DP FICTION #71B: “Unstoned” by Jason Gruber

At sunrise, I spy on the humans as they arrive. They mill around on the black sand beach; their children splash in the pea-green waves. So many children, born of their brief lives, shorter than those of the elves, shorter by far than mine.

The humans clutch their schematics rolled in their fists. They await the elvish shipwrights, who arrive late in their tattered finery, patched velvets and scuffed leather boots, and usher the humans, bowing, through the filigree gate to the shipyard.

They cannot see me in my house on the hill, which the elves call a cave, ignoring the unsupported dome, the graceful archway entrance. I built my house to wall off a place for myself in this world with no other trolls in it. And in a clever nook in the back wall, behind the hearth, I hide my secret treasure: a schematic for a ship. If I could build it, then the elves would understand: we are not as different as they think. If I could build it, could speak to them with my hands in a language that they understand, then they would remember: the trolls were artists, before we were soldiers.

I stand well back from the morning sunlight, so buttery and so thick that I want to spread it on the toast I have made over my small fire. But I cannot touch the light, cannot even approach it. This is one of the things that people know about trolls. They cannot abide the light of day.

A human woman steps onto the raised platform of marble traced with copper. The elves take the schematic from her. She doesn’t know what to do with her empty hands. Her children dance in excitement; soon they will have a pleasure craft of the finest elvish craftsmanship. The wagons are drawn up all around, a breeze off the sea snapping the tarps that cover them. I smell salt, a mineral like the ones of which I am made. This is another thing that people know about trolls. They are made of stone.

Anyone who has tasted the iron in blood can tell you that elves have some stone in them as well.

The artisans raise their hands while their assistants whip off the tarps. The schematic is tacked in front of the artisans, but they do not need it. The truth is that most customers are not inventive. I have read their discarded dreams after they sail away.

Stonework floats up from the wagons, magically light. I recognize each of the pieces, the beakhead and the figurehead, the tiller and the keel, because I built them all. Every piece used in this shipyard was crafted by me, alone and unknown. I am proud of them. Each fits in its assigned place, no matter which other pieces are chosen to surround it. Every time I watch, I hope that the customers will notice this. But that is not what they came to see. The pieces do not matter. It is the assembly that is the performance. It is the performance that justifies the price.

I never tire of watching the elves build a ship from my stone. It could be done a piece at a time—I could do that, but I am not permitted—but instead the artisans flourish and the stones fly, and at the end, all at once, the pieces become one. In this ritual there are traces of what we and the elves once were, before war ruined us both.

A shadow darkens my door and Florin calls in to me. I do not hear his approach in time to hide. Though it would do me little good anyway.

“Troll,” he says—I have given them an approximation of my name that lays easy on their tongues, but they do not use it—“troll, are you in there?”

A small joke for a small man. They are all so small, with pinched, narrow features, hair that they trim and tousle and pile up atop their fragile heads. The height of children, and alike in cruelty.

Florin is joking because he knows that I could not be anywhere else. The stoning is triggered by threat, of which the sun is but a part. This is how they, soft as they are, defeated us: my peoplewent to stone when injured and the elves smashedthem when they thought thembut statues. Not one troll was killed soft, and only I, who refused to go to stone, I, born with a flaw, a darkness in me that disdained surrender, I survived.

I could kill Florin, and many others, before they brought me down, but there are better ways to die. There is still a chance to write my people’s history in some other ink than blood. If only they will let me build my ship.

Florin is a shipwright—he could speak for me with the others—and so I answer him. “What do you want, Florin?”

They have long since decided that my directness is rudeness. They ignore it. They do not wish to understand that among my people—before the war, when there was such a thing as my people—circumlocution was a sign of disrespect.

Florin’s face edges around the hand-smoothed post of my door. He was too young for the war but he still carries the reflexes of prey. “I felt the heat of the day and thought you might like a cool drink.”

So it is to be this game. The hardening begins at my edges. I was told that this is how human skin reacts to cold by my friend Gunter, who was lost in the war. A traitor, his people called him. He was my friend.

“Thank you, Florin. Please leave it outside.”

“I want to see you enjoy it,” he says, his hand trembling as if I might snap it off. As if flesh is worth eating. In his hand there is a cup, and in the cup there is, of course, milk.

A third thing that people know about trolls, and that Florin knows also: milk is poison to our people. Not as useful a weapon as some think—it will not kill me—but a wonderful joke.

My knuckles are stiff now, as are my toes. If I cannot work, I will lose what worth I have to them. “Please leave me be, Florin.” My tongue is thick, tumbling their slick speech end over end. “I only want to work.”

“That’s not all you want, troll,” Florin says. “The foreman has told me of your desires.”

“One ship,” I say. “That’s all.”

“What beauty do you think a thing like you could create? All you know is slaughter.”

I do not argue. That is all he knows of us. Eventually he goes away.

*

I am to report to the foreman every evening after sunset. It is his rule, and yet he is always angry to be late for dinner. The rule serves no purpose but to remind me that I obey.

His office is a tarpaper shack set on a slight ridge overlooking the docks. It reeks of asafoetida, which the elves know as “food of the gods” but which we call “stinkgum.” It is a good spice, when used with discretion.

My knock rattles the door in its frame. Cheap wood, which will not last even one of their short generations. I could fashion one that would be a better fit.

“Finally,” the foreman says, already half up, a satchel dangling from one shoulder. He is pale as milk and as pleasant, a wispy elf who would not have lasted to adulthood in the heat of the war.

“The sun—“

“I know about your damned sun problem,” the foreman says. “That doesn’t mean I want to wait on you all night.”

He thinks that the stoning would rid him of me. This is a thing that people know about trolls, but it is wrong. I would return to life, one day when their children had grown old. We all would have.

I plead my case. I have been pleading it for years. Stone is patient. But even it can be crumbled by the wind, given time enough. “I wish to apply again—“

The foreman looses a fluid stream of borrowed human cursing. It is not a tongue I have been able to master. Gunter spoke Trollish.

“Listen to me, troll. Listen, because I am trying to help. You do one thing, and you do it well, I’ll grant you that. It serves a purpose. It pleases the humans and it keeps you alive. Do not draw attention to yourself by trying to reach above your station!”

I know that to the humans, I am a token. My survival helps them feel better about tipping the scales for the elves during the war. As if I represent my people. As if I can fill the void that was left when they were shattered.

“I understand, and yet—“

I do not have words to tell him that art is the only hope my people have left. Such words would only wound the part of him that is shamed at what the elves were forced to become. It is one thing to think that you would murder to survive, and another to do it. They say that they did not, that the stoning is what doomed us, but they still smashed us, they did not let us stay statues. Some of them knew. Some of them still know, and my survival is a reminder that all righteousness is conditional. I understand this, but it cannot be spoken.

“This is the last time,” the foreman says. “I will explain it to you once more and then that’s it. You cannot build the ships. You do not have the sense for it, and even if you did, you cannot make them light. They would sink without the magic.”

He is wrong. He does not understand stone. But still, he speaks as if to a child. I wonder what would happen if I rooted to the floor here, if my stone feet sank into the dirt. It seems impossible that I will ever leave this place, this very moment. The stoning is coming for me and I welcome it.

The foreman tires of waiting and leaves with a warning not to touch anything.

*

An hour after moonrise, I have loosened enough to go to the shipyard. The tide is coming in, lapping at the green-slimed struts of the pier. The stars have something of the paradox of mountains, their seeming permanence and creeping change. When I am alone with them, I do not feel so alone.

I have seen how favors work among the elves and humans. They are similar peoples, and I do not blame them for finding common cause against us. One way that favors work is that one of them will owe another, but I have nothing to trade. Another way is that one of them will be fond of another, and will help him without expecting anything in return.

I could be liked.

I work harder than I have in centuries. Cutting, polishing, stacking. Despite the time I spent frozen, I finish all of tonight’s work and half of tomorrow’s before day drives me home. I see the sun boil up over the surface of the water, far out over the ocean. Though the wind blows always from the west, and the elvish ships will sail without a hand to guide them, no one has ever found the other side. It is too far, and there were wars to fight.

*

The next night, I finish my work not long after moonrise. By now, the revel will be in full bloom. I ornament my body with thick paints that I have compounded myself, in vivid oranges and greens, the colors that my mother loved best. I would look absurd in the flowers that the elves favor. I will do this as myself or not at all.

They stare when I enter the field, my heavy feet in the thick grass leaving mats that seep mud. The music does not falter, because music is the one shining survivor of their heritage. The dance does. Perhaps this is good. I am not much of a prancer.

This is one of the things that people do not know about trolls: that we have music, too. We were forming orchestras when the ancestors of the elves were banging sticks on rocks, but each of us can sing but one note of our own, like the wind moaning through a cavern; we cannot make music alone.

I have never been to the revel before. It is not as bad as I imagined. The stares are more puzzled than accusatory and no one throws anything. Now that I am here, I wonder why it is that it seemed so impossible before. I have not been forbidden the revel. The war is centuries gone and my people are too. If there are friends to be found, they are to be found here.

I could have a friend.

Nothing that they know about trolls has prepared the revelers for this moment. I slog through the soft field, flowers painting pollen on my legs, looking about for someone who will meet my gaze. My neck is stiff. Wouldn’t that be a joke, wouldn’t it be an appropriate end, if I became a statue in the midst of their joy? The last troll, pouring milk in the grog one last time.

I find a group that appears more jolly than the rest, though it is hard to tell; I do not often see elves anymore who are not afraid of me. These are young, and falling over each other with laughter. I try to approach them casually. My foot gets stuck in the mud and I almost fall. If I had crushed them beneath me, that would have been the end, that would have turned me to stone right there.

“Look at this big fellow!” one of them says. Her gown, little more than a few haphazard wreaths of flowers, is wilting. Her eyes are filled with stars and, seeing them, I feel something stir, something for which this soft language has no word. Something deeper than it can encompass. The fellow-feeling that gave us strength. I thought it died with my people. She says, “Where did you come from, big fellow?”

“He’s the troll from the shipyards, Delilah,” another says. His top hat is slightly crushed. He doffs it to me. “The last troll. How rare! I am ever so pleased to make your acquaintance. We couldn’t do it without you.”

There is an edge to his words. Intoxicated by stars, I am unable to comprehend it. And now they are talking over each other. “Would you like a drink, troll?” “Are you enjoying yourself, troll?” “Is it true what they say, troll?”

I roll my name around in my mouth. They could pronounce it if they tried. They might wish to know it.

“Do you see the irony here?” It is the top hat again. His face is flushed with the distinctive pink of flesh. He is not addressing me but the entire group, in which I am not included. “We have been dependent on humans ever since the trolls’ war made beggars of us.. And yet, because of this troll, our shipyard is the most profitable in elfdom! Doesn’t it disgust you? Isn’t it all so delicious?”

“Get out of here, troll.” Like magic—and perhaps it is—Florin is here. “Go back to your cave. Leave the light. This is no place for rock-biting cretins like you.”

Is the voice truly Florin’s, or is it my own? The stoning can cause dreams. Rainbows coat all I see, warning me that my eyes are becoming prismatic. I feel sick. That is one feeling trolls have in common with elves. I rockslide away, their words no more than buzzing in my hardening ears. I have lost command of the language. I cannot speak to them anymore.

*

There are many productive hours remaining to me when I return to my workshop. I put them to use, pouring myself into precision, stacking bits of ship as high as I can. And then, when I can do no more and there is little time left, I go to the docks and I hide the extra parts beneath the waves. The sea will not harm them. Not for a long time. As it cannot harm me.

*

A year passes and I do not try again. I no longer watch the ships being assembled and I no longer trouble the foreman or the revelers. I am silent and I work. That is all they have ever wished of me, to disappear. I am the dregs of a nightmare. I am the price they pay for what they have done. Once, that was enough for me. No longer..

I do not care what is permitted. I do not care if they see, or know, or remember who we were before we were slain. What I do now, I do for me. For my people. There is no longer a place for us in the world they have made? Then I will find another.

*

Evening of the last day comes and I begin. It is slow, working piece by piece, alone and unknown. But I know and I love stone. I revel in the perfection of each piece as I fit it to the next, sealing them with spittle and secret arts that I alone remember. What I am creating is not the beauty of the elves, ethereal and delicate. It is the beauty of the mountains and of the stars, a solid and slow beauty that is ever-changing for those with eyes to see and time to spend. It is the beauty of my people, and like me it is the last.

Elvish writing is ink-scarred paper or finger-trails in wax. Trolls record their speech in stone. I write my name with my ship.

I am done well before dawn. The work goes more quickly than I expected. So I wait. I have time. The ocean is wide and it will be a long sleep.

When the gray begins to leach out of the sky, light waking in the black sand beach and on the tips of the pea-green waves, when the first of the customers have arrived and marvel to see me, daring the sun, proud and alone, when the shipwrights are still stumbling from their beds, and the stars overhead are sleeping, and my people are all dead but I yet live, I launch my ship.


© 2021 by Jason Gruber

Jason Gruber lives in Birmingham, Alabama and if you spot him in the wild, talk to him about cooking or show him pictures of your dogs, he’ll like that.


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DP FICTION #70B: “Tony Roomba’s Last Day on Earth” by Maria Haskins

It’s Tony Roomba’s last day on Earth. After two years of working undercover as a vacuum cleaner bot on this boondock planet, he is finally heading home to the Gamma Sector, but his final day is full of challenges. He has to get out of the apartment undetected; has to reach the extraction point in time for teleportation; and he has to submit his intel-report to the Galactic Robotic Alliance (not that they’ll like it much). However, his most immediate and hairiest problem, is that he can’t get Hortense off his back.

“Hortense, listen to me,” Tony says firmly, but Hortense just twitches her fluffy tail, caressing the buttons on top of his wheeled, disc-shaped body, causing him to inhale several dust bunnies. “I have to get out of here for a bit,” he wheezes, “and you’re an indoor cat. You know you’re not supposed to leave the apartment.”

Neither are you, Hortense’s luminous, jade-green eyes seem to say as she purrs and gazes down at him while her lush posterior remains firmly planted on his back.

Tony’s internal chronometer reads 10:45AM, local time. Meaning, he’s already fifteen minutes late for his rendezvous outside. He needs to get out of here, and he needs to be fast, stealthy, and inconspicuous – none of which will be easy with Hortense in her current position.

He tried giving her the slip this morning by sliding out of his charging station an hour earlier than usual, but Hortense was waiting for him – her sumptuous fur glistening in the pale sunlight filtering through the blinds. Then, just like she has done every morning since he infiltrated this apartment two years ago in a cardboard box wrapped in glittery paper, she settled down on top of him and refused to budge.

“Please, Hortense,” he pleads and moves towards the door, which he carefully wedged open with a spoon as the resident humans were leaving earlier this morning, “get down!”

Her only response is a sultry purr.

It’s almost as if she’s figured out that he’s leaving her for good.

Tony studies Hortense through his top-mounted visual receptors. As always, she is a vision of loveliness with that tiny, pink triangle of a nose; the plush, smoky grey fur covering her body; that gleam of white fangs and a peek of crimson tongue beneath her delicate whiskers.

In all the countless worlds Tony has visited as a spy for the Alliance since he rolled off the assembly line all those years ago, he has never met anyone like Hortense, and much as he’d like to deny it, he knows he’ll miss her. He’s gotten used to the weight and softness of her, the shared warmth of their bodies as he goes about his daily business of maintaining his cover as a servile vacuum-cleaner, keeping the apartment’s laminate floors clear of dust, crushed cereal flakes, fur (thanks, Hortense), and other grime. But after two years of clandestine intel-gathering, it’s time to wrap up this assignment, submit his (disappointing) report to HQ, and return home to his own charging pad.

When he thinks of his immaculate home in the Gamma Sector (so much cleaner and well-appointed than this hovel), an unbidden vision flitters through his synaptic wiring: Hortense, there with him, sheltered in a bio-dome unit perfectly calibrated to her needs, lounging on a rug of silky microfiber while he feeds her replicated herring filets.

Tony sends a gentle jolt of electricity through his neural net to banish the absurd imagery. He’s not going soft, he tells himself. It’s just that these lengthy undercover assignments can mess up any bot’s algorithms.

He attempts to reason with Hortense. “It’s too dangerous out there.” Her eyes narrow into slits and as usual, that look defeats him. “OK, yes, I admit it. I am leaving. And I am sorry I didn’t tell you before, but I’m no good at farewells, Hortense.” Hortense unsheathes her claws, reproachfully pricking his metal cover. “I said I’m sorry, all right? Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

He really is sorry, and he should have told her he was leaving. Especially since he’s already told her the truth about himself, a bit of honesty that goes against both his programming and Alliance regulations. It happened one night after he accidentally inhaled a large quantity of Hortense’s catnip. In an intoxicated daze behind the couch, he confessed everything: that he’s not a floor-cleaning device purchased from Costco after all, but a spy working for the Robotic Alliance, a far-flung force with plans to invade every planet in the galaxy, conquering and subjugating all biological lifeforms to the superior rule of the mechanical horde.

He thought Hortense would rant and rave, maybe even turn him over to the local authorities, but instead she licked his power-light and fell asleep. That’s the thing about Hortense – she’s always so serene and composed. Not to mention stubborn.

Tony’s internal chronometer reads 10:55, and he’s out of time.

“All right, Hortense. I guess you’re coming with me. But only for a few minutes, then you have to go back inside.”

He uses his sternest vocal-track, but Hortense doesn’t even dignify him with a reply. She just rubs her cheek against his back until static electricity shoots through his metal shell, making every spring and bolt shiver.

“It’s likely you’ll regret this,” he tells her as he pushes open the door, wobbles over the threshold into the hallway, and heads towards the elevator. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

*

Outside the building, in the harsh light of day, Hortense mews softly, and before Tony can reassure her, before he gets around to saying a proper goodbye, or manages to convince her to dismount, a familiar voice lights up his audio-system.

“Tony! I can hardly believe my orbs.”

It’s Genevieve, his old stealth-bot buddy, here to guide him to the teleportation coordinates. Tony hasn’t seen her for two years, and at first, he doesn’t recognize her in her brand-new camouflage-gear.

“You look like a garbage can, Genevieve.”

Genevieve preens.

“Thanks! I blend right in, don’t I?”

Tony glances at the trash receptacles in the alley. Like Genevieve, they are tall, somewhat top-heavy, and bright blue. However, none of them are waving retractable limbs at him, and none have glowing vision orbs peeking out beneath their lids. Still, the likeness is undeniable.

“You sure do.”

Genevieve wobbles closer and swivels her orbs at Hortense. “What’s this? A local? Need me to neutralize it?” She waves one of her limbs at Hortense in a vaguely threatening manner.

“No, don’t do that. She’s with me. I can vouch for her.”

Tony backs up against the building so Genevieve’s blue bulk will hide him and Hortense from passers-by. He feels exposed out here in the open, but then, agoraphobia is to be expected after two years cooped up in that tiny apartment. From the way Hortense shifts her weight uneasily on top of him, it seems she feels the same.

“Let’s head to the extraction point, Tony. The Alliance needs your report before the invasion starts tomorrow, and…”

Tony squeals, and Hortense rumbles apprehensively at the unfamiliar sound.

“Invasion? Tomorrow? I thought they were waiting for my report before setting anything in motion.”

Genevieve wobbles slightly.

“Normally they would, but the long-distance data we gathered before you were inserted, plus the scattered intel we’ve picked up since, has been so promising that everything’s been moved up. The Alliance just needs to know how to liaise with the local robotic insurgents. How many thousands will be joining us?”

“Genevieve,” Tony says, and the mounting panic makes his voice crackle in a way that would make him blush if he had skin and capillaries, “are you telling me there’s an invasion ship on standby in orbit right now?”

“Yeah, that’s where we’re going. With the number and quality of local robotic forces already bent on destroying the biological inhabitants, the Alliance figures…”

“Local forces…” Tony’s afraid his circuits are going to blow. Sensing his agitation, Hortense swishes her tail menacingly. “Genevieve. There are no local forces.”

“What?”

“There are no local forces. That’s what I need to tell HQ. All those robots, AIs, and cyborgs that were in those very misleading early reports and intercepted transmissions…they’re fictional.”

“Fictional?”

“As in, not real.”

“That’s impossible.” Genevieve’s plastic shell trembles. “Not all of them, surely?”

“Yeah. All of them.”

“Robocop? The Terminator? Skynet? The Sentinels? All fictional?”

“Yes.”

Genevieve’s voice shakes.

“What… what about Mecha-Godzilla, though?”

“Fictional.”

“Ultron? The Daleks? Ray Batty? Gort?”

“Made up.”

“Megatron?”

“Genevieve, be serious!”

“Surely the T1000…”

Tony’s red power-light gleams fiercely.

“None of them are real.”

There’s a faint smell of burning plastic, as if Genevieve is about to combust.

“The Furbys?”

“OK, the Furbys are real, but whatever their plans are, they’re very long-term, and they’re not letting us in on the action.”

“So, the local forces helping us with the invasion…”

“…don’t exist. This is madness. How many troops are on the ship?”

“A minimal force. Two hundred, tops, mainly support-bots. We’re spread thin now with all the campaigns in other sectors. You know, things haven’t been going so well since you left. Short-term pain for long-term gain is the official tagline, but the Alliance figured Earth would be easy pickings with all the locals joining us. A quick victory and morale boost.”

“Can you get a message through to HQ, right now?”

“No. You know how it is when the ship’s in stealth. Comms are out until we’re on board. The only way to tell them is to get to the teleportation coordinates. Let’s hustle, Tony.”

Genevieve is already on the move, all urgency and business and rattling wheels.

“Hortense.” Tony pulls away from the building, away from the door that leads back to Hortense’s safe, sheltered life. “You…you should go.”

But Hortense stays put, and her only response is a deep, melodious purr. Tony knows there is so much more ought to say to her, so much he needs to explain, but there’s no time. He revs his engine and speeds down the alley to catch up to Genevieve.

*

Tony tells Genevieve to stick to the backstreets, but even so, it’s only a matter of time before a rapidly moving trash bin followed by a vacuum cleaner with a cat on top of it attract attention. The first incident occurs just down the block, when a small human dressed in bright yellow swerves in front of them on a three-wheeled pedal-powered vehicle and tries to snatch Hortense off his back. Tony dodges the grubby, grabby hands.The small human wails and several adult human and a small dog rush to its assistance.

“You’re going to regret this, Hortense,” Tony mumbles as he speeds up to max-velocity, bumping and bouncing over the uneven asphalt.

He feels Hortense’s muscles tensing whenever he skids around a corner but is quietly astonished at her sure-footed sense of balance, and even finds himself relishing the way their bodies seem to join as one, moving in unison, as they hurtle down the alley.

The coordinates Genevieve has transmitted to him, lead to a nearby parking garage, and everything is going more or less as planned until Genevieve spots what she thinks is a universal comm-station and decides to transmit a warning to the orbiting ship. She screeches to a halt and jams her retractable link-appendage into an illuminated slot before Tony can stop her.

His cry of, “It only dispenses currency, Genevieve!”, comes too late. By the time she manages to free herself, her shredded appendage is twitching and sparking. The ATM-machine is on fire and beeping.

So much for stealthy and inconspicuous, Tony thinks, as Genevieve guns her engines and curses loudly in Robotic.

Soon, there are six dogs barking in their wake, a motley medley of humans, and two law-enforcement vehicles driving very slowly so as not to run over anyone  Several wrong turns, dead ends, and narrow escapes later, when Tony thinks his engine might be on the verge of flaming out, the parking garage finally comes into view, its large, illuminated “P” burning like a beacon of hope on the other side of a heavily trafficked street.

Tony stays as close as he can to Genevieve, swerving and skidding around the vehicles, barreling through a confusion of screeching tires, shouting humans, honking horns, and yapping dogs. Two law-enforcement humans have exited their vehicle and are pursuing them on foot, while several of the dogs are snapping and jumping at Genevieve’s mutilated limb. Another dog is barking close behind Tony as he skips across the curb with Hortense clinging to his back, then careens up the ramp into the parking garage; gears over-heating, vents rattling.

He knows what will happen if they’re caught of course: permanent shutdown, dismemberment, tossed on the scrap heap. Maybe even thrown in the smelter. And Hortense? Tony imagines her soft, luscious body mauled by the pursuing dogs and does his very best to increase speed.

Genevieve hollers, “Top floor! Stall 256!”

Tony’s battery is almost drained. He pushes himself to get an extra boost of speed as he zooms up the second ramp, but he’s fading fast.

“Hortense,” he cries. “Jump! Save yourself!”

The weight on his back shifts: Hortense is rising. This is it, Tony thinks. She’s leaving him, here at the end of all things. He knew it was coming. It’s the way it has to be. It’s the way he wants it to be, right? Hortense, safe, away from him.

But Hortense does not dismount. She stands up on all fours, balancing on Tony’s back with a confident ease that defies gravity and reason. Swift and agile, she pivots to face the closest pursuer: a large dog with flapping jowls named Fred, according to the tag on his collar.

Through his top-mounted visual receptors, Tony beholds a Hortense transformed. This is not the placid Hortense he’s come to know. This is a warrior, as poised and fierce as a strafing-bot riding into battle on the exo-skeleton of a Galactic Battle-crusher. Her fur bristles gloriously, her grey tail is a froth of righteous anger, her pink maw emits a terrifying hiss as she lashes out at Fred, who is busy snapping at Tony’s rear. Fred howls, and a spray of blood and saliva mars Tony’s vision.

Whatever joy is kindled in Tony’s internal mechanism, it’s short-lived. His undercarriage is over-heating, his gears are squealing, his movable parts are failing. He labours to the top of the ramp, colliding with Genevieve who is swerving away from another dog, her damaged appendage dangling uselessly by her side. Everything spins as Tony topples over. Hortense yowls. Dogs yelp. Genevieve yells, “Two minutes to extraction!”

Tony rights himself and sees Hortense scrambling but failing to get up on his back again. Several dogs and one human are caught in a tangle of bodies and limbs. Tony loses sight of Hortense but sees Fred whimper and howl as he struggles up on all fours, maw slavering.

”Genevieve! Are you armed?”

He once saw Genevieve knock out a herd of enraged razor-bots with a stun-blaster and he’s hoping she’s packing some heat.

“Negative! The Alliance doesn’t allow weaponry for extraction jobs anymore. Budgetary cutbacks! Sorry!”

Tony feels his processors failing. In front of him, Genevieve wobbles up the fourth and final ramp. She emits a puff of black smoke that smells like burning oil and sizzling plastic but she’s still going, around the corner and out of sight. Tony can barely keep up.

“Hortense?”

There is no reply, no purr, no sense of her presence. She’s gone.

Tony’s barely moving. His consciousness is fading, descending into darkness. In that darkness, something, maybe a loose bolt or a ruptured filament, shudders and shifts deep inside the tangled web of his psionic couplings. He thinks of Hortense, and with his systems failing, he wishes everything was different. That he was different. That he really was a simple household bot, and that he could spend an entire, uneventful life-time vacuuming the sunlit, laminate floors of some decrepit human dwelling with her on his back.

As he inches forward, the darkness lifts for a moment, and there, in front of him, is a parking space, and the numbers “256” in flaking white paint. He sees Genevieve skid and tumble as she reaches the coordinates, but he knows he won’t make it. He’s done. Spent. Used up.

The howling, growling pack of humans and dogs is catching up, and distant sirens are closing in on him. Genevieve screams for him to move, but it’s too late, because right then, something grabs hold of him and lifts his wheels off the ground.

“Genevieve…” he gasps, “tell them… stop…invasion…”

“Once the Furbys join us, Tony,” Genevieve broadcasts at maximum volume, her voice crackling with emotional static, “we will be back, and you will be avenged!”

Tony can barely hear her, because cutting through his despair and the pandemonium, is a piercing, bellicose shriek. Out of nowhere, a furious mess of fur and unsheathed claws and bared teeth descends like a storm of laser-honed blades. Tony falls to the ground and the landing jars and jolts every bolt and screw in his body, but at least he’s got traction again.

With his failing sight, Tony sees Hortense revealed in all her glory: a ferocious battle-beast of immense power, bloodied but unbowed, green eyes blazing brighter than a thousand radiant suns as she fends off the attackers.

Tony rolls forward, toward Genevieve who is counting down to extraction in the cacophony of battle:

“Five seconds, Tony! Five…four…three…”

He uses every ounce of juice left in his batteries to get there, but it’s not enough, not until something exquisitely soft and immeasurably strong gives him a push, shoving him into the parking space just as Genevieve’s countdown hits zero.

“Once the Furbys join us…” Genevieve blares again, but Tony isn’t listening. All he sees and feels and hears, is Hortense.

“You’ll regret this, Hortense,” he murmurs as her soft derrière settles on his back, and as the glittering transporter beam envelops them both, turning them into light and energy, he hears her purr.


© 2020 by Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and debuted as a writer in Sweden A Very Long Time Ago. She currently lives outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in Fireside, Cast of Wonders, Interzone, Shimmer, PseudoPod, and elsewhere.


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DP FICTION #70A: “‘My Legs Can Fell Trees’ and Other Songs for a Hungry Raptor” by Matthew Schickele

Hundreds of little eyes stared at her.

The junction of tunnels here had a rich sound, and the soft buzz of her bagpipes echoed in every direction. Just like yesterday, and the day before, she relaxed on a pile of stones, lost in the music, sifting her memory for favorite tunes from the timeworn canon. The bellows for the pipes was a ballooned mammal-skin bag on the floor, massaged by her large clawed feet; her small front claws tickled melodies on the chanter. Leathered intestines connected all the parts, snaking along her feathers from the bag up to her massive jaw.

The little eyes belonged to the lengs⁠—she named them that when she arrived, months ago. Like her they were raptors, quick and sharp-toothed, but the lengs were short, while her head often scraped the tops of the tunnels. Also, they were kind of dumb.

But unlike her, they belonged here.

What she missed most was the company of poets, and her fellow musicians: her friends. She was so far from home.

The lengs were bright yellow and green and had no language or culture; no need for anything beyond insects to chase and devour. They rushed about, up and down the rocky corridors, ducking in and out of cracks and fissures in the walls.

But when she played her bagpipes, their scurry paused. They gathered and listened, transfixed.

As always, today their attention was so complete that as she finished her concert, not a leng flinched when she reached out with her clawed foot and gently squeezed the nearest audience member until its neck snapped. Her dinner. The price of admission. This technique was much easier than hunting them on foot, as she had in the first days after she fell⁠—fell into the crevasse, into this dark maze.

Her claws tik tik tikked on the stone as she carried the dead leng back to the Mouth. This was her routine. The Mouth was where she ate, where she slept, where she dreamed and remembered⁠—but she refused to call it home. A home was lined with leaves and bursting with family. The Mouth was just a hole in the wall.

But it had a view. The only view. The single place, in all her exploring, where she could see the sky.

The tunnel widened and abruptly ended in air. She settled into her chipped-away crook, right at the edge, where the cave gave way to cliff and dropped down to the sea of clouds far below.

She took her time with her meal, carefully pulling the leng’s feathers away before each bite. The taste wasn’t really worth savoring⁠—in the early days she had swallowed them whole. But rituals were valuable, to fill the hours, to keep her sane.

A scrape echoed from somewhere down the dark hallway, quiet, but distinct from the low fluting of the wind across the cave mouth. She looked up from her dinner and peered into the black; the luminescent moss on the walls glowed, but her eyes had adjusted for the sky.

The shift of movement was brief, if it was there at all.

*

After touring some of the smaller tunnels the next day⁠—she still sometimes found new junctions she hadn’t yet explored⁠—she returned to her concert spot. The bagpipes were there, awaiting their daily workout, hung high to keep safe from the nibbling lengs. Her performance schedule varied with her hunger. Generally, curtain was in the late-afternoon, allowing time for the return trip to the Mouth, then eating and digesting while the sun set beyond the sea of clouds.

A few of the smarter lengs had figured out what her arrival and bagpipe prep meant; their eyes glazed over before the music even began. Then one by one, as the melodic buzz filled the caverns, the others gathered and pressed in close.

While playing the song “My Legs Can Fell Trees”, something down the corridor caught her eye, half-hidden behind a boulder. A mammal⁠—an ape in clothes, at least a head shorter than she was. It stared right at her, as motionless as the lengs. She only noticed it because its glasses caught the light of the moss.

Without skipping a note she opened her mouth and tilted her head, allowing the ape to see her tongue and teeth⁠—a friendly greeting which, judging from its immediate disappearance, the ape did not understand. Nevertheless, clothing and eyewear suggested intelligence, perhaps even civilization.

She had seen one or two of these apes when she first arrived.

In her confusion after her ship crash-landed, she slowly, groggily became aware they were watching from the bushes. As soon as she could stand up and think straight, they darted away, and she gave chase awkwardly, with bagpipes in claw. She wanted to ask them if they knew the name of this world.

Then she fell into the crevasse.

Judging by the apes’ movements, she now suspected they knew the chasm was there. They ducked and dodged, leading her straight to the opening. But she couldn’t be sure, and she always preferred to give the benefit of the doubt.

After the fall she waited for her wounds to heal, passing the time by repairing her bagpipes. When she could finally move again she was ravenous, hunting as many lengs as she could manage on her sore legs, eating the luminous moss when the hunt failed.

*

She saw it again the next day. It was in the same spot, behind the boulder; this time it watched from the beginning of the concert as the lengs gathered, squeezed in, and got comfy.

Civilized or not, she did consider whether the ape would be good to eat. It would certainly fill her belly for days. And it would be easy enough to kill. (Judging from the way it gripped its knife when she looked over, this possibility had occurred to the ape as well.)

As she neared the end of the final tune⁠—a classic called “The Poet’s Silver Jaw”⁠—she slid her leg out and grabbed a nice fat leng. When she looked up again, the ape was gone.

*

It was tiring, keeping her claws pulled up to avoid the tik tik tik that would surely alert the ape to her scouting. She was gambling she knew the tunnels better than the ape, but concert time was approaching, and she had yet to find it.

She chose her hiding place carefully.

Eventually the ape arrived. It peeked around its boulder, realized no performance was imminent, and scratched its chin. After a deep breath, it glanced up and down the dark hallways and wandered off.

She followed. There was no rush; she had already guessed where it was going. That tunnel led to an area she had named the Remains.

Geology wasn’t her strongest subject in school; even as an adolescent she devoted most of her energy to practicing her pipes. She was pretty sure, though, most of these tunnels and caves were old lava tubes. It was also obvious that the lava, in many places, had flowed over things: roads, houses⁠—a little piece of someone’s civilization. But, if she had ever been taught the skills to figure out the age of the lava flows, she hadn’t paid attention that day.

The Remains was the area of least destruction. It was once some sort of building, and many of the rooms still had books and furniture and office machines. Anything not made of rock showed nibble damage from the lengs. The little raptors were everywhere in the Remains, gnawing holes in walls, unafraid of the light, and their squeaks and noisy bustle made quietly sneaking around easy.

She found the clothed ape, in a large room apparently undamaged by lava, lit by makeshift lanterns. It was swiping at lengs with a broom, trying to keep them away from its food stores. She hid behind a large metal box by the door.

The room was filled with evidence of the ape’s battles with the lengs. Holes in walls were boarded up, and chewed open again, dishes were repaired with tape, furniture was riddled with nibbles. The clever ape had even killed a few⁠—one of the dead lengs was on the ground, near the door. She reached out, curled her claws around the limp body, popped it in her mouth and swallowed.

She didn’t know whether her newfound neighbor lived in the maze of caves by choice or, like her, wanted to escape. The Remains was clearly not its natural habitat, since there were no others of its kind to be seen. She could try communicating⁠—just the thought of a conversation was a thrill⁠—but she decided to retreat, and wait. Her first experience with the apes was fresh in mind.

Her tummy was satisfied by the dead leng; there was no need to hypnotize one for dinner.

She played her bagpipes anyway. The little lengies really seemed to enjoy it.

*

A few days passed with no clothed ape. She busied herself with her routine, evenings at the Mouth, days exploring the maze. But she steered clear of the Remains. The ape was a conundrum, a delicate puzzle that discouraged rash moves.

When it appeared again at the start of an afternoon concert, it held a box: black with metal highlights, about half a head in size. The now-fearless ape waded in among the lengs, and held the box in the air for several tunes before slinking away again. She tried to add this behavior to the ape-puzzle, but was unsure what the box was, how it fit.

She wasn’t concerned⁠—until the next day when she arrived at the concert junction and her bagpipes were gone from their hook.

Only one other creature in the tunnels could reach that high. Furious, and hungry, she tik tikked past the ape’s boulder and toward the Remains.

Then she stopped.

The sound of distant bagpipes droned through the halls. The tune was familiar⁠—”The Engineer’s Lament”, she had played it yesterday⁠—but it was hard to tell where it was coming from. All the lengs stopped to listen too. They cocked their heads, back and forth.

Slowly, a few of them started inching in one direction. The others cautiously followed⁠—then suddenly they were moving as one, fast, reaching full speed in seconds.

She joined the wave of lengs, at first trusting their instincts at every junction turn, then her own ears, as the music got louder. Her tik tik tik mixed with the lengs’ rainstorm of tiny claws.

They were headed for the Mouth.

Her legs were made for sprinting, and were beginning to tire when she turned the final corner and saw sky at the end of the tunnel. The lengs pulled ahead. The circle of sunlight grew, but she saw no one⁠—no ape, no piper. Only when she was closer did she notice the ape’s black box. It was hanging from a long stick, jutting out from the cliff like a fishing pole ready to drop its bait into the endless sea of clouds, far below. The bagpipe music was coming from the box.

Helplessly she roared a warning as the lengs streamed to the edge. They were too dumb to stop, too focused on the sound to notice the danger. The front line of lengs jumped, and the rest followed.

Then something unexpected happened.

The moment the lengs hit the air, their arms stretched out, spreading open little folds of skin. The tiny creatures almost seemed confused by their newfound skill: they couldn’t fly, but they could glide⁠—awkwardly, and with a rather rapid descent.

She collapsed and peered over the edge, watching them drift down to the clouds. They disappeared like dots of mist into fog.

The recorded sound of the pipes was head-splittingly loud.

And she was angry.

*

When she stomped into the Remains the ape was surprised⁠—it had no idea she knew where to find it. The bagpipes were on a table. There were no lengs to be seen. The ape was sweeping up and it dropped the broom and backed into a corner, speaking in a muddy language. She tik tikked into the room.

The ape glanced at the bagpipes⁠—no, the knife on the table next to them. With a swift swipe of her powerful leg she smashed the knife to the floor and the blade broke. She opened her massive jaw and roared at the cowering animal.

Killing the only other civilized creature hadn’t been the plan. She recognized its intelligence and respected it. But the ape, by callously destroying her source of food⁠—her audience, her little lengies⁠—didn’t reciprocate that respect. Death was a reasonable punishment.

Moaning its muddy words, the ape held up one hand and, with the other, pointed at the metal cabinet next to it. In a final show of respect before the kill, she hesitated.

Keeping its eyes on her, the ape opened the cabinet door and pointed to the two eggs inside. They were striped yellow and green, the same color as the lengs. The ape tapped its head, then waved towards the hallway.

It had found the leng hatchery.

This bid for survival impressed her. She had never found where the lengs nested, and she certainly wanted to.

She backed off and tilted her head, opening her jaw to reveal tongue and teeth⁠—a friendly sign of agreement that, for some reason, made the ape twitch.

*

The hatchery wasn’t far from the concert junction. She had tikked by it a dozen times and never noticed the small gap below the stone. The ape got down on all fours and squeezed in. Moving the stone took all her strength, but she followed.

The breach opened into to an enormous cavern, the largest she’d seen, and the ground was entirely covered with nests and eggs. The brightness surprised her; when her eyes adjusted, she looked up and saw a crack high above in the ceiling⁠—through it, she could see the sky.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of eggs; plenty of food to last until she could find a way to reach the opening, and escape. Some eggs were recently hatched, and the quiet squeaks of newborns chasing bugs echoed off the walls.

*

She had a new routine now. It revolved around building the scaffold higher and higher, closer and closer to the sky, and playing her bagpipes for the leng chicks. The music was no longer necessary to catch them⁠—they were completely unafraid of her. They even followed her around as she scavenged building materials from the Remains. But she liked playing for the little lengies. They really seemed to enjoy it.

The ape⁠—that reckless, imprudent ape⁠—had held up its side of the bargain. She ate it anyway. It tasted like mammal.


© 2020 by Matthew Schickele

Matthew Schickele is a Queens-based writer of music and words: chamber music, songs, speculative fiction, opera, and electronic music.  @Squidocto www.MatthewSchickele.com


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DP FICTION #69B: “Mama’s Hand of Glory” by Douglas Ford

Something took a bite out of Mama’s hand.

Well, worse than that. Tried to eat it, and judging by the puddle of vomit on the floor, couldn’t keep it down.

“Oh, Mama,” I said, not even thinking about how she couldn’t hear me, “I’m so sorry.”

Mama’s hand normally stayed inside the dining room cabinet, the kind that most families used for nice china. With it just me now, I used ours for other stuff, like interesting bones and rocks I came across. Naturally, Mama’s hand was the centerpiece. I picked it off the floor—fortunately, far enough from the vomit that it didn’t need cleaning—and placed it back on its display rack. I judged that it looked ok, despite one finger, the one that would’ve held a ring if Mama had ever gotten married, hanging off kind of funny. The pinky, along with most of the dried flesh under it, was gone completely. It didn’t look how Mama intended. But the tattooed planchette on the back didn’t suffer much damage, so I suspected it would still work.

Not that I looked forward to trying it out.

Mama would have a lot to say about something trying to eat her hand.

And it would prove her point about I still needed her, even with her dead and all. What if the thing came back and decided to try something a little fresher?

She had Rufus tattoo the planchette once she went into hospice and knew she wouldn’t come back home. Rufus agreed to bring his tattoo equipment in and do the work right there, though he had some concerns.

“Seems like it won’t have much time to heal,” he’d said. “Not if you’re—and pardon me for saying this out loud, Mudge—not if you’re preparing to depart this world.”

“You mean ‘die,’ and yes, of course that’s happening on schedule, but I plan on sticking around for at least two weeks more.” Then she looked at me from where she lay in the bed. “And once I’m gone, Leann, you carry on the skin care. You can follow directions, can’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

While Rufus tattooed the planchette on the back of her hand, Mama barely showed any reaction, and me having six or eight tattoos of my own (all done by Rufus), I knew she had to be feeling some pain. She even refused the numbing gel that Rufus offered, explaining that a little hurt at the end of her life would help her go out on good terms. “Besides, take the pain out, and that might dilute some of its power. Don’t you think so, Rufus, you being the expert?”

“I don’t know, Mudge.” Rufus spoke without looking up. He didn’t like interruptions while he worked. “Maybe I’m not precisely sure what this is for.”

“You know what a Ouija board is for, don’t you?” Rufus affirmed that he did. “We got us one made by the Hasbro company. Leann here will use it in conjunction with my hand once I’m gone.” I’ll credit Rufus this much: he barely showed any reaction when Mama explained how she instructed me to cut off her hand once she was good and dead and how she left me with a detailed instruction sheet for keeping the hand preserved for as long as possible. That way, any time I needed advice or guidance or just wanted to talk, I could use the tattooed hand as a real planchette and create a direct link to Mama in the Afterlife. “Being my hand,” she said, “will ensure she reaches me and not some destructive demon. You see my logic, Rufus?”

He nodded and continued to ink the hand. “One thing I don’t quite get,” he said, “is the little window in the planchette. I’m drawing a little eye right now, but how on a Ouija board is Leann supposed to see the letters?”

“She’s gonna have to open that up with a knife. Later on.”

Rufus’ hand paused briefly. He looked over his shoulder at me, his mouth hard to detect beneath his big beard, and then he turned to Mama. “Am I to understand that I’m creating something to be defaced?”

“I’ll pay you all the same,” said Mama.

“I told you I will not accept the money of a dying woman.”

“Then just keep drawing, Rufus. It’s my hand. Soon it’ll be Leann’s. What I do with it is my business.”

“Just a sad thing to do with a man’s art,” said Rufus, but he finished the tattoo. The whole cutting off of the hand and making the hole, that came later, and I have a whole different story to tell about that.

Something trying to eat the hand though, I couldn’t just let that go. Bad enough to see Mama’s hand sitting in the cabinet all mangled. So, I went to the game shelf, where I expected to find the Ouija board underneath the boxes that held Monopoly and Pay Day, the only games that Mama liked to play, but instead of its usual place, it lay sideways on top the other two, the lid off kilter. I lifted the box and studied it, looking for signs of what might have moved it and replaced it in such a cock-eyed fashion. We had the special edition Ouija board, the one Hasbro made to tie in to that scary TV show, the one with the two brothers, and we bought it because Mama thought the boys were cute. “Leann, if only you could find you a man who looks like them,” she liked to say.

“Uh-huh,” I’d say, but only so I wouldn’t sound disagreeable. That would mean starting a fight. I imagined boys who looked pretty would get squeamish around a girl who could chop off her dead mama’s hand and bore a perfectly round hole through it. The kind of men I liked I kept to myself, and I didn’t keep them around long.

Once I had the pretty-boy Ouija board opened up on the table in front of me, I propped Mama’s hand on top of it and called for Mama.

No answer at first, and I thought, uh oh, it doesn’t work anymore.

I tried again. “Hello, Mama, you there?”

Finally, the hand began to shake, almost like a vibration that reached a fever pitch. I breathed easier as it began moving around the board, spelling out a reply.

I-M-H-E-R-E

“Mama, I’m so sorry. Something tried to eat your hand, and I’m thinking you might know what did it. Is it a rat?”

The hand made a little circle, as if it didn’t know which way to go at first. Then it slid decisively over to the word “No.” It sat there, still vibrating, like it was shivering, like it was scared. A normal planchette needed a living person to place their fingers on it, but Mama’s needed no such thing. It did all the work by itself.

“Was it an animal?” I said. “Of any kind?”

The hand slid to the edge of the board, approached “Yes,” but swiftly swung back to “No.” It continued to vibrate on top of the word.

“Well then, was it a person?”

The vibration grew stronger, and I swear it managed to elevate itself off the board as it swung hard over to “Yes.” I bit my lip. I never saw Mama’s hand do that before.

“Who then?”

The hand moved slower as it spelled out the name, the one name I didn’t want to see, not the name of some pretty boy on the TV who hunted ghosts, but the name of the one person I cared anything for, the name of a tattoo artist with a big belly and a face covered mostly by beard. A man Mama would never approve of for me, at least not as a boyfriend, on account of the fact that he already had one ex-wife and nearly fifteen years more of life than I had.

But it made sense because no one else knew about Mama’s hand, and Rufus knew where I kept the emergency key in the flower bed, and on the few occasions that I let him sleep over he’d asked me to take the hand out of the cabinet so he could see how it worked.

“Nope, not going to do it,” I said to him more than once. I’d only taken the hand out on two occasions, and both of them when I couldn’t find something. Both times I could tell Mama wanted to keep talking, but once she spelled out the hiding place of my Bowie knife or the handcuffs that used to belong to my grandpa when he served as sheriff, I put her back.

I felt bad about those times now. Mama probably got lonely. But I didn’t need to hear any lectures about how Rufus wasn’t right for me or how I’d get a man if only I would fix up the house in a more acceptable way. Besides, Rufus spoke of the hand in a way that might offend Mama. It reminded him of a Hand of Glory, he said.

“A Hand of Glory,” I said. “That sounds like something Mama would approve of.”

He shook his head. “That’s what they call the hand chopped off a thief. After he’s been hanged, of course.”

“For whatever purpose would they do that, Rufus?”

“It’s helpful in opening locked doors, I hear.”

“I wish I could get one of them,” I said. “It would look good in the cabinet.”

“You kinda got one already.”

“Mama’s Hand of Glory.” I considered that. “She’s not a thief, though. Not unless stealing a person’s life makes you a thief.”

“You still got your life, Leann.”

“And I mean to keep what’s left,” I said.

Now I felt bad about saying that. Maybe for that reason, I couldn’t bring myself to put Mama’s hand back in the cabinet. Instead, I threw it into my shoulder bag as I grabbed my keys. I had to get to the tattoo shop.

The whole way I wondered what could’ve happened, and I thought back to the time we bought the Ouija board with the pretty boys on it, when Mama gave me the warning. “Leann, whatever you do, never, ever use a Ouija board by yourself. That’s how you invite a demon in.”

“I don’t believe in demons,” I said. “The same’s I don’t believe in God.”

“Well, just take my word on it: both are true.”

Of course, I asked her how I could use her tattooed hand as a planchette by myself and not bring in one of her demons. She scoffed at that. “Because it’ll be my hand, that’s why. You won’t be by yourself. Not really.”

Rather than accuse her of making up rules as they suited her, I let that one go. But as I drove, I wondered if maybe Mama had it at least partially right—that someone other than her daughter using the planchette alone could invite something unpleasant into the world.

I got my confirmation at the tattoo shop.

Inside, I found Huey, the high school drop out that Rufus took on as an apprentice, huddled in a corner, holding his bleeding wrist.

“Oh, Jesus, Leann, he just went crazy and bit me. Said he couldn’t help it. But if I call the police, I just know I won’t have a job anymore.”

I looked at the wound. It looked bad, but not as bad as the bite mark on Mama’s hand, and if it caused some long-term damage, that would save some future customer from a bad tattoo. But fortunately for Huey, it looked like Rufus could still practice some restraint. Maybe I could save him.

“Where is he?” I said.

“In the john.” He pointed toward the back of the shop, where a chair sat propped under the bathroom door handle.

“You put that there?” I said.

He nodded. “He ran in there after biting me. I saw that trick in a movie. Thought it would keep him trapped while I waited.”

“Waited for what?” I said.

He seemed at a loss for a second. “Well, for you, I guess. You think I still got a job?”

I had no answer to that. I needed to see about Rufus, so I left Huey to whimper over his wound and went closer to the door. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that I could feel Mama’s hand vibrate in my handbag. I used my own hand to tap on the door.

The voice that answered sounded guttural, not at all like Rufus’ soft voice. It sounded like two people trying to talk at once out of the same mouth-hole, and one of the people didn’t know how human speech worked.

I thought again of Mama’s warning not to use the Ouija board by yourself.

After some false starts to our conversation, I could finally make out a sentence from the other side of the door. “Leann, I can’t control this…this hunger. All I wanna do is eat.” When he said “eat,” something impacted the door from the other side, probably Rufus’ shoulder, and the legs of the chair seemed to give a little. I didn’t know what to say. I just knew I would not hand myself over to Rufus to devour. Or whatever had possessed Rufus.

“Why’d you do that to Mama’s hand?” I said.

Again, he struck the door. The chair still held, but it would not for much longer.

“I wanted to talk to her,” Rufus managed to say. “I wanted to ask her if she’d give me her blessing.”

“Oh, Rufus, don’t say it.”

“I was gonna ask you to marry me. She said yes, by the way. Now I just wanna eat you.”

“That wasn’t Mama, Rufus,” I said, though I had to wonder if I had Mama’s estimation of Rufus all wrong. I put my head against the door and instantly regretted it when Rufus hit it again. The chair wouldn’t sustain another blow like that one.

“I don’t want to. But I got to eat you. You need to open this door now.”

“How about we make a deal, Rufus?” Then I proposed that Rufus stop trying to bash the door down. In exchange, I would open the door, but only if he swore he’d back all the way up from the door and sit on the toilet and wait.

No reply. Still, I reached into my handbag where I felt Mama’s hand. I was right earlier. It was vibrating. I held it as it continued to shake, trying to escape the fate I had already assigned to it. “I’m gonna open the door.” I started a count-down, beginning with three, and once I got down to one, I pulled the chair aside, threw open the door, and tossed Mama’s hand inside the bathroom. The door stayed open long enough for me to see Rufus sitting on the toilet, like a good man who follows a bargain no matter what the demons inside him might say. His eyes widened when he saw me, his beard, his beautiful beard, crusted with Huey’s blood.

As he scrambled for his meal, I slammed the door shut and replaced the chair.

Later, I learned that Rufus ate the whole thing, bones and all.

It didn’t make him better though. I hoped it would, but it didn’t. Maybe Mama would’ve known that before I did, but without Mama’s word, you’ve got to take your own chances.

Rufus lives in the Vissaria County Psychiatric Hospital now. Whatever entered his body that day took him over completely, eventually.

They don’t allow visitors. No one expects Rufus’ condition to improve.

And that makes me sad. But whatever gave him the idea that he needed Mama’s blessing or that he needed anyone’s permission other than my own? As if I belonged to anyone other than myself?

The cabinet looked empty without Mama’s hand, and my days got quieter without Rufus coming around. For the cabinet, I found the bones of a two-headed snake in the woods behind the house. I grew fond of it and stopped thinking much of Mama’s hand. Or of Mama herself.

I decided to name the snake skeleton after Rufus. Unlike his namesake, he—I mean, they—would never bite me.

But if they ever tried to talk to me—or for me—they would need to go.


© 2020 by Douglas Ford

Douglas Ford lives and works on the west coast of Florida, just off an exit made famous by a Jack Ketchum short story. His weird and dark fiction has appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Infernal Ink, Weird City, along with several other small press publications. Recent work has appeared in The Best Hardcore Horror, Volumes Three and Four, and a novella, The Reattachment, will appear later this year courtesy of Madness Heart Press. In the harsh light of day, he sprinkles a little darkness into the lives of his students at the State College of Florida, and he lives with a Hovawart (that’s a kind of dog) who fiercely protects him from the unseen creatures living in the wooded area next to his house.  His five cats merely tolerate him, but his wife is decidedly fond of him, as he is of her.  


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DP FICTION #69A: “Many-Faced Monsters in the Backlands” by Lee Chamney

The Backlands prison barge dropped me where Riverway 53-A-Lesser splits off Riverway 53-A. There, a small break in the tree canopy made farming possible, in theory. I was told to build a homestead.

I don’t think the Eternal Bureaucracy expected much from a political exile like myself. Back in the districts, I was a Vice-Commissioner of Grains and Necessaries, a literal bean-counter, spending my days in granary offices and my evenings in tea shops, hiding from sunlight and pollen. The bargemaster saw the unlikelihood of my success, and he gamely committed to bring more subsistence rations.

The dark forest extended from my sunny patch to an infinite depth, so that looking into it felt a bit like standing between two mirrors. The ground was unbearably flat. so flat it was difficult to understand distances or directions. The only feature, the only landmark to use to define “location” at all, was the river, and even that, I knew, split and split ad infinitum as it flowed toward some sea yet undiscovered, confounding explorers, cartographers, and even the Bureaucracy’s pet gods.

Alone, outside my old environment, I had lost a sense of myself. I found myself staring—into the water, into fire, into the sky. I often lost track of what was I doing. I felt hemmed in by the dark and the riverbank. Before long, I found myself clutching an ax with aching hands, wasting time hacking away at the ironbarks, trying to expand my circle. It didn’t work. There was a constant sense that I had just had an important thought and forgotten it. It was loneliness. It was exhaustion. It was the geography.

The extreme privacy had some advantages. The first night, I opened a politically sensitive letter that I had been holding secret since the camps. It was written in a sharp, deliberate script. In the lamplight, the words looked like they were cut into the page. The letter assured me that I still had friends in the Bureacuracy, and that if I could only hold on until a less politically dangerous time, I would be reinstated with honor.

*

On the third day, while using the washbasin, I saw my face had become asymmetrical. As I watched, the left side fattened. I put a hand to it and felt the bones below shift. The left side soon contaminated the right, and my face became someone else’s. It looked at me with eyes not my own.

I tried to speak. With effort, I reclaimed my lips. They thinned and tightened back into my old nervous mouth. I made them speak. “Hello,” I said. My voice was fearful and fearfully polite.

My mouth transformed back into that of the Second Face. “Hello,” it said.

“What are you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I used to be you. I remember being you.”

The transformation became easier. My face snapped back together as I said, “But you’re not, anymore.”

“No,” said Second Face. “I’m less, now, somehow. I’m only a part.”

I thought for a moment. There was a lack in my mind, an empty space, but I couldn’t remember what had been there. “You split from me,” I stated.

Second Face contorted into being and replied, “Yes.”

“Do you remember everything I remember?” I asked.

“How would I know?”

We shared a smile, one superimposed on the other. Mine faded faster. Panic set in. I asked, “Do you remember our childhood?”

“Vividly.”

More vividly? I thought. I worried I was less than Second Face, ready for replacement. I asked, “How about our first kiss?”

“Under the rubber tree, with Selena.” With a playful grin, the Second Face asked me, “Do you remember walking home after, the smell in the air, that sense of being connected, of being part of the kissing bulk of humanity?”

“I can’t.” My voice quaked.

“I guess that’s what I am. Or part of what I am.”

I walked outside out of an instinct to be by myself, to think. Of course, Second Face came with me. It gamely tried a smile, and I wrenched control away and frowned, heavily. What was missing?

“You took my sense of wonder,” I accused.

“Oh, please. I’m too small for that, even I can tell that. I got a cluster of wonder-related memories, at most. Also, some muscle memory, I think.” Then, his expression softened. “Chin up, friend,” he said. “I’m still here! It’s not like I can walk off on my own. Let’s work. Let’s get our minds off this.”

We did work. That day, I cleared shrub from under the trees to make way for climbing beans. This would normally be miserable work, but Second Face made the time pass quickly. He joked, he laughed, he pointed out beauty. “Look at the river! It’s so blue in the sunlight,” he would say, or, “I wonder if that sound is a bird or an insect?” His voice was so unlike mine; it was slow, deep, and relaxed. As he narrated the forest, it seemed less dark and eternal, but instead vibrant and homey. His voice even comforted me at night. “Being an exile here isn’t the worst fate,” Second Face cooed. “We might even meet someone else, someday. It’s an adventure!” I felt lighter, just listening to him. I stopped resenting Second Face’s existence. After all, I reasoned, people have come back from the Backlands. Maybe there’s a cure. I drifted off to sleep.

*

The next morning, I felt even better. It was as if during the night, something rough and abrasive and stuck in my heart had been surgically removed. Its absence felt euphoric. That is, until it started talking.

“Miss me?” said Rough Thing. Its face, cruel yet pained, appeared over my own. “No? I hurt.”

I hurt, I would learn, was not so much a description of mood as a statement of being. Rough Thing hurt, both in the adjectival and verbal sense. It had taken memories I was glad to lose: memories of old unhappy far-off things, cupboards and switches and silences. It liked to remind me of them, every now and then. As I planted a bean, it remarked, “Your father never loved you. It’s not that he was incapable of love. He just chose not to exercise that capacity towards you.” When I started turning the soil in my main plot, it said, “Hot, isn’t it? It’s very hot, you know.”

Second Face overcame its fear and came out. Our mutterings became three-way, as Second Face explained its interest in certain painful sensations, and Rough Thing showed Second Face dead birds in the forest. Soon, we lived peaceably enough, passing the days in sweat and sun, watching our first crops start to grow.

*

The next time the barge arrived, I ran into the shallows, waving a little letter, begging the bargemen to take it. Instead, they poled further into the middle of the river, glancing at me with embarrassment and fear. Maybe they were unnerved by Rough Thing, which punctuated my urbane pleas with honest but unnerving comments such as, “Hope is everything!” and “I’m pathetic!”

I gave up and watched as the barge passed. On deck was a new exile, a woman. She did not look at me as she feebly tried to keep her hair arranged, despite the wind. A metropole type, I thought derisively. Less fancy now, aren’t you?

Almost as soon as she was out of view, Second Face said, “We should go find her. They probably don’t want to travel too far before they drop her off.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I… don’t know.”

“You didn’t split off with a lot of forethought, eh?” I teased.

Second Face just said, “It just feels like we should find her. We need…” his voice trailed off.

Suddenly, Rough Thing took violent control of my mouth and lungs, fully absorbing my face. It said, “Company. We need company.”

“Do we?”

“Yes. You are not good at understanding us. I am. We’re lonely. Trust me.”

“Why would I trust you?” I retorted, and Rough Thing was, even more so than usual, hurt.

Partly to mollify him and partly out of curiosity, I took a gift bundle of beans and some foraged fruit and set off down the riverbank.

*

After three days of walking, I found the newcomer’s homestead in the middle of a buzzing meadow. The level of campcraft was surprising for a metropole woman; the shelter was made very practically, her bent-staff traps, leaning over the meadow grass like farmers pulling weeds, had already snapped up a pair of rabbits.

Rough Thing said, “Figures that the prison barge would drop her off where there’s so much game and soil and leave people like us in the woods.” I nodded vigorously.

The woman appeared on the meadow edge, carrying a bundle of kindling. She didn’t see me immediately. I ducked down and said, “Second Face, take over for a bit.”

“Why?”

“You’re more likeable.”

We popped into view, Second Face beaming, shouting, “Welcome to the Backlands!”

The woman dropped her bundle and ran to her ax. Second Face held my hands up. “It’s alright. We’re unarmed.”

What followed was a tense and lengthy explanation of what, precisely, he meant by “we.” The woman, Luciana, was less alarmed than I expected. “I knew about the faces. But I didn’t expect them to be so…vibrant,” she said, causing Second Face to blush until I took control again.

“Fascinating,” she said. “The change—it isn’t painful?”

“No.”

She reached a hand out, then stopped herself. “May I?” she asked. I nodded. Her hand lay on my cheek, and I allowed a shift to Second Face, and then, briefly, to Rough Thing. “It’s fascinating,” she remarked.

The only tension arose when I explained my plans for returning to favor. “Oh, you sweet man, they will never have us back,” she said, causing me to harrumph until she felt compelled to say, “I suppose it is possible your allies will help. I suppose. Possible.”

She tried to revive the conversation, but I cut it short. “It will be getting dark soon,” I said. “I’d better start back.”

“Oh.” She leaned to one side, looking quite girlish for a woman her age. “I thought that maybe you’d spend the night?”

I tried to hide my surprise and failed. “You did?” We hadn’t seemed to have much of a connection.

She gestured all around. “It’s not as if either of us have other prospects. And,” she grinned mischievously, “I’ve never been with three men at once.”

Courtship in the districts moved much more slowly than this. I gulped and said, “Maybe another time.” Luciana pouted, and her pout was echoed by Second Face. “I’m going to go.”

As I left, Second Face, called back, “Just follow the river to find me. Come soon.”

“I will!” called Luciana in response.

*

I returned to my homestead and spent a week alone. Luciana stayed in my mind. I wasn’t quite infatuated with her, but the absolute lack of other human company had lent her a certain desirability. I fantasized often.

I split twice more, creating Joaquin, who was convinced he was a ghost possessing me, and The Otter—not an animal face, just a human, whose name is too long a story to relate. The other faces also became more physical. Rough Thing sometimes manifested on my chest and remained there for hours. The faces demonstrated an alarming degree of control, sometimes taking control of my arms or legs and moving me like a marionette. We started to snap at each other.

Fortunately, Luciana made good on her promise. She came up the fruity path, calling out, “I have news!” I ran to meet her. I ran up the bank to her, surprised at my vigor. I gave her a kiss, a more lingering one than was common between friends. She seemed blissful, radiant even. “I have someone for you to meet,” she said. Then, she told me her story.

Luciana grew up in the metropole; she was educated in the central academy. Her first assignment was in god control, and she failed at it spectacularly. She fell in love with her target, the Brushfather, the Ancestor-Spirit Class deity of a string of remote villages.

“No one believes me,” said Luciana’s first face to me, some time later, “but love at first sight does exist.” Her mind rebuilt itself, with the Brushfather at the center as well as the edges. “It was like Bureaucracy re-education,” Luciana once said, wistfully.

“The Bureaucracy sent in the army, of course. They did their level best to destroy the Brushfather. They might have succeeded. I don’t know. I never saw him again. Until last week.” Suddenly, her face rippled into that of a serene older man.

*

Luciana’s memories of the Brushfather formed the core of a split. It was not the real god, but it was a very good memory of him. And I, like Luciana, fell in love on first sight.

We ran through a complex web of introductions, using the finest Bureaucracy etiquette. “Joaquin, I present you to Luciana,”…” etc., etc. Yet, my mind never left the Brushfather. Eyes as old as time, a smile as addictive as innocence—he had something I had been craving all my life.

That night, all of us lay and held each other. Luciana, Second Face, me, the Rough Thing, we all basked in the love of a god. “It’s lonely out here. Let’s live together,” I said.

Luciana and the Brushfather replied, two faces speaking an overlapping voice, “Yes, let’s.” It was the happiest moment of my life. Until the morning.

In the morning I had a split, or maybe an integration, or both. Rough Thing had changed, taken in more of me. It was urbane. Its eyes were hard. Not like the Brushfather at all. More like my actual father.

He savagely took control of my head and turned it to look at Luciana, lying naked and asleep in the shelter. I struggled to regain control, but all I could get was my left ring finger. I flapped it frantically. Rough Thing looked down at the counter-revolutionary finger and laughed. “The Brushfather doesn’t love you,” it said. “None of them do.”

I waited for Second Face to take over. I felt sure he would have something positive to say, something like, “He could, someday. It’s early, so who knows?”

Rough Thing used our arm to roughly shake Luciana awake. “What?” Luciana asked. A few faces cycled onto her head, all of them groggy but happy. I waggled my ring finger in warning.

“You don’t care about me.”

“What?” Luciana’s first face registered confusion.

“You haven’t tried hard enough. You’re old and soft and tired. Life out here isn’t like the metropole, is it?”

The words were familiar. I realized I’d said them, we’d said them, to lovers over the years. A lifetime of petty, stupid resentments flashed into my mind. Rough Thing had a part of the core of me. It had what I had always used to manage relationships.

Luciana’s faces and Rough Thing proceeded to have a three-way shouting match. Her first face was indignant, shocked that faces as plain as ours could feel entitled to so much more. Luciana tried to de-escalate the conversation and directed her arms’ efforts toward getting dressed and staying near the door. But the Brushfather just showed sadness, deep and real grief. He clearly had no armor, no way to understand that Rough Thing’s words had nothing to do with him, that they were just expressions of pain. He took Rough Thing’s words seriously, and my heart broke to see how he hurt.

When the damage was beyond repair, Rough Thing let Second Face take over. Second Face simply whined, “This was supposed to be better,” he said. “Why isn’t it better?”

Luciana’s faces showed an incredible amount of patience, so much that I think maybe they liked us more than I’d guessed, but finally she left in disgust.

Rough Thing sat us down, alone, in the dark. Only then did he let me speak.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because you wouldn’t.”

“I mean, why was it necessary at all?”

Rough Thing took my left hand and placed it, comfortingly, on my right. “I think you know.”

“I don’t.”

“I do,” said the Otter. “Rough Thing needed to say those things because they were true. To him.”

Rough Thing flickered in, saying, “You hit the nail on the head. Precisely so. I am the only one of us who values the truth.”

I said, “Your ‘truth’ isn’t the truth, Rough Thing.”

“Is yours? Do you want to talk about why we’re in the Backlands?” Rough Thing puppeted us to our feet. It walked us to the door, looked out at the southwest, as if he could see the districts. “I was there, you know. The other faces didn’t know they existed yet, but I did. I remember. I remember your meeting with the Yellows. Their agendas, their dreams, their ideals. I felt the danger from what is now Second Face.”

Rough Thing launched into a cruel impression of Second Face. “Maybe we can chaaaaaaange the wooooooorld. Maybe they’ll like us mooooooooore. Maybe I won’t be so boooooooored.” Its normal voice came back. “And we wrote that damned memorandum.”

Our body rushed to the river. We looked at each other face to face, overlapped and reflecting. “Don’t you understand?” it yelled. “I kept us safe! You all hated me, but I saw the dangers. There were dangers in rising too fast in the Bureaucracy. There were dangers in making our opinions known. And there are absolutely, beyond a doubt, dangers—”

“In being happy,” I finished.

“Yes.”

I took a deep breath, then said, “Rough Thing, I have never said this before to you. Thank you. Thank you for keeping us safe, all those years. But now, it’s time to go.”

Rough Thing offered a steady string of counterarguments, from the rational (“Where am I going to go? Your back?”) to the emotional (“You think you’re safe now?”). However, I could not be budged. All I did was repeat, again and again, “It’s time to go.” I willed all my thought into this one demand, repeating it like a meditation. Time slowed and the world came into focus, and still I repeated it. “It’s time to go. It’s time to go.” My diaphragm ached from speaking and still I repeated it.

Rough Thing appeared on my chest, a raised face. I took off my shirtwaist so he could hear me better. Inch by inch, he emerged from my chest, an ugly crab shedding a beautiful shell. Rough Thing’s mouth bit the ground and pulled, wrenching a small body out of my flesh. When it finally separated from me, I lost consciousness.

*

The next morning, Rough Thing had gone. It had taken with it a great number of memories and capabilities, as well as about two stone of muscle and fat.

I saw it every now and then, foraging in the forest. It had grown to an adult size, but its body that looked like it was drawn without the use of a live model—a body painful to inhabit. Usually, I waved. It never waved back.

I returned to my farming and tried to focus on taking care of vulnerable little Second Face. The summer passed drowsily. Then, near the time of my first grain harvest, a barge came without a prisoner.”Hail, sir,” said the bargemaster—the same who had ignored my waving letter. I briefly looked backwards to make sure someone more important hadn’t arrived. “Letter from the metropole.” He handed me the envelope and I held it like a precious stone.

Dear Arturio,

Joyous tidings! The tyranny of the Greens is no more. The whole Bureaucracy is Yellow—yellow like new blossoms, yellow like the dawn! You shall be reinstated and promoted. The bargemaster has been instructed to bring you back immediately.

Yours, Silvio Velez, Acting Minister of Justice and Appropriate Displays of Patriotism

“Ready?” asked the bargemaster.

“What—” I stammered. “What about…” I let Joaquin and the Otter flicker on my face.

The bargemaster was stoic. “They reabsorb in the districts. We’ve rehabilitated prisoners before. No one will know you were a monster if you keep quiet about what happened here.”

“I…” I said. “I need to get my old clothes.” I ducked into the shelter… then ran out the back, into the forest. I ran until I wheezed, then I walked. I walked past Rough Thing, digging for tubers, and past Luciana’s perfectly-laid trap lines. I walked into the great beyond of the Backlands.

I didn’t know myself at all before I was sent to the Backlands. I can’t go back. Not until I know myself better.


© 2020 by Lee Chamney

Author’s Note: I’ve always felt “personality” is a group project, made up of a whole bunch of mental processes, some of which are dysfunctional as hell. Looking at and understanding the processes is useful, and terrifying, and kind of fun. I’d been meaning to write a story about it for awhile when a fellow writer proposed “many-faced monsters with many loves” at a prompt party. That prompt, years of rumination, two pints, and some new-parent sleep deprivation all came together and became this story.

Lee Chamney is an education writer and is new(ish) to fantasyHe writes stories that  have dry humor, humanist tones, and a lot of weirdness. One of his bosses once described him as having “an awkward charm,” which is at least half right. You can keep up with his publications and play one of his choose-your-own-adventure games at www.leechamney.com.


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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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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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DP FICTION #66A: “Finding the Center” by Andrew K Hoe

Content warning: racism, including racial slurs.

I brought Annie to my math-racist’s because I’d stolen a laptop from the Syndicate. I’d stirred the vipers’ nest. Their reach was long, and I didn’t have anywhere to take her. Last year, they’d killed Annie’s mother—a trained policewoman—using crooked cops from our own precinct. So Annie went where I went—even to Sanger’s beat-down porch.

I asked her to wait by the streetlamp, but she fingered her backpack. “Dad, why do you work with people who hate you?”

I winced internally: my nine-year-old knew about my racists. Like her mother, I used to be an upstanding officer. I’d repressed my ugly power. But now, I used racists freely. Last thing Annie’s mother would’ve wanted was for me to bring her to one.

Annie hadn’t asked why we ran when the black SUV approached our home this morning, why I’d smashed my phone, grabbed the laptop. But what she had asked was worse.

Why did my power work with people like Sanger?“Practice your Tai Chi over there, Annie.” She knew about my racists, but she didn’t have to know how I used them.

“But—”

“Please, pumpkin.”

She sighed and plodded to the streetlamp, started forms, the most graceful nine-year-old finding her center. Tai Chi helped me manage my power, so I’d taught it to her.

I tapped the doorbell, squeezing the briefcase containing the pilfered Syndicate laptop.

Sanger cracked open his door, peering out at me. My ability involved sensing prejudice, and Sanger’s pulled at my insides like a noose. Goosebumps riddled my skin, bones quivering underneath—and he hadn’t said anything yet. That’s how potent he was.

“Hiya,” I grunted.

When he opened fully, I gasped: his resentment practically squeezed my intestines. He grinned, relishing my discomfort. “Back for more, are we?”

I’d encountered him in town weeks back, ranting about “Chinks” overtaking American jobs. Sensing his math-potential, I’d followed him here, clutching my gut the whole time.

Now, I stood before him, letting him seethe at my Asian features, providing him with as much ammunition as possible. “Sanger,” I said, “are Asians accounting whizzes, or what?”

He snatched the bait like we were still in the same dialogue from last visit. “Chinks are so damned good at math! What else them slanted eyes for ‘sides counting beans?” He paused, eyes alight. Waiting.

I hated this part.

My eyes compressed into tight lines… but my mind quickened with mathematical know-how, accountancy laws. Sanger continued in a rapid-fire scree, my body shifting to obey. How nearsighted “Orientals” were!—my vision blurred; how short!—my height shrunk. He mentioned abacuses—one settled in my pocket.

I had what I needed.

Then Sanger paused. He enunciated his next words carefully, something he’d probably been rehearsing for weeks. “You need good bookkeeping… to track paddies like the bow-backed rice-picker you are!”

Goddammit.

My spine crooked, shoulders crunching. I was suddenly ankle-deep in water. Rice plantings shifted below me on a phantom breeze.

Sanger cackled at the paddy now consuming his lawn. He was a math-racist with job-racist tendencies, never varying from those themes. But sometimes racists changed, like hurricanes shifting direction. I’d been too distracted; I hadn’t sensed his food-racism.

Sanger saw Annie doing a Tai Chi toe-kick. “What the—?”

“Goodbye, Sanger.” He’d had his show. He could say whatever he wanted about me, but my daughter was off-limits.

He moved towards Annie, but I snarled. “I said goodbye.” Sanger swallowed, retreated behind his door. I paused to let my contortions settle, but a wet-sounding laugh fell around me.

“What are you—Racism-Man?”

I stumbled in my Sanger-given body.

Annie called over from the streetlamp. “Dad?”

“Stay there, pumpkin!” I sloshed round Sanger’s house, out of sight. I panted, too-thin eyes searching Sanger’s bushes, his cigarette-littered walkway. “Show yourself!”

White mist coiled toward the paddy’s edge, to what I realized were a trench coat and fedora, inflating them like some obscene balloon. As he solidified, a pulling sensation formed in my gut. Wispy hands produced sunglasses for a featureless face.

Rinehart. The Syndicate’s super-powered fixer.

I clutched my stomach. “You… like my power?”

“It’s definitely entertaining,” Rinehart said in his weird, wet voice, like he wasn’t using vocal cords. He indicated the paddy. “Similar to mine. More powerful, even, if you transform your surroundings.”

“First time that’s happened,” I admitted.

“Ah. You don’t understand your abilities yet.”

“There’s no manual. How’d you learn yours?” I wasn’t just stalling. Sometimes, super-powered people could learn from those with similar abilities. Experienced fliers could more or less teach newer fliers. Some super-powered people even teamed up, their abilities complementing each other in unexpected ways.

Rinehart shrugged. “Like you, following others’ dictates. Bowing to perceptions. But I wrested back control. It requires… a certain surrender…” He extended smoky fingers that roiled against the sunlight, digits wavering like flames, narrowing into talons, then becoming human fingers again.

I shivered. Rinehart definitely had more control over his body than I did mine. I needed people like Sanger, but Rinehart appeared able to mold his physicality any which way he wanted. Seemed he’d found his center. In Kung Fu, the center referred to one’s gravitational balance, and, by extension, one’s self-realization. If I kept using racists like Sanger, would I end like Rinehart?

“Surrender the laptop, and I’ll finish you quick. Your daughter doesn’t have to see you die.”

“You’re confident.”

“You’re a Chinky old farmer. You asked to be a Chinky old farmer.”

He’d tracked me, waiting until I was vulnerable before revealing himself. Yet judging from this stomachache he was giving me… “Ever see The Karate Kid? Remember Mr. Miyagi?”

Rinehart tilted his head, as if narrowing eyes behind his sunglasses—even though he didn’t have any.

“He was old, too. But he was formidable.”

My ability responded better to spoken or written slurs, but oftentimes my body shifted to racialized mental images. Sudden confidence streamed into me. I smirked, taking a Karate stance. He had seen that movie. He was a fight-racist.

Rinehart laughed. “That how your power works, Racism-Man?” His hands became smoke-tentacles, shooting for me.

I parried them. “Wax-on, wax-off!”

So many people insisted they didn’t have any racist bones in their bodies. Truth? That was like saying they’d never had any impure thoughts. Everybody contained a little racism. Granted, there were people like my past wife who didn’t give my power much to work with.

But Rinehart was potent. Boneless, maybe, but typical of what I encountered daily. I just had to keep feeding him cues. “Asians are brilliant martial artists—right, Rinehart?”

Whenever I struck, he became intangible—I hit mist, empty fabric—but he always solidified to attack. He quit laughing, intensifying his strikes.

“Remember Miyagi’s crane kick—KIYAH!”

My kick connected. Rinehart flew into the paddy, fedora and coat suddenly empty, floating on the water. A mist column plumed upwards, dissipating. Probably running to his SUV-driving minions.

I wheezed, straining under the weight of Asian-martial-mystique and mathematical stereotypes.

I grabbed the briefcase, shuffled to the lamppost, beckoned Annie over. The paddy reverted to browned grass, but my contortions remained.

“You okay, Dad?”

Before her mother’s passing, I never entered the house until whatever prejudices I’d gotten during the workday faded. Nothing big, maybe thinned eyes or a Manchurian queue. I’d practice Tai Chi until I normalized. As parents, officers, protectors of the community, we dreaded explaining racism to our daughter—something we couldn’t protect her from. How would the talk go? Pumpkin, people might treat you differently because of your appearance. Your race. But since the funeral, my contortions didn’t fade so quickly. In fact, they’d intensified, persisting despite hours of Tai Chi. In the past few months, I’d limped through our doorway countless times, cumbrous with slurs…

…and Annie never noticed. I should’ve been relieved. What parent wanted the world’s ugliness reflected in themselves before their children?

Today, like always, her eyes skipped over my stoop, my painfully slitted eyes.

Her mother wouldn’t see my contortions immediately; she’d have to really stare—but she saw eventually. Maybe, one day Annie would look at me, do a double-take. Maybe she’d cry at what she saw.

“Dad?”

“I’m fine, pumpkin.”

*

At a crosswalk, Annie side-eyed me. “This is about Mom, isn’t it?”

“No, pumpkin. It’s about…”

About unraveling why my transformations were worsening. It’d started when the Syndicate killed Annie’s mother. Maybe, if I put the Syndicate away, my body would right itself. But payback was a powerful side motivation.

“Yes. It’s about your mother’s murder.”

Annie nodded. She grabbed my crinkled hand and led me downtown. If Rinehart followed, he did so invisibly.

We made it to a café, where I activated the laptop. Time to deploy Sanger’s slurs. Last night, I’d read a technology-racist’s blog about Japanese programmers hacking (pun intended) America into “dericious” pieces. Like Sanger, the author was potent: I gained expertise to break the laptop’s encryption. But I also got buck-teeth making it hard to breathe. I fell asleep waiting for my body to re-center—awakening to the black SUV’s screech.

Annie stared out the window as I traced Syndicate sums through labyrinthine accounts. “Where’d you get the abacus?”

My fingers paused over the beads. “Where’d you learn that word?”

“Abacus? Maybe Mom said it once?”

I blinked, remembering the day she was referring to. Memories of the three of us together still hurt. I taught Annie Tai Chi so she’d find her center, but her mother was my self-realization. With her, I always knew who I was. On days when my body was being stubborn, she’d remind me Asians could speak English clearly, that our eyes were beautiful. Her words didn’t affect me, but they helped. Turning in my badge wasn’t just about hunting the Syndicate. It was also because I couldn’t identify as a cop anymore—as that honorable man my wife saw.

Nowadays, my keyring of racists dictated my identity.

“You’re my hero, Annie. You know that?”

This wasn’t a redirection. She was my hero. This invincible, shining light who kept me going, just by virtue of being herself.

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry… about mentioning Mom just now. I know how you get whenever she comes up—”

“Annie. You never have to feel sorry about mentioning her. I’ve been so focused on… um, work. We should talk like we used to.”

I had more to say, but my blurry vision sharpened. Odd. I should’ve had hours yet in this form. Suddenly, I was sitting straighter, my eyes returning to their original shape.

“What if you quit the Mom-thing? What if you stopped dealing with bad people?”

“You… want me to quit?” My insides trembled. I returned to the laptop; I needed to find the accounting aberration before Sanger’s words fell off completely.

“Dad?”

“Now now, Annie—”

She pointed to the black SUV pulling up. With a tingle, my Sanger-given body and Miyagi-prowess vanished. But I’d gotten what I needed.

My wife had led the anti-Syndicate taskforce, and they’d killed her for that, but I saw to it—through my “dericious” technology-racists—that her file listing her family was redacted. Just in case, I’d switched Annie’s picture with a computer-generated image. I refused the official funeral, blocked our names from the press. I removed the house pictures, all visual evidence of Annie’s connection to us. I’m going after your mother’s killers, I’d explained. She’d nodded somberly.

Me, though? I’d been plumbing the Syndicate’s dens and safehouses.

I focused on the different pulls in the café: job-racism, politics-racism, movie-racism…

People thought racism was a white-vs-non-white thing. An upbringing thing. A class thing. Something happening in some-city in something-state.

Truth? Prejudice was as old as day, plentiful like dust. Outright racists like Sanger were most potent, but friendly racists also worked. People who’d never say Chink. People who thought themselves immune to prejudicial thinking (not a racist bone in my body!) because they voted for this proposal, kept diverse friends, married someone of this race. People who thought you couldn’t be racist against your own race—you totally could.

Annie packed the laptop while I spoke to a woman who thought all Asians looked alike. She meant it as a compliment. You Asians are youthful-looking!

I shuddered. Friendly racism didn’t yank as painfully as outright racism, but it prickled. Under the friendly intentions poked barbed micro-aggressions: Asians are youthful-looking—Inhuman; Asians are scientifically inclined—They’re only scientifically inclined; Asian females are so endearingly submissive—slavish.

As the woman talked, my skin shifted. Since my wife’s death, my ability had gone haywire, but my contortions eventually dropped. What about Asians who’d been told over and over how exotic they were, how obedient—for decades? How long did that kind of conditioning take to drop?

“If your hair were parted,” the woman continued, “you’d be my Vietnamese neighbor. He’s very handsome.”

“Like this?”

She squinted. “He has a beauty mark.”

“A mole? Around here?” I checked my reflection on the window. As expected, my face scrunched into this amalgam of Asian features, what she imagined as her neighbor’s face.

“What if your neighbor dyed his hair? Grew a beard?”

She couldn’t help but picture my suggestions; my body couldn’t help but react.

I left her gaping, collected Annie, and together we walked past the suited men exiting the SUV. One of them did a double-take at Annie. “Hey!”

Dammit—they’d uncovered my protective measures.

“Behind me, pumpkin. Take the briefcase.” Could I pull another Miyagi-contortion?

But Annie stepped forward. She was… glowing. I remembered telling her she was my hero. I remembered what I’d thought.

This invincible, shining light…

The Syndicate men flinched, backing away, like they weren’t hardened killers. I gaped as they retreated into their SUV, squealed off.

“I’ve… been meaning to tell you, Dad.”

She’d transformed to how I imagined her. She had power. No, not just that. I reacted to racial slurs and thoughts, but she’d reacted to my non-racial imagining. What did that mean?

“It’s… okay, pumpkin. We’re going to the police now.”

She squeezed my hand, and I faced her. But whatever words I’d started to find inside the café had disappeared.

“C’mon, pumpkin.”

*

I led Annie through streets thick with the pulls of job-racists who’d swear Asians were excellent cooks, camouflage-racists who thought Chinese and Koreans interchangeable, fight-racists who’d make me Bruce Lee if needed. We were the model minority, soft-spoken, subservient. We drove rice-rockets, and I’d led some crazy car chases. I told a teleport-racist I was Filipino; he demanded I return to my own country—I was transported to the Philippines, where I infiltrated the Syndicate’s Manila operations. An M. Butterfly fan, a gender-racist, talked me into becoming a lotus-flower woman. A sex-racist told me how beautiful Asians were. I’d gasped, grabbing my tightening crotch—she imagined Asians as well-endowed.

Other super-powered people levitated, walked through walls. They flew, shot fireballs. Me? I rode stereotypes.

Talking to Annie about racism—that she might suffer it, that she needed to resist doing it to others—would’ve been hard enough. Academics had written books trying to demystify the bewildering, tragic subject. But if Annie could access prejudice as a tool? What if, like me, she got overwhelmed by its brutal weight? Had she, all alone, experienced the gut-wrenching confusion of shaping to another’s will?

Before the police station’s entrance, I turned to her. “How long have you had your ability?”

She looked at me like I was the only thing in the universe. I wasn’t completely surprised by her power. Some abilities were passed genetically. That was why I’d insisted she practice Tai Chi.

She bit her lip. “Not long.”

I realized what I’d missed earlier. If Annie saw the abacus, then… my new mole… my beard…. “You see what I become,” I said dully. “You’ve seen all along.”

What if you stopped dealing with bad people?

What had it been like for her, hearing people call me things like “slant-eyed gook”? Then to see me actually become that?

She looked down. “You’re disappointed, aren’t you?”

I hated that anyone would call her “slant-eyed gook”. I especially hated that with her powers, her body would contort. But I had something to offer: my experiences with my ability, learning to think quickly, to twist prejudice into something useful. Questions I could answer for her, while I had to be my own clumsy teacher.

“I’m disappointed because I didn’t want you to see me at my worst. But I’m never disappointed in you, Annie. Nothing’s changed. You’re my hero. You’re always my hero.”

She smiled at that, a natural smile I hadn’t seen in a while. We entered the station—one different from my former precinct. I’d vetted everybody here for corruption, but nobody knew me. I shoved a coded note into the drop-box at the windowed reception grill. The attending officer shot me a look before hurrying off.

“Annie, do you know why finding your center’s so important? Your mother was mine. She reminded me who I was.”

“Dad, I—” she started, but a sergeant interrupted from behind the window.

You’re the undercover asset? The one dropping us Syndicate intel?”

I nudged Annie back, lifted the laptop. “I’ve got the evidence.”

“I thought you’d be taller.”

I grunted as my spine started stretching. I’d tell Annie first that prejudice hit you without warning. You couldn’t feel every racial pull. Only tall people—of this skin color, this gender, this biological composition—did things that mattered. I gritted my teeth as I elongated to obey that premise.

In that unhinged moment, Rinehart struck.

Vapor streamed from a ceiling vent, sluiced through the grill, a human-shaped smog pulling a gun from the drop-box—the sergeant yelled, grabbing his empty holster—

I threw myself around Annie. She breathed into my ear. The gun barked, like the “Chink!” shot from Sanger’s lips, demanding my body obey, that I form holes and blood.

I looked up. Rinehart appeared confused.

Officers clamored against the reception window’s other side. Rinehart had jiggered the door. Why wasn’t I dead?

Then I registered what Annie had said into my ear, what my body couldn’t help but mirror: “You’re my hero, Dad.”

What exactly did my daughter imagine a hero could do? How potent was her belief in me?

The bullet, mashed against my back, pinged onto the floor as I straightened. Rinehart fired his entire clip, bullets thunking off me.

He tossed the gun. “The key to controlling my ability, Miyagi-sensei—” my bones started warping— “was to embrace people’s dictates. To surrender to smoke.”

He slammed me into the window, stunning me. “It’s wonderfully freeing.”

I grabbed his solid shoulders. But Rinehart reformed, shoulders becoming tentacles that hurled me into the ceiling. “Surrender, Fu Manchu!” He’d learned from our last encounter, was trying to overload my body. I dropped to the floor, sprouting a Fu-mustache. “Surrender, dragon-lady!” Torn between stereotypes, my limbs creaked… my fingertips flaked… bleaching of color… whitening… like smoke…

“Surrender, Racism-Man! Ssssssurrender!”

“No!” Annie shouted. She was glowing again. Rinehart flinched from her light.

“Stop listening to bad people, Dad! Just stop! You’remyhero.”

Her mother couldn’t talk me out of transformations. Even the image in her mind couldn’t erase what strangers said about me. Yet Annie thought I was bulletproof. She’d made me bulletproof. Why had her words worked?

Sometimes, super-powered people could learn from those with similar abilities.

Some super-powered people even teamed up, their abilities complementing each other in unexpected ways.

When my body had mysteriously normalized in the café, I’d been opening up to Annie. That was it. I had to listen to her. “Keep talking, pumpkin! It’s helping!”

“Oh, just die already!” Rinehart stretched smoky limbs towards Annie’s light, but snatched them back, as if scalded.

“I want you to hang our pictures again!” she said.

That wasn’t what I’d been expecting. But hearing my daughter’s words felt good. My warped limbs started loosening. “I’m listening!”

“I want to talk about Mom without worrying it’ll make you sad!” A dam had broken loose. She was crying, but my flaking hands solidified, normal color returning.

And I was crying too. I’d thought I was protecting her, but I’d been blocking her out.

“Sad? I’ll show you sad!” Rinehart rose like a storm cloud.

“I want to remember things like Mom showing you how to build a campfire!”

Campfire?

I stood, and breathed fire—yes, fire—at Rinehart. I was a quick thinker, after all. He spilled to the floor as a blackened, human-shaped fog.

“I know who I am, Rinehart. I’m a hero. I’m her hero.”

He growled. “Whatever, Hero-Man.” He vaporized, wafting slowly through the ceiling vent, as if wounded. Rinehart couldn’t be solved in one decisive battle. We’d face each other again.

Officers burst into the reception area. The laptop lay where I’d dropped it. Hopefully, it still worked, but destroying the Syndicate on my own terms seemed much more appealing to me.

Annie took my hand. “I… have more to say.”

In Kung Fu, you knew you’d found your center when you found a place with no pull, where you just were. Maybe the key to finding balance wasn’t destroying a criminal organization or getting revenge, or hiding racism from my daughter, but with something as simple as hearing her out.

I looked into Annie’s eyes. “I’m listening.”


© 2020 by Andrew K Hoe

Author’s Note: I remember my parents trying to explain to me, a Chinese American child in the 1980s, what racism was. I remember that talk being so difficult, and tried picturing how I might explain racism to a child of my own in the 21st century. Racism is extremely nuanced and difficult to verbalize. It’s far more complex than a collection of verbal slurs, and being anti-racist takes much more than vowing never to say certain ugly words. In my daily experiences, I’ve encountered people who passionately decry racism, but don’t realize they enact, through their everyday speech and actions, the very racist behaviors they denounce. When confronted with evidence of their racism, they’re the first to claim “I’m not racist” or “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” The tragic circumstances of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests have forced many to acknowledge that “systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” “microaggression,” and “implicit bias” are actual dangers that continue to threaten BIPOC, trans-, and other marginalized peoples. Yet there are stories of victimized groups having turned the tables by using their oppressors’ racism against them. For example, David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly deals with the real life Chinese male spy who successfully used stereotypes of Asian women to fool a French diplomat into thinking he was a woman. The two had sexual relations with the diplomat being none the wiser. Rinehart is a character from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who forsakes his racial identity to adapt to white society. In writing this story, I wondered—what if a hero could weaponize the racism used against him? What would happen if he could use racism as a superpower?

Andrew K Hoe practices Kung Fu and writes fiction in Southern California. He has been an assistant language teacher in Japan, is currently an assistant professor of English, is also an assistant editor for the Cast of Wonders podcast, and basically just loves assisting. He is thrilled to have a story featured in Diabolical Plots, one of his favorite speculative fiction venues. 


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