Category Archives: Fiction

Only Happy When It Rains

Edmund Barker

The summer of 1996 still sits in my head like a tumor, and if I’m patient enough, I can sift through the hysteria to remind myself of little details, both important and vague. It was a summer when op ed cartoons about the presidential race all blended together, when my favorite possessions were my Doc Martens and a Smashing Pumpkins poster over my bed, and when I was called into the police office for questioning three times before I left for community college on the mainland.

At that point in life I still lived in Port Quatermass on San Juan Island, one of many islands dotting the Salish Sea a ferry ride away from Seattle or Vancouver. The funny name of the town comes from a Mr. Tom Quatermass, folk hero extraordinaire whose story had been hammered into us all through a hundred grade school assembly plays. We knew how to recite the details before we knew the pledge of allegiance: the guy was the rich son of a logger boss who joined the French Foreign Legion out of boredom and got an eye shot out in the Gallipoli campaign for his troubles. He hightailed it back to Seattle and barely survived the flu of 1918, losing the use of his other eye and, despite all evidence of God having it out for him, turning over a new religious leaf in the hospital. So he used daddy’s money to buy a cannery here on the island, changed the name of the place from Port Salish to something more personal, and had all his workers convert to his new Christian sect and give up booze and red meat. I used to think it was the sort of meaningless trivia they use to fill those bronze plaques outside of historical lighthouses, but I had no idea what the truth is. In the retelling of my story, I’m sure you’ll think “This woman is crazy and looking for attention!” but I encourage you to take the old ferry out to Port Quatermass and ask around if you have doubts—if you still want to by the end of this.

Anyways, enough Edwardian era, back to the dial up era. I thought of old Mr. Quatermass often, whether I liked it or not, because his statue and the historical society were right across the street from the VHS rental store where I worked. The statue had one eye absent, sans eyepatch, and the other one painted a glazed blue. It wasn’t a nice sight those times I pulled the night shift, rewinding old tapes and hoping they didn’t go pop in the machine. I got some consolation from the name of the shop, though, since it was called One Eye Videos. At least someone else in the town looked at this whole Quatermass story with a bit of humor.

But the creepy statue, or the being alone at 9:30, or the chugging of the VCR machines doing their rewinding wasn’t what I first remembered from the night of the 20th. No, my summer of scares began when a big PBS documentary tape was knocked over on one of our dingy wall shelves and cracked open on the floor. I was too worried about the tape being broken to think about what might have knocked it over, so I ran over to check. Picking it up, I was startled by who I thought was a customer standing right in front of me, until I got a closer look. She seemed about my age, dressed like my grandmother with her hoop skirt and cardigan. I thought she was coming from some sort of costume party, but even with that in mind, I was startled by the gauze wrapped around her head and the blood trickle on her temples. It wasn’t just that she wasn’t looking at me, but she seemed totally oblivious to my gawky staring at her. It was then that my mind turned to thought of the paranormal, against all logic. This woman wasn’t baby blue and see through like ghosts are in the movies, but she still didn’t seem to be all there, a bit blurry and dimly lit like a VHS tape wearing out. She stumbled as she stepped, hobbling down the aisle as I was petrified there, before walking right through the back wall and leaving me alone.
With twenty years hindsight, I suppose now I should have followed store protocols and asked her what genres she was looking for.

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In The Company of Birds

Isabel Carpenter-Zehe

 

There once was a beautiful princess, who lived in a jade castle on an island filled by all sorts of colorful birds. Every day the princess would watch the birds fly from the tall tower in which she inhabited. She watched the blue birds swirl in-between the green tips of trees, and the pink birds dive through the dense jungle to grab a bug or other tasty snack from below. She watched red birds flutter through the garden, pausing every so often before leaping off into flight. The ceaseless dance of the birds through the jungle was one of the princess’ only forms of entertainment. For she had been stuck in the tower since the day she was born. Although she was beautiful and intelligent and ever so sweet she was also cursed.  

The days before the princess’ birth, the Jade town celebrated. The king and queen loved each other very much and their marriage had brought together the warring towns of jade and emerald. A child would solidify the love between them as well as the two towns’ alliances. The queen often had dreams of the beautiful princess still in her womb. In her dreams the world was white and clean and pure. In the center of the purity lay a little red baby wrapped in a blue silk scarf. When she moved to get closer to the baby, the woman realized that the scarf the baby was wrapped in was the exact color of the sea that she had spent days watching as a child. When she moved the scarf she saw a baby with ruby red skin and eyes. The baby was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. However when she knelt down to pick the girl up, she crumbled and fell apart in her arms. And the queen wept for the crumbling of the girl was the most beautiful aspect of all.

When she told her husband, the king, of this dream, he rejoiced. “What beautiful melancholy our daughter has been blessed with!” he cried “You are giving birth to beauty itself!”

And so the king declared that the jade town would celebrate for thirty days and thirty nights until his beautiful, pure and clean daughter was born.

The town celebrated with the birds, the vivid colors of the citizen’ silks blending in with the many colors of the birds’ feathers. It was said that for a brief time it was impossible to tell between man and bird, it was just a beautiful swirl of colors colliding in the jungle.

The princess came into this earth quietly. When she was born she did not scream or cry as most babies do, but instead she curiously looked around as if in awe of the strange new world she now resided in. The mother however did wail. The little girl, though beautiful like in the mother’s dreams, was born with a hideous tumor on her left thigh. It swelled so large and bulbous it almost reached the child’s knee. It oozed a yellow pus and in the right light it was said that one could even see teeth in the growth. When the king saw his daughter he was appalled.  The midwives assured him that the tumor wouldn’t hurt her, that although it was unpleasant to look at, the girl was safe and healthy. The king would not believe their comforting words. Although the tumor was not dangerous, it was the king’s shame. I cannot show the world my ugly, malformed daughter, he thought. For who would rally behind a king that created such a black mark on the white paper of his rule. “This is not my beautiful daughter!” he cried, “This demon is cursed and will bring sickness and death upon my people.”

And so the king declared that his beautiful baby daughter must spend the rest of her days locked in the tallest tower in the jade castle where no one could see the king’s shame.

Life went on. While the king and queen fretted about their appearances, the princess grew up lonely and lovely. She spent her days with the raven master who sent out messages for her powerful parents. In turn for her company the raven master taught the girl how to read and write. The girl had an affinity for poems. Despite the fact that her poems were often tediously constructed, and sometimes lacked a point, the pure meditative concentration that the princess showed when working on them always brought a tear to the eye of the raven master.

 

The window of the princess always seemed to have a feathered inhabitant, whether it be the ravens, of the raven master, or the colorful birds of the forest, they all loved to come and visit the lonely girl in the tower. When the raven master died the princess took to telling the birds her poems. She would elegantly concentrate on the construction of words and wait for them to take meaning. The princess always had a new poem for the birds when they arrived in her tower, and a poem for herself after they left. And so she spent her days, in quiet contemplation, in poetry, and in the company of birds.

Meanwhile the king and queen desperately tried for another child. One that could negate the malformation of the princess. One that was truly the pure, clean, and beautiful child from the queen’s dream. For years and years they tried until a midwife proclaimed mournfully that the queen was barren and could never have another child. The king raged for days. This must be some terrible trick of the gods he thought. For the pure child they promised me exists only in dreams while the child you gave me is horrendous and malformed.

Thus the king decided to adopt a peacock. It seemed like the next best thing for the jade town had almost as many bird inhabitants as it had people. If my halls cannot be filled with a beautiful child then I shall fill it with a beautiful bird, he thought. The peacock he adopted was a glamorous thing. It was at least three times larger than a normal bird and its great tail span could take up a whole tearoom. Its tail feathers were colored a glorious mix of blues and greens, and the tips of the tail were tinged with gold. The king and even the queen grew to love the peacock as the child they pretended to never have had.

They let the bird have everything. They covered his large body with elegant rubies and sapphires and got the jeweler to custom create a tiny jade crown for the bird. They fed the bird fine meals. And even confided in the bird the secret fears and desires. They gave the bird everything except its freedom.  Without freedom, birds wither away. For they are not meant to be confined to the roles of a human life. The king and queen killed their magnificent peacock by trying to make it be everything it never was.

After the peacock’s death, the princess grew terribly sick. It began with a terrible cough that destroyed her from the inside. At first she coughed up heaps of blood, but soon the princess began coughing up bits of her lungs as well. Ironically the illness wasn’t brought on by the tumor on her leg, but a sneeze passed from her maid to her. It was the sickness of the clean people the king claimed to rule that was killing his daughter. When the maid saw the girl hunched over in her brown dress coughing up bits of herself in a pool of blood she raced to the find the king and queen. Shocked by the suddenness of the girl’s sickness and how it eerily correlated with the death of the peacock, the king and queen rushed to their daughter’s side. But by the time they had got to the tower the princess had already died. In the pool of blood that presided by her mouth lay small scraps of stained paper. When the king knelt down to pick them up he saw his daughter’s tedious, beautiful poems. The king read each and every one again and again. He saw how each of the words effortlessly combined to make something terribly meaningful, or sometimes not meaningful at all. And then the king finally realized that he had, and had always had, his clean, pure, and beautiful daughter all along.

The king and queen wept in mourning for thirty days and thirty nights. But the king thanked the gods. Thank you he thought, thank you for teaching me what true beauty really is.

 

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The Art of After

Becky Shirley

All romantics meet the same fate someday
-Joni Mitchell, The Last Time I Saw Richard

He presses the metal tab at the top of the beer can back and forth, back and forth, trying to force it to break. He does this nonchalantly, this small destruction, and never stops looking at my face.

Admit it.

No. Never

You hear this song and think of me. Continue reading

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450 Feet Deep

Blake Vincent

 

A group of students sat around a flickering ambiance amid the gardens of the third level’s common space, a scene of controversy and delight, naturally a scene for conversational types and opinionated twerps. Media pavilions, where salons such as this took place, also housed seminars, dramas, and screwball entertainment. Public screenings of old-time entertainment, or rather live-action films shot on site, gave vivid portrayals of cities and the countryside. Great cities, hundreds of feet high, sometimes high enough to touch the clouds; ancient places old enough to remember the dawn of tools that seemed so elementary compared to how complicated it was to support a human life in the modern age. In this year of 2209, the buildings and pilings of Venice, Italy lay preserved 20 meters below sea level. New Orleans was nowhere to be seen. New York looked like an old viewing monitor thrown into a lagoon. Paris became a cesspool of disease after the catacombs flooded into the water supply and then into the streets. Some ancient rat burrow in the walls of the catacombs, filled with shit and rot, had been a cozy place for the Plague to rest.  Meanwhile, the spirit of the Holy Roman Empire plotted its revenge. These entertaining regressions into the past made the rotting corpses of former humanity look like shiny, new pennies.

Reservations for the pavilions were hard to book, but the rules were the rules since the keeper of reservations was not a human prone to favoring friends and incentives. Booking far in advance was recommended. The cavern lights had changed from the pale blue of refracted and synthetic sunlight, to a deep indigo in which the light fixture centered within the group danced. Complimentary colors projected onto the faces of the youth, created a dramatic scene, a coming of age, an opening of eyes. Not to mention an orchestration of hormones, intensely jumping. Boys and girls sitting in the laps of their partners, mismatching in the fluid representation of gender, caressing, drinking, whispering to one another. One of them, a boy wearing a grey-blue jumpsuit, stared at a paper-thin, illuminated screen and began to read a story written by a resident of IS095 in former Italy from an online forum for the mythologically fixated, those who meant to leave a new legacy of legend. This story resembled that of a genesis, but out of harsh transitions, a shift in history nearly splitting the Earth in two. The youth inhaled:

 

450 Feet Deep

 

Harime, leapt up into the mountains using their great stature and many limbs, a total of six arms and two legs. They observed the horizon and, bending beyond the curvature of the Earth, thousands of miles in the distance.

“Smoke and fire,” they whispered to themself, cringing. Flaring their nostrils: detected, “the blood of the poor, depleted and thick. I can smell the rot of entrails.” Facial muscles quivered, “not only this,” eyes squinted for the sake of focus but trying not to bulge with passionate rage, “I see windows filled with materials of irrelevant value, heavily guarded livestock, greenhouses, grain silos with snipers on watch…”

Piles of starved bodies, bloated and jaundiced, people shot down in desperation for food and shelter, were removed from the perimeter on a daily basis by military personnel who had most likely been the ones to take these poor souls down in the first place. Harime retracted their hyperopia and fixed their eyes down on the scuttling masses dawdling in the valley below, waiting to be told any kind of news. The parents’ faces were creased with anxiety while the children, or rather those not fully grasping their own grave circumstances, played in the growing enclosure of snow.

Harime began to weep secretly, knowing that in the distance there were humans that would not survive, had not survived, and that currencies and material values had crushed their value as living beings. At this point, their fates were interlocked with their oppressors all because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regionalized economic reforms had sealed in communities, who, if found to be migrating against the flow of capital, were executed or in the very least, or most, were herded into ghettos.

In the distance Harime saw a figure mirrored to that of their own intended design but immediately recognizable as male. His legs wide in a power stance, eyes flaming like the Devil. Harime’s grip tightened on the tools of their trade: a hammer, a chisel and a lesbian rule, ‘Just as that rule is not rigid but can be bent to the shape of the stone, so a special ordinance is made to fit the circumstances of the case.’

Harime cast their eyes down onto the people of the valley again and made a sweeping motion with their three right hands to signal the direction of the emigrants. When Harime looked back, the towering male figure held an…

“Hold on…” chimed in Xifeng, a Chinese immigrant around the age of 22 who’d been exceptionally aware of the point of view of the story being very distant from the experience of the East. Her black bangs shuffled on her forehead as she surveyed her peers’ expressions, “I do not expect coverage of experience from all fringes of society or


 

¹Aristotle (1934). Rackham, H. (trans.), ed. “Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5 Chapter 10.”

 

anything. In something so short this is not possible. But it’s as if there is just the Capitalists in that far off land and nothing like the country I left. At least I interpret this.”

“You mean to say they don’t say enough about Asia and the capitalist regime over there?” A boy of about the same age suggested.

“Right,” continued Xifeng, “I am not complaining, you understand.” Her face shrunk a little thinking of towering luxury apartments surrounded by slums, ghettos; makeshift oxygen masks shared among family members. “It is sad to think that the rest of the world sees China and our neighbors as a helpless situation. Harime seems remorseful, but the narrator…once again, it is personal.”

“I think most of us know what happened there,” one more aloof members of group said, “it’s sad but there’s too much power concentrated in that area, too much violence to make a worthwhile attempt to help those people; also too risky for public health. If we took refugees from there, they’d be quarantined for at least two generations. What’s the point in that?”

Xifeng, her head rising up like the phoenix she was named after, looked up at this know-it-all named Zachary and solemnly sneered, “That’s not the point.”

“I was just saying. You’re so worked up, it’s like you think we could have saved those people—

“Th-Those people?!”

“Ok, yes, your people.” This made Xifeng turn almost purple with exasperation, and Zachary, failing to read her obvious discomfort, continued: “We couldn’t have done that without inciting violence from the Capitalist Confederacy. No chance.” He folded his arms and turned his head in obstinacy, but once a shuddering sigh crept from Xifeng’s mouth he blurted, “Ah, Xi, no I’m sorry. You know it’s true though, c’mon. You’re one of the luckiest fuckers for even being here, I can’t deny that. We all know that.” He looked around for approving looks from his friends only to find they projected an air of, You fucked up, Zach. Why do you always get so defensive? “What? I apologized to her!”

“Stop talking like she’s not here, you can be so insensitive…”

“Wha–!?” Most of the group knew how much they could learn from her, from her experiences in a land overrun by gluttony. Flecks of memories shined in her eyes for every misfortune witnessed. Oxygen muzzles with restricted timed releases, chains, frostbite; all danced in her mind’s eye. Pressed suits of wealthy bodies contrasted with vinyl quarantine suits on blistering skin pulled taught over brittle bone. Her circumstances surpassed any attempted emotional reparations that pity could provide. Empathy could not even pretend to be feigned in this group. Except for three of the fifteen students gathered here who’d seen the world, settlements beyond IS2087.

Natural and social disasters plagued the majority of the ISs, but none had seen the atrocities wrought on by the New Aristocracy of the Capitalist Confederacy in Eastern Asia. China remained a mecca for wealthy investors well past its expiration date. Leaders in fear of a toppling society reluctantly put their faith in Western money. Currency and technology at gunpoint was a tantalizing prospect after decades of pandemics thought to be related to the flooded, Plague ridden catacombs of Paris. Either way, the false hope in currency proved fatal to the people in major cities. Residents of the countryside were at least spared the blatant, systematic dismantling of human rights and gasped their last breaths in air containing only 4.1% oxygen. The group shifted their attention back to Xifeng.

“I am all right.” She’d gotten used to being an object of pity. “The absence in the story is sometimes more of a reminder of what I left behind than an outright recalling of the events that took place there. That is all I mean to say.”

IS2087, among its global counterparts, had no shortage of awe despite its lavish technology. The human need for mystery, an obsession with the unsolved, went from the former world of certain superstition to uncertain speculation. Advancements in theoretical time travel had introduced a stronger understanding of what was interpreted as the Divine and the supernatural. Once the “bugs in the system” had been exposed as interacting streams of space-time, ghosts, angels, and all forms of apparitions and unexplained phenomena were studied in much different ways; in both the media and most definitely the scientific community.

Given the mainly secular environment, Western religion had taken a new turn with a great heave and, as any Capitalist separatist would have put it, “…an even mightier push back! So have the perverted taken a hold on all Earthly delight, traded in the authority of God for the ramblings of an idealistic, indulgent sinner hiding behind the Shroud of Turin!” this, however, being straight from the horse’s mouth. The Reverend Rex Idle spat foaming loads onto the microphone and into the poorly filtered and restrictively oxygenated air in a giant, refurbished, roofed pit, which used to be the city of Jacksonville, Mississippi. As his orgasm-inducing, surgically implanted device spiked along with his endorphins and increased cognitive excitement (not to be confused with activity), his legs would tighten and his face twitched a little bit. The air made his mouth like sandpaper and his saliva glands didn’t gleek so much as froth as he spoke with all that condemnation in his voice.

 

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Yvorsk

Nicholas Bense

Check out the prequel here!

Yessique drifted. Just a hunk of matter in the vast empty. She knew only herself. Only her breath. In and out. In and out. No thoughts. Not enough oxygen. Not enough to think. Just her breath. Each one. Little more shallow. Another. Closer. To the last.

Continue reading

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Downpour

Denali White

Her favorite toy had always been the rain. All of the different kinds of it: when it fell in sheets, when it settled into a lazy drizzle, when it crackled with electricity.

She was four. Four year-olds don’t understand disaster. At least, not real disaster. She still cried about the dinosaurs, sometimes. She would run up all small, and grimy, and tear-streaked, and she’d wail something awful about asteroid collisions and volcanic ash blotting out the sun.

Then it would rain, and she would run out into it, shrieking and clapping, dancing in the thunder, and she would squirm and twist in your arms like a wet fish when you tried to drag her inside.

When the first flash flood happened, she wore a cape.

It was a cheap one. Made of Halloween fabric, the kind that was stretchy and itchy and fake. It clung to her neck like an awful tattoo. Constricted tighter and tighter, made heavy and sharp by the weight of the water.

When she slipped in the driveway, she was small enough it almost covered her. The water rushed thick and dark and muddy around her, dragging that terrible fabric behind like an army standard. You ran in and swooped her up in your arms, and she felt like a doll. Cold and limp and sagging.

The next rainy day she was back outside. She threw a blanket over a rock, climbed on top and said it was a saddle on a stegosaurus. She rode that dinosaur long into the soupy mist. By the time she came back inside, she had that look in her eyes (you know the one) and she said she’d battled a T. rex. You didn’t have the heart to tell her that stegosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex lived millions of years apart, that they lived in completely different worlds.  One day she would be old enough to read about dinosaurs, and then she could break her own heart.

When the second flash flood happened, she was on a bicycle.

It had been a Christmas gift, that one. It was short and made of plastic, and one of the wheels rattled with small pebbles she had shoved in through a worn-out hole in the fake tread. You remembered what she looked like riding it into the street, down and down the gradual slope, her feet pumping at the pedals then skidding against the asphalt as she ground to a brake.

You plucked her off of the bike and lifted her up, hands rough around her armpits, and carried her inside to sanctuary.

You watched as she watched the bicycle drift away, floating on a murky current, hollow plastic held aloft.

The rain had never been this bad before. Never quite so violent. It was cruel to the other toys, but still, she would run out into it, laughing and shrieking.

The storm that followed was worse than all of the floods. The earth rumbled, and lightning lit up the night, but the rain was so sparse it could hardly be felt or seen against the pavement. She loved it anyways. Prancing around on the carpet, staring out the window and giddy with an overall sense of delight.

The next day was smoke. A lot of it. Filling the sky, clouding the yard and the streets, descending from the burning hills. You bent down, tried to look into her eyes, which were blown wide with excitement and wonder, tried to get her to find and collect all of her favorite toys so that she could bring them with her in case of evacuation.

You waited, and tuned the radio, and failed to stop her from pushing past and running out into the smoke-drenched valley, where her hair shone against a bloated, bloody sunset, glowing fierce and orange like the firelight. It was the most beautiful and terrible thing you had ever seen.

By the time you had to leave, the smoke was billowing around her, seeping into her lungs. She coughed and wiped streaks of tears from her ash-dusted face. You lifted her up again, hoisted her part of the way over your shoulder where she could curl into you, carried her towards the awful, breathtaking sunset into the car.

A flock of crows took to the sky, trying in vain to flee from the smoke. You remembered, in that moment, that birds were ancestors of dinosaurs.

It wasn’t until you had passed several police cars parked as blockades, smoke reflecting an ambient blue and red glow in the smoky fog around them, that you realized she had not grabbed the backpack full of toys you had asked her to pack should you be forced to leave.

But then, the rain had always been her favorite toy.

You gazed into her face, at her closed eyes, at her cheek resting against the cool windowpane, and thought that maybe she understood disaster better than anyone.

 

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Catharsis

Denali White

There is nothing more primitive than praying for the weather. Except for maybe the desire to curl up in a pile of warm laundry. Or maybe the two are interrelated, as most things are, and stem back to an even deeper desire that bridges and transcends them both.

I glance outside and hope it doesn’t rain.

The washing machine reads 39 minutes. It hums beneath me with a comforting warmth, my dangling feet tapping a steady beat against the smooth white door, which is closed as if to trap in a yawning portal to the underworld, my clothing thudding against it as if my Calvin Kleins and Converses and Lucky Brand Jeans were hammering on the door in an attempt to get out.

Ever notice that sometimes, when you use too many metaphors in quick succession, you lose track of what you were describing?

It’s easy to lose track of things in a laundry room. The basket-loads of lost socks behind the machines can attest to that.

I’m the only one actually sitting in the room. Maybe other people have better things to do than wait in laundry rooms. Personally, I derive a weird satisfaction from it, a high of sorts. Maybe it’s the warmth and sound of all of the machines fooling me into viewing them as anything other than dispassionately cold and built only to fulfill a function with the greatest possible efficiency.

The washing machine reads 34 minutes. It’s a countdown to absolution or salvation or something equally religious.

Then a woman walks into the room and claims the machine directly adjacent to mine. She inserts her clothes and detergent, slams the door shut, then clambers up on top of the machine to perch there rather pensively. I stare for a moment, then go back to gazing out the window at the dreary sky spread like a gray blanket over the horizon. The clouds are on the cusp of rain. They’ve been on the cusp of rain since my machine read 44 minutes. I wish I’d remembered to check the weather forecast when I still had access to the Internet.

“Do you think it’s going to rain?” I ask the woman.

“Are you just asking to make small talk?” she replies. “Because that’ll change my answer.”

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A Night at the Blinder

Kathryn Herron

I’m not the only one who notices when he enters the dive. I watch him with intent, narrowed eyes as he pushes his way past the drunks crowding the door. Here at The Blinder, scumbags, killers, thieves, whores, liars, miscreants, recalcitrant beings and generally foul people are routine. This one doesn’t belong. He’s too neat. Too clean. Looks like honest money.

He stands erect, but casual, as he retrieves an antique gold fob watch from the pocket of his tailored suit. The stench of the place hits him as he studies the hands. His nose scrunches up and a cough escapes him as he settles the watch back in his pocket and returns the collective glance he’s getting from the boys by the pool table. If I had any doubts, they’re gone now.

He’s from the Quarters, this one.

I can smell the egotism from here. The overlap of incandescent and neon lights bouncing off his pale flesh belies his figure better than any spotlight. I recognize this asshole. Calls himself Silver Tongue Thomas McKinney. I sink into the shadows. Light a cigarette.

He’s here for me, the poor bastard.

Daniel said someone would be joining me. Never said anything about a fucking paddy, though.

Thomas clears his throat. Stares down the boys at the pool table, eyes squinting in the smoky air. Unsatisfied, he breathes deeply and speaks powerfully. “I want to speak with the Vancise family.”

One by one, the patrons of the bar twist in their seats. Their wary eyes lead him straight toward me. Great. I crane my neck, adjust my weight on the seat, and let confrontation sweep over me.

He stops in front of my table, hands in pockets, eyes straining to discern my figure through the shadows. He forms his opinion of me before we even get to talkin’, a supercilious smirk forming on his thin lips. He glares down at me and my pale thin body that I hide beneath dark, tattered clothing. His eyes take in the blood stains on my t-shirt. The scars on my face. The dirt on my hands. He begins to walk away, but stops mid-step and says, “I was told I could find a Vancise or two here.”

I’m never what they expect.

“Congratulations,” I say, my voice low with the rasp of smoke. “You found one.”

“You work for the Vancise family?”

“I do.”

“What are you, their secretary?”

I don’t bother correcting him. The sudden silence in the bar is answer enough.

Thomas shuffles his weight, as if he can already feel the daggers drilling into his spine. A short bark of nervous laughter escapes him before he manages to compose himself. Without asking, he sits down opposite me. Pushes his chair in. Makes himself nice and comfortable.

He flashes me a smile that I’m sure he thinks is charming. “Might I ask who I have the pleasure of addressing?”

I bring my beer up to my mouth, set my lips around its neck, all the while meeting his eyes. The men behind him step closer. I tilt my head to the left, let them know it’s okay to stand down. I finish off the bottle, run the back of my hand across my lips, and lean forward. Thomas recoils at my breath, but I don’t take insult. Our brew may not have the best taste, but it gets the job done.

“The name’s Bee,” I mumble past the cigarette between my lips. I twitch a smile at Thomas and glance around at the good patrons of the bar. One by one, they look away.

That’s right, boys. Leave this prick to me.

“And you’re a Vancise?”

I blow a puff of smoke in his face. Try to ignore the tension building in my shoulders. “Half of one.”

“Ah.” His smile pulls at the crows’ feet beneath his eyes. “You’re the bastard. Daniel’s.”

I smile at him as I exhale. “You should probably just call me Bee.”

“Right. Bee it is.” He shoots me another thousand-watt smile. “Is there perhaps someone else I could speak to, Bee? I’ve come a long way and I—”

“I know who you are, so you can go ahead and stop right there. I may only be half a Vancise, but that’s more than you or anyone else in this shit hole can boast. You wanna get word to my family? Then you gotta say it to me. Best to start talkin’. I ain’t got all night and they’re gonna be makin’ the last call soon.”

He recoils as if struck. “But… you’re a woman.”

“Trust me darlin’, I’m still more of a man than you are. Sit down and start talkin’ or turn around and leave. Your choice.”

His frown turns to a scowl then, jaw set in a harsh line. “I won’t stand for this,” he says in a voice devoid of intonation.

I return his emotionless volley. “Good thing you’re sittin’ down then, eh? And I’d stay seated if I were you. I pulled a knife as soon as you sat your paddy ass down. Try to leave now and I’ll cut your balls off.” I lean forward. Cut the seam of his pants and press the tip of the blade against his crotch. “Now that we’ve got the introductions out of the way, why don’t you tell me why you’re here?”

To his credit, he doesn’t flinch. Doesn’t even reach up to wipe the sweat off his brow. Slowly, he sets his hands flat on the table and then laces his fingers together. “I’m here on behalf of Calvin Dayton.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He and Daniel are old friends.”

“My father doesn’t have any friends.”

“He used to,” Thomas says, the first hint of desperation sinking into his voice. “Before the war.”

I consider that for a moment. “And what does this old friend of Daniel’s want from the Vancise family?”

“I have an envelope here for you,” he says. “If you put the knife away, I’d be happy to pass it over.”

I smile then, just the faintest twitch of lips, and ease the blade off his balls. “Let’s see it, then.”

Thomas reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a manila envelope which he places on the table and slides forward. I take it and reveal the contents, shuffling through the stack of green bills.

“Ten thousand,” he says. “Cash.”

I don’t bother counting it. “I expect Mr. Dayton isn’t giving this up out of the goodness of his heart?”

Thomas wets his lips before speaking as slow, calm, and steady as possible. “Mr. Dayton was hoping this would express his sincerest apologies.”

“For?”

“Victoria,” he says and he nearly chokes when he finally looks up at me. “My God. You don’t know, do you?”

I meet his gaze as I stub out my cigarette and produce another. He’s shaking, now. The sweat is running down his brow. That’s how I know things are going to get ugly. I pull off my jacket and start rolling up my sleeves as I say, “This money is for Victoria Vancise? My cousin has quite the reputation. She’s always been a heart breaker, that one. Alright. What’d your boss do? Rough her up in the sack? Knock her up?”

“No, no, nothing like that. Calvin’s sons, they… well, boys will be boys. Sometimes those two lose control. It’s my understanding that they didn’t know who the girl was when they picked her up.”

I get a sick feeling, then. “What did they do, Thomas?”

He’s speaking quickly, now. “I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a fair price. It will cover the cost of the funeral in full. The coroner and his team have already been paid off, as have the police.”

“What did they do to Vicky, Thomas?”

“I’m very sorry that I’m the one who has to tell you this,” he says.

I shake my head. Put a hand up. “Don’t tell me that. Don’t you fucking tell me that. I don’t want to hear that. You’re sorry? I don’t fucking care how sorry you are. I want you to tell me what these boys did to my cousin. Now. You tell me now.”

“She’s dead.”

“I assumed as much when you mentioned buying off the fucking coroner. Now, that’s not what I asked you, is it? I asked you to tell me what these boys did to my cousin.” Two of the boys from the pool table start walking toward us. I get to my feet and point the blade in their direction. “Did I ask for your assistance? No. So don’t take another fucking step.” I turn my attention back to the slicked-up rat in front of me. “I want you to tell me what they did to my cousin and I don’t want you to spare a single gory detail, you got that?”

He does his best impression of a bobble-head and the words begin to fall off his lips, “They took her. Grabbed her off the street right here in the Wilds. It’s where they find all the girls. They saw Victoria and took a liking to her so they brought her back to their place in Magnolia and…” His voice trails off. He shakes his head. Looks down at his hands. “I’m not sure how to put this delicately.”

“I didn’t ask you for delicacy. I want you to be as blunt with me as you would if I’d been born with a cock between my legs.”

He cringes at my choice of words. Swears under his breath and then looks up to meet my eyes. “They raped her. They took turns. When they were done, they beat her. When she could take no more… when she begged for death, they cut off her head and dumped her body in the Sound. They recorded the whole thing. You’ll find some coordinates inside that envelope. That’s where you’ll find her body.” As soon as the words leave his throat, he exhales and leans back in his seat. “We will, of course, get her head back to you so that you can give her a proper burial. Mr. Dayton would like to meet with Daniel, if possible. To discuss this and… other business.”

I find myself nodding my head. As if everything he just said was perfectly reasonable. I put the knife back in its sheath. Grab a beer out of the hand of a man standing to my left. Thomas watches me all the while. Wide eyed and tight lipped. His hands have left sweat marks on the table. He looks like a battered housewife, the way he keeps glancing at my waist as if he’s expecting me to pull off the belt. “This old friend of Daniel’s… he has other business to discuss, then?” I keep my voice calm. My posture relaxed.

“Yes. He would like to buy a piece of land here in the Wilds, if he and your father can find the right price. He intends to build a resort, of sorts. A sanctuary for people like us to—”

He doesn’t have time to spit out the next word. I’m on my feet, taking the bottle from my mouth and swinging it against the table and up to Thomas’s neck in one fluid movement. I grab the chair he’s sitting in and lean it back, balancing him between a concussion and a slit throat. I wait for his mind to catch up before I speak.

“People like us?” I smile, something caustic and ugly, and press the makeshift blade into his skin just enough to draw blood. I look him up and down. He’s pissed himself, the poor fuck. “What makes you think we have anything in common?”

I gesture toward the drunks by the pool table. I don’t know who they are but they know me and they come running. Before I can even give the command, they’ve both got a hold on Thomas. He nearly slips in his own piss as he tries to fight them off.

I sigh as I stub out my cigarette. “You’re making a scene, Thomas. And you’re acting like a damn child. Now, I know that you didn’t want to come here tonight. But rules are rules and they have to be obeyed. And you are very loyal, Thomas. Of that I have no doubt. You’re a smooth talker, too. That’s why your boss sent you, isn’t it? I bet you both thought that infamous tongue of yours would get you through this. I know what they say about you, Thomas. I do. And it’s not just your loyalty they talk about. It’s that wicked tongue of yours. You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard! ‘Are you planning a parley? Make sure you bring along Silver Tongue Thomas! That man can talk himself out of anything.’ But I know something else about you, Thomas. Something that I’d bet your new employer doesn’t know.”

“I don’t—” One of the men holding Thomas steady rams his elbow into his jaw. That shuts him up right quick.

I lift his head up. Force him to look at me. “You’re not a fan of women, are you Thomas? You don’t have much practice talking to the gentler sex, do you? You haven’t used that infamous tongue of yours on a woman in any fashion. And that’s a damn shame. I’ve heard so much about that tongue of yours. Before you go, why don’t you open your mouth and let me take a look at it?”

He goes still for a moment. His eyes move to the men at his side. Finding no help there, he turns back to me. Whatever he sees on my face gets him to start flopping around like a fish out of water.

“Open your mouth, Thomas.”

There’s no reasoning with him. He shakes his head. Thrashes hard enough to get one arm free. I step forward and press the edge of the bottle against his throat. That calms him down some. “I could slit your throat instead but I’d hate to get your yellow blood all over this nice suit. Open your mouth.”

He does as he’s told. Smart man.

I hold his jaw open with one hand. Take a look inside. “They’re all liars, then. You don’t have a silver tongue. No, but you’ve got some gold fillings. Tell your boss he can keep his money. I’ll be taking these as payment for my time.”

My two new friends hold Thomas steady as I replace the broken bottle with my knife.

“This will be easier if you hold still,” I say as I stick the blade in his mouth. I start with the fillings in the back. By the time I get to the one on his left central incisor, the blood is flowing faster than he can swallow. A mess of blood and saliva trails down his chin. It’s drenched my hand. I pull a handkerchief out of my back pocket, wipe my hands of the mess he’s made, then shove the rag into his mouth.

“Thank you for your honesty, Thomas,” I say. “Now clean yourself up and run back to your boss. Let him know there’ll be no future meeting between him and the Vancise family. He can build that resort of his somewhere else. And you make sure he knows the only reason you’re still alive is so that you can give him this message: I want him and his kids out of the Wilds. If they aren’t gone in three days time, I’ll kill them all myself.”

The two goons release their grip at the same time. As if we’d rehearsed the whole thing.

Thomas sways for a second, then bends over and vomits on the floor. A mess of blood and sick splash up specks of piss. I take a step back just in time to avoid the worst of it.

When he’s done, Thomas runs the back of his hand over his mouth. I step forward. Take the handkerchief out of his hand and use it to clean the spots he’s missed on his cheeks and chin. When I’m done, I tuck it into his suit pocket and tap him on the shoulder.

“You should go now, Thomas,” I say.

He meets my eyes for a second. Tears and snot dripping down his face. Then he turns on his heel and pushes his way through the silent crowd. They part before him like the Red Sea. The door swings shut behind him. It sends in a whisper of the wind. Makes the silence in the place seem eerie.

I look down at the floor. Pull a cigarette out of my pack and stab it into my lips. Shake my head as I light it. “What a fucking mess,” I say to myself. I take a much needed drag. Exhale slowly. Only then am I able to plaster a smile on my face and turn toward the bartender. “Tell your barmaid to bring out the mop, John.”

John knows better than to argue. He merely gives me a brusque nod before gesturing to the woman standing beside him. She scurries off like a cockroach.

I look around the room. Everyone is still standing there, staring at me. It’s starting to make me feel twitchy. I realize I’m still holding the knife. That’s probably not helping matters much. I wipe the blood off on my pants leg before putting the blade back in its sheath.

I take another drag then clear my throat. I meet the stares of the miserable fucks in the room and say, “Right, then. None of you cunts heard a word of that. John here is going to get you all a drink of your choice, on the house. And you’re gonna keep drinkin’ until you can’t walk straight. When you’re ready to leave, John will escort you to the door. If you want to keep your ears and your tongue, you’ll thank him for the drink and crawl home. If you say anything else to him— anything at all— it’ll be your blood on the mop.”

That said, I turn around and grab the envelope full of money off the table. Thomas hadn’t had the balls to collect it before taking off. I take out a few bills and distribute them to my two helpers then casually make my way out the door.

 

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…As Must All Things, Of Course

Austin James Dalton

We’re halfway through this peculiar phenomenon called the 2010s, and Radio Shack is on

its way out of business. I remember I took a little business trip up to Tacoma recently, and while

visiting this strip mall I noticed the remnants of what most certainly used to be a Radio Shack not

long ago. Technically, it was still open, but they were in the middle of throwing things out. That’s

not a figure of speech meaning heavily marked down prices, either. I encountered the sole young

woman who inhabited the store sweeping the sidewalk out in front of the establishment, and she

explained that the idea at this juncture was just to get people to take some of the merchandise so it

wouldn’t get thrown away or hocked to some recycling plant (“God forbid!”).

At first, I really thought maybe she meant this in jest. Then I saw that a small pile of stuff

ranging from slightly out of date webcams to new­looking cell phone protective covers – still in

original casing – sat out up for grabs in front of the store, next to where she was sweeping dirt

from the cement. Just like a big case of cardboard wheeled out next to your recycle bin and your

trash can on Thursday night. I wasn’t clear if this was some vigilante initiative she was taking or if

someone in the corporate chain of command was actually sanctioning this, but there it was.

Besides that piece of anecdotal evidence, something was also recently published in some highbrow

financial rag about how the Radio Shack corporation had recently filed the old chapter eleven, and

they’d even be eighty­sixed from the New York Stock Exchange. I don’t remember which source

provided that information, since half of that stuff just goes over my head anyway.
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The Monster of Maroon Lake

Cecilia Frank

On Monday, the kayak paddles disappeared.

Counselors spent the afternoon looking grim, whispering to each other during free time, and shooting suspicious glances at the older campers. Pranks were common with this age group, six to sixteen, and for the most part they were harmless. Water balloons in pillows, fake bear attacks, the occasional midnight rite of passage. At any rate, cancelling the lake kayaking sessions was hardly an issue. The problem was where the paddles would show back up.

Maybe they’d be used to bar the latrine doors in the middle of the night, scaring the literal shit out of some poor fifth grader. Or end up dangling from the trees outside the mess hall. On the Camp Director’s roof. Up in the rafters of the art building. A makeshift fence to block the gravel access road. New tent poles.

It was the youngest boys who had the most adamant hypothesis, however.

Each week, during opening fire, the more engaged counselors put on a series of costumed skits. This usually involved some standard, recurring plots — The Invisible Bench, Mine’s Bigger than Yours, What Time Is It, something else with an obvious dick joke, midget-mocking, more dick jokes, and the inevitable Ancient Albino Leech.

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