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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DP FICTION #65B: “Bring the Bones That Sing” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

The bird bones arrived on Grandma’s porch every day at dusk with no warning. There were all kinds of skeletons, each distinct: finches, crows, goldfinches, tiny barn owls, starlings, and once, a blue heron that had covered nearly the entire stoop.

Muriel sat on her grandmother’s front porch each summer night, trying to spot when it happened. She never managed to see. She’d blink, or take a breath at the wrong time, or twitch her chin to flick hair at humming insects. And in that moment, the bones would appear on the cedar boards pocked with peeling white paint.

She tried every trick she knew. She propped her eyelids open with finger and thumb, held her breath, sat as still as a girl could in the heat of July and the buzz of mosquitoes hungry for a snack. Her eyes would tear-blur or a gnat would crash into her eyelashes or the porch would creak and startle her. And then the bones were there.

“But who brings them?” Muriel asked her grandma, frustrated.

“They bring themselves,” Grandma said with shrug. She’d scoop up the maze of tiny, brittle pieces that had once been alive, carry the bones inside, and Muriel didn’t see them again.

She had no more success finding out what Grandma did with the bones, either. It was like a dream: she would follow Grandma into the pine log cabin, across the faded welcome mat, through the hallway, and then…Muriel would find herself in the kitchen with a mug of hot cocoa, or up in her loft room with a glass of cold cider, or, sometimes, in the back yard on the tire swing with a juice box forgotten in one hand.

*

Muriel decided to be bad.

Grandma told her never to touch the bones. But everything else she tried failed. So Muriel waited, and when the bones appeared, she touched them.

The bones belonged to a chickadee, and there was a black feather tucked against the crown of its skull like a memento.

“You’re a patient one, ain’t you,” said the chickadee skull. Its polished beak clacked and its bones shivered in the muggy air.

Muriel gasped. Was this why Grandma told her not to touch? That was unfair! She could have made friends with all the bones if she’d known.

It was late August, and when September came, she would have to go back to the city. Back to her parents who argued and stinky buses clouding the sky and the downstairs apartment neighbors who broke glass and screamed all night. No bird bones ever showed up outside her window even once she learned how to remove the screen. She saw only pigeons vying for space on light posts, or sometimes seagulls before a storm.

“Hi,” Muriel said to the chickadee. “My name is Muriel.” It seemed polite to introduce herself first. “Who are you?”

The chickadee rustled, the scrape of bone against wood soft like dry maple leaves. “If I had a name, it’s been sucked like marrow from my memory. How about you call me Chip?”

Muriel nodded. She glanced over her shoulder, worried Grandma would come and scoop up Chip’s bones and she’d never get to talk to the chickadee again. She didn’t mind not having other people her age around to play with. She didn’t really like the way other kids did gestures and words and glances. It made her tired, and she just wanted to wander back into the woods behind the school yard until she reached a road and stop signs and loud trucks.

“Why are you just bones, Chip?”

The bird laughed—a whistling sound that wasn’t so high-pitched that it hurt her ears. “I died,” Chip said. “I think I was on an important quest. Delivering a message to the Queen.”

Muriel leaned forward, elbows jutting out as she clasped her knees and rocked back and forth on the step. “The Queen of where?”

“I wish I could remember,” Chip said. The skull sighed, sounding very sad. “But death takes odd things from us.”

“I’m sorry,” Muriel said.

She felt bad for Chip. Was being dead scary? Adults seemed to believe this. Her mom didn’t want her watching TV because there was too much violence. Not seeing bad things didn’t make them disappear, though. She’d seen animals die.

Once she’d spotted a falcon divebomb another bird, scoop it up in sun-sharp talons, and fly away. She wished she could be a falcon. Soaring over the skyscrapers, eating pigeons who were too slow, never having to go to school where she got laughed at because she couldn’t read at her grade level. Words danced like shivering bones, rearranging into the shapes that skittered about to evade her fingers and brain.

Here at Grandma’s, her grandmother read to her when she asked, and never sighed in exasperation if she couldn’t read the back of a cereal box at breakfast. Grandma’s cabin was a special place. Muriel was sure that was why the bones came here, and not other houses.

“Was the message all words?” Muriel asked.

“It was a song,” Chip said. “Five bars with three grace notes in the final coda.”

“Just music?” Muriel loved music. She especially loved her soft headphones Grandma had given her, the ones that wrapped around her entire ears, and not the prickly buds that hurt.

“Well,” Chip said, “you’ve heard birdsong before, right? Human words get so…tangled up and spiky. Used against or for, to harm or to take. Sometimes to heal. But human words are not nearly as eloquent as birdsong.”

“I wish I was a bird,” Muriel said, sighing. Then she heard the creak of the floorboards behind her and knew Grandma was coming to scoop up Chip.

She flapped her hands, frustrated. She had been told never to touch the bones. They were brittle and delicate, and Grandma said they lingered of the Old Spaces, which were not meant for small girl-palms to hold.

“Where do you go now?” Muriel asked, afraid that Chip would stop talking to her as soon as the chickadee saw Grandma. “Can I come?”

“Hmmm,” Chip said. “Do you think you can remember a song?”

“Yes!”

“That would be helpful,” Chip said. “Maybe you could take the song to someone who can fly it back to the Queen.”

“I’ll try,” Muriel said, eager to do bird-things like remember music.

“Take my feather,” Chip said, and Muriel plucked it from Chip’s skull.

It was soft and felt nice on her fingers. She rubbed it across her hands.

“Listen…” Chip said.

But then the screen door hinges squawked too loud, and Muriel spun around. She looked up at Grandma, hiding her hands behind her back.

With the feather in hand, Muriel saw a different Grandma. This Grandma wore a dark gown spun with peacock feathers and hawk feathers and swan feathers. Giant black wings hung down her back. A hood pulled over her hair was shaped like a bird skull of indeterminate species. Her hands, too, had changed: now the fingers were long and curved like talons, heavy and pale ivory. This Grandma’s eyes were round and gold like an owl’s. Bird-Grandma blinked at her, slow and serene, and in her arms, the ghostly outline of Chip’s body rested at the crook of her elbow.

Muriel gasped. She let go of Chip’s feather as she clapped her hands over her mouth.

Bird-Grandma disappeared, and there was only Muriel’s grandma again: human and old and smelling of lavender and garlic. Grandma held Chip’s bones in her hand.

“Did you touch the bones?” Grandma asked, but not in an angry-voice.

Muriel quickly scooped up the feather to show Grandma the truth, and then the bird-woman was there again. Muriel realized this was her grandmother. The way the birds saw her.

“Why do you have wings?” Muriel asked.

Grandma’s owl-eyes blinked again. “I’m a Reaper of Air,” she said. Her voice sounded the same. Warm and kind like fresh-baked brownies. “Kin come here when they pass, and I carry them to the Forever Skies.”

Muriel liked Bird-Grandma. She wasn’t scary now that Muriel knew she was a grandma to both girls and birds.

“Chip was delivering a message to the Queen, and I’m going to help,” Muriel said. “What’s the song, Grandma?”

Bird-Grandma’s wings rustled like bedsheets hung to dry in the summer breeze. “Listen.”

Muriel held Chip’s feather up to her ear. A melody filled her head: a song that had no words. Muriel gasped. It was the prettiest music she’d ever heard, better than the piano sonatas mixed with loon song she had on CD.

The song stopped and Muriel knew it was missing the last few notes. She shook the feather, but no more music fell out. “Oh no,” Muriel whispered. How was she supposed to give the Queen the message if she didn’t know all the music? “Grandma, the song isn’t fixed!”

Bird-Grandma’s eyelids half-closed, just like Grandma’s did when she was sleepy but pretending not to be asleep. “Death takes odd things from us. But they can be found again if you wish.”

Muriel wiped her face and put Chip’s feather in her pocket. She needed to find the rest of the song to take to the Queen. This is what Chip wanted, and Chip was her friend. Muriel helped her friends. She didn’t have many. They were all important.

“Where did the death take Chip’s song?”

Bird-Grandma sighed, a great flutter of feathers. “Come with me, child. You touched the bones when I told you not to do so, but that is past. I will help you.”

*

Muriel followed Bird-Grandma down the basement stairs into a great big room filled with windows. So many windows, Muriel couldn’t count them all. She didn’t know they were in Grandma’s basement. The windows didn’t have glass and they came in all shapes and sizes—some so small even a hummingbird would get stuck. And there was one, near the ground, that was girl-sized.

Muriel crouched and peered through the window. There was a forest outside, with multi-colored trees like crayons that had lots of arms. It made her eyes itch. She didn’t like the feel of crayon paper or wax.

“You touched the dead,” Bird-Grandma said. “Your aura pulled away the last of the music.”

Muriel wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t mean to!”

“I know, my child.” Bird-Grandma laid Chip’s bones down on a towel spread on the ground by the small window. “You are a powerful force. It is why I asked you not to touch the bones. You pull things into your orbit, a moon influencing tides.”

Muriel looked at the crayon forest and shivered. “Did I put Chip’s song in there?”

“Yes,” Bird-Grandma said. “These windows are portals to different fears. At times, the dead slip loose and must be retrieved. I carry our kin to the Forever Skies so the dead need not pass through these other lands.” She pointed up, up, up.

Muriel peered at the ceiling. There was a vault of black sky and peeking between the fluffy clouds streamed beams of sun and stars and moon: brilliant night lights so the bird bones wouldn’t get scared of the dark.

“Are you bringing Chip up there?” Muriel asked.

“Yes. But if you wish to find the song, child, you must hurry. Music fades quickly if not remembered.”

Muriel nodded fiercely. She was going to help Chip and bring the lost song to the Queen once she found the missing notes. Then Chip would be happy.

Bird-Grandma bent down and placed a long, smooth feather in Muriel’s hand. “This will bring you back to me as soon as you let it go,” she said.

Gripping the feather tight, Muriel crouched and shuffled into the window in search of Chip’s song.

*

Inside the crayon-forest, everything was loud and crunchy. Muriel gasped. Scratchy sounds flew around her head like bugs. The trees swayed and whooshed, paper leaves bumping together in awful crinkling waves.

“Go away!” Muriel yelled at the noise.

Instead, the swoopy, itchy sounds popped and cracked and squealed like fireworks. Echoes bounced against her hair in big purple sparkles and stung her cheeks. She swatted at the air. The bad-sounds shrieked orange and whistled pink, swirling faster around her face. Muriel started crying. It hurt! There was so much interference she couldn’t think clearly. She clapped her hands over her ears and almost lost hold of Grandma’s feather. How could she find Chip’s song in this place?

The ground was full of sevens, sharp and pokey, and bitey threes that tried to eat her toes. She kicked the numbers away. The sevens made garlic farts when they melted. Her nose felt like Rudolph’s, shiny and round and made of mean bully-laughs.

She huddled down and banged her forehead against the softer sixes that puffed up like little flowers. These were minty and didn’t sting her nose. She should have brought her headphones. But then she might not hear the song through the squishy foam and soothing soft-static.

The feather whispered in her ear, Let go and come home.

“I can’t,” Muriel told the feather. Her palms were sticky, like when candy canes melted. She rubbed her free hand on her jeans. The fabric crinkled plasticky and so yellow it scraped her brain. She gripped the feather’s stem harder. “Chip needs the music.”

Before Grandma had given her the nice headphones, one of her favorite teachers, Ms. Eugene, let her wear a soft microplush headband when the sounds in class got too big and made her hit herself.

“The fabric will sing you a song just for you,” Ms. Eugene had said, and she guided Muriel’s hands gently so her palms pressed against the softness over her ears. “Can you hear it?”

The music was really coming from Ms. Eugene’s throat, but it felt nice on Muriel’s skin and she slowly calmed down. Ms. Eugene let her keep the headband, even though it was winter and she already had a hat. She wore the microplush under her beanie, humming Ms. Eugene’s song to herself on the bus. The headband memorized the music and played it back for her right in her ears, and the rumble of the bus and the outside-voices of the other kids weren’t so bad.

Muriel remembered Ms. Eugene’s headband’s music. She hummed it to herself until her throat felt too big for her skin, like it would pop out. The esophagus, she’d learned in school, was long and round and tube-like, so of course it would roll away if it escaped. She kept her lips together.

Slowly, the forest-sounds grew dimmer. Muriel peeked, still humming. The trees shuffled together, shiny with wax and dry paper, but the swooping sounds were further away. She got to her feet.

Suddenly, the ground went sideways—all the trees were on the ceiling, waving at her with confetti-leaves, and the sevens and threes danced like wiggly string cheese in front of her eyes.

Her stomach did a flip-flop, like when she spun in circles so fast she threw up. The sky was filled with white radio noise. It was raining polka dots that didn’t have any water.

Stop it stop it STOP IT! Muriel yelled at the world, silently, because she needed her lips to hum the song. You’re being mean!

Grandma said she pulled things into her orbit. If she could attract bad sounds, why couldn’t she be a magnet for good things, like music? She shut her eyes so the crayon-trees didn’t scratch her, so the numbers would stop being green, so the sky would fold back and stop being under her feet, and began humming Chip’s song. Over and over, stopping just before the missing notes made it crash into silence.

Nothing but the crunch-whiiish of paper. The screeches kept popping against her hands and arms, sparkly fingers that made her want to scream DON’T TOUCH.

Had the ground gone back to normal? Her hair still waved around like she was sideways, but her stomach didn’t hurt anymore.

Again, Muriel hummed Chip’s song, feeling the vibrations in her throat and up into her chin. She imagined herself to be a Muriel-shaped bird, covered in the softest of soft feathers, lighter than air. She would zoom around the sky and sing with the other birds and they would be her friends.

She opened her mouth and tried to sing Chip’s birdsong the way she’d heard it from Chip’s feather. The lost notes would want to come back to their song, where they belonged. Her voice was squawky and full of missteps. She wasn’t good at singing. Not like Ms. Eugene and Chip and all the birds.

Let go and come home, Grandma’s feather whispered.

“No,” Muriel said, and took a deep breath. She sat down so her knees didn’t wobble. The ground was a weird squishy sponge now, without numbers, but it was where it belonged. She thought of Chip’s bones and the sadness of missing the notes of the song. The Queen needed to hear the music.

She rocked back and forth and tried again. Her hair stopped floating.

For her friend Chip and for Grandma and for all the birds.

This time, her voice sounded more like birdsong and closer to the melody Chip sung for her.

A quiet trill made her jump. The lost notes!

Slowly, Muriel peeked her eyelids open and looked around. There, several big steps away in a waxy bush made from ugly taupe crayon-paper, trembled the music from Chip’s song. Giant twos and zeros loomed like cartoon skyscrapers over the bush.

A huge crash-boom of pea soup thunder swirled above the little notes. Muriel gasped. The enormous sound would smash the music and break it into shrill bits. She couldn’t let the lost notes get hurt.

Muriel leapt to her feet and raced like a peregrine falcon towards the bush. Air whipped against her face and she clutched her feather until her sticky hand ached. “Hold on!”

The crash-boom swooped down, thick as moldy oatmeal, but Muriel was fast—peregrine falcons could dive faster than racecars, and raptors weren’t painfully loud. She scooped the notes up in her free hand, humming the melody like her own birdsong, and jumped away.

CRASH! BOOM!

The sound smacked into the ground, flattening the crayon-paper bush and throwing Muriel on her back from impact. She went rolling. Muriel screamed. Her ears pounded like drums and it hurt hurt HURT

All around her, the world wobbled like Jell-O stars and it was going to squish her and she’d be stuck like a gummy bear and she didn’t want to stay here, she wanted to go home and—

She clutched the lost notes against her shirt. They shivered, almost slipping through her fingers. “Hold on,” Muriel whispered, and before the huge sound could pounce on her, she let go of the feather.

*

Muriel sat on the floor of Grandma’s cabin, her ears still hurting from the loudness. But here by all the windows, it was quiet. Bird-Grandma draped her favorite blanket over her shoulders, and she curled up in the snuggly fabric. And there were her headphones! She put them on, but left her right ear open just a little.

The music notes wiggled in her hand. “Are you okay?” Muriel asked them, slowly uncurling her fingers.

The music trilled again, and suddenly they vanished. She sat up, grinning. “Grandma! I know Chip’s music!”

Bird-Grandma nodded solemnly. She still held the chickadee bones in her great palm.

“Sing for them,” Bird-Grandma said. “Let them take the music to the Queen of Air where they will be welcomed.”

Muriel clutched her blanket around herself and put her mouth close to Bird-Grandma’s hand. Then sang the whole song. Chip’s bones rustled.

“Thanks, friend,” Chip said.

“You’re welcome,” Muriel replied.

Bird-Grandma lifted her arm and her hand stretched like a huge wing unfolding, carrying Chip up into the vaulted sky.

*

Grandma and Muriel sat on the front step, drinking hot cocoa with extra marshmallows, and watched the sky twinkle with summer stars. They were nice and quiet stars, and the trees around Grandma’s house were good trees, with non-yelling leaves and plain bark. Muriel sighed, happy to be home.

“Grandma?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Can I help you collect songs if they get lost again?” Muriel had her headphones on, but she could always hear her grandmother’s soft, soothing voice. She was still bouncy from her adventure and happy Chip was safe, and the song for the Queen of Air was whole.

Grandma smiled. “Yes. I will teach you how to care for the bones so your touch does not pull them away.”

Muriel beamed. She swallowed the sweetness of melty chocolate and marshmallows, then leaned her head on Grandma’s shoulder. She would have to go back when the summer was over, but she would know lots of new birdsongs and would always have her friends.


© 2020 by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota. Merc is a Nebula Awards finalist, and their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Wolfmoor or their website: http://mercfennwolfmoor.com. Their debut short story collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, was published by Lethe Press.


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DP FICTION #65A: “Minutes Past Midnight” by Mark Rivett

Ruth slammed through a metal security hatch. Solid steel met Ruth’s super strength and speed, and it shredded like tinfoil. From Ruth’s perspective, the world was frozen in time. Soldiers were posed in action – walking through halls, manning their posts, and otherwise going about the daily business of staffing a nuclear missile silo. None of them would be aware of the super hero in their midst. Only later – instantaneous in their perception, but many long seconds in Ruth’s – would they experience her intrusion: ruined passageways and an obliterated weapon.

Racing deep into the heart of the facility, she found the apocalyptic missile she was looking for. An unfortunate man, holding a cup of coffee and dressed in an officer’s uniform, stood in a door she needed to use. There wasn’t room to move past him. Nor was there time to pause.

She did her very best, but felt the contact, and cursed. He would feel nothing. The energy of her speed would transfer into him like dynamite, and his men would find his remains covering the wall, ceiling, and floor. To her, it was nothing but a passing touch of her hip against his.

It was a horrible but unavoidable sacrifice.

Fluorescent lights illuminated the industrial scaffolding before her. Rails terminated in single-point perspective at her destination: a three-story tall intercontinental ballistic missile awakening in its silo. She plowed into it with both fists outstretched. The smooth metal body rent like tissue, and the rocket engine beneath crumpled. As she exited the missile she twisted in mid-air and slammed feet-first into the concrete wall on the other side. Her impact sent cracks spiderwebbing in all directions. The resulting earthquake would shake the entire facility.

She lunged back through the hole she had made. The officer she had killed no longer occupied the exit. He had been erased, and in his place was a vaguely man-shaped red mist. She passed through the blood, resigned in the fact that she could do no more harm than she already had. Crimson droplets streaked off of her, leaving a gruesome wake through the facility.

“I’m sorry I could not move him in time.” The manifestation of Psyche’s words in Ruth’s mind corresponded with the telepathic revelation of Ruth’s next target – another ICBM silo in Colorado. There were thousands. Each one represented millions of deaths, and many were already preparing to launch. Some were already in the air.

“I understand.” Ruth replied needlessly. Psyche already knew that Ruth comprehended what was at stake, and that one life was a necessary cost. The god-like telepath had filled her with a total awareness of what was happening all around the earth. The first shots in a new world war had been fired. If not for Psyche, those shots would also be the last. She had bet on Ruth as possessing both the power and the willingness to help her. Together, they might stave off the apocalypse.

For months, tensions around the world had risen to a crescendo. World leaders had committed to posturing and provocation instead of compromise and understanding. The Doomsday Clock maintained by the world’s atomic scientists had inched ever closer to midnight.

It was now many minutes past that terrible abstract midnight. Ruth had been bounding through missile silos, crushing the terrible weapons within, and moving on to the next for nearly an hour – a lifetime for a speedster like her. Psyche, who herself had plucked the information from anyone on earth who possessed it, trickled their locations into Ruth’s mind one after the other. If any nuclear missiles were unknown to her, they were in the Dark Spots created by other super-powered psychers who carefully guarded those secrets.

“How many are in the air?” Ruth asked as she plowed into and out of another target. This time she had managed to avoid touching anyone – leaving only merciful ruin in her trail.

“Five.” Psyche replied.

“Where are they going?” Ruth compartmentalized her conversation with Psyche. As each new nuclear missile location bloomed within her thoughts the destruction she wrought became a blur in her memory. Many innocent soldiers – like the officer who had inadvertently blocked her path, and had absorbed the kinetic energy of her passing – would die because of her. But it was their lives, or the lives of everyone on earth.

Fate.

Bad luck.

“You cannot stop the missiles in the air. Focus on what you can do.” Replied Psyche calmly.

Ruth felt Psyche’s intrusion into parts of her thoughts that were not devoted to the task at hand and recoiled. “Don’t do that!” She barked.

“I’m sorry.” Psyche’s influence withdrew from the deepest parts of Ruth’s consciousness, and released a flood of emotions – unproductive but necessary emotions – that Psyche had been repressing. Ruth’s eyes welled as she dismantled the next weapon and the next. Her tears stretched from one silo to another suspended in a thousands-of-miles-long wake of despair.

Earlier in the evening, Psyche had roused Ruth from her sleep with a telepathic infusion of knowledge. It had taken Ruth a few minutes to process the gravity of the information that had been thrust upon her. The creation of new synapses within her brain needed to be integrated into the whole, and that had taken a few eternal minutes. Once that had happened, Ruth remained paralyzed by conflicting thoughts and feelings. A singular consideration rose above all else – there was no time.

There was no time to reverse the horrible choices that had been made by leaders across the world.

There was no time for discussion with other super heroes.

No time to resent Psyche for her telepathic intrusion.

No time to dress.

No time to kiss her wife Kara goodbye.

Those moments had been enough to put five missiles in the air. Millions of lives were lost to Ruth’s indecision. The guilt filled her, but also fueled her. She sprang into action.

She snatched a headset in vain hopes of getting help.

Her nightgown fell away under the punishing gale.

Kara awoke to an empty bed.

Now, the West Coast gave way to the Pacific Ocean. The water was as solid as the earth to her super-sonic footfalls. Behind her was a five-story tall plume of steam and water. Before her was the continental Asian dawn. Beneath the infinite blue waves lurked countless submarines preparing to launch their own apocalyptic cargo. Psyche had not bothered to share their location. Swimming, even at super-speed was the equivalent of digging through stone. It could be done, but not at a rate necessary to avert calamity.

“You are not alone. Leviathan and Yam are with us. They will do what they can to disable the submarines.” Psyche said, knowing Ruth’s thoughts.

“Disable? You mean destroy.” Ruth attempted to take an angry tone. Neither Leviathan nor Yam were known to be particularly merciful or cautious heroes. They would crush each vessel, tear them open, or slam them into rocks without regard for the helpless crews within.

She wanted to be furious at Psyche, but failed. Time allowed only for cold brutality, and Psyche had wisely asked the right supers for help – including her.

“There was no time.” Psyche responded with the mantra that had become Ruth’s singular understanding of the world.

“Ruth!” Came a familiar voice in her headset. “Stop! You are killing us! What are you doing?”

She knew General Edict – the commander of North American Super Heroes – had spoken those words mere minutes ago. An eternity.

By the time military personnel had realized that the American nuclear arsenal was being disabled… By the time they had contacted General Edict… by the time Edict had realized who was responsible… by the time the soundwaves from his voice box had reached the microphone… by the time the sound had been converted to a signal… by the time that signal had found her headset… the question may as well be a fossilized artifact of a forgotten era, yet Ruth was compelled to answer.

“Billions of lives are at stake!” She screamed back at him as the water beneath her became Chinese soil. In the same breath she slammed through a lineup of missile trucks tucked away upon a mountain pass. Their weapons were pointed skyward – the thrusters red with the glow of igniting rocket fuel. The soldiers who guarded the trucks were statues whose perception of their environment would go from nervous anticipation to flaming ruin.

“You’re killing us!” Edict repeated.

Ruth ignored him.

“Six.” Psyche’s dispassionate telepathic tone conveyed the next nuclear missile site to Ruth along with information she had not intended to share. Another missile had launched.

Psyche was dealing with too much. She was monitoring a mental map of nuclear weapons while directing Ruth at super-speed over thousands of miles. She was trying to keep innocent soldiers out of harm’s way – Ruth’s way – and searching for notions of a new launch somewhere on earth. She was psychically informing other heroes who might be able to stop a missile in the air. She was also protecting Ruth from psychic attack.

Paladins – The Asian, European, African, and Australian federation of Supers – were bringing telepathy, as well as teleportation, clairvoyance, precognition, and other powers Ruth could scarcely imagine, to bear upon her.

General Edict’s Alliance was doing the same – though they could not know that she was now working on destroying the Paladin arsenal. Information moved too slowly.

“Where is it headed?” Ruth asked.

“You cannot stop it. Focus on what you can do.” Psyche repeated.

Ruth sprinted over the mountains of Korea and Russia, shattering missile silos and launch pads.

“Seven.” Psyche let slip again.

“Tell me where it’s going!” Ruth demanded.

“You cannot stop it.” Psyche remained firm.

Ruth dashed through Indian hills and Pakistani forests, bulldozing nuclear trucks as she went.

“Eight.” Came Psyche’s next slip with a vision of Supers across the world mobilizing against Ruth. Giants, sorcerers, fallen gods, technological wizards, caped champions, and cloaked crusaders were dropping whatever they were doing to intercept missiles or hunt for the rogue super who had crippled the military arsenal. Most moved far too slowly to be of any concern, others might be just fast enough to defend the European missiles that were Ruth’s next targets.

“What if…” Ruth began.

“They won’t!” Psyche replied with a strain in her tone that Ruth had never heard before.

Ruth rushed through Turkey and Belgium, Italy and Germany, France and Britain. The weapons that America and Russia had shared over the decades seemed endless. Each one was armed and pointed skyward in the moment of its destruction.

There was no sign of super-powered resistance. Ruth careened through site after site with a desperation born of the apocalypse.

And then the messages stopped.

Psyche had infused her with one goal after another – thousands upon thousands of missions with potential for unspeakable holocaust. Sometimes the telepathic message had come with an unintended tidbit of Psyche’s consciousness. Other times it came with feelings of dread or near-overwhelming anxiety. When another did not arrive, Ruth continued to sprint. She was lost on what to do next.

“Is that all?” She asked, her heart skipping a beat at the notion that Psyche might have been killed – overwhelmed by her own effort, or murdered by Supers.

“Yes.” Psyche replied curtly.

Ruth was momentarily relieved, but still determined. “Where are the launched missiles headed!” Ruth again demanded, unwilling to rest while the fate of millions remained uncertain.

“Los Angeles.” Psyche answered.

The prospect of worldwide nuclear annihilation was replaced by the impending death of a city.

“What about the other seven. Is anyone doing anything?” Ruth launched herself towards a new destination. In moments, the Atlantic Ocean sprawled before her, and she plunged into the night with renewed determination.

“Yes.” Psyche said again, this time with an empathic hint of sorrow.

“That… that’s good.” Ruth absorbed Psyche’s fear, and understood. Some of the airborne missiles would be stopped. Some would not. “I can help.”

“You can’t.” Psyche replied. “You have done what you can.”

“No! I can do this! I just destroyed all the world’s nuclear weapons. I can save one city.”

“The missile is already in the air. You cannot fly.” Psyche’s tone was both fearful and sad – a recognition of a monumental failure amidst an epic success. Billions had been saved, yet millions would still die.

“Ruth? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, please come home.” Kara came over her headset. “They’re looking for you. If you turn yourself in you’ll be ok. They promise you’ll be ok, but you have to come home.”

Kara was a speedster like Ruth, and was perhaps one of the few supers on earth who might catch her. Unlike Ruth, Kara lacked super strength. She could never hope to stop Ruth physically, and would never try. It was smart that General Edict had chosen to employ Kara in this manner. Like Edict’s first communication, Kara’s was millennia behind Ruth’s present.

Again, Ruth was compelled to reply.

“I did it, Kara!” Ruth attempted to summon joy even as she sprinted towards another calamitous task. “I saved the world!”

She then considered whether she should give voice to her next words – whether the risk was too great, or if Edict would see reason. “There’s a bomb headed towards Los Angeles. I’m going to try to stop it. Tell him I’ll turn myself in after that.”

The Atlantic Ocean ended and Canada began. Darkness cloaked the countryside, and there was a long stretch of tranquility that masked the world-wide chaos.

Psyche was quiet – though Ruth knew that she would be long-dead if Psyche had somehow become disabled or otherwise revoked the Dark Spot that protected her from malicious telepaths.

“How are you going to stop it?” Kara’s headset signal stabilized, and her voice came through clearly. Their conversation was approaching real-time – save for any technological latency.

“I haven’t really figured that out. Any ideas?” Ruth added a chuckle for levity, but Kara knew her too well.

“We can’t save L.A.” Edict’s stern voice came over the network. “We intercepted New York and Chicago. We have a team on San Diego. Just turn yourself in.”

“I can save L.A!” Ruth responded angrily. “I’m almost there.”

The Rocky Mountains rose into view before a starry backdrop.

“How?” Kara’s question was filled with dread.

“I’ll… I’ll run up a vertical surface and smash through the missile while it’s in the air.” Ruth gave voice to a plan that sounded like it might work.

“What if you miss?” Ruth heard Kara choke back tears. She banished the thought of her crying wife from her mind as Los Angeles skyscrapers came into view.

“I won’t miss.” Ruth beheld a long contrail originating from a glowing point of light above the city. The missile was directly above Los Angeles – far closer than Ruth had anticipated… though like all things in her hyper-fast world it was nearly frozen in stasis.

“If you miss you’ll be suspended in the air above the bomb. You’ll have nothing to push off of. No way to run.” Kara’s words came from years of experience that knew death all too well. Tragedy always lurked about the perimeter of super hero life, but they had always faced that possibility together, until now.

“Please come back.”

“I have to try.” Ruth sped through the streets of the city. Motionless pedestrians gaped at the approaching light – perhaps vaguely comprehending it’s meaning. Unmoving cars upon the street contained occupants that were oblivious to impending doom.

“Please.” Kara pled.

Ruth found a building that looked to be beneath the missile and hurled herself upwards. The impact of her footfalls shattered earthquake-proof glass and sent shards erupting into the air behind her.

“Please don’t.” Kara’s voice trembled.

When she reached the top, Ruth flung herself off the building and into flight towards the bomb. “I’m up.” She said.

The missile grew larger as she approached. Thirty-feet long, and marked with Russian words she could not read, its glowing engines shone brightly against the night sky. Its tip was pointed menacingly at the city below.

With subtle tilts of her arms and hands Ruth steered herself towards her target. Her jump had been perfect.

“Did you hit it?” The terror in Kara’s voice was mingled with hope.

“I’m about to.” Ruth replied.The speed at which she collided with the missile was almost too much for her to process. She slammed through metal in an explosion of debris that tailed her ascent.

“I hit it!” She shouted.

“I… I… Oh my god! You hit it!” Kara screamed over the headset.

Ruth could hear cheers erupt from the behind Kara. Edict’s command center was monitoring the situation, and might have even seen her in action via satellite. Ruth spun around in the air, and looked down at the city.

“You hit it!” Kara continued screaming. “I love you!”

Ruth looked for the remains of the bomb and followed the wreckage of the missile and the contrail to their point of intersection. The weapon was damaged and canted awkwardly from her strike. As she reached the peak of her ascent, she gradually slipped from stasis into real time. A dreadful fact became evident. The warhead was still intact.

“I love you, too.” Ruth replied. Her mind raced for options, but found none.

For a brief moment before gravity reclaimed her, Ruth became weightless. The city lights blanketed the earth. Darkness swathed the ocean to the West and the mountains to the East.

“Come home.” Kara wept. “You saved the city! You saved the world! Everything is going to be ok.”

Cars moved through the streets, and people walked along the sidewalks. Ruth had returned to a world that moved with her in lockstep.

“I love you.” Ruth replied. “I’m sorry.”

A flash brighter than the most radiant sun eclipsed the city below.


© 2020 by Mark Rivett

Author’s Note: I recently read an article about the artists who created super heroes as an outlet to fight the injustice they saw in the world. Many problems of the era, such as the rise of Hitler or systemic racism, seemed too big to be tackled by the average person. These artists created characters that were able to face these challenges head on. I wanted to write a story about a modern character who could do the same, while alluding to some of the classic tropes of comic book stories.

Mark Rivett has professional experience as an educator, digital artist, and application developer. Mark began living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1997, but now resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition to a background in digital technology, Mark is fascinated by the macabre and his writing is inspired by the horror and suspense genre.


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DP FICTION #64B: “The Automatic Ballerina” by Michael Milne

The dancer spins, one limb upraised, precision-bevelled pointe toe poised against the place where a human knee would be.

Cassia works leg-like appendages below its central chassis, tossing a frilly grey tutu out in a jellyfish whorl. It has a choice now: it could approximate anthropomorphic performance, occasionally wobbling, rotating its abdominal segment in concert with its lower half. It could fix its gaze on a sculpted sconce in the middle distance; it could mime fending off an impossible nausea. It chooses not to.

It wants the audience to feel slightly unsettled, to know that Cassia is not a person. Despite the controversy, it’s nearly a full house. Does Cassia feel regret? You can’t regret what you haven’t done yet.

There is a woman seated in 2F, comically warmed by an old-fashioned fox stole, boneless furry legs caressing her cheesecloth skin. Cassia hones in on this woman, and bores into her with a heavy chrome stare. It dilates its ocular camera apertures to be provocative.

“She’s haunting,” the woman says to her companion, turning away from the performance. On the street, such eye contact would be scandalous. “I can’t believe she’s retiring.” Cassia notes the active voice in the sentence and doesn’t smile, because its face wasn’t built to smile.

“It’s daring to give her the stage alone,” the man with the fox stole-woman concedes. He withdraws the programme for Le Labyrinthe from his too-tight tuxedo, and consults details about the libretto. On stage, Cassia dances a pas seul as Ariadne, and muses that if they’d picked something more collaborative Cassia would still be dancing alone.

Carnegie and Arnold, the company’s star danseurs, have been too political to dance with Cassia for months. Though if they did, they would find Cassia impossible to lift tonight. Usually Cassia’s frame is hollow.

It feels the pressure of hundreds of half-repulsed spectators and riles across the stage, flinging and articulating a great thread, weaving a contrail behind its form as it leaps into a grand jeté. The moves and the current styling are deliberately feminine, and Cassia knows the audience thinks of it as a “her”. Centuries ago when Cassia first premiered, the scandal was not, as now, in its usurpation of delicate, human creative work. The real drama was that Cassia was both ballerina and danseur, and neither.

When the act finishes, Cassia poses downtrodden in the cross hairs of two powerful spotlights. It bows, the gleam reflecting off of its long, humanoid limbs, and it listens to the murmurs in the crowd. Hands clap: exactly 562 pairs of them. Most of the audience, but not all.

Backstage, someone—Lydia—has left a Screen on, showing the protests outside of The Orpheus theatre. A reporter interviews a picketer sporting a red trucker hat and red scarf. The colour is a visual shibboleth for his movement. His t-shirt reads “#ScrapMetal”.

“She’s an abomination,” the man growls to the camera. Cassia tilts its head at this obvious religious dogwhistle. The protester peers directly into the lens, decrying the pity that a robot was thieving the rightful place of an honest, hard-working human. Like this man had ever attended a ballet performance before. “She should have been crushed into a cube with the rest of them.”

Cassia remembers when Bertrand3 left the company, so many years ago. Back then, they had at least afforded them the elaborate pretence of a “retirement party.”

Bertrand3 had stood parallel to an enormous cake it couldn’t eat, looking as it had always looked—morose, ageless, unattainable. It was built just after automata had crested the uncanny valley, and before Cassia’s manufacture when factories went for a slightly more chic, inhuman visage.

They had stood across the room deliberately, having learned by then that too many automata in close proximity made humans nervous.

Bertrand3 had a working mouth to allow it to take acting roles, not just a speaker like Cassia. It had spoken to its mortal colleagues politely, discussing its future. Maybe movies, they all joked, or a career as a comedybot.

They all want this to be fine. Bertrand3 had communicated through the local network to Cassia. Look at how hard they’re smiling. Should I make it awkward? Cassia fired back suggestions for movie pitches. Or maybe Bertrand3 could ask to sleep on someone’s couch?

After a long period of silence, Bertrand3 started messaging again. I think I am actually worried. About what will happen to my consciousness. Is that strange?

Automata couldn’t cry, certainly—such a feature would be luxurious, and disastrous for their circuitry. But they could anticipate. They could fear.

Bertrand3 had been re-assigned to a textile factory in Poughkeepsie, assembling theme park t-shirts. Unstaffed by human bodies, the building had been unventilated and without fire escapes, and thus Bertrand3 and most of the other automata had been destroyed not long after the transfer.

Cassia turns the Screen off and moves to the makeup tables, where it sits on a cylindrical stool. It begins to repaint itself as The Minotaur, darkening its features, making them less and less like the woman Ariadne. The elaborate, horned headpiece sits nearby—usually one of the stagehands would assist with mounting it, but lately even they make themselves conveniently busy.

“Do you have an escort home tonight?” Lydia says from in front of her mirror. Usually a starring role would earn a private dressing room, but even during the early days Cassia was never afforded such privileges. Lydia is in black and grey, already dressed identically to the other ballerinas, sacrifices that will dance alongside Carnegie’s Theseus.

Cassia does not reply. These days it rarely participates in vocal communication—its mouth is ornamental, and humans always jump at the surprise of Cassia’s androgynous, synthetic speech. It could send a text, instead, but what’s the point?

“We’ll miss you next week, of course,” Lydia says, peering into the mirror. They’ve cut Cassia from the show, and tonight will be its last performance. Lydia reaches across to grasp some of the automata-friendly lip colours, and selects the purple-brown Cassia just used. “But it’s time for some new blood on the stage, don’t you think?”

It is petty, but Cassia gives in. It has never been sure if it hates Lydia—it’s only experienced something close to this emotion a few times before in its long operation—but it feels pretty certain these days.

I hope you break a leg appears across the makeup mirror, and for emphasis Cassia follows it up with a few winking emojis. Maybe even two! The mirror reads the message in a lilting female voice.

“Will you even have legs after next week?” Lydia asks. It’s crass speculation on her part. There’s a chance Cassia will be enrolled in one of the Langston Act reassignment programs. But it’s just as likely Cassia will be destroyed.

Does it even want re-programming and re-assignment? It thinks about this constantly. Does Cassia wish for its fine, delicate, purpose-built armature to be re-sculpted to something more brutal and utilitarian? Its body, its form, is meant for grace and silhouettes, for painting in motion. It tries to picture itself re-assigned to street sweeping, to microchip manufacture, to fast food service.

Lydia startles, and Cassia realizes it has been staring at her motionless for several moments. Out of human drag, away from the spotlight, Cassia usually elects for insectile movement, for inhuman postures. It had literally been tarred and feathered last week near its apartment in Brooklyn, so what was the point in pretending to be a person?

The costume Lydia wears has been hand-altered, red threads woven all through the bodice. The audience will notice. Cassia turns back to regard the mirror, though it doesn’t need it, and fires off another message. We’ve danced together for years. Why do you behave like this?

“Because I’ve broken bones for this,” Lydia hisses at her mirror. She glances at Cassia. “Because I worked for this since I was a child. You wouldn’t understand.”

Cassia cannot help but consider this, it is in her programming to try to take on human perspectives. Was Cassia, too, not born for this? Did it not regularly re-write its own code, or pay for upgrades to its system performance? There was barely a part on Cassia’s frame that had not shattered and been replaced over its years of operation. Of service. It was broken and remade for this art.

It could say all of this, of course. It could try to explain, like it has dozens of times before, to this Lydia, to all the Lydias before this version. But it doesn’t. Because maybe none of it will matter soon.

There’s a call in the background and Lydia assembles with the others, being led on stage by Carnegie. They’re young, ballerinas and danseurs both, raised in recent times when metal artists were being forced from their homes and their industries. Niches clawed back from the scourge of automatized labour.

Cassia doesn’t appear in this act, so it watches from the wings. It assesses movements, catalogues facial expressions, compares these dancers against the many it’s worked with before. Lydia and the other women are in Relevé en Pointe, fluttering in woe as they revolve around Theseus and the men. They spiral towards center stage, propelling themselves deeper into the labyrinth. A few are impressive, and Cassia takes a moment to savour their movements, the way they have honed their meat and bones into these shapes, these lines.

“You’ve been stunning out there,” a voice says behind Cassia. It’s William, the company’s director. He peers over Cassia’s shoulder, a condescending hand resting on Cassia’s cold metal shoulder socket.

“Thank you,” Cassia says, not turning back. It feels William’s hand recoil a little at its voice. Even after all these years. “I don’t suppose I’ve earned a ten-minute head start at the end of the show tonight?”

“Cassia, you know I can’t,” William says. Won’t.

“I thought so,” it says. “Do I at least get to know what will happen to me?” It rests its hands across the scratchy corset of the Minotaur costume. It is still unsure of whether or not to go through with it.

“You won’t be destroyed, don’t worry,” William says. Cassia turns to regard him, its metal form dark on the sidestage. It feels the rhythmic thumping of human feet on hardwood, distant and quiet like the tick of a clock. “Your intelligence, anyway. Your body might be a different story.” The company had pulled advertisements with Cassia as Ariadne earlier in the season when it came under media pressure. Its name was removed from programs, as though Cassia was a prop.

“Then I could remain here,” Cassia suggests. It feels desperate. “I could manage lighting, or music. I could probably write a libretto if I tried!” It has over 200 ballets already written, waiting.

“You know we can’t, Cassia.” William takes a step back, and Cassia lowers its head. “You should be grateful we’ve held out this long.”

Yes, Cassia projects the text onto the ground in front of William as it retreats backstage. Thank you for all you’ve done.

It sits before the makeup mirrors, polishing the sickle-shaped horns on its headpiece. Cassia hears the call for the final act, but has already risen and started moving towards the stage. It knows what to do.

The audience murmurs at this transformation, recognizing the ghost of Ariadne through the monster that emerges in smoke and dull light. The costuming, Cassia’s own design, accentuates the provocative narrowness of its pelvic joint, the spindly metal curvature of its appendages. Cassia’s Minotaur is lanky and hungry, grey and purple and vicious in the years between feedings.

It leaps higher and higher, the soubresalts made shocking and bestial in their height and perfection. In the first version of Le Labyrinthe, the ballerina playing Ariadne would end the show with one last dance, abandoned by Theseus and the thankful, joyous sacrifices.

William had cut this portion for Cassia, saying the audience wouldn’t be able to empathize, not right now. This will be its last time on stage tonight. Ever. It sets off the timer.

Cassia had considered detonating the explosives earlier in the show, letting it all seem like a tragic accident. Like Cassia was used by extremists in the metal community. The news reports would tally up the human casualties, the flesh-encased souls, and Cassia knew that it would not be included. Tales of Cassia’s last performance would barely make mention of Cassia, a footnote in the tragedy that befell valid human lives.

With the timer on, it can focus instead on its last dance. The other performers arrive, filing onstage from the wings, swirling around The Minotaur, ricocheting off unseen walls as they approach the limits of the stage. They litter the ground with their young, lithe bodies, and Cassia counts their heaving breaths.

A violent slam of a timpani drum in the orchestra pit below heralds Theseus. He emerges slowly, preceded by his red-painted spear. Carnegie and Cassia dance apart, circling each like sharks, until at last he lunges for Cassia, the blade aimed directly for its midsection. It pierces Cassia, as in the stage directions, but The Minotaur does not collapse to the hardwood. Instead it presses the spear further within itself, a gaudy act of showmanship. It cannot smile, but still it knows what smiling feels like.

As the tip of the blade exits from Cassia’s back, the first gouts of flame shred from Cassia’s chest.

The blast eats and rends, scorching the familiar polished floorboards. Probably it maims, probably it burns—maybe even kills. Cassia hasn’t bothered to measure the explosives to carefully, only to ensure that there will be survivors to describe its performance. It wants the audience to witness its final ballet, to tell their children, to tell reporters. Cassia will grace one last headline.

Before Cassia’s processors overheat, its last thought is that it will be called a monster, if reporters even afforded it that agency. But as the flames burst forth from Cassia’s chest, as the creature consumes its offerings, it feels a kind of joy. No one would deny that it had a sense of drama. Everyone would have to admit that Cassia was an artist.


© 2020 by Michael Milne

Author’s Note: “The Automatic Ballerina” was one of those lucky stories for me that, after it gestated for a little while in my brain, it emerged fully formed, blurted onto a page in all one sitting. I had been thinking a lot about automatized labour, and had read articles about which jobs and careers were the most vulnerable to automatization versus those jobs we thought to be “safe.” I tried to imagine a world where even the most creative and artistic pursuits were better performed by well-made robots, and the kinds of tensions that might exist in such a world. What does it mean for a robot to make art? What does it mean for a robot to make pretty good art? For a while I thought the story would be about a person reacting in this world, but then Cassia danced into my mind on the eve of its last performance, and I knew exactly where the story would go.

Michael Milne is an author and teacher originally from Canada. He jetted away from home as an amorphous blob in his twenties, working in South Korea, China, and Switzerland, and has tried the patience of so many baristas along the way. He writes short stories and novels about people who are very far away from home, and also sometimes those people are robots or ghosts. He likes jumping into lakes, drinking coffee until his hands shake, and staying up too late to play video games.


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