Dog Days

Mad was going to be sick.  It was gonna come up, hot and wretched – he could already feel his stomach knotting and threatening to fling its contents up onto the concrete like the world’s worst catapult.   He was gonna vomit, and it was gonna be Bluto’s fault.  Not that would stop the big bastard and his equally wall-like brother, Brick, from taking the piss out of him for it.

He could hear the saw, digging into flesh, wet and thick, like someone trying to cut through a ham shank with one of those old electric knives.  He could hear the sound of blood hitting the floor, and Bluto, cursing occasionally as the saw got hung up on a bit of bone or an extra tough tendon.   The funny thing was, it wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever seen.  He’d done wetwork before – every now and then someone needed to get dead, and Mad had never shied away from that.  But this – it just seemed like butchery.

There was a thud-squelch, and Mad’s stomach jumped.  It was the sound of a couple pounds of flesh hitting the floor and rolling a few inches.  He peeked around the big man’s back, and saw toes, still pink, pointing into the air like a fucked-up weathervane.  He leaned back and tried to breathe through his nose.

“You done yet?” he called out.

Bluto turned his head, the folds on his neck piling up like Oscar Meyer wieners.  His dark brow beetled, and he waved the gloved hand holding the saw in the air.

“This shit takes time.” he said.  “You want the cops to find her?”

Mad watched the saw drip gore on the floor and considered his answer.  He dug a cigarette out and lit it, blowing smoke into the air, and praying it would settle his stomach.

“Given the choice, I wish she’d never walked in.”

Bluto had turned back to his work; the saw digging away at what Mad could only guess was a thigh.  He shrugged.

“Shit happens, man.  What the hell was she doing this far south?  Nice clothes, pedicure -”

“Probably looking to score.”

“Yeah.  Maybe.  Maybe she was looking for something else.”

“Like?”

“Little rough trade?  Little strange.  Lots of tough men and swingin’ dicks down here.”

Mad grunted and reached under his chair, to where he’d tossed the girl’s purse.  He unsnapped the clasp and started digging things out.  Tampons, lipstick, compact.  Phone – he tinkered with it for a minute or two, flipping through texts and photos.  Damn shame.  She was pretty.  Sociable, too.  Someone was gonna miss her.  He dropped the phone in his pocket and kept digging.

Receipts, ticket stubs – he shook his head – purses were goddamn black holes.  He tossed things to the side as he found them, hoping to find something interesting.  Wallet – here we go, he thought. He opened it and found the usual credit cards and reward cards and ID cards.  Inside the middle flap, he found a grand in cash, which he took as well, and pocketed, then tossed the wallet to the side.

The purse was almost empty.  Mad shook it and heard something rattle around in the bottom.  He stuck a hand in and came out with two things – a bottle of some pill with no label, and a plastic baggie.  The baggie had a little bit of white residue in the corners – Columbian marching powder – he never touched the shit.  He tossed the baggie to the side and popped the top on the pill bottle.  Inside were two or three small yellow pills, embossed with a symbol he’d never seen before.  Probably some sort of Molly.  He threw it back in the bag and tossed the purse into the pile he’d made, and then added his cigarette butt.

Brick wandered in from the front hallway, Glock in his hand.  He’d earned the name for being wide as a wall and thick as his namesake.  Mad took a look at the pistol and shook his head.

“You had that out the whole time?”

Brick looked down at it, as if he were surprised it was there.  “Yeah, I suppose so.”

“What was your plan?”

Brick frowned.

“You know, if the cops showed up?”

Brick frowned again.

“Were you planning on shooting all of them?”

“Why?”

“Because they will start shooting when they see you with that.”

“Oh.”  He tucked the pistol into his waistband and trudged over to his brother, where he watched him work in silence for a bit.

Mad’s stomach finally settled.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t hearing the sounds of the saw or smelling the charnel-house stench anymore, it was just that some things you could get used to if you were around them long enough.  He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes.  He could hear the saw, rhythmic, steady.  He drifted off.

***

He woke when something soft and heavy landed in his lap with a crinkle of plastic.  Still bleary, he looked down and saw a face staring back at him through the plastic, slightly distorted, like a drowning victim.  He screamed and tossed it off, and the room was filled with the booming sound of Bluto’s laughter.

“How – how -” the big man wheezed between laughs and sucked in a breath.  “How about a little head?”  He collapsed, laughing.

Mad stood, disgusted, and stalked to the far end of the room.  He thought of the pistol in its holster under his arm and thought maybe he should just blow the big dumb bastard’s brains out now.  Instead, he took a breath, counted to the requisite ten, and lit a smoke.  He let the nicotine calm him while Bluto recovered.  When the big man had quit laughing, he turned back to him and gestured to the bag.

“That the last of her?”  Mad asked.

“Yeah,”  Bluto said, wiping tears from his eyes.  “Brick’s out back tossing the rest in the dumpster.”

“Good.”

Mad dropped back into the chair, while Bluto went to find a hose to rinse the floor off.  For a while, there was only the sound of water against concrete and gurgling down the drain.  Mad looked at his watch.  He frowned.

“How far away is the dumpster?”

Bluto turned off the water.  “What?”

“Your brother’s been gone a while.  Did he get lost?”

Bluto shrugged, and pulled the apron and gloves off and stuffed them into another bag.  He tied it shut, and flicked off the light in that room.

“Got to get rid of these.  I’ll check on him.  Dumbass probably fell in the bin.”

He lumbered off toward the back hall that led to the alley, leaving Mad alone.  Water dripped from somewhere in the dark.  Mad checked his watch again after the sound of dripping water had driven him to near distraction.  Bluto had been gone a while.  Still no sign of Brick, either.  His stomach tightened, and he took a deep breath.

They’d probably just knocked off and took the car back to Shanahan’s.  It wasn’t unlike them, to leave him sitting.  Then again, they were supposed to do this job together.  They didn’t think they were gonna do it and take the commission themselves, did they?  He shook his head.  Nah.  They needed him to get past the alarms.  Then what?  He looked at the darkened room Bluto had left behind.  Probably sneaking up, pulling another bullshit prank.

He got up and snapped the light on.  It flooded the room in harsh fluorescence, lighting up pink puddles of water and cracked cream colored tiles.  The room was empty.  He turned back to the chair and sat.  Maybe they’d been nicked.  Cops could be sitting outside right now, waiting for him.  He pulled out his pistol and tapped it against his leg, trying to think.

They didn’t have anything on him.  Just a guy sitting in an old butcher plant with a mess on the floor.  He could probably walk right out after a few hours in the station.  Then again, if they looked in the dumpster, and they might – cops weren’t blind or stupid – he might just be seven different kinds of fucked.  He stood and started to pace.  He wondered if he could just stay in here and hide.  If Bluto and Brick were smart enough they wouldn’t mention him.  He rolled his eyes and knew that wasn’t going to fly.  If those two put their brains in one basket, they still wouldn’t be able to tie a shoe.

“You should totally turn yourself in.”

The voice was high and female, and Mad thought, a little pissy, which was a strange thing to think about a disembodied voice, but he was too busy trying not to piss himself when he heard it to worry about normal.

He snapped the gun down and level, and looked around.  “Who’s there?”

“Down here, dipshit.”

He looked.  The brothers had forgotten one bag – of course they had – the one with the head in it.  As Mad watched, the plastic writhed.

“Hey, fuck all for brains.  Pick me up.”

Mad screamed and fired a shot at the bag.  It went wide, digging a furrow in the concrete, and ricocheting down the hall.

“Really?”  The voice was acerbic, with a touch of Valley Girl.  “Already dead, you moron.  Put the gun away.”

Mad stood for a minute, trying to make sense of what was happening.  He thought maybe Bluto had pulled another prank – slipped him a funny cigarette – or, shit.  He’d touched those pills the girl had in her purse.  He put the pistol away and scrubbed his palms against his pants, then sat down heavily in the chair.  He was just gonna have to ride it out.

“Hello?”  It came out Hell-O.

“Shut up,”  Mad said.

“As if,” the head said.

God, stuck here with Tiffani from Omega Bitchy Theta.  He briefly considered sticking his pistol in his mouth.

“Pick me up.  I can’t see a fucking thing in this bag.”

Mad thought about punting the bag across the room.  A morbid part of him wondered instead what it might be like to talk to a severed head.  He wrestled with himself for a moment, and the morbid part won out.  He picked up the bag and tore open the plastic.  A trickle of gore slipped out, staining his pants, and he cursed.  The head rolled its eyes.

“It’s not like they were Boss.”

He sat down and set the head in his lap.  They stared at each other for a minute.  She had been blonde, though that was stained now with blood and spinal fluid, and matted down.  Mascara ran in rivulets from pretty blue eyes, and lipstick was smudged across one cheek from her lips, like tire tracks from a runaway car.  Her neck ended in a ragged stump that was black at the edges.  She was probably stunning before their unfortunate run-in.  Her lips curled into a smirk.

“Nice, at least you’re a DILF.”

Mad frowned.  “I should cut your tongue out.”

“Like I need it to talk.  Not even a voice box, genius, and yet words.  Totes amazing, right?”

“This is a guilt complex, right?  Some sort of goddamn subconscious reaction to touching those drugs.  This is what I get for not setting a watch on the door.  Could’ve avoided this entirely.”

“Oh my God.  Whine much?”

“Jesus, you’re a bitch.”

“And you’re a murderer.  Most people wouldn’t react this well to being killed.”

Mad opened his mouth to reply and was cut off by a bang in the back of the building.  He thought it sounded like the door slamming shut, and he breathed a sigh of relief.  Brick or Bluto must finally be done.

“Waiting on your bros, your brahs, your bromigos?” she asked, contempt in her voice.

“Something like that.”

There was a low wet sound from the back hallway, and something squished against the floor.  Mad put the girl’s head down and pulled his pistol.

“Brick?” he called.  “Bluto?”  No answer.

“Like OMG, what if it’s totes a monster?”

He turned to her, a scowl on his face.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

She opened her eyes wide, and her mouth made an O.  “OOOH, scary monster, don’t eat me!”  She giggled, like she had just seen something filthy on her phone.

Something squished-slid across the tile floor behind him, and he turned.  His stomach lurched when he saw the thing shambling toward him.  It was an amalgamation, some sort of hodgepodge of life that had crawled its way from the gutter of the world.  All of its parts were human, though bloody and ragged, and in the wrong order.  Block fleshy ropes grew from where the body parts ended in their ragged incisions and held the thing together in an angry, pulsating mass.

As he watched, it lurched forward with a plorp, and black tentacles quested out from a raw stump, searching.  He screamed and emptied the pistol’s clip into the thing, but it had as much effect as setting a fire on fire.

“See, you dumb sonovabitch?  Scary monster.”

The tentacles found the girl’s head and pulled it to its mass, wrapping around it and attaching as still more black ropes grew from the stump of her neck and sutured her to the flesh.  When it was done, it crawled toward him, its motion surer now that it was guided by the gift of vision.

Mad backed into a corner, tears welling in his eyes as it came on.   He threw the pistol at it and uttered a dismayed groan when it just bounced off.  He saw the blue of the girl’s eyes were black and deep and cold.  She opened her mouth.

“You are so. Totally. Fucked.”

Mad screamed until she stuffed black ropes down his throat, and though he wanted to retch, it was far too late.

 

 

 

Jerry’s Meat Shack

Throg looked at the camera, the glowing red light on top staring at him like a basilisk eye. He grimaced. He hated the camera. He hated the way Jerry exploited him, like he was just a mascot, and not a breathing, thinking, feeling being. He hated the little director, Trent, sitting in his little director chair, with his little black beret and wire-rimmed glasses. Throg thought he could probably snap the little weasel’s neck with a minimum of effort. He thought he could probably have the little weasel’s teeth for a necklace, and his fingers for dinner. Trent smiled at him, and Throg managed his best in return, his stomach churning.

No greenskin should have to put up with this. He squirmed in the outfit they’d put him in, a too-tight vest, a tiny cowboy hat, and a pair of boots with stars embroidered on them. He’d give his left tusk to rip the guts out of the costumer.

“Throg, you okay buddy?”

Throg nodded. Of course he wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. He had a mortgage now. A Prius that hadn’t been paid off. A wife. He had to be Good Throg, Patron of the Bloodfist family, and not Throg the Bloody-Handed. They’d cancel his 401K for that.

“Is this really necessary?” Throg pulled at the vest. It felt like a prison.

“All part of the show, buddy. You only need to wear it for a half-hour, hour tops.”

The set lights were hot. Not like Crag, his home, but combined with the kitchen behind him and the Arizona sun, it had to be about a hundred-twenty degrees on set. A bead of sweat rolled from under the little hat, and he blinked it away. He let out a low growl.

“Are we ready yet?”

“Almost, buddy.”

Krog looked back to the kitchen. Gunter worked back there, his paper hat cocked to one side while he toiled over the deep fryers. Krog liked Gunter. Barely spoke a word of English, and was always happy to fry something. Once, he’d fried a toad for Throg. That was a good day.

“Quiet on the set!” Trent’s voice brought Throg back around. “Ready to roll, buddy?”

Throg nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good, just take it from the cue cards.”

Throg looked at the camera, and the cameraman hunched behind it.

“Are – are we on now?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

Throg looked over at the cue cards. He started to read.

“Got a hankerin’ for a hunk o’ meat? C’mon down to Jerry’s Meat Shack! We got red meat, white meat, pink meat – brother, we can’t be BEAT!” Throg held up the club they’d given him to illustrate the point. Internally, he groaned. “You can get it deep-fried or baked, pan-seared or sauteed. Now, let me AXE you a question:” he held up a shining battleaxe. For a moment, the weight was good in his hands, a nice counterpoint to the pun.

“Do you like variety? Because this week only, we’ve got the Mega-Super-Deluxe Salad Bar, with five kinds of bacon, and seventeen cheese dipping sauces, all for only nine-ninety-five!”

“Bring the kids, and they can join our Junior Carnivore CLUB!” He held up the club again. Anger began to stir in his belly. He was once the alpha, the Chieftain of the Black Legions, the Bringer of Sorrows. He looked over the cue cards. The last line lingered in his vision for a moment, red against white. Like blood in the snow. He took a breath, and steeled himself.

“It’s ORC-some!”

Rage filled him. He ripped off the vest, and threw the little cowboy hat at Jerry. He hefted the battle-axe, his breath coming in heaving bursts. He raised it, ready to begin the carnage. First, that infernal camera. Then, the others. Red crept in at the edge of his vision.

“CUT!”

Throg blinked, the word bringing reality crashing back in around him. The little red light on the camera went off, and Gunter was at his elbow with a paper bag. He handed it to the orc. Throg lowered his axe and peeked inside. Five toads, golden brown. He grinned a little.

“That’s a wrap, buddy. Good job.” Trent’s voice cut through his moment of peace.

Throg ignored him and popped a toad in his mouth. Succulent, with a hint of swamp mud. There would be no carnage today. Millie would be pleased.

 

Sin

June 25

There’s nothing left. I have tasted nearly all the world has to offer, and still I feel empty. I suppose Nietzsche or Freud would have something to say about that, maybe even Schopenhauer. Doesn’t matter, I’m not much of a philosopher.  All I know is since she left, I’ve tried to fill the void, with food and drink and sex, but none of those things measure up. Is it just that the victims of suicide continue to victimize those they leave behind? Or is it some flaw in my character, something fundamental, like a misfiring gene, or a misplaced atom that drives me to destruction?

I still see her. She haunts this old place, her footsteps echoing in the halls, her laugh in the air. Her shadow pursues me from room to room, a smudge in the corner of my eye. You think it’s the isolation, the grief. I know it’s her. Her shade reaches out from Hell and torments me. She’s trying to tell me something, and it’s just a matter of how to communicate that stymies me.

 

June 26

I think I’ve found it. Or at least stumbled on it. The alcohol helps – it drives away rational thought for a time, and opens the mind to possibility. Sin. Let’s assume for a moment Catholic doctrine is true. If so, as much as it pains me to contemplate, her suicide was a one-way ticket to Hell. So, to get closer to her, I need to corrupt myself. Flesh and mind and soul. I will start tomorrow.

 

July 5

Sloth. It was my first foray into deep sin. I took a week from work, rescheduling what needed to be, and leaving the company phone at the company. It’s a rarity, and sure to worry some – I told them there was no need to worry, just a need to unplug. Only partially true – if they knew what thoughts trickled through my mind like a sickly creek, they would worry. Still, it seemed to assuage their fears.

I spent the days with the television on nonstop, and did nothing that required more than shoveling sustenance into my mouth and using the bathroom to dispose of the waste.  I lingered unwashed and unkempt on the couch, my mind a blank, my body sitting unused, like an abandoned factory.  By the third day, my skin itched, and my hair was matted with grease. Still, I could not waver from my commitment. I added napping to my regimen, and was rewarded on the sixth day with a dream.

She came to me wrapped in a shroud, her skin pale and gray, her eyes clouded with cataract. Her breath was like the sea, and her hair like kelp. She pressed her lips to mine and I tasted the grave. Still, my heart leapt. It was first contact and full of emotion and life I had not felt for a while. I wept when I woke. There were no other interactions, and on the fourth I cleaned up and watched the fireworks from the boulevard.

I thought of her face lit by fires in the sky a long time past, and wept again.

 

July 12

Gluttony. I starved myself for a day, my stomach rumbling through two meetings before I had to excuse myself in embarrassment. I made it to the next day, lightheaded and ravenous.  It started with biscuits and gravy with a side of sausage and fruit.  I barely made it to lunch before I devoured two calzones from the local pizzeria, and a side of caesar salad.  By dinner, I was no longer hungry, but my mission was clear. I wolfed two Big Macs, a large fry, and a large shake.  That night, my stomach aching, I rolled into bed, and fell asleep – on my side – I didn’t want to vomit and choke.

She came again that night- bloated and wet, and embraced me. She smelled of rotten meat and hot garbage, and I basked in it. It was brief, as stomach cramps woke me, and I found myself in the toilet. Still, despite the wracking pain, a little joy beat in my heart.  In the morning, there was a rotten plum by my bedside. A gift.

 

July 19

I find the ravages of these sins and the emotional toll of our meetings are forcing me to recuperate on a longer timeframe than I expected.  In addition, some sins require planning. Still, I forge ahead.

Greed. It took me some time to figure how to properly personify this. In the end, I settled on the old standby, robbery. I bought dark clothes and a ball cap. I shaved. I dyed my hair. Dark glasses hid my eyes. I opted to skip the ski mask. It seemed cliche, and stupid to buy one in the middle of summer in the city. I found my spot, an alley that smelled of garbage and sewage off the beaten path, and waited.

They were an old couple. I almost didn’t stop them, but they were perfect. Frail and slow and well-off – I could see the Omega on the old man’s wrist.  I waited until they were nearly on top of me, and leapt from the alley. They old woman shrieked, and I slapped her – hard. For his part, the old man saw the knife in my hand and handed over his wallet. I asked for his watch and menaced them with my knife. They handed over both the watch and the old woman’s earrings. It was exhilarating and terrifying, and yet I couldn’t shake the shame I felt for rattling their old bones. Money in hand, I fled.  I hid in alleys here and there, and eventually ducked into a bar and ditched the disguise, the color in my hair washing out like day-old syrup. There was no pursuit.

That night, as I slept, she came to me. Something had changed. Her eyes were clearer, her flesh firmer and slimmer.  She kissed me, and tasted of spice. For the first time, I stirred below the waist. The dream ended, and I woke, the watch glinting on the bedside table in the moonlight. Its face read 3:45. I remembered when she died, and a sob escaped me, my emotions traitor to my purpose. I threw the watch in the trash and slept fitfully the rest of the night.

 

July 22

Vanity. This was simple. I bought a suit and a haircut, a manicure and a pedicure. I spent time taking selfies and posted them online. I fished for compliments. In the end, she came to me, my reward a brief kiss on the lips, hers full and lush.  She smelled of jasmine and honeysuckle. In the morning, I saw her ankle slip past the door into the bathroom, and though she wasn’t there, her scent lingered.

 

July 23

Envy. Again, easy. I spent time online, looking at beautiful married women and fast cars. At what wealth could buy, and who it could buy. I thought of the things others owned and wished them for myself. Maybe it was too easy. She did not visit that night, and I spent the morning in worry, thinking I had disappointed her. I plotted on how to steal one of the things I had seen, and could not concoct a way that didn’t end with me in prison or dead.

It was painful, to accept that I had failed the challenge, but I felt I could make it up. There were two sins left, and they were big. The MVPs of sin. I felt confident I could win her approval.

 

July 29

Lust. I had to wait until payday. Prostitutes aren’t cheap, and the things I intended to do with one only made the price skyrocket. I won’t go into detail here, except to say that the things I did – I only hope I do not pay some physical price – STI, or the burden of a child.

She came to me that night, wearing only strips of gauze, her flesh made whole again. Her breath was sweet, and her hair shining. We made love in a field beneath a honeysuckle. She was willing, and I was my old virile self.  We are so close, the world between us as thin as mist. I could feel her weight on the bed, could smell her sweetness.

I wonder – will God forgive? Is there redemption for what I do if I do it in the name of love? Or is damnation the only path for me? Every sin I commit, every step I take on this path forges my chains, but can they be broken? If so, do I need to abandon her? I cannot.

 

August 26

Such a long wait, compared to the others. Wrath. It’s the last step on this road – the key to the door that will bring us together. I speculated before that I had been too weak for the things I needed to do to bring us closer. I still worry that my concentration, my devotion had not been great enough for the Envy step.  I will correct that.

I’m generally easy-going. Sure, we fought, but never to the point of true anger. The fact that the last words we spoke before her death were angry still cores my heart. Some nights I simply beg her forgiveness. Is she capable? Does Hell allow her the freedom to forgive? It must. It allows her to be with me some nights. To haunt me. But it will not release her. I know that now. I’ve got to go to her.

I made a list. Those who I felt wronged me. Wronged her. I narrowed it by thinking of those who had done it maliciously, or out of carelessness.  It wasn’t a long list, but it was a hard decision. How do you choose which life to take when you’re damning your soul?

The gun wasn’t hard to buy. I found it online. My hands are still clean on paper – they sent it to me as soon as the checks cleared. I have three boxes of shells, and wrongs to right. They don’t check your bags at work – why would they? I’ve been a loyal employee for years. Tomorrow will be a different day.

She’s waiting for me.

 

Forgetting is so Long

It came down to two things, Lyssa thought. Forgetting or resurrection. She considered long and hard the dichotomy of ideas, sitting in her kitchen with the smooth tan wood and the crisp white curtains. The wind blew them in and out, their sharp fabric moving like canvas sails, and she thought it was the same. In or out, positive or negative, though she thought maybe that wasn’t right either, because the absence of something wasn’t a negative, it was nothing. A blank void, waiting to be filled. A flat plain. In the end, she decided that though she wouldn’t remember, and therefore know no pain, she would rather risk the pain and fill in the hole that already existed.

Lyssa’d saved for it, this day when she finally made a decision, and she went to the tin box on her dresser and opened it. Inside, neat green bills sat alongside crumpled, torn, and faded ones, and scattered among those were silver coins, both shiny and tarnished. She saw that dual nature in everything now – it was plain these days, writ large. She sat on the bed and counted it again. Three-hundred-forty-five dollars and seventy cents. That was roughly the cost of the human soul. Or so the alienists had decided. She bundled the money carefully into her handbag, and then placed the tin back on the dresser beside a bottle of White Shoulders, a small clean square waiting amid the dust where it had sat. Clean and dusty. Opposite. Dual.

She left the house, locking the door, though she had left the windows open, and walked the twenty-two blocks to the alienist. On the way, men and women, adults and children, poor and rich, beautiful and ugly and fat and skinny and all other things that made people people crowded the sidewalks and drove on the roadways and also hung from their balconies shouting at lovers below. Lyssa watched them from the corner of her eye, wondering which were reborn, which were forgotten for others. She wondered if any were.

It began to rain when she reached a street corner, and she pulled the hood of her coat up and let it splatter harmless against the cloth and cool on her hands. From somewhere close, she could smell hot dogs from a vendor’s cart, savory on the air. She wondered if everyone making momentous decisions felt this way, if they knew the world was changing for them and their mind started taking notes, filling in the blank spaces for reference. She wondered what the opposite was. Was it forgetting? Or was it ignorance? A car splashed by, making ripples dance in the puddles in the street, and she decided that for this moment, it didn’t matter.

She crossed the street and saw the building just down the way. It was small, pinched between two other buildings like a piece of meat forgotten between molars. A sign jutted from its front, with a simple logo, two triangles intersecting and pointing in opposite directions – one up, one down.  A few short strides later, and she stood in front of the door with aching legs and trembling fingers, the glass stenciled in lettering that held no nonsense. It read: JONAH LATHE, ALIENIST. She gripped the knob and pushed through the door, and was standing inside.

The room was cozy and cool, and done in soft earth tones. It smelled faintly of sage and lavender, and a pair of comfortable chairs occupied a space behind a short counter. Behind that, a door set in the wall led to parts unknown. A young woman, her hair a blaze of red, her eyes deep brown sat behind the counter with a ledger and a serious expression. She looked up at Lyssa’s entrance and gave her a small smile.

“May I help you?”

“I – I’m here to see the alienist.”

“You have payment?”

Lyssa nodded and fumbled with her handbag for a moment before pulling out the money she had so carefully saved. She lay it on the counter, her hand giving a small tremble, and waited while the woman counted it. When she was done, the receptionist squirreled it away and gestured to the chairs.

“Have a seat. Jonah will be with you shortly.”

Lyssa took the seat nearest the door and sat, her hands in her lap, her gaze straight ahead. For the first time, she noticed the wallpaper border that ran around the room, the sun and moon orbiting one another on the thick paper. She heard a click nearby, and the door beside her opened. A man entered, tall and thin, bordering on gaunt. He wore a gray suit with a red tie. His eyeglasses caught the light, and for a moment she couldn’t see his eyes, only a glare that gave her the impression that he could see through everything. He spared her a small smile – it seemed to be the only other currency in this office – and folded himself into the seat across from her, hanging one lanky leg across the other.

“We haven’t been introduced. I am Jonah.”

“Lyssa.”

He inclined his head. “Pleased to meet you, Lyssa. How can I help you?”

“I want to bring someone back.”

“Oh? Are you sure?”

She nodded.

“You know, Pablo Neruda wrote about what we do. Though, I don’t think then that he knew what we do. He said ‘Love is so short, forgetting is so long’. Are you sure you want a short pain versus a long peace?”

She nodded again and straightened. Her voice was stronger. “Yes. I’ve given it a great deal of thought. There is nothing so bad in my mind as choosing the easy path over the hard when the reward is greater.”

“And the risk.”

She shrugged. “You took my money. I can always find another alienist.”

He chuckled a little and raised a hand. “I’m simply making the argument we’re mandated to.” He gestured to the receptionist, who had swiveled her chair and was taking notes. Discomfort crawled across Lyssa’s skin. She shot a glance at the woman, who didn’t seem to notice, then back to Jonah. “She’s only noting the relevant items. Payment, names. All above board. Now. Who is it you miss?”

Lyssa cleared her throat. “Farrah Palmer.”

“Age?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“Cause of death?”

“Drowning.”

“Date of death?”

“April third.”

“This year?”

Lyssa grimaced. This was the tricky part. Most alienists only took on recent resurrections. Some, further out. All of them agreed you couldn’t go further back than three years.

“Two and three-quarters,” she lied.

Jonah nodded, and the receptionist’s pencil scratched furiously.

“You have something of hers?”

Lyssa nodded again and reached to the chain around her neck. She hadn’t had to think about bringing this with her. It had been as close to her as possible. She unclasped the necklace and pulled the ring free, passing it into Jonah’s hand with only a moment of hesitation. His fingers closed around it, and for a moment her heart clenched like his fist.

“Good,” he said. “That’s everything, then.” He leaned in. “Listen carefully, now. I’m going to go into the room beside us. You will hear things. Do not be afraid. Be patient. In less than an hour, the door will open. Farrah will be with you. Take her home, live your life. You may not return.”

She listened, marking every word, and when he had finished, Lyssa nodded and sat back in her chair. Jonah stood and exited the way he had come in. The office became deathly still, the receptionist with her back to Lyssa again. Time ticked on in measured seconds and minutes, hours something not considered this close to her goal. The air seemed to grow thick, a quality she hadn’t considered possible until now, as though fog were tickling at the corners and sniffing around her ankles.  A sound, a banging like a hammer thrown against wood made her jump, and Lyssa’s head swiveled toward the door. She grimaced and resettled herself.

The next sound was a wail, a long drawn-out sound like that of a cat and a coyote singing in unison. It sent shivers up her spine and gooseflesh crept across her arms like chill spiders. She closed her eyes and took a breath, and tried to think of more opposites, to put what was happening in perspective. Life and death was the only one that came to mind, and she clung to it like a stranded man on a buoy. Another wail, though quieter, echoed across the room. This time, it held the edge of Farrah’s voice, and she stifled the urge to burst through the door, to see what was the matter. Warmth slid down her cheek, and she realized she was crying.

The seconds crept on, time seeming to dilate where she sat. Another cry, this one entirely human issued from the room, and she did half-stand that time before catching herself. She was just sitting again when the door opened with a click, and Lyssa’s heart beat a timpani against her ribs. Farrah stood there, clothed in a simple dress. Her ring was on her finger, and her bare toes pinted in just so slightly. She looked around the room with wide eyes, and then at Lyssa. She heaved a sob, and Lyssa stood, letting her wife fall into her arms. With care, ever so much care, Lyssa led Farrah from the building and down the street.

Once outside, the light seemed brighter. The heaviness had gone out of the air. Time flowed right again, and the susurration of car tires on pavement brought the reality of the world crashing back around them. They walked, Lyssa’s hand around Farrah’s shoulders, her forearm tickled by her wife’s hair. She whispered in Farrah’s ears, simple words of comfort, trying to soothe her nerves. The rain stopped, and at the hot dog cart, Lyssa offered to buy her one. Farrah looked at the meat, her eyes hollow pools, and turned away. They walked on in silence.

At the house, Lyssa helped her up each stair, and then through the door. She helped Farrah onto the couch, where the other woman sat, her legs tucked under her, her face slack. Lyssa went to get her a glass of water, the curtains still blowing in the kitchen. She saw where the rain had dotted the counter, and let herself cry there, her tears making unnoticed marks alongside the rainwater. When she was done, she hitched a breath and brought her wife the glass.

A little life had returned, color peaking in Farrah’s cheeks. She turned toward Lyssa and placed a finger against the younger woman’s cheek, where the tears had left a track.

“Don’t. Cry.”

The words broke a dam in Lyssa and she sank to her knees, the water forgotten. She wept, her head in Farrah’s lap. They sat that way until the sun went down and exhaustion took Lyssa.

*

When she woke, the room was dark and the house was silent. Lyssa stood and padded to the kitchen. No Farrah. The curtains hung limp. She shut the window, the air too cold now to do the house good. She walked up the stairs, to the room they had shared for so many years. Farrah laid there, a bottle of pills beside her open hand. The corpse stared at the ceiling, tear tracks marking her cheeks. The room smelled of White Shoulders. Lyssa wanted to cry, but found she was unable. Numbness spread through her. She opened the dresser and pulled out a pad filled with notations from each year. Method, year, age. She noted this one down as well, then put the pad away and walked over to Farrah.

Lyssa pulled the ring from her wife’s finger and slipped it back onto the necklace. Love is so short, she thought. Forgetting is so long.

An Interview with Zane Capella

For a change, I decided to interview one of my characters from Into Nod, my forthcoming novel from Curiosity Quills. Zane (or Zee as he likes to be known), has a few thoughts he’d like to share, so I gave him a platform in exchange for him not making me make a bunny sound. Here’s Zee:

Jesus, this guy. What are you, an albino tree? Hate to run into you in a dark comic book shop. Anyway – the interview. Not doing it. I’m using this space for something else. Deal with it.

Here’s Zee’s Short Guide to the Underworld:

MONSTERS:
Holy balls, are there a lot of monsters here. Echoes and Naga, eerie undead children, and spooky triplets who wouldn’t even make the grade for a Doublemint Gum commercial. That doesn’t even count the human monsters. Lunatics and killers, power-mad sorcerers and Sham-Wow vendors. I’ve often thought about second death – no one really knows where you go when that happens – and have pretty much decided to stay as close to Elysium as possible. There are walls, a guard, and a train if I need to run. I’m much less likely to get eaten by a Stalker in the Red Waste than be bored for a short eternity. I’m fine with that. Though, I have considered growing a beard and filling it with bees for defense. People will call me Honey Beard. Children will throw stones at me. All of which is okay, because I will then send the beard bees into their faces.

PAIN
Pain. Did you know you can still feel it when you’re dead? It’s an interesting and really unfair thing. I think about this a lot. There’s physical pain, mental pain, emotional pain, phantom pain. The stuff comes in all flavors and colors, and for the really lucky, one bleeds into another like blood in the water. It’s supposed to be helpful – a signal to the brain that tells you something is wrong. Boy, don’t I know it. Usually, it’s accompanied by the obvious – slam your hand in the car door – yes, there’s something wrong. My hand is now the size of a Mickey Mouse glove and throbbing. Other times, it’s not so obvious. Something in your clockwork has gone all fuckity, and you get to play twenty questions, usually to the glee of hospital administrators who bleed you so dry they’d give vampires a bad name. 

The thing about pain is, it has a lot of really unhelpful side effects. Like meth, but without all the benefits. Depression, fucked-up interpersonal relationships, inability to do simple tasks, like wash a dish, or on the worst days, your own ass. Imagine someone asking you a question, and you shit in their Cheerios because you ache so bad you lash out. Pain’s like a fire – intense at first, scorching everything in its path – then, it settles in. Think of going out on a winter day, staying out for a couple hours. The cold gets into your bones. Your fingertips ache, your skin is sensitive. Then you get inside, and though you’re a little numb now, your body starts to prickle as you warm. The pain rushes up for a moment until you’re comfortable. Now imagine you never get warm, and that ache’s always in your bones.

Pain’s a bitch. 

STUPIDITY
Yeah, this hurts too. A funny thing about the underworld. You think “At least when I’m dead, I won’t have to deal with stupid people.” Nope. Stupid people die too. At an almost alarming rate. At least those who aren’t backed by a state-run health and retirement program. Ahem. I’m actually surprised no one’s set up some sort of customs line to slow the influx. Expect to see a good deal of them. Push them into the path of the aforementioned monsters. They make good speed bumps.

CURRENCY
The people of Nod trade in memories. Plan accordingly. You never know when that trip to Niagara is going to pay off. I once bought a full copy of Hemingway’s Corrigan’s Dogs. Yeah, never actually written. Except here. All it cost me was…shit. The thing about losing memories is you never remember what you lost. Some people spend so many or find themselves so far in debt, they lose them all. Then they end up Echoes. Not a pleasant experience, and a good way to find yourself in the Queen’s foundries. Worse yet are the demigods. They trade in favors. You really don’t want to owe a divine being a favor. Ask Hercules.

Back to you, Treebeard.