Ferryman

Here’s an urban fantasy piece that might have gone somewhere, but I felt it was too weak. It’s an older bit, and kind of an exercise in character type and world-tinkering.

Ferryman

 

I drive the dead.  It’s a job.

 

If you were to ask how it started, I couldn’t answer.  The cab has always been there, just like the apartment on 34th, and the clients.  I’m always hard-pressed when I try to explain how or when it began, the gaps in my memory like dark chasms between neurons.  It’s the same black blank that comes to me when I try to make sense of the fact that I can see and speak with the dead, or that I should know the roads they travel.  After so many years, it just is, and I’ve learned to accept it.

 

Still, on some nights, when I’m sitting in the cab, and the meter’s off for a bit, in the silences that come between the drumming of rain on the roof, or the voice of a fare, I catch glimpses.  My mother, dressed in black, humming lullabies in a dim room, twilight filtering through.  My father, a hulking man, dark like mahogany, and depending on his mood, wearing either a fierce scowl, or a smile like moonlight.

 

It was one of those nights when she came to my cab.  Pale skin, the color of milk, and auburn hair that rippled and strayed in the wind.  She was wearing a knee-length dress, the kind of red that reminds you of dark roses, or wine.  She smiled through the window, her teeth straight and just white enough to let you know she’d lived, and got in.

 

My heart ached and let out a pang that let me know if she hadn’t already been gone, I would’ve never had a chance with her.

 

She got in, and closed the door behind her.  In the space of that second, I could hear the wind picking up, playing music on the concrete of the city while the rain increased its tempo against the roof of the cab, as though it wanted to go where she was.  More importantly, I could smell her.  Not in a creepy let-me-borrow-your-hair way, but in the way you notice someone when they pass by.

 

I could smell jasmine and vanilla, the wet musk of her hair, and the cloth of the dress that clung to her like a second skin.  I was trying not to stare in the rearview.  I reached for the meter, and stopped.

 

Her clothes were wet.

 

                You might think a thing like that shouldn’t surprise me.  The thing is, regular people, everyday people, with jobs and kids and mortgages, and most importantly, lives, don’t see the cab.  You only get a glimpse, a chance to ride if you’re already gone.  For this woman to get into my cab, she had to be very close, practically knocking on death’s door herself, and yet I saw only a healthy, rain-soaked lady.

 

I looked into the rearview again, and met her eyes.  They were the kind of dark green you only see on grass in the summer after a good rain.

 

“You sure you want this cab, miss?”  I looked for an excuse.  “I’m off-duty.  Should be another along in a few minutes.”

She smiled at my reflection.  “Yes, this is fine.  I’ll match half your fare if you can take me home.”

 

I thought about it.  I usually kept a pretty tight schedule, but it wasn’t like the dead were short on time.  I turned the heat up in the back a bit, and put the cab into gear.

 

“Where to?”

 

“42nd and Broadway.”  She said.

 

I eased into the street, traffic sparse that time of night.  The cab’s headlights cut the dark, revealed the edges of buildings, sidewalk, and asphalt, the white lines throwing back the light and glowing with a ghostlike quality.  Here and there pedestrians strolled beneath umbrellas, the glow of streetlamps making the black fabric glow in the night.

 

As I drove, I snuck quick glances into the rearview to check on the woman.  She stared out of the window, watching the city slip by.  Streetlight and neon lit her face in flashes as we passed.  She had begun to dry somewhat, though her hair still clung to her neck, and her clothing looked like it would be chilly if she stepped into the wind.

 

Despite her condition, her eyes had begun to droop, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before she was asleep.  I reached up and shut the meter off as quietly as possible, and heard her stir in the back.

 

I turned my attention back to the road, made a right, and drove on.

 

*

 

 

Bram Stoker once wrote that the dead travel fast.  Those dead had never come over the Jefferson Bridge at bar close.  I slowed the cab to a near halt, and waited for traffic to move along.  While I did, I kept an eye out for bicyclers who were crazy enough to still be riding this time of night and for the occasional case of road rage that might flare up and result in the cab being trashed.

 

What I said before – about the living not being able to see the cab.  It wasn’t exactly right.  The living can see the cab, in traffic, or in passing, but not when they’re looking for one.  They won’t go out of their way to hail me, or try to get in.  Most will even walk an extra few feet out of their way to avoid it.  To those people, the cab is dim, a shadow of a shadow in the waking world.  As a bonus, that instinct for the living to avoid it has kept my insurance premiums down.

 

I flicked a glance to the back of the cab.  The woman there slumped halfway between the seat and the window, her cheek pressed against the soft fabric.  I worried that she had passed, and I hadn’t noticed.  I watched for another moment, and saw her chest rise and fall, her pulse beating in the hollow of her throat.  I turned back to the road, and crept forward with the traffic.

 

As we moved, traffic began to thin, revealing a small crowd of uniforms and flashing lights ahead.  Behind an officer directing traffic, was a group of about five others, police and EMTs, gathered around a twisted wreck.  Blood ran from the passenger door, either torn or cut off from the accident.  It pooled on the asphalt, shimmering in the flashing emergency lights, darker than the rain.

 

Between two officers, a black bag lay on the ground, zipped closed.  They stood over it, watching the scene with cool detachment.  Neither could see the middle-aged bespectacled man dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, staring at the bag.  As I approached the officer directing traffic, the man looked up.  He raised his hand, and waved.  I shook my head and gestured at the back, and he let his hand drop.  The look on his face went from hopeful to annoyed, and then, as though he realized he had plenty of time, he nodded, and waved me off.

 

Like I said before, the dead understand.  They have all the time in the world.

 

The officer waved the cab through, and I took the right, moving toward the upper side of town, and the young lady’s home.  I still didn’t understand how she had found my cab.

 

*

 

I pulled onto 30th and Jewel, at the lower end of the shopping district.  Markets and boutiques, small bakeries and specialty shops nestled against one another here.  Tasteful awnings and big plate windows declared the names of the shops, and showed off their merchandise.  Out of the heavier traffic, I relaxed, and slowed the cab a bit.

 

With the meter off, most cabbies would have hurried their fare to the destination, regardless of altruism.  One off, one on, equals more money.  Unlike most cabbies and their fares, I had plenty of time, and no real money to make.  To be honest, the meter was more of an affectation anyways.  Besides, I was enjoying the quiet time.  The rain on the roof of the cab beat out a steady hypnotic rhythm, the woman in the back was sleeping contentedly, and also, she smelled nice.

 

I turned up a side street, and a pair of headlights that had been behind me for some time separated from the stream of cars and followed at a discrete distance.  Probably just a late-night window-shopper, I thought.  My gut knotted, and I doubted the idea.  I took a couple of more turns at a leisurely pace, so as not to let on I had seen the car.

 

I can’t explain why the car behind me, a late-model grey sedan, bothered me so much.  It wouldn’t be the first time I was followed, and probably wouldn’t be the last.  With so many people around, you’re more than likely to share a destination with more than one of them.  Maybe it’s just that I’m not dead yet, and don’t plan to be any time soon, if I can help it.  So, when trouble rears its head, which it does from time to time, I do the only thing I’ve ever really known.  I drive.

 

When zigzagging through the streets didn’t work, I picked a block and circled it, hoping the car behind me would think I just had a window-shopper on board.  He followed, still at a discrete distance, though I got the impression that he didn’t so much as care about being seen as he did about how I’d react.  For the situation being unnerving, I thought I was reacting well.

 

Ten minutes of driving aimlessly hadn’t shaken the car behind me, and I watched in the rearview as it began to gain ground.  The action made my mind up.  I sped up, and pushed the cab around the nearest corner, and then again, making a quick left and a right.  The sedan kept up, and inched closer.  Again, I whipped into a turn and a turn, and the grey car kept up.  In the back, the woman in red stirred in her sleep and murmured, but didn’t wake.

 

Clive Barker once wrote that the dead have highways.  I weighed my options, and did the only thing I knew.  I drove them.

 

*

                I took a left, turning off from the circle I had been driving.  Ahead, the road diverged, splitting into left and right forks.  The fork hadn’t been planned by an engineer, nor laid in a pique brought on by a panic triggered by a lack of roadway.  It was a secret road, laid by a divine hand, and it led to one of a hundred thousand afterlives.

 

I pulled onto the fork while it wended and wound its way between and around buildings, over the river, and past factories and homes.  The road ahead shimmered with a pale haze, as though it had been baking in the sun all day.  The city began to drop away, buildings and utility poles replaced with trees, the lights replaced with stars.

 

I glanced in the rearview, and nearly drove the cab into a small pond that had sprung up beside the road.  The grey sedan was still behind me, a feat that should’ve been impossible for anyone else.  It was still gaining, as well, and I put the pedal down, hoping to at least keep them at distance.  An alarm bell was going off in my head, and I shifted my gaze to the woman in the back seat.

 

She was still sleeping in that easy slouch, though it looked as though she were dreaming now, her eyes dashing out Morse code behind her eyelids.  Whoever she was, and whatever her situation, the alarm in my head was screaming this woman was Trouble, capital T, and if I didn’t get her home soon, I might be better off kicking her out on the side of the road somewhere.

 

I rejected that idea out of hand.  I may deal with the dead, but that doesn’t make me immune to compassion for the living.  Besides, my shallow side said, she’s gorgeous.  She was, at that.  I flicked a glance back at her one more time, taking in her delicate cheekbones, the gentle curve of her neck, and her full lips.  I swallowed hard, and returned to the road.

 

Not wanting to dump a damsel in distress off in the middle of nowhere left me with one option.  Get her home in one piece.  I glanced again at the sedan behind me.  For the first time, I noticed the windows were tinted, and what would normally be chrome on a car was a black matte that seemed to drink in the light.  Something about that one detail, the black instead of chrome, made me uneasy, made my stomach clench for the second time that night.

 

Around the car, the landscape changed in bits and pieces, as though sets were being rolled on and off an enormous stage.  Copses of trees came and went with small ponds and lakes, rivers and creeks.  Grass was replaced by tall waving stalks of wheat, mountains and rivers in the distance.  Here and there, stone benches and homes dotted the fields, and the night slipped to day, the rain tapering off.  The sun shone, and the air took on the hazy yellow quality of a high summer afternoon.

 

Men and women and children walked among the wheat and sat on the low stone benches.  They were young and old, dressed in togas and Victorian garb and modern clothes.  They spoke and gestured and laughed, and the children played in the sunlight.  Idyllic.  A soft sigh escaped me, and the woman behind me echoed it.

 

I checked the rearview, and noticed the sedan still there.  It made sense, in a way that nothing else about it did.  Elysium wasn’t exactly a dangerous road.  They would have nothing to fear here, no reason not to try to catch up, to waylay us.  Even as I watched, the car sped up again, and closed ground.  Curiosity led me to stay the accelerator, and I let them get closer.

 

The sedan sped into a car length, and I got a good look.  In addition to the tinted windows and the matte replacing the chrome, the car wasn’t a true grey.  What I had mistaken for grey was a mottled steel color, blotches of paint spreading across the surface like diseased skin.  Its headlights, which the driver hadn’t bothered to shut off since coming out of the rain, were a pale yellow, and its tires seemed to bulge and ripple, as though they were living things.

 

The sun shone through the windshield, piercing the tint for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of the driver.  A wide figure swathed in the interior shadows of the car, its head resembled that of a bat.  Pointed ears stuck up on either side of a face marked by small black eyes and a pug nose.  Then, we passed a copse of trees, and shadows filled the tinted glass again.  I turned back to the road and tried not to think too hard about what I’d seen.  Things like that only showed up on the deep trips, the ones where men and women with black souls went to burn.

 

I thought about the gun under the seat.  I didn’t keep it for the dead.  It wasn’t like a bullet was going to worsen their condition.  I wondered how it would affect the Neverborn, and hoped I wouldn’t need it.  I pressed the pedal down, and the cab leapt forward again.  Another thought entered my mind, and I wondered how long the engine would keep up.  The gas gauge still lay at three-quarters, and the tires still whispered against the asphalt with hardly a bump.

 

I looked around.  Elysium had always been my favorite destination, what I imagined true Paradise to look like.  The thing behind me didn’t belong here, and I had the feeling if I gave it the chance, it would stop, and wreak as much havoc as possible.  There were places it did belong, however, and I briefly weighed the safety of my passenger against the danger.  In the end, I decided the only safe route was through that danger.

 

Ahead, the road forked again, and I took it.

 

 

*

 

The road down is always quicker than the road up, though no easier.  We drove, and the blacktop began to show wear and cracks, small potholes and ridges in the asphalt.  The shimmer above the road took on a sinister reddish tint, and black clouds slipped over the sun.  Whoever designed the afterlife had a flair for theatrics.

 

As we drove, wheat and fields of grass and trees gave way to sere earth, cracks spreading through the dried sod.  Rivers and ponds became black and brown and brackish, and rocks and boulders replaced the smaller bushes and clusters of flowers.  Each feature of the landscape rolled in and out again, changing the face of the land as we drove, becoming more alien with distance.  Eventually, the cab rolled into a landscape dominated by grey spires of rock standing sentinel over black earth, the cracks glowing with a sullen red light.  Asphalt gave way to red rock, worn smooth over millenia.

 

The sedan behind us had begun to change as well, becoming a sleek grey thing, resembling a long spider with black legs and eyes, its driver a huge man-bat strapped to its back.  It scuttled and moved faster than its size indicated.  Even in the cab, I could hear the scuttle on the rock of the hooked bones that served as its feet.

 

I pushed the cab faster still, and she leapt forward one more time, though with a shuddering protest.  I knew any harder would kill her, and that would be the end.  Still, it wasn’t enough, and the scuttling of bone on rock became louder, the spider’s legs echoing in the landscape.  It reached one of its considerable legs up, throwing a shadow on the hood, and I juked the cab.

 

We zigged to the left, though not fast enough, and the leg came down.  Bone squealed against metal, making my eyes water.  It ripped a hole in the roof, and I tugged the wheel right, tearing free with another screech that set my teeth on edge.  Again it came, and again another hole was punched into the cab before I was able to shake free.  Through the opening above, I could hear the driver making wet grunting sounds in anticipation of the kill.

 

Ahead, the land dropped off, and the road narrowed.  I felt my pulse double as I realized the glow coming from below was fire – not lava, but true hellfire, and I realized where I had driven us.  Even as the cab approached the bridge, something huge and dark rose from the hellfire, wormlike, and slammed itself into the stone.  It turned toward us, its lower half disappearing into the depths, and its mouth opened, a nightmare of impossible angles and razor teeth.

 

A shadow fell across the hood again, and I did the only thing I could think of, a thing I had seen in Top Gun once.  I grabbed the emergency brake, while spinning the wheel.  The car slugged to a hard stop and began to spin.  I felt a weight slam into the seat behind me, and I prayed I hadn’t broken the woman’s nose.  I felt there was a very strong possibility that had she not been asleep, she would definitely be unconscious now.

 

When the cab hit a full one-eighty, I released the brake, and stomped the gas.  For a moment, it seemed the car was going to ignore my request and simply give up the ghost, and then the engine roared, and we shot in the other direction, and under the spider.

 

In the rearview, the spider had reached the bridge, but it was too late for the bat and the bug.  The thing on the bridge opened its mouth, and tentacles sprayed forward, wrapping around both, and pulling them in.  I drove on, with the screams of the damned echoing in my ears.

 

When the land had returned to trees and fields and lakes, I stopped the cab, and check on my passenger.  Still asleep, though a little askew in her seat.  I decided I didn’t want to wake her up quite yet, and started the engine.  We were almost there.

 

*

 

Country gave way to city, and city gave way to residential.  I pulled up to 42nd and Broadway, and cut the engine.  The rain had stopped, and I could see the stars through the holes in the roof.  Behind me, I heard a yawn, and looked in the rearview.

 

She stretched, and smiled back at me.  “Thank you so much for the ride.  How much do I owe you?”

 

She pulled out a wad of cash, and I waved it away.  “Don’t worry about it.  I ended up going a bit out of the way.  I’d hate to charge you for it.”

 

She smiled, shrugged, and put the money away.  A part of me was cursing over that.  The roof was going to cost an arm and a leg to repair.

 

She opened the door, and the wind caught her scent and swept it out of the cab.  It spread her hair, and moved her dress.  She walked to my window, and leaned in.  I could smell her – clean and sweet.  I wondered why they had wanted her, and consoled myself with the fact that you don’t always get answers out of life, poor consolation that it was.

 

She kissed me on the cheek, and walked to the entrance of her apartment, fishing the keys out of her purse.  When she had the door open, she turned one last time, and waved.  I returned it, and pulled out of the drive.

 

On Broadway, I took a right, back downtown, and toward an accident, and a middle-aged man in khaki.

 

After all, I drive the dead.

All Our Tomorrows Are Kaboom

My homage to bad movies, overblown masculinity, and a certain director. It’s a lot stupid, a little funny, and in no way should be taken seriously.

 

INT. NASA
Monitors glow in a dim room. Men in white short sleeves, with cotton ties and black glasses, sit at consoles watching radar screens. Each has an identical pen behind their ear. JENKINS’s console blips and pings, a glowing dot appearing under the sweeping digital arm. He looks up at the big display set into the wall, and sees the object in real time. His eyes widen.

JENKINS
Mother of God.

BOSS
(appearing at his shoulder)
What is it, Jenkins?

JENKINS
A class four anomaly sir. And it’s headed right for us.

BOSS
Get me the black phone. We. Need. Masterson.

[SMASH CUT TO]

EXT. RANCH
BLAST MASTERSON, a rugged hunk of man that is definitely manly, rides PONYBOY, his prize horse, inside a fenced-off area. A lariat twirls in his hand like a ballerina on crank. He lets it go, and it loops around a bunny, which thrashes as the rope draws tight. Blast dismounts and hogties the rabbit, then flips open a panel in its stomach. A timer reads 1:00. Blast pulls out a pair of snips and hovers over a tangle of wires. His phone rings. He sighs and brings it out.

BLAST
‘Lo?

BOSS
Blast, we need you.

BLAST
I told you never to call me here!

The timer is still ticking. 00:30 now. He wedges the phone between his cheek and shoulder.

BOSS
You’re the only one who can save us.

BLAST
And?

BOSS
(sighs)
And you’re Captain McAwesome of the Very Large Manhood

Blast clips the red wire on the bunny. The timer stops at 00:01.

BLAST
Damn right.

He hangs up the phone and unties the bunny. It hops away. One hop. Two hops. Then explodes. Bits of bunny rain down everywhere.

BLAST
Damn. C’mon, Ponyboy.

He hops on his horse and spurs it. Its hooves become rockets, and it blasts off into the sky.

[FADE TO]

TITLE CARD
BLAST MASTERSON in BAD BUNNY

[FADE TO]

EXT. NASA
Space stuff in the background. I dunno. Give it rockets. Maybe wings. Point it up. Blast and the Boss shake hands. Ponyboy grazes in a nearby field. Just over Blast’s shoulder, he eats a crocodile that wanders by.

BOSS
Glad you could make it.

BLAST
I always ‘make it’, if you know what I mean.

BOSS
Yes, I-

BLAST
I like women.

BOSS
Great. I-

BLAST
I’m a man’s man. No one can out man me. LOOK!

Blast spits, and it hits a shuttle in the background, exploding it.

BOSS
GREAT.

BLAST
Now, whaddya want?

BOSS
Space. There’s a thing. It looks like a blob, but it could also be an irregular orb. Maybe a flying city of killer monkeys. You need to stop it. It’s making all our stuff go ‘ping’.

BLAST
Gotcha.

He winks, then starts toward Ponyboy. Stops, and turns around.

BLAST
That was a manly wink, by the way. Not an ‘I like you wink’.

He turns around, gets a few feet, and stops.

BLAST
I like women. You know that, right?

BOSS
Sure. Whatever. Go. To. Space.

Blast nods and climbs on Ponyboy, then spurs him. The rockets emerge, and Ponyboy launches into space.

BLAST
BLAST AWAAAAAAAAAAAY!

[CUT TO]

EXT. GIANT SPACE BLOB
Blast lands on the blob and looks back at Earth.

BLAST
Pretty.

He takes a picture with his phone. When he turns around, HIMENA, QUEEN OF THE PEOPLE OF THE BLOB, APPEARS

HIMENA
Hi, man.

Blast shrieks and hides behind Ponyboy.

HIMENA
Come out from behind your quadruped, man.

Blast steps tentatively out.

Himena pulls out a painting by Georgia O’ Keefe. Blast FREAKS OUT and scrambles onto Ponyboy, blasting off back to earth. Himena stands, puzzled.

[CUT TO]

EXT. NASA
Blast and the Boss are both looking at the sky.

BOSS
Doomed, you say?

BLAST
Yep. They’re too powerful. Kiss me.

BOSS
What?

BLAST
Too powerful. I said too powerful. And then nothing else. I like women.

Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Close My Eyes’ starts to play’. Georgia O’Keefe paintings rain from the sky, skewering men and women, exploding on impact. Vast destruction. The scene fades with Blast puckering his lips as the shadow of a giant blob darkens the earth.

[FADE TO BLACK]

 

Idle Hands

Milosh wiped his hands on the rag, the blood already dried under his nails and up his wrists. He glanced at the broken body tied to the chair. For a little guy, he’d held on for a long time. Milosh tossed the rag to the side and stepped across the concrete floor of the basement, ducking as he passed under a particularly low rafter. The location wasn’t ideal, but it was convenient, and he didn’t think the old couple upstairs, Mr. and Mrs. Cottingham, would care. Not that they would care for anything much anymore. He regretted having to kill them. It would have been easier if he had been able to snatch up Parker in an industrial park, or the warehouse district, but you worked with what you could.

Regardless, he didn’t think anyone would notice. The house smelled like mothballs and Ben-Gay, and the furniture glistened with plastic covers that held barely a wrinkle. Milosh guessed they hadn’t had a visitor in some time. Now, they sat side by side on the couch, a small entry wound behind their ears. Boris had always made fun of him for the .22 he carried, but get close enough and it would pierce a skull as well as a .45, and with less mess. He grabbed Parker’s hair and lifted, the head lolling on a soft neck. The man’s eyes were still closed. He’d shut them when Milosh had brought the pistol out. There was no breath. Satisfied, Milosh dropped the man’s head and went upstairs, his boots thudding against the wooden steps.

He surveyed the kitchen, his stomach rumbling. Work always got his appetite up. The furniture was as old as the homeowners. Everything, including the table, was laminate and chrome. Two plates sat in the sink with congealing bacon grease and a fat fly buzzing around them. A fat fly circled a fork stained with egg yolk. A pan sat on the oven, a crust of egg white around the edges. He’d caught them just after breakfast.

Milosh opened the fridge and rummaged around, coming up with a carton of orange juice and half a chicken salad sandwich. He sat at the table and ate, the chicken salad crunchy with bits of celery and a pickle that sent a sour tang through his tongue. The taste of the pickle reminded him of solyanka, and he wished he had some vodka to wash it down. A sound echoed up from the basement, and Milosh paused, the sandwich halfway to his mouth. He set it down, a frown rippling his brow, and walked to the head of the stairs, head turned to hear better. It came again, rasping, like wood on wood. He drew his pistol and stepped down, slow.

The basement was as it had been, dim and quiet. Milosh looked around, checked the corners. Nothing moved, and the sound didn’t repeat. Probably just a rat, then. He shouldn’t have been surprised. The city was full of them. He holstered the pistol and walked back up to the kitchen. Everything was as he’d left it, a quarter of sandwich on the plate, open carton of orange juice. He took a breath, and his stomach rumbled. Trouble in paradise.

After a minute or two of wandering the house, he found a toilet on the first floor. He sat, his stomach still rumbling. The sound came again, drifting up though the vent in the floor. A rasping like before, and Milosh bore down, trying to clear his bowels. He hoped it was and wasn’t a rat. He’d read about them, coming up the sewer pipes, biting people on the ass. His mind conjured a picture of a fat rodent, gray, with its bare tail whipsawing behind it, narrow face and sharp teeth leading the way as it forced itself through pipe and foul water to be free of its prison. His bowels emptied and he wiped, practically leaping off the toilet when he was done. He flushed, the sound almost comforting in the near-silence, washing away his fears. He finished up, washing his hands, picking the blood from his fingernails, and then walked back to the kitchen.

He stood in the white and yellow linoleum nightmare and stared at the sandwich. With a frown, he picked it up and heaved it into the trash, plate and all. That sound came from the basement again, and he heaved a sigh. Rat or no, he had to finish. He needed to be in Baltimore by tomorrow. He took the stairs one at a time, pistol out again. No reason not to be cautious. At the bottom, the room was silent. Parker stared at the ceiling. Milosh’s skin crawled and he walked over to the corpse, shutting its eyes and tipping the head forward again.

That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it? He’d been around plenty of dead bodies – a hazard of the work – and yes, sometimes they sat up. Sometimes they belched or farted or moaned, but they didn’t usually move. Did they? Boris could have told him. The man seemed to know everything about death. Regardless, it was errata. Milosh had a job to do. He holstered the pistol and grabbed a knife from the workbench built into the wall, then turned to the body.

“If only I had been a butcher, eh tovarich?”

Parker didn’t reply. Milosh had hoped he wouldn’t. He rounded the body and began cutting the ties holding it in place. The wrists and ankles were worn pretty hard – Parker had really struggled – deep bands of red cut in to the flesh. When he was done, he hefted Parker and dragged him to a tarp in the center of the floor, laying him spread-eagled. Milosh stepped back to make sure the body was centered – in order to catch as much of the gore as possible – and nodded when he was satisfied. He laid the knife back on the workbench and began to pull tools from his duffel bag, chattering as he did. Milosh liked to talk to the dead. He felt it eased their way out. Boris thought it eased his conscience, but Milosh wasn’t sure he had one after this long.

“You know, back in the old country, we would have just buried you somewhere. For this I am sorry. Cities – someone’s always finding a body. But, you dump them in the water, and poof. No one sees. Upstairs, that’s a home invasion. But add you…more suspicious.”

He pulled out a hacksaw. “I was eager to meet you , you know. Boris told me you were into weird shit.” He shook his head. “Tattoos. Not so weird. I have tattoos!” He rolled up a sleeve, showing a double-headed eagle clutching a hammer and sickle. Parker seemed unimpressed.

“Ah, here’s the thing. I feel bad. Every time. You guys, you get in some debt, maybe you flaunt the money we give you. No big deal. But when you start doing really stupid things – you slept with Ivanna, are you mad? Then, we have to do things like this. Then I get messy, and you get hurt. If only you could have kept the pecker in your pants, eh?” Milosh shook his head. “Vek zhivi, vek uchis. Live and learn, friend.”

He walked to the tarp and knelt, pressing the saw against Parker’s wrist. After a moment, he began to draw it back and forth, ripping at the flesh. It parted easily, as did the muscle. The bone was harder going, and it took Milosh a couple of minutes to get through, sweat beading on his forehead, his breath coming in small grunts. With a pop, the hand separated, blood seeping from the stump. He repeated the process – elbow, shoulder, then started on the other. After an hour, he had dismantled the man’s arms. Milosh stood and wiped an arm across his forehead. The blade was dull.

He walked back to the workbench and started to pull the saw apart, rummaging in the bag for a blade. Behind him, the tarp’s plastic crinkled. Milosh turned, squinting to keep the sweat from his eyes. A hand was missing. His heart sped up. Was there a rat in here after all? He sat the saw down and pulled the pistol free. Shelves stood in one corner, paint cans and solvents weighing down the shelves. He walked over, his guard up, and moved a few of the cans with the barrel of the gun. Nothing leapt out at him. He breathed a sigh of relief, and turned. Something tugged at his pant leg, and he jumped, letting out a curse.

Ty che blyad?!”

Milosh spun, the pistol leveled at the floor. He hated rats. His mind conjured up another image, of his grandmother after the famine, her stomach bloated. He and Boris had found her – they had been only six – round and rotting in her cottage. He remembered her stomach moving, squirming, crawling, and the thing that had come out of her, the size of a terrier, covered in gore and viscera.

Something grabbed the back of his thigh, and he squealed, firing off a shot. The bullet pinged off the concrete and lodged in the rafters. He brushed at his pants, but it was too slow, and the thing was crawling up him, on his back, his shoulder, his neck. He grasped for it, but it was too fast, and already grabbing his mouth. He could see it now, Parker’s hand, squeezing his chin, the severed stump oozing blood. Milosh staggered back and slapped at the fingers, but they felt nothing. He fired a shot into it, but it again, felt nothing. He smashed his head against the shelves and a paint can came down heavy, knocking him senseless. The lights went out.

*

The world faded back in, the dim gray of the basement trickling into his retinas like poison. He sat up and rubbed his head and his jaw, then looked over at the tarp. The hands were missing. He stood and picked up his pistol, then grabbed the hacksaw. He had less time now. The hands were missing. His stomach rumbled, and pain shot through his abdomen. Ice crawled up his spine.

Milosh lifted his shirt and saw the skin of his stomach, distended as though someone were pushing on it from the inside. The hands were missing. His stomach rippled like a bowl of Jell-O, and he vomited from the pain. The hands were missing. He dropped the saw and drew his pistol, and thought of his grandmother.

The hands were missing. There was a bullet in the chamber.

 

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.