Table of Contents
Times Square Hustle
Finger on the Pulse of The Rich and Famous
On Floating Bodies
Space Launch Complex
The Fluid Mechanics of Rain in Zero Gravity
Nautilus: Above and Below
Preemptive Hair System
Wedding Day Tradition
Port of Call
Post Bellum Praxis
Epilogue from Missing Justice: Inside the Rose Murder Trial
Sleight of Hand
Flight Attendants: Cycle 1
An Afternoon In the Arena at the Duval County Fair
Titanium and Supplication
About the Author
Now Available: Guns, Gods & Robots
You know those pre-designed images of hearts, skulls, symbols and kanji that can flip through at the front of a tattoo parlor? That’s called flash. If you’re indecisive, simply point to image you want injected under your skin and you’re good to go. It’s on in a flash and, well, the lasting effects. . .
That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with my style of flash too. Something quick to read that gets under your skin.
The room looked like one if the fancy libraries that Sebastian had seen in movies. The ones where they had ladders on rollers built into the tall bookshelves.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Gordon.”
Sebastian spun around to see a slight man in a suit as refined as his surroundings. “That’s fine.”
“Did you bring anyone with you?” the library’s curator asked.
“Just me,” he responded. The only person he wanted to be with him would never have agreed to come to this place. His daughter was a respectable young woman though. He hated her mother for many things, but she raised Bethany to be a good Christian woman and wary of men like him.
“Let me show you around,” the small man said, motioning to the innumerable hinged frames lining the walls.
The tour only lasted for fifteen minutes. Not because they had seen everything, but because Sebastian became too weak to stand. The disease was slowly robbing the man of his remaining stamina. In that time he’d seen dozens of the pieces on the wall. The curator headed straight for what he thought were the most valuable items in the entire collection. The oldest images in the library were blurry blue ink drawings of ships, mermaids, anchors and the like all on similar stretched canvases. The newer acquisitions were much more modern, elaborate and larger. Sebastian was fond of the corner of the room dedicated to cartoon characters. Daffy Duck was his childhood favorite.
“And you are certain you want to make this donation?” the curator asked.
“Aside from a good honest daughter, I don’t think I’ve done much in this life that the world would remember,” Sebastian shared. “This donation gives me a chance to be remembered beyond my time.”
“Of course,” The curator nodded. “Would you want to know how we harvest?”
Sebastian caressed his neck where he had Bethany’s name tattooed shortly after she was born. She used to trace the calligraphy with her fingers when she was a child sitting his lap on the weekends when he had custody. Now, if she wanted to do that after he passed she would have to come here. To the room that smelled of mahogany and dried apricots. It would be peeled off, and preserved alongside the rest of the donations in the tattoo library.
Did you notice anything unusual during your stay at Gemberton Inn?: I can say that although our room was drafty, it was a highly adequate accommodation. I shall certainly recommend this establishment to my partners upon their visit to New York City.
“Goddam it,” I curse and crush the precisely handwritten survey into a ball. I throw the paper lump into the fireplace where I’ve thrown scores of similar reviews of his hotel over the past month.
What will Delia say to this when she returns form her tour? I fear her response. Although my passion for my wife is unbound, a bilious anxiety is rooted in my heart. Every failing with the Inn causes pure venom to pour from her. In words and in actions.
On the stage she is unparalleled as a medium. Delia truly has no equal in the nineteenth century or in any era prior of recorded history. She can channel the dead, share assurances with living loved ones in her audience. Or be possessed by a roaming spirit and murmur words of foreboding with doubting skeptics. Despite the adoration of her true believers, the skeptical portion of the audience is starting to grow and she is only able to sell out her shows in the Bible Belt towns.
I’ve grown to accept that she married me for the Inn. The Gemberton is the only inheritance left to me by my parents. A two story, twenty-room residence on Manhattan Island. The only notable facet of the place is its proximity to the new transit station being built and the fact that most locals believed the site to be haunted. The building is constructed on ruins of a small theater that had burned to the ground the same night as Lincoln’s assassination. Given the focus on the president’s murder, few people, even New Yorkers, remember the fire or the hundred people that trapped in the building at the time.
I now know she sought out the Inn and its owner in a personal quest to definitively prove the existence of ghosts. I was naïve though. Struck by her beauty and my basic knowledge of her interest in the occult, I found myself telling a lie that I had seen many a ghost on premises. We moved into the hotel immediately after our rushed honeymoon, living in each of the rooms for two to three weeks waiting for a sign of any unrested soul. None ever came. We hosted séances and summonings with little to show for it save for the candle wax that I had a real challenge lifting from the pile carpets in our rooms.
Delia would interview the guests and become upset when they confirmed that no spirits seemed to have haunted the space. It was not uncommon that I would need to return some of our guests’ money to appease them into possibly returning.
“This Inn will be my undoing,” she muttered. I’d found her in the drawing room hanging her head over a pile of payment notes. Delia had expensive tastes that she was able to argue were a requirement of a life on the stage. Finding ghosts at the Inn could give her career the boost and credibility to reignite her ticket sales.
Two months ago, she left for another tour of the South. It was a relief and an opportunity. Despite her nasty disposition, I truly love the woman. Every moment we spend divorced from her spiritual work is a fleeting pleasure. When she devotes her effort to host spirits her insides became sour. She is especially acidic at the Inn, as the space is completely devoid of ghosts. The scars left by her nails on my chest and cheeks are incomparable to the ones on my pride. Yet, my passion for Delia remains.
The construction of the transit station nearby was my key to inviting more spirits into my Inn. In their subterranean digging they found all manner of things: an intact abandoned diver’s rig, a cache of artillery from the Great Rebellion and most recently a small crypt of city founders. Knowing that this discovery could halt construction of this promising infrastructure and being a civic minded community member, I offered my basement to house the bones of the crypt and let the digging continue. Along with the bones would surely come the souls of their owners.
I created a single question survey for my guests: Did you notice anything unusual during your stay at Gemberton Inn? Nothing was reported by a dozen guests. Frustrated, I discovered the flaw in my logic of the crypt bones: they were simply too old. Again, leveraging my civic mind, I engaged the caretaker of the city’s pauper’s graves on a mutually beneficial agreement. I would let him reside in one of my rooms, if he would secret some bodies into my basement. Nothing too fresh, mind you. I needed guests to complain of apparitions, not noxious odors.
Ten paupers into my scheme and I’m left with no proof of a haunting. I’ll need to void my contract with this friendly gravedigger and develop a new and perhaps final plan to guarantee a spirit fastening itself to the Gemberton Inn. When Delia comes home in a month, I will take her to the basement. Show her the bones, show her the shallow graves and when she is most pleased with the efforts I have made for her, I will show her the knife that I will plunge into her. She is the love of my life and I only do this knowing that she will finally be able to guarantee her own haunting.
Julia had a hard time keeping a grip on the man’s trachea with the fuzzy red gloves, but she did her best to apply consistent pressure. His family screamed in terror as the large, smiling red furry children’s character choked their father to death in a crowded Times Square. His wife started beating Julia with her Burberry hobo bag, but the padded suit and headgear easily absorbed the blows. The sweaty man slipped to the ground gasping for air, his tongue a dark purple. Good, Julia thought. On the pavement, it was an easier for her to step on his neck so she could finish the job while warding off his family’s onslaught.
A year ago, when Julia arrived at the Gemberton Plaza Inn it was essentially a flop house. Since then it had only gotten worse. It made sense that this was where the Times Square characters holed up, living six to a room paying weekly rent. Julia had never imagined she’d have to live like this, that her job for the rest of her life would likely be to be part of a group that dressed up like popular children’s cartoons and beg for money while chasing away rival costumed performers vying for the same tourist dollars. Six years at Columbia for this?
She lay in the bottom bunk and reviewed her Portuguese phrasebook still trying to make the best of this situation. The street team she was assigned to were all Brazilian and, as the only English speaker, she had to be the bigger woman and learn their language. It was a challenging task and was a good way to keep her brain sharp in between shifts in the Square two blocks away.
At five the afternoon crew came in from the street and peeled off their costumes. Julia and Ernesto were the same size so they shared the red friendly monster costume. She was thankful he didn’t sweat as much as the others and that the suit was only slightly damp from his time in the field. Ernesto never said much in the tradeoffs, just took his purse of crumpled bills, politely handed her the costume and hung the large character head on the corner of the bunk bed.
Like she always did, she pinned a small, worn photo it to the inside of the monster head, where she could see it and remember her prior. The image was a simple photo of herself on a yacht. The very yacht she had navigated through most of the East Coast. Officer Niles would be livid if he knew she even had the photograph with her. Everything linking her to that other life should have been destroyed, but Julia needed to keep this. Some girls dreamed of ponies when they were little, Julia had always dreamed of this yacht.
The eight hour shifts were straight forward. She and her five counterparts set up a perimeter in time square. They would approach obvious tourists with children and guilt them into taking a photo together. After that, shaking them down for a tip was easy. Nobody wants to look cheap in front of their kids.
The accountant in her always calculated how much taxes she would have to pay on the income she made for her crew in the square. She was good at estimating taxes owed on a variety of revenue streams, specifically so she could explain to her bosses how much money they were saving by not actually reporting any of the money, above and below the board, to the IRS. She mastered all financial data within her scope from calculating tips, to compound interest on 30 year loans. Julia was the top of her class and that’s exactly why she was recruited so hard by Robert Daruco to join his organization. This is exactly how she ended up in the witness protection program to begin with.
Once she agreed to testify against her employer the deal continued to get worse. Julia went from star witness in the Daruco Crime Family Tax evasion case to a lesser player once the Robert Daruco’s Lieutenant agreed to also testify against his boss. Along with her status in the trial lowering so did her ability to negotiate a great witness protection relocation package. Robert Daruco ended up walking free and Julia’s relocation package deteriorated to its current state as one of the rival red furry monsters accosting visitors in Times Square.
Her package should have been instantly upgraded once Daruco’s Lieutenant turned up missing from his house and new identity in Hawaii. Dead or AWOL, Julia should have had her accommodations promoted once the man forfeited his own swank relocation. This whole past week her spirit had been in the gutter after learning about this inequality. It was in this personal nadir that her salvation was delivered: Robert Daruco, his wife, and their three young children arriving by happenstance on vacation in Times Square.
Julia easily chased away the other characters the family and hustled them for a big tip. It was only after securing the money that she seized Robert’s neck and refused to let go until he was dead. She considered taking her costume’s head off so he could see the woman that ended him, but didn’t want to lose track of her photograph. Now with the man underneath her boot, she put all her weight on him. She no longer cared what happened. Jailed, freed, or relocated to another place with a different identity, Julia was done with Times Square.
The elevators were fast, but not fast enough for the coffee. By the time Dwight got up all two hundred and fifty floors, clipped himself to the guide wires and harnessed into his crane, the drink was cold. That’s how Dwight ended up with the only OSHA approved coffee maker in his crane at the top of Gemberton Spire.
“What can I say? The Union’s got my back,” Dwight said between slurps of his black coffee with two sugars. His guest from NASA nodded. The nervous woman he’d taken to calling Mrs. Shakes, never took any of the coffee offered by the crane operator. Over the past month, she only asked Dwight to perform test run after test run of this morning’s anchoring process. Dwight longed for next week when he could finish this government claptrap work and get back to finishing the building itself.
Beyond the coffee, Dwight had a laundry list of other requests he had filed with Local 14 NYC. As the top crane jockey in the country, he typically got what he wanted when it came to the small things. That all changed with the new Union leadership though. Not that Dwight had voted for any of the new pencil pushers. He understood why he couldn’t smoke on the job with all of the oxygen that needed to be pumped into the mile-high crane’s booth, but there was no reason he couldn’t chew tobacco, have a set of speakers, or take off his parachute when strapped in.
The only good to come of the new administration was their tight control on all the constructions jobs in the city. When NASA picked the Gemberton Spire as the anchor point for their first space elevator, Local 14 fought to keep that construction job in the hands of a good Union crew despite the space agency’s protests.
The compromise NASA agreed to was sitting in the room with him. An observer, a nanny: the woman in the corner who never wanted any of Dwight’s coffee. For a lady who wanted to work in the stars, she sure seemed scared of heights. The entire time Mrs. Shakes was in the booth with him, she was gripping her parachute like a kid’s backpack on their first day of school.
“T minus ten minutes,” she announced.
Dwight interlaced his fingers and pushed outwards. The simultaneous cracks always got him tuned in to take control of the crane. As practiced, he sounded his horn letting the crew on top of the building know he was good to go. The assemblage of NASA and union engineers circled the connecting platform of the exposed roof of the Spire. The platform was only a tip of a larger structure that went underground nearly as many floors as the Spire had above. The Union was happy to leave that bit of engineering work up to NASA.
At the T minus eight mark, Dwight refreshed his coffee before handing it to his observer. “Hold this,” he requested then leaned down to unzip his duffel bag.
“Dwight, I don’t think-“
“If we’re going to do this, we’re doing it in style,” he replied. The crane jockey pulled a stereo out of his bag and balanced it atop his control panel. He simultaneously produced a tin of Skoal and opened the disc. The cab of the machine instantly smelled like mint tobacco. Dwight took a large scoop and planted it firmly in his lower cheek. “Want some?” he held the open container out to Mrs. Shakes.
“No, can we get back to work?”
Giving her a wink he swiveled back to his control panel and hit play on the speaker box. He’d forgotten how loud he had been rocking out at home and the speakers erupted with his classic rock compilation. He knocked his can of tobacco onto the floor in the rush to turn down his music. He watched the can roll away so he could retrieve it later.
“Leave it.” She put her hand on his shoulder and continued the countdown, “We’re at T minus five.”
Dwight shrugged her chilly hand off and turned back to the task at hand. “OK, let’s make history.” He took his coffee back from her and parked the cup between his legs. This high up was always cold. The warmth felt good.
“T-minus three. . . And there’s the cable.” Mrs. Shakes was pointing to the cloudbank above them. Dwight saw the orange beacon blinking from the end of a grey line that seemed to hang down from the heavens. About 248 miles up from the nanofiber umbilical cord was the International Space Station.
Like any day, the crane controls felt like an extension of himself. He reached up into the air and the arm of the machine mimicked his movements. Dwight raised the crane claw so that it lined up perfectly with the trajectory of the beacon.
The beacon bobbed toward the Spire. Dwight squeezed his hand and the arm of the crane followed suit. The blinking orange target drifted closer, closer, closer still. Wind caught it and moved it faster to the right. “Get over here!” Dwight shot his hand after the beacon and the claw mirrored his movement. He clutched and the crane made its connection.
Despite the wind, Dwight could hear the engineers on the platform cheering. Even Mrs. Shakes gave him a pat on the shoulder. She leaned in, perhaps in an attempt to hug him, and tripped on the fallen canister of tobacco. She hit Dwight’s chair and the coffee spilled all over his lap. The operator leapt out of his seat and fanned his steaming midsection.
In an instant, he realized what had happened. The crane had matched all his actions. The cord was gone, as was his chance to negotiate any of his other perks with the Union. The defeated jockey considered jumping out of the crane and relying on his parachute rather than face Mrs. Shakes’ assured scowl.
Expecting a hostile boarding, Admiral Graham was instead greeted by a pirate vessel manned by five corpses and no clue how the criminals came to find themselves dead.
“Sir!” Lieutenant Harold called, holding out a small note and a wide-mouthed glass bottle.
You took is from our home.
Prisoned us in glass
You tortured my dear wife
Your deaths will not be fast
You thought that we had gold
This voyage is your last
“There’s this too.” Graham looked up from the note to Harold’s open palm where there were two long iridescent wings, bloodied at the ends where they’d been ripped off their fairy’s back.
At this distance, she could no longer hear the pulsing music from the luau below but could still see the fire dancers. The spinning flames circled around and around, reminding her of the wedding band on her finger.
She turned back to the vague, thin man beckoning her up the mountain. Always far enough away to only make out his toothy grin. She walked farther up the hill, her husband’s ashes in their pouch bouncing against her thigh. She knew where the smiling guide was leading her. She was willing to go there. Up to the mouth of the volcano where she would join her husband in the next world.
“Let’s see, today was pretty normal. I had an actress, a singer and a couple of normal people too. Nothing notable”
Sheila wrinkled her nose. It did seem like a normal day. “Who was the actress?”
“I think she was on a couple of Love Boat episodes back in the seventies. Darla something-or-other.”
“What’d she come in for?”
“Her heart.” Hank yawned. Her husband was always tired when he got home and eager to get in the shower to wash off the smell of his work. Sheila knew if she didn’t get any leads from him now he’d be too tired or disinterested in revisiting his work day to share more than he was allowed to.
“What about the singer?”
“Yea. I knew him off the bat.”
Sheila’s pulse quickened. Hank was unplugged from the entertainment world, so if he recognized the person, it had to be a big name “Who?”
“The fella who sang that one song. You know the one.”
She started rifling through the Rolling Stone covers she’d cataloged in her memory.
He cleared his throat, “Da, da, da, dum Family Auto Mart, it’s where the wheelin’ and dealin’ starts.” Hank smiled, pleased with himself. “You know that guy. The one from the commercials.”
Her stomach sank. Of course, this would be the notable person that Hank would remember. Living in the middle of Hollywood, surrounded by celebrities and her husband got excited by the used car salesman.
He shook off his jacket and kissed her on the cheek, heading for the bathroom. “If it makes you happier, he at least came in with a pain pill overdose,” Hank offered.
Normally this would have been just the morsel of information she’d want to know, but a local TV commercial spokesperson didn’t have the cache anyone would be interested in gossiping about. Oscar winners, and nationally known celebrities were ideal. Even a celebutante would do if they were notorious enough. Today she’d have to settle with Darla something-or-other.
Sheila waited until Hank was out of the room before picking up the phone and speed dialing the number she’s conspicuously labeled Dry Cleaner.
“Sheila?” came the voice on the other end of the phone. She never met him in person, only seen his organization’s name on the checks that came in the mail.
“Slow day,” she started. “You remember the actress Darla from the Love Boat?”
“I can look her up.” Sheila could hear his keyboard already clicking on the other end of the phone.
“Yea, heart failure.”
“Hmmm. That’s it?”
“Well, there’s always tomorrow,” the voice said, before hanging up.
Sheila sighed. She thought her journalism degree would lead to more than being a tabloid informant. She also thought marrying someone who had daily access to celebrities as a technician at the L.A. County Coroner’s office would have generated more leads than this.
After six months on tour, DJing by night and eating at the best international spots, Kwon-Ace wasn’t looking forward to a meal at his Mom’s restaurant. The Brooklyn locals all liked the cheap little Chinese take-out at Hunan IV, but he’d build his image on authenticity and Mom’s General Tso’s mystery meat were anything but.
He still went though. He had to give his mom some love. But he made sure to dress down in case anyone saw him set food in the grungy dive.
“What the-?” Kwon-Ace stopped dead. The line for Hunan IV was around the block. His heart dropped when he looked up at the new neon sign above the same tired entrance of the storefront. KWON-ACE ‘S CRATE SPACE.
Elbowing his way in the door, he gasped. His treasure trove of vinyl records, laboriously curated, and scraped and scrimped to purchase lined every free square inch of the tiny dining space.
“You like?” Mom’s voice was as small as she was.
“Ma, my records. Those’re mint.”
“They’re doing no good sitting in your room. “She squeezed him and he remembered to hug her back.
“Wait. Order up,” Mom interrupted.
She approached the order window and lifted a plate piled high with some sort of rice, fried pork and nondescript glaze coating the entire dish. He recognized she wasn’t serving the food on the classic Styrofoam plates of his youth. “My vinyl!”
“Don’t worry I wash them.”
“It’s not that, I need those.”
She pushed the food away from the records label to see its title. “You aren’t even going to listen to Ali and His Gang Fight Mr. Tooth Decay.”
“Geez. I may pull a sample from there.”
“Just stream it.”
He stood. Torn. He’d have to choose between the two loves of his life.
It was bad enough Marla had to sneak chicken nuggets at the school cafeteria, now she had to look at the elephant with no trunk. The other exhibits at the zoo were as depressing: the fox looked like it’d crawled from under a running lawnmower, the lions had three eyes between them and someone had flipped the alligators on their backs.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” Dad asked.
“Sure,” Marla sulked, looking at what had become of her college fund.
“At least smile for the cameras.”
She refused. He’d replaced every zoo animals he’d liberated with taxidermies from bankrupt museums; an obsession to become the leading vegan activist on the talk show circuit.
Archimedes danced in her head as the ocean surface rose above her. In these last moments, she only wanted her daughter, not the man whose laws were sending down into oblivion.
The density of the escape pod wasn’t enough to counter the water weight it had taken on in the downpour overhead. Captain Darla fought against her safety harness. Amidst the chaos, an old pain formed in the astronaut’s knees.
Eureka. A memory knocked out by the violent impact returned. Reaching between her knees she pulled the secondary release. The chair uncoupled sending away from Archimedes and toward the surface, rescue and ultimately her daughter.
“Do I have to call you Captain here?”
“No, you just call me Mom.”
Darla’s knees hurt against the steel grid of the launch pad flooring. Her flight suit wasn’t made for saying good bye to five year olds. She stood back up and gave her husband a final kiss in the cheek. They’d said their goodbyes last night.
Her daughter pointed at the thunderhead forming in the distance.
“If it storms, can you still stay with me and Dad?”
Darla bent and kissed her on the head one final time. It would need to last her a whole year.
“Don’t worry, we’re going to beat the rain.”
The spheres were perfect floating in front of the crew’s faces. Other astronauts looked to the stars for proof of a higher power. Captain Darla found her creator in the flawlessness in these translucent orbs.
Water had gone everywhere. Larger globules were the result of a friendly water fight celebrating their return to Earth after a grueling year in orbit. The smallest spheres: her tears in knowing she was never returning to space.
The water shifted unnaturally, then accelerated uniformly toward her.
“We’re gaining gravity!” She didn’t know who screamed, but someone seized her and threw her into the nearest escape pod as an electrical fire lit through the cabin.
In her last video log for her daughter, Captain Darla remarked how cumulus clouds looked just like mashed potatoes from her vantage point on the space station. Underneath, bobbing on the ocean waves strapped into her emergency capsule, the clouds looked heavy; threatening to fall and crush her.
She struggled against her harness, certain her femur had shattered with the impact. The captain felt what she most feared hit her cheek: a raindrop. The sprinkle accelerated into a downpour. Her safety belt was jammed. Panicked, Darla redoubled her efforts to escape from the safety device before the pod filled with water and dragged her to the bottom of the Pacific.
Amos was still blocks away from the table where the kindly old woman at the front of the bread line would hand him a stale loaf. It was barely fit for ducks.
The Depression hardened his little heart almost as much as his parents abandoning him at the church. It was time to test the treasure he’d found in the burnt crater behind St. Germain’s this morning. Amos held up the glass disc and pressed the protruding button. A green arc of light struck the hunched man in front of him. The man evaporated, leaving a pile of dingy clothes. Amos stepped forward and waited for the device to recharge.
The long-range copper scope on the carbine had done the trick again. The zeppelin was a grand way for any modern dandy thief to make his escape, but it was as wide as a barn and no match for his rifle. Having led his men to the fairgrounds to investigate the heist at the mummy exhibit, Captain Phipps treated his men to a large puff of cotton candy as their quarry drifted back to earth in their punctured escape vehicle. His dessert burst from pink to red, followed by a pain in his chest. The mummy-thieves had a rifle of their own and weren’t being captured alive.
OMG LOL What is that?
A wig. It’s in the room.
ROFL. I can’t stop laughing.
Donna turned the mannequin head on the pedestal to get a better iPhone photo of the shaggy orange hairpiece. She’d neatly yelped upon seeing it in Frank’s room when she was discretely looking for more toilet paper after coming up short in the hall bathroom. The silhouette of the head in the dark room looked incredibly realistic.
The screen on her phone didn’t really capture how similar the wig was to real hair. It was uncanny. Donna had been dating him for nearly two months and she never guessed that he wore a hairpiece, much less a full wig. Now that she knew the truth, she was ashamed to admit her first instinct was to send a photo of the thing to Lisa. Her heart sank in knowing that she’d likely need to break up with him now. She couldn’t be with someone that wore a wig. Bald maybe. But full on toupee or worse. No thanks.
“What are you doing?”
She froze. Frank had found her.
“I,” she started then abandoned attempting to explain this away. Donna turned back to the door to see Frank standing with his hands on his hips, blocking most of her way out. Even now, his hair didn’t look much like a wig.
“Is this funny?” he asked, taking a step towards her.
“No. Listen Frank. . . ”
“That’s my own hair,” he smiled. It was the same grin he had when he gave her a tour of his vintage action figure shelf.
He stepped to an armoire and swung the double doors open. “I have four more like it.” She was presented with a quartet of additional wigs on identical mannequin heads. “I harvest it every two years.”
Donna found enough bandwidth in her psyche to allow her thumbs to start texting Lisa again.
FRANK IS BANANAS.
“But, you don’t look like you need a wig,” she said. “We’ve. . . made love and I pulled-“
“My hair? Yes, I remember. It kind of hurt.”
“But you have one of these on?”
“Not yet. I make these from my existing hair. For when I need it later.“
“Think of it as a hair bank. When you get to be sixty, wouldn’t you rather have a wig of your own hair rather than that of a stranger or animal?”
“You would. Trust me.”
“Is there any other part of you that’s . . . nontraditional”
He motioned for her come back out with him. “I pulled my permanent teeth and preemptively made them into dentures.” Frank gave her a toothy grin and Donna totally forgot about the needed toilet paper. Like his hair, Frank’s teeth were perfect. A little too perfect. He was likely joking. She’d be able to check him out later though. Once he was asleep she’d reach into his maw and tug at his teeth to see if she had anything else to text to Lisa tonight.
Jesus repeatedly extended all his fingers then gripped back into a claw trying to get the tremor out of his hand. He’d been tattooing for three hours at this point and his hand ached, but he knew that his canvas was in even more pain. She’s asked for a large chest piece. Something big enough to cover the large zipper of a scar running the length of her sternum. The chest was thin skin but she was tougher than he expected an 80-year-old woman to be.
“You done with your break, Jesus?” She asked. Ernestine had been fidgeting the whole time. Not from the pain of the tattoo gun, but because she’d been on the phone the whole time arguing with an electrician she was convinced was overcharging her.
“You know we can break this into multiple sessions.”
“No time for that. C’mon get back at it.”
Jesus clicked the gun back on and dipped the needle back into the watery ink. He picked up the shading of the thorny band across the sacred heart.
“Watch your outlining,” she warned.
He sighed and kept at her tattoo. At first he thought this would be a good trade-off for Ernestine turning a blind eye to the tattoo parlor he ran out of his apartment kitchen.
“Wait, this looks off.” She tapped her fingernail on the reference photo she’d brought with her. After close inspection, he did see the difference on the thorn he was greying in with that in the photo of the same tattoo on her heart donor’s chest.
“How can I commemorate this man if it’s not identical?”
“Anything you say, Ernestine.” He deepened the shading until it was as dark as the photo of the man she was hoping to honor for making the ultimate donation.
He’d reviewed the checklist on the way to the Chapel O’ Love, but he swore something was missing. He scanned the crumpled paper as his bride drunkenly stumbled down the aisle.
Something old. . .
The locket from the dead waitress in Des Moines. Check.
. . . something new . . .
The wedding bands from the smash and grab in Phoenix. Check.
. . . Something borrowed. . .
He supposed his fiancée’s blood-flecked pumps from the massacre in Tulsa were loaners. Check.
. . . something blue.
Hmmm. That was the one. He scanned their officiant Elvis. The impersonator’s turquoise ring would have to be good enough. Edgar readied his knife to carve the thing off.
The crone’s face was purple. If Roin had been two more days slow in tracking her, it would have likely been black. She was only newly dead, likely so after realizing the mystical stone in her possession had been the quarry for the prairieland’s most storied treasure hunter. He removed his glove so he could better trace the line of her esophagus, feeling for the hard lump. He felt none. He’d have to remove his treasure from her stomach. He unsheathed his dagger ready to reclaim his birthright from the witch that has stolen it from his father’s coffin.
“Oi! Chicken.” Shruk!
“Oi! Lamb.” Shruk!
“Oi! Beef.” Shruk!
The line moved fast. Each customer queued up, shouted their order and slid their credit cards through the payment slot. Five minutes later the Tyson.2’s arm thrust out of the autocart service window with the kebobs ready for each patron. It was efficient, perfect and most importantly: cheap. All of the food carts had followed the restaurant automation trend that had in turn followed the robotics revolution over the last decade after Farage’s Folley.
The one piece that couldn’t be automated was trash. Legally. Sanitation careers were one of the government’s preserved job types saved for people to make their career. Winston stood outside of the autocart waiting for customers to throw their skewers and napkins onto the ground. Even though the trash bin was five meters away, customers preferred to discard their debris on the pavement. The emergence of mass-sloth was another unexpected consequence of a fully automated society.
“Oi!, Chicken.” Shruk!
Winston twisted his spine. The vertebrae popped. His back ached every day from bending over for the trash. Despite the misery of his job, he kept at it. One day he would afford his own Tyson.2. Never on his trashman’s wage, but through a bigger plot he’d been hatching since he’d the Department of Livelihoods been assigned to serve the autocart.
“Oi! Lamb.” Shruk!
Like he had every day for the last month, Winston feigned dropping one of the skewers so it rolled under the cart. Once under, he’d stab the break line just once. At the end of his shift he’d lay down, out of sight of the driving system’s cameras, and hope for a mistake. Maybe today he’d have his legs run over. Maybe today he’d earn his workers comp and a better future.
Pine ash smelled the best. In the quiet hours after his parents were asleep, Elliot would reach up under his bed and remove his glass vials, examining each one.
He imagined himself in a movie of his life: twisting the lids from each and sniffing the trophies within. His eyes would roll back in his head with the smell of the sooty remains of each conquest. That’s how villains were depicted and he didn’t disagree with the portrayal.
He took his pen out and re-labeled one of the vials that had smeared after months of handling. The masking tape on each was clearly noted with the date he’d set each fire. Some fizzled out after he’d fled the scene, but most got the job done. The land was cleared and progress could be made. It was much easier, and cheaper to clear burnt trees from the land with a bulldozer than pay a whole team of loggers to do the same. The feds were less inclined to fight to keep the burnt remains of their preserves.
His parents used to fight. Now they didn’t. Elliott solved that. They were an odd couple that the local press loved to profile. The Park Ranger who fell for the land developer. The better they got at their jobs and the more promotions they received, the more obligated they were defend their employer’s positions at work and ultimately at home too. Dad used to take his work home with him, complaining that mother’s company was pushing too hard to cede too much from the preserves. Mother fought back that he had more than enough land to share. Every night ended in a yelling match even after Elliott retreated to his room.
Take your children to work day changed everything for Elliott. In seeing each of his parent’s work first hand, he’d come up with the solution: Fire. If he noticed their tensions flare up he’d sneak out and make a solution.
The pit in his stomach ached, so Elliott sniffed the vials again easing the pain. He’d practiced his story again and again with his parents for tomorrow’s deposition with the fire marshal.
The lines were blurring. Save for a few naps, he’d been at the terminal for a week straight, hunched over and massaging the coding to make certain it was perfect. The last time Clip-12 hustled this hard was when he was working on mastering his debut album for StyleStrong records.
At the time, they called it a hungry album; the work of a young man making a name for himself. The rumors of his debauched, party-addled hot tub lifestyle grew as large as his album sales. He loved it despite it mostly living in the imaginations of his fans.
Young artists, like his son, coming up today had to actually live legendary lifestyles on social media to even have enough street cred to sell albums. He surrounded his station with magazine cutouts of rappers, like his son, that had died chasing that same notoriety online. It kept him motivated.
In the void left by his son Clip-12 dedicated himself to learn coding. Matching his passion for that first album he’d devoted himself to writing an HTML string that would effectively command the internet to delete itself. It was time. He kissed the cross on his neck and tipped his ball cap to the faces on his wall before striking the enter key. The field, and eventually the whole screen emptied.
She wanted to enjoy her last chance for the fresh air in ten months, but Gena’s lungs refused to fill. She’d been short of breath for the last half hour as she hurriedly tried to find Derricks in the crowd of white Navy uniforms. She had to find him and come up with some kind of plan before they both embarked for the Arctic Circle on the USS John Warner. “Shit.” Her watch told her she only had eight more minute to board the nuclear submarine.
Derricks wouldn’t want to be seen with her, but this was an emergency. Even if Gena did find him, he wouldn’t care even though this was as much his fault as hers.
A smoldering stench caught her nose and she turned to see a clutch of men enjoying one final cigar before shipping out. She stepped toward them and they all stopped and saluted. She remembered to do the same then dismissed them, “At ease. Have you seen Petty Officer Derricks?”
“Lieutenant, he’s probably on board stashing that hoard of Danish snuff he picked up here,” P.O. Greer snorted from behind the wed stub of a cigar clenched in his teeth.
“Or giving whatever port lizard one last go round,” P.O. Yancy added. The men all laughed.
“Better hope Medical restocked the clap cream,” she added turning back toward the sub., maybe she could still find Derricks on the platform.
“Lieutenant, you know we got toothbrushes on board. Right?,” Yancy said, pointing to plastic device in her hand.
Gena snapped the plastic in half and threw it into the sea. She’d been clenching the pregnancy test since she’d taken it, wanting to show it to Derricks. Wanting to figure out what action to take since it’s been three months since their moment of indiscretion at the bottom of the ocean.
The two-minute klaxon rang and all the remaining crew approached the boarding ramp. She’d have to figure this out later, with or without Derricks. Gena’s lungs found the will to fully take in one last measure of air before she boarded the submarine.
Light from the bonfire in the center of the room danced across the walls as the wedding party led their partners through the ceremonial waltz; kicking off what promised to be a long night of celebration in the great hall.
“I wish the band would play a slower song,” Dorian grumbled, his eyes squinting at the flickering illumination on the chart etched into the stone wall. People were only able to enter the hall for funerals and the rare wedding. In a rare period of good fortune on the island colony, there had been no need to enter the building since he had started dating Francis.
“I found me!” Francis declared from a few feet away. She sounded excited, but her being so close made him nervous. He hadn’t found his own name yet on the island’s official record of genealogy in the five generation after the cataclysm.
“I found you too,” Francis exclaimed.
He darted over to her and traced the line up. Past his mother and father then up two more generations. Francis did the same. Their fingers ended up inches apart but on different names. There were only five families on the island when they were cut off from the world. This chart dictated which islanders could and could not couple.
He looked over at his love. Francis was crying, relieved. He felt the same and hugged her.
“I suppose we should have mapped this out earlier,” she admitted. Francis moved his hand from her shoulder past her breast and rest it on her belly. Dorian felt the small rise there for the first time. His heart swelled. They’d have to notify their parents and the elder. Now that they were confirmed not to be relatives, they would need to carve a new entry into the wall.
Glenna thrived on finding new music, but anticipating Mondays was starting to ruin her weekends. The pit in her stomach soured with each week that she received her updated YourTracks Weekly playlist on Sounder; Thirty songs the service curated based on her listening history.
A month ago she got hooked on the new song “Greener Things” by The Fireflies and favorited the track. Looking the band up on Twitter later that week, she saw that the bassist died the prior day from undisclosed causes. Her heart broke a little and made her love the song even more.
Three weeks ago, two band members from two new favorites died later in the week. It continued with each passing Monday. More recommendations, Glenna favoriting more songs and more undisclosed causes.
Despite sharing an account and password with her friends, Glenna couldn’t tell them about the pattern. They’d think she was crazy. Should I contact Sounder? The police? What if I don’t even listen to the playlist? Or favorite the track?
Glenna’s phone chimed. A new notification. YourTracks Weekly was ready for her. She hovered her thumb over the Sounder app fighting the impulse to discover a new favorite. Maybe this was week the pattern will change.
“I assure you it is not.”
“The fourteenth floor is just the real thirteenth floor. They just changed the buttons.”
“There is a thirteenth floor,” The elevator man yawned. Every summer the Grand Bohemian was inundated with wealthy guests, all bringing their miserable children with them.
“I heard at school that it’s unlucky, so they don’t even build one. But that makes no sense.”
“Young man, if there is not a floor you need me to drop you off at, I’m going to need you to get off my elevator.”
“I swiped a twenty from my mom’s purse this morning. It’s yours if you take me to the thirteenth floor. That’s probably more money than you make in a week.”
“Steer clear of the door,” Clive announced, simultaneously twisting the lever holding out his hand for the bribe. The nameless boy parked the twenty spot into the man’s glove.
The elevator man stopped the lift deftly between the twelfth and fourteenth floors and pushed the boy aside. The gate opened to a locked door. With a twist of the key from Clive’s ring, the thirteenth floor opened up to them.
The floor was completely unlike the others in hotel. Except for the support beams, the floor plan was completely open. Long rectangular wooden crates lay evenly across the floor like dominoes on a table. The boy cautiously stepped from the elevator while Clive remained inside.
“Wow, what is all of this?”
The hotel employee sniffed. The floor smelled sweet like fresh leather. “The Grant Bohemian was build atop an old grave site from influenza days. The only contingency the county gave us for this property was to relocate the remains. Irrationally, no other county wanted the diseased bodies. So this is our compromise. We simply moved all of them on the unused thirteenth floor.”
“That’s baloney,” the boy turned, his confidence wavering.
“Is it?” Clive shut the gate before the boy could stop him. After lowering the lift two floors he could no longer hear the brat screaming. He didn’t need the twenty dollars before, but it made it easier to walk out on this miserable job at the Grand Bohemian.
“Release your fist.”
Gladys did as Inspector 2 requested. Her fingers became pink as blood flowed back into her hand and into the government man’s vial.
“We’re almost done for another month,” the man sighed; exchanging an empty vial for a full one. Last visit he’d been the one assigned to inspect the farm. His partner was on blood duty. She thought of them as “Inspector 1” and “Inspector 2.” Gladys knew if she got comfortable with the men and their unannounced visits she’d start chatting with them. As her breeder’s circle reminded her, being hospitable would do her in. They’d find out about the hidden room.
It was all she could do not to at least offer these amiable men something to drink.
“Sorry to have to visit so early.” Inspector 1 silently returned from the farm. His vinyl biohazard suit still smelled of the fresh bonemeal fertilizer they’d laid on the potato field on Monday. “These schedules they assign us are randomized.”
“Oh, I understand.” Five in the morning wasn’t too bad a time for an inspection. She was already up making coffee; a routine she kept in the two years since Jerry has passed. At least the bathrobe she’d been wearing made the blood draw easier for the men.
“We’re living in different times I s’pose,” Inspector 1 yawned. “You ‘bout done Simon?”
Dammit, now I know his name. She tried to purge the man’s name from her memory. Simon slid the needle from the crook of her elbow and replaced it with a bandage. “Got what I need till next time.”
Then the man yawned. “Geez, Dave look what you have me doing.”
Again, Simon stifled a yawn. “Sorry, Gladys. You’re not boring, it’s just early.”
“Looks like we’ll have to stop somewhere for some coffee.”
“Oh, nonsense Gary,” she instinctually said reaching for the pot of coffee she had no intention of finishing. She stopped, hoping they hadn’t caught her gesture. The chickens behind the wall knew how to keep quiet, why can’t I?
“Thanks for offering. We have time. Next farm is only about twenty minutes away.”
The men quietly packed up their equipment as Gladys poured the coffee. “Gary, Simon do you ever miss the chickens?”
“Can’t say that I do.”
“Yea. I always thought they were nasty little animals.” Simon wrinkled his nose. “Not surprised they triggered the plague. Didn’t break my heart we had to exterminate all of them.”
“Mine either,” she lied.
“You know what I miss? Especially this time of day?” Gary asked.
“Rather be alive than eating an omelet,” Simon concluded.
“Cream?” She offered, swinging the refrigerator door open. Gladys froze. Her carton of fresh eggs was tucked into the door. A relic of pre-plague life, now prohibited by international law. Punishable by prison. Her stomach dropped.
“Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to step away from those eggs,” Gary warned. “I’m afraid we can’t match your hospitality.”
“Does it actually drive?
“How do you think we got it here?”
Rollie hadn’t seen a wheeled vehicle much less a double decker bus outside of a museum in his short lifetime.
“Now sit still.” The nurse pressed Rollie’s arm against the padded bar. The bus was full of ten-year-olds with June birthdays going through the same procedure. Even though the Faceless arrived on Earth with the gift of anti-gravity technology, they didn’t bring a better way to inject tracking chips into their subjects. The syringe bores were as large as the straws used to puncture their allotted calorie bags.
“Hold your breath.” The bus was supposed to keep the children’s mind off of the anxiety of this process, but only made it worse. Rollie would rather go through this alone than in front a dozen other crying children.
Pain shot up his arm before he noticed the nurse make her move. The small chip was in his arm now. Tracking his movements. Making the Faceless more comfortable at home in their latest planetary conquest.
“You’ll get used to it. The rest of your birthdays are much easier.”
The small metal probe under his skin felt like a grain of rice. She was right, his other birthdays would be better. Eleven: aptitude screenings. Twelve: career assignments. Thirteen thru sixteen: mind sync regimen. Seventeen: mate designation. And so on.
“You’re blessed to not know of life before the Faceless. The war, the strife, the overwhelming weight of it all.” She placed the bandage on the wound. “I saw your little brother outside. I tell him you were brave and didn’t even cry.”
Rollie and the nurse placed two fingers over their hearts reciting the Earth’s new credo, completing the new tradition. “By giving up all we gain all.”
Life after the Rose verdict was as you could imagine. Nobody trusted me anymore. My wife left and took the kid with her. The bowling team dissolved. I found myself assigned to the worst details the force had to offer. Some loyalty, huh?
Seeing as how Rose walked because of me losing my service weapon, Chief only let me carry a Taser. That didn’t slow me down though. I led the precinct in collars till the day I retired. You can look that up. I also unofficially led the precinct in Tasings. With guns, they count every shot you make, every bullet gets inventoried. With the Taser though, you can go hog wild with the thing and no Internal Affairs pencil pusher is the wiser.
And I suppose you read this whole tell-all wondering if I’d ever mention the incident at the Duval County Renaissance Faire? I know you’re here for the main course: finding out how an obviously guilty Wallace Rose walked free. You really want to know about me getting my comeuppance at that festival. Right?
I hate to disappoint, but everything you want to know is already in that police report. You can find it on the internet with all of the videos of the day. Yes, there was a riot when those two princesses were fist fighting over the last turkey leg. And yes, I got kicked in the teeth by the donkey that the wizard guy was riding. But here’s what I’ll say that wasn’t in the report: I Tased that donkey to the point where he threw that wizard off and then relieved himself on that dopey pointy hat he had on. Probably the most rewarding day on the force in my life. Who’s laughing now? Hope you your money’s worth from my book.
“Hersh to the day when we don’t need this stinkin’ festival anymore!”
Like the clapping crowd, Mayor Billingsly was already drunk from the tub gin Amos Walton had been making all Summer long. Dolly was happy her boss didn’t mess up his first duty for the day, but she needed to make sure he made his way through the rest of the day’s obligations. He still had to hand out the trophy at the zombie chuckin’ competition, put the first rubber band around the undead man’s head at the “How many till it pops?” tent and the one he was most looking forward to, hosting the Miss Post-Apocalypse McKohn County pageant.
“You need so slow it down sir,” she said, pulling him off the platform.
“Nonsense,” he countered. “Gotta make this last festival one we all remember.”
“Sir, there will be another on next Fall.” November was the perfect time for the event. It was right before the welcome of winter where the remaining zombies would freeze and give the survivors some respite.
“Not for me.” He rolled up his sleeve, revealing a yellowing bite on his forearm. Her stomach dropped. “C’mon Dolly let’s make this one for the ages. Just promise me one thing.”
“When I turn zombie. Make sure I don’t end up in Amos Walton’s goddam catapult.”
“Ma’am I need you to show me the place-“
“No, I can’t. Truly,” she pleaded.
Tears were welling in the woman’s eyes but Detective Brigham had press on. He pointed his pencil at the lone item on the stage of the empty theater: a large cabinet on casters. The trails in the pool of blood on the stage floor were evidence enough that the cabinet had been moved recently. “I know you’re shook up, but I need you to focus for me. Show me where the swords go.”
“If I tell you, if voids my contract with the union and I’ll never get work again.” She wiped her nose on a sequined sleeve that matched her skin-tight leotard.
“And if you don’t tell me, I’ll have to assume you’re an accessory to this man’s death.”
“I’ve got a daughter at home.”
Brigham tucked his pencil behind his ear and approached the dresser where, until half an hour ago, a man’s dead body had been lying out of. A dull sword still impaled in his stomach.
“So, you were having an affair with your employer?” The Detective checked his notepad again. “The Amazing Gerald?”
She nodded. He continued, “You know you weren’t the only one, right?” She blinked indifferently. He’d seen that look on her face enough to know his instincts were still strong.
“You found out today didn’t you?”
A cold stare. Her tears were gone.
“That he was sleeping with all of his assistants? Not one. . . but all.”
“So, you did it. You switched out one of the dummy swords with a real one.”
She nodded again. Brigham had seen many a death of lady’s man before. But never one that played out in front of a sold-out theater.
The sound of the fingernail clippings bouncing down the suction hose on their way the fission reactor was as satisfying today as they were when their mission started five hundred Earth day cycles ago. The shaved hairs didn’t make noise, but those nails ricocheting off the walls of the vacuum were delightful.
Twenty fingers and toes done. Smooth face and scalp. Francis closed the chamber and floated over to the next waiting pilgrim.
“We need to talk about this.”
Francis ignored her, which was surprisingly easy considering they were the only two people conscious on the spacecraft. They’d grown to be mutually amiable the way they would have it stranded on a desert island. The chamber door hissed open and presented the next pilgrim in need of a trim.
“Francis, this is important. We can’t wait another cycle.”
Yes, they could. Even with the impending collapse of the Earth within itself, the planet’s best engineers had thought through everything in their race to jettison a representative sample of humans to the closest inhabitable planet. They had to have considered whatever it was Estelle was so worried about.
“At lease let me get through my shift.”
He had five more pilgrims to clean. The suspended animation chambers were great at keeping their occupants alive with the lowest amount of oxygen and nutrition possible, but they hadn’t found a way around the hair issue. It didn’t stop growing and clogged the machinery. That’s where Francis and Ester came in. They would run first shift for the initial fifty years of the mission, trimming the hair and nails of the 1,008 remaining humans from Earth.
When their shift was up they would wake up the next pair of custodians for the remainder of their journey. Esther and Francis would clock out, so to speak. There was only enough oxygen to go around.
“Four more Esther.”
She floated over to him and he finally turned to her. A bead of water lifted from her eyelash.
“Francis, I’m pregnant.”
He froze. “No, the engineers. . . we’re sterilized. . . I.”
“But, the oxygen.”
“Mom I don’t want to go to a sleep over.”
“No protesting, Diane. You’re going to have fun.”
“But I don’t want to babysit Jason.”
“Don’t worry I’m packing his Game Boy and charger. He’ll entertain himself. Now zip up so we can go.”
Outside was even colder than it looked. The three feet of snow had hardened into frozen crust covering the cul-de-sac and all routes to the school. What had started as a snow day four days ago had become another winter break with the promise of adding days back at the end of the school year. Diana should have been Forrest High decorating for the Winter Formal. Trying on her dress. Practicing looking up into Grant Banion’s eyes as they slow danced.
Now she was trudging through the snow to Rory Hive’s house for some cockamamie sleepover her mother had negotiated with Rory’s mom. She’d been friends with Rory in Elementary school, but they just grew apart. Diana got into cheerleading. Rory kind of became a dork. Mom still thought they were best friends, but then again, she also still talked to her daughter like she was a still a 5th grader.
Jason lagged behind crunching the ice building around the sewer grates. Diana would have yelled for him to catch up if the wind wasn’t promising to suck her breath out.
Rory’s mom answered the door offering two large red unwrapped lollipops. One was instantly in Jason’s mouth.
“Oh you’ve thought of everything!” Mom praised.
“It’s not my first rodeo. Now why don’t you two go up to Rory’s room. All of the kids are up there already.” The house still smelled like Diana had remembered it when she was a kid, menthol and electrical fire. Rory’s mom knelt and whispered in Diane’s ear, “Grant Banion is already up there.”
Her heart dropped into her stomach and instantly started dissolving. Why was Grant here? Under her winter outwear she had on her dumpiest outfit.
“It’s just like the Winter Formal,” Mom said, planting her hand in the small of her daughter’s back and pushing her away.
Diane’s head was swimming with embarrassment and she lost control of her body. Her hand grabbed the lollipop and feet carried her up the stairs to Rory’s room.
Jason violated the first rule of entering a teenage girl’s room when he swung the door open without knocking. Thankfully there was nothing to see. “Is there a wall charger in her?” he yelled.
Rory was sitting at the same desk they used to play MASH on. Six other kids from the neighborhood all stared back at her in silence. Diane scanned the room for Grant and found him in sitting on the beanbag chair in the far corner. Somehow, he was dressed even more haphazard than she was. He had his sweater sleeves rolled up to his elbows and was scratching his forearms. The same arms that should have been holding her at the formal that evening.
“Welcome to my party Diane.” Rory leap from her desk and showed her once-friend the small banner she’d been coloring in. POX PARTY 1988!
Confused, Diane looked up at Rory and for the first time saw all the red dots on her skin. They were all under a film of dried lotion.
Diana swung in place to see her mom closing the door behind her. “It’s for the best honey.”
Each time it happened Joseph had to travel deeper into the woods to find the right stone: soft enough to chisel yet durable enough to withstand the harsh rain and wind of their new frontier claim. Wood didn’t work for the grave markers as it quickly took to rot and fell apart after two seasons. This afternoon he happened across a large block of limestone that would make a fine marker.
After dragging it back home, he took to hammering the boy’s name in to it. What did she decide again? Ezekiel? “That’s the one,” he sniffed.
He wouldn’t want to check in on Maria just yet. She was still in a tempest after delivering the child into the world on a Thursday and, if past experience were to hold true, she’d be pouring over her astral charts to determine where she made her mistake. And start plotting out their next attempt at a Sabbath born child.
A small row of grave markers cataloged their other attempts to fulfill his wife’s efforts to summon a proper demon into their plane. Maria had a lifetime of revenge to extract. Starting with all of those folks in Cow Ford who chased her out of town. They would soon learn what kind of heretic she truly was.
At first, Joseph secretly welcomed the banishment. It allowed him to live a quiet life and offer his wife a chance to study her arts, no matter how dark they were. Over time though, his heart ached more with each new gravestone he made. He’d already outlived his father, yet was denied fatherhood himself. He’d given up on his wife long ago, and only stayed to protect any more of their offspring from her ongoing vindictive acts of procreation.
The hammering of his chisel on the stone drew the Lokota. They were always watching. They were as scared of Maria as anyone else, but they honored the agreement Joseph made with them upon first arriving in the prairie. Take and raise the newborns and Joseph would provide them with talismans needed for what seemed like an endless, formless war they continuously were fighting. What were they doing with the locks of Maria’s witched hair Joseph harvested from his wife with each Wolf Moon?
The scout’s shadow at the edge of the woods, knelt, lifted the swaddled babe and walked away. Joseph continued hammering, hoping it would hide any of the baby’s crying from Maria. As he worked the stone, the farmer catalogued the rest of his day. He’d dig the hole, put in the dead rabbit, fill it and plant the grave marker. Only then would he interrupt his wife and declare the task complete.
Today he had another task requiring a larger stone. There would be no more need for the babies, the rabbits and the truce with the Lokota. He raised his hammer again and started to scribe his wife’s name into the rock.
The punch was more potent than Dwayne had been prepared for. Putting his hand against the gymnasium wall to steady himself, he looked around. None of the other attendees from the George Washington High School Class of 1989 reunion seemed to be effected by the Diesel brand grain alcohol he’d emptied into the bowl.
“Ain’t that a freshman move.” It was only eight o’clock and the room was barely full. Dwayne arrived early so he wouldn’t miss the seeing all of his old friends. He’d run the circuit of attendees but didn’t recognize any of the people he encountered. Even when he offered a handshake, they seemed polite, but dismissive to the point of ignoring him. These duds must have been the people with babysitters on the clock. Likely the same losers that went to see the school plays instead of the basketball games where he was hustling to look good for the scouts that were always promised to show up, but never did.
Dwayne shook the fog from his head and headed out the door for some fresh air. He had to sober up for the A-listers that were likely aiming to show up to the event fashionably late. His muscle memory guided his legs to his favorite spot in the old building: the trophy case. It looked like the basketball team’s winning streak had cooled considerably since he’d graduated. Dwayne only had to walk a few yards to reach his era of trophies and team photos.
Despite his inebriation, his eyes locked in on his crowning achievement in the display case. The All-State Varsity Basketball trophy was a thing of beauty. None of the cars on his lot matched the luster of the prize behind the glass. He remembered how heavy the trophy was when he hoisted it over his head after captioning his team to victory his senior year.
“I remember those days.”
Dwayne swung round to see where the voice was coming from. It was a tall thin silhouette of a man haloed by the light of the gymnasium reception behind him. Dwayne had no clue who this man was.
“Yea, I lead the team to state,” Dwayne replied, instinctually offering the man a handshake. “Dwayne Jeffries. I was –“
The frail man stepped closer to the case and ignoring the offered hand.
Dwayne couldn’t help but laugh. How could this man know about this team and all of its accomplishments, but not know or care about his role as the team captain? “Look.” He pointed to the list of player names on the trophy.
“We had some tough wins,” the man said.
“You’re damn right. I had to push this team hard for every single game that year.” Dwayne said guiding his eyes to the top of the list where the team captain was called out. He nearly choked upon not seeing his name etched there. In its place was Arthur Boone.
Dwayne confirmed that this trophy indeed said 1989 at the base and the rest of the team were all the guys he had played with. The same guys he was hoping to meet tonight. The only name he didn’t recognize was that of the man next to him. Dwayne wanted to punch the wistful look off the man’s face.
Dwayne ignored the man and examined the team photo near the trophy, nearly pushing his nose and forehead through the glass to get a closer look. Buddy, Reg, Mark and Jimmy were all there with the rest of the team. Coach Klein was at the edge of the photo next to the team captain. The man smelled of bourbon and aftershave when the team took the photo after the championship. Dwayne remembered that clearly. Only, Dwayne wasn’t standing in the photo. In his place, was a younger iteration of the man standing next to him at the display case.
Despite being full of booze, his stomach felt empty. To the point where his whole middle felt like it was collapsing in on itself. Dwayne stumbled and caught himself on the display case.
“Those were the days, right?” Arthur whispered and turned to leave, again disregarding Dwayne, now on his knees closer to 1988’s accomplishments.
Dwayne found his breath. His mind wavered from rage at Arthur and his classmates for completely overlooking him and utter confusion at his erasure from his crowning achievement not only in school, but in his lifetime. The memory of the wins was crystalline in his head. Much more than the years that followed. He found some comfort in the tears that started welling.
He wiped his tears and finally found his photo in the trophy case. It was part of a newspaper clipping preserved in a plaque. DWAYNE ANDREWS MEMORIAL BASKETBALL TOURNEY. Furrowing his brow, he read further. George Washington High School Junior, killed in car accident last Spring will be honored with a preseason scrimmage.
His vision lost its focus and, Dwayne could feel the loss of certainty in his own existence. His head filled with refreshed memory. He was in the car. A bottle of Diesel tucked in between his legs. His breath was flammable and filled the cab of the Rav4 as he barreled down the highway screaming his favorite song.
Dwayne paused, opening his eyes to the world in front of him. He knew the memory of flying through the windshield of the car would return but he never wanted to reconcile that. If he ignored that and refused to accept his pitiful destiny, he could continue to live in these halls, shape his own history. See less and less of his classmates come back every five years so he could continue to try and speak to them. See if they could finally acknowledge the ghost among them. The cloudbank in Dwayne’s head rolled in again, covering up the memories and erasing any self-awareness he had. When he opened his eyes again he would back at the punchbowl, complaining about how old they all were getting.
The beast towered over him. Silent. Guymon hadn’t thought about spiders having vocal chords before this moment. It made sense. If they didn’t have any means of making noise before The Process, they wouldn’t have any afterwards.
“Don’t hurt him Papa,” Carla shouted from the crowd. His daughter sounded just like she did in the basement when determining that the creepy crawlies in the window sill was a just a daddy long legs. She had no heart for other spiders, but daddy long legs always earned her sympathy. “Their mouths are so tiny they can’t even bite people. Just other bugs,” she would educate him.
“OK, Carla. I promise I’ll never kill any daddy long legs.”
Twenty feet above him though the spiders’ mandibles looked like they could have exposed Guymon’s skull with the efficiency of a can opener.
The rain-rusted loud speakers buzzed from the four corners of the dirt arena. “And here comes hometown hero Guymon Mallerno. Let’s see he’s a match for Big Daddy!” The crowd cheered. If it was for the once-defensive end of the Reagan High Growlers or the double decker sized spider threatening to eviscerate him, it didn’t matter. The noise of the drunken mob agitated the arachnid.
The promise of The Process had bankrupted the nation. A chemical reaction that could instantly expand organic materials held unlimited promise. Produce and livestock could be exponentially enlarged to feed everyone and reduce the farmland needed. All government resources were steered immediately to the full-scale roll-out of The Process by executive order.
The problem was that ten months after enlargement, the cells broke down. Killing anything that had become gigantic. And anyone that had consumed Process-treated items. The only thing that The Process didn’t destroy were arachnids, leaving the nation stuck with thousands of the giant monstrosities. Not wanting to miss any opportunity to placate what was left of the masses, the beasts were put into service entertaining them.
Guymon didn’t care about this history though. It didn’t matter in this moment. He seized the spiders leg and started to lift before the creature could react. He wouldn’t be able to keep his daughter’s promise today.
“Sorry I’m kind of in the middle of nowhere. . . OK I’ll try that. . . Thanks.”
Bisim slid the phone back into his cargo pocket and approached his lifeless travel companion.
Reaching behind the solar panel his pinky finger found the recessed toggle the Talacorps operator had just told him existed. The face plate on the Tyson.2 flash white then offered the text: SOLAR BYPASS NUCLEAR AUXILARY INITIATED. BATTERY LIFE 93 HOURS. REBOOTING. ENJOY.
Of course, his Tyson.2 would breakdown at the most important part of this whole deployment to Wat Arun. The robots were made for rain, snow, heat, but the constant cloud cover over the past four days had been too much for the machine to overcome. Bisim sat down on a low temple wall hoping to get a few rounds of Popping Penguins in on his phone while the machine started up.
The monk, Bisim’s contact at the temple, spent the robot’s reboot time examining the automaton. The small man looked especially interested in Tyson’s articulated hands.
“Why am I setting this up here?,” Bisim asked the bald man.
“You don’t know?”
“I mean, I know the purpose. But why here? This is the temple of sunrises, right?”
“Young man, someone’s setting sun is another’s sunrise.”
Bisim rolled his eyes. The monk sounded just like the rest of the holy men he’d been working with since taking this internship. He thought the stereotype of these divine thinkers would have been debunked. The more Tyson.2 deployments he worked through the more the stereotypes were reinforced.
The machine clicked and picked itself up like a time-lapse of a mushroom springing into existence. “Wonderful,” the monk declared. As soon Tyson’2 faceplate was illuminated Bisim dialed the first of what would be a lifetime of clients to use the robot’s services. An old man in a dark room popped onto the screen.
“The incense,” Bisim prompted the monk. The diminutive man handed the robot a bindle of the perfumed sticks. Tyson.2 lit them with a butane fingertip. The robot lifted the incense to its forehead and in unison, recited prayers and last rites with the dying man on the screen.
Feel free to read over Brady Koch’s shoulder if you see him working on a new novel or short story at the coffee shop, library, or commuter train into NYC. Despite his penchant for crime, horror, and the unusual in his writing, he’s actually a nice guy and welcomes your feedback.
“Guns, Gods & Robots was one of the few short story collections that will actually stay on my shelves. Definitely glad I got my hands on it.” -Si-Fi and Scary
[_“Guns, Gods & Robots is a delightful collection of short stories by an author who’s truly emerging in his own right.” _]-The New Podler Review of Books
[_“I found each of the short stories in this book mind-bending, intelligent, and enjoyable; each story is multi-faceted and brilliantly written.” _]-On My Kindle
Guns: A girl’s birthday wish comes true when she gets to spend an afternoon on manhunt with her lawman father.
Gods: An old man discovers his crops aren’t the only dead things on his farm.
Robots: A heartless machine built for compassion malfunctions, leading its engineer on a hunt to fix the corruption before it spreads.
Human nature in the face of impossible choices is at the core of each post-apocalypse, undead resurgence, and domestic automation gone wrong in Guns, Gods & Robots. Brady Koch remixes classic science fiction conventions to offer new deviations on the genre that range from the uplifting to the horrifying. Collected here for the first time, these seven stories and novellas will spark your imagination while keeping you awake all night.
Guns, Gods & Robots is now available at your favorite _]