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.

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.