A Needle in the Neck

They tell me to smile more.
“So serious.”
“You look like someone kicked your puppy.”
I force the corners of my mouth up, show a little tooth. I don’t feel it.
“That’s better!”
“There, your face didn’t crack, did it?”
The smile drops when they walk away. Maybe they see it slip. Maybe they don’t. Doesn’t matter. They see themselves as purveyors of good deeds. The Good Cheer Division, trademark. One and done.
*
Except they’re not. They sit me in a small room, cozy with its brown couch and pastoral scenes on the walls in cheap gilt frames, and use words like concerned, and unhappy. They don’t understand. I’m not unhappy. I’m baseline. Fair to middling, thank you, no I don’t need to be a smiling monkey. My mother’s here, stomach pooling on her lap while she talks about what a serious boy I’d been, my aunt with her anecdotes about reading while my cousins played in the yard. A coworker I’d thought a friend, details how I’d never once cracked a smile after winning a hundred-dollar gift card at the Christmas party. We worry about you. It’s the running theme, a wall of rose and perfume, and behind it the rotting stench of guilt that said they failed. They hadn’t raised me right. They’d tried, it said, and now they had no choice.
I look at the Optima tech, standing apart from the others in the room, an insect observing his prey. He turns his head this way and that, listening to their stories. He watches my reaction, his gaze crawling across my skin like a silken centipede. I wonder what he thinks. Am I just another case? A curiosity to be examined, to be pulled apart and reassembled the correct way? Am I a paycheck?
The voices quiet, and they turn to the man, his lab coat (who wears a lab coat out and about?) stitched with his name: Veldt. He nods to each of them and approaches, crouching beside me, a conciliatory hand on my shoulder. His eyes are a muddy brown behind wire-rim glasses.
“Are you unhappy?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“Then why don’t you smile? Can you do it now?”
Instead, the corners of my mouth turn down. Why was it so important? Veldt shakes his head and pats my shoulder, the ring on his finger tapping against the bone there. There’s a click, and a moment later, lassitude floods my limbs. I manage to raise my head, to see the glint of metal protruding from the ring. A needle. He’s drugged me. I stagger to my feet – try to, anyway, and end up collapsing in his arms. The others in the room gasp, and he waves them away.
“It’s fine. He’s fine.”
Others, men in white suits, enter and pick me up, carry me away. Before the room fades, before darkness falls, I can hear him still talking, his voice honey over toast.
“He’ll be even better soon.”
*
Dark. I wake in a dark room, a loose hospital gown tickling my skin. It’s cool, raising gooseflesh on my arms, and a shiver across my spine. I sit up in the bed and run my hands through my hair. A small patch is shaved at the back, stubble prickling my fingers. I probe and my fingers touch something metal, smooth. The echo of an ache throbs there, and the skin feels swollen. My stomach turns, and I squinch my eyes closed, tuck my elbows into my stomach and lean forward. The door opens, and I look up. A man in a lab coat – Veldt, stands over me with a tablet. He glances up from it.
“How are you feeling?”
“Sick. Sore. Scared.”
He nods and returns to the pad, touching a button here, fingers sliding up the screen like skates on ice. The thing in my neck hums, and I feel a pinch. Warmth floods me, and the fright and nausea flee. I rub the back of my neck and frown at him.
“What did you do?”
“Adjusted your serotonin levels. How do you feel now?”
I take inventory. I feel fine. Normal. I should be sick. I should be afraid. I should be screaming and tearing my fingernails off against the steel door in the wall. Instead I sit, relaxed, and a feel a smile tug at the corners of my mouth. I bite the insides of my cheeks and take a breath.
“Fine.”
“Happy?”
“Fine.”
Veldt frowns and his finger skitter across the tablet again. The thing in my neck pinches me again, and that same warmth floods me. I feel a giggle tickle the insides of my ribs, come bubbling up through my throat. It escapes my lips, and I feel violated, sick. Vomit follows it, splashing on Veldt’s patent leather shoes. He steps back, disgust on his face. He leaves without a word, and I sit and cry while a sanitation worker cleans my sick. Later, they bring me food that I don’t eat. Instead, I sit in the antiseptic smell and close my eyes. Sleep comes later.
*
“And this one?”
A slide, with a smiling woman. She’s holding a child who is laughing. I shrug. Veldt’s shown me about a hundred of these. When he doesn’t think I’m responding the way I should, he turns up the dial on his little tablet. I resist the urge when the warmth floods through me – my cheeks hurt from not smiling, an ache around the corners of my eyes. It’s about the principle now. He sighs, and flicks to the next slide. A puppy, chasing a soap bubble. I can see it reflected in the iridescent surface, the oil-slick skin reflecting the sun and green grass. I force the corners of my lips down.
There’s a hum in my head, and the pinch. I cough, hiding the smile. I can see Veldt’s reflection in the black mirror of the monitor, and he frowns, fingers dancing across the tablet. The hum becomes aggressive, a nest of bees protecting their queen in my head. The pinch comes again and again. I cough harder, louder, until my ribs hurt, until I’m sure I’m going to vomit up the beef wellington I’d had for lunch.
Veldt makes a frustrated sound behind me, and his fingers move one more time. The hum cycles up to a squeal, a mechanical scream, and I see blood bloom in my vision, a red cloud across my iris. I close my eyes, the needle no longer pinching, but digging, burrowing, tunneling into my skull. I scream, and the thing in my head makes one more sound, that of a sick machine vomiting up its function. Heat blooms at the base of my brain, and I feel the corners of my mouth turn up. Joy overwhelms me. Laughter, full and brassy, boils from my lips. The world is bright and vibrant.
Veldt leaves his little room, stands in front of me, his lab coat crisp and white. He seems pleased, and I am happy for him. I am happy, and I am enraged – the two inextricable lovers now in the chemical storm in my brain. His throat is soft and savory as I bite into it, laughing through screams that remind me of the sweetest music. No one comes. No one comes as I watch, overjoyed at his bitter end, beauty in even the shit scent that floats up from his prone body, beauty in his glassy eyes, his lab coat stained in Pollack reds. Finally, I know true joy, and I know I must hear the music again.
*
I can’t help laughing on the bus. They move to the side, hiding their faces. They avoid my glee on the sidewalks, stepping to cross the street. At home, they open the door, and I thank my family for my rictus grin, for my overwhelming happiness. I try to tell them how much brighter the world is, but it’s so hard for them to hear over the screams. Besides, I just want to hear the music. There is joy in that music. True joy.

The Gig

The money was starting to run out when Tucker found the job. It was posted on Craigslist, under ‘Gigs’, and the pay was right. Hell, any pay would have been right, with the unemployment running out, and temporary assistance drying up. He’d been eating government cheese and peanut butter – the kind that separates when it sits for five minutes, and you’ve got to stir it like a mad chef beating an egg – and tasteless loaves of white bread better suited for insulation than nutrition. It was hard enough, trying to make rent and keep the lights on and find a way to the unemployment office, one more month on his current diet, and he’d just fling himself from the fifteenth story. Hell, he’d probably open his mouth on the way down – at this point, even pavement would taste better than another goddamn grilled cheese sandwich.

Tucker read the ad again.

OPENING: 8am-5pm, competitive wages, retirement. Candidate will be willing to sit for several hours at a time; have a strong affinity for detail; an ability to complete tasks on their own and report to a supervisor. Please be hygienic, smoke-free, and willing to submit to monthly examinations. Email resume to: gcarlson@gmail.com. EEOE.

He pulled up his resume and emailed the address, then shut the netbook. He’d thought about selling it, but instinct told him to hold onto it. Some things you need. This he needed for the job hunt. And porn, if he was honest. But he’d convinced himself it was really the job hunt, and if his Aunt Sheila knew what he really used it for, she’d beat him with it. Instead, he’d sold his iPod, and his collection of board games, and a few comics he’d collected over the years, but this he kept. Porn, no porn, a man needed a lifeline. He thought that if not for social media and masturbation, he’d have gone mad much sooner.

The netbook chimed, and Tucker frowned. That was quick, he thought. He cracked the lid and pulled up his email. There, in bold letters was his reply.

 

To: lizardking@gmail.com (Tucker Kennedy)

From: gcarlson@gmail.com (Gustaf Carlson)

Subject: Re: Job

Tucker,

We’re glad you found our posting, and after reviewing your resume, would like to invite you to interview with us. Please appear at 931 Blackwood at 8am. Bring two sources of identification, and dress comfortably.

We look forward to meeting with you.

Sincerely,

G.Carlson

 

Tucker closed the netbook and let out a little whoop. He glanced at the clock on the counter – 9pm – and decided he’d crash early. Blackwood was about 10 blocks away, and while he could walk it, he didn’t want to show up sweaty, which meant catching a ride. He flicked the lights off in the kitchen and curled up on the futon, eyes drifting closed. For a moment, his brain flicked a thought at him, like a fisherman casting a lure.

You didn’t even ask what the job is.

Then it winked out as sleep took him.

*

931 Blackwood was a squat black building adjacent to an empty lot. Waist-high weeds overgrew the lot, though they were turning brown in the late autumn air, and Tucker could see a few short bushes with burrs clinging to their stiff bare branches, and grass the color of bile. He turned from the lot and opened the front door of the building, stepping into a warm hallway – almost too warm for his taste – a light sweat breaking on his forehead as his heavy peacoat was suddenly too thick. He was just deciding if he should wait or check one of the side doors in the hall when a tall Swede with a massive beard stepped from one and approached. He looked Tucker up and down and turned, gesturing for him to follow. Tucker stood still for a moment longer, but the big man wasn’t waiting for him, nor checking to see if he followed, so he found his feet, and hurried to catch up.

They entered a small conference room, the table a massive mahogany thing that ate nearly all the space and seemed to have its own gravity. The man sat, and Tucker found a chair across from him.

“You have papers?”

Not real big into small talk, then. The man had an accent, Norwegian, he thought, though Tucker was less interested in that than whether he had stepped into a murder factory. For a second, he had a vision of his body being rendered into soap and sausages and squashed it. He dug his birth certificate and driver’s license out and passed them to the man, who scrutinized them. After a minute of silence, he nodded and passed them back.

“Good. I am Mr. Ericsson.”

“Is Mr. Carlson here?”

Ericsson shook his head. “Not important. I have some questions.”

“Okay.”

“Smoker?”

“No.”

“Drugs?”

“No.”

“STDs?”

“No.”

“Injuries, mental illness?”

“No, and no.”

Ericsson nodded, his face unreadable.

“You bring a phone?”

Tucker’s heart jumped. This was it. This was where they murder him. He was about to stand, about to say anything, when his stupid mouth betrayed him.

“No.”

“Sharp objects?”

He was locked in. He hoped he’d make a tasty soup.

“No.”

“Good. That’s good.” Ericsson stood and started out of the room. “Follow.”

Tucker made it to the door, his head swiveling toward the exit. He could run. He could keep looking. He could live. He turned his head to the big man, approaching the end of the hall. Not much of a life if you have to live on Ramen for the rest of it. Not much of a life if you have to spend it in the dark, or in an alley. He found his feet moving, carrying him to the end of the hall. Ericsson waited for him there.

The door at this end was heavy – steel with a porthole, bands of more steel riveted across it. The faint smell of antiseptic wafted under it, and a cool white light spilled out from the crack at the bottom. Ericsson looked him up and down.

“Payday is every other week.”

Tucker found his voice. Surely they wouldn’t make him into hot dogs if they were talking pay. “How much?”

“Five thousand a week.”

Tucker blinked. “What?”

Ericsson was opening the door, and didn’t hear. It was silent on steel hinges, and the smell of antiseptic grew stronger. The big man stood to the side, and Tucker stepped into the opening. His stomach turned.

A naked man sat strapped to a chair in the middle of a tile floor. Near to Tucker, a second chair sat empty. He turned to Ericsson, convinced he should run, he should find a phone and call the cops, he should flee and never look back as if his ass was on fire. Ericsson just stared back.

“He is okay.”

Tucker looked back. Five thousand a week.

“What do I have to do? Nothing gross, right? Nothing -” he swallowed. “Nothing bloody?”

Ericsson shook his head.

“You will watch him. Then you will tell us what you see.”

Tucker started into the room, the thought of the money moving his feet. Ericsson put a hand the size of a small ham on his shoulder, and Tucker halted. He looked back.

“Do not talk to him. Do not touch him. Go no closer than the chair.”

Tucker nodded and stepped fully into the room.

Ericsson’s voice echoed in the tile room before the door banged shut.

“Good luck.”

Tucker sat in the chair, waiting. After a moment, the sound of a bolt being slammed home rang through the room. He jumped, then blushed and cleared his throat, then looking around, settled into the chair.

*

The man across from Tucker was plain. He made Tucker think a little of vanilla yogurt – white and dull. Aside from the lack of any hair on his body, the man across from him could have been any middle-aged white guy from the city. Tucker looked him up and down, making mental notes. He was sitting down, but he guessed from where the man’s head came in comparison to his own, he was about average height. A slight paunch pooled around his lap, and his face was a bit pudgy, his chest not well-defined, his arms slack. Tucker couldn’t help himself and craned his neck a little. The man’s penis was flaccid and withdrawn, but he thought with some small satisfaction it was smaller than his. His eyes, brown as a Crayola, stared ahead, and he gave no indication that he recognized Tucker as in the room, or that he was there himself.

Tucker leaned back in his chair and sighed. It was going to be a long day.

*

His stomach rumbled. He’d had a breakfast bar on the way out, but in his mad scramble to get out the door and into a cab he’d forgotten to bring a lunch. He squirmed and wished he’d tucked a book into his shirt. Then again, that might have gotten him fired before they’d hired him. He turned his head, glancing at the porthole in the door, but it remained stubbornly closed. He turned back to the man in the chair. Tucker had thought he needed a name, rather than ‘the man’, so he had dubbed him ‘Red’. In his head, he’d been imagining the man with hair, and the picture of him with a shock of red perched atop his pasty white skin had made Tucker chuckle.

Tucker frowned. There was something atop the man’s head now – a brown stubble that hadn’t been there before. It seemed unlikely the man could grow hair that quickly, but there it was. He wondered if that was why Red was here. He was a mutant with the ability to grow luxurious locks of hair in a short amount of time, and they were harvesting it for those kids with alopecia. He snorted and looked again. Yes, there was a stubble there, a brown carpet that hadn’t been there before, and it looked thicker, even in the few seconds since he’d noticed it.

The room suddenly filled with the screeching of a klaxon, and Tucker nearly shit himself. He clapped his hands over his ears, and yelled for Ericsson, but his voice drowned in the tidal wave of sound. A second later, a deluge of steaming liquid splashed over Red’s body, the antiseptic smell nearly overpowering. Red opened his mouth and screamed, as though the liquid had pulled him from his catatonia, not stopping until the sound of the klaxon and the downpour did. Tucker’s ears rang in the ensuing silence.

“Shit!” he said aloud, and clapped a hand over his mouth, looking frantically at the door. No one seemed to notice, as it remained shut.

Red had returned to his obliviousness, and though it bothered him to no end, at least Tucker was no longer hungry. He squinted at the man, trying to figure what the purpose of the bath had been. He seized on it when he noticed the man’s head was bald again, no sign of the stubble that had once occupied it.

Five thousand a week, Tucker. Don’t flake out now. You can do this. Just watch the man and keep your mouth shut.

*

The stubble was back. Tucker’s stomach clenched, and he plugged his ears, waiting for the deluge. When it came, he weathered it best he could, and let out a long sigh when it was over. He looked over at the man.

This shit ain’t right.

“Hey.”

Red didn’t respond.

“Hey.”

The man’s eyes flicked to him. They seemed to focus, to notice for the first time. Red’s jaw worked, the lips trying to form words.

“What?”

More movement, but no words.

“Why they got you here?”

The man gestured, motioning Tucker closer. He stayed put. He felt bad for the guy, but wasn’t sure he wanted to risk having an ear bitten off.

“Did you do something?”

Red shook his head. The stubble was back on his scalp and covering his chest. Tucker thought it looked like pubic hair – thick and curly and held together by wiry masses.

“Are they studying you?”

The man nodded.

“Can I get you anything?”

Red looked at the door, eyes flicking to the knob.

“Yeah, I don’t think I can get you out of here. But I might be able to bring you stuff.”

“Hurts.” The first word from Red’s throat was raspy, like barbed wire rusted to ruin.

“What does? That shit they dump on you?”

Red nodded. “Wrists, too.”

Tucker looked at the straps. He thought he could loosen them a little.

“Okay, man. I’m gonna loosen your straps. Don’t eat me.”

Tucker glanced at the door, but it remained stubbornly closed. He walked the short distance to Red and knelt, grabbing a strap. The hair coated the man’s arm now, and Tucker swore he could see it swaying gently, like algae in a current. It smelled of grass in the sun. Maybe that was a byproduct of the chemicals they were dumping on Red. He loosened the strap and went to sit back down.

“Better?”

The man nodded. He said nothing else. The klaxon sounded, and the antiseptic poured down over the man, washing his hair away. When it faded, Tucker sat, feeling a warmth in his chest. He might have pissed away the money, but he’d done something good. Maybe not the best thing he could have, but even small things counted.

*

Tucker collapsed into bed, too tired for even an evening jaunt onto the netbook. The exhaustion from sitting for nine hours surprised him – his legs and back ached, and there was a kink in his neck. In addition, he was getting a sore throat, probably from breathing in the chemical stink in the small room. When Ericsson had come to get him, he’d simply looked Tucker up and down, shut the door, and bolted it again. Tucker had expected questions, or an on-the-spot firing. Instead, the other man walked back to the conference room and left him to find his own way out.

He kicked off his shoes, hearing them hit the floor with a soft thud, and drifted off to sleep. Sometime in the night, he woke to a coughing fit, his throat blazing. That’s it, he thought. Those damn chemicals made me sick. He made a mental note to hit the clinic in the morning before work and fell off the cliff of sleep once again.

*

His heart hammered as he looked in the mirror. The stuff on his chin and jaw was thick, a carpet of brown that seemed to undulate with no outside influence. He rubbed it, and a cloud of dust rose into the air, drifting to rest gently on the mirror. It had grown overnight – not his usual beard stubble, but something supple and soft and warm. Tucker had tried taking a razor to it, but when he did, it reacted violently, going stiff and sending deep shooting pains into his neck. He wished he had a bucket of the stuff they were dumping on Red to dunk his head in, but that seemed like a ship that had sailed.

Okay, I just need to shower. Shower and rest. I can call in sick until I figure something out. Maybe they have something at the clinic.

He stripped down and stepped into the shower, the water warm and comforting. The stuff on his cheeks seemed to react well, and before long, he felt good – better than he had in a long while. He closed his eyes and sat under the water until he was wrinkly, then stepped out, taking his time toweling off. Even though the stuff on his cheeks had grown – he thought he looked like Captain Ahab now – and it was sprouting from his chest and legs, the panic didn’t come. They would have something at the clinic.

He dressed, though the clothing scraped against the growth and made him uncomfortable. Outside, he hailed a cab and rode the way to the clinic in silence, enjoying the sunshine and the warmth of the interior. The cabby was playing something – jazz? He didn’t hate it. He thanked the cabbie and tipped him, though the man took the money gingerly when he noticed the brown fuzz on Tucker’s fingers. Shrugging to himself, he entered the clinic, bright light and warmth coating him like a jacket.

He stepped to the reception desk. The receptionist was small and brunette, though neither of those things meant anything to him now. He could hear the sounds of people – other people in the room. A sniffle here, a polite cough there. He was so warm, and it was comforting. The receptionist looked up, her eyes going wide, and Tucker caught himself in a small mirror hung on the cabinets behind her, probably placed there so the nurses could fix their makeup, or a doctor his hair.

His face was almost completely occluded, the brown mass now a writhing colony. He opened his mouth to ask for help, and instead, a cloud of spores, brown and delicate, burst from his lips. They landed on the receptionist, and she screamed as they began to take root in her skin. Tucker spun, thinking to escape, thinking to not endanger anyone else, but it was so warm, so hot.

He ripped his jacket off and began to unbutton his shirt. The waiting room was chaos now, and some of the patients had fled, but others still sat, waiting. The hardcore addicts. The truly hurt. The ones who thought I’ve seen weirder shit in this city.

His shirt came away, and Tucker felt relief at the loss of sensation against his pods. He looked at the people still in the room and felt full. For the first time since he had started pinching pennies and scrabbling for food, he felt full. He needed to share it. He needed to let everyone know how it felt to be so near contentment.

With a sound like a wet bag tearing, Tucker burst, spores exploding from him like a piñata bearing the plague. They settled on the patients, inhaled by those walking past the doors, sucked into ventilation systems and sent spinning into the atmosphere.

Tucker’s last thought before darkness took him was a simple one: I am free.

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.

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.