DP FICTION #68B: “Are You Being Severed?” by Rhys Hughes

Content Warning: discussion of suicide

He was lost in the guillotine section of the big department store. He could never have guessed there was such a thing, or he might have taken more care when the doors of the elevator opened and let him out. He was on the wrong floor. The lighting here was dim and bloody, the lamps shaded to deliberately cast a gory glow over the items that were on sale. It was crude and unfair. By the time he realised his error he had already wandered too far into the enormous room and his sense of direction was confused. He had no idea how to get back to the elevator.

Members of staff were gazing at him as if he was a violation of this refined space, a drifting smell or spreading stain. Conscious of their eyes on his back, he pretended an interest in the products on offer. He studied the blades, stroked the rough ropes and tapped the wooden frames. Nodding to himself and muttering, he tried to broadcast a message, to somehow radiate his intention to return another day, maybe tomorrow or next week, and purchase a model. In the meantime he was browsing, testing, and yes, he was sincere and innocent, a real customer.

His random passage took him in a circle that consisted of epicycles, a meandering path that perhaps resembled the rolling of lopped heads in some idealised schematic of brutality. At last a tall man approached. They were all tall on this floor, these members of staff, horribly tall as they stood in their unexpected corners, but the altitude of this one was especially remarkable. And yet he wore a coat too long for his body. His posture was rigid, beyond militaristic, and his moustache bristled, but then he smiled and made a little bow, as if he was sniffing a bowl of soup.

The others were watching carefully. There were no customers on this floor apart from him, just staff members, and it was clear the extra tall man was the floorwalker, that he could cover the distances necessary in next to no time at all with his long legs, that he was feared by his colleagues. Within that fear was awe, and nested in the awe was love, but more fear underpinned the love. These secret layers of regard were the geological strata of a commercial tyrant, as difficult to erode as the igneous slabs of a towering sea stack bathed in spray at high tide.

But they were far from the ocean now. This department store was located in a city in a landlocked country, and the land undulated with hills all around, not waves. Then the floorwalker clasped his hands theatrically.

“May I be of assistance, monsieur?” he asked in an accent that was so courteously forbidding that the syllables of his words were like crumbs of biscuits too durable to dissolve in strong tea. “And if not, why not?”

“I’m just browsing today.”

“But what exactly does monsieur have in mind?”

“My name is Mr. Plum.”

“Come now,  monsieur, you must have some idea of the particular model you are most interested in? We have every kind of guillotine in stock, the full historical and futurological range. There are the cruder versions that hack and the improved devices that slice. We have long drop and short drop models. Those that catch the blood and others that allow it to trickle or even spray.”

“That’s very helpful.”

“But is it helpful to you, monsieur?”

“My name is Mr. Plum. I was born in this country too. I haven’t yet decided what I need. I’m just browsing, for a friend.”

“For a friend, you say? That strikes me as unusual.”

“For an enemy, I mean.”

“Then it is for yourself you are shopping!”

“Yes, but I wasn’t…”

There was no point arguing. He was out of his depth with this fellow, this utterly lanky floorwalker, a man who was probably never out of his depth anywhere, even while wading across a continental shelf, not that the department store was nearer the ocean now than before. Not enough time had passed for sufficient tectonic activity to take place. Yet it felt as if he had already been trapped here for innumerable years. And now the floorwalker was taking full charge of his destiny, leading him not by the hand but with a form of mercantile magnetism.

Mr. Plum muttered to himself, “I only came into this store for a kettle. I got out of the elevator at the wrong floor, that’s all. I’m reading a book at home, a difficult book. I wanted a coffee break but I don’t have a kettle. I will return to my book when I can. With or without coffee, I’ll read it to the end.”

“Is monsieur troubled?”

“Not at all. No, wait, I want to know where we are going.”

“To browse the products.”

“I see. Yes. That’s your answer, is it?”

“Monsieur stated that he wished to browse. I can facilitate that wish. I am not yet a genie but I have the capability of making some wishes come true. The easy wishes, mostly. Your wish is a very easy one.”

Mr. Plum shrugged. He did this because his shoulders were trembling. The nerves inside his torso were vibrating unbearably. The shrug untied some unwholesome knot and he was well again. Able to walk, to accompany the very tall man, they stopped together next to an apparatus that might have been a grandfather clock rather than a guillotine. And it was explained to him that yes, it told the time as well as lopped off heads. It had been designed for the parlour, for people who still had parlours in their houses, and did monsieur have a parlour too?

“Not really. No, I don’t.”

The look he received was so withering, he added, “Sorry.”

“This way, monsieur!”

They passed squat machines with iron frames and no ornamentation, practical but unlovely, and highly rococo golden devices that soared almost to the ceiling, splendid but equally terrible. They were heading towards a very large guillotine that stood on a platform by itself, like an actor on stage about to recite a monologue. A long wooden ramp connected the lunette of the machine with the lane of a bowling alley. Skittles in the form of little human figures stood and waited for a severed head to roll along and knock them down. Execution as recreation.

“What does monsieur say?”

“It’s too big. It wouldn’t fit in my house.”

“For the garden. An outdoor model. You can sit in a chair and knit while the heads roll down the ramp. Does monsieur knit?”

“Not even cardigans, I’m afraid. And I don’t have a garden.”

“But are you not educated?”

“Of course. I have a university degree.”

“A bachelor’s degree then? Well, that can’t be helped. There are other models to show you. This way, monsieur!”

And they were off again, passing rows of guillotine variants that removed heads with circular blades or blades like the rotors of a propeller. One was simply a perfect replica of a breadknife but enormously magnified and fixed on a pivot to a board as wide as a double bed. Another was a bed, with the blade activated by springs in the mattress. A particularly grotesque version was a giant pair of crimping scissors and Mr. Plum could imagine the muted snip as the blades closed together and left a stump of a neck with bloody corrugated edges.

“Keep going, monsieur.”

“I like the look of the one over there.”

He realised it was a mistake to say this, but he desperately wanted to divert their path away from the hideous coffin-like contraption that stood directly ahead of them, a guillotine that clearly sliced sideways rather than vertically. He didn’t want his body in proximity with such a thing. The one he had pointed out was small and inoffensive in comparison, the sort of contrivance one might keep on a coffee table in the lounge without running the risk of adverse comments from visiting friends. It was like a little cabinet with a door, the blade hidden within.

“Monsieur, this is considered to be a lady’s guillotine. Akin to one of those pearl handled revolvers that ladies keep, or kept, in their handbags. Monsieur! But you are not buying a gift for wife or mistress! You are browsing for yourself. We worked this out using logic only a few minutes ago!”

Mr. Plum spoke thickly, as if congealed blood already clogged his throat. “Perhaps I myself am a wife or mistress. Perhaps.”

The floorwalker arched his lush eyebrows and now they were so high that to reach them for a plucking a woman with tweezers would require an extendable ladder. Or a man with that ladder could conceivably pluck them. It was a modern city, despite its remoteness from the ocean, from the trading networks, from foreign news. For long moments the eyebrows remained up there. He kept his eyes fixed on them. Then they descended soundlessly, at last, and he heaved a sigh of relief, for the floorwalker was smiling. They didn’t descend like blades.

“I understand. You jest. It is for a masque, a fiesta.”

“For one of those, yes.”

“A malign fiesta. In that case, permit me to explain its workings.”

“I grant you permission.”

“You open the door and ask your enemy to smell the interior. Your enemy falls for the deception. They insert their head into the space and inhale. The drop of pressure inside the box then activates a switch that causes the blade to fall. The drop is short, too short for a decapitation. The neck is only partly severed. The victim stands up in surprise and pain. Now the box is attached to his head. He can’t get it off, so you will offer to help. You take hold of it with both hands, a firm grip, and you twist with all your strength. That finishes him off.”

“I see. But what does the inside smell like?”

“Pine resin varnish, monsieur.”

“My name is Mr. Plum.”

“May I suggest that monsieur try it out in the changing room?”

“But I haven’t decided.”

“May I insist that monsieur try it out there?”

The other staff members giggled. They were still standing in their corners, in the alcoves and niches of the walls. He licked his lips. Ought he to make a run for it? But it was futile. The long legs of those man-spiders would catch up with him, they would converge on his fleeing form from all directions. He was doomed that way. The only chance he had was to continue the charade and somehow come out the far end in one piece. He shrugged again, nodded and lifted his hands in mock surrender. The echoes of the giggles faded away. Silence reigned.

Swooping on the box with his long arms, the floorwalker snatched it up in gnarled and massive palms and conveyed it to the nearest changing room. Mr. Plum followed in his wake, pulled along on invisible strings.

The curtains in front of the changing room were dyed the brightest of pulsating reds. But the floorwalker swept them aside and ushered him inside, then he placed the guillotine on the coffee table that was the only item of furniture in the oval room. He departed and closed the curtains after him and Mr. Plum was left alone with his anxiety and his imminent death. He turned to examine his reflection in the mirror, but there was no mirror. There was a screen on which shapes flickered. They were a projection but he was unable to locate the projector.

The shapes achieved greater clarity, came into full focus. And now sounds rose all about him from hidden loudspeakers. The baying of a mob. The shapes were figures of men and women, those who had come to watch a public execution. It was only an illusion, but it unnerved him. He wondered if he ought to thrust his head into the box and hold his breath for a minute, then withdraw and claim the apparatus was broken. Hadn’t the floorwalker told him it was operated by the breath of the victim? But that would only buy him a little time, not enough.

The alternative was really to cut off his own head and have done with it. His body resisted this option, he felt nauseous. What should he do? Remain in this room until after closing time and then hope to sneak out when the staff were gone? But he wasn’t sure the floorwalker ever left the department, or even had a home to go to. It seemed implausible. Then an audacious idea came to Mr. Plum. Picking up the box and turning on his heel, he pushed his way through the curtains without parting them. He looked neither to left or right but marched out briskly.

With his best attempt at a confident voice, he stopped before the floorwalker and said, “Yes, it works perfectly fine. I’ll take it.”

“Monsieur actually tried it?”

“Of course I did.”

“And the result for monsieur was?”

“It’s just what I need.”

“But… but did monsieur follow my instructions?”

“To the smallest detail.”

“You pushed your head into the box and breathed in.”

“Yes. Then the blade fell.”

“And it cut off your head? But I don’t see…”

“It didn’t cut it off entirely. No. I had to twist the box around several times before that happened. Then I knew it was a good device and I picked up my head and put it back on my neck. I wish to buy it.”

“Well now. Does monsieur want it gift wrapped?”

“No need. I’ll take it as it is.”

The floorwalker lifted his immensely long arms and let them drop again and this gesture was one of the deepest disappointment. The tall men in corners and alcoves groaned in unison. Mr. Plum reached for his wallet. He was acutely aware that all eyes were probing his bare neck, searching for the join, for the mark. Not finding it, they would grow suspicious very rapidly, but he might well be out of here before they had time to stop him. It was just a question of finding the elevator. Or maybe there was a flight of emergency stairs somewhere near?

“How much is it?”

“One large and tarnished penny, monsieur.”

“I only have a florin.”

“We don’t have change in the till.”

“Do you even have a till? No, don’t answer that! Keep the change. Keep it until it does change. Until you change.”

“Monsieur is very generous. Very wise.”

“And the way out?”

The floorwalker pointed in two different directions with two of his long arms and Mr. Plum went in a third direction, clutching his guillotine and whistling, but his breath came in shuddering gasps and even when he saw that he was indeed heading straight for the elevator doors his lungs still rasped against his ribcage and every step was an ordeal. But no one followed him. He had won. He pressed the red wall button and the door opened immediately. Then he stepped inside and it closed. He stood to attention, wondering if this box was a guillotine too.

No, it wasn’t. The elevator descended to the ground floor. He stepped out and left the department store. It was early evening already. As soon as he stood in the street, a smile formed on his face and he uttered the words, “I’m free.” The nearest tram stop was only a short distance away. He caught a tram back to his own district, walked for fifteen minutes to his apartment block, tramped up the stairs to the level on which he resided. He placed the guillotine on the floor, groped for his key and opened the door, then picked up the box and carried it inside.

The kitchen was a melancholy place. It still had no kettle. He found space for the guillotine on the counter next to the blender.

Then he went into his study to resume reading a book, the book he had abandoned halfway through, the difficult book. It was the oldest book he owned and he couldn’t recall how it had come into his possession. He sat at his desk and frowned. The words on the page no longer made sense. Even the individual letters were incomprehensible. They resembled bubbles within bubbles. He flicked through the volume rapidly. The same script filled every page. The language the book was written in must have gone extinct while he was shopping in the store.

That did sometimes happen. But what bad timing! What was the solution, if any? He turned his head in the direction of the kitchen. Surely an extinct man was the kind of man who would be able to read an extinct language with ease? But suicide was a drastic action to take for the sake of finishing a book, one he hadn’t found especially entertaining even when he was able to understand it. A desire to chop the book in two overwhelmed him. “I’m not free at all,” he told himself as he stood and wandered out of the study. “None of us can ever be that.”


© 2020 by Rhys Hughes

Author’s Note: The belief that a complete story can grow from a small seed, from just one idea or something even smaller than an idea, an image, a remark, or in this case a pun that just popped into my mind one day for no reason, ‘Are you Being Severed?’  And the moment I had those words I had the story entire. It grew in my mind with an inevitability that seems to have little to do with any conscious effort on my part. Watching the still unwritten story unfold in my mind was like watching the spreading of a pool of water from an upset jug. It just formed a pattern, the pattern it couldn’t help but form. Then it was merely a case of me setting down in words that story and its pattern. I also wanted to see if it was possible to include the sorts of allusions and puns that many readers feel lessens a story’s impact in such a way that the impact isn’t lessened at all. I wanted to find out if such tricks might even enhance the impact. That is how this story came into being.

Rhys Hughes was born in Wales. His first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published fifty other books, more than nine hundred short stories, and innumerable articles. He graduated as an engineer but now works as a tutor of mathematics. His most recent book is an epic poem, The Meandering Knight, and he is currently working on a collection of experimental stories to be called Comfy Rascals. His blog may be found at http://rhysaurus.blogspot.com


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DP FICTION #68A: “A Complete Transcript of [REDACTED]’s Video Channel, In Order of Upload” by Rhiannon Rasmussen

VIDEO TITLE: Easy cooking for the family.

DESCRIPTION: Thank you for watching.

TRANSCRIPT:
Dark kitchen, grainy. Camera, low resolution, is pointed at a cooking range with dented skillet resting on it. Both are crusted with food and what appears to be rust. The stovetop paint is flaking off in layers. Over the side of the skillet, a lump which appears to have hair in it is visible. A black sheet has been draped across the counter behind the cooking range. After a moment of rustling, it becomes apparent that hands in black gloves have been in view.

It is unclear if the voice has been dubbed over, but likely belongs to the person cooking. Voice is soft, whispery, and barely audible over the snap of the flame. Audio peaks often.

VOICE: I really— hello. I find cooking videos soothing to watch, so I— I decided to make one of my own. I hope that— I hope that you find it soothing too. To start, I—

The speaker fumbles with the pan. There is a glimpse of stained, cuffed sleeves.

VOICE: I have to make a lot of food, so this pan isn’t— it’s not the best one I could have picked, ah… I’ve done it wrong already.

A hiss. The pan is removed and replaced with a pot. The contents are not visible but slosh when the pot is moved.

VOICE: So— so… let’s start with… an easy thing everyone likes to eat. It—it’s soup. Don’t— don’t criticize me.

The speaker retreats. Chopping is audible offscreen while the speaker continues.

VOICE: In the… you have to sauté it to soften it, but I’m afraid it, er… it’s only gotten harder. That’s… that’s all right. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a stew.

There is a nervous laugh.

VOICE: Oh, it’s— it’s a bone. Here.

There is a thump, and crackle. The pot rattles and begins to bubble over.

VOICE: Then we add it to the— to— it’s boiling— wait—

The camera is knocked to the side, tilting the video. A handful of lump is crumbled into the pot, which causes the liquid to spill over the edges and splash across the stovetop. There is a hissed exclamation and the video terminates abruptly.

*

VIDEO TITLE: I have to cook a lot so I made another video.

DESCRIPTION: The last video was hard to see. I’m sorry.

TRANSCRIPT:
The camera has been moved to above the stove. The video appears to sway in a way that suggests that the camera is suspended rather than mounted. There is a strong light to the right of the video, but the left is in strong shadow. A glistening oil can sits below the light. The dented skillet from the first video sits on the bottom right burner, by the oil.

VOICE: Good— morning. I watched the last one and … this is better now. I’m not— I don’t want to make soup. Today it’s a … gnocchi.

Rustling. With both hands, white pellets are poured into the skillet. They continue to move after being poured into the skillet.

VOICE: These are ones I grew myself, so they’re— you know they’re fresh.

With both hands, the speaker hoists the can and gingerly pours oil into the skillet. While the oil is poured, static and audio distortion increases.

VOICE: The oil keeps— it keeps the can from rusting, so I cover it often… stop it!

The speaker bumps the skillet with their arm, knocking it over. The pellets crawl in all directions after they are spilled.

VOICE: Don’t you understand this is import—

The camera swings wildly. For two frames a thin white hand with too many fingers is visible grasping the black sheet behind the stove before the video terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: Unboxing at home. Fun

DESCRIPTION: I made an unboxing. It is a surprise that I haven’t seen unboxed before. There wasn’t anything at the end of the other video. Please don’t leave rude responses I will see them.

TRANSCRIPT:
The camera, tilted, is fixed on a damp cardboard box tied with a string. There are no visible maker or mailing marks on the box. One corner is crumpled in; that corner is stained black. The stain is spreading across the counter, which appears to be the kitchen counter. The lighting is even, but deeply yellow. A tapping which has been audible since the beginning of the video ceases.

VOICE: Hello. I… the cooking was… I will practice so it isn’t so disappointing. Thank you. Today is an unboxing, I…

The speaker reaches into view, and places gloved hands on the box. The speaker appears to be wearing the same stained button-up shirt as in the video ‘Easy cooking for the family.’

VOICE: This is the box… first I untie it…

The speaker fumbles with the string until it comes undone.

VOICE: And then… it’s sealed with… with tape, which I have to cut… I wonder what’s inside? What could have been sent to me?

A nervous, whispery laugh. A kitchen knife with nicked blade is used to saw the box open. There does not appear to be tape holding the flaps together.

VOICE: This is… the hard part because it really has to… hold still. There.

The knife is placed to the left of the box. The speaker gingerly opens the flaps and reaches inside.

VOICE: Now it’s exciting. Aren’t you excited…?

The speaker pulls out a glass jar. The contents are black. White objects float inside. The speaker is excited; their voice pitches up.

VOICE: Oh! It’s my teeth!

The speaker holds the jar closer to the camera. A black fluid runs down the jar from a large crack near the lid. The speaker is audibly disappointed.

VOICE: Oh… it’s leaking…

The hands pull back and footsteps are heard leading away from the microphone. After a full minute of silence, the footsteps return and the video terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: Organic gnocchi garden.

DESCRIPTION: It is not a creepy video. It is filmed in my house please stop asking. It is my house. Please stop asking where my house is. It is a private house.

TRANSCRIPT:
The voiceover begins immediately. The camera is held at an average shoulder-height, moving down a dim hall lined with wooden slats. The ceiling is low and does not have light fixtures. The construction style is of the early 1900s.

VIDEO: I had— many people— ah, who asked about the gnocchi. Of course it was good, it’s not… I don’t know what…  is that—

Nothing changes in the hallway, but the progression stops.

VOICE: …there isn’t anything. It doesn’t matter, here we are.

The speaker turns, and the camera faces a door the same color as the hall. The speaker, wearing black gloves, fumbles with the door. When the door is opened, a buzzing is audible. The speaker fumbles with a pull string.

VOICE: I keep it in the dark. They said it’s a favorite. It took me a while to figure this out but it isn’t too hard…

The light comes on with a click. The camera sways close to a large. blackening ribcage, mostly stripped of flesh. It appears to be the remains of a cow or pig.

VOICE: Here. And… sorry, I have to open it… a bit strong… ah, if I had another hand— ha ha—

The camera dips as the speaker turns the carcass to face the camera. Black spots buzz across and the speaker hisses and waves them away. A large white blob is visible. After a moment the camera focuses as the speaker pushes it closer. The white is a chest full of writhing maggots. A fly lands on the camera, blotting out half of the video. The voice sounds relieved.

VOICE: And that’s the— my indoor garden.

*

VIDEO TITLE: f

DESCRIPTION: boil

TRANSCRIPT: The camera swings unsteadily over a pot of yellow oil. There is the sound of shallow breathing for eleven seconds before the video abruptly terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: fryung with mushrooms

DESCRIPTION: im ok

[A significant amount of hard returns seperate the first two words from the following text:]

I SAW YOU THIS IS YOUR LASRT WARNING STP SNREAKING ARIUBD MY HIUSE

TRANSCRIPT:
There is swinging and as the camera is fixed into place above the stovetop. A large pot is visible; it is filled with bubbling oil. The hands withdraw from the camera before the speaker begins.

VOICE: Today we are going to fry some mushrooms. Um… I found a bunch of them recently…

There is rustling and the speaker holds a porcelain tray up to the camera. On the tray are several mushrooms trailing mycelium. Alongside the mushrooms are lumps that appear to be covered in fuzz.

VOICE: Since it wasn’t very interesting and I don’t know how to do the video skip, I took the oil to boil while I wasn’t recording. I’m sorry if you wanted to see it. I turned it up to the highest setting until it boiled…

The tray tilts and the contents slide into the oil. As the lump hits, there is a pop and sizzle. Oil bursts across the stove and tray. The speaker yanks back with a startled inhalation, jostling the camera. The tray is pulled away. There is the sound of it being set down off-camera.

VOICE: —ah, and then we, and then we wait for it to finish.

There is a forty-second pause in speaking. The camera is set back into its original position.

VOICE: I know how long it’s supposed to cook. Until it…

The contents of the pot blacken as the oil continues to boil.

VOICE: …until…

There is rustling off-screen.

VOICE [mumbled]: Oh, no.

A hand rests on the side of the stove.

VOICE: I forgot the tool to take it out with…

There is a pause. The speaker hesitates over the boiling pot before plunging their hand into the pot. There is a shrill scream. The camera is knocked spinning. The video terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: Cooking with a roast beef.

DESCRIPTION: Thank you for concern. Today we will cook a roast beef. Please know I did not disturb the gnocchi for this roast.

TRANSCRIPT:
The camera is pointed at the oven. The door is open, and the interior is blackened. From the color, grime, and lighting it seems to be the same stove as in previous videos. The speaker’s voice is audible from what seems to be behind the camera.

VOICE: I wanted to show— oh. Hello. Today we’re going to… cook a roast. A… a roast beast. Beef.

With a scraping noise, a rusty metal tray is pushed into view. It is held by an unsteady, bandaged hand. On top of the tray are three chunks of rib bone. The shriveled meat on the ribs is tinged green.

VOICE: I… er, I cut the beef… and now it’s on the plate. So the plate goes into the oven, which is hot… I turned it to, er, to [inaudible] degrees… please be careful with hot things. Though it doesn’t— it doesn’t hurt too much, so don’t worry. Thank you.

The speaker slides the tray into the oven, and then carefully closes the oven door. Though there is a glass window, the inside is not visible due to a combination of filth and lack of light. The video continues to record the oven for several hours without interruption.

Nothing changes in the video until 3:41:53, when there is a distant noise of glass breaking and a light flickers. At 4:08:03 there is a muffled scrape and thump, and a possible second voice with an indistinct exclamation. At 4:15:47 there is a metallic shriek, a series of loud bangs, and shouting, speaker undetermined. The shouting ends abruptly with a damp thud. The camera shakes slightly and is not reoriented.

The video continues without note until 5:32:11, when the oven begins to emit smoke, and at 5:46:23 there is a brief flare of red before the ribs visibly catch flame at 5:52:09. The fire continues, smoke obscuring the image, until there is the sound of loud footsteps approaching at a run. The oven door is yanked open.

VOICE [out of breath]: And— and that’s a —

Violent coughing. The video terminates.

*

VIDEO TITLE: How to fix a broken window.

DESCRIPTION: A window is broken so I am going to fix it.

TRANSCRIPT:

The video is clearer, though still filmed at low resolution. The camera is tilted back in view of a broken window. Large shards of glass remain in the splintering frame. The sky is an overcast grey. Shuffling comes from behind the camera before a throat is cleared.

VOICE: Good— good morning. Today is— a window is broken. That’s… that’s not good. Because it goes outside. So anyone could get out. Or … or in. A-anyway. I have… household…

The speaker shakily holds a staple gun in front of the camera with bandaged hand.

VOICE: I tried to sew it, but… the needle broke. And the other thing we needed was… fabric. That you have around the house. Please— please remember, this is a private residence. Okay.

The staple gun is removed and a large piece of translucent, pale fabric, notably marked with brown stains, is held in front of the camera. With rustling, the speaker’s gloved hand holds the fabric up to the window frame. The staple gun is brought up to the gloved hand, and there is over six seconds of hesitation.

VOICE: Oh… shoot.

A third hand, in an ill-fitting black glove, slides into view from the far side of the window. It holds the fabric against the frame.

VOICE: Ah, and then you… just staple it, like this. And like this… over a bit… down…

As they speak, the speaker erratically staples the fabric to the windowframe until the fabric is stretched completely across. It has ragged edges and hangs loosely. The amount of light is greatly diminished. All hands retreat from the frame.

VOICE: Until it’s done. So you can’t just get out.

The speaker’s gloved hand comes back into view, pushing against the fabric with two fingers, outward; it stretches with the pressure, though it is not elastic.

VOICE: Now you can… um… see through it, but not go through it. Ow!

The speaker yanks their hand back, evidently having pricked a finger on the glass. A dark spot remains on the fabric. There is a hiss and whimper before the speaker continues, subdued.

VOICE: So that’s how— how to fix the window.

*

VIDEO TITLE: Cooking with a new ingredient.

DESCRIPTION: I’m sorry.

TRANSCRIPT:
VOICE: —ry again, it’s not wasteful, it’s okay. It’s okay. 

Video begins mid-sentence. The speaker’s voice is distressed and nearly inaudible. The camera is close to a skillet, at an angle. The stove appears to have been cleaned, though it is still crusted with rust and stains. The oil can is on the stove, near the skillet. In the corner of the video is the side of a large pot, with what appears to be plastic melted to the side. There is a white plate with a cut of meat about the size of a thigh ham on it; the meat is resting in a pool of bright red juices. The meat appears fresh. There is a several-second pause before the speaker begins again with a shivered inhalation.

VOICE: Hello, um, today I’m making a… sauté. Ah, I… I don’t like it when anything goes to waste, so I try to use all of it… ah… well, so we’re going to bruise in a skillet.

The speaker picks up the oil can with difficulty and coats the surface of the skillet in oil. While both hands are gloved, a bandage is visible around the wrist of the right hand.

VOICE: The skillet is— it’s already on. So the— oil is so it doesn’t stick.

A nervous laugh. The oil can slips from their grip, splashing oil across the stovetop and meat. The can is shoved out of sight.

VOICE: Then— um— then — salt—

The speaker picks a glass container from offscreen and fumbles with it, dropping it; the meat is covered in a pile of fine salt. There is a sharp intake of breath. The container is snatched from the plate.

VOICE: It’s fine. It’s fine. You’re supposed to— to have it sit in the salt anyway. It’s not bad now. I should cook it and it will be fine. It’s good. It’s good to not be wasteful. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Just put it in the skillet so you can cook it.

A muffled click offscreen. The speaker picks up the meat and places it onto the skillet. They yank their hand away from the pop and sizzle of oil.

VOICE: Ah— then it’s— two minutes. Just two minutes.

There is a pause of 3:06 while the meat begins to smoke. From this point on the video is somewhat obscured by smoke. The sounds of breathing are audible under the cooking. At 3:49 the speaker very quickly flips the meat over with their hand, then shoves the skillet aside and places the plate atop the burner. The blackened meat is dropped onto the plate, splashing juice across the stovetop.

VOICE: Then it… it’s done. And you… you get to eat it. So that’s good, it’s very, it’s delicious, savor it.

The speaker’s hands return to frame with a fork and knife spotted with white and brown stains. They cut into the meat, shakily piecing out a chunk which is stabbed and lifted out of frame. There is the sound of chewing, followed by a choke and retching. The plate is knocked aside, into the pot, which topples, spilling brown liquid across the stovetop. The contents of the pot roll into view. Fused to the inside of the pot is a melted white shopping bag with distorted THANK YOU written across it in red. Within the bag is a swollen, pink lump with finger- or toenails.

The thin sound of sobbing.

The video terminates.

*

The channel was removed shortly following upload of the ninth video.


© 2020 by Rhiannon Rasmussen

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by the myriad wonders and horrors of internet media. It’s really lovely that so many people are brought together by the ability to post online, isn’t it?

Rhiannon R-S is a nonbinary lesbian who lies on stacks of paper dreaming about teeth. For more writing & art, visit rhiannonrs.com. For shitposts & conversation, visit @charibdys on Twitter.


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DP FICTION #67B: “That Good Old Country Living” by Vanessa Montalban

Phase Two consists of a trip outside Sector 684. It’ll take us two days to reach the human-curated farm fields. We’ll have the chance to see how our creators lived before the dark decline. How they coexisted with their animals in vast, clear-skied land.

The minis are the most excited. We watch them swing their small fleshy legs off the seat, tapping their thighs as the clean-train rumbles beneath us. We are so thankful for them and their bright, eager smiles. Their presence is like a memory of something that never happened, like a nostalgia that presses down some of the building ache.

They were Phase One of the curative trial for the pandemic sweeping across the cities. Dysthymia was rampant across several sectors, reducing our conscious biomechatronic population to that of the humans before extinction. Most selecting to be disconnected or discarded for parts. Our sector took immediate action with the introduction of preventive treatment.

First, the minis, now the farms.

They tell us it’s to be expected. We have our creators’ subconscious after all, and with that comes malfunctions.

We all go still as our ear-assist announces we’ve left the sector limits.

Please enjoy this relaxing music. It’s a human-led orchestra that fills our cabin. We can hear the imperfections but relax to it all the same. From the windows, the minis point at the giant stacks in the Purification Plants. The smog is thicker the further we leave the city behind with fewer sky-scraper purifiers to filter out the radiation and pollutant emissions. It doesn’t affect us, but the sight is not as pleasant. That familiar stirring begins somewhere not medically pinpointable. A heavy feeling, a dragging, oozing…

To your left, you’ll find the wheat fields.

We look outside, the purifying stacks pepper the field to allow a rolling landscape to appear. The land flits by as the sun takes over the sky. It glints over the vast field of golden stalks the ear-assist calls “wheat”. Not real wheat of course, but dyed and fashioned algae bloom made to resemble this shimmering grain.

Soon the stalks transform into a vibrant green, almost the neon color of pure algae, but this color breathes life. “Corn stalks”, we’re told. A word made to oval our mouths.

Fun fact! Corn was the last surviving crop humans could grow before the dark decline.

The minis wave excitedly at a person-shaped figure made of wheat-algae in the middle of the field, arms out-spread, eyes black as coal.

Once we stop, we’re led off the clean-train, the minis walking with a peculiar jump. The farm curators welcome us, handing us each a wrapped uniform bundle. Except it’s not like any uniform we’ve ever seen. We “ooh” and “ahh” at the bright plaid, the rough material of jean overalls, the boots with thick soles. It’s what the farmers got to wear, they tell us, and at this we scowl, handing over our thin white smocks in exchange. Still, when we put them on, the material is not as heavy as it looks. Our different colors make us distinguishable.

They take us first to where the animals lived. We’re much more eager to see that. Humans we understand, we live with what they’ve left behind, but animals are a peculiar creature. Fur-covered things people used to keep in their own homes, have them curl up in sleep on the edges of beds.

Most ate pellets and corn (from our ears, the ear-assist takes on a guided-tour persona. We believe they’re having fun) and really, anything they could get their paws on. They were hungry things.
Our hands run across the cool metal of the old pens. Rows upon rows unfurling forward for who knows how far. Which is this one? We ask.

It’s the pig pens. Those cute fat pink animals with their pushed-in noses and squeaker sounds. Oh, how we would’ve loved to have seen those. They used to stack them right here. A practice later condemned when the animals were becoming extinct. An infographic of previous headlines quickly scrolls through our minds, clouding our view. Riots, pyres of rotting animal corpses filling the skies, famine. Our steps grow slower, heavier around the pens.

We wrinkle our noses at the rust-colored stains. The metal containers are rusted for effect. There’s no longer any danger in touching it, but it serves as a reminder. Look how far we’ve come. We are lucky.

We feel the plush hay of the slatted bottoms. Run fingers across the barn hooks and barrel feeders. Test the weight of what they call feed, rub the coarse hairs on the patches of fabric said to feel like the real thing! Our imaginations are often unused, but we fire them up, testing what’d it be like to be a “piggie”—such an adorable word, isn’t it? Our ear-assist trills.

The minis wear their long snouts for the occasion, provided by the curators of the farm. They snort and oink, wiggle around until our biomuscles lift into a smile.

The curators ask if we’d like to step into a room for a full olfactory experience. We decline, a reminder of something never-lived telling us it isn’t pleasant. But some of the minis, dressed in their tiny jean overalls and plaid shirts to match ours, rush in.

They come out jostling, their dilated retinas wide and their pig snouts bouncing. They say it’s like nothing they’ve ever smelled, and they go back in at least two more times.

After we’ve seen what there is to see of the pig pens, we’re ushered into a rounded room with a colossal rotary platform in the center. This one was used to hold a thousand of those black and white beasts at once, for what purpose we’ll soon find out. The curators come around and pin black-spotted white pins over our flannels. We’re all labeled “cows”, another word we enjoy stretching our mouths for.

Each of us picks a spot to stand. A bubbling sound—a laugh, we realize— finds its way from the pit of our stomach to our mouths as we face each other from across the giant rotary. The minis trade their piggy noses for supple pink bags with nipple tips called utters. The curators strap it to the minis, and they dig their small fingers into the rubbery pliable material.

The guided-tour voice speaks in our ears along with a joyful jingle. The heifer—the female cow, spent most of her day here in the milk parlor. This thousand-cow rotary alleviated the strain of milking cows one by one and provided most of the population with a delicious, refreshing drink. Can you imagine how many humans it would take to milk a thousand cows a day? Well, a thousand humans, of course!  A vintage laugh track from human sitcoms blares through our ears.

We mimic it. The stomach sound erupts from our mouths again as we rush to grab hold of the bar in front of us, the rotary begins to slowly spin. We feel light, made of air.

Kept running twenty-four hours a day, this handy device slowly drained away a heifer’s heavy load of milk through its utters down into those pipes you see running into the center containment drip. Fun fact! A similar system was devised for lactating human mothers during the last baby blast.

The minis are told to push forward into a funneled cone. A device latches onto their installed utters, and we all watch in astonishment as foamy liquid erupts down into the clear pipes. Fascinating. We all wish we could have utters of our own.

Again, they move us along to the next area of the tour. The curators jokingly call us “the herd”, apparently another farming reference. We now get to see where the actual farmers lived. They load us onto a moving platform, lugged by a big-and-little-wheeled vehicle they call a tractor. A clean-tractor, of course. We would never ride on anything that would cause pollutants like our creators did. It was the first order our ancestors were programmed with. Infographs threaten to scroll through endless articles and images of the dark decline when the world went white-hot, but a jolt from the clean-tractor sets us right again.

Once we get there, the minis launch from their seats, running toward the oddly box-shaped home. We find ourselves rushing after them in our thick-soled boots, uncaring for the squelch of wet dirt.

We like the creak of wood beneath our feet as we climb steps into the farmer’s house. A mural of them colors across a wall outside, painted bright faces and broad smiles. Their offspring’s hands gripped in theirs. They stand proud and large as if saying this is ours. All of it.

Here is where the good old farmers would live. They tell us a farmer couple would usually occupy a residence of this size. They’d have an average of three or more children, breeding them to inherit their parent’s line of work. It’s sickening so few people could take up so much room, our ear-assist admonishes.  Think of the wasted space!

Our containment buildings spread for four blocks, four tall buildings with nothing but recharging units and taking up as little bit of earth as possible. Our societal production buildings are the same. Four, stacked, so our entire city feels smaller than this farmer’s home.

There are so many rooms, so many chairs. Some of them rock, others that wheel. Feather-made beds from when birds flew high and low enough to catch. We take turns sitting on the bouncing beds, splaying out over soft covers and equally (if not more) lush pillows. There are animal-shaped heads protruding from the walls, long snouts and flickery ears. Lamps also shaped like animals, you would think the farmers had even loved these creatures.

“Where are their containment tanks?” The minis ask. As if anticipating these questions, the guided-tour voice tells us they didn’t need containment units like we have, everything they needed was processed through sleep and sustenance. We know that, but the minis were programmed for companionship, not the burden of our creators. We watch as their little mouths turn down at the corners, flirting their little fingers across the beds.

The floors all creak inside as well, a cacophony of sound that reminds us of their unusual music. Each room smells different. The entire manor fitted for a full experience. Their couch room smells sweet, their sustenance room like burnt flesh and salt. Their bed rooms like something none of us can name but turns our insides as soft as pillows. Rooms with wooden cages for their fleshy babes, more colorful and elaborately decorated than the other spaces.

We can tell care went into those.

The curators stop us for a vid-viewing. A gold-haired farmer places their offspring into those wooden cages, her lips to its frontal skull, a song on her lips. That soft feeling happens then too. They say it’s normal, nothing to be alarmed of. But when the minis extend their heads, their frontal skulls waiting for our lips, an ache takes over the soft.

Eventually, we all drag our feet to the door. Everything resplendent with tender detail. We all understand it was unnecessary, wasteful, selfish even. Yet, we all linger on the wood-creaking porch, leaning hips on the rail, feeling the prickling sun at our backs, the wind a lure to those algae wheat mazes.

When the minis grab hold of our hands, we squeeze back tightly.

*

On the clean-train back to Sector 684, we pass our own production farms. A swarm of mechanized beez are released every hour like steam from the factory’s top. The soil is especially rich here as worrmz and other decomposing machinations are released to spread out like roots in a greenhouse.

There’s no warming softness as we view this, too used to our thriving system to allow that strange sensation to find us. Instead, the trip has left us with this emptiness of feeling. This hole where that softness should be. This cold where a hot-breath of flame could be burning. They tell us this is normal too and it’ll pass. But we’re no longer sure. We think we are infected.

There’s a point on our trip back to the city where our wireless connection, our ear-assist, everything disconnects. No service. And my head is mine alone.

I am here.

My mini shuts down with its head against my arm and that warm buzz comes up to sting behind my retinas. I imagine this is how a dream must feel. The act of reconstructing a memory or a thought that belongs to me alone just as the humans once did, as the cows and the pigs and the farmers all must’ve as well.

If I could, I’d hold onto this memory of mine, dream again of the farm. Of the field of real wheat and a friendly sun at my back. For now, I can only wonder when I’ll return.


© 2020 by Vanessa Montalban

Author’s Note: I try to be as conscientious as possible when it comes to my carbon footprint. I kept wondering if anything I did even made a difference: recycling, buying in bulk, etc. Then I thought about what the planet would look like once humanity had done all the damage it could do and who would inherit this disaster. Would our robotic legacy do better or would life weigh on them as it did us? Who knows, but it brought out some interesting scenarios. 

Fueled by the magic of espresso, Miami-born Vanessa Montalban channels her wanderlust for far-off worlds into writing speculative fiction. She’s a first-generation grad student at the University of South Florida and a librarian-in-training hard at work creating her own collection of stories.


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BOOK REVIEW: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

written by David Steffen

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a 2011 contemporary fantasy novel, the first in a series of three books by Ransom Riggs depicting children with unusual abilities.

The protagonist of the book is Jacob Portman, who as a child was enamored by his grandfather Abe’s stories of fleeing from Nazi persecution of Jews in World War II–to hear his grandfather tell it there were literal monsters and his grandfather found safety in a secret safehouse with peculiar children watched over by a “wise old bird”. When he was a child, Jacob took these stories literally, but as he grew older he doubted their literal reality, figuring that his grandfather was communicating with metaphor about the horrors of war. As his grandfather dies, Jacob sees a vivid vision of what appears to be a monster lurking nearby, but no one believes he saw what he saw, and he is sent to therapy to cope with the trauma of his grandfather’s death.

His therapist, Dr. Golan, suggests that Jacob should travel to Cairnholm, Wales, the place where his grandfather had lived at the supposed home for peculiar children. There he can either establish the reality of the home, or not, and settle what everyone else believe to be fantasies. He travels there with his family on a work trip.

This book has a very good hook, although it’s clear from the title and the picture of the book that it’s clear that “peculiar children”, whatever that means, are central to the book, and one can probably assume that the home for peculiar children exists or they wouldn’t name the book after it, there is still plenty of mystery in the book to keep turning the pages. As the mystery is revealed there is plenty else to keep the story going in terms of interesting characters and looming villains. It’s hard to discuss it in much more detail because the reveal of the mysteries is the biggest part that is fun in the book.

But another thing that makes this book stand out from other fantasy books is the found pictures that form the basis for many of the ideas. Throughout the book are actual found photographs of “peculiar” children, children who appear to be floating, or appear to be an invisible child visible only as hovering clothing, or things like that. Riggs has worked with collectors of these odd photographs to make a huge collection of images of these, and many of the characters are based on these photographs, so it’s really interesting how those odd photographs, presumably of early photographic special effects, were the basis of the story–it lends the story some feel of truth as well as adding a very cool weird touch to it all.

Highly recommended!

VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Untitled Goose Game

written by David Steffen

Untitled Goose Game is a 2019 puzzle stealth game developed by House House in which you are a goose generally making a nuisance of yourself in a small village.

“It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a terrible goose” is the line that starts the game. You are a goose with a purpose, and that purpose is a seemingly arbitrary handwritten list of objectives written on lined notebook paper wherein the only unifying seems to be “to be a nuisance”. As the villagers are trying to go about their daily business tending gardens, running pubs, and otherwise going on about their lives, you are the goose among them causing them endless inconveniences, stealing their things and move those things to other places, honking and scaring them at inconvenient times, and otherwise just generally making their days unpleasant.

Different villagers respond differently to seeing you–though generally most of them will chase you to retrieve their things if they see you stealing them, so much of the game is based on looking inconspicuous until their back is turned and then stealing and running off before they notice. There is also a puzzle element to the game, as many of the objectives give you a general idea what needs to be done but not HOW to do it. For instance, one of the objectives in the first area is to make a man wear a different hat… but how do you do that? Both the hat on his head and the other hat hanging on a hook are out of your reach.

This is a diverting and silly game, and it’s fun to have a game where your main objective is to be rather annoying, but the stakes are not earth-shaking by any stretch of the word.

Visuals
Cute cartoony style, even if it is a little creepy that none of the humans have eyes.

Audio
Very cute, the instrumental music cranks up in intensity when someone starts chasing you, and the HONK noise is amusing enough that I usually just walked around honking whenever I wasn’t trying to be stealthy.

Challenge
Some of the challenges are pretty straightforward, others take some experimentation, but generally it’s pretty low-stakes since the worst thing that generally happens is that a human takes back a thing you stole and puts it back where it was originally. Where the biggest challenge comes in the game is later advanced objectives when you have a time-limit for completing a series of tasks. You have to work quite hard (and also be pretty lucky) to streamline your nuisance-making to fit it in tight time-limits. (It’s also probably the silliest idea in a silly game, who is imposing these time limits on the goose?)

Story
Extremely light on story, which is fine, it’s not a story game. Other than the generally increasing dislike of the villagers toward the goose, there is not much progression. (But that’s okay, it’s not a game you play for story!)

Session Time
Except for the time-based goals later in the game, you can start and stop pretty much whenever, and it will save your progress (even the time-based ones, the time limits are only a few minutes, so it’s not a big time unit anyway).

Playability
Easy, there are only a few buttons–movement with the joystick, a general “manipulate” button, and a dedicated honk button (you can also flap your wings but that is almost never necessary, you can do it just for fun).

Replayability
Certainly some replay value, after you beat the basic objectives you get some extra timed objectives, and even after that you could go back and find new ways to annoy the villagers (such as stealing all of their belongings and hording them in your den).

Originality
Obviously stealth games are nothing new, but this one made quite a stir because the choice of the goose as protagonist and the goals as being just generally ways to be annoying to random villagers made this game a thing of its own.

Playtime
It took me a few hours to play through everything including the advanced objectives.

Overall

A silly and fun stealth puzzle game well worth the time and cost. Even after all of the memes it inspired, I still found it original and fun and did not wear out its welcome. I still go back and play it just for fun even though I have completed all of the objectives.

BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man: Fetch-22

written by David Steffen

Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls is a 2019 graphic novel for kids, the eighth in the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants). The series so far has been reviewed here.

The villain Petey the cat is trying to turn over a new life and be a force for good instead of a force for evil, mostly motivated by a desire to live up to the confidence of his son, an immature clone of himself, known as Lil’ Petey. Lil’ Petey is a good-hearted scamp who is now in shared custody between Petey and Petey’s nemesis Dog-Man who is half-dog half-cop (Lil’ Petey and Dog Man are also members of a superhero group the Supa Buddies with the third member being the robot 80HD). But Lil’ Petey’s faith in humanity has been shaken.

The Fair Fairy is a long-running children’s TV show where a fairy explains to children how to be fair. But, it turns out that she’s not so good at keeping her temper when dealing with kids when she flips out (again!) on live TV and stomps off to become the newest villain. This combined with a minor mishap with some “supa brain dots” that turn a pond full of tadpoles into flying telekinetic monsters that team up with the Fair Fairy to wreak havoc on the city, and Dog-Man and his friends again have their work cut out for them!

Still very enjoyable series for grade-school age kids.

BOOK REVIEW: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

written by David Steffen

In case you haven’t heard of the names, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (the most common way she was referred to, though it was never quite her name she did answer to it) were real historical figures that worked together on the early theory of computing before the first calculating machines were made in the first half of the 19th centure. Charles Babbage built a functional prototype of the “difference engine” which was a mechanical computing engine using gears and steam that could calculate sums. He had plans for much a more complex machine built on the same concepts he called the “analytical engine” for which he had very detailed designs. Babbage was a celebrity of his time, though notorious for almost never quite finishing his projects, and he never actually finished building an analytical engine. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and her mother strived to insulate her from her father’s “poetical” ways (which seems to be a commentary on mental health rather than the poems themselves), and very accomplished in the field of mathematics, especially for a woman living in her time when women were actively discouraged from mathematical pursuits. The thing she is most well known for is creating the first programming language, intended to be used with the analytical engine. Since the analytical engine was never built, she never saw her language go into use, and it was a very long time before a calculating machine that was built and the language to go with it.

Lovelace died at the age of 36, and Babbage never finished building the engine that he considered to be his life’s main work, but they are such fascinating figures with ideas well beyond their time that it’s fun to imagine what might’ve been if things had gone differently.

This is a book that’s maybe half non-fiction and half fiction. The first section of the book is all non-fiction, albeit told in comic style, telling of the backgrounds and real-life pursuits of Lovelace and Babbage, though told in a narrative style much of it is based directly in quotes from correspondences and publications of various and in the nature of their personalities revealed therin.

The second section of the book is a fictional steampunkish tale making up fun stories about what might have happened if Lovelace had lived longer and if Babbage had created his machine.

It’s a fun romp, both educational and just plain fun. I learned a lot about both Lovelace and Babbage who are both very interesting people that I would love to read more about, and the second fictional part of the book was an exciting and fun comic in its own right, and even more so for being based on the real people.

DP FICTION #67A: “The Last Great Rumpus” by Brian Winfrey

So I’ve been at the dog park going on three hours now, and even some of the newbies have started looking at me funny.

I’m used to it, though.

I long ago got written off as one of the crazies, so far as the regulars are concerned. Every park has a couple—the folks who show up and stand around without a dog. You get your share of wary glances that way. Cold shoulders, too. Dogs that attempt to say “hi” get whistled back before you lay what must assuredly be a filthy, covetous hand on them.

Me, I’m tolerated because I scoop the poop. (If there’s one thing dog owners hate, it’s the clean-up). So long as I make the occasional circuit, I avoid drawing the ire of the dog park mafia (also known as that clutch of busybodies who fancy themselves the place’s executive steering committee). Every park’s got its own version of them, too.

“Which one’s yours?”

That from an obvious newbie, who’s sidled up. Some of the regulars try a wave-off, but she doesn’t notice.

“Oh, I’m just maintenance,” I assure her, with a waggle of my industrial-grade scoop.

Which isn’t actually true. I do have a dog in the park.

She can’t see him, though.

Neither can you.

Hank’s a shepherd mix. Maybe seventy, seventy-five pounds. Sleek, pale coat and gorgeous green eyes. A big softie with a fondness for belly rubs and sloppy kisses. I grew up knee-deep in dogs of all sorts, and he’s by far the most loving I’ve ever come across.

Judging by how he carries himself, he was probably five or six when he died.

Yeah, my dog’s a ghost. I adore him anyhow.

*

Hank and I, we’ve been joined at the hip just shy of four years. Almost from the moment I hit town.

We met in this very dog park, in fact. I was living in one of those shoebox apartments right there–shade your eyes a bit and you can make out my old window. The locale probably tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my prospects (dim), my bank account (low), and my general level of cool (nonexistent) in those days.

It was August. One of those weeks when the mercury hovers around 85, even long after the sun’s set. I was trying to master the art of sleeping without air conditioning, and I wasn’t doing so well.

Then came the howling. Low and wistful. Heartsick.

I was the only one who heard. The only one who could hear it, I think.

Back then, I had more than a passing acquaintance with heartsick and wistful, you see. Heck, I probably could’ve spun a dirge of my own without too much prompting.

In short, I spoke the language.

Anyhow, I went to the window, leaned out, and glimpsed a pale form wandering the park. And, as though he felt the weight of my gaze, Hank came to an abrupt stop and stared up at me.

Just like that, he was my dog.

*

The newbie points out her own precious angel, a terrier of some sort. He’s got some game (if not much grace), but he’s no Hank. Still, I nod and smile and tell her how wonderful he seems. That’s the delicate etiquette of dog moms: Your dog is the best dog ever…and so’s mine.

Meanwhile, Hank has started a rumpus.

Except for me, he goes unseen and untouched by the world. But animals can still sense him somehow. So, as he drifts among them, dogs tense and huff and growl. Finally, the boldest of them, a pug, lets out a high-pitched squeal of a war-cry and charges.

The others fall in, and it’s on.

Hank loves being chased—loves any excuse to run—so this works out fine.

The esteemed members of the dog park mafia just gape, no doubt wondering what the heck’s gotten into their mutts. Because to them, to the newbie, to everybody but me, those dogs are chasing air.

By the time Hank’s done a full lap, the hunting party’s probably doubled in size. Hank’s opened up a bit of a lead, but nothing insurmountable. He knows when to slow a step or two so the pack doesn’t lose interest. How to get them falling all over themselves to be first for a nip.

Second time around, he lets the pug close the distance. Inch by inch, until its snout dips into reach. Those stubby legs pump for all they’re worth. So close. Sooooo damn close. It does a little leap, like it’s about to bring down a gazelle… and Hank abruptly swerves and passes right through the chain link fence that encircles the park.

Like smoke. Without so much as a whisper.

The pug faceplants. The other dogs scrabble to avoid it, and that causes a pile-up of its own. The hunting party makes a brief, furious protest at this flagrant violation of the rules. But Hank just waits them out across the fence, tail wagging and tongue lolling.

What can I say? He’s always been kind of a rascal.

When he finally does slip back through the fence, though, a sliver of ice pierces my heart. Because it’s a real struggle. Locking down the smoke or mist or vapor—or whatever it is—into the familiar shape of my dog takes just about everything he’s got. A minute or so later, he remains fuzzy. Extra ghost-y.

It’s not supposed to be like that.

But it has been for a while.

“Poor baby,” murmurs the newbie, who’s still at my elbow.

I blink at her, until I realize she means the pug, who’s just taken another tumble.

*

I’m no mystic. My only brush with the unnatural has been my dog, and believe me, I’m fine with that. So whatever insights I have are my own, pieced together through trial and error.

Here’s where we’re at:

Hank’s shedding his essence. Each day, he’s a little less substantial. A little less there. And if he exerts himself, like that bit at the fence, then we’re talking Double Jeopardy, where the scores can really change.

So the sun’s shining, the breeze is warm, and the sky’s so blue—so gorgeous—you’d swear some old master had taken a brush to it.

Oh, and my friend’s dying.

All over again.

*

Hank comes limping over—like an old dog; no, let’s be honest, like a very old dog—and curls up at my feet. Wisps of smoke (or vapor or mist) drift about him. Drift from him. In a second, they’ll fall away, carried off by whatever wind steals the dead.

If he doesn’t push his luck, he’ll recover some. I think he will, anyhow. He has so far. Not all the way, though; never fully. You don’t need to be a mystic to realize that. We’ve cleared the top of the bell curve, it seems, and it’s a slope from here on out.

The newbie’s chattering to me about something. I’m nodding along but not at all listening. Instead, I’m weighing things in my head. I had a plan when we left home this morning. A good one, I thought. One that made sense.

Only now I’m reconsidering.

“Don’t you think?” asks the newbie.

That’s the trouble, I nearly tell her. I think way too much.

Hank helps with that.

The thinking, I mean. The overthinking.

He’s got a bit of a nose for rumination. I start to fret, he goes and gets into trouble. The good kind. The kind that tends to have me flat-out laughing before I’m done untangling it. (Ask me about “Hank and the Great Granny Brunch—with the Squirrel in the Open Air Café” sometime.)

That’s what we’ve been doing since I realized what was happening.

Getting into trouble. The good kind.

We have a list, you see. Hank’s favorite places. My own. Plus, everywhere we hadn’t gotten around to. And we’ve been working our way through it, top to bottom.

We’ve raced the waves on a long, beautiful stretch of beach. We’ve hiked miles of canyons and mountains and gulches. We’ve gone deep into the forest and high into the hills. Out into the desert. Back through towns and cities and lonely stretches of highway.

Now we’re here. Where it all started.

Not because the list is done. Not because it’s anywhere near done. But time has grown short, and it just seems right to circle around to the beginning.

To let Hank run. To let him run as fast as he can, as long as he can.

We’ve been at the dog park going on three hours now, and even the other dogs have started looking at me funny. Because, I think, they can scent what’s coming.

They can tell I’m about to turn tail.

If I whistle, Hank will follow.

Together we’ll limp out the gate and live to fight another day. Well, I’ll live. Hank will… Hank will keep going the way he has. For a bit longer. All I have to do is take him home and keep him out of trouble.

That’s my new plan. My better plan. See, I can talk a big game about running and going out in a blaze of glory and all that, but when it’s actually time to follow through…

I’m a coward.

I’m selfish.

I want my friend. Just a little longer.

Just one more day, just one more moment.

So I start to turn, start to whistle.

That’s when I hear the first of the shouts.

*

Like I said, Hank goes unseen and untouched by this world.

Just so long as he keeps his distance, mind you.

Ever had the feeling somebody’s tip-toed over your grave? That’s what Hank stirs when he passes through a warm body: Gooseflesh that won’t quit and a shiver that runs head to toe. I don’t let him do it to folks, as a rule. Even before it got to be difficult, it was rude and scary.

So of course he’s gone and done it now.

With the dog park mafia.

He cuts right through their midst, setting them jumping and shouting. Chairs get tipped, coffee goes flying. It’s pandemonium, it’s bedlam, it’s pure beautiful chaos.

And Hank loves every second.

He comes flying past and gives me a look.

No more fear. Now we run.

“Hold this,” I tell the newbie, and hand her my scoop.

No way can I keep pace with him. I don’t even try. It’s enough I’m in this, I figure. That I’ve cast aside caution and common sense.

I throw out a hand, and the thick smoke coming off him curls about my fingers. It’s cool and dry. Then it’s lost on the wind. I might be laughing. Hard to tell, since the baying of dogs drowns out all the other sounds. Of course Hank wasn’t going to let them sit idle, not during his last run.

His last run. Oh Christ, I let that thought loose, and it burns, stings, chokes me.

Only for a second, though. Once Hank realizes I’ve joined the rumpus, he drops back and circles me happily. Jumping, nipping at my heels, nudging me to go a bit faster, if you please. I lead him in leaps and spins with a nod here, a gesture there. Even when we’re not serving up acrobatics, my arms are in motion, my hands slicing the air. I can only imagine how this looks to the mafia, to the newbie, to the whole damn world.

I don’t care. Not a bit.

We round the park’s borders once, twice, nearly a third time.

Smoke’s thicker now. I can look at Hank and see dirt and patchy grass right through him. He’s slowing. White fur threaded with strands of oily, awful black. I want to cry out, but I haven’t the breath.

This is happening. This is happening now.

A rush of air. Like there’s a sudden vacuum, like it’s being filled in. No sound, though. No hiss, no roar. Maybe just a whimper—my own. The smoke sweeps across me, searing my eyes. When it’s gone, when there’s nothing but a few wisps, I can see once more.

There are dogs. Dogs of all shapes and sizes.

But no Hank.

I stumble then. An ugly fall, flailing, all hands and knees. Palms stinging and shirt stained. When I manage to lever myself partway up, I realize I’m weeping.

I’m sobbing too hard to make much sense out of anything. But I can hear people circling. Wary, faux-concerned, whispery voices. Call an ambulance. The police, maybe. Somebody ought to do something. The sooner they do, the sooner things can get back to normal. The sooner everybody can forget this.

A cry—red, wet, and raw—rumbles in my chest.

It’ll find its way to my lips in a moment.

Before it does, a hand touches my shoulder.

To my surprise, I don’t flinch, don’t snarl, don’t swat it aside. Instead, I blink as I squint up at the shadow that’s fallen across me. It’s the newbie. She’s still got my scoop.

She draws a breath. Her lips part. She’s going to say something comforting… and utterly stupid. I know it. Something about how everybody slips and falls, about how everything’s going to be just fine. I’ll scream then. I will. And it will be ugly and awful and —

“I saw him,” she says, and lets the scoop drop away before lifting me gently into her arms. “I saw him, and he was beautiful.”

And the wind stirs. And something brushes my cheek.

A hint of smoke.

A faint, fleeting kiss.

One last time.


© 2020 by Brian Winfrey

Brian Winfrey has written everything from ad copy to magazine articles to fortune cookie messages. When he’s away from his keyboard, he’s likely to be found somewhere along I-40, in search of yet another roadside attraction. Otherwise, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two dogs, a ferocious cat, and far too many books.


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GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 5: Clockworks, by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 5: Clockworks is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between July 2011-May 2012. Previous volumes were reviewed here, here, here, and here.

As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. But trouble seems to follow them wherever they go, much of it tied to their family estate Key House which has magic hidden everywhere in it, much of it in the forms of magical keys, each with their own extraordinary abilities: the head key that allows you and others to manipulate your own memories and thoughts, the crown of shadows that lets you command the very shadows to do your bidding, the giant key that makes you into a towering colossusus. And new keys are turning up all the time. And with a mysterious enemy, a mysterious woman from the well, attacking them to get the keys at every turn, it’s an arms race to try to stay safe and stay alive. But as they have discovered, their enemy has been closer to them than they have suspected, disguised as a friend.

This story detours from the main timeline to tell us more about the lore that established Key House as it is today. Kinsey and Tyler find the clock key which allows them to step back in time and learn more about what happened there before. They learn about their family that has lived in the estate since the American Revolution, and the making of the keys and the Omega Door that their enemy so badly wants to open. We also find out a lot more about Rendell Locke (their dad) and his history there when he lived there in high school with his friends, including Lucas “Dodge” Caravaggio who has since risen from the dead.

This happened to be the first book that I read in the series as I was doing Hugo reading and man was this a poor place to join the series, since it’s all based in the history instead of the main characters. But I certainly wanted more, which is why I’m back now.

Solid series, and this penultimate entry is no exception, diving into a lot of the worldbuilding in a very interesting way as we find out more about the history as the characters do in this penultimate entry.