Via Dolorosa

Pain can blot out the world, make the details go missing like a cataract occluding vision. Right then, Maria was missing the smell of trash stacked almost waist-high in the alley, the taint of sewage clinging to a brick wall where the grates had belched up steam, and the ripple-rustle sound of rats scurrying through black plastic, their claws opening holes in the bags and spilling milk rings and coffee grounds, apple rinds and eggshells. Instead, she winced and braced herself against a wall that was clear of trash but tagged with paint that had dripped and run, layer on layer marking and demarking ownership, like a map redrawn by a mad cartographer.

There was something wrong with her, something in her guts writhing and drawing her life, feeding on joy and normalcy the way children suckle on mother’s milk. It wasn’t the C-word. Cancer. That’s how she thought of it every time it came up, every time it intruded on memory, a guest waving a cleaver at a tea party. The C-word had taken her mother. It had touched her father near the end, when he had finally decided to give up the cigarillos and the rotgut. Every now and then, she would smell those things – smoke and whiskey – drifting by on a breeze, and she’d think no. No. He was gone, and the specter of the thing that had taken him wouldn’t haunt her for longer than it took to walk away from the scent and think of happier things.

And still the specter lurked. So she had gone to the doctor, with the C-word on her lips, and suffered with patience the seemingly-infinite pinpricks and bone punctures and machines that irradiated you in hopes of finding what it was that was killing you. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t the C-word, and the doctors said it wasn’t killing her, but of course it was. Of course it was. Inch by inch, in tightening bands in her stomach and back that crawled under her skin like a python in her guts. Of course it was.

They’d told her she had other options. They sent her to a pain specialist, and there were pills and electro therapy and physical therapy. But it didn’t matter. The pain ignored it, laughed at it the way you laugh at the blows of an angry child. She had tried homeopathy and naturopathy and acupuncture. Chiropractic therapy and massage. She had seen brujas and witches, Romani women with high cheekbones and dark eyes, Wiccans and Christian Scientists. In the end, the pain remained, and her money didn’t.

She moved from her house to an apartment, and then from the apartment to a rental motel, her belongings piled to the sides of the single room and in the back of her beat-up car like the trash in the alley. She had sold the things she could, and bartered what she couldn’t, and soon even those would be gone as the money went from scarce to extinct, the last wheeze of a desperate life. Work was hard to come by – no one wanted a broken woman who could only make it five, six hours before the pain settled in and took control, forcing her to a halt as she huddled in her threadbare chair and made fists that left her palms sore. She scavenged, finding things in cast-offs from far wealthier homes, and in back alleys like this one, and chuckled when the words Reduce, Reuse, Recycle flitted through her head.

And then she’d found it. Scribbled on the wall of a restroom in a Denny’s. Two words. Brother Pain. She’d sat the toilet, her eyes trying to unfocus with the ache in her guts, and stared. Brother Pain. It seemed like a taunt. Like a promise. She found a pen in her purse, and scribbled beside it Who, then went home and sat in front of the small TV the motel provided, and watched Seinfeld reruns until her eyes grew heavy and her breathing steady.

*

  She found five dollars in her purse the next morning. Enough for a coffee, and she drove to Denny’s, her stomach in turns aching and shivering. She ordered the coffee and sat until the waitress stared, then left the cup and went to the stalls. She opened the door and held her breath, anticipation like a wire under her flesh. She looked. There, beneath Who, were the words the alleys. Disappointment flashed through her, then curiosity. What alleys? Where? She left the stall, and sat in her car for a time. Florence + The Machine played a dirge on the radio. She started the car and drove.

*

That first week was like a scavenger hunt. She would find traces of him on brownstone walls hidden from the sun, on dumpsters scummed over with grease and worse, slicker things. Always but a word or two, always just a glimpse.

NOT HERE

CLOSER

GO BACK

This last scribbled on a rest stop mirror in lipstick once red, now the color of clotted blood. In a stall beneath flickering lights someone shuffled, and she heard the sound of steel on steel. She’d fled into the night and looked elsewhere.

Maria had stumbled through alleys choked with refuse, both garbage and human. Some shouted at her, some groped, gnarled hands digging into flesh, bruising her private self, leaving her skin crawling hours afterward. She dodged a man wielding a broken bottle, an emaciated pitbull at his side. The dog looked at her with sad eyes, as if to say This is where pain ends, this is where pain leads, and she looked away, moving from the man’s small hovel of scrap pressed against the side of a building that looked as if the cost of the fixtures alone could have fed a small army.

And now here, it was the last. It was the last she would – could – check, the pain having moved, grown, staking its claim like a rogue nation annexing its neighbors. It was in her knees, in her shoulders. It stabbed her with unseen claws just below the breastbone. She was ravaged, emaciated. She was cold and aching, and her thoughts flitted from one thing to the next, as though landing on any one topic would give the pain purchase. She gasped, taking her breath back for a moment, and pulled her hand away from the wall. Over all the layers of paint and grime, one word had been scrawled, the hand hard, frantic.

HERE

Her heart skipped a beat, and she held still, fearful that this was the last step. She would find her Brother Pain, and drop at his feet. She swayed, then steadied, and with a gentle sigh, stepped further into the dark.

*

The alley became a chapel. Not in the literal sense. Maria felt the atmosphere clear, a bucolic summer day in winter. The trash that had sculpted the walls of the space into a defile of decay thinned, and then disappeared. Here, men and women still slept or leaned against cool walls, but they seemed content. They nodded as she passed, raised a hand in greeting. And there, at the end, a simple shack built between the buildings, corrugated tin propped against one another into standing walls and a roof, the opening between them draped with a bedsheet that had been printed in crimson and gold paisley. A man stood before it, hands clasped before him.

“A supplicant approaches!” he echoed across the brick, and Maria cringed. The people in the alley echoed. “Be she worthy!”

The man before the door swept the curtain to the side, indicating she was to enter. Maria paused while the pain intensified, as though it knew this place was the last stop, the last terminal on the Underground. A whimper escaped her lips. No one moved to help. This was a test, she knew. Could she meet Brother Pain on her own two feet? Would she be worthy? The pain passed, and she crept toward the door, the man beside it smiling. Gray whiskers lined his cheeks, wiry in the light. He smiled, brown teeth a testament to his vice. She wondered if it had been the C-word for him. What the Brother had done for his grizzled guts. He nodded, and she stepped into the chapel.

Darkness engulfed her for a moment as her eyes adjusted. It crept back in stages – here, a small wooden table, a Coleman lamp sputtering out light. There, a chair draped with a comforter. Here, a bedroll made neat, a ratty pillow at its head. There, a man, sitting, his skin the color of wet earth. He was wrapped in an old army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt. He gestured at the chair covered by the comforter, and she sat. He smiled, his eyes rheumy, and reached a hand out, placing it on hers. His skin was nearly feverish, though his touch was dry.

“And at last, you have come. What do you offer?”

Her mind skirled in panic. She stammered. “I- I have nothing.”

He shook his head. “All things in balance, and all things true. You have more than you know.”

She forced her mind to settle, forced herself to take steady, even breaths until the pain dulled to a low roar. She had given her money. She had given her time. She had given her home and her things. She seized upon something.

“I have a car.”

He shook his head.

“I have-“ she rummaged in her purse, came up with ten dollars and a pin her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. It was a gold hummingbird, tiny rubies for the eyes. They glinted in the light, and she remembered how small it looked in his hands as he held it out for a gift. The last thing he had given her before his blood turned thick, before his eyes yellowed and his breath came in ragged gasps. Tears blurred her vision for a moment. “I have this.”

He shook his head again, and frustration rose in Maria. Of all the things she had given, that was her most precious. Even when she had been forced to wait beside restaurant dumpsters for cast-off food, she hadn’t entertained the idea of parting with it. She opened her mouth to ask him what he wanted, anger making her tongue bitter. He stopped her by touching her stomach, once.

“What can you trade?”

Realization lit her thoughts. “My pain.”

He nodded, and pressed his hand against her stomach. It swirled and growled, and the pain rose, rose, rose to a crescendo, the crashing of a tsunami against her soul. Maria cried out, and her vision doubled, trebled. Brother Pain was saying something, but she just wanted it to end. She wanted it out. She took the pin in her hand and opened it, intending for a single thrust. She raised her hand, and-

It was done.

She lowered the pin, and took a breath. No pain lanced her. No ache tormented her. She looked across at the man in the chair, his eyes closed. A smile trickled across his lips. After a moment, he raised a hand.

“This is a good trade.”

She stood, and made her way from the shack on legs unsteady from newfound relief. She stood in the half-light outside, the men and women in the alley smiling at her. The man beside the door raised a hand.

“Via dolorosa!” he shouted.

“Via dolorosa!” they replied.

Maria found herself repeating it. She stood for another minute, until they brought her a bedroll and a hunk of bread and water. She bedded down as close to the chapel as she could get. The light faded from the day, and she sat alone in the dark for a while. She had given all she could, but would give a little more. She had earned her reprieve, but felt the balance uneven. When she finally drifted to sleep, sweet untroubled sleep, it was with his words on her lips.

“This is a good trade.”

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.

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.