The Black Choir

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

 

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

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

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

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

Ashen hearts

Lost and black

Do not

Grow old

Family calls

From Winter’s halls

And swollen tongues”

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

*

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

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

“Body’s ready.”

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

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

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

“Better you than me.”

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

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

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

*

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

“What do you desire?”

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

“You.”

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

“And you, my succubus?”

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

“Watch it, you gobshite!”

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

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

*

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

“I feel like a yak.”

“You look much better than a yak.”

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

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

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

“Will you do the meat?”

“Will you do the meat?” he asked.

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

“Miss Manner

So proper

Lift your skirt

But mind the copper

Mister Hammer

So randy

Drop your trousers

Mind your dandy”

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

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

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

*

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

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

“Please, I need wort for my family!”

“Seven shims.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Qoth fell to his knees and wept.

*

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

“Opening the temple again, Qoth?”

“Oh, aye, aye. Please come.”

“Found your faith again?”

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Welcome, friends. And goodbye.”

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

Here’s the moon

I’ll see you soon

In the land of dreams

Don’t you cry

I’ll be by

To see you in your dreams

So tell me that you love me

Love me so

And don’t you cry

I’ll be by

I’ll see you in your dreams

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

Kudzu in Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is your god?”

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

“Was?”

“Even the ice took him, in time.”

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

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

“And what did you find, little one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krieg was enraptured. “What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are no whales here.”

Her statement took him off guard.

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

She tipped the staff again.

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

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

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

[img: Jason Scheier]

Red in Thought and Deed

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

It Has Always Loved You

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

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

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

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

 *

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“I think so,” you say.

“Tell me about her.”

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

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

“Is that it?” she asks.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

“I’ll have to roll you out of there.”

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

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

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

“Where’s Aimee?”

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

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

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

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

It has always loved you.

Man of the Year

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Tell us about the Culling.

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

 

Are there any criteria for who gets smote?

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

 

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

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

 

So, who did you smite just now?

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

 

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

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

 

Favorite movie?

Easy. Biodome.

 

Really?

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

What was that?

Hare Krishna.

 

Would you characterize yourself as a sadist?

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

 

The worst thing you’ve ever done?

I once smote a three-year-old.

 

What?

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

 

Guilty Pleasure?

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

 

The hardest part of your job?

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

 

One last question. Liberal or Conservative?

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

 

Before we go, any advice for the readers?

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

 

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

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.

 

 

That Thing in Tulsa

An older piece, but a fun write. Re-reading, I see a lot of the flaws that needed working out that I didn’t then. But then we don’t learn from perfect things.

 

That Thing in Tulsa

            They took the dead man wrapped in sheets to the desert.

 

They huddled in the front seat of the car, the radio blaring something by Creedence, while they did their best not to talk about the man in the trunk.  The windows were down, and dust plumed up behind the Monte Carlo, fogging the daylight.  It didn’t bother them that they were going to bury a body in the middle of the day.  It was the Mojave – no one just wandered by, and if they did, what was one more body for the thirsty sand?

 

Dean watched the landscape roll by, tan dunes under blue sky, telephone poles dotting the roadside and receding as they passed.  It had been the same thing for two hours, and he wondered how long before they got to where they were going.  He turned to Carl, and thought about asking, but the man was focused on the road, his eyes unreadable under the dark glasses he wore.  Instead, he scratched the day-old growth on his face, and reached for the radio, with the pretense of fiddling with the knobs.

 

“You got a problem with Creedence?”  The question came out of Carl in a half-growl, and Dean’s hand paused halfway to the radio.  He let it drop, and shook his head.

 

“Nah.  I was just hoping to adjust the balance a bit.  I swear, every time we hit a bump, the shit in the trunk bangs around.”

 

Karl reached down, and turned a knob, and the sound shifted to the back of the car.  “Better?”  He asked.

 

“Yeah, thanks.”  Dean breathed a sigh of relief.

 

He didn’t feel like upsetting a two-hundred-something pound sociopath today.  He turned back to the window, and returned to watching the desert roll by.  He tried not to think of Tulsa, tried to squelch the thought that if management knew, he’d join the man in the back before his time.

 

*

 

After another half-hour, the car slowed, and Carl eased it off the road, and onto the hardpan that preceded the dunes.  They drove another couple of miles, until the ground began to slope downward at the edge of the desert proper, and the sand underneath began to soften.  When it seemed like Carl was never going to stop, maybe just drive into the desert until they ended up as mummies entombed in a steel coffin, the car ground to halt, and he shut off the engine.

 

The radio snapped off, squelching Aerosmith, and they were left with only the sounds of the wind, and the ticking engine as it tried to cool in the morning heat.  They got out, the sound of car doors slamming echoing across the sand, and walked to the trunk.  They stood over it for a moment, while Carl absently fingered the key ring.

 

“Hold your breath, man.”  He said.  “Boy’s gonna be ripe in there.”

 

Dean hadn’t thought of that.  His stomach wanted to turn at the idea.  Carl found the right key, and slipped it into the lock, then turned it.  It opened with a click, and the trunk popped up, a sliver of dark appearing between the fender and the lid.  He slipped his fingers in the gap, and lifted.

 

A smell, like week-old hot garbage, hit them in the face, and they both staggered back.  Dean turned his head to the side, his stomach heaving.  He didn’t relish the idea of puking on his shoes and having that little reminder around all day.  To his left, he could hear Carl cursing between bouts of gagging.  He bent over, and tried to duck his head as close to his knees as possible.

 

Gradually, the smell dissipated, and he gulped down deep lungfulls of air.  When he felt he could breathe again, he stood, and walked to the trunk.  Carl joined him.  The first thing he noticed was that the smell was still there, though it didn’t seem to have its earlier vice-like grip on his stomach.  The second was that he was glad they had made the decision to put the shovels in last.  They lay on top of a bundle of white sheets, already beginning to turn brown and red in spreading stains.  They each grabbed a shovel and stepped away from the trunk.

 

Dean made to close the trunk, and Carl just shook his head.  “Bad idea.  You’ll just get him baking again.  Leave it open so it airs out.”

 

He turned away, and Dean followed.  They walked a few yards from the car, where the sand grew even softer, and began to rise in the soft swell of the first dunes.  Carl stopped, and stabbed his shovel into the sand.

 

“This’ll work.”  He looked up at the sun, which was still a couple hours away from its zenith.  “Let’s get this done before we end up beef jerky.”

 

They began to dig, a slow process made worse by the constantly shifting sand and the ever-increasing heat in the air.  Dean could feel sweat rolling down every inch of his body, and his hands felt burned from the hot wood of the shovel.  He shot a glance over at Carl.  The man was digging, with no indication that anything was bothering him.  His shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a knot, and a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth.  From where he stood, Dean wasn’t even sure the man was sweating.

 

They dug for an hour, and after the third time of the sides cascading down in a miniature landslide, Carl spat into the hole, and threw his shovel down.

 

“Break time.”  He said.  “Grab some water.”

 

Dean nodded, and dropped his shovel.  He wandered back to the car, opening the back door, and digging into the cooler in the back seat.  They had packed half a case of water, and he grabbed two bottles, and then closed the lid.  When he was done, he shut the car, and started back, then paused.

 

The smell had nearly disappeared from the air, and he frowned.  That didn’t seem right, fresh air or not.  He wandered back to the open trunk, and peeked inside.  The long bundle with its dark stains was still there, but it seemed smaller, somehow.  He thought about getting the shovel, and poking it for good measure.  Just to be sure.  Carl’s voice, impatient and annoyed, cut those thoughts off.

 

“Hey, numbnuts!  You bringing that water today?”

 

“Yeah, sorry.  Sorry.”  Dean hurried over to the hole they had been digging.  It was roughly six feet long by three wide, and three deep at this point.  Carl was sitting on the edge.  He looked like he was contemplating hiding from the sun by crawling inside, a thought that made Dean’s skin crawl.  He didn’t really want to spend any time in any grave but his own, and not before his time.

 

He eased down onto the ledge, and tossed Carl one of the water bottles.  Carl caught it neatly, and spun the top off, tipping it up to take three big swallows before taking a breath.  Dean sipped at his, not wanting his stomach to cramp up in the heat, and looked around.  He saw sand on sand on sand, rolling in gentle waves away from him, as far as he could see, until the dunes became a taupe line that met with the blue above.  He looked away, and turned back to Carl.

 

“What’d this guy do anyway?”  He asked, gesturing with his water bottle toward the car.

 

Carl shrugged.  “Dunno.  I think he was a magician, or somethin’.  One of those guys that works Vegas when they can’t get Copperfield.”

 

Dean shook his head.  “No, I mean, what’d he do?”

 

Carl spit into the grave again.  “Oh, that.  Got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.”

 

“Cookie jar?”

 

“The boss’ wife.”  He laughed then, a mean, low sound.  He drained his water bottle, and tossed it into the grave, then stood.  “C’mon.  Let’s get this shit done, and get gone.  I got a beer with my name on it back home.”

 

Dean capped his water and tossed it to the side.  He stood, knuckled the small of his back, and picked up his shovel.  He glanced once more at the horizon, where heat had begun to rise from the desert in wavy mirage lines, and then began to dig.

 

*

 

They finished the grave after another hour.  Carl deemed it good enough after the fifth backslide, and besides, he had said, who was going to find him four and a half feet down after the wind started to blow?  They walked back to the car, shovels in hand, and tossed them off to the side, then stood over the trunk, looking in.  Neither man seemed in a rush to grab the bundle.

 

Carl lit a cigarette, and blew the smoke out in a long plume.  Dean watched it float away, torn to shreds on the wind.  After a minute, Carl seemed to shrug.

 

“Fuck it.  Let’s grab this bastard, and get on.”

 

They approached the trunk, and ducked in.  In the dark under the lid, it was cool, and smelled faintly of must.  The smell of the dead man was just a memory in the air.  They lifted the bundle, and it came easily.  Dean thought it felt lighter than he had imagined a dead man should.  The cloth felt damp, and the thing inside moved like a bag of Jell-O.  Dean tightened his grip, and choked down his rising gorge.  They came back up in the desert heat, and carrying the dead man between them, walked to the grave.

 

When they reached the hole in the ground, they dumped the body in unceremoniously, letting the bundle hit the ground with a muffled thump and squelch.  Carl spat his cigarette to the side.

 

“Go get the shovels.”  He gestured back towards the car.

 

Dean hurried off to run the errand, returning with them a moment later, one in each hand.  When he reached the grave, Carl was standing over it, looking down, his back to Dean.  A thought flashed through his head, an image of a shovel splitting the side of the other man’s skull.  He pushed it away.  Offing your partner was no way to make friends with management.

 

Carl turned, and Dean’s stomach sank.  He was holding a pistol in one hand, its black barrel pointed at Dean’s stomach.  The image of the shovel smashing the other man’s head went through his mind again, but he knew it was too late.  He dropped the shovels and backed up a step.

 

“What’s the deal, man?”  He asked.

 

“Cookies and jars, brother.  I think you know.”

 

Somehow, the things he had done in Tulsa had come full circle.  Management was writing his pink slip.  Carl waved the gun towards the grave as he circled away from Dean.

 

“Get in.”

 

Dean moved toward the grave, his stomach doing somersaults while knotting.  It was an unpleasant sensation.  He stepped over the lip, and down, trying not to step on the bundle at the bottom.  When he was in, he stood only head and shoulders over the edge.  He could see Carl, standing a foot or two away, looking down, the pistol trained on him.  He fought to keep control of his bladder.

 

“Lay down.”  Carl said.  He pulled the hammer on the pistol back, and it clicked like an audible period to the threat.

 

“Fuck.”  Dean whispered.  He crouched, and pushed the bundle to the side.  It was lighter than he remembered, drier.  He lay next to it.  His face was wet, and when he reached a hand up to brush it away, he realized he was weeping.

 

Carl appeared over the edge, a shovel in hand.  The pistol was tucked under his waistband.

 

“You’re doing a good thing here, man.  No begging, no whining, just gonna accept it.  Shame you gotta go.”

 

He hefted the shovel, and pushed a pile of sand into the pit.  Dean could feel its weight when it landed on his legs, warm and soft, but unforgiving.  Another pile came down, and his shoes were already almost buried.  He waited, but another shovelful didn’t come.  He lay trembling, when Carl peeked back over the edge.

 

“Look, not a lot of men would handle this like you are.  That’s why I’m gonna give you a choice.  Truth is, boss says ‘Bury him, Carl.  Bury him and let him bake out there.’, but that seems like a rough way for a guy to go.  You ask me, and I’ll put a bullet in you, make it easy.”

 

Dean didn’t reply.  He wasn’t brave, he was frozen.  He didn’t want to die out here with the buzzards and the heat and the sand, not under it, and not with a bullet in his head.  Carl waited for his answer, and when it didn’t come, the man shrugged, and began to push sand down again.  When the first pile came for his face, he held his breath, and let it filter around him.

 

Shovelful by shovelful, he was buried.  Before long, he could feel the oppressive weight and heat from the sand, pressing him down.  Inch by inch of it seemed to loosen him up somehow, as though his brain had decided today was not the day to die.  He began to blow out small breaths as his face was covered, carefully digging a hollow of air where he could still breathe.  After every shovelful, he would shift his arms and legs slightly, just enough to move the sand around him so he wasn’t packed in.

 

Occasionally, he would pause, his muscles aching from the slow process, his lungs fighting for more air than the scant mouthfuls he was able to draw in.  When he did, he imagined he could hear the sand below him moving, as though the man in the sheet was fighting his fate as well, and it sped his heart and sent a shiver up his spine.

 

He figured he had to be under a foot, maybe a foot-and-a-half of sand, when it stopped coming for a second time.  He lay still in his hollow, and waited.  Maybe Carl had stopped for water.  Hopefully, he’d had a heart attack.  He waited another five minutes, or as close as he could figure, and when it still didn’t come, he began to push himself upward, through the sand, trying to get as close to the surface as possible.

 

He closed his eyes, and turned his head, the sounds of millions of grains of sand shifting against his skin, his ear canals, grating and grinding like the dry rasp of dry skin.  He pushed his head to the surface, until his ear broke the sand.  He could still feel the grains in it, but the world was alive with a sudden clarity, and he listened.

 

Overhead, the wind blew past the lip of the grave with a low, hollow sound.  He strained to hear more – and engine idling, heavy breathing from exertion, footsteps on the hardpan that lay nearby.  He waited like that another five minutes, and when no sound came, he began to pull himself fully from the sand, inch by inch.

 

He sat up, the sand pooling at his midsection, and then pulled his legs free.  He brushed himself off as best as he was able, some of the sand clinging to his face and neck where sweat and tears had made a mud of it.  When he was done, he eased himself onto his haunches, and began to rise towards the lip of the grave.  As he did so, his muscles tensed and threatened to cramp, both from the effort of the slow rise, and the struggle to listen for the sounds of a voice or gunfire.

 

He was all too aware as he rose that the top of his head would be exposed before the rest of him as he peeked, but he realized, when you’re in a grave, being buried alive, you tend not to worry about which part of you might be shot off first.  His eyes crested the lip, and he peered around.

 

Aside from the open car, still sitting on the hardpan, he appeared to be alone.  He scanned the area for a shadow, for movement, or color, but nothing appeared.  Satisfied Carl was either preoccupied, or just up and vanished, he grabbed the edge of the grave, and pulled himself out.  When he was done, he lay on the hot sand, and breathed heavily for a minute, and tried not to weep with relief.

 

He rolled on his side, and felt pressure in his ribs.  When he rolled back and sat up, he found he had rolled onto a shovel, left lying alone.  He stood, and wandered over to the car.  The back door was open, the cooler cracked.  He opened it, and grabbed a water bottle out, spinning the cap onto the ground.  He splashed the water over his head and his face, and tried to scrub the mud and sand out.  When he was done, he dropped the bottle and grabbed another, taking deep swallows of the still-cool liquid.

 

When he was done, he closed the door, and got in the driver’s seat.  The keys were still in the ignition.  He tried them once, and the engine turned over, purring to life with a low rumble.  He sat in the seat with the door open, and flipped on the air.  After the day he’d had, he was past caring about wasting it.

 

He wondered where Carl had got off to, and realized he didn’t much care, and didn’t feel like waiting around to find out.  He closed the door, and put the car in gear.  For a moment, he considered gathering up the shovels and the trash, and finishing the grave.  When presented with the possibility of Carl returning, and the fact that the wind would move the sand and bury the evidence in only a few hours, he dropped the idea.

 

The car pulled smoothly off the hardpan and onto the blacktop.  The afternoon sun was in full bloom, and baked heat in waves from every inch of the desert and road.  Inside, the air conditioning had already begun to slip a chill into the car, and content for the moment, Dean flipped on the radio.

 

Blue Oyster Cult began belting out Don’t Fear the Reaper, and he turned it.  A little too on the nose.  He changed the station, and found Otis Redding.  He left it there, and settled back in the seat.  Ahead, the road curved, and he took it a bit faster than he had intended to.  Something in the trunk slid, and thumped against the interior.

 

His heart skipped a beat, and he glanced in the rearview.  Nothing hovered into view.  He returned to the road when a thought hit him.  Nothing in the rearview.  He braked hard, and heard the thing in the trunk slam against the seat backs.  He pulled the car to the side of the road, still miles of desert on each side.  He knew the excuses for missing the closed trunk, but he still berated himself.

 

He fished under the seat for a minute, hoping to find a spare weapon – a gun, a knife – he’d settle for a wiffle bat.  He came up empty, and sat up.  He considered running the car to town and leaving it in an alley, but he knew the thought of the thing in the trunk would dig itself under his skin until he found out what it was.

 

He took a breath, and steeled himself, then stepped out.  Gravel on the shoulder crunched under his shoes as he walked to the trunk.  When he reached it, he stood over the lid, and fingered the keys, listening to them chime, hearing the wind blow sand in grating drifts across the road.  This wasn’t something he wanted to do, but something compulsion required he do.

“Fuck it.”  He muttered, and unlocked the trunk.

 

The lid sprung with a click, and he stepped back, the smell of hot meat rolling from the dark insides.  It wasn’t as bad as the putrid smell he had encountered earlier, but it was enough to make him wait a discrete distance until the odor dissipated.

 

The air cleared, he stepped forward, and lifted the lid the rest of the way.  The interior, previously shaded by the lid, was thrown into full relief by the afternoon sun.  Inside, a shape huddled, big, with scraggly hair.  Dean reached out, and rolled it onto its back.

 

The body turned, and he found himself staring into the remains of Carl’s face.  Dean found himself wondering where the man’s sunglasses were.  He looked at the red, fleshless ruin, and decided he didn’t care.  He shut the trunk, his stomach turning. He got back in the car, and started it up.  He knew he should ditch the body, probably ditch the car.  He also knew getting picked up by state patrol while wandering around would require a lot of explaining.

 

He closed the door.  From the back seat, a voice spoke up.

 

“Hey.”

 

Dean flicked a glance at the rearview.  After the day he’d had, he was officially out of the capacity to be shocked.  A man sat in the relative shadows in the back.  He was wearing a cheap dusty tux, and his skin looked pale, stretched.  Carl’s sunglasses were perched on his nose.

 

“Hey.”  Dean said.

 

“Feel like a road trip, kid?”  The man’s voice was dry, scratchy.

 

Dean shrugged.  After what he’d seen in the trunk, after what had happened in the sand, he knew he should be afraid, but he was past being frightened of the things that came from the desert that day.

 

“Sure.  Where we goin’?”

 

From the back seat, the man lit a cigarette, and blew a plume of smoke out.  He pointed past Dean’s shoulder.

 

“Vegas, baby.”

 

Dean drove.