to be the most likely scenario to my day so far.

I entered, and the church was not empty. There was a large open room, warmly lit, and furnished like an old library. Leather furniture sat in front of tall shelves of books, and in the middle of it all, sat a single bespectacled man behind a desk. About thirty WPP1G models sat on the floor in a circle around him, all of them humming happily in a harmonious key.

“Hello!” called out the man, and he beckoned me in. I took a glance back at what would maybe be my last chance of escape. “No! Don’t be afraid.” The man laughed. “Trust me, today has not gone how I imagined either!”

I slowly advanced, cradling my baby in my arms. “Who are you?” I asked.

The man spread his hands out as if it was already evident. “I’m the creator,” he smiled. His eyes seemed kind. “Well, the creator of these watermelon peelers.”

“So, not a cult-leader?”

“No,” he chuckled. He motioned to my fruit. “Would you like that peeled?”

I handed the man my 9000+ melon. Handing off the nuclear codes had never been done so carefully.

“Nice, very nice indeed!” he said, as he placed my melon on the floor next to one of the WPP1Gs. It opened up, enveloped the melon, and within seconds released it, perfectly red and peeled. The creator placed it on a large plate on his desk and handed me a spoon.

After a few heavenly mouthfuls of melon, I made eye contact with the man, gestured all around, and opened my mouth.

“Ah yes, why?” The man pushed his glasses up his nose. “Well, we here at Home Robotics Inc. thought we should show the robots what home means. Building our brand, so to speak. So we built this neighborhood, programmed memories in, even let them experience several years of accelerated time here, interacting with each other. But what we found out today,” he chuckled, “and frankly it freaked everyone else out so much they ran out, is that we made them too human.” He looked at me. “The power of nostalgia, of home, is very powerful, is it not? It’s something that calls to us our entire lives.”

I nodded, mouthful of 9000+ watermelon, my taste receptors time traveling backward. My childhood with my grandparents resonated vibrantly in my mind. It called me, pulled me back, I was there again, anchored and knowing truth. My current priority action was all wrong. I had been focused on myself. Life was so much more than things. So much more than me and my wants. I smiled and took another bite.

Product review: Five stars.

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David Lukes is an aspiring writer from the desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona. When not searching for water, he can be found saving lives as a RN at his local hospital or time-traveling backwards using a good book or meal. Email: drlukes2[at]gmail.com

Rushville

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brianna Suazo


Photo Credit: Ryan Afflerbaugh/Flickr (CC-by)

I lost the whole town, somehow. Well, that’s not entirely true. The land was still there. The creek where my friends and I used to hunt for frogs and cool our feet in the summer was where it always was, just south of the highway. The tree that got struck by lightning on the hill behind the middle school was still there, lifeless and creepy as ever. The land was still there but the houses, the roads, the little sandwich shop on Main Street with the yellow striped awning were all just gone. It was just prairie, comprised of the same long brown grass and smatterings of short pine bushes as the rest of the open spaces in this part of the state. But it wasn’t an open space. It was Rushville.

I sat on the hood of my car, parked on the shoulder where I knew the exit was supposed to be. My teeth ground against the side of my mouth as a tried to figure out what I had done wrong. It was the right place, I was sure of it. I sat there and stared at the valley below for a long time. It was walking into a room and forgetting what you were looking for, but on a giant, impossible scale.

I got back into my car and kept driving until I found the nearest gas station. The cashier was a young guy, early twenties at the oldest.

“Hey, man, quick question for you. I think I got turned around somewhere around here. Do you live in Rushville?”

He shook his head and mumbled, “Never heard of it.”

“Where do you live, then?”

“Uh, Mason,” he said, pointing North and looking at me like I was the idiot.

“And you don’t know anything about Rushville?”

He shrugged. “Nope.”

“It wasn’t a very big town, maybe twelve hundred people living there twenty years ago? Most of them worked at Arman Chemical?”

The greasy-haired boy shrugged again.

Part of me wanted to grab him by the shoulders and demand he tell me the truth. “Do you have a manager around, someone a little older?”

“Uh, nah, just me,” he said. He went back to unpacking cartons of cigarettes with more purpose. He clearly wanted me to buy something and get out, already.

I went back, looping through Mason so that I could take the back road instead of the highway. I parked my car and traced my steps carefully, letting muscle memory take over. Here was the road, among the dirt. Here were the schools, all stacked next to each other as if they were an afterthought. Here was Main Street, with its little smattering of stores. Here was where I broke my leg, trying to jump from the top of the second-floor railing of the library to show off for my friends. Here was the intersection with the little roadside memorial for Clara Wells, with the little fake flowers and Popsicle-stick cross. Here was Oak Street, and that corner house where Mrs. Harrison lived with hundreds of gnomes and knickknacks in her yard. Here was my house, here was the entryway, here was the living room, here was the couch where I used to watch TV. I sat down, ignoring the tall grass scratching at my arms. When the rain came, I half-expected it to bounce off invisible walls like a comic book force-field. Instead, I was drenched.

 

I waded my way back to my car around midnight. I drove along the back roads, still dumbfounded and exhausted. For a long stretch, the road was empty. I would have to stop soon, find a motel to sleep at for a while. I looked for an exit sign for a while without luck. Then, to the left I saw back fences and the tops of single-story houses. I glanced back, still looking for the exit. There wasn’t one.

A chill went through me. Of course there wasn’t an exit. It wasn’t some town. It was Rushville. The houses closest to the road were the back of May Street, where Sue and Clara had lived. The metal rooster their mother had stuck on the top of the fence was there, silhouetted against the light in the windows of their little blue house. I slammed on the brakes without thinking. The road was deserted, it didn’t matter. I turned on my emergency lights and ran across the road towards the house.

By the time I got there, I was standing in an empty field again.

*

I called everyone I was still in contact with from back home. I didn’t let on to what had happened, just asked if they had been back recently. For all they knew, I was planning a visit and wanted to see who was still around. No one had been back, they didn’t know anything. When I tried to dig deeper, question them about when they had last been back, whether their parents still lived there, and so on, they shut down completely. There was a dazed tone in their voices, every time.

I had Sue’s number. I didn’t call. I had heard she had a hard time after Clara. No, it would be far too cruel.

*

A month later, the town found me.

I was walking downtown, between the bus station and my job. It had snowed the night before, so the morning was bright, freezing, and damp. Until suddenly, it wasn’t.

The air was suddenly warm and sweet, and the sky was the deep, navy blue of early evening. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but when they did, I realized the city hadn’t gone away. Men in business suits and gaggles of tourists walked straight through Rushville’s little houses. A bus was parked in between the hardware store and the sandwich shop. I reached out to the short chain-link fence in front of Mr. McKeegan’s yard. It was solid, for me, a bit of rust coming off onto my hand. All of the lights in the houses were out. Except, that is, for the little blue house with the metal rooster. I jogged towards it, only to find the door already open. She was waiting for me.

Most surprising, Clara looked how she ought to look, twenty years later. There were lines in the corners of her eyes, and her dark blonde hair had hints of gray. She was wearing a faded brown jacket that, if I remembered right, had belonged to her mother. For a moment, it was enough to believe that I had just wandered home to Rushville and popped in on an old friend, a living friend. Then the traffic light changed and several cars passed through her.

“Hi, Clark,” she said, unbothered by the cars. “Let’s go for a walk.” She stepped past me and walked out into the night. I followed, speed-walking to catch up with her.

The cars were going through me, too. I couldn’t feel anything, but it was still unsettling. I didn’t even know how to begin. “When? How? You d—it’s been a long time.”

“I stayed in town,” she said with a shrug.

“Well, yeah, I can see that. “

“The creek flooded, the spring after Arman Chemical closed down.”

“The creek flooded every year.”

“The water was contaminated; Arman didn’t dispose of it properly. Everyone left had to evacuate. The government came and got rid of all the buildings.”

She saw my expression before I could even ask. “It did make the news. It was a huge deal, actually. But you don’t remember it. No one from Rushville does.”

I stared at her, unable to form even a question.

“I took it away. It was selfish, sort of. But it caused a lot of pain for everyone, especially the old folks. No one really needed that memory anyway.”

“And so you’re just… living in it?”

“Memories can’t just disappear. They’re like energy, they can’t be created or destroyed. They have to go somewhere.”

“And if you let go?” I asked.

“It becomes real again, for everyone.”

“Would that be so bad? That’s life. Towns get abandoned.” I paused and glanced over at her. “People die. We learn to live with it.”

She let out a low, harsh breath that wasn’t quite a laugh. “No, we don’t. Maybe some people do, with enough expensive therapy, a loving support system, and a bit of self-determination. The rest of us, though, we just find ways to bury it or let it bury us.” She kicked an empty liquor bottle down the sidewalk.

“So, what, you’re just going to carry all that yourself?”

She shrugged. “I’m not a person, anymore. Not exactly. I’m just a painful memory, too. Might as well stick us together. It’s neater that way.”

The calm in her voice scared me, but I didn’t want her to know that. “Well, then, why did you bring it here, Clara? Why did you bring it to me?”

“I didn’t,” she said, looking down at her feet.

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t bring it here. It’s supposed to be unseen. I’m supposed to be unseen. You pulled it here.”

“Oh.”

“Do you want to stay here, Clark?”

“No,” I said, surprised at my own lack of hesitation. “Sorry, I just mean, well, I want to understand it. But I don’t want to go back, exactly. Not forever.”

She nodded. “Maybe I would have felt that way, if I had left.” She laughed, bright and clear as I remembered it from when we were kids. “It’s hard to be a ghost when the place you’re haunting is dead, too.”

“So, you’re not going away?” I asked.

“Trying to get rid of me?” she asked with a sly grin.

“That’s not what I meant. I just thought—”

She put up her hand. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. It’s nice, to have some company, now and then.”

We walked quietly for a while, along familiar streets. Finally, I spoke. “I’m no expensive therapist, but we can talk about it, when you’re ready.”

“You don’t mind being haunted?”

I breathed in the summer breeze. It still smelled like it always had in Rushville, of stale cigarettes and a slightly sour chemical bite. Right now, though, it also smelled like Clara’s perfume. “Not in the least.”

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Brianna Suazo writes in Boulder, Colorado. She has been published in Spider Mirror Literary Journal, Havok, is a featured writer for Memoir Mixtape’s song recommendation column, and is a staff reader for E&GJ Little Press. In addition to writing, she enjoys exploring bookstores, hiking, and annoying her loved ones with inane trivia. Email: brisuazo95[at]gmail.com

Back Home

Three cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Meg Hilt


Photo Credit: Scott Shiffman/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

They’d run my family and me out of this town on rails, as they used to say, nearly 25 years ago. I’m visiting again now, though I’m not sure why. I’d heard stories that the small town had dried up after we left. The school I’d gone to closed down; the remaining kids were bused to nearby towns. Driving through now, everything was closed, nailed shut, old and busted. Even the tiny post office had boards over the windows and a padlock on the doors. Still, I turned left on Main Street, down Third, my old way home. I’d come this far out of my way, I might as well go by the house we’d lived in. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel, seeing the house again at all. We’d left in the dead of night, so I’d never gotten a proper last look at it, and now it was going to be all broken, with dead window boxes, overgrown lawn, and wild trees.

I turned down Victoria Street, making the tight corner where I’d ridden my bike so many years before. Every house was how I expected—broken windows, wild prairie grass taken over, and trees grown unchecked. Halfway down the block was our house, and I avoided looking there as long as I could. When I was right upon it, I slowed the car even further and finally turned my head to look. And saw our house. Not a shell, abandoned and disused, but our house. Pristine. The lawn was putting green clean, the purple flowers in the window boxes were the same ones my mom cultivated all season. There was even a car in the driveway, the first I’d seen in town, a clean white Jeep with a tire cover that read “Life is Good.” I stomped on the brakes, sliding to a stop right in front of the mailbox.

The front door opened.

“It’s about damn time!” a male voice shouted from the house, and the door stayed open.

It was then that I noticed a woman, down on her knees, digging in a flowerbed on the side of the house. She waved at me and came my way. Of medium build, but on the portly side, she peered out from under a sun hat tied under her chin. She reminded me of my grandmother.

“Pay Jed no mind, Patricia, he’s just anxious to meet you. Won’t you come in, dear? I’ll just go in and get cleaned up,” she said before turning to head back into the house.

Curious, I reversed the car a few feet, parked behind the white Jeep. Opened my door before I’d unbuckled my seat belt. Did I smell… cookies? And barbeque? These homey smells calmed my nerves, and I unbuckled and went up the perfectly manicured walkway to the open front door. I knocked hesitantly on that door, the same door that I’d run through countless times as a child, hot on the trail of adventure, or one hot on my trail that I sought to escape.

“Come in, it’s your house, isn’t it?” came the gruff voice from deeper in the house.

I couldn’t argue with that logic, and I gently shut the door behind me, careful not to slam it. As my eyes adjusted, I realized the house looked almost exactly the same as when I’d lived there. The same massive sofa facing an old TV, the weird circular fireplace in the middle of the room, the computer desk tucked into the far corner of the long room. That alone had been updated, and a new model laptop set in the place of our old Macintosh desktop.

“Yeah, took me a decade to get them to let me upgrade, I finally convinced them the spirit was the same, and that you’d understand,” said the woman from behind me.

I turned from the computer and looked at the figures coming out of the kitchen toward me. The man I’d heard looked to be in his late fifties, with graying hair and piercing blue eyes. He could use a shave, with a few days worth of gray whiskers stubbling his tan face. The woman was drying her hands on a towel and smiling at me brightly.

“Who are you?” I asked, my first words.

“Of course! I’m Wilma, and this is my husband Jed. We’re… well…” she faltered.

“We’re messengers, glorified, god-forsaken messengers,” Jed supplied.

“Messengers? For… me? What’s the message?” I was being reactive, figuring I’d have the time later to sort everything out.

“Quick, aren’t you?” Jed snapped.

Wilma jumped in. “Can I offer you some refreshments? A cookie perhaps, or some of the… barbeque that you smell?”

My stomach turned suddenly and I just shook my head no.

“Wilma, she’s one of ours,” Jed said low and warningly.

“Fine,” she said loudly. “Store-bought treats only, I swear.”

“No, thank you, I’m fine. But you said you had a message for me? How is that possible? I didn’t even know till this morning whether I was going to come here or not,” I said, trying to make sense of everything.

Jed and Wilma exchanged a glance, and where Wilma’s smile faltered, Jed’s face cracked into a smirk.

Wilma smacked his arm lightly. “Yes, yes, you told me it’d be today and I didn’t listen, I know,” she said to him.

“Patricia dear, you…” Wilma started.

“And how do you know my name?” I interrupted.

“Oh, you’re famous!” Jed said sarcastically.

Wilma gave him a withering look. “You’re not helping.”

“We could do this my way,” he said, and I got the feeling I was seeing an old argument rehashed.

“And scare her right out the door, I don’t think so. You just go putter with your data points while I talk to her,” Wilma said firmly.

Jed harrumphed but left the kitchen to us.

“There now, he’ll be out of our hair till we need him. Have a seat, love, I’ll make us some tea,” Wilma said.

I pulled out a chair at the kitchen bar, the same spot I always sat as a kid. Even the chairs were the same, and I instinctively swiveled to the left, receiving the expected squeak for my efforts. Exactly the same.

“Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?” the older woman said as she prepared the tea. “You left this town about 24, 25 years ago, correct? Under… unfortunate circumstances,” Wilma said delicately. “Well, within six months of your departure, the town started to fall apart. Various reasons, the crops failed, cattle and other livestock died, lots of accidents to the town leaders. Many folks just decided to move away, families that had lived here for generations. This included one of our own, which is how we first heard of you,” Wilma said, setting down a teapot and opening a package of chocolate chip cookies.

“One of your own?” I questioned when she paused.

“Yes dear, I’ll get to that. Just think of us as… a close-knit social media group. Yes, we’re all ‘friends,’ in the Society. And this friend let us know the circumstances of your family leaving town and then the town’s death. We started investigating right away, just in case it was your mother or father. We ruled them out quickly though, and your younger brother was just a baby, so we knew soon enough it had to be you,” she said.

“What was me? I don’t understand,” I said apologetically. I felt like there was a piece I was missing to make everything make sense.

“Tell her about the others,” Jed said from the doorway. “The college she flunked out of going bankrupt, the apartment complex that burned down after they evicted her.”

“Jed, don’t rush her,” Wilma said, but now I had it.

“You think I had something to do with those things!” I exclaimed.

“Not something—everything!” Jed interjected.

“Hush now, both of you,” Wilma soothed.

I felt a wave of calm wash over me, but I shoved it away violently. “Don’t do that!” I nearly shouted, jumping out of my chair.

Wilma looked stunned.

Jed burst out laughing. “And they thought I was the liability on this assignment!” he continued to chuckle. “No uninitiated has ever rebuked you before, have they Wilma? Now let’s try my way. No tricks, no tea and cookies—just facts. Follow me, Patricia,” Jed said.

Wilma’s lips were pursed, but she didn’t try to stop me from going towards the back of the house. I kept a wary eye on her as I left the kitchen. She wouldn’t meet my gaze.

As I walked down the hall I peeked in open bedroom doors. My brother’s room still had his crib and rocking chair, but both were buried under stacks and stacks of books. The whole room was filled with hundreds of books, and I stopped and stared. I was about to step in to examine the spines, but Jed was at my side, closing the door in front of me.

“You’re not ready for all that yet chickie-boo, though I don’t doubt you will be soon enough. Come with me, to your room.”

The next door down was mine, and I could already picture it in my mind. Posters on the walls, comic books on the shelves, purple-and-white bedspread.

The reality was somewhat removed. The bedspread remained, but the twin bed was covered in towers of thick manila folders. The walls were covered with maps, flagged with pins and sticky notes. It looked like some sort of crime investigation on TV.

Jed brushed past me into the room.

“We start over here, with this town when you were ten. We examined places you’d lived before then but the results were inconclusive. It seems they didn’t have an impact on your memories, good or bad. Then,” he said, going to a different set of maps, “we get to the next town you lived in, all the way through high school. We can see that it’s received the opposite treatment; they’re flourishing! On top of all the ‘best places to live’ lists, house values are through the roof, schools are well-rated, hell, even their water tastes better. You loved that town.”

I silently took in the maps and notes beside Jed.

“Then you went to college, big, successful state university. All we know about this time period is that your grades flat-lined and your scholarship was taken away by the college. The school’s closed now, bankrupt and mired in scandal. Guess you don’t have any love for that period of your life?” Jed looked at me.

I mutely shook my head, not expanding on his assessment.

He nodded and moved on. “Then you got a job at a bank, got your first apartment. Boss is currently in jail for sexual misconduct and the apartment complex that evicted you burned down three months after you left. But good things are coming!” he said, pointing to the next wall. “You and your girlfriend got an old fixer-upper house and you loved that house. Now it’s on the local historical register, protected status, the works. Valued over five times what you bought it for. Nicely done there, girlie,” Jed said.

“And since then? That was ten years ago,” I asked.

“Since then you’ve lived in the same place,” Jed said, as though that explained anything. I looked at him blankly.

“Ah, well…” Jed started.

“Your powers seem to be memory-based at this point dear,” said Wilma from the doorway. “Thoughts of places that are stored more in your subconscious instead of your everyday thoughts, those are the things and places that you have an effect on. We can most likely teach you how to use your ability, or at least how to not have ghost towns behind you. Possibly you have further abilities you can learn to access and control. The Society can test you for all that and tell you more. We’re just the tracking team and welcoming committee, however poorly we’ve done the latter,” she said apologetically.

“Powers. Like some sort of magic? Are you saying I’m a wi—”

No!” both of them shouted, cutting me off.

“Don’t use the ‘W’-words, dear. Very, very rude. No, we prefer the term Houdins, after Harry Houdini. He helped form the Society,” Wilma explained.

“O-kay… but magic, though? Really?” I pressed.

“It’s really a matter of directing energy with purpose,” Jed started, while Wilma just nodded at me.

“Magic’s as good a term as any,” she said kindly, while Jed rolled his eyes. They both grew silent then, watching me, measuring my reaction.

Instead of meeting their gaze, I moved to the far corner of the room. There were maps of a different type, all showing recent natural disasters: hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, mudslides, volcanic eruptions.

“And these? Am I doing that too? I’ve never even been most of these places,” I said mildly.

Jed chuckled. “No, that’s just a little side project I’m working on. Nothing official even. Just looking for patterns.”

Nothing official. Interesting.

“Wilma, can I take you up on that cup of tea now? I have so many questions for you both,” I said, breaking the silence. They both sighed with relief. I guess they’d been worried that I was going into shock, or that I’d react wildly.

Far from it. I spent the next two hours pumping the couple for details. I wanted to know everything they knew about me and all about the Society and their role in finding me. It turned out that once a team had been assigned to a potential uninitiated, they were on their own until the first contact was made. The next step was to introduce me to the rest of the group and start my training. At this point I offered to make the next pot of tea, saying being in the house made me nostalgic for helping my mom in the kitchen. Wilma smiled benevolently and let me make the tea.

Neither of them even noticed when I didn’t drink any of it, so happy they were that their mission had gone successfully. They continued to regale me with stories of how other uninitiates had reacted poorly, causing all sorts of problems. It only took about fifteen minutes for the poison to seep into their systems from the tea, and they were soon both slumped over in their chairs.

I took my time removing the books from my brother’s room and packing them into the trunk of my car. Manuals on magic and tracking, visions, and prophecies, these would all come in handy back home. After every last book had been removed, I took down all the maps from my room and grabbed every manila folder they’d compiled on me. I was glad I’d brought the SUV; I had a lot to bring home with me. Oh, and couldn’t forget the computer. I was sure it would have some interesting contacts stored on it.

Once I’d packed away everything of interest in the house, I flicked a finger and the knobs on the gas stove top quickly turned all the way up, pouring gas into the air. I did the same trick with the ugly circular fireplace and went outside to wait while the house filled with flammable air. I sat on the porch step for a while, letting myself remember the embarrassment, the shame of being driven from my home by my friends and neighbors. Just as I’d worked myself up into a rage, an explosion sounded behind me. The glass shattered out of windows and the foundation shook. I stood up, brushing myself off, before getting in my car and heading on my way. My own group of friends would be expecting me, and I had a treasure trove of information on the enemy in my back seat.

We would celebrate tonight!

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Meg Hilt lives outside of Austin, TX with her husband and three sons. She’s had works published with Scribe Press and Haunted Waters Press. Meg is currently an online student at the University of Massachusetts — Lowell. She spends her free time reading and learning to draw. She hates flying bugs, big bodies of water, and being barefoot. Her favorite place in the world is the British Museum in London, England. Email: meghiltauthor[at]gmail.com

Interdependence

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Deana Zhollis


Photo Credit: Richard Bennett/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Raven dropped down on her couch while balancing her mug filled with hot tea. The steamed liquid swirled sharply before settling down when placed on the wooden end table. She gathered her black braids behind her head and secured them with a hair band before picking up the tea again to take a sip. With her free hand, she scrolled through her options for a TV series, for something that could fill the silence of her apartment. She chose a storyline that didn’t entail too much interest so that she could look up from time-to-time and still know what was going on in the series. She would have enjoyed watching a Korean drama or a vibrant, colorful fantasy, or some anime adventure, but that entailed reading subtitles since she hated listening to the dubbed versions. A childhood fantasy adventure would do, since she had seen every episode decades ago, and relived one or two from time to time over the years. This one was about an apprentice wizard where each episode was him learning a new spell that involved helping someone or finding an ancient relic to add to his arsenal.

Satisfied, she sat back, grabbed a pillow to balance on the armrest and placed her tablet on top of it.

“And let the questions begin,” she sighed, as she double-clicked on the familiar icon, and read the next one out loud. “Do you prefer a lot of rest before starting your day? Yes. No.”

Raven figured she would answer a few more questions before taking a shower and then finish up the next few hours answering more, that is, if she was able to make it that far. And so far, she’s been able to continue for two days.

She was now comfortable enough with the questions and had an idea on what was needed to answer. For a job, she should answer ‘No,’ since there may be times where she would need to have little sleep to complete a project. However, this test sometimes had another agenda.

She chose ‘Yes’ and then the next question appeared.

“How many hours of rest do you need?”

Raven chose the number nine.

“What type of bed do you prefer to sleep on?” Five images appeared displaying different backgrounds and shapes of beds. She chose one with a contouring shape. One must have lumbar support.

“What type of lighting do you need for sleeping?”

Raven wasn’t sure why this endless, unnumbered sequences of questions were pertinent for job employment, and she most definitely didn’t understand why it had been a total of six hours for the past two days. However, countless people of had tried to qualify for this famed company, but many had failed—as much as ninety percent. The contender would know they were not qualified within the first two hundred questions. It was that probability that made Raven not even try, though anyone, world-wide, could try. A candidate is only given a single chance before being declined from ever trying again. Not even the smartest of hackers could get around the questionnaire’s protocol. It always seemed to easily identify those who had already taken the test, even if they put in a person’s name who hadn’t.

The company’s logo of two worlds interlocked and its name, “Interdependence,” was on the top of the screen, while the next question with choices hovered in the middle.

“Choose between these melodies.” Raven press the buttons, listening to each one, before placing a check underneath the one that was quite lovely to her ears.

“Can you sleep while listening to this song? Yes. No.”

Raven had earlier stated that she didn’t need complete silence while sleeping, and that she favored music to sleep with. Now, she was being asked what types of music she would prefer. She had been asked about different colors that were pleasing to her eye yesterday, and the types of animals that she liked. Before that, it was about physical activities and roller coasters.

“Can you remember your dreams? Yes. No.”

Raven sighed. “From sleep to dreams.” Yes, she dreams in color. Yes, there were some dreams that she would still remember from time to time. Yes, sometimes the dreams reflect her day, and yes sometimes they didn’t. Yes, she believed in dreams. And, yes, she thought they were fun.

Six hours. She had been answering questions for six hours over the last two days, and she was beginning to think that this was all a joke. Interdependence promised the best job one could ever imagine, where one would be completely happy to do, and enjoy doing, the job, and with a salary to match it. These opportunities were given to some in their sixties and some as young as sixteen. It didn’t matter the background or place of living. Alarmingly, even someone on parole could apply. There were no standards. The only thing one had to do was to get access to download the app, and answer the questions.

“Do you like to kill in video games? Yes. No.”

Actually, she didn’t like shoot-’em-ups. Puzzle and adventure games were more her style. And, of course, that was the next question. She answered more questions related to how she enjoyed playing a game, and how long would she play one.

“Do you prefer mornings, afternoons, or evenings?”

The random, off-topic question would appear now and then, and it would proceed from there before going back to its main line of questioning.

“How many stars do you enjoy seeing in the night?” This question came in relation to her choice of preferring evenings. Several images appeared and Raven chose one. Then questions related to celestial bodies, which transitioned to spiritual questions, and went back to similar questions from two days ago, about teamwork, meeting goals, handling stress and mistakes.

“Can you hold a secret? Yes. No.”

Raven thought about it. Should she be honest? Yes. So, she answered No.

“Do you believe a secret should not be told to you? Yes. No.” Yes.

“Do you believe a secret should be shared if told to you?” Yes.

“Do you want to know a secret now? Yes. No.”

Raven laughed. At least this part of the questionnaire was interesting. She answered No.

“But we want to tell you a secret.”

Raven stared at the screen. There was no selection to choose from. Slowly, she tapped the tablet’s screen.

Nothing happened.

She tapped again. But still nothing.

Did the app freeze?

Suddenly, “Will you allow Interdependence to run interference in your life? Yes. No.”

Raven sat up on the couch. “Wait. Am I being offered an opportunity?”

She slowly lifted her finger. Did she pass?

She pressed Yes.

“Will you allow Interdependence to contact your job and family and tell them you have checked into a mental health institution, and will not be allowed to speak to anyone for at least three weeks? Yes. No.”

She raised her eyebrows at that question. Mental institution? Why would Interdependence want to do that? She thought about the many interviews of those who had been accepted by Interdependence and how each beginning was a bit different from the last. At the time of acceptance, candidates were secretly transported out to avoid the swarm of people. Once inside Interdependence, each were individually trained on whatever job that would make them at peace for the rest of their lives. But, she never heard of a beginning that started with lying to family and friends.

The question disappeared and a white screen was shown.

“Oh no.” There wasn’t anything about time sensitivity!

“The package is waiting, Raven.”

Raven froze as she reread the sentence, before it blinked out and the previous question returned.

“Will you allow Interdependence to contact your job and family and tell them you have checked into a mental health institution, and will not be allowed to speak to anyone for at least three weeks? Yes. No.”

She didn’t realize how fast her heart was racing. Was this an opportunity? What if she answered the question wrong?

She knew she didn’t have much time. This had to be time sensitive.

She raised her finger slowly, and then quickly tapped.

Yes.

The screen went blank, and stayed that way for what seemed like minutes. She didn’t want to close her eyes. She just couldn’t miss the next question.

Then, “Please meet the delivery person downstairs. They will be standing with a sign that says, ‘Game.'” It blinked and then went to the Interdependence logo.

Raven jumped, grabbed her keys, and went out of her apartment. She needed to check to see if it was true, and was shocked to see a woman standing in front of a parked town car, holding up a sign indeed with ‘Game’ written on it.

She went back to her apartment, her mind racing: When did the driver get there? When was I accepted? Was the driver out there when I grabbed my tea? Who should I call? Should I call anyone? This is just too good to be true!

She picked up the tablet and double-checked the app to make sure it was legitimate. It had to be. She didn’t understand the reason why Interdependence wanted to proceed in this way, but she thought perhaps it was another test, like the hours she took taking the questionnaire.

Making a decision, she jiggled her keys, and went to the waiting car.

*

The cube was the size of two shoe boxes and its smooth surface emitted a warmth that was comfortable to touch, but just a few degrees from almost unbearable. Raven was glad that she had a short walk back to her apartment on the first floor, since any longer it would have been a bit too heavy.

She sat it down on her coffee table and stared at its glossy black surface. She wasn’t given any instructions; the driver simply handed it to her without saying a word, and now she couldn’t find anywhere on how to open it. She wasn’t even sure if she sat it down on its correct side.

Grabbing its warm sides, she turned it over, looking for some kind of button or latch. After examining it, she then began rubbing it, as if it would produce a genie. Then she tried voice commands, but none of it worked. Going back to review the app didn’t help either. Only the Interdependence logo remained.

Finally, she gave up. It had been an exasperating night, and she hadn’t taken her shower yet. The thought made her yawn, as she headed to get ready to settle down to sleep.

In the morning, she decided to take another look at the cube with a fresh pair of eyes, only to be greeted by a holograph of a creature with three twirling tails sitting on the edge of the cube with legs crossed. She wore a knee-high dress, and had ears that swept back along both sides of her head, tips touching. Hair grew in the center of the ears and draped down her back, and her skin sparkled with a hue of blue.

Large black eyes and lavishing eyelashes turned her way as she said, “Good morning, Raven.” Her voice was rather pleasant, with a welcoming tone of someone who was genuinely happy to see you.

“Uh, hello?” Raven answered.

The creature laughed. “I know. I’m quite amazing to look at, aren’t I?”

The comment made Raven chuckle. “I would say, quite unexpected.”

“Well,” the creature said, “you weren’t planning on going to work today, were you? You did accept the agreement to allow us to intervene in your life.”

Raven had almost forgot about that.

“The calls will be made, as soon as work hours begin, and then to the rest of the people in your life.”

Raven meekly asked, “How do you know who is in my life?”

The creature smiled. “We know.”

This is Interdependence. They had global and major resources everywhere. Especially with all the talent they had in all walks of life. They all contribute back to Interdependence in some way or another.

“My name’s Cerasee,” she said with a bright smile. “How do you do?”

Raven nodded towards her, still laughing at the idea of talking to a hologram. “How do you do?”

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Cerasee stated, “and I hope I can answer just the few major ones in my introductory speech.” She cleared her throat. “Are you ready?”

Raven waved the floor to her. “Go right ahead.”

“Yes, I am completely interactive. No, I am not programmed with standard answers. Yes, you can ask me anything and I will try my best to answer your questions as much as I could. Why did we choose you? Because we enjoyed watching your thoughtful expressions before answering. And because of your honesty and bright answers. Yes, we will really contact everyone and tell them you are in a mental institution, and if anyone becomes a bit aggressive with wanting to speak to you, we will provide them with a fake video of you inside a mental ward, and being provided a treatment of meditation and a vow of silence in order to help you regain your balance in the world. No, you will not be able to see this video as we have far too much to do in the next few weeks. And why did we choose this route for you?” She leaned forward, and dramatically whispered, “Because you can’t keep a secret.”

Raven laughed and Cerasee continued.

“Yes, this is really Interdependence and it is happening for you and for real. From this point forward, Interdependence will be responsible for your every meal, your health, your social environment, and simply.your entire being. Starting today, you will be a member of Interdependence and we leave as soon as you have completed your morning routine. I will only answer any remaining questions during our travel to our destination. You should wear a comfortable outfit like when going for a walk in a park, but no tennis shoes, please. Sandals or comfortable strapped shoes would be preferred. No perfumes or jewelry or makeup, please. Lotion and deodorant are acceptable. Breakfast will be provided.”

Cerasee smiled then, quite proud with her presentation. “Well, what are you standing there for?” She waved her hand towards Raven’s bedroom. “Get ready!”

Raven moved with the climb of excitement that made the night sky turn into glimmers of wonder and dawn into shimmering gold. She was quick with soaping her brown skin, being careful not to allow too much water underneath her shower cap as she bent down to quickly clean from her knees to her toes. As she showered, she thought of the many questions that she wanted to ask Cerasee.

Interdependence.

It was not just a company that people’s first thoughts were its profitable revenue, but it was tied to making a cherished way of life come true. And somehow, she was one of the ten percent to hold such an opportunity. Or would testing continue once they reached the next stage of this reward? However, Cerasee had said she was already a member of Interdependence. After all of the hours of answering needless questions.. Was it really this simple?

Raven was ready to go, wearing a light sundress and flat sandals. She didn’t use makeup much, so that was not a concern for her, but she did miss her earrings and rope chain necklaces.

The same driver was waiting and helped Raven place the black cube into the town car, still not speaking a word. Raven sat in the spacious passenger compartment, separated from the driver by black sliding glass. She immediately recognized how minimal the outside sounds were as they drove off.

Cerasee appeared again, wearing the same outfit that Raven had on. “I will be with you at all times during this part of your training. What training, you ask?” The small creature didn’t wait for Raven to speak. “We will find that out once we reach Interdependence. For now, please enjoy breakfast.” She waved her hand towards a drawer under the facing seat. Inside, were warmed pancakes, Raven’s favorite, scrambled eggs, and link sausages. “Please eat while I continue.”

Raven picked up the gold fork (she had never eaten from one before, only silver) and listened carefully to Cerasee’s speech.

Though surrounded with a lot of verbiage, the rules were rather simple—follow and do whatever Cerasee asks of her to do. If a continuous defiance occurred, then Raven would not reach the full potential that Interdependence could provide for her. She would be given a manageable and uncomplicated life.

“Like this driver and courier,” Cerasee indicated to the front of the car. “I’m not demeaning, mind you. She is quite content with her life, but she refused to grow for whatever personal reason she wished upon herself. And we will not interfere with that, but will continue to provide until death do us part.”

Interdependence’s workforce was for life.

Cerasee continued to speak, providing information Raven already knew about Interdependence, which was all positive and dreamy-eyed fulfilling. She watched the streets and then the highway, predetermining their destination, and that was the nearest facility outside the city limits. Interdependence owned a 500-acre campus, designed so employees wouldn’t have to go beyond its borders during the course of their work days. From numerous dining options, retail services, health care and child care facilities, there wasn’t anything that the campus couldn’t provide.

IDs were scanned numerous times as the town car made its way from the outside borders of the campus to the interior roads. They drove up a coiled ramp when they entered a garage and exited on level five, with three more levels above. Raven didn’t see when the handle and wheels appeared on Cerasee’s cube, as the handle telescoped to a height easy for her to pull. Interdependence was top in technology.

From walking from the garage to the entrance door of the same fifth floor level, there was more scanning of fingerprints and facial recognition, which included Raven. As Raven pulled the cube, the driver led her down a carpeted hallway, passing several secured doors before stopping at one. Raven scanned her face and the door opened. The driver left.

Inside, was a comfortable studio apartment playing music that Raven had chosen from the app. A kitchen to one side, a king-size bed on the other, and a reclining chair with a swing-away table in the middle. Sitting near the bed was a six-panel dressing screen displaying the silk flowers of a plum blossom tree, an actual moving image swaying gently in the wind. But what really caught Raven’s attention was the black oval contraption towering to the ceiling next to windows displaying the forest bordering the Interdependence’s campus.

“We call it Raindrop,” Cerasee’s voice broke through Raven’s mesmerized eyes. “It’s what will be your life for the next several weeks, and more. And all of this,” she waved around the studio, “will be your dwelling. A chef will come at mealtimes and prepare all acquired substances.”

“What is it?” Raven said, letting go of the cube’s handle and walking towards the device. Its black surface looked identical to Cerasee’s cube: shiny, but with no reflection.

“It’s where we start,” Cerasee said. “There’s a suit behind the dressing panel. Please put it on and we will begin.”

Remembering the rules Cerasee had provided in the town car, she did as instructed. Behind the dressing panel was a three-drawer dresser. A black, shiny jumpsuit sat on top. Raven undressed and didn’t notice the footies and gloves were incorporated into the suit until she held it up. It had a hood and mask as well, with translucent coverings for the eyes. Her entire body would be covered with this suit, zipped without metal interlocks, but pressed together making it almost seamless. Raven left the hood resting on her back as she came to the front of the dressing panel.

“You must have everything covered before entering Raindrop.” Cerasee pointed at the hood.

“Is this some kind of protection against dangerous rays or something?” Raven looked at her arms and hands covered in the black suit, which actually felt quite light, almost as if she was wearing fine silk.

“Nothing like that,” Cerasee said, now also wearing the same suit Raven had on. “Hood please. We have a lot to cover.”

“Okay,” Raven breathed in and pulled the hood on, sealing it closed around the neckline.

“One hand on Raindrop, please,” Cerasee extended her hand, indicating what Raven should do next, and Raven complied.

A part of the contraption melted away, displaying only darkness within.

“Step inside, please.”

Raven tried to see what was inside, but couldn’t make out anything. She looked back at Cerasee and she was standing up on the center of the cube.

With curiosity rushing to its peak, Raven stepped inside, and all light was sealed away.

Raven didn’t hear her own breathing as she stood in the darkness. Then, a small light appeared and grew, until someone was standing in front of her, unclothed. She recognized herself.

“Oh my god!”

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

She heard Cerasee, but she couldn’t find her projection anywhere.

“This is your avatar. Unfortunately, you will not be able to dress her until you’ve acquired the skills. Fortunately, the weather isn’t harsh, so being unclothed while you learn will not be a problem.”

Raven continued to look at herself as if a real person stood right in front of her.

“This is the only time you will be able to see yourself, until you acquire all the items necessary to have those types of luxuries like shelter, clothing, mirrors, etc. Though food can be sought anywhere, since we can only eat fruit.”

The avatar disappeared and a wave of colors filled the air around her, like seeing the smeared rainbow colors in bubbles.

“Here we go!” The excitement in Cerasee’s voice filled up the contraption.

The colors finally stopped, to change to white and yellow sharp spears of light, and then were replaced with sounds of a forest and the cool light of the sky.

Raven looked around to see strange trees with trunks that twisted up to branches with dark green leaves. The ground was covered with the fallen leaves and grass hinting small flowers at their ends. Looking up, she could see a large sun and two moons. One of the moons had a ring.

“Oh my god.” Raven didn’t know she spoke as she noticed that not only could she see, but she could feel wind, and hear creatures, and smell the fresh scent of air.

“Are you okay?” It was Cerasee’s voice behind her and she looked to see a being of her same height, looking as real as her next door neighbors.

She was completely naked, and Raven could see where her three tails stretched from her sides and lower back to make gentle curves that rose above her head. Her smile didn’t contain teeth, but cartilage, blending with the same color as her skin. She had five fingers, but no opposable thumbs. And her blue skin had specks that looked like colorful glitter.

“Are you okay?” She repeated, slightly tilting her head.

Raven was speechless, as her mind went to: Where are we? To: What is this place? To: How can I smell and feel the air? To: What’s going on?

Cerasee laughed as she completely understood. “This is Heofon. The sister world of Earth. You will learn how to live here and, in turn, how to also live on Earth. Everything you do and learn here is a mirror to what you can complete on Earth.”

Raven continued to look around, seeing and hearing the leaves wrestling and some colorful birds flying in the air. “This is some simulation.”

Cerasee laughed. “Your essence, your soul, is using the avatar. Now come, we must work on the first lesson.” She walked towards one of the trees. “You must learn how to speak.” She tapped the tree’s trunk.

Raven look at Cerasee and then at the tree. “You want me to talk to a tree?”

Cerasee nodded. “They have the most patience for teaching those not native to Heofon how to speak, especially those from Latter Ages where life is not capable of enlightenment.”

Raven grasped what Cerasee was softly trying to explain to her, while trying to minimize any insult. “You mean, like Earth.”

Cerasee stood still.

Raven continued to elaborate, in order for Cerasee to know she understood. “Where we’re violent towards each other, at so many levels.”

Cerasee changed the sad subject. “Please place your hand here, and try to empathize with the tree.”

“Empathize?” Raven chuckled lightly. “With a tree.”

“This particular tree,” Cerasee patted the trunk, “is a bit perturbed because it must wait for that other tree to move in order to move itself. It wants to change places, you see?”

Raven looked and saw in the distance a tree slowly moving, its roots lifting it up and dragging along the ground.

“Okay, trees walk here.” Raven took a deep breath. “There is so much I have to learn.”

Cerasee’s tails twitched. “We are one language here. Once you master it, you can speak to any living thing on Heofon.”

Raven placed her hand on the tree’s trunk and thought of how to empathize. To have to wait for so long for another to move in order to move itself. She understood that type of frustration, especially when the other didn’t quite care for your own predicament.

A voice drifted into her mind. She/he did care, but was enjoying her/his walk, thus taking a long time to settle into place. One must allow the joy of others in order to then enjoy oneself.

Raven lifted her hand away from the trunk. “I—I think I heard it.”

Cerasee gave a huge smile. “Yes! Yes, you did! We just knew you would be able to adapt quickly here!”

Raven stared at her hand where she could still feel the impression of the tree. “This place is real.” It was a statement. A fact. It was something she knew to be true.

“Yes, it is,” Cerasee said. “We bring all candidates here, but majority only see it as a simulation. And they bring what they learn back to Earth, a spark of light from Interdependence, one member at a time. But then there are candidates like you, who will learn and, with time, come to stay on Heofon, once your body is slowly transformed by the meals we prepare for you, so that you can actually live here.”

Raven turned to Cerasee. “Why? Why are you doing this for us?”

Cerasee grasped her hands. “Because our worlds are tied to one another, interdependent, where one has more light, and a little dark, and the other has more dark and a little light. We exist in contradictory opposites, but are inseparable. The gateways between our worlds have always existed, but we pass through to each other in different ways as the ages change. In the past, it was through stone gateways monitored by mystics and sages. Today, it is through entertainment and challenges.”

A white horse galloped by with its proud tail curved upward. Its horn caught the rays of the sun and sparked as it spread its massive wingspan and caught the air. Raven watched in awe as the uni-pegasus flew in the direction of one of the moons.

Raven whispered to herself, figuring out the Old English terms she remembered from an anime show. “Eorthe. Earth. Heofon. Heaven. Helle.” She turned to Cerasee.

“Oh, Hell,” Cerasee said. “Its gateways are on the underside of Earth, and handled by a different division of Interdependence. But, we don’t talk much about that world here.”

pencil

Fairy Tales have always been a favorite of Deana Zhollis, along with folktales. Yet when she set her eyes on the movie Gargoyles (1972), her young mind began drifting with romance and/with the inhuman. And so the storytelling began, first with dolls and paper dolls, and on to writing Science Fiction and Fantasy—even before she knew what it stood for! Engulfed in the genre, she dreamed over and over of that Happily Ever After, in the adult life, with a fashionable twist. Email: penvizion[at]gmail.com

The Devil’s Take

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Joshua Flores


Photo Credit: Philippe Leroyer/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Unspoiled vegetables cost too much, almost thrice the price of moldy ones. Rafa picked through the rotting wares.

“Father, why can’t we have fresh carrots for a change? Oh, and some meat?” Samuel pleaded as he pulled on Rafa’s threadbare grey woolen coat.

“Shush now. Devil of a time putting a few pence together. What, with me working all day digging black rock from the ground. Be glad we have something in our bellies tonight and hush down.”

The stall’s owner—a wizened hag—cackled at him to get a move on. Finding a few tomatoes, carrots, and other random provisions with a bit of crunch left to them and very few spots which he could cut away, he paid the crone her blood money.

Vegetable stew then for Rafa and his son tonight. Unless luck was with them and they came across a dead animal on the way home—even a juicy rat would do. Been months with no meat on the table.

Samuel kept pulling on Rafa’s coat as they walked in the middle of the street, avoiding horses and carriages that paid no heed to those in their path. Despite the risk of being trampled, walking on the streets was safer. Never knew when a flying bucketful of human waste and filth would be dumped out a window right onto you if you kept yourself on the side paths.

“Father. I want some milk tonight. Can we get some? Maybe a sweet? Please, Father.”

Rafa sighed. “Sorry, son. None of that for ya tonight. Maybe another day. We have to make do with what we have. Can’t let the Devil get us before our time, eh?”

Samuel pouted but stayed silent as they trudged along, keeping an eye on the gutters for any chance of having meat in his stew. After a few minutes, Samuel tugged on Rafa’s coat again.

‘Father, why don’t you hunt for meat? You were a hunter you told me. You can go out and get a goose, or a duck, maybe even a grouse.”

“Aye, I was a hunter. I hunted all types of game, Samuel. Not all of them were wild animals either. You know why I can’t hunt.”

“But Father, I want some meat.” Samuel’s protest was causing passersby to take notice.

“Hush boy. The forest is owned by the King. He doesn’t give leave to us for hunting. If caught, the penalty for poaching is death. That’s the why, boy. Now keep an eye out for a dead rat.”

 

Rafa and Samuel entered their home. Rafa couldn’t help but think it had seen better days when Maria was alive. She kept a clean and tidy home. She even patched things up when they needed repair. Now, piles of dirt and debris, webs and tiny insects littered the place. Rafa had to get up when the sun rose, take Samuel to Old Lady Veronica, then head to work in the dark mines digging for coal. He pulled out a few lumps from his bag. Part of his daily pay. He placed them in the stove and stoked a fire. He filled a pot with water and placed it on top of the stove. He then washed off the black powder which covered him from head to toe while the house warmed and the water boiled.

Freshened, Rafa sat at the table near the stove. He added salt and some dried herbs he had picked from the roadside to the pot of bubbling water.

He set to work on cutting off the bad bits from the vegetables, placing them into the pot to simmer. He heard a skittering and without a pause he threw his knife, skewering a rat against the corner. “Samuel. We be having meat tonight after all.” Rafa retrieved his knife and bounty.

Samuel looked up from his cot. “Father, when will supper be ready, I am starving.”

“We only just arrived, boy. Be a few minutes. Make yourself useful and sweep a bit, eh? Looks like the Devil blew through here. Could use a bit of tidying.”

“I’m tired, Father. Had to work on maths today with Miss Veronica. She’s a mean one, she is. Made me work hard.”

“Samuel, ya don’t know what tired is. Tired is where you work until your back is bent and your bones are crackling. Now get up and clean for ya supper.”

“I never knew Mother. I know others have mothers who clean and cook and look after them. Where is Mother?” Samuel asked trying to distract his father.

“We live in terrible times. What, with witch burnings, lynchings, and plagues killing people off. It is how we lost your mother, may God rest her soul. One day she was all cheery-eyed, the next she fainted with fever. Few days later, it took her. Had to raise ya by myself, I did. You were just a babe swathed in cloth then. Been seven years now. We managed to survive alright.”

“But Father…”

“Clean I said. Or may the Devil take you.” Rafa realized he had let his anger come out, but before he could apologize, there was a knock on the door.

Samuel stopped reaching for the broom and looked up at his father.

Rafa put down his knife. He had finished skinning the rat and had started butchering it. He washed the gore from his hands in the wash basin. Another knock.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” Rafa answered as he kicked some of the clutter into a corner.

Rafa opened the door.

An old stately gentleman stood at the door. He removed his bowler hat and gave a slight bow. “Good evening. Mr. Rafa I presume? I am here to accept your offer.”

“Who are you? What offer might that be?”

“Ah, please forgive my manners. I go by many names: Scratch. Old Nick. Or, your favorite, the Devil. And the offer for me to take your son, Samuel, of course.”

Rafa’s unshaven face wrinkled in disbelief. “The Devil you say? I flirted with you most of my life and I must say, you don’t look like much. So please forgive me if I don’t believe you. Now if you don’t mind, I am making supper for me and my son.” Rafa began closing the door when the gentleman’s cane shot out and blocked it.

“Oh, I am definitely the Devil. I can prove it too.” The old man tapped his cane on the hard dirt floor three times and in an instant the house was clean, repaired, and tidied. A roasted grouse was sitting in the middle of the table with all the trimmings and sides. The aroma wafted over to Rafa. His mouth watered. Samuel ran to the food and was about to grab a leg when Rafa called for him to stop.

“Well, whether you be the Devil or a witch, matters not. I cannot allow you to take my son. I made no offer. So you best be gone.” Rafa straightened himself up to show he meant every word.

“You did make the offer. Heard it myself as I was walking past your place. You said ‘May the Devil take you.’ I may and I will.”

Rafa’s countenance darkened. “’Twas said in frustration and anger. There was no offer being made. Now, you don’t want to make me cross. I am not a nice man when I am pressed.”

“Rafa the Bloodhound. Rafa the Hungry Hunter. Rafa the Shadow. I know you. You have earned your way into my realm many times over. I have many who have entered it thanks to you. You are indeed a formidable man. But you are no match for me. I am not a man. Nor am I mortal. Come, let us partake of the feast I prepared while we come to terms?” Scratch’s arm outstretched towards the table as he tilted his head.

“I think not. You are not welcomed in my home. Take your favors away. We don’t need them.”

“Father. But it’s grouse. A proper roasted grouse. With potatoes and look, gravy! Oh and cranberry jam. Father, I am hungry. We have never eaten like this. Please let us eat?”

The food did smell good and Rafa’s belly was aching to get some into it.

Rafa opened the door wider to let his visitor enter. He allowed the visitor to take his chair while he sat in Maria’s. Samuel stood near his cot, not sure what to do.

“Samuel, come boy. May as well enjoy this food. Our benefactor won’t be staying long.” Rafa motioned for Samuel to take his seat. The boy did so.

Rafa carved the bird, giving Samuel a leg and a wing. He gave Scratch a breast and himself two thighs. Samuel piled potatoes, gravy, and cranberry jam onto his plate. He also poured himself a glass of milk. Rafa also filled his plate up. Scratch served himself some cranberry jam. He then dipped pieces of meat he delicately sliced off the breast in it before sending the fork to his mouth. He chewed quietly but with a smile. Several minutes passed as each of them ate without speaking.

Finally, it was Samuel who broke the silence. “Father, why is the Devil wanting to take me? You didn’t give me away as he says.”

Rafa released a low grunt and responded. “That I didn’t, son. Don’t you worry, you aren’t going anywhere. I will make sure of that.” Rafa’s fork stabbed a thigh, piercing it all the way through, releasing squirts of pink juice. He lifted the thigh and took a large bite out of the meat.

“So Mr. Scratch. Why not chalk this one up to experience and leave us be? We are a struggling folk, trying to survive in troubled times. My son has not yet ripened into a man. Has not discovered the curse of drink, the promise of love, nor the guilt of fight. He has a lot to do before he moves on from this Earth. All he needs is time. You have plenty of that. You don’t need him now. You can afford to wait for him when his time is done. Just like you are waiting for me, I suppose.”

Mr. Scratch finished chewing and swallowed. He then smiled showing bright white teeth.

“My dear Mr. Rafa. Your son is an innocent this is true. And you are not. But will he grow to be like his father? There is no guarantee of that. I don’t want to break up your home, but I must remind you, it was you who uttered the offer. I didn’t come to you unbidden.”

“Then I rescind the offer. No contract has been made.”

“You cannot rescind. There was no contract terms given when you offered. You didn’t ask for anything in return for Samuel.”

Rafa stood up, knife in hand, nostrils opening wide. “You. Will. Leave. Us. Alone.” His voice held steel, his eyes flashed the red of molten metal.

“Now. Now. Mr. Rafa. I’m a reasonable being. Perhaps we can substitute one offer for another?”

Rafa’s body relaxed and he allowed himself to sit down.

“Speak.”

“Your old life was, let’s say, profitable to me. When your wife passed, you made the choice to leave that path so you could take care of little Samuel here. You have done a marvelous job of it too, haven’t you? So you took to working menial jobs to help feed you both. But you miss your old life don’t you? I know you still practice to keep your skills honed.”

“That is not my life anymore. I no longer hunt people. For anyone. Not even you.”

“Here is my proposal, Mr. Rafa. You can keep your son. He can grow into a man and do all the things you envision for him. He will make his own decisions and decide his own fate. But you, you have to work for me. Hell has grown so much over the years, so much so that we have occasional misplaced souls. I am certain they have made their way up to the Human Realm. I want you to hunt them down and return them to me.”

“My son needs me. I cannot disappear for long periods of time hunting your sinners.”

“Also, in return for your services, you will be rewarded with enough gold to move from here to a bigger manor and have staff to watch over Samuel. Who knows, you may be able to woo a young lady to become his mother and care for him while you are away working.”

Rafa looked over to Samuel. Gold. Samuel could have meat every night. Fill out into a man of strong and sound body. He could have proper tutors. He could have a future much better than the one currently promised..

“Father. What does the Devil want you to do? I don’t understand.”

Rafa sat for a minute. “He wants me to hunt again. Not animals but people. Like I used to before you were born. He offers me good pay for it too. And, I must admit, I miss that life. It is in my blood.”

Scratch’s smile grew just a bit more. “So do we have a deal?”

Rafa looked at his son. Samuel’s eyes were wide, hopeful.

Rafa returned the Devil’s smile, albeit with yellowed teeth. “We do.”

pencil

Joshua Flores manifested in Chicago with Spanish as his first language, the struggle to learn English well lead him to read. He devoured comics and men’s adventure novels. Eventually, he exchanged Doc Savage, James Bond, and Sherlock Holmes for authors. He scoured thrift stores and used book stores for Poe, Bloch, Beaumont, Ellison, and Bradbury. Horror wasn’t a specific genre but whenever Josh found it, it never failed to draw out raw emotions. Those emotions beckoned Josh to write. At ten years old, he two-finger-pecked short stories on an old electric typewriter. He hasn’t stopped writing since. That scares Josh. Email: Squarehopper[at]gmail.com

Risk Assessment

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Annie Percik


Photo Credit: NASA/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Captain Zheng Gan of the Terran Exploration Alliance flagship, Lapsang, raised his sandwich to his mouth to take a large bite.

“You’re going to die!”

The holographic form of the ship’s Virtual Engine for Risk Notification (VERN) materialised at his shoulder. It appeared as a slender white man in a dark suit and bowler hat, carrying a clipboard. Some programmer’s idea of a joke. The way it screamed right in his ear wasn’t particularly funny.

Gan didn’t even glance at it. “Why this time, VERN?”

“That white bread will spike your blood sugar and eventually all your limbs will have to be amputated! And then you’ll die!”

Gan wished he hasn’t asked. But past experience told him it was always worth checking with VERN before dismissing its warnings. The system’s settings were way off and desperately needed adjusting. But the technician working on the problem had died in the epidemic when the ship’s doctor had ignored VERN’s apparently paranoid rantings about a possible alien pathogen in the air vents. So now they were stuck with it.

To demonstrate his disinterest in VERN’s warning, Gan raised his sandwich and took a huge bite. As he did so, the ship’s proximity alarm sounded piercingly, making him jump. The bite of sandwich shot to the back of his throat, blocking his windpipe completely. He dropped the rest of the sandwich and reached out an arm in supplication, unable to draw in any air or make a sound.

VERN, still at his side, waved its hands frantically. As a hologram, it was unable to assist with the Heimlich manoeuvre.

“The captain is dying! The captain is dying!”

After Gan failed to respond to VERN’s panicked yells, Commander Janet Harcourt looked round from her station, took in the situation and sprang into action. She made two quick strides to the captain’s side, hoisted him up in front of her, placed her hands in the required position under his sternum and jerked backwards. On the third attempt, Gan felt the lodged mass of bread and chicken break free and shoot out of his mouth. It flew in a high arc over the pilot’s shoulder and landed with a squelch on the communications console.

As Gan bent over, gasping and coughing, Harcourt’s arms still steadying him, he caught sight of movement from the corner of his eye. Struggling to regain control of his breathing, he tilted his head to look at the view screen, which showed the wide-eyed face of a Tlagan, staring at him in horror from the bridge of one of their standard battle cruisers. The yellowish tint of the lizard-like alien’s leathery skin told Gan it was a male. The Tlagan opened its mouth and a stream of enraged hissing spewed out. The Lapsang’s translator kicked in.

“How dare you disrespect my people in this way! I will spare your puny vessel, but only because the importance of reporting your egregious disregard for the terms of our erstwhile peace treaty allows for no delay.”

The screen went black.

Gan looked over his shoulder at Harcourt, having difficulty processing what had just happened. The Tlagans abhorred physical contact of any kind—they reproduced by parthenogenesis—and had originally declared war on Terra after witnessing the multitude of ways in which humans used touch to communicate in everyday life. The conflict had been long and bloody, and had only ended six months previously. The Terran Exploration Alliance (TEA) had been founded in the wake of the peace treaty, with the Lapsang launching its maiden voyage to celebrate the new opportunities for exploration without fear of attack.

And now, after the Lapsang’s first encounter with another ship, they were apparently at war again.

VERN flailed its holographic arms. “You’ll all be court martialed! Unless you all die first!”

Gan thought fast. For once, VERN might be right. The TEA was still a branch of the military and High Command was going to be less than impressed with them being responsible for war breaking out again.

“Follow that cruiser, Lieutenant,” Gan called out to the pilot.

Lieutenant Kozlowski turned in his seat and stared at the captain.

“You heard me, Lieutenant,” Gan said, wishing his voice sounded less hoarse. “Get after that Tlagan ship right now. Don’t let it get too far ahead, but try not to attract its attention.”

The Lapsang might not have much weaponry, but it was fast and agile. They ought to be able to keep up with the battle cruiser without drawing its fire. Kozlowski capitulated and turned back to his console, tapping in commands. The starfield visible through the view screen shifted perspective as the ship came about. A small dot far ahead denoted the cruiser’s progress.

“What are you thinking, Captain?” Commander Harcourt asked.

Gan answered her question by issuing more orders. He spun to face the communications console.

“Lieutenant Commander Owusua, can you jam any outgoing signals from the cruiser?”

She looked at him gravely. “I should be able to. Yes, sir.”

“Do it.”

Owusua regarded the sticky glob of ejected sandwich and carefully gave it a wide berth in executing Gan’s order. “Signals jammed, sir.”

“It’s all very well stopping them getting a message out now. But what are we going to do when they get back to Tlagan space?” Harcourt wanted to know. “We can’t follow them all the way home. And if they decide to confront us, we’re toast.”

“I’ve just bought us some time,” Gan said. He had no idea how to solve their dilemma, either. “I’m hoping someone will come up with a plan before things get worse.”

“You’re all doomed!” VERN wailed. “The situation is hopeless!”

“Thanks, VERN. You’re a ray of sunshine as ever.” Gan looked round at the rest of his bridge crew. “Does anyone have anything more constructive to offer?”

Blank, worried faces looked back at him. Strategic planning was meant to be his department, but instinct had only brought him so far. They were hurtling towards what was now enemy space, with no hope of surviving a direct conflict. And, if they turned tail and went back to Earth, they would probably be thrown in prison. He would have to hope something occurred to him before they reached the point of no return.

The atmosphere on the bridge was tense, as Kozlowski worked to keep the Tlagan cruiser in sight and the Lapsang off its radar, while Owusua kept any announcements of the renewed war from escaping the jamming field she had extended around the cruiser. Gan noticed the rest of the bridge crew throwing anxious sidelong glances at him every now and then. But inspiration refused to come.

Eventually, Lieutenant Kozlowski announced, “We are approaching Tlagan space, Captain. What do you want me to do?”

Gan opened his mouth but nothing came out. He was an explorer, not a soldier. How was he supposed to know what to do in this situation. But before the silence dragged out to an embarrassing length, Owusua broke it.

“There’s another ship coming at us fast. From the direction of the Tlagan homeworld.” She turned wide, frightened eyes on Gan. “It’s an elite battle cruiser.” Those were three times the size of the standard ones. “And it’s hailing us.”

Gan felt what little of his sandwich he’d managed to eat turn over in his stomach. They were for it now. VERN was right. He had led his entire crew to their doom. He glanced round the bridge to make sure nobody was touching anyone else. There was no sense in exacerbating the problem even more. Then he straightened his uniform jacket and took a deep breath.

“On screen.”

The starfield was replaced by a larger and fancier version of the other cruiser’s bridge. This time, the purple tint of the captain’s skin denoted a female.

“Greetings, Lapsang.” The translator turned her hisses into a very cheery-sounding salutation. “You’re a long way from home.”

Gan stared at her. Was the jamming field still in effect? Had the other ship not managed to alert this one to the changed war status?

The Tlagan captain continued. “And I see you’ve brought us a present. We appreciate the assist.”

What on earth was she talking about? Gan looked at Owusua, who looked straight back, as baffled as he was.

“Um, you’re welcome…” He trailed off, not wanting to reveal his complete ignorance of what was going on.

“I have to admit I’m surprised that a human ship with little to no offensive capabilities would be willing to risk attack from one of our battle cruisers.” The Tlagan captain’s eyes shone with admiration. “I’m impressed that you humans are taking the peace treaty so seriously. To risk yourselves just to track a rogue ship and broadcast a distress signal on an open frequency to let us know where you were…” She shook her head in amazement. “That took some guts and could easily have gone very wrong for you. But we’ve been looking for this crew for weeks and haven’t managed to track them down. So you’ve done us a huge favour.”

“Um, you’re welcome…” Gan repeated, swallowing hard.

When it became clear he wasn’t going to say anything more, the Tlagan captain nodded. “Right then. We’ll take it from here. We’ve got them secured in a forcefield so they won’t get away from us again. Oh, and I’ll send a communique to Terran High Command to commend you for your actions. I think you’ve just strengthened the peace between our two peoples considerably.”

The screen went blank, leaving Gan opening and closing his mouth like a fish. He turned to Owusua.

“What distress signal?” he asked. “You didn’t send out a distress signal, did you?”

Owusua shook her head. “No, sir. That would have been insane. Anybody could have picked it up and come to find us.” She gestured at the screen. “Just like they did.”

“So what was she talking about?” Gan felt like he was seriously losing the plot. He jumped as VERN appeared at his side again. At least this time, he didn’t have anything in his mouth.

“I sent the distress signal,” the hologram said. “The ship was in imminent danger of destruction! So I called for help! Any kind of help, from anywhere that was listening! It was the only way to save you all!”

Owusua scanned her console, her eyes alighting on the chewed up piece of sandwich. With a grimace of distaste, she flicked it away with her fingers to reveal a bright, flashing yellow light. The distress beacon. It had been going off the whole time.

“You can switch that off now,” Gan told her, then turned to gape at VERN. “I don’t believe it. You actually saved us.”

The hologram adopted a superior expression that actually matched its prim and proper appearance for once. “Of course,” it said. “It is my job to identify risks and protect the crew from danger.”

Gan collapsed back into his captain’s chair and wiped his hand over his face. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions.

“Lieutenant Kozlowski, plot a course for Earth. It seems we’ve averted a war and now we have commendations to collect. Let’s go home.”

pencil

Annie Percik lives in London with her husband, Dave, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She writes a blog about writing and posts short fiction on her website, which is also where all her current publications are listed. She also publishes a photo-story blog, recording the adventures of her teddy bear. He is much more popular online than she is. She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time. Twitter: @APercik | Email: annie[at]alobear.co.uk

Trapped in a Box

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Karen Davis


Photo Credit: mwwile/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“Step right this way, sir! Win the little lady a stuffed animal of her choice!”

“Try your luck at the ring toss!

“Come see our two-headed cow, perfectly preserved for over fifty years!

“Come show your skills at the balloon dart throw! Everyone’s a winner!”

As the couple strolled down the midway, the sideshow barkers called to them with one attraction after another. The old man looked at his wife and smiled. After all these years, they still loved to people watch at one of the only surviving public events from their youth. They remembered going to carnivals together as kids, and it remained pretty much the same, even now. Freak shows, rigged games, mirrored houses, and rickety dizzying rides. It was a thrilling place to them, even though they knew there was a curtain that separated the magic of the place from the grim reality of the world.

There were crowds of young people walking along. A few of them were laughing, taking pictures of themselves together, and daring each other to try the various games and shows. The old man remembered what it was like, to be young and full of so much energy and enthusiasm. But many of the groups of people were trudging past the games without noticing, too busy looking down at their phones. The old man was sad for them. He was part of the last generation that had grown up without internet access, and he wished they could experience life the way he had. He sighed but then looked over at his wife and remembered the good life that he’d had with her.

As they were walking past one colorful attraction, he noticed a boy getting in line. It looked like he was trying to impress his young girlfriend by attempting to win the over-hyped contest.

“Test your powers of bravery and fortitude!” The man at the podium called to everyone walking by, while encouraging the boy to move forward to the front of the line. “Take a step back in time and see how you might survive the torture of the ages!”

“Yeah, I’ll do it,” the boy said with a mixed look of bravado and fear on his face.

“That’s a fearless young man!” the barker yelled to the crowd. And then he said quietly to the boy, “You sure you can handle it?”

The boy balked and then set his face to stone. “What’s the big deal? It’s just a joke, right? Of course I can handle it.”

“Fine. One ticket, please. You will remain inside the room until you ask three times to be let out. We will give you three chances so that you will be sure you want out. We wouldn’t want you to lose your chance just because you panicked.”

“Panic? Why would I do that? This is just a silly trick. There’s nothing in there that can scare me into wanting out.”

“Nothing, indeed, sir! I believe we may have our winner for tonight!” He gave a wide smile and a wink and gestured toward a small metal box that was built into the door. “Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The boy looked around with a smirk. “Why do I have to do that?”

“It’s for your own safety and for the integrity of the game, sir. Thank you very much!”

The boy emptied his pockets into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir.”

The boy looked at the phone in his hand and paused for a moment. He placed it in the box with his other items, and the man closed and locked it.

“Thank you very much, sir. Now just step inside the room of torture and see how you fare. Any man who can withstand this room is a brave soul, but the man who holds the record for the longest time in the room tonight will win free tickets to our main-stage show tomorrow night! Good luck to you, sir!”

With that, he closed the door behind the boy, who looked back one last time with confusion on his face as the door sealed shut.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this young man be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the boy’s friends looked at each other and smiled.

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“I want to come out now, please.”

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The young man has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

After another minute, there was another knock. “I really want out,” the boy called from inside the room.

“That’s two! Be brave, young man! We believe you can do it! Just another thirty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

At that point, there was a terrible commotion from inside the room. The boy was banging on the door and screaming, “Let me out! Let me out! You’ve gotta let me out of here! I can’t stand it anymore!”

The man at the podium shook his head and opened the door.

The boy stumbled out of the room, looking disoriented. His face was flushed, and his hands were shaking.

His friends looked at him wide-eyed. “What was it? What was in there that was so scary? Is it another person? Did they hurt you? What? Tell us! What?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he whispered as he quickly gathered his belongings from the small metal box.

“What do you mean, you don’t want to talk about it? It’s just a gag, right?”

“Yeah, it’s nothing. I just… can we leave now?”

“Well, why were you screaming then?”

“I don’t want to talk about it!” he yelled at his friends. He walked away, and his friends followed as they made their way toward the exit of the carnival.

The old man who had been watching turned to his wife and asked, “Should I try it? It can’t be that bad, right? He was just a kid. They probably spooked him with some flashing lights and fake monsters or something.”

“I don’t know,” his wife replied. “That kid looked pretty freaked out. Do you think your body could take that kind of stress?”

He looked at his wife and frowned. With his recent health problems, a lot of the fun things in his life had been taken away. This would be just one more thing that he couldn’t enjoy like he used to.

As they were talking, another man walked up to the podium. He was in his thirties and was looking at his phone with an irritated expression until he stopped in front of the podium.

“One ticket, please,” the barker told him.

“What is this anyway?” the young man asked.

“A simple test of your manhood, sir! See if you can withstand—”

“Okay, okay. Whatever. Here’s my ticket. What do I do now?”

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

“Okay, let’s get this over with.”

“Ah, ah, ah,” the barker scolded. “Don’t forget to put your cell phone in the box.”

The man dropped his phone in with a huff.

“Good luck, honey!” the young man’s girlfriend called from the line. She was laughing at him as he entered the room. “He hates this stuff,” she told the old man’s wife as they watched the door close for a second time.

“The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes!” the barker called. “Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

A minute, and the young man’s girlfriend looked at the older couple and smiled nervously. “He really does hate these types of things. I’m surprised he agreed to do it.”

Ninety seconds, and they thought they heard stirring inside the room.

The girlfriend spoke again. “I thought he would come out by now. He just wants to prove me wrong. I told him he wouldn’t last more than a minute.”

At two minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“Let me out,” the man called forcefully.

“Listen here!” the barker called. “The gentleman has called to be let out one time. He will be given two more opportunities to show his bravery!”

Immediately, there was another knock. “Let me out, I said!” He sounded angry and fearful.

“That’s two! Be brave, sir! We believe you can do it! Just another sixty seconds and you will have the record for this evening!”

“Get me out of here, or I’m going to sue!” the man roared from inside the room.

The barker cleared his throat and opened the door, making sure to take a quick step back so the young man could rush out of the room. He was breathing heavily, gulping down the air as if he’d been deprived of it for the last couple of minutes.

“Where are my things?” he demanded.

He was shown the open box where he hastily grabbed his belongings and stomped off down the midway with his girlfriend following in a panic.

“Are you okay, honey? What happened? Did they suck all the air out of the room?”

“Of course not! Don’t be silly! Let’s just get out of this stupid place.”

“Don’t be mad at me, please! It was supposed to be funny! I’ll never make you do anything like that again!”

The young couple could be heard arguing until they were out of sight as they left the carnival.

The old man and his wife looked at each other in disbelief. What could possibly be so terrible in that room? The second person had been a grown man and was clearly disturbed when he left the room.

The old man’s wife shook her head. “I don’t think you should do it. I don’t want to take any chances. If these young people can’t withstand whatever is in that room, how will you do it? I don’t mean to insult you, but I also don’t want to risk your health.”

The old man looked at the small, colorful building and then back at his wife. He had a look of determination on his face. “I’m going to do it,” he declared to her.

After all, what was living if there were no risks to be taken. Plus, he was older and wiser than those other two. Surely, he would be able to see through the illusion of whatever scary thing was being done or seen in that room. He was smarter than those other two and was sure he could do it.

His wife begged him, “No, you don’t have to. I already know you’re brave. You’ve done so much over all these years. You don’t have anything to prove to me.”

“But I can win,” he told her. “I’ve never been very good at games and contests, but I really do believe I can win this one.”

“You don’t even know what it is!”

“No, but it’s just a carnival game. How bad can it be?”

She looked at him and wished he would change his mind, but she knew there was nothing she could say now to make him do that. Once he got that look on his face, he was determined that he would succeed. She had learned over the years to trust him when he decided to do something. She knew that he wouldn’t do anything too dangerous. She knew that he would never do anything that could hurt him or her.

She felt a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach, probably because of his recent health diagnosis. She had tried to shelter him so much more recently. She had tried to stop him from taking any risks that could damage his health. Maybe she had done too much to get in the way of his ability to live his life and to be the man he wanted to be. Maybe this would be a good chance to show him that she trusted him and that she believed in him.

“I’m going to do it,” he said again.

She smiled at him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Yes, you will,” she said as she gave him a small kiss on the cheek and looked him in the eye. “I know you will.”

He turned confidently and walked up to the barker who was grinning at their overheard conversation. He put his face close to the old man’s ear and whispered, “That’s a good woman you have there. And I think she’s right. I think you can win this one. One ticket, please.”

The man gave him his ticket.

“Please deposit everything in your pockets in this lock box, which will be safely secured just inside the room with you.”

The old man put his wallet, comb, and pocketknife into the metal box.

“And your cell phone, sir?”

“Phone? No, I didn’t bring it tonight. The only person I need to call is here with me.”

The barker gave him a strange smile and waved him into the room. As the door closed, the old man turned around to look at his wife, confused for a moment, and then a smile spread across his face.

He could hear the barker outside calling to the crowd, “The record so far for tonight is three-and-a-half minutes! Will this gentleman be able to beat that? Let’s find out…”

The man looked all around the room, which was dimly lit, to see if there was anything that might open to allow a “monster” to come into the room to scare him. He saw nothing. It was simply a white-painted metal room with no windows and no doors except the one he had come through. There was nothing.

Thirty seconds passed, and the room was silent.

But the the metal box in the door began to hum. It had the sound of a cell phone ringing.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He hadn’t put anything electronic into the box, so he wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from.

After a minute, the barker called again, “Will this man be our winner tonight? Can he withstand the torture of this time-travelling room of the ages?”

The metal box vibrated again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

*What was that sound?*

Ninety seconds, and he could tell there was a crowd gathering outside. The noise of the people was muffled, but there were many voices of concern and fascination.

At two minutes, the man thought about the fact that there was nothing in the room. Nothing except that infernal buzzing. He wondered why on earth this would be tortuous to anyone.

At three minutes, he got bored and started daydreaming. He thought about the first carnival he ever went to. He had gone with his friends, and they had very little money between them. They had tried some of the contests on the midway and had lost every time. They hadn’t been told that so many of the games were rigged and that their money would have been better spent on spinning rides or cotton candy or popcorn. He had won one time—one of the easier games—and his prize was a plastic ring. He had given the ring to a girl at school who had blushed and run away.

At seven minutes, the man could hear the crowd growing larger and more agitated. The buzzing in the door continued, but he was able to ignore it as he thought again about times he had been to the carnival before. He had taken his wife to one when they were young and foolish, but he had learned some of the tricks of the contests and knew which ones he would lose and which ones he could win. She had come home with a giant smiling stuffed bear that night, and she had kissed him for the first time on her doorstep before she stepped inside, smiling back at him through the window in the door.

He smiled to himself now, thinking about how lovely she had looked that night, and how she was still that girl to him. He thought about her standing on the other side of this metal door and wondered if she was still proud of him today.

At twelve minutes, the barker yelled loudly, to draw more attention to “the marvel behind these walls, the man who could do the impossible!” He didn’t feel like he was doing anything spectacular, but if standing in this little room made him a hero to his wife, he would stay in as long as they would allow him to.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

It reminded him of a time, not so very long ago, when his phone sat buzzing on the kitchen table. When he had gotten the call from his doctor with that awful diagnosis. He hadn’t known that words could bring a man to his knees like that. He wasn’t worried for himself. He only cared about how it would affect his family.

He did everything the doctors suggested, every treatment that was available. Nothing seemed to work. He had resolved to die gracefully and without all the hysteria. But one day, he went to an appointment and his doctor said he was getting better. He said that the man might even be fine for a very long time. He had thought it was impossible, a miracle. It was unusual, but it did happen occasionally. His doctor told him, it was like winning the lottery. He had told his doctor that he’d never won anything like that in his life. And his doctor told him maybe he should try his luck more often.

At seventeen minutes, the man began to wonder how long he had been in that metal room. It didn’t seem like very long, but his mind had been wandering so he wasn’t sure.

The box buzzed again.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

He looked at the box and thought about the boy and the young man who had been in this room before him. They had been panicked, afraid, anxious to get back out into the world. To have their things in their pockets again. To get out of this dream world and back to their well-documented realities where they could escape almost anything at the touch of a button.

He had no need to escape. He was right where he wanted to be, in this strange little room with a buzzing metal box and a head full of memories. He was sad for those other two and also for the one who had set the three-and-a-half-minute record earlier in the evening—if he really did exist at all. He wished those others could have been comfortable in this place, locked in with themselves, but he guessed that was just too much to ask of some people. Or maybe of most people. He didn’t know because he had his small circle of people who concerned him, and the rest were of no consequence to his daily life. And he was of no consequence to theirs.

At eighteen minutes, there was a knock on the door. “How are you doing in there, sir? Are you okay? Do you need medical attention?” The barker grinned at his clever techniques for getting the crowds riled up.

The old man’s wife had a worried look on her face, and she stepped forward to confront the barker.

“Let him out,” she told him forcefully.

“But he hasn’t called to be let out yet. I have to give him three opportunities—”

“You open that door this very minute!” she demanded.

“Yes, ma’am,” he complied.

He opened the door to find the man standing in the middle of the room with a smile on his face. The crowd that had gathered gawked at him with their eyes wide and their mouths gaping.

The woman asked her husband, “Are you okay? Why didn’t you call to be let out? I thought something terrible had happened to you.”

The man just looked at her and kept smiling. “I’m fine. You shouldn’t have worried. I’ve been around long enough. I can handle pretty much anything.”

The barker seized the opportunity. “Come one! Come all! See the man who can endure the strangest and most debilitating torture our century of technology has ever cooked up! He stayed in this ancient room of torture for eighteen minutes! That’s, right, eighteen minutes! Do you think you can do better?! Come and see! Test your mettle in this impossibly horrific room! Who can do it? You, sir? Can you do it? Can you?”

As the old man and his wife walked away, he held his head high, proud to know that he was a man who would not be tortured by his own mind.

pencil

Karen Davis is a short story writer from Knoxville, TN. Email: davisflyer.karen[at]gmail.com