The Black Choir

Here’s a short that just never really found purchase with any magazine. It’s a dark fantasy piece about loss, family, hope, and what happens when that hope turns dark. Enjoy.

 

Qoth hated the sound the dead men made. He scuffled his feet in the dust and stone of the yard between buildings, the creak of the Wheel drowning out his meager noise. Frustrated, he sighed and looked up, the Wheel filling his vision. It was a massive contraption of solid oak boards, pegs running its circumference. Each of the pegs held a noose, though only one was occupied at the moment, and the boards underneath the nooses were stained deep brown and yellow, remains of the men condemned there. The man currently attached to a noose made thick gagging sounds as the Wheel turned, almost matching the pitch of the bearings that smoothed its motion. His feet kicked, the black hood billowing in and out over his mouth as he struggled to breathe.

Qoth shuddered, the sight still hard to see after so many years. He wondered which sadist cum mystic had first thought of the Wheel, the idea that dying men might, in their last desperate moments between life and death, gasp out visions from the other side. The Wheel turned another click, and the man in the noose sucked in a breath, then keened it out as his trachea was pinched, the sound like a fleshy teakettle. The boards beneath him took on a darker hue, the contents of his bowels spilling into his trousers and soaking through, and red-robed seers and the motley collection of peasants leaned in close.

This was it. This was the moment of prognostication. Or bullshite. The talkers that actually broke through on the Wheel tended to mutter incomprehensible trite, a fact that never bothered the seers as they carefully recorded each word and frenetically pored over every syllable afterwards – at least until the next poor cutter was hung. Qoth wasn’t sure what they intended to learn. The gods were mute, blind, and deaf as far as he was concerned. He knew. He had once been a priest, a man of Atiesh. At least until the pox caught his family in its black grip.

The square drew quiet and Qoth glanced at the Wheel. It had reached its apex and stopped, the man on it hanging at the noon position. A slight breeze stirred, rippling the hood over his head and then, a voice, creaking like branches in the wind, spoke.

Ashen hearts

Lost and black

Do not

Grow old

Family calls

From Winter’s halls

And swollen tongues”

The last came as a strangled whisper, hard to hear, and yet the words reached Qoth’s ears anyway. The fabric of the hood darkened as blood gouted from the cutter’s split throat. Qoth looked away even as the seers pressed in, urging their scribes to write faster. The peasants were already turning away, and Qoth joined them, heading in the general direction of the warden’s office. There, they would have a wagon and the body. There, the dead would be still, and his work could start.

*

Qoth watched a spider crawling in a corner of the room, rolling something wrapped in webbing ahead of itself. The spider rolled the ball up the wall and affixed it with a strap of web. That done, it crawled into the center of its web to wait. Qoth thought that was the envious life – eat, mate, and sleep. He wondered how things would be different if he had never met Irina, if they had never had Iliana. Would he have turned down a different path, been more like that spider, perhaps? Would he even now, be lounging in a sitte den? Would he maybe even be a predator, waiting in the alleys and warrens of the city for his next prey? He didn’t know. Because he was what he was. As he had been, because of Irina. Because of Atiesh.

The warden that approached him was short and thick, a tree stump of a man who wore the typical leather and steel of the wardens, a dagger at each hip, and a small crossbow on his back. He cleared his throat when Qoth didn’t look up right away.

“Body’s ready.”

“Thank you.” Qoth stood to go, heading toward the door in the back that would lead to the small yard and the wagon with the body.

The warden gave him a look, one eye squinted. “What do you do with ’em anyway?”

Qoth shrugged. “All things served Atiesh in their time. Perhaps they will serve his soul in the afterlife as well.”

“Better you than me.”

Despite the fracturing of his faith, Qoth knew that the proper application of a platitude, or the appearance of a man sweeping the steps of his temple kept most from questioning him, especially if he had kept that temple shuttered for some time. Some viewed him as eccentric, others necessary – handlers of the dead were rare in an age of superstition – even if everyone knew his faith had collapsed.

Qoth spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I do what I must.”

The warden grunted, and handed Qoth a sliver of steel. It was meager payment, but it would do. Qoth slipped it into his vest and left the room as the warden busied himself at a small desk with a pile of parchment and a quill. Outside, the sun was still and hot overhead, and the yard here as dusty as it had been in the Wheel’s square. A small row of tarps lay against one side of the building in shadow, the bodies beneath waiting purification from the surgeon inside. Behind them, a wooden cart, handles long enough for a man to step between, stood with another piece of canvas covering it. Qoth approached and situated himself between the wooden poles, grasping one in each hand. With a grunt, he kicked off, and the wagon began to roll behind him. He maneuvered it into the street and down the hill, keeping to one side of the road. As he went, men and women avoided him. Death was commonplace in the city, but no one liked to be reminded of it. Heedless, he continued on.

*

His mind drifted. It was a bit of a trot to his temple, and between the weight of the cart and the sun overhead, he wanted only to occupy his thoughts with anything other than the heat and the labor.

“What do you desire?”

They were curled up in their bed, a great goose down mattress under them – a gift from the parishioners. Irina snuggled in next to him, her nose and lips against his neck, sending thrills through his chest. He shifted a bit, and looked at her, nestled in the crook of his arm.

“You.”

She smiled, and her hand traced the hair on his chest.

“And you, my succubus?”

She lowered her lids and the corners of her mouth curled up, mischief shining in her eyes. “This.” She rolled herself onto him and pushed off his chest until she was straddling him. He watched the muscles in her arms and belly, the inward pucker of her belly button. He grinned back at her and opened his mouth, thinking to quip at her. She leaned in, her hair falling around him like a curtain, and her lips found his. They were soft, and tasted of strawberry and wax. He closed his eyes, and-

“Watch it, you gobshite!”

Qoth blinked away the memory and stopped. A man was pacing away, gesturing, his fingers held up in a vee, muttering curses as he went.

“Forgive me, sir,” he muttered, then sighed, and continued on his way.

*

The body was starting to stink. The heat wasn’t helping things, but it wasn’t like winter, when you could pack the dead with ice and snow and dally for hours before the first signs of bloating appeared. Qoth stopped and walked to the back of the wagon, lifting the sheet that covered the man. He was an odd blue-yellow, the whites of his eyes shot to blood, his tongue protruding at an angle. Livid bruises surrounded his throat, and a rend in the flesh by the man’s voice box was puckered like overripe fruit that had burst. Qoth poked the naked skin of the man, and it took a moment for the dent to recover. Bloating had already set in. He’d have to hurry. He picked up the handles of the cart and began to move faster, trotting a little to set a quick pace. After a while, his mind drifted again, and he forgot the stink.

“I feel like a yak.”

“You look much better than a yak.”

Qoth curled his arm around Irina’s swollen belly and pulled her close, his lips finding her neck. She swatted him away, laughing, and stood.

“That’s how we got in this situation in the first place, you great horny goat.”

He chuckled and watched her as she tooled around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and setting a kettle over the fire.

“Will you do the meat?”

“Will you do the meat?” he asked.

She shot a look over her shoulder, and he joined her at the table, pulling a thick shank of beef from its paper, then a knife from the block. He set to work removing the fat and slicing it into thin strips for the stew. As they worked Irina began to hum. Qoth joined her.

“Miss Manner

So proper

Lift your skirt

But mind the copper

Mister Hammer

So randy

Drop your trousers

Mind your dandy”

They burst into laughter, and laughter became tears as they fed each other’s good humor. Qoth looked at his wife, smiling, her eyes wet, and his heart ached.

The shadow of the Spire fell over Qoth, and he stopped the cart for a moment, glad to be from under the sun’s thumb. He stood that way for a time, wiping sweat from his brow, letting his heart ache. Atiesh would have approved. Through grief, joy. Through joy, service.

He waited until he had his breath back, and tears no longer stung the corners of his eyes, and moved on.

*

He was close. Qoth had entered the warren where his little temple stood. Small homes and hovels stood side by side, often wall to wall, their graying stone and rough wood competing for every inch of space. Once, this had been the heart of the city. But as the city grew, the warren was left behind. As are all things, Qoth thought. He thought again of how Atiesh had abandoned him. How he had run, desperate and mad with fear, from temple to temple, begging anyone – any god – to help him, and how he had been met with silence. His faith and family had died that day. It took him a long time – a year, maybe more – it all blended in the end. Finally, he had taken up care for the dead. Someone had to do it. Someone had to let the families of the lost know their loss was not in vain.

He rounded a corner, and saw the chemist’s shop. Memory flooded in again.

“Please, I need wort for my family!”

“Seven shims.”

“I don’t – look, when your sister was ill, who brought her soup every day? Irina. You were at Iliana’s baptism – this is a community, for gods’ sake!”

The chemist looked at him. “Wort is expensive, preacher. I’ve got a family, too.”

“Then loan it to me – you know I’ll pay when alms come in!”

The chemist shook his head. “I cannot. Please go before I call the wardens.”

Qoth let out a strangled cry and turned, fleeing from the door. He ran the distance home. He’d left them alone too long. He burst into his home, but it was too late. His daughter – Iliana, who had only been two summers, who he had sang lullabies to when the moon was just growing in the sky – lay in her crib, still as a stone. Grief constricted his heart, and he managed to stagger to the bedroom he shared with Irina. He stopped in the doorway, a scream escaping his lips. Only flies moved in the room, her eyes frozen to the ceiling. He’d fallen then, on his knees, and begged for the gift of resurrection. For the ear of a god – any god – to numb him, to take him, too. No answer came. No quarter was given for the grief he felt.

In the end, he had decided if he could no longer do for the gods or the living, he would find solace in the dead. That was where his family was, that was where he should be, or at least he thought. Yet every time he held the knife to his breast, fear stayed his hand. So, he collected the dead. He studied each one. And he made use of them, for the day he would be brave enough to join his family.

Not this day. Maybe not the next. But one day, surely.

*

Qoth rounded another corner, and the temple was before him. It was a small thing, clapboard and brick, with a steepled roof and the symbol of Atiesh – an open hand – on the peak. He aimed the cart for the back of the temple. He’d kept the place because it was perfect for his work. Being a religious institution, it was somewhat secluded from the bustle of buildings shoving each other for room in the warren. It had ample room on either side, and a spacious cemetery in the back. He reached the fence surrounding the cemetary, and dragged the cart in, then shut the gate behind him. That done, he dropped the handles and made his footsore way into the rear of the temple, where his living quarters were.

It was simple inside, a small living area, a kitchen, and a bedroom. Behind the temple stood a small water closet. The church had a little money for luxuries, usually reserved for promising students, and before they had installed him as preacher here, they had enchanted a pipe above the sink. It brought him warm but clean water from the well, saving him some work pumping. He touched it and a stream started, trickling into the basin. Qoth ran his hands under the water, watching it come away muddy as the dust was stripped from his skin. Next, he splashed his face, washing away more of the silt and sweat that seemed to make up so much of the city.

He touched the pipe again and made his way to the living area. He sat on a small chair and looked around, listening to the buzz of flies and the drip of water. A slow throb in his feet signaled a sleepless night, but it would be that anyway. He had work to do. He stood again and took down his knife, a simple sturdy blade, made for this kind of work, and went to the yard. He uncovered the body, the smell strong, but not overpowering. Someone had forgotten to close the dead man’s eyes, and he stared to the heavens. Too bad there’s not much to see there, Qoth thought, and got to work.

*

He dragged the body into the chapel proper. Two hundred eyes stared at him. One hundred mouths hung open, their muscles slack. It was a side effect of the words he’d carved into their chests. Calach – speak. Menoch – see. It had taken him some time to gather the bodies, each a hanged man from the Wheel. This one he pulled to an open spot on the wall, beside Irina. Her eyes saw nothing, and her lips were still, yet he felt as if she’d approve. He hoisted the body and nailed it in place with a steady hammering – spikes through the wrists and ankles. When he was done, he sat back, sweating. The bodies formed an unbroken chain that covered the walls and ceiling of the chapel, a tapestry of flesh he had meticulously gathered.

It had been work, keeping the stink down. He’d had to use a small battalion of charms to keep the decay and stench to a minimum. There was nothing he could do about the flies, though. Qoth stepped back and surveyed his work. Each word carved on the dead connected to other words, but for one – Iliana. Qoth moved to her, and with shaking hands, raised the knife. He could hear her small laughter in his mind. He carved the final word. Yanoch – live.

Fire raced across the words, connecting each to each, until the room glowed with it. As one, the dead groaned, and a voice spoke. It filled Qoth’s ears, and its sweetness made his heart ache.

“My love. Bring them to me.” In a corner, a rat that had been gnawing at the toes of one of the dead men burst, a spray of gore painting the corpse’s ankles.

Qoth fell to his knees and wept.

*

The doors of the temple of Atiesh were unbarred. Qoth stood on the steps, passing out fliers, smiling and chatting with passer-bys as they went about their day. Curious, Tvent – chemist by trade – approached. Qoth pressed a flyer into his hand.

“Opening the temple again, Qoth?”

“Oh, aye, aye. Please come.”

“Found your faith again?”

“Never lost it, my good man. Now scurry along, and tell the others. The temple is taking new parishioners. You’ll want to hear this sermon.”

Tvent looked at the flyer in his hand and back to Qoth. The man’s excitement was palpable, and somewhat infectious. He walked away, and Qoth watched him go. When the flyers had been turned out to the last, he stepped into the temple, closing the door behind him. Candlelight glowed on a hundred bodies, and two hundred eyes watched as he approached Irina and stroked her cheek.

*

They came, one by one and two by two to the chapel. Families and friends, clutching the flyers he’d handed out, chattering of what it all meant. Inside, Qoth had hung tall white sheets he’d painted with scenes of family, portraits of Iliana and Irina. The congregation settled in the pews, and Qoth waited patiently for the last of the stragglers to arrive. Children darted between the rows and people chattered while passing around small cakes the local baker had made. It was a celebration, after all. A new leaf. A new life.

When they were all inside, Qoth closed the doors, and locked them. He carved a word into the chain of words around the jamb, closing the spell that would ensure nothing short of a giant’s axe could open them. He looked around, pleased. It seemed the entire warren had shown up. He took his time getting to the pulpit, stopping to greet Tvent – the man had brought his entire family – and the baker who had denied him bread more than once for fear his dough would be contaminated. Qoth smiled and shook their hands and asked after their businesses and extended family. Then he climbed the steps to the pulpit.

A low humming began in the room, and the congregation sat a little straighter, began to quiet. He took the rope in his hands that was tied to the sheets, and smiled beatifically.

“Welcome, friends. And goodbye.”

He pulled on the rope. The sheets fell. The screaming began. It did not end until the goddess he had made broke them all. When it was over, Qoth sat on the steps of the pulpit, the bodies stinking in their pews. A low humming filled the room, sweet to his ears. It was the lullaby Irina would sing to Iliana as dusk fell.

Here’s the moon

I’ll see you soon

In the land of dreams

Don’t you cry

I’ll be by

To see you in your dreams

So tell me that you love me

Love me so

And don’t you cry

I’ll be by

I’ll see you in your dreams

Qoth closed his eyes and listened, and for a moment, he saw the sun-dappled room and his wife and daughter, side by side in the big chair, their heads pressed together as she sang.

Kudzu in Silence

The barbarian tribes that fled from the icy northern corridors had named him when the first of the green things took their flesh and fed on it, verdant life thriving on carmine vitality. Krieg. It was a fitting name, brutish and short in their language, the glottal stop hard on throats burned with spore and bitter liquid from the trees they tapped for water. They sat around their camps and heard it in the buzz of flies in the soft decay of the greenery and other, wetter things. The vines that strangled their children in cribs fashioned from leaf and branch spelled it out in twisting sign. It was there in the sound of rain pounding the broad leaves of the canopy, KriegKriegKriegKrieg. He was the whisper and the shout, the choke and the crush. He was pervasive and insidious, and now, he was perplexed.

Behind the veil of flies, beneath a crown of wizened thorns, his brow wrinkled. He stared at the child in confusion. She was small, curly hair spiraling out from her scalp in a whirlwind, her gaze fierce. For all her size, she held herself as someone not to trifle with. She leaned back on the mat of vines she had co-opted, shooing the scuttering and slithering things away.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice like the sound of kudzu in silence.

He had no recollection of her entering, none of her sitting. She simply seemed to be, and it was disconcerting, even for a thing like himself. She tilted her head to one side and tipped the end of the staff she held toward him. For a moment, she looked older than her few years, though he dismissed it as a trick of the light, chiaroscuro deepening lines and shading flesh until she looked a woman.

“Your end.” It was a statement, said plain and clear in the dark of that place, and not for a moment did Krieg believe it. This was flesh, pink and soft and warm. His was the cold of the night, the dark of the cave, the heat of venom. He relaxed into his throne, the black wood creaking under his weight, and smiled behind his veil. He would entertain her. It had been so long since anyone had visited. So long since the last of the beasts had bent the knee at his foot, since the green had consumed his thought and action. He thought maybe he would entertain this small pink thing, and in return, perhaps she would entertain him. He let her words hang in the air, and when he didn’t reply, she went on.

“Would you like to hear a story, Eater?”

He flinched at the name. Though he held no love for the fleshlings that had found their way to his jungle, their hatred still stung. Eater was their way of deriding him, of reducing him to a maw that only consumed. Mindless, small. He swallowed the rage that boiled up and raised a magnanimous hand in assent. The girl settled herself into the vines, thrusting her staff into the ground beside her. She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and spoke.

“My family was the last to come over the shelf- the place where the ice meets the warmer places of the world. We were five – mother, father, sister, brother, and myself. At my birth, the ice was close, but not too close. It hovered on the edge of our village, but there was still room for us to move, to get to the caribou and rabbit and fill our larders. That year, the ice had moved a few feet closer, but it seemed a warm summer. My parents named me Elysh, ‘hope’ in the language of our people. There’s a unique cruelty in that – naming a child something that means nothing in a broken world. The ice claimed my brother that winter. He was out tracking rabbits. He didn’t come back.”

A spark of envy lit in Krieg’s chest. Death was his demesne. The right to pluck life, pink and squalling from the green and crush it. A question formed on his lips.

“Who is your god?”

She paused. “Was. Rhyn, the White. The Cold Knife.”

“Was?”

“Even the ice took him, in time.”

Satisfaction rose in Krieg’s chest, replacing the envy. Hubris was unfortunate, but necessary to survival for those who knew its signs. It was an abject lesson in the ways of men and gods—become comfortable, become complacent, and you soon found that power turning inward, eating, chewing at bone and sinew until it reached your heart and stopped it cold. He would do neither. These pink things, these scaled and green things, obeyed. They feared. They trembled on the cold fringes of night. As they should. He raised his hand again, indicating she should go on.

“When we saw the fringes of the jungle, we rejoiced. Here was shelter from the dead brown lands between the shelf and the sea. Here was life, abundant. Here was survival and warmth,” she spat, and Krieg tasted it through the vines. Salty, thick. He wondered if she would be enough to feed his vines when she finished.

“And what did you find, little one?”

“More death. Our father was next. He climbed a tree to pull at the gourds there—great yellow things with thick shells – we suspected they contained perhaps meat or water. Instead, a thousand stinging bodies emerged, piercing his flesh. He screamed as he fell, his body swelling with their venom, his eyes mercifully shut to the horror of impact.”

“My mother wept for four days, and in that time, my sister wandered to the edge of our camp. Something cold and slithering, something black of scale and sharp of tooth took her. She never screamed. After, my mother took her own life, cutting her own throat with a sharpened piece of flint.”

Krieg snorted. “This is less a story, and more a recounting of your unfortunate genealogy.”

It was Elysh’s turn to hold up a hand. “You wish to hear a story, or prattle on like an old man?”

The girl’s bravado impressed him. He thought it interesting to see someone so small embrace what would surely be a tragic legacy. “And how did you survive?”

“There is another story you must hear to understand mine.”

Layers on layers, like a wasp’s nest—despite himself, Krieg leaned forward in his chair, and even the black flies that swarmed and buzzed for his veil stilled while he listened.

“In my homeland, they tell the tale of Huska. When he was perhaps no older than myself, he joined a ship’s crew hoping to learn the sea, of feeding his family, and making some coin. He was young, but strong, and in his own way, clever. So, he found a home on a small vessel and set out among the fjords.

“It was three days they were at sea when the first of storms hit. Though the captain was good, he was also greedy, and hoped to fill his pockets before the frost came that season. The snow and wind blew in great gales, and ice seized the hull in a matter of hours, like the fist of Rhyn punishing a heretic. For a time, spirits were even—they had provisions and whale oil for a week. Everyone agreed to cut rations, to light the lanterns only when needed. For a time, they were fine, if cold.”

“They were there for four. The depredations that happened in that third week—Huska would not speak of them, but when the boat returned, he was at the helm, and a mass of burned bones lay in the ship’s furnace. He was hale and hearty.”

Krieg was enraptured. “What happened?”

“I heard my father ask him, when he was well into his cups. Huska looked up from his drink and shrugged. ‘Meat is meat,’ he said.”

Krieg looked at the girl, at her pink skin and full limbs. At her sharp eyes and white teeth. His hand trembled a little. This he understood, eating, devouring—but not family.

“Why are you here?” the question nearly rose to a shriek.

She tipped her staff again, and this time, he heard the slosh of liquid. He turned his gaze on it and noticed a gourd attached to the top, liquid spilling clear. It tasted oily to his vines, wicked and sharp. He willed them into action, but they lay still, perhaps in fear, perhaps poisoned.

“To end you,” she replied, again as matter-of-fact as stating that the sun was hot, or the wind chill.

She tipped her staff again, and he saw it was bone lashed to bone, long femurs held together with vine. Liquid poured from the gourd—a wasp home, he thought—and brought the sharp smell again.

“There are no whales here.”

Her statement took him off guard.

“You might ask why they didn’t use the lanterns to melt the ice. Whale blubber doesn’t burn that hot. It would have been a waste.”

She tipped the staff again.

“But this—what a gift. Something the wasps leave behind when they abandon the nest.”

She lay the staff down and the last of the liquid dripped and pooled at her feet. From her tunic she withdrew two stones and knelt. She struck them together, bringing a spark and the acrid smell of smoke. She looked up at him, and horror filled his heart. He struggled to escape his throne, but vines grown long and strong and old in his complacency held him in place. He fought, commanding them to free him, but they only slept. She struck the stones again, and a flame blossomed, and he gibbered. It was so bright. So hot.

As the flame touched them, the vines withered and smoked, and fire crept along their length, reaching blazing fingers toward his crown. He screamed and screamed again. Through the flames, he saw the girl, flesh melting like tallow from her bones, grinning.

[img: Jason Scheier]

Red in Thought and Deed

For those of you who follow the blog, I’ve collected a good bit of my short stories and novellas (35) from here in a new book, now available on Kindle and in paperback. It’s on Amazon now, and you can get it here. So, if you like stories about forgotten goddesses, WWI horror, dark fantasy, and a little comedy, among others, feel free to pick it up.

It Has Always Loved You

She’s there for you when you step from the pines, your feet wet, the soles plastered with needles, and the detritus of the forest clinging to you like flotsam in the sea. She wraps you in a towel, your skin cold and damp, the towel warm from her body heat, the nap rough against your bird’s chest and too-sharp shoulder blades. She tucks you under her arm, a mother bird taking in her fledgling, and you can feel the softness of her stomach at your elbow, her breast at your cheek. It’s one of your first memories, the forest quaking behind you like a birthing goddess, your pulse loud in your temples. She looks down and smiles and her teeth are needles, her eyes pinpricks in the black of the sky.

You shudder and wake, coming from the dream like a bird flinging itself from a cliff. You fall, fall, fall, and then – wake, the room dark, the sheets cool and wet. The desert sits patiently outside your window, the rock and dust as ignorant of the moon as they are of man. You rub your hands together, the remnants of pins and needles dancing their way across your dry skin, and you reach for the glass of water there. The warm water washes your tongue, soothes your throat, and you stare out the window, the forest superimposed for a moment over the orange and yellow. A blink makes your lids rasp across your eyes, a swallow sends your throat bobbing like a fish coming up for air.

Aimee stirs in her sleep, murmurs a word – it’s unintelligible – and shifts. The play of muscles in her shoulder, the lay of her hair, the whisper of fabric over her skin- tiny tremors in your reality, and your heart clenches, a fist of fibers in your chest. You love her. It’s not a question. Still, there is doubt. Does she love you? Of course. She’s in this bed, isn’t she? She’s still in your life. And yet the question eats at you sometimes when you lie in the dark. It happens that way, all the questions you can’t ask in the daylight tear their way around your head like a pack of hungry wolves, devouring reason and rationality.

You reach out for her, your hand hovering over her shoulder. Do you wake her? Do you pull her close in her sleep and cling? No. Your hand drops. Would she understand? You settle for another sip of water and slip back under the sheet, your back to hers. She sighs small and presses into you, her shoulders digging into yours. Contentment wraps you like a blanket for a while. You sleep.

 *

She shakes you awake – no, that’s not right. The room shakes you awake, the neat drywall vibrating on its studs. Aimee is there, and she’s shouting something you can’t hear, her lips a pantomime of concern. It’s so hot, the desert is creeping in, and oh God why did you move to Vegas? You kick off the sheets and roll off the bed, landing on all fours, but the desert refuses to let you be. The heat crawls under your skin, and you’d give anything for the cool shade of the pines and the soothing wet of leaves on your feet. A lizard skitters up the wall – not unheard of in Nevada – and stops, its head hung in a judgmental angle, its eyes burning pits, and you know the desert can see you through it. You stand and shout and wave your arms, and it scurries up and disappears into a bad join in the wall.

Then Aimee is there, and she’s holding you, and though you are so hot, you let her, because her breath on your skin, in contrast to the hot room, is cool, and her tears are a balm for your fever. Then, her words come through, and you relax, sagging back onto the bed.

“…just a dream, just a dream. Shh. Shh.”

You close your eyes and lean your head against hers, and the room is cooling, and you wonder how she could ever love you.

*

“It’s time for a vacation,” she says. Then you’re driving north past miles of hot brown wasteland, and as you go, flat rock changes. It becomes tall rock dotted with scrub and then taller rock covered with snow, and then finally, blessedly, hills covered in trees and you don’t think you’ve ever seen anything so beautiful in your life, and you know here you can make it right, the terrors will stop, and she’ll love you.

It’s several miles in, and a way from home when she asks you. “Did you miss your mother?”

You shrug, your face turned to the window, the trees throwing shade and reflection at you. If you look up, the motion of the car makes the tops look like they’re dancing, and for a moment, you’re lost in the movement, a ballet of living wood. Then she asks it again, and you have to turn to her, because if she thinks you’re ignoring her, she’ll get mean, or what you think of as mean, and you don’t want to fight, not so close to home.

“I think so,” you say.

“Tell me about her.”

An image of a clearing, a thousand trees in every direction, green boughs still wet with morning dew, the smell of pine and loam, the squish-crackle of mulch between your toes. Warmth fills your chest, and you think of the woman-but-not-woman who met you when you stumbled from between the boles, the badgers and chipmunks and robins silent for once.

You struggle for the words and settle on “She was kind.” She was, after all. Only the men who came looking, the men with their knives and guns and loud, loud dogs were not, and then only for a short time.

“Is that it?” she asks.

You shrug again and then amend it. “You’ll see. Easier to meet her.”

You turn to the forest, fleeing past your window, and the soles of your feet ache, your tongue is dry. Not long now.

*

Aimee turns the car up a dirt path, little more than a rut in the road. After a moment, she stops it, and peers at the map on her phone. Magellan lost in the weeds. Her face scrunches up, her features a fist, and you smile. It’s easier now; the closer you are to home, to know you’re loved.

“Is this right?” She turns to you and jabs a finger at the map.

You nod. “Yeah. Just keep going.” And she does. She loves you, and she trusts you, and you smile again. So close now.

The car jounces and rattles, and every little scrape, Aimee cringes and lets a hiss out between clenched teeth. “She better be a damn good cook,” she jokes.

“I’ll have to roll you out of there.”

The car rounds a curve, and the road widens out to a flat drive, packed earth and pine needles, and you’re practically vibrating, and when it crunches to a stop, you leap out, your feet skidding in the loose dirt. Aimee follows, laughing a little at your eagerness, and then the door to the home ahead opens, and a woman, plump but not too much, old but not too much, stands in the opening, her smile wide. Her teeth are people teeth for this day, and her eyes a woman’s eyes, and she smiles at you, and then at Aimee. They hug on the porch, the overhang throwing them into shadow and mother says something into her ear, and they go inside, leaving you with the forest. You walk to a tree, your hand caressing the bark – just for a moment – and breathe in deep the smells of good earth, and not that blasted hellscape, and then you follow them in.

Inside, they sit across from each other – your mother and your lover – tall glasses of bright yellow lemonade sweating on the table between them. They’re chatting in low tones, and your mother pushes a tin of cookies – probably walnut – across the table, and they talk about little of importance while you drift through the house, your fingers finding every dent and rut of your childhood in the walls. In your room, the bed you spent so many summers on, listening to the rain pound the simple roof, smelling the ozone of lightning, is still soft and clean and cool. In the hall, finger paintings you’d done hang in crooked frames. In the closet, the bones of those long gone still sit in neat boxes, away from time and tide.

You make your way back to the kitchen, where your mother is alone.

“Where’s Aimee?”

Your mother chews her cookie, her needled teeth puncturing the dough like the blades of a thresher, and she chews, sips her lemonade. She gestures vaguely and then regards you with those pinpoint eyes.

“She wasn’t right for you, dear. Dragging you off to that damned desert. Dinner is in an hour. Go play.”

You step out the back door and pull off your shoes and your shirt, then place them next to Aimee’s body. The forest is so loud here, so close, and you only want to feel it beneath your feet. You look at Aimee, and you wonder – did she love me? I loved her. If she had loved me, she would still be here. She would have fought to stay.

You look at her a moment longer, her eyes staring at you, at nothing. The desert crowds into memory and you think of Aimee alone in that place had your mother sent her away. This was a kindness. Then the forest calls, and you step into the trees. It welcomes you, the wind through the branches the sigh of a long distant lover made close.

It has always loved you.

Man of the Year

Anaxos Mane (not his real name) stands at the window of his 45th street high-rise, looking out over the city. At times he paces, others he stands stock-still, hands clasped behind his back. Finally, with a sigh, he squints one eye and points. Lightning flashes and the room goes photo negative for a split second before the peal of thunder follows. When that’s done, he turns and climbs into his worn office chair, a sheaf of paper before him. With a flourish of his pen, he writes a single name and returns to the window.

We sat down with Mr. Mane on the eve of what he calls the Culling to find out more about this enigmatic god, and what makes him tick.

 

First of all, thank you for having us. I know you must have a busy schedule.

His voice is smooth, smoky – like a cigarette after sex. There’s a hint of a British accent – maybe London. He clears his throat and fiddles with his pen.

Yes. Well you know, people don’t smite themselves. And with this Culling coming up…

 

Tell us about the Culling.

Oh, that. Well, it’s a thing we do every hundred thousand years. Sometimes these single smitings don’t work – that’s the thing about people, they’re very thick when they want to be – and you have to really get their attention. So, we wipe out about a third of the population.

 

Are there any criteria for who gets smote?

Sure, there’s your regular sin. That gets top priority – the Deadly Seven, as we like to call them. But there’s also the whole ‘being an asshole’ thing – I like to think of it as karmic retribution. Then there’s ‘just kind of a jerk’.

 

Isn’t that kind of arbitrary? Aren’t most people kind of jerks?

Well, of course. And we allow for that – you get three big jerk moments and a handful of small ones. Of course, we make exceptions – leaving time on a microwave probably won’t get you smitten. Eating someone’s food out of the company fridge will definitely move you up the list.

 

So, who did you smite just now?

Oh, that. An Uber driver. Can’t stand those guys.

 

Let’s change the subject for a minute. What’s your favorite food? Your least favorite?

Well, I love Pad Thai. Delicious. Delicious stuff. Least favorite? Let’s just say Hawaii was a continent before they started growing pineapples.

 

Favorite movie?

Easy. Biodome.

 

Really?

Yeah. Did you know Pauly Shore indirectly prevented the apocalypse? You really should thank him. We were going to rip a hole in the sky and let screaming flesh demons roam the streets. Encino Man saved you.

 

Last one of these – what’s your favorite book?

Atlas Shrugged. I’m kidding! I knew Atlas. He was not amused. No, probably Harry Potter. There really aren’t enough heroes in this world. Hold on.

 

Mane goes to the window, leans, and points. Another flash of light, and a faint scream. He returns to his chair with a smirk.

 

What was that?

Hare Krishna.

 

Would you characterize yourself as a sadist?

Scoffs. No. This is just my job, you know. I’ve got a home on Olympus. 45 children. A wolf. I mean, do you go home and ask inane questions all day? I know I don’t just smite my neighbors.

 

The worst thing you’ve ever done?

I once smote a three-year-old.

 

What?

Well, just a little. I was on a flight to Vegas and he kept kicking my seat. I zapped his butt. Made it smoke for a whole day. The downside was they had to land in Omaha. Makes a face. Great steaks. Not much else.

 

Guilty Pleasure?

I love Doctor Who. It’s just so cheesy, but so heartfelt. And to be honest, I can relate to the Daleks. I mean, they don’t have to pretend to be friendly to idiots. Just their feelings on their sleeve. EX-TERM-I-NATE. That has got to be cathartic.

 

The hardest part of your job?

Conjugating ‘smite’. Smote? Smoten? Smoted? Smitten? Shrugs. It’s all very confusing.

 

One last question. Liberal or Conservative?

I’m an old-fashioned monarchist. I’m a little surprised you didn’t see that coming.

 

Before we go, any advice for the readers?

I suppose if I could say one thing, it would be this: HOLD YOUR LOVED ONES TIGHT. THE END IS NEAR. YOU CANNOT RUN. YOU CANNOT HIDE. JUSTICE WILL FIND YOU.

 

Also, really consider investing in home insurance. You’re probably going to need it.

Child of Nod Teaser

Hey all, my novel, Child of Nod, is due out November 7, so in anticipation, here’s the first chapter. It’s a little bit horror, a little bit fairy tale and myth, and a little bit something else. If you’re interested, you can check out the Goodreads page for the full blurb.

 

Child of Nod

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was dead.

She wasn’t a little girl, but she wasn’t a woman yet, though last summer her breasts and legs had grown and now she was taller than her aunt was. She had red hair that flowed from her scalp, cascaded in ringlets over her slender neck and shoulders, and bounced when she ran. Her eyes were a deep green, her skin a milky white, and overall, people who met her would always tell her aunt what a beautiful young woman she would make someday.

Her name was Alice. A minute ago, she wasn’t even sure of that, wasn’t sure of anything in this new place. It had come to her as she’d looked around, as though a patch of fog had lifted from her mind, and the sun had come blazing through. Then the brilliance was gone, receding back behind a patch of gray, and she was left again with tattered mist that drifted between her thoughts, obscuring answers she felt sure she would need.

The next thing that came to Alice was an awareness of her surroundings. It dawned on her as though someone had thrown a switch—one moment, a dreamlike haze swirled around her, filled with blank shapes, the next, the fog was all in sharp focus. She was sitting in a clearing ringed by trees, black in the low light. Their branches reached to the roof of the earthen tunnel that enclosed them, some even digging into the soil above, and disappeared as if they were fingers sunk in loam. Beneath her, leaves long dead and dry rustled with the movement of her skirt.

She struggled with her disorientation, with trying to remember what she had been doing before. This new place felt off to her, as though she were in two places at the same time, but only belonged to one. Peering at the trees and their branches above, hearing the way they sighed and creaked even without a breeze, wherever this was, she was sure this bleak forest wasn’t where she was meant to be. It certainly wasn’t 54th street or the cottage by the sea. Even as she thought of them, the memories flared and settled in her mind. Life comes at you in bits and pieces, her aunt would have said, and she realized the phrase was another thing she remembered, and wondered how long her mind would continue to feed her like a hamster in a cage.

Alice stood, her legs tingling with pins and needles, and took a deep breath. She smelled the earth around her, and the dry scents of trees and leaves, and faint, but still there, the tang of saltwater. It reminded her of her aunt’s cottage by the ocean, and the soft sand that would squish between her toes when the honey-colored grains were wet. She smoothed her skirt, took another breath, and headed toward what she thought might be the end of the tunnel.

Leaves crunched under Alice’s feet, sending up the smells of dirt and autumn trapped in the layers of dead foliage. At first, she had to stop every few feet and disentangle her skirt or her top from clutching tree limbs, as though they were greedy relatives who wanted to monopolize her time, jealous of her youth. The further she went, the less frequent it became, the grasping branches becoming sparser and losing strength against her determination. Eventually, she was able to walk a straight line as the trees and the flotsam and jetsam underfoot thinned out. Down the path, the gray lightened, and unless merely a mirage, a widening to the tunnel loomed ahead.

Alice stopped for a moment and turned around. The trees and the path behind her lay undisturbed, though she could recall breaking a branch off here, and kicking a pile of leaves to the side there. She looked down and noticed the ground had turned to a trail of hard-packed clay, worn smooth by ages of travel. A rustling in the underbrush to either side of the path made her swing back toward the mouth of the tunnel.

Where there was no one before, a dog now lay in her way, and she took an involuntary step back. She hadn’t thought there would be any animals here—the forest seemed devoid of life: no chatter of chipmunks, no scurrying underfoot, no singing birds. She’d stood in a wooded wasteland. The sight of the dog had startled her, and she froze, trying to calm the pounding in her chest. As she watched, it tilted its head, opened its mouth, and a long tongue lolled out as if to say, “Hello.”

Alice glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could wind back and find a way around, but the walls of the tunnel were far too close yet, and to her surprise, the path had disappeared. Only the scrub brush and leaves littered the fallow ground among the trunks behind her. She looked at the dog again and remembered a trick her aunt had taught her. Memory flared for a moment, bright as starlight, and her mother’s sister hove into view in her mind’s eye—red hair like her own, round glasses, and a generous bosom. She’d taken Alice in when her mother had died, and spent the next years of her life instructing her niece in everything she could. Like the trick with dogs. Alice bent a bit, held out her hand, and tried not to smell like fear.

“Nice doggy… good doggy…”

She repeated it like a mantra as she approached the animal in half-steps. It tilted its head to the side and watched her approach, its eyes a light blue that reminded her of summer skies. When she was less than a foot away, Alice stopped, her hand still out. The dog looked up at her with those blue eyes and seemed to weigh her. She sincerely hoped it wasn’t thinking she would taste good. After a minute, it stretched its neck out, opened its mouth, and licked her palm, its smooth tongue leaving a wet smear on her hand.

A sigh of relief escaped her, and Alice pulled her hand back. She wiped her palm on her skirt as best she could without letting the dog know she was doing it. There was intelligence in its eyes that made her fear it would take something like this as an insult. As if making a decision, the dog stood, and Alice stiffened again, not sure if it had changed its mind. Ah, he. If he had changed his mind.

He glanced at her once more, then turned and padded down the path. A few feet along, he paused and looked back over his shoulder, as if waiting for her. The look made up her mind, and Alice followed, hoping she was taking the right path. The dog started again, and let out a soft snort on the way as if to say, “About time.”

*

By the time Alice caught up with the dog, the tunnel entrance had widened into a wide sky, the hard clay underfoot softening and mixing with sand. The light here was better as well, though she still could not tell where the illumination was coming from. The smell of saltwater was stronger and accompanied the sounds of waves lapping at a shore.

The dog stopped in the middle of the beach, and Alice came to a halt beside him. A wide expanse of water before them disappeared into the distance. A light breeze blew across the surface, sending ripples and waves against the shore. In the low light, the water appeared black, though still clear as glass, and from where she stood, Alice could see the bottom of the lake for several feet out.

Where the water met sand, a small pier made from weathered planks and lashed together with thick cords of rope jutted out into the waves. At its end, a boat of dark lacquered wood with a high prow, a lantern hanging from the bowsprit, and with what looked to be room for two or three people bobbed, tied to the pier.

Sedately, a shadow detached itself from the stern of the boat and debarked. The newcomer was tall, over six feet, and gaunt, even in the folds of the cloak it wore, and Alice couldn’t see the passenger’s face in the depths of his hood. He walked with the aid of a long pole that thumped on the boards of the pier, marking time to his stride, though his footsteps made no sound at all. When he reached the end of the walkway, where the boards met sand, he stopped, and held out a hand, palm up, as though waiting for something.

The dog looked up at her, then at the man on the end of the pier, and back to her. As if waiting for her decision, he let out a huff of air and lay down in the sand. Alice dithered. The man stood there waiting, hand out, as though he could for hours, and never spoke. She checked her gut once, but no internal warning flares soared up from there. Her Uncle Phil, who had been a cop in Chicago, had told her when she wasn’t sure of something, her gut couldn’t lead her wrong. Something about that memory stuck with her, and for a moment, she saw flashing lights and the faint sound of sirens and the steady patter of rain. She shook herself, and it faded.

She considered the boatman for a little while longer, and waited for a hint of anything, but nothing came—no twist in her stomach, like when she had seen the man with the gun—just a quiet expectation in the air. Her stomach dropped out as the world faded again, and she was standing on the subway platform. The man was there, dark eyes and dark clothes, a small black gun in his hand and a sneer on his face. He was pressing against her, forcing her to the edge of the platform. He said something, something she didn’t hear, and then she was falling, and she screamed—

The dog barked once, a sharp warning that snapped her back to her new reality, and she found herself stock still, tears streaming down her cheeks. She drew breath in short painful gasps and her heart pounded, threatening to rise to her throat. She let her lids fall closed and took a deep breath, and forced the fear away, to a place in her mind where she could lock it up until she was ready. After a minute, she opened her eyes. The man on the pier was still there, hand outstretched, unaffected by her episode.

Another minute passed, and Alice crouched down to pet the dog, who laid his head between his paws, and sighed again as she ran her hand through his fur. Her knees were beginning to throb with a dull ache, and Alice let herself down the rest of the way until she was sitting in the sand next to the dog.

Her left hand went on stroking the dog’s fur, and she enjoyed the softness against her palm and the reassuring warmth beneath her skin. She frowned, lost in thought, while her free hand absently dug and sifted through the sand at her side.

“What do you want?” She asked the figure at the end of the pier.

No answer came, and she went back to worrying at the situation like a mouse at a rope. She tried to think of things she had read, stories she had heard before, mentioning a man and a boat. Unfortunately, most of what she knew still seemed shrouded in a gray fog that persisted in her brain. Although, the harder she thought, the more something glimmered in the back of her mind, and she pushed towards it.

She spared a glance at the man, who still had not moved. Something told her maybe he couldn’t go beyond the pier, and as long as she kept her distance, she was fine. The idea flared in her brain again, burning off a bit of the fog, and she grabbed for it.

…turn to page 163, Mythology, and…

Her mind seized on the fragment, and for a moment she was back in Mrs. Rabe’s class, the fragrances of early autumn and late summer drifting in through open windows.

Mrs. Rabe was a short, rotund woman with graying hair, and a stern, grandmotherly air. She was writing something on the blackboard, a name, in flowing script. Calvin, another redhead, sat behind Alice, whispering to a friend. She turned to see who―

Her right hand closed on something hard and cold. And the memory came to her, a flash of light in a dark room. Of course—the dead need pay the ferryman for passage. She looked down, and saw she had been digging a hole in the sand, her right hand caked with soft mud, grains grinding against each other under her fingernails. Something glittered with a dull shine in the dirt in her hand, and she brushed it off, recognizing the shape of a coin. She wondered where hers was, and realized she wouldn’t have had one. They no longer buried the dead with coin. It troubled her, the idea that she could have been trapped on this side with no possible recourse but to swim or languish. For her, it was fortunate that she had come across one someone had lost, though she felt for the poor soul.

And what of the others? Those that had come here in the intervening years and found themselves wandering this endless beach. A second thought occurred to her—how many did actually come here? Surely, those who passed on didn’t all go to the same place. It would be, for the lack of a better term, awkward. If she was dead, that was. She let out a sigh, exasperated with the cloud in her head, and bent to cleaning the coin.

When the disc was as clean as she could get it without walking to the water’s edge and rinsing it, she confirmed it was gold in color, and crudely stamped with a man’s image on both sides. Roman numerals crawled along the outer edges, and beneath the portrait, lettering she couldn’t decipher. While she was looking at it, Dog let out a low warning growl.

Alice followed the direction of his snout and spotted what Dog had already sensed—a naked man sprinting full-tilt down the beach. An idle part of her, the part that remembered old jingles and quotes from TV shows, wondered where his clothes had gone. Then shrugged. Maybe he’d been here so long, they’d simply fallen to tatters. Maybe he was just a loon.

She was frozen momentarily, torn between waiting for him—he was the first human she had encountered since coming to this place, present company, the ferryman, excluded—and running like hell from what appeared to be a madman on a collision course with her.

He drew closer, and opened his mouth, and the words that spilled out made up her mind for her.

“Kill you, kill you, KILL YOU! MY COIN, MY COIN, MYYYY COOOOIIIIINN!”

Alice clambered to her feet and kicked up sand, heading for the ferryman, where he still waited with his palm out. Dog followed, still growling deep in his chest and throat. She reached the cowled figure and slapped the coin into his hand. His fingers closed around it, and he turned, making his way to the boat.

She followed and looked over her shoulder, noting the psycho was closer now, maybe three, four hundred yards away, and still bellowing obscenities at her. She quickened her pace, and a knot of frustration tied itself in her stomach when she realized the tall man in the cloak seemed unhurried and unconcerned.

The dinghy rocked as Alice, Dog, and the boatman stepped in, and he leaned forward to untie the rope and cast off. When finished, he took his place at the back of the boat, slipped his long pole into the water, and pushed off, sending them on their way.

At the same time, the naked man reached the edge of the pier and stopped short, his face, only moments before twisted in rage, collapsing in on itself and giving way to despair. He dropped to his knees and let out a wordless howl. Then the current caught the boat, and he dropped out of sight in a matter of seconds, the only sounds the rush of water against wood, the soft splash of the ferryman’s pole in the water, and Dog’s panting.

Gnome More

An old piece I picked up and finished, because the adage for every writer is ‘finish your shit’, and I tend to leave too many shorts undone. Enjoy.

 

Gnome More

                Arthur Pym was both surprised and a little dismayed to discover that his lawn gnome granted wishes.  After all, it wasn’t the sort of thing lawn gnomes usually did, was it?  Normally, they’d just stand there, the grass at their feet a little longer than the rest of the lawn, tall hat pointed toward the sky, beard resting across their belly.  Now though, it lay on its side, a bare patch of earth where it had stood exposed.  A single beetle trundled across the patch, and over one of Arthur’s fingers.

He sucked in a breath and clutched at his ankle.  He was sitting where he had fallen, having knocked the gnome over, his ankle throbbing.  He had stepped in a gopher hole and twisted his ankle, and at that moment, was having particularly vicious thoughts about rodents in general.  He sat for a moment, rubbing the bruised area, and when the throbbing abated somewhat, picked up the gnome.  He inspected it, checking for chips or cracks.  It seemed to be fine, so he set it down, his hand lingering on the hat.

His ankle gave another pang of pain, and he thought, I wish there were no more gophers.

There was a pop, like someone had sucked the air out of a plastic bottle, and a mild shock passed through his hand.  He jerked away and popped his fingers in his mouth, sucking the tips absently.  He looked around, hoping his neighbor, Cheryl, hadn’t seen.

After a moment, he turned his attention back to the hole he’d tripped over.  He froze in place, frowning at the lawn.  The hole was gone, and the mound leading to it, too.  The earth was smooth in its place, and littered with dandelions.  He looked around his yard and noticed more of the same, smooth green grass dotted with more dandelions than he’d seen in years.  He turned toward his garden patch, and noticed the row of carrots, which had previously been sparse and anemic, was full and ripe.  His brain struggled with the sudden change, as though someone had snuck in and done set dressing on his yard in the time it took him to blink.

He gathered himself, stood, and wandered back into the house, a bit dazed.   On the way in, he noticed his ankle no longer hurt.  He stepped into the house, letting the screen door bang behind him.  His wife, Renee, looked up from the kitchen table, where she had been reading a magazine with her feet up on a chair she’d pulled out.  Arthur went to the sink, and grabbed a glass from the cupboard.  He listened to the water fill the glass, aware that Renee was looking at his back.

“Hot out there?” She asked.

He took a long swallow of water.  “Yeah.  I think the gopher problem’s solved.”  He turned to look at her, but she was already back on her magazine.

“Mm-hm.  Good.”  She said.  He could tell she wasn’t really all that interested.  He set his glass down on the counter, and turned back to her.  He had opened his mouth to tell her about the thing with the gnome, when a knock at the door interrupted him.  It came again, almost immediately, loud and fast and angry.  He went to the door and peered out the peephole.

His other neighbor, Frank Cubbins, was standing on the porch, his fist raised to knock again.  He was red-faced and scowling.  Arthur opened the door just as Frank had reached forward to knock again, leaving the man standing for a moment with his fist in the air.

“Hello Frank.”  Arthur said, a hint of resignation in his voice.

Frank lowered his fist, but kept the scowl.  “When’s the last time you weeded your lawn?”  He asked, with no preamble.

Arthur shrugged.  “I have the lawn people out at least once a month.”

Frank shook his head.  “Not good enough.  Look!”  He pointed a fist over at his own lawn, which was overgrown with dandelions.

“Okaaay…” Arthur said.

“You’re costing me money, Art.  Get your shit together.  You can pay my next weed bill, or you can see me in court.”  That seemed to be the signal the conversation was over, and Frank turned smartly and marched back to his own house, slamming his front door shut with a bang that echoed in the quiet suburban air.

Arthur closed the door, and leaned against it.  He ran a hand over his face, then walked back to the kitchen.  Renee didn’t look up.

“Who was that?”  She asked.

“Frank.”

“Oh that’s nice.  Did you invite him to our barbecue next week?”

“Er – no.  Forgot.”

She sighed, as though Arthur’s memory was a burden, and said nothing more.  Arthur left the kitchen and walked into the back yard again, letting the screen door slam behind him.  He stood in the shadow of the eaves of his home, and stared out at his lawn.  After a moment, he walked over to the gnome, sat down next to it, and pulled it close to him.

I wish there were no Frank Cubbins, he thought.

The popping sound came again, as soon as he had the thought, and he felt a mild jolt, as though he’d just accidentally touched a live wire.  At the same time, there was a scream that came floating through the open kitchen window.  Arthur dropped the gnome.  It hit the ground with a soft thud and rolled on its side.  He stood, and ran into the house, banging the screen door behind him for a third time that day.

He skidded to a halt on the linoleum, his shoes letting out a squeak of protest.  His wife was standing by the table, the chair she’d been sitting on tipped over backwards.  She was looking at her belly, terrified, and running her hands over it.

“What is it?”  Arthur asked.

She looked up, tears smudging her mascara, her mouth distorted in an ‘O’ of shock.  “My babies!”

She lifted her shirt, and Arthur could see that her pregnancy had ended.  The skin of her stomach was taut and smooth, and her bellybutton was once again inverted.  He stood there staring at her for a moment, then looked around the kitchen.

He didn’t see blood, or amniotic fluid, or any other indicator that said she’d had a miscarriage or a surprise birth in the middle of the kitchen.  He only saw that her belly was flat, and she was distressed, and then he remembered his wish, and a cold rage worked its way into his stomach.

No more baby.  No more Frank, no more baby.  No more.

Renee was still staring at him, as though he might have an answer.

“Well?”  She demanded, letting her shirt drop.  “Are you going to say anything?  Are you just going to stand there?”

He struggled with himself for a moment.  Rage flowed over him, through him like cool, clear water.  It was refreshing to see the world for what it was.  He choked down the shout that had bubbled to the surface, and said through tight lips, “No”.

He turned on his heel, and walked through the back door, and across the lawn.  He picked up the gnome.  Then he made a very specific, very purposeful wish.

I wish my wife, Renee, would go away, and never come back.

                There was a pop, and a jolt, and then quiet.  He was aware of a bird singing in the sycamore tree in the corner of his yard, and the way the leaves rustled together as the wind blew the branches.  After a moment, he heard the slam of his front door.  He put the gnome down, and went back inside.  He got a glass of water, sat down, and began to think.

Wishes.  Are they unlimited?  I’ve already made three.  Maybe it’s only three.  What else do I wish for?  Pfft, that’s easy.  Money.  Cheryl?  Am I being petty?  World peace?  Hm.  What if it’s only three?  One way to find out…

                He stood, went to the back yard one more time, grabbed the gnome, and brought it inside.  He set the figurine on the table, ignoring the bits of dirt from the base that smudged the finish.

Something simple, he thought.

He put a hand on the gnome.

I wish I had a ham sandwich, on rye.

The familiar pop and shock came again, and a sandwich appeared on the table.  Arthur peeled back the top layer of bread.  No mayo, cheese, or lettuce?  He made a face.  He’d have to remember to be more careful with his wording.

He got up and rummaged through the fridge for a moment.  When he was done, he added some mayo and cheese and lettuce to the sandwich, then took it back to the table.  While he ate, he tried to think of what to do next.

You’re thinking too small, too petty, he told himself.  You need to be helpful.  You need to do the most good where it counts.  You need to be a hero.

The idea struck him, and his brain rang like a bell.  Some deep-seated part of him stood up taller, imagined a cape blowing in the wind, maybe reporters gathered around, and the strobe of flashes.  He finished his sandwich, feeling much happier than he had in the past couple of hours.  He picked up the gnome and carried it into the living room, where he sat on the couch, cradling it in the crook of his arm.

He turned on the TV, and flipped through the channels until he got to the news.  A middle-aged anchor in an Italian suit stared out at him, bobbing his head in time to his words, his gray hair absorbing the light.

“…and in other news, thousands of owls and hawks have been dying all over the world.  Experts say they were likely suffering from severe malnutrition due to a lack of readily available prey, most notably, gophers.”

There was a pause as the newsman shuffled his notes.

“In international news, the drought that has plagued Syria over the past few months has steadily grown worse.  An estimated three million families are now without water.  The Turkish government has said it is now seeing the biggest influx of refugees since the civil war.”

The newscaster went on, but Arthur had tuned him out.  A chance to save three million people?  Perfect.  He pulled the gnome close.

I wish there was enough water in Syria for all the families.

                The now-familiar pop sounded in the living room, drowning out the TV for a moment, and Arthur almost dropped the gnome as the shock passed through his arms.  He yawned and set the gnome to the side, then turned off the TV.  He’d done his good deed for the day.  He thought he would sleep well for the night.

He left the gnome in the dark; made sure the house was locked up, and went to bed.  His last thought as he turned out the light on his bedside table was an image of him having coffee with Cheryl while he revealed his secret to her.  He smiled slightly in his sleep.

*

                The next morning, Arthur woke with a grin on his face, and excitement tingling his nerves.  He threw his covers off, and ran down the stairs, stopping in the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  He walked to the living room with a spring in his step, and flopped onto the couch.  He set his coffee down and rubbed the gnome’s hat, grinning as he did so.

“So, shall we see what we’ve done?”  He asked it.

He grabbed the remote, and turned the TV on.  It took a minute to warm up, and as it did, he sipped his coffee.  The quiet in the living room was broken by the newscaster’s voice, sounding grim.

“If you’re just joining us, the nation of Syria is gone.  It was swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea.  Initial reports are still coming in, but the estimate is that of more than 20 million lost.”

An icy pit of fear filled Arthur’s stomach.  His coffee threatened to come back up, and he felt acid fill his throat.

“Okay.  Okay.”  He said to the room.  “Okay.  I can fix this.”

He grabbed the gnome, and closed his eyes.  I wish to undo my last wish.

Nothing happened.  There was no popping sound, no jolt of electricity.  He tried again.

I wish Syria was normal, and all those people were alive.

Still nothing.  He swore furiously under his breath.

I WISH THOSE PEOPLE WERE STILL ALIVE.

                There was a pop, and a surge of electricity.  Arthur let out a sigh of relief, and opened his eyes, and then watched the news.  As usual, they had gone to commercial break.  Sure, all the world’s dying, but here, buy some soap.

I wish the commercials were gone.

He thought it before he had a chance to stop himself, and with a look of horror, pulled his hand away from the gnome.  PopZap.

The commercial ended mid-sentence, and the picture went black.  The newsman was back on, and looking somewhat confused.

“Oh?  Oh, all right.”  He said.  His hand went to his earpiece.  “Oh.  Oh God.”

The picture cut to a coastline, where the shot was shaky, and Arthur could hear the chop of helicopter blades overhead.  Dark shapes were emerging from the surf, in an unbroken line that went on for miles.

“This…this just in.”  Came the newscaster’s voice over the feed.  “Something is coming out of the sea that used to be Syria.  Eyewitnesses on the ground claim it to be the – no.  No way.  I’m not reading this.”  A sigh.  “Fine.  The dead.  They claim the dead are walking out of the sea.”

Below the pictures being beamed back, the stock scroll was nearly all red.  Arthur noticed, and blanched.  He’d done that, as well.  Without ad dollars, companies were failing.  The dollar would be worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper at this rate.  He thought of his pension, and his plans for a little boat.  He thought of his ideas for a future with Cheryl, and cursed under his breath.

“Make it right.”  He said, rubbing the gnome’s head.  “Make it right.”

Nothing happened.  He dropped his head.  In the background, the newscaster was drifting between the two stories – the living dead in the Middle East, and the fall of the dollar.  There was already talk of foreign markets falling as well.  The president was due to make a statement at any minute now – not that Arthur thought much of him.  Weasel of a man, hiding behind his vice-president’s skirts.  Weasel of a man.

Pop.  Zap.

                Cold dread fell into Arthur’s stomach like a bomb dropped down his throat.  He watched the news, horrified, as the feed cut to the White House lawn, where the Secret Service was chasing a man-sized weasel in a blue suit around the perfectly manicured grass.  The weasel was squeaking, and the reporter’s mic kept picking up noises that vaguely sounded like ‘USA USA’.

A knock at the front door interrupted Arthur’s frozen, horrified viewing, and he clutched the gnome close and got up to answer it.  Halfway there, it came again.  He wondered who it could be.  The CIA?  Secret Service?  Pizza guy?  He doubted the last one.  He opened the door to find Cheryl standing there, a worried look on her face. Her hand was still raised as if to knock, her mouth open. She lowered her hand, and a frown creased her forehead.

“Is that – is that a gnome?”

Arthur nodded.

“Why?”

He shrugged. Once you’re holding a garden decoration outside of a garden, it’s hard to explain why. He suddenly wanted her to touch it, though he couldn’t say why. In his head, an elaborate fantasy spooled itself out – Cheryl loving the gnome, and then him. Then he could share his secret. There was another pop, though distant, weaker. As if on cue, one corner of her mouth curled up and she reached a hesitant hand out.

“May I touch it?”

He held it out like a child happy to present his favorite toy. She took it, stroking its cap. Arthur blushed. She looked up, and the other side of her mouth joined the first, a Grinch smile if he’d ever seen one. Her sea-green eyes sparkled as they stared into his own mud-brown.

“Oh, I love it! I may never let it go. May I come in?”

He nodded dumbly, and she passed him, her hips brushing his, her free hand tousling his hair. He stood at the door, looking out. He almost wished someone had seen her going into the house. Sudden pain flared through his head, and he staggered. Arthur craned his neck to see what was happening, and caught a glimpse of Cheryl raising the gnome for another blow.

“Wha-” he managed to get out.

“I just love you both so much – there’s no way I can let you go. I just wish you could be mine forever. You’ll see, Artie. It’ll be good.”

The gnome descended, and blackness followed.

*

                Arthur woke in the garden. It was hard to move. It was hard to blink. Not that he could do either. His eyes were frozen open, his body rigid. On the upside, his head no longer ached. He tried to call for help, but his voice came out a thin squeal, like the world’s tiniest teakettle. The back door to his home opened, and Cheryl stepped out, cradling the gnome. She placed it next to Arthur and patted first it, and then him on the head.

“I don’t know what did it, Artie, but my wish came true. I have you, and this gnome, and we have our own little place. I’ll come out and visit you every day. We’ll be so happy.”

She turned and went back into the house. Black smoke rolled across the sky from the corner of his eye, and from the open door, Arthur could hear the newscaster. “They’re in the city! The dead are in the city!”

He wanted to sigh. He wanted to close his eyes. He couldn’t do either.