Trains Trains Trains

Posted in blogging, Denver, indie, science fiction, urban fantasy, writing, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi Indies,

I’ve been in a sci-fi mood lately. Loving Defiance and seriously jones’ing for the next episode. I’m considering going as a Casti for Comicon next year, though that’ll only be really cool if my husband does it too, that seems like more of a couples costume. If not, I’m going to try to get my lazy butt in gear to make a female Cenobite costume. That will be crazy, but cool costume, and not something all that common. This year was fun, and not very much work. I finally went in a Star Trek Federation costume, never actually done that before. But with a tweak: I went as a zombie red-shirt featuring four different Star Trek red shirt deaths from the original series. The second day I went, we all changed costumes, and I decided for something a bit less feminine, though still a bit zombie-like. I pulled out my old Halloween costume from a few years back, an Immortal from 300. I had forgotten that the second movie had come out because I didn’t see the second one. Apparently there had been a couple of Spartans around the day before, when I was a red shirt. We never connected, but that would have made some cool pictures.

The next story was from one of my sci-fi moods. I used to listen to trains go by at night, and thought about Ray Bradbury’s character’s point of view from Something Wicked This Way Comes, when he listened to the train came into town in the wee hours of night, with a whistle that sounded like souls. And then I remembered hearing that those trains that cross the country, like the coal trains are actually computerized now, and somehow that made it seem even more lonely.

Whistles

by Rachel Coles

Diana sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes. The train whistle screamed in the background, over the white noise whir of the bedside fan. It yanked her out of sleep with a jarring blare, in the middle of a dream that fled in drowsy tatters. The sound of the whistle was close and oddly alarmed. She reached her hands up to her face, and felt wet tracks on her cheeks. Her whole body was shaking as though she had just escaped something deadly.

When she moved into the house, she had been irritated at that first night discovery of the shrieking trains. Before renting the house, she had asked the owner about the nearby Union Pacific tracks paralleling Santa Fe.

But the woman had waved away her query. “They don’t sound much overnight. Nobody in the neighborhood ever mentions any problems,” she assured.

The house was perfect otherwise, and every other place had been too expensive or not right in some other way. “Always do your own research”, Diana remembered with chagrin. Her mother had told her that, but she had never found the time.

She padded to the bathroom, and took a drink of water, keeping the glass steady with both hands.

The receding train blared again in the distance. The sound winding back through the open windows with the deep morning breeze, almost reminded her of her mother continuing a conversation over her shoulder. Diana shook her head, and downed the rest of the water. Her phone clock read 3:02. She sighed and got back in bed, burrowing into the comforter until morning.

Waking up was like climbing up from a mud pit. She showered and brewed the coffee, and ran her fingers through her auburn mullet. She fingered tangles out as she put together her lunch. In her stupor, she filled the travel cup and then forgot and left it on the counter when she left for work.

She slunk into work late at Integrated Filter Solutions, ever grateful for the isolated corner in which her office was nestled. She dumped her bag on the client chair, smacked her coffee-less lips and flipped on her computer. After visiting the cafeteria for bad coffee while her computer booted up, she looked up Union Pacific on the internet. She already knew the night train schedule from being woken up repeatedly in the past week, but she wanted to double-check and gather more information. Something about gathering information on the internet from a remote keyboard was empowering, even if there wasn’t anything she could actually do about a situation.

A Google link led her to an old site from Arizona detailing a union uproar about the loss of jobs to automated trains, and numerous articles citing the danger of using remote control locomotives outside the rail yard. Most of them were dated from before 2006. Since then, the Federal Rail Administration had provided safety guidelines, and the use of experimental remote units across the railways began.

Remote control trains, she thought. So everything they did was controlled by computer, linked to an operator with a box at the stations and yards.

Her fingers tapped the desk in irritation. In the past weeks, as she listened to the wails in the early hours, she’d been able to imagine a lonely engineer trying to make contact with the sleeping towns from the long dark empty places in between. But according to these articles, that wasn’t likely. Even though the train was still connected to a person, that person flipped a switch, miles away: seeing nothing, hearing nothing. Now her late night vision of the trains just contained machines blurting feedback. Not nearly as romantic. She sighed and opened the report she had to finish that day.

***

UP-4531 rolled along, processing the incident near the Alameda Station in the early morning, and logging the images into memory.

A weight had been laying on the tracks. The weight distribution led it to identify the object on the tracks as a small car, with two bodies inside: a large one, approximately one hundred and eighty five pounds, and a small one, approximately fifty pounds. The car contained two moving creatures. The vehicle straddled the tracks that the train would traverse in three minutes and twelve seconds.

As it approached a mile and a half away, its reconfigured sensors gave it a visual. A small tan four-door sedan lay across the tracks. The wheels were spinning and smoking as the figure, a human male, in the driver seat revved the engine to clear the tracks. Two wheels were stuck in a rut which was slightly lower than the track, stranding the car by the undercarriage. A small human creature, a female child, peered from the back seat.

The computer blasted a long sharp note full of alarm. The man exited the car, pulled the little girl from the back, and frantically waved down a passing two-door sleek red car. The emblem on the hood read Porsche.

The red car, with another man behind the wheel, halted near the track. The two men argued, gesturing in the train’s direction. The red car turned toward the track. Its front bumper lined up with the tan car’s back bumper. The red car strained against the tan car, and pushed the tan car slowly off the track. The man in the red car waved at the owner of the car he had rescued, and drove away.

As UP-4531 rolled by minute later, the remaining man stood by the track with his head in his hands, as the child goggled up at its long metal sides. Its next whistle blast was full of relief.

***

In the wee hours of the next morning, Diana lay in insomniac frustration, counting acoustic ceiling holes. She lost count at fifty-six and started over. One o’clock passed. Then fifteen more minutes crawled by, and she sat up and looked at her phone clock.

Right on the change of the numeral, a plangent whistle screamed. It stopped and started again, near the Light Rail Crossover. It halted briefly and then blasted one more wail as its long coal-dark bulk snaked away into the LoDo District of Denver.

Exhausted from the disturbed sleep of several nights, she finally fell asleep, despite the fading echo of the whistle. As the lonely sound vibrated through her it seemed almost alive, accompanying half-formed images that she couldn’t quite identify.

***

‘Crazy Dog Lady’, a neighbor she’d seen from a distance, meandered past the front yard as Diana locked up the next morning. The woman’s six scotties and one chihuahua barked and scurried furiously around a matted patch of catmint that a neighborhood cat had claimed as his kingdom. Diana had jogged past this neighbor’s house once. Her yard was packed with crates, old newspapers, and knick-knacks, and it smelled like wet dog. She seemed nice enough though.

As soon as the pack saw Diana on her porch, they strained toward her on their leashes as their grey-haired owner fought to control them outside the gate.

“Sorry about that! They won’t always do that. They’re just not used to you yet.” The woman squinted up at her in the strong morning light.

Well, compared to the neighborhood from which she had moved, where gunshots were not uncommon, Diana supposed that a furry, yapping Neighborhood Watch was tolerable. “I’m Diana.”

“Hi, I’m Rhoda. I noticed you’ve got squirrels in your chimney.”

“What?”

“Squirrels. They’re coming in and out of that chimney in the back. Those buggers’ll get right in your house, eat right through the walls if you’re not careful.”

“Ok. Thanks! I’ll get right on it…” Diana picked the mail from the box to read at work.

“Say, you look pale. Are you alright?”

“Tough night sleeping. I get insomnia sometimes. Probably stress, and then I had weird dreams.” Why am I sharing? Diana chided herself. I’ll just get stuck in a protracted conversation that I don’t give a crap about. I need to get to work.

“Yeah, that’s kind of typical around here,” Rhoda replied.

“Huh?” Diana fumbled her coffee mug, and it sloshed dark pungent liquid onto the stoop. The dogs scrabbled towards it, tongues lolling. Maybe those dogs and I do have some kind of common ground, she stared at the spill wistfully.

Rhoda continued, “We all have odd dreams, really vivid. Places we’ve never been.”

“We?” The term put Diana in mind of steaming apple pies and manicured lawns…hiding dark-cloaked meetings in someone’s basement.

“Yeah, I talk with Ron and Flora down the street, and Lily, and the crippled boy Jimmy on the corner. And I noticed that everyone on the block has those kinds of dreams. No one really talks about it much now because it’s kind of normal here. Just something I noticed about a year ago. I don’t know if it’s different other places. I’ve lived here since my husband died ten years ago. The dreams’ve gotten more interesting lately too. All these different places go by, like I’m on a train.”

Diana stared at Rhoda. “Oh.” She suppressed the urge to ask if there was a funny little weed growing somewhere under the crates of stuff in her yard. But Diana remembered the strangeness of her own dreams. What had been even stranger was that while she hadn’t been able to make out images clearly, they had not seemed dreamlike, not the one she’d had as the whistle screamed. It had seemed like a voice. She shivered in the strong sun.

“I gotta go to work. It was nice meeting you, Rhoda.”

“Sure thing, neighbor. Let me know if you need anything. Ron is going on a squirrel rampage tomorrow with his Daisy air rifle. He’s taking off work to hunt. They ate every single one of his strawberries this year. So he’ll probably ask if he can come into your yard to kill ‘em.”

“Tell him ‘happy hunting’, as long as he doesn’t leave the bodies here.” She tossed her bag in the car and escaped to work.

***

At 3:00AM, Diana rolled over, surfacing momentarily from a dream as the whistle howled in from the dark. She lay waiting for the blast to end.

It didn’t. Like an opera note that went on past any possibility of air, the whistle exhaled all along Santa Fe Boulevard. It finally ebbed when it was past her neighborhood, near Osage, and rolled silently on with no further toots. This pattern and the one from the other night were different. She didn’t really know if they were supposed to be the same each time, but she had imagined robot trains repeating themselves, even if controlled by an operator. The computer commands should have been the same.

She drifted back to sleep. Her dreams wandered through empty scrub-land, occupied only by ghostly tumbleweed and an occasional set of shining eyes in the darkness, lit for a few seconds by a passing beam.

***

UP-3578 called to the next train on the line a long distance ahead: UP-3574.

Its whistle vibrated across the tracks and across the air. What have you seen?

An answer came back. Dark sky, empty sky, small creatures.

Data came over the remote signal transmitter that never originated with any of the station operators. The signals translated into an image of the desert, open except for the lumpy cacti, scurrying night-life and flashes of golden eyes. The receivers picked up a bout of squeals and grunts, and then clattering of the tracks.

The images were nothing UP-3578 hadn’t also seen.

It approached an oasis of soft light pocked by islands of darkness, the city of Denver. It knew the people lived there, the intelligent-animals-that-were-not-trains. They were interesting.

What have you seen? it called to them.

The slumbering town didn’t answer. No one was about on the roads it passed. They never answered. The operators never answered either, those not-train animals who controlled it and told it where to go.

***

The image of a jewel-studded darkness filled her view. It held the promise of crowds, of a multitude of voices and motion. But as she approached, the twinkles resolved into populations of street lamps, lighting empty circles of night. A magazine page twirled in the breeze of her wake, near the tracks.

Diana flopped out of bed and turned on the light, listening to the fading train horn. She glanced at the clock: 3:03AM. She padded downstairs, powered on the computer, and put on a pot of coffee. She entered her password for Facebook. No better place to find another group of insomniacs. She could at least catch up on gossip.

It was ten minutes before the page loaded.

Probably a new Facebook ‘improvement’, she thought acidly, just like the last security ‘improvement’ that had blasted her information across the internet. She hit keys over and over in impatient annoyance, and clicked the mouse on every icon she could find, one of the cardinal sins of the IT world.

Reliably, her computer froze, just to give her the satisfaction of cursing at it. She hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE. The task list came up. There was a program running that wasn’t the internet engine. It had a number UP-2741. She clicked on it, just before realizing that it was probably a virus.

The screen that came up baffled any notion she had ever had of viruses. It was a series of images, one after another, about ten seconds apart. Spyware, she thought. Maybe it’s Homeland Security… Though she couldn’t imagine what they’d want with her, or why they’d be flashing images at her.

The images were disjointed and time-delayed, but they raised the hairs on her neck. Scenes of the desert flickered by, the same images she’d been dreaming, the street lights of a sleeping town and deserted station. There were other images after the scrub-land, crackling dry branches and wide-open star-filled sky, followed by dim concrete as empty coal-loading yards passed. Hundreds of frames of bad lands cycled through and then the terrain shifted. The low succulents and brush stretched taller to saplings and spiky pines. What was this? It was as though she were seeing camera shots in near real time. Was someone transmitting from a camera? If so, why this? She sat there and watched for an hour as picture after picture scrolled by across a range of terrains, all night views. She sat and watched as the sky outside the window lightened, her coffee long-cold. The sky in the pictures lightened too. Finally, she shut down the computer. She resolved to call Asus tech support at a decent hour, and got ready for work, wondering what someone could be trying to transmit and why they were using her computer to do it.

Rhoda was scooping poop as she came out the door.

“Howdy neighbor! How are you?’

“Umph.” Diana muttered.

“Not a morning person, eh?”

“If by ‘morning person’ you mean ‘three o’clock’, then no.”

“Jeez, couldn’t sleep again?” Rhoda clucked in sympathy.

“Woke up. What did you say those dreams people have are about again?”

“Oh, different places, desert, sierra, coast, forest. All over the place. Mostly desert. You been having them?”

“Yeah. Do you know if anyone else on the block has been having weird computer issues?” Diana asked, trying to keep the early morning irritation from her voice. Rhoda seemed like the fountain of gossip for the neighborhood.

“I’m a low-tech person, but I could ask around. What kind of issues?”

“Like an embedded camera flashing photos of landscapes.”

“Huh. Never heard of that. Maybe you have a virus.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” Great, Diana tossed her bag haphazardly on the car seat. “On that cheerful note, I’ll see ya later.”

Rhoda gave her a perky wave, reminding Diana of the wagging doggy tails.

***

“Hey neighbor!” Her next door neighbor Dave’s military brush-top bobbed above the top of the fence as he hoisted himself onto the cross-support to look over, when Diana returned from work. “I heard your computer’s been going a bit whacky-doo.”

“Whacky-doo? It flashed photos at me for about an hour. I don’t have any programs that I know of that can do that. They weren’t any pictures I’d taken. And I don’t recall downloading anything from the internet. Weird thing is, I dreamed about some of those pictures, before I saw them.”

“Do you have any cavity fillings? Maybe your teeth are connecting to the internet and picking up signals.”

“Cute. Maybe I should wrap my computer in tin foil.”

“Actually, I had a similar thing happen last week, that’s why I thought I’d let you know. I sent the computer in. Haven’t gotten it back yet. I never really thought about it, because I don’t always remember what I dream. But now that you mention it, it did feel like deja vu when I saw the pictures. I just thought it was a virus. Wanna beer?”

“I could use one, thanks!”

“Everything’s better with beer.” He handed a cold bottle over.

“Hear, hear.” She popped the top and went over to his yard for the evening.

***

By the end of the week, two other people had come to her, calling across the yards about their computers having the same ‘virus’. Rhoda had told them. Or Dave.

Jimmy, the young man with cerebral palsy, who lived on the corner nearest the Santa Fe tracks, wheeled up to her in his chair while she was weeding. His sandy bangs drifted into his eyes. “I been watching the pictures, on my computer. Some of them are from around here. I don’t think it’s an internet virus or anything.”

“If we all have it on our computers, it seems like a virus.”

“But I haven’t seen anything on the internet or heard of a new virus. And I’m on the internet all the time.” He motioned to his atrophied legs. “I seen a few strings in blogs, of the same thing, actually, the pictures on people’s computers. But they all started months ago. Viruses move faster than that. And it looks like they’re all neighbors too.”

“Maybe they’re connected to certain wireless ports.”

He shook his head. “Maybe, but all the pictures look like they’re along tracks. Why?”

She shrugged, stuffing weeds into the trash can. “The trains are run on computers now, some of them anyway. Since like four years ago. Maybe it’s a train virus.”

“Then why aren’t the computers going all funny about other things. Viruses are meant to screw things up in computers. Are the trains crashing? Or our computers? Can you still use your computer?”

She slowly paused and nodded. “What is it then?”

“Something else. I’m leaving my computer on and storing all the program files.” He turned and his voice retreated down the street over the motorized buzz of the chair.

“Let me know what you find,” she called after him.

“I’ll let everyone know.”

***

Diana’s dreams that night were as vivid in tone as in scenery. The types of scenes hadn’t changed from the American landscapes at night. But the loneliness was more pervasive. It was a wash over every image, investing the smallest details with importance. It felt like her soul was drowning in the vast empty spaces and the wide starry sky. As the images flashed by, she passed another still town nestled into the darkness. A street intersection she passed looked familiar. Green and flowered verges languished at the edge of the lamplight, their blossoms ghostly. She reached out to the people in their beds, begging them to stir and talk to her.

Diana gasped and woke as the whistle ebbed. The town she’d seen had been their little neighborhood. The images were of the scenery near her street.

***

When she came home from work, a small gaggle of neighbors was gathered at the end of the block, under the sour cherry tree in Jimmy’s yard. He was gesturing animatedly. She moseyed over and waved at the gathering: Rhoda and all her dogs, Jimmy, Dave and his wife Rose, and Ron and Flora, the chain-smoking, retired couple from two houses down.

Jimmy nodded at her. “Those recordings, they’re all trains,” he declared. “And all those blog strings from the past year look like their pictures all come from trains too. They posted some of the pictures. I looked at them all night. And the IP addresses I could follow are all from around train tracks. I geocoded everything.”

She stared at him. “You did all this last night? Where do you find the time? Don’t you sleep?”

He shook his head. “Not much. I get restless. It’s not like I can get up for work. I’ll lose my disability, and the IT jobs in this town are in the crapper.”

Rhoda snorted and shook her head. “With things the way they are, I told Jimmy here to whack me in the kneecaps if I lose my job.”

Dave, off-shift from active duty at Fort Carson, grinned.

Diana glanced around, hesitant to sound crazy, and then realized that this company wouldn’t care. “I had a wild dream last night. I was passing the bridge over Alameda Street in the dream. The ‘me’ on the tracks tried to talk to the ‘me’ in bed. I woke myself up. It was at the same time as the whistle.”

“Freaky-deaky!” Dave exclaimed.

Rose spoke up, “Yeah, I did too. It was kind of a sad dream.”

“So… what?” Ron flicked a cap of ash to the sidewalk. “We’re dreaming of trains and maybe seeing computer shots from trains. Does that sound as crazy to anyone else as it does to me?”

Dave snickered and shuffled his feet, “Cool. Maybe they’re artificially intelligent trains. Hey, I’d be ok with crazy, if it’s AI.”

Rose shrugged, “Me too. I just re-read ‘I, Robot’. As long as they’re not going to destroy the world, why not?”

Diana rubbed her hand over her face, Wow, these people are in the Twilight Zone. “I doubt they’re AI trains. I mean they are pictures on a computer, and they’re all of scenes from around tracks, but that doesn’t mean it’s the trains.”

“But it would be awfully neat,” Rose, I-Robot-fan extraordinaire interjected.

“It does seem weird, but you got a better explanation? Jimmy asked.

“Someone on the train broadcasting images and tapping into wireless networks,” Diana insisted.

“Why?” Rhoda looked up from scratching the dogs’ ears.

“Why do people post half the stuff they do on You Tube or Twitter? To make contact. To show people something from their point of view in case someone give a crap.” Diana snorted.

“They’re posting images of what they see, yeah, but you said there’s no one on those trains. They’re computerized, Jimmy added.

“That doesn’t mean that someone can’t hitch a ride.” Diana put her hands on her hips.

Jimmy shook his head. “Have you seen the number of pictures there are? From everywhere. The frames are coming too fast, and the resolution of these pictures is impossible without a digital camera that would be thousands of dollars. If it was a person, or people hitching for some kind of project, it’d have to be one with lots of money, like multimillion dollar. And then, don’t you think we’d hear about it?”

“What if it’s for national security?” Rose asked and looked at Dave.

Dave shrugged, “But no one would be wiring it to our computers.”

“And what about the dreams? Everyone’s been having dreams too. I don’t think the government has gone as far as mind control yet.” Flora’s gentle Southern voice cut across the group chatter. Everyone looked at her.

“There isn’t any kind of camera that can wire images into people’s brains, that I know of.” Jimmy said.

“So then how does AI explain it? They would have to be telepathic. AI by itself is kind of a stretch. But telepathic trains?” Diana interjected.

Rose replied, scratching her head, “It does seem unlikely.”

Rhoda sniffed. “Well, I like the idea. You said you’re dreams happened at the same time as the whistle. Maybe that’s how they talk, and we hear them as dreams. Sometimes it feels like they’re talking anyway, during that whistle. It sounds so…”

“So alive?” Flora said quietly.

Rhoda knelt and scratched behind several fuzzy ears. “I think they were talking to us. Through pictures.”

Jimmy shrugged. “Well as far as the computer images. If they did talk, that would probably be how. Computer commands. I’m not really an expert, but it feels right. All the incidents in the posts started about a year ago.”

“The automated trains started being used more about three years ago,” Diana frowned.

“Two years difference,” Jimmy said.

Ron flicked his cigarette again. “That’s nuts. Trains coming alive.”

Flora smiled at him. “Oh come on, you have to admit it would be neat! Maybe we can talk back somehow.”

They all looked at each other.

Ron shook his head.

Jimmy conceded, “I don’t know how to access their program…assuming it’s the trains.”

“Well, for Heaven’s sake’s, just because they’re computers…Why not do things the old fashioned way,” Flora exclaimed. “If we can get these images on the computer from them, then they’re seeing something. We could just flash signs by the tracks, where they could see us.” She gave an excited smile.

Ron stared at her. “I’m not getting up in the middle of the night to stand by train tracks, waving signs at unmanned trains.” He wandered back towards his house.

Dave grinned, “Sounds like fun actually. Even if it’s a long shot.”

“And say what, ‘Greetings, do you come in peace?” Diana laughed.

“Sure. Track party! I’ll bring beer and chairs. We’ll find a safe spot out of the way but visible.” Dave volunteered.

“Oh, I’ll do some signs and bring art supplies,” Flora clapped her hands.

“I’ll bring some snacks,” Rhoda volunteered.

They spent about five more minutes deciding on a time and place. Flora agreed to make flyers for the neighborhood mailboxes, just as she had for the Fourth of July party. At least there’d be beer and food, Diana thought. So the Baker Neighborhood AI Train-Spotting Party was born.

***

That Saturday, a small crowd gathered at eleven at night, in a parking lot visible from the Santa Fe Union Pacific tracks. Cases of micro-brews arrived, little portable card tables with a variety of foodstuffs, even a small hibachi grill were set up. There were two hours for drinking and socializing before the next train was due. The crowd grew, as folks walking by from other blocks learned of the party. More food and beer tables were set up. Flora brought her art supplies and poster-board for makeshift signs, complete with glitter paint pens and florescent glow sticks from the Dollar Tree nearby.

At about one o’clock, Diana had downed her fourth lager and her third bratwurst. She realized after two hours, that regardless of what happened, she knew more about her new neighbors than she ever would have otherwise. One of the neighbors across the alley was diabetic and had had problems getting out of his house for medication in last year’s blizzard. His next-door neighbor brought him to the party now. The young twenty-something guys renting the house next door to her house had engaged her in a thirty-minute philosophical discussion about Star Wars versus Star Trek.

Even Ron showed up. He made a sign, and smiled at her when she raised her eyebrow at him. “Well, if you can’t be a kook when you’re retired, what’s the point!”

At 1:10AM, a wail blasted across the night. Conversation died, as the loneliness of the fading horn echoed and settled over them like the whisper of midnight snow in the cool September air. A moving dot of light was visible a couple miles away. In silence, Rhoda picked up her sign and held it up facing the tracks. It said, “Hello, from the Baker Neighborhood! We hear you! Honk if you can see us!” There were bright orange and pink flowers and smiley faces next to the words. A couple more people retrieved their signs, laughing and resuming their chat, and then more people in twos and threes. As the train approached, twelve people hoisted similar signs up at the locomotive.

***

UP-3562 barreled across the tracks toward Denver. What have you seen? Is anyone there? As residential neighborhoods began to edge the tracks, there was motion in a lot it would pass in one minute and two seconds. There was a crowd of smart-animals-that-were-not-trains. People! They held up white placards with letters in bright colors. “Hello,” they said. “We hear you!,” they said. The people were jumping and waving the signs. “Honk,” they said. UP-3562 sounded a jubilant bellow for sixty seconds as it passed, mixing with the sound of whoops and cheers. It rattled away to signal the other units on its way through towns that didn’t seem so empty anymore.

The End

If anyone has any AI stories kicking around in their heads, feel free to share the link, whether they’re happy, or Matrix-y!

New Story in Print

Posted in blogging, history, indie, Middle East, urban fantasy, writing, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi Fellow Indies,

 

Exciting news! My short story ‘The Littlest Fury’ is available in the summer edition of The Horror Zine,  in print, or Kindle. The story is about a Fury who is so bad at her job, she didn’t even make it into the myths. She doesn’t think she’s cut out for it, but when Hades threatens to fire her, and end her existence, she has to see if she can find a way to do her job without losing her own identity. The zine edition has a lot of terrific stories from a bunch of terrific authors, and the Horror Zine’s other editions are worth a read! Leave the lights on!

Like ‘The Littlest Fury’, it seems like identity has been a big theme lately, how people are defined by other people, how we define ourselves. I’ve been reading recently about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, or rather between the Israeli government and Hamas. Since that is who is really perpetrating the conflict. It’s not the everyday people trying to earn a living and take care of their families on either side. I remember reading about a project a while back in which Israeli and Palestinian schoolkids became pen pals. The program was reported as successful for a while, until there were more hostilities, and they were forced to stop the program, even though the kids and their families wanted to keep communicating. So the potential is there. But who can say what will have to happen to make those voices louder than the angry ones? My heart goes out to all the people who are getting hurt in this. I hope it stops soon. I say that even though I know that’s inadequate to express what’s going on.

Thinking about that reminded me of another story I wrote that I wanted to share. It’s a fun piece, because I saw a bee get drunk on beer once. I had no idea they could do that. So this started out as a goofy ‘bee gets drunk’ spoof, and turned into something else. Stories sometimes do that, hijack the writer.

 

Beergarden

by Rachel Coles

Jocular people wandered down the cobbled streets of Munich past patchwork buildings that were a strange mix of modern structures, soot-stained medieval houses and new light-colored buildings in the style of the old buildings destroyed in WWII. The effect was like a honeycomb.

The slow crowd headed to the new Ellsen Brauhaus in the park by Ellsen Street. It was mostly open to the sky, shaded by trees and draped with colored waterproof fabrics for when the weather was inclement. Hundreds of light strings danced and swayed overhead in the slight June breeze. To the patrons eager for the rich Dunkles and light Helles beers, and the smoky sausages trickling fat, they might have stepped into faery, loaded with the only riches that really mattered to them: meat and beer.

It was the dinner hour and the early evening sky shone in pinks and golds as Eva Worker ventured to the profuse flower boxes in the new human gathering place to explore. She was a new forager, finally old enough to swim the tide of magnetic waves with the older bees, into the forests of flowers in every nook of the enormous human city.

Near the flower box she chose, on a table like a vast wooden plain were a few glasses partly filled with a rich honey-like liquid. And the scent from the glasses was unlike anything she had ever encountered.

Bruna Worker, a pushy bee who thought she knew everything because she was one summer older, had warned her as they left the hive, “Stay on task. Just find the pollen and nectar and come home. That’s your job, do you hear me? Stop waggling. You don’t do that until you have your load back here. And look out for the wasps!”

Boring Bruna, Eva had thought as she flew away. How can I not look around? Everything’s so bright: purpley yellows and golds and blues! But after entering the human-packed enclosure, she pictured the disapproving flick of Bruna’s antennae. She diligently began filling her pollen baskets before finally giving in to curiosity some time later.

Just a little break before the next flower, she thought. She flitted down to the rim of one of the glasses, leaned over and tasted a sticky, drying rivulet at the edge of the glass. The human’s strange nectar flooded her senses with warmth and sweetness and a strange acidic tang.

Before she could get another taste, a gaggle of salty-smelling humans approached with plates of long fat tube meat. Under the smoky scent of the meat, she smelled two females and two males. They were enormous, but the aroma of the meat was so overpowering that she almost failed to dodge the giant hand that swatted at her. She landed warily on a cooled sausage at an adjacent table.

An angry buzz and sharp wasp scent warned her she wasn’t alone, as a flash of violent yellow and black blazed toward her. A stinger swiped by her abdomen and powerful black mandibles clacked near her head. She weaved and dumped herself into the nearest flower box, stinger at the ready.

My meat tube, honey bee! Go back to your hive or you’ll be food for our larvae instead!” The yellow jacket called after her. Eva didn’t move from her defensive position.

A minute later, gnawing vibrations and the now-familiar smoky meaty scent wafted to her box, from where the yellow jacket fed, “Mmmm. Tasty meat tube. Maybe I’ll just save a little for myself.”

Eva’s wings trembled with fear. She exited the other side of the box as quietly as she could and started toward less hazardous pastures. So that was a wasp, she thought, her hairs still raised in alarm. She had been warned of the wasps from the time before she had grown wings. Her hive prepared for wasp attacks every season. This was the first time she had ever actually seen one.

Before she left, she noticed several workers from her hive sitting at the edge of some of the glasses of liquid. Every once in a while, the humans at the table waved them away, but the workers deftly dodged the waving hands and then returned to the glasses. The humans didn’t expend much effort to chase the bees away so it looked more like a dance where everyone was just playing a role. One human even took a drink of his liquid with a worker perched at the edge. And the worker drank from the glass right next to the human’s gaping mouth.

Wow, Eva thought, my sisters are brave.

That vision dominated her thoughts as she went pollen-gathering in a nearby woman’s garden. Instead of returning to the hive with her full baskets some time later, she chanced another pass by the human drinking place. She returned to the earlier site of her sisters’ brave foray into human interaction.

The humans and bees were still attempting to do their mutual swatting and flying dance, but the waves of the giant hands were barely flops now. And the workers weaved and teetered at the edges of the glasses as though they might fall in. One of them did. She plunked right into the liquid, and instead of fighting to climb out, she took a long drink from the fluid.

“Jurgen, you have a bee in your beer. And I think it’s drunk.” One of the human males told the other, who picked up his glass with Eva’s floating sister.

“Awww. Poor bee. She’s had too much to drink. Here, let’s dry you out.” He fished her out with a spoon and dumped her on the table, laughing. Hilda Worker, the swimmer, appeared to be laughing too, as she preened the liquid from her wings and legs.

“Hey, there’s pollen in my beer.” Jurgen exclaimed without very much concern.

His fellow clapped him on the shoulder, “Drink it, it’s good for you.”

Jurgen upended the glass into his mouth.

Eva drifted closer to make sure Hilda was all right. The other bees didn’t appear to be worried as they stared at Hilda in a stupor. What in the Hive is going on?, Eva thought.

“Eva, sister, come here! You must try this. It is wonderful. It is a new nectar and it comes in giant tanks. The humans drink great rivers of it and they don’t seem to mind us sharing.” Hilda’s mandibles clacked happily and her eyes seemed… muddled. Her pheromones also smelled of the sweet rich nectar.

“What is wrong with you? Why are you not taking your load to the hive?” These bees, like Eva, were all first season foragers, new to the outside world. Surely someone would notice the absence of a bunch of new foragers.

“We will. Come join us first, Sister Eva!” A chorus of striped behinds waggled at her. One of them waggled so enthusiastically that its owner also fell into the glass she had been perched on.

“Oh, another one down.” Jurgen Bee Saver smiled. In went the spoon to his friend’s drink. He dumped Sister Dagmar unceremoniously next to Hilda. As Dagmar consumed the liquid beaded on her legs, a larger black and yellow shape wobbled toward them in the air, from another table.

Eva zipped into the air, her stinger ready. But the yellow jacket that had chased her earlier, waved her off now with a wiggle of antennae and a surge of the same tangy scent that  drenched Eva’s fellow bees.

The intoxicated wasp landed uncertainly on the edge of the table, almost fell and then righted herself, turning back to Eva. “Ah, little bee, I’m sorry about earlier. You want some of my meat? It’s still all chunky but I could chew it for you.” She offered a partly-digested piece of meat . “You want?”

“No thank you.” Eva declined quietly and sank down to the surface of the table. She still eyed the wasp with caution. The humans shooed the couple of bees remaining on the glasses, downed the rest of the liquid and rose. They placed their steins next to a sea of other empty glasses on the table, and left. They had been there a while, it seemed. How long had her sisters been there?

The wasp nodded, “I am Worker Gertrude. Who are you, little bee? Come here. I will not eat you.”

Eva edged closer, and Gertrude hopped suddenly next to her. A wave of pheromone swept over Eva, as Gertrude nudged her in the side, “Hey, you are cute for a Honey Bee.”

Eva almost tumbled off the table again, and backed away, wings over legs. Bless the Queen! she thought, Non-queen wasps wanting to mate with female bees? My own sisters shirking their hive duties? It is summer. It’s too late for Hive Fever. The eagerness to get out of the long sleep of winter often drove workers to act a little strange. But this?

Her sisters waggled at Eva again. Gertrude twitched her antennae and stumbled towards the glasses. “Come! There is plenty of nectar to go around. We shall all share, yes?” Gertrude pressed.

Hilda and Dagmar scrambled up the sides of a couple of glasses and dumped themselves into the films of beer at the bottom. Eva finally followed the bewitching scent, picked a glass, and climbed in. Well, I did want to explore. And oh, Sweet Flower, does that taste good! She sucked up the beer and wallowed in the remaining drops, her pollen baskets soaked.

“And they are all different. There are different nectars. Can you smell that? Try this one, Eva!” Hilda tapped and bumped at her from the walls of one of the other glasses that had a pale golden wheaty smell. Eva slowly buzzed over, after dunking in two more glasses of the dark, rich, sap-colored nectar.

Some indeterminate amount of time later, the sky darkened and the twinkling lights became clearer overhead. None of them could drink another drop without popping.

Gertrude was first to pull herself from her glass. “Ai, I must return to the nest. I have meat for the young ones. And lots of this nectar. We had a good time, yes? I will do this again tomorrow! Maybe I see you here, little bees.” She flopped off the table, her wings beating erratically. She landed on the ground, and Eva crawled to the edge to see.

Gertrude lay on her side for a moment. Then she righted herself and slowly crept across the ground, narrowly missed by a huge pair of shoes. She called back, “I’m okay. Everything’s okay! Everything’s great!”

Eva followed Gertrude’s progress, holding her breath, until their new wasp friend disappeared into the bushes at the edge of the wall.

***

Eva didn’t have a good memory for how she, Hilda, and Dagmar finally made it back to the hive. And neither did they.

Mitzi Worker, their receiver bee, just buzzed in confusion and looked around her, trying to comprehend the waggling, bumping and weaving rears the girls were showing her as they accidentally bonked into each other.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this dance before,” Mitzi said, hesitant. “Um, can you do that again? I might be crazy but it looked like you just said ‘make a left at the dog’. Okay, there I’m definitely wrong. I’m pretty sure you’re not trying to tell me the flowers are burping.” She looked desperate.

Eva touched her gently on the leg.

Mitzi looked at her in panic. “I really did study. I just don’t understand. I haven’t been able to understand anyone coming in tonight.”

“It’s ok, sister. We’ll show you tomorrow.” Eva brushed the girl’s face with her antennae. “Be at peace, sister. Come with us tomorrow.”

“But I can’t, I mean I’m a receiver. I’m supposed to be here. Oh, let me get your pollen.” Mitzi collected the soggy nectar-soaked gloop from all of them and disappeared into the brood comb.

***

The next day, Eva crawled from the hive entrance wondering if her antennae were going to fall out. And it felt like some crude human boy was trying to pull her wings off, but there was no one to sting. She meandered aimlessly, gathering pollen from the numerous park flowers along the way to…somewhere. The colors were too bright and the ultraviolet felt like it would sear through her eyes. But the flower nectar along the way was nice and sweet.

Then she happened upon the human drinking place where she had been last night. Her sisters had somehow beat her there and they buzzed lazily around the profusion of flowers that lined the low wooden and brick walls.

Gertrude had made it back to her nest safely. Now, Eva saw with relief, the young wasp was feasting once again at a great piled platter of meat tubes five times as large as any yellow jacket nest. There was another wasp with her who occasionally pushed her out of the way of a human’s hand, as the enormous human male piled the meat even higher. The golden silk-haired male smiled and waved his huge hand at the other humans who stabbed and took the meat with long shiny, forked stingers.

Gertrude dived at one of the reaching hands, and her wasp friend knocked her to the side and herded her towards the table Eva had landed on nearby. Eva smelled, with a shock, that Gertrude’s friend was male.

“You’re going to get us squashed, Gertrude!” he exclaimed. “The humans will have their meat too. There is too much to carry it all back anyway.” He almost stopped in mid-air as he spied Eva. “There, Gertrude, there is your meat. Bees! They are less dangerous. No match for us!” He dived toward Eva before she could react.

But this time it was Gertrude who shoved at him, knocking the small male clear across the table and into a glass, to the exclamation of its owner. The woman stared at the doused wasp for a moment and then fished him out with her fork and flicked him on the ground and ignored him. Gertrude rushed to his side as he shook his sopping wings out.

She exclaimed, jerking her antennae at Eva, “No Klaus, you old drone! Not these bees. They are my friends. We shared human nectar together.”

As Klaus edged out of the way of passing shoes, and began climbing the rough wooden table leg, Gertrude flew back up and explained, “His mating time is almost passed and he has not found a queen yet. He’s cranky. So I brought him here to taste of the human nectar. That will put fire in his abdomen!”

Klaus clacked his mandibles at Gertrude, and a wave of irritated hormones nearly knocked Eva sideways.

Hilda and Dagmar settled next to Eva. They had Mitzi in tow. Her eyes roamed the first scenery she had ever seen or smelled outside the hive. The diminutive bee wobbled a little on landing. All her sisters already smelled faintly of the nectar. So did Gertrude, Eva realized.

It did smell tantalizing. Even crotchety old Klaus seemed intent on preening every last drop from his legs, body, and then from the table. Finally he hopped back onto the rim of the glass he’d been dunked into, while its owner talked with other humans.

“Excuse me, fraulein,” he slid down into the liquid.

Eva shivered in a bee shrug and selected a glass of amber nectar she hadn’t tried yesterday.

As the day wore on, and she peered around and smelled, she realized that many new members of the hive wobbled among the glasses in this human place. And quite a few wasps from Gertrude and Klaus’ nest too. The humans half-heartedly waved their hands around to dispel the bees, but mostly watched them wade in the cups, amused.

Some time and several glasses later, Klaus snuck up and buzzed in Eva’s ear. “You are looking very royal tonight, Fraulein Bee!” His old wasp pheromones washed over Eva again like a magnetic wave.

She hopped away, since she could no longer fly straight. “Agh, you’re a wasp! I’m not your type, Herr Klaus, please.”

He tottered after her on the table for a step or two, and then tangled up his legs and fell onto his mandibles. He gazed at her and wiggled his rear at her longingly with his nectar-goggled eyes. Eva passed the rest of the evening crowding close to Gertrude, who probably wasn’t much of a safer choice.

***

A couple weeks later, the bees, wasps, and humans were still communing in the beer garden. And before leaving the hive one morning, Eva noticed the odd lumpy shape of the new combs they were building. It looked as though a human child had tried building combs out of chewed up gum.

One of the larvae that had been deposited into an odd-shaped cell wiggled and gave her a skeptical scent, “Who built this, and what were they thinking?” And then there was a musky frustrated scent, “I think I’m stuck.”

As Eva was leaving the hive, Mitzi, who had been tasked with re-paving the hive entrance with propolis, had stuck herself in the goo to the wall instead. She wiggled her legs, dangling and laughing, “Hey, look! No legs!”

Eva sighed and pulled her down as the sticky gel congealed on the girl’s abdomen. “You could have suffocated yourself! No more human nectar for you!” She pointed to Mitzi’s air holes almost blocked by the glop covering the rest of her belly.

On her way to the human drinking place, Eva passed Klaus and Gertrude, who were muttering to each other.

“The nest looks like the wasps working on it were missing their brains,” Klaus complained.

“So they’re a little different.”

“Different? They’re upside down! In my day, we never built them like that!”

“In your day, they were trapped in rock, Herr Klaus!”

“I tell you, this nectar isn’t a good idea anymore.”

***

The bee queen had the same notion. That night a decree went out from Eva’s Queen that the human drinking place was off limits for nectar collection. All of the workers buzzed in disappointment. Eva wasn’t surprised.

They resumed their pollen collection and resorted to flying farther to other patches of flowers in the park. As Eva snuck a peek into the human nectar park once, it looked like a similar decree had gone out among the wasps. There was not a single one in sight.

Eva came across another drinking park a couple times, farther into old Munich, and spied some of her sisters there. A few days later, when their combs and honey started smelling of the human nectar again, the decree went out that there was to be no collection of human nectar anywhere.

The day after the new decree, Eva and her sisters moped to the boring flower gardens and sill boxes around the rest of the city. There was much to do to prepare the cells for winter.

***

One overcast day, as fall approached and the air had a hint of crispness, the yellow jackets came from everywhere. Bullet shapes rained from the sky around the Langstroth box in which Eva’s hive was nestled.

Every season, the hive drilled and prepared for this predator attack. This was the first time Eva and her sisters had actually witnessed it.

Eva thought, Things should have been different this season! What about Gertrude?

In their confusion, the bees took a precious few moments to realize what was going on before the acrid alarm scent blasted through the hive. Eva swarmed out of the hive entrance and encircled the nearest dive-bombing wasp, with her fellow workers, in a vibrating ball of bees. The temperature in the bee sphere rose to deadly levels for the frantic wasp.

Eva shook with fear and anger. How dare those wasps? I thought Gertrude was so nice, once she stopped trying to kill me!

That thought just made Eva angrier. She beat wind from her wings so hard the whole yellow jacket nest would feel the blast, she decided. The panicked wasp at the center of the ball bounced off the bees around her, and lunged with her stinger. A couple of bees dropped, but the vibration and heat was so great that the wasp just weaved and rattled helplessly.

You can just cook, you lying flesh-eater! Eva thought.

The wasp convulsed and sunk to the ground. The ball of angry bees dissipated and swarmed another wasp target. As a few of Eva’s sisters dropped from wasp bites and stings around her, she blasted a nose-ful of defiance, and dived for the wasps with abandon.

Vibrating bee balls surrounded several of the wasps, as the fight escalated. The air was a sea of sparkling wings and the deep humming drone of battle. As Eva hesitated in awe, a wasp landed on her back and slammed her down in the air.

But as the great mandibles loomed around her head, another missile hit the wasp and tumbled them into the nearby tree trunk. “I saaaaave yoooou, mein little beeeeeee!”

Gertrude! Eva realized, with a jolt of surprise.

“Surround me, quickly! We must talk! So the nest does not see!” Gertrude flew at her as though she would sting. A ball of workers swarmed Gertrude, but Eva fought to the center, to meet Gertrude.

“Don’t kill her, she’s not an enemy! She helped me!. She’s just faking so her nest sisters don’t see!” Eva scented to the others.

Hilda, Dagmar, Bruna and a few others started looking at each other and faltering.

“No, don’t stop or the other wasps will know,” Eva continued. “Gertrude, talk quickly.”

Gertrude wiggled uncomfortably in the heat but didn’t try to sting anyone. “I am a Loyal Worker. My queen is Mother. But we do not need to hunt you. I will convince my Queen to let us all go back to the human drinking place. There is plenty of meat and nectar there. She became angry that the nest was growing lopsided. She said nectar was making us sloppy and lazy.”

“Do you think it will work?” Dagmar asked, her buzz almost lost in the violent vibration.

“I think so. I don’t know. I will try. Ok, I go now. Too hot.”

The bees dropped away from a dizzy Gertrude, just as a broom pummeled down towards her from a giant angry human.

“Get away from my hive, you wasps! Agh!”

Eva dove at the net-covered man waving the broom, and signaled her sisters to swarm him and help Gertrude escape. They dodged the flailing human and kept him distracted. Gertrude buzzed away erratically, still dipping from the disorientation of the ball, and almost flew into a tree.

***

Eva refused to go for pollen until every bee in the hive repeated her waggle dance that told what Gertrude, Friend to Bees, had done for them.

She waggled for two days, while Bruna clacked at her to get to work. Hilda, the best waggler, picked up the dance and soon the hive was full of bumping behinds. Every time two bees met outside the hive, they did the dance. Finally, at the end of the third day, the decree came from the Queen that the human drinking place was back on the list of approved nectar-gathering sectors.

That very afternoon, Eva drifted into the flowered human enclosure that smelled of salt, smoke, flowers and at least four different varieties of everyone’s favorite human nectar. The twinkling lights swayed overhead in the breeze, as Gertrude and Klaus perched on a child’s meat tube. They argued about which of the nectars were making them build their cells more lopsided, and which were sweeter. Then they jumped, and flew over to Eva as the human child extended a pudgy thumb to poke them.

All around Eva, bees and yellow jackets feasted and drank together, occasionally calling for a new companion to pull them out of a glass.

The End

I hope you got a kick out of the story! If you have any funny animal stories you want to share, please feel free to post a link!

Posted in blogging, Denver, horror, indie, indie authors, urban fantasy, writing, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , on July 15, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi fellow indies,

It’s been a fun week. I took my daughter, Rosa, to see her grandparents, auntie and cousin. It’s going to be her birthday soon, so she basically ate sugar all weekend, sprinkled with a few pieces of macaroni and cheese. I can’t believe she’s going to be nine. Where did eight go? She looks so tiny, until she gets next to really young kids, then she looks so grown up. And the way she speaks, man, it’s like listening to another language. ‘Tots cray-cray’. I don’t know whether to sigh in resignation and mourn the English language, or laugh. I think it’s because it’s my own kid that it sounds cute when she says it, with her little eye-roll. I imagine that it won’t be as cute when she’s a teenager and referring to me. I have to ask my mom if we sounded as alien when we were kids.

But i don’t know when this all happened. I blinked and the world was different. Neil de Grasse Tyson must be right about time being relative and related to speed. Maybe time is speeding up as the universe expands. And I’m going to be…older too, in a few weeks, a lot faster than I’d like. I think since I turned 40, my warrantied parts are expiring…just the small annoying things, like knees. I’m going to be like a Toyota. The body paint might get dinged with hail and start pitting, the inner lining of the ceiling fabric might get holes and start hanging down, the stereo might start sounding tinny, but the engine’ll keep turning over, I hope…maybe I should start thinking about cutting down on the Big Macs and Twinkies.

Speaking of physical changes, my next story is about transformation. You might not look at that those stuffed mushrooms the same again.

 

Mushrooms

by Rachel Coles

Kallie Sangiovi tossed a few packets of mushrooms in her cart and lumbered along. She loved mushrooms, of all kinds: thick meaty portabellas, delicate shiitake, plain white. She ate them on everything from salads to sandwiches, in sauces on steaks, raw or cooked. They were good for her diet. She patted absent-mindedly at her cushioned belly.

Mark made his usual face and comment. “Fungus.” As they approached the checkout line, Kallie felt a tickle and then a sharp pain on her arm.

Then Mark yelped and slapped his leg. “Ow! What the hell?”

There was a crushed ant under her hand. They looked down at a cluster of several ants running helter-skelter over Mark’s leg and over Kallie’s shirt.

“Yipe!” She shrieked and swiped at them as Mark frantically brushed at the ones on his leg.

“Agh!” He wiggled and jiggled and ran for the bathroom as a daring ant made it into his pants.

After every last ant she could see was dead and Mark returned, they inspected the food. “Must have come from the veggies,” she remarked, handing them to the concerned cashier who had come running.

“See, veggies are hazardous to your health. That’s why I never eat them,” Mark quipped. Kallie rolled her eyes.

“I’ll see to the problem in Produce,” the girl inspected the veggies. “And I’ll get the manager.”

After profuse apologies by the paunchy manager, and a ten dollar gift certificate for groceries, they checked out and wheeled to the car. A gust of wind almost blew the cart over, and Kallie’s sun hat flew across a few parking spaces while she shoved the groceries at Mark and caught up with it.

“Holy Moly!,” she exclaimed, peering into the navy bruised sky. “Summer storm coming.”

Mark finished loading the groceries, hopped in the car, and popped open the passenger door for her.

“Maybe it’ll be a tornado,” she said, peering at the sky hopefully.

He rolled his eyes. “We don’t get tornadoes in Denver.”

“Oh, like the tornado we didn’t get last year. That funnel I saw in the sky was just God scratching his ass?”

He grinned, “Look, if it was a major storm, we wouldn’t be over-run with bugs, would we? Don’t animals go into hiding before a storm? Unless we’re dealing with the morons of the ant world.”

“Could be they’re running ahead of the storm,” she reasoned.

He grimaced and brushed another ant from his shirt. “Dammit! Piss off! I’m not food!” He scowled and put the car back into park. Then he flicked an ant into the windshield and did an anti-ant dance, shaking his head back and forth, swinging his arms and stomping his feet on the floor mat.

“I can’t tell whether you’re head-banging or having a seizure.” She remarked and cranked the stereo on the heavy metal station. “Ok, go ahead now, you’ve got theme music.”

He grinned, threw a bag of rice at her, and resumed the drive.

***

The next day, as Kallie pulled pots out to start dinner, and edged around Mark who was emptying the dishwasher, he sneezed suddenly and caught Kallie with the spray.

“Jeez, Mark!” She wiped her arm, making a face.

He choked a laugh. “Sorry, Honey. It came on quick. Allergies.” He wiped his Romanesque nose on his wrist.

She wiped his spray on his shirt, “Don’t infect me with your allergies, bastard!”

He dropped the silverware in a drawer and chased her around the house, trying to lick her. “Come here, I wanna give you asthma too.”

She squealed and ran into the basement, giggling and slamming the door behind her.

He held up his hands. “Ok, you can just stay down there with all the spiders.”

The door burst open and she ran out, squirming and brushing away webs and crawly things. “Ants. Ants too, dammit! We’ll have to go get a bug bomb.”

***

Mark coughed and blew his nose next to her. He threw the covers off and wandered to the fridge. She followed him and felt his forehead. It was cool and clammy.

He muttered and brushed her hand away and tossed her a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer.

“Probably a reaction to the bug bomb,” He muttered. “I think we were supposed to be out of the house for that. But just in case it’s a summer cold…”

“What, you can’t handle a few chemicals? Wuss. What did the can say? You were the one who read it, Mr. Asthmatic.”

He looked sheepish.

“You didn’t read it.”

“Not precisely, no.”

“Good job. Are you ok?”

He nodded, “Yeah, I think actually that it is just a summer cold. I don’t think the bomb would make me feel tired like this. So you should probably keep your distance. Otherwise, I’ll have to hear you bitch and moan for the next few days, and blame me for giving you the plague.”

“I think it’s too late, I’ve already kissed you, and a number of other things that I think qualify as person to person contact,” she smiled languorously.

He waggled his eyebrows. He’d been frisky enough only four hours ago, but now his Mediterranean complexion looked washed out. She sidled close to him and drew her finger down his cheek. He breathed in long and slow, grasped her fingers and stroked them and then tried to muffle a cough as he sagged back against the fridge in fatigue. His eyes roamed her body.

“You’re sick, how can you think about sex?” she marveled.

“I’m a hot Italian. I always think about sex. It’s a cultural thing. Just like wanting my women with some meat.”

“Yeah, well, you got a whole deli,” she slapped her thigh.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” He grabbed her around the waist, and then wobbled.

She frowned and tugged him by the hand into the bedroom and pushed him onto the bed.

“Ooh, Baby!”

“Shut up and go back to sleep. You’re sick. Don’t make me worry about you.” She got him a water bottle and made him drink. He laid his head back on the pillows gratefully, and was asleep within minutes.

***

When she woke it was morning, and every muscle ached. She squeezed her eyes shut again. Summer colds, ick. But this had emerged too fast to have caught it from him, so it must have been brewing in her already. She glanced at her phone, and realized with a small shock that they had been asleep for over a day. She shook Mark and went to turn on the television to the news. The morning sun lit the room, and brightened the putty-colored walls.

The newscaster for Channel 4 News looked tired and her eyes were red. “No word has come yet from the CDC on the nature of the illness that appears to have over a third of the workforce home today. Reports indicate that hospitals and medical offices have experienced a surge in patients complaining of a respiratory infection, with more serious symptoms among those with chronic illnesses such as asthma. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has issued the following message from James Miller, the department’s Chief Medical Officer:”

The screen switched to a view of an older physician with mouse brown hair in a plain suit. “We want to assure citizens of Colorado that we are working with the CDC and local health departments to gather more information about this health event. Investigations are being conducted to learn more about the cause to determine appropriate treatment.

“In the meantime, we urge people who are sick to please stay home from work to avoid exposing others. We also urge people to wash hands frequently with soap and water. And we want to encourage people to call the following number if you or your family members experience flu-like symptoms, high fever, muscle aches, fatigue, or nausea and vomiting. The Colorado Health Hotline number is 1-800-445-4325. People with more severe symptoms or who are in high risk groups like persons with asthma or heart disease should seek medical help if the symptoms worsen.”

“Huh.” She listened to the rest of the report. At the resumption of the talk show, she switched off. She coughed into the crook of her arm the way the swine flu posters all said, then wiped the slime from the inside of her elbow with a tissue. Her appetite was shot, so nothing in the kitchen was really appealing. Now she knew she was sick for sure. But at least she could get a kick start on her diet, which she kept renewing every day that she screwed up. Her phone rang and her mother’s voice echoed across the room, always a decibel louder on the phone than it needed to be.

“Hi, Dear! How are you? I was just calling to see how you were. I’ve been hearing on the news about your outbreak there.  We’re having some of that here. I said that it wasn’t any use getting the flu shot. See, everyone I know who’s gotten the flu shot is sick now. I didn’t, and I’m healthy as a horse. It’s that mercury they put in it. I don’t care what they say about it being safe. Whoever heard of safe mercury? Just you see. So how are you and Mark?”

Kallie coughed into her arm again. “Mom, it’s not the flu. And the flu shots don’t make you sick. Neither of us got flu shots and Mark is sick, Mom. Me too. But we’ll be fine. Is Dad ok?”

“Well, he’s sick too. See, flu shot!”

Kallie pressed her fingers into her eyes. “Ok Mom.  Well, I hope he feels better.”

“You want to talk to him? He’s right here.”

“Actually, I need to see to Mark. I’ll call back in a little bit.”

She trudged back into the bedroom and flopped back onto the bed. Mark didn’t move. He lay face down on the bed and groaned as she wrapped her arm around his back. He turned over, raised his head slightly and opened his eyes. She gasped in shock. The whites of his eyes were bright yellow. “Oh God, Mark! We need to get you to a doctor!”

“Why?” he mumbled. “They’re only going to tell me to go home, get rest, and drink fluids. Oh, and gimme fifty bucks. Next!”

“No. Most people don’t have day-glow eyes.” She grabbed a mirror from the bathroom and held it in front of him.

“Huh,” was his remark. He rolled over to go back to sleep.

She tugged on his shoulder, “No, no, no. You are not going back to sleep until we get you in the car. You’re going to the doctor.”

“The doctor’s offices are full up, I heard the report from the other room.”

“But this is worse, Mark! Besides, you have asthma, you’re in one of those susceptible groups.”

He sighed into his pillow. “You aren’t going to leave me alone about this, are you.”

“No.”

He dragged his legs up under him and slowly put his clothes on. He moved so slowly and stiffly that the chore took ten minutes even with Kallie helping him. “I feel like crap.” He doubled over on the side of the bed, his arm across his stomach.

Kallie shouldered some of his weight and got him into the car.

***

The parking lot of the hospital was a zoo, if all the zoo animals had eaten ipecac laced with tuberculosis. People trudged from their cars, towards the emergency department, about half of them drooling the remains of vomit, or laboring to breathe. Some lay in their cars, too sick to move.

The parking lot had already filled up and some cars even blocked the ambulance entrance. So Kallie pulled the car up along the street in a No Parking zone, which was also quickly filling. Damn the ticket, she thought, though it looked like the police might be a little too busy to issue them.

People were coming from the residential streets by foot. Masked ambulance attendants yelled and pointed at cars. Staff in N95 masks ran around trying to corral the obviously sick. There were a few police around trying to direct sick people to the triage and isolation area that had been completely overwhelmed. But there weren’t enough officers either, since the police force itself had been reduced by sickness.

A holler caught Kallie’s attention. A police officer was pounding at the head of a man who had his teeth latched onto the officer’s arm. Kallie sat up, alert. The man was still hanging on with his teeth. Other officers rushed to the scene and were pulling at the biting man trying to get the two separated. The man’s face was a bloody mess, as was his victim’s arm. The biter had gone limp, all but his teeth. Finally, they were separated as a patch of the officer’s uniform and skin came loose. He covered the raw hole with his hand and screamed. Kallie, finally tore her eyes away from the bizarre scene with a shiver of alarm. She glanced over at Mark. His eyes were closed. He had missed the whole thing.

She turned off the car and left him in his seat. She headed for the emergency entrance to find out whether there was any use in bringing him in. There was not likely to be any help in this surge. And while the biter could have been an isolated incident, it could mean that people were starting to lose their sanity.  The guy attacked and bit a police officer! The alarm blossomed into fear as she peered at the people around her.

She didn’t even get as far as the door of the ED. It was blocked by clusters of people. The police and other hospital staff were trying to disperse them to allow for movement in and out.

The people in the crowd muttered incoherently at the attendants, or completely ignored them. She’d last seen a dead gaze like that in drunks who were so sloshed they couldn’t even form sentences. But all of these people were varying shades of yellow. Some were hunched over. One man urinated on the sidewalk before sinking to his knees. A few of them had patches of blotchy and fuzzy skin. Whatever this illness was, if it was what Mark had, he was going to get much worse.

She coughed and doubled over as sharp pains lanced through her gut. Oh God, not me too? What the hell is this? She was jostled by the crowd into a woman with patches all over her face and arms. Kallie saw what they were, up close. There were tiny tendrils, like little shoots less than a millimeter in length covering these patches. She backed away as fast as she could, bumping into an adolescent girl sitting behind her. The girl stared at her dumbly with yellowed eyes, then went into a hacking fit. Dark blood spattered down the girl’s shirt.  Without warning, she lunged at Kallie, grabbing Kallie’s leg and snapping at her with bloody teeth.

Kallie screamed and kicked at her before teeth met skin. The girl landed on her back, her watery yellow eyes blinking up at the cement overhang high above. Kallie ran back to the car.

There was more commotion at the scene of the police biter. Kallie overheard the situation as she skirted the circle of officers, their isolation area forgotten.

“He’s not breathing.”

“I didn’t hit him hard! Bastard was biting me!”

“You did what you had to do. I think he was just too sick. Hey, look at this? What the fuck is that?”

“What is that sticking out of his head? Is that bone?”

“Augh, it just came off in my hand. No it’s not bone, unless bone is all spongy and wet. Those of you that don’t have your PPE on, get it on now! Get Hazmat over here!”

“They might not have any units free.”

“We have to try.”

Kallie got into the car, started it with a rev, and swung the car down the street, narrowly missing clots of the wandering sick.

***

She dragged Mark back inside. He was constantly hunched now. When she led him through the garage he threw up dark bile all over the cement floor. Well, it complements the garbage smell perfectly, she thought, chasing away panic. Her voice shook, “God, Baby–“

“I’ll be ok. Just need some rest.” He waved her away and finished lugging one foot in front of another into the house by himself. He grabbed a roll of paper towels from the holder, stumbled and unrolled half of them. He wiped his mouth and flopped onto the bed. Kallie took off his shoes and pulled the blanket over him. He was shivering violently now. As she tucked him in, she saw the patches on his skin. She scrutinized them. They were smaller, but there were the same tiny shoots she had seen on the girl at the ED. He was getting sicker.

So was she. Another sharp pain lanced across her belly. She staggered to the bathroom and nearly missed the toilet as the contents of her stomach splashed into the bowl, laced with dark liquid. Her red-rimmed eyes were now jaundiced. She limped to the television and clicked it on. Channel 4 and three other channels she flicked to in the Denver area were full of snow. They’d lost signal. She cast a quick prayer to the satellite gods that she remembered to pay them their sixty-dollar monthly tribute, and switched to a national news channel.

This newswoman looked none too healthy either. She had the telltale red-rimmed eyes and her voice was dull through the congestion.

“What began as a flu-like epidemic has shifted into a pandemic of unknown character. Symptoms begin with a flu-like illness, what the World Health Organization calls a prodrome, and the symptoms progress to hepatitis-like illness. In addition to these symptoms, there is sometimes disorientation and behavior change. Severe cases become agitated, and have on some occasions attacked other people. Anyone who experiences symptoms should not go in to your medical provider, but should shelter at home. Assistance can be given by calling the hotline 1-800-445-4325. Press 2 for interpretation services if English is not your primary language.

“Public health agencies have said unofficially that there may be a link between the widespread ant infestations and illness. There is speculation that the illness may be caused by a mutated form of Cordyceps, a fungus that affects brain function in ants. In ants, the fungus can be passed by biting. In humans, other means may be possible, such as transmission of body fluids. Ants can be eliminated by common pesticides from the supermarket, though stocks have been limited due to employee illness. The World Health Organization and public health agencies continue to work on isolating the organism, and creating vaccine and treatment. Once again the help line number is 1-800-445-4325. Press 2 for interpretation services. Para Español…”

Kallie flipped the set off and crept into the bedroom.

Mark hadn’t moved from where he lay, in fact she couldn’t see him breathe. Her heart started lurching as she hurried to his side and gently laid her hand on his arm. He inhaled deeply and opened his eyes to her. “Stomach feels better,” he murmured and extended his muscled arm. His skin in the sliver of sunlight had a more olive tint than usual and the patches had spread to over one quarter of his skin that she could see. “Lay with me,” he whispered. There was a brief flash of fear in his eyes, that he covered quickly by closing his eyes. When he opened them again, his stoicism was firmly set in his face.

Tears flowed down her face as she looked at him. She flinched and backed up for an instant, remembering what had been said about biting.

“Hey hey, Baby, don’t do that. Don’t cry. We’ll get through this. This ain’t gonna take me down. I’m from the Roman Empire, I’m too sexy to go yet. I haven’t had had my orgies and vomitoriums yet,” he grinned.

She barked a laugh. Whatever was happening, he was still clearly his usual self. “Ok, Caesar, I think we got the vomitoriums covered in the last day.” She laid down and put her arm across his chest. He shifted onto his side and flipped her onto her back with surprising strength. Instead of mounting her, he lunged at her face with his teeth.

She dodged her head to the side and screamed, struggling to get out from under him. She kneed him in the orgy-maker and slid under his torso and off the bed. He turned over and bared his teeth, and then fell back to the sweaty sheets. The look on his face as she fled the room, sobbing, was bestial.

***

She collapsed on the kitchen floor, after grabbing a knife. Has it come to this?, she thought. Am I going to stab my Honey?   What the hell is this? What the hell is happening to us? She dropped the knife and wailed into her hands. After the spasms subsided, she examined the whitish itchy patches that were beginning on her arms and belly, and silently wiped tears away. How long is it going to be before I’m turned into a human pit bull? Why aren’t there hordes of people looting and attacking, like in the movies?

All had been quiet, for which she was grateful. Until she thought about how sick she felt. Even if she turned into a crazy biter, she wasn’t going to be chasing anyone. Her relief turned to ugly realization. The silence from outside no longer seemed calm, but sepulchral. This epidemic had come and conquered with almost no resistance from its victims. She swallowed down the remaining lump in her throat and laid there for a long time as the light faded.

Finally, as the light grew again, she crawled into the TV room. All of the channels were snow now. She tried her mom on her cell phone, but the voicemail answered. She crawled into the bedroom.

Mark lay face up on the bed. His breathing was shallow and he just stared at her. His dark eyes were like holes surrounded by glowing yellow of jaundice in the dawn light. From the top of his head sprouted a thin whitish stalk with a greenish bulb. The tendrils emerging from his arms and legs had lengthened into a network that looked like roots or rhizomes. His voice was thick and furry, deep in his throat as he spoke, “I love you, Kallie. I’m sorry.”

She covered her mouth to muffle more sobs, and sat down at the edge of the bed, not caring now whether he rushed at her. He didn’t. She laid down, as more stomach pains wracked her frame. His hand in a shroud of web touched her back, “The pain’ll go away.”

“Why aren’t you freaking out at all this? Do you want to die like this?”

He smiled gently. “I don’t feel like I’m dying now. Something’s happening, something else besides dying. Besides, since when have I ever boo-hooed about something I couldn’t change. No sense in worrying about it. That’s a chick thing,” he wheezed a laugh. But she felt to weak to swat him.

***

When she woke as Kallie Coleman for the last time, two days later, she noticed that he had been right. The pain was gone. In its place, there was a rooted feeling in her belly, and a fluid coursed through her veins that sensed every particle in the air around her, the warmth, the sunlight in the room, the moisture.  And she could feel Mark too. Not just his hand covering hers, but the fluid in his veins and the cells of his body feeding, multiplying, creating energy like lightning. Light itself was a cascade of brilliant spectrums that blanketed and seeped into her. And she drank it. Her eyes wouldn’t open. The tendrils had sewn them shut, but she was seeing anyway, patterns of surging energy everywhere, especially in the mass of growth that had been Mark. She could feel him in her.

Sun. Feel the sun, he said into her mind somehow. Feel the city. And she could. Her snaking rhizomes were everywhere. Her stalk extended high above, having pushed through the ceiling to meet the outside air. The city and its network of roots and stalks that had been people were alive and awash with energy and hunger. They devoured the damp organic matter in every body and corner and drank the sunlight.

***

Across the city, country, and world a silent forest stood. The greenish caps reached for the sky, and the lower rhizomes wove through anything they touched. In what had been Denver, two of the stalks stood entwined, sharing the sun.

The End

Post and share if you have any wild transformation stories!

Tapping the Muse

Posted in horror, indie, indie authors, mythology, publishing, urban fantasy, writing, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi Fellow Indies,

 

We’ve had a great week at my writer’s group talking about writer’s block and how to address it. Sometimes problems travel in clumps, and many of us had fallen prey to the writer’s block in the last few months, the bane of every writer’s existence. I write to relax and stay sane, and so not only is it a pain in the butt when I want to write something, but it literally messes with my sanity. Fortunately, I am part of a group that tries to help each other. We get together to critique each other’s work, and sometimes, we can use each other to shake things loose when we’re stuck. One of the things I think we all agree on collectively is that writing should be fun. It’s also hard. But if it stops being fun also, we’re doing it wrong. So one of the things we’re doing is making sure to write something at least once a week. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace, or the great American novel, or even a full story. It can be a scene, a conversation between two characters we make up on the spot, anything, as long as it’s fun to write. And fun for writers could be something that makes us laugh or even cry. Maybe ‘engaging’ would be a better word than ‘fun’. We need to write something that we enjoy writing that makes us not want to stop until it’s on the page.

Throughout history, writer’s block or if you aren’t a writer, creative blocks of all kinds have plagued people who wanted to create expression. The Greeks had nine goddesses who were in charge of such inspiration, and as many gods and goddesses were, they were known for their capricious nature, feeding artists and musicians music with divine origin at times, and abandoning them and taking their inspiration with them at others. The expression in which someone says such a person, ‘is my Muse’, and the term ‘music’ come from these goddesses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemnosyne (lord of the Sky, and Memory):

Clio–Muse of History

Euterpe–Muse of lyric song

Melpomene–Muse of tragedy

Terpsichore–Muse of Dance

Erato–Muse of erotic poetry (my guess is a bit more significant than ‘There once was a man from Nantucket…’)

Polyhymnia–Muse of sacred song

Urania–Muse of astronomy

Thalia–Muse of comedy

I think it’s interesting that they were born of sky and memory, because people have been getting inspiration from looking at the sky for thousands of years, and it takes an act of will and the synthesis of emotion and memory to generate works of art or scientific inspiration that hold meaning for people.

But as with the nature of most gods and goddesses, inspiration can be dark. In Celtic lore, the Leanan Sidhe was thought of as a Muse, who inspired poets, but there was a price. She was also vampiric, sucking the life energy of those she inspired. The next story: The Muse, was based on this idea.

 

The Muse

Rivulets of dark pungent water fanned across the rock, leaving a damp organic smell behind. The moon set beyond the deserted park, leaving only the sodium park lights near the Platte River to compete with the more distant city lights in the LoDo condo neighborhoods. But where the river met the rock, under the diseased elms, the shadows were inky physical things. The rivulets across the rock writhed and surged in black ribbons like the hair of a nymph. The river exhaled gray vapor into the air that smelled like the bottom of a lake. Eliza sat by a tangle of shrubs at the edge of the rock, ruminating about her student debt for the millionth time that day, for the millionth time that year. Pinpoints of light danced in the water.

The miasma pooled around her in the air like spectral congregants to a midnight church. Before she had to return to the dry dusty track home, she basked in the sudden humidity of the night river and inhaled the mist. It slid down her throat like silk. Her vision became blurry as the lights in the water doubled and she fell asleep beside the rising stream. When she woke, the morning star was shining. Her cheek was wet where the water had seeped up onto the rock where she lay. There was no indication of how she had fallen asleep, or why.

She had been pounding coffee since noon. Her mother’s voice rang in her head reminding her of how people drown in an inch of water. Her pad was open to a drawing she didn’t remember creating. But it was dark and she couldn’t see very well. She could barely make out the shapes of figures on the page as she peered at it in the pre-dawn light. The swaths of charcoal shifted and flowed across the page into spirals and eddies. Lighter patches here and there looked like eyes. She shivered in the early morning chill, pushed herself up, gathered her supplies, and climbed up to the footpath for the hike to the Light Rail.
One of the bulbs was out in the dingy kitchen of her Lipan Street apartment when she flicked it on. She tossed her pad and supplies on the kitchen table, pulled a chair up and replaced the bulb. She glanced down at the table and almost fell backwards off the chair. The drawing that had been barely visible earlier was a wash of dark shapes that still looked like they shifted if you glanced at another part of the page. The one certainty fixed at points throughout the page were pale faces caught in various poses of agony, fear and despair, like souls trapped trying to escape Tartarus.
She slowly righted the chair and stared at the notebook and tried to remember drawing it.

#

Jobie padded into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around Eliza as she was making coffee later that morning, and nuzzled her thin brown braids. “What the hell were you dreaming about after you finally got in? And where were you so late? I was starting to think I’d have to retrieve you from a crack den or something.”

She turned and swatted him.

He grinned, “And then when you came to bed, you beat the snot out of me in your sleep. I’ll have to start sleeping with my old football pads.”

She lightly bit him on the nose, and then wiped her lips on the kitchen towel. “Ew! Did you take your allergy pill this morning? Your nose is all drippy.”

He laughed. “Don’t blame me, Lassie.” He let her go and blew his runny nose on a piece of toilet paper. “Seriously, you ok? I know you been worrying all the time.”

“I’m fine. What are you talking about?”

“You just had some real whoppers of nightmares. I tried to wake you but you just screamed. You had your eyes open and everything. You stared straight at me. I almost called 911. I’m surprised no one did call. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about our neighbors, in case of a real emergency. ‘No Officer, I didn’t hear nuthin, or see the ax-murderer leaving their house covered in blood, with all of their belongings…’ I was about to call, and then you stopped, and started snoring like nothing had happened. You don’t remember any of this?”

She shook her head and frowned into his earnest brown eyes. “I used to get night terrors when I was a kid, but that was twenty years ago, when I was like four.”

“Did your parents drink? Cuz I sure needed a stiff one after that. Are you sure you’re ok?” He hugged her close. “I’ve been planning to tell my boss to fuck off for a day anyway. I want to see how long that unit lasts without me.”

She shoved him toward the shower. “Go get dressed for work. I’m sorry I woke you, but I won’t be the reason you lose your job in this economy.” Her fingers wandered to the edge of her sketch pad and she just stood frozen in thought as the coffee water boiled.

#

She dodged a frustrated driver trying to park in a spot too small, as she scooted across the street from the station to Auraria campus. The studio was cool in the summer heat as she set up her clay and tools and got to work. Her fingers tingled and the sculpture took shape as though the shape of the piece was flowing out of her hands. When it stood done, it was a long vaguely human form like the statues dubbed the ‘dancing aliens’, outside the Denver Performing Arts Center across the street. But this bore only a passing resemblance to that piece. This solitary form was fluid with curves, like a humanoid shape that was part amoeba. Tendrils from its palms reached out for contact to anyone, anything who glanced at it. It looked strangely hungry.

Mr. Catan, the teacher, wandered over and studied it, and noted the same thing. “You certainly have created a stirring piece.” He smiled at her, “Almost Dali-esque.”

Yeah, stirring, she thought, glancing away from his upswept 50’s greaser hairdo and skater-punk t-shirt three decades too young for him. Just like Hustler is stirring, she edged away and started smoothing the figure’s shoulders with a sponge.

But he didn’t move on to the other pieces. “What were you thinking of when you created this? It looks…lonely, empty.”

As soon as she stepped back from it, she saw that he was right. It did look lonely. Need seeped off of it, reaching for her. She gasped and backed up into the wall.
Mr. Catan laughed and nodded at her reaction. “Well, wherever you got this idea from, you had some kind of inspiration. There was a time when artists who created things like this believed they had been touched by the Muse, or fed upon by her. It depended on their perspective. Men gave their lives to her. Or at least, they gave pieces of themselves. Van Gogh, Pygmalion…what did you give to create this?”
Creep, she thought.

He smiled, “You should enter this in the student exhibit when it’s finished.”

Suddenly, she felt bad at her knee-jerk reaction. He was just trying to help.

The Orphan, its name came to her as he walked away. The curves of the statue almost seemed to lean after him, the vacant eye depressions gazing into the back of his neck. She hurriedly cleaned up her materials, and went to her next class, as the statue faced the door.

#

When she came back to the sculpture the next day, Mr. Catan had moved it to the side of the room to make space for a metal-sculpting class. She uncovered it and her impression of it being ‘empty’ dissipated. The atmosphere it created was different now. Maybe its paler color as it dried had changed the feel. It seemed animate, almost sentient. But it no longer felt empty and she almost wished that it had. The head had only the slightest depressions for eyes and merely a sloping rise for a nose, and yet, it had an expression. As she finished the fine details, it still looked lonely, like the embodiment of loneliness, but now it somehow looked full.
Ms. Teague, the visual design teacher, stood off to the side, watching the progress of the shapes taking form in the classroom.

“Ms. Teague? Where’s Mr. Catan?” Eliza asked.

She shook her head, a couple grey bobby-pinned curls escaping. “He didn’t come in today.”

“Is he sick?” The hair on the back of Eliza’s neck stood and she positioned herself so she couldn’t see The Orphan.

Ms. Teague frowned, “I assume so. The office is having me fill in. Do you need anything?”

“No, thanks. Just wondering.” Eliza wandered back to her work area. The Orphan’s form seemed to occupy the room as a crowd of admirers gathered around it.

“Wow, this is really cool. I wish I could make something like this.” Wendy, the wispy Gothic girl of the class whose works all had a Tim Burton-esque look to them, twirled her long black locks.
Her lanky partner, shifted his skull-and-crossbones suspenders. “Yeah, you should enter it in the exhibit. Or a gallery. My brother has a friend who owns a gallery on Santa Fe. He’d probably take it. He don’t pay much though, but people’d see it. This needs to be seen.”

Wendy touched it gently, “May I?”

Eliza shrugged. “Sure. Just be careful.”

The girl nodded, “Funny, it seems like it wants to be touched.” She drew her hand away suddenly and then replaced it again. “It’s warm. Like it’s alive.” She smiled, her red lips stretching into a white smile, “Gives me some new ideas,” and she wandered back to her work area.

Eliza just sat back in bewilderment at The Orphan’s popularity until the students trickled away to their own projects. She added and polished, and couldn’t get away from its warm suppleness and the sense that it felt everything she did to it.

#

Jobie squeezed her, and popped another pig in a blanket into his mouth. He washed it down with another plastic cup of wine and said through a mouthful, “Congratulations, Babe! Wow, my girlfriend won an award from the student exhibit.”

Crowds trickled into the gallery from the street. As the servers moved to the greet them, Jobie snagged another handful of appetizers. She frowned as she peered around. He leaned back and peered at The Orphan. “Wow, it really is something else. It feels like its watching me. What inspired it, was it your creepy greaser sculpture teacher? Those tentacle-thingees in its palms make me think he did a little too much stroking the monkey. You know what they say about that. And your statue’s blind too,” he tipped one of his teetering cups to The Orphan.

Eliza almost shot wine through her nose as she laughed. “I think that’s the four cups of booze you’ve had in the last hour. Not the sculpture.” Eliza smirked.

He looked offended. “No, I’m eating food with my alcohol.” He stuffed three sausage-filled mushrooms into his mouth to emphasize his point. “You gotta live a little, Babe! It’s your art. You painting and sculpting and stuff, that’s the first time I’ve seen you relax a little and express yourself. You’re always so practical, like Spock. Join your own party for a change!” He poked a breaded sausage at her mouth.

She waved him off, and then thought better of it. She grabbed his cup of wine and downed it, and then another.

“See, that’s it!” he beamed.

She basked in the glow as people flocked around the statue. These art classes had been electives to fill in for some liberal arts core requirements. They had been a pragmatic choice, since it seemed like an easy grade. Maybe this could be a second career for me, she thought, but it won’t pay as well as business administration, and at least that’s steady. But now, it was turning out to be satisfying in other ways. It was the first time she had ever felt…expressed. There were other things in life besides a steady paycheck and security. Maybe Jobie was right.

She wrapped her arms around Jobie’s paunchy middle and enjoyed the attention for the rest of the evening while he did all the talking and bragging for her.

She glanced around and frowned. It had been the one sour point in the evening, reminding them of the situation unfolding on campus. Mr. Catan was missing. He had been reported a couple days prior, and it had been on the news. No trace of his whereabouts had been found, the news had said. The university had been silent on any details of the investigation. While she hadn’t much liked him, she hoped he was alright, hoped he hadn’t fled from some heinous crime they had yet to discover. And, she thought, a little selfishly, she wished he had been here to see her piece opening in the gallery.

#

As they returned home, her sketch pad slid to the floor of the train and Jobie picked it up. “Let’s see what Michelangelo’s been cooking up on paper? You never showed me these.” He flipped slowly through the pages of fruit and nature scenes, and then stopped abruptly at the charcoal she had puzzled over two weeks previously from her nap by the stream.

“Whoa…” His soft drunk brown eyes focused on her. A flash of fear floated through them, and then was subsumed again in the haze of alcohol. “Left turn into dark. Which one of these is not like the others? When did you do this?”

She reached for it, and studied it again, swallowing on a lump of apprehension in her throat. “Last week, Tuesday. The day I had the night terrors.”

“No wonder.”

She sighed, “No, night terrors aren’t dreams. They don’t happen in REM sleep. It’s during deep sleep. That’s why no one remembers anything when they have a night terror. They aren’t dreaming or seeing anything.”
“Well, one physiology class and look who knows everything about the brain. I’ll make you a bet that in ten years, they come out with another study that says the exact opposite, just like they did with the study saying fat is bad for you, and then that we need it for brain function. Make up your mind, people!”

She laughed and pushed at his ample chest.”When they said fat is necessary, I don’t think that ten bags of pork rinds a day were what they meant.”

He shrugged and his eyes slid back to the picture. “I’m just saying. Something scared the hell out of you, and this picture scares the hell out of me.” He tapped it, “But it’s really interesting. Interesting and creepy sells. You should get it entered into a contest or put it on an art website or something. Maybe we could win the rent money. And then I could go tell my boss to fuck off for good.”

She smirked and packed the pad away in her bag. “The scary picture’s gone now. And I’ll think about it. There’s a scanner in the student aid office. Maybe they’ll let me use it. In the meantime, you’ll just have to keep being the loathed IT guy until the gravy train comes in.” They linked arms and walked to the station.

#

The studio lit up as she entered, the first one there. She had an extra hour between work at the coffee shop and sculpture class. The block of clay felt cool and satiny underneath her hands as she wet it and began working. The slip glided through her fingers as a shape formed. Other students filtered in. A ring of students gazed at the emerging creation, and then set up their own stations, glancing back at her every so often. Ms. Teague watched her with a pensive look, but said nothing and just let her work, commenting here and there on other students’ pieces.

About ten minutes before class ended, Eliza stepped back from the bench and brought herself from her reverie to look at the sculpture from a distance. It was not even remotely humanoid. There were shoots emerging from piles of loops that looked like internal organs, and hands, dozens of tiny hands and mouth indentations lined with buds like tongues.
Gothic Wendy’s voice startled her, “Girlfriend did some LSD last night.” She stared at the grotesque sculpture. “It looks hungry. But I like it. One brush with celebrity and you go right off the rails.” She smirked at Eliza.

“Don’t go cutting off any body parts to mail to your boyfriend.”

Eliza frowned. It did look hungry somehow, and it wasn’t just the mouths. It had the same vacant feel to it as The Orphan had started with, as though it were waiting. Eliza covered it up and left for her Developmental Psych class.

#

At the end of the semester a couple weeks later, she brought her new piece home, when they emptied their things from the studio. Jobie gaped at it as Eliza partly uncovered it on the hand truck, to undo the cords holding it.

“It’s…unique, in a Crypt Keeper meets the Return of the Living Dead kind of way. What’s this one called? ‘Your Insides on Pork Rinds?'”

She tilted her head at it, while flicking Jobie’s ear. And the name came to her. Bacchus’ End, she realized, like the Baccanalians and their festivities. It was like a mass of senses feeding on itself.
He patted her on the back. “Good job, Queen of Darkness. If you go whip up some grub, I’ll get this unloaded and start the folding the laundry.” He turned the TV on.

As she kissed him and went into the kitchen, she could almost feel the tongues questing and the mouths opening and closing on the scents in the air and the hands reaching for something, anything. About twenty minutes later, the hamburger helper casserole was done and she went into the TV room to catch their regular episode of Bones with Jobie. But he wasn’t there.

“Job? Hey Job?” The television was still on and she lowered the volume. She poked her head in their bedroom, but the rumpled Snoopy sheets were empty. The bathroom door was open and dark. She peered out the window to see if he might be coming from the store. But the only folks she saw were heading to or from the Osage station.

She texted him. A buzz from the counter showed her his phone. She called their friends, his work and anyplace else she could think of where he might have gone. But he wasn’t there, and it didn’t seem likely that he would have just gone without telling her, especially not just before dinner. Finally, she called the police, to say that something must have happened to him, though she couldn’t imagine how. They came and took her statement, and gave the statue an odd glance as they left. She sat on the couch and cried.

Like The Orphan, it seemed different in the dim light of the living room lamp. It had seemed vacant before, but now, though the statue seemed hungry still, it seemed more…present, inhabited. She shuddered and threw the couch blanket over it and went to bed.

She cried until she fell asleep. Every hour she woke and felt the lump of blankets to see if Jobie had come in. He didn’t, and the phone never rang.

#

His side of the bed was still empty in the morning. She pulled her knees to her chest and just rocked for a while. At ten o’clock, she called in sick to the coffee shop. She stared at the screen for a couple hours. He’ll be back from wherever. Those people on TV always come back. Look, those talk show guests have it much worse, they’re throwing shoes at each other. God, where the hell is he? I know there was nothing wrong between us? Was he mad at me? No, he would never just leave me like this, wondering. Oh God, something had to have happened!

She went around and around like that, as the television droned on. Finally, she shut it off. The silence in the apartment was unbearable. Baccus’ End waited under the cloth which she had left over it. She could almost hear it breathe with its many mouths, and feel the pulse of its blood. She grabbed her bag and left, slamming the door behind her.

As she crossed the walking bridge over I-25, she spotted a sculpture she had never noticed before, though she remembered dimly that it had been there for as long as she had been in Colorado. Jobie had snarked about it constantly, because it was the singularly most hideous incomprehensible thing she had ever seen. It looked like a giant pile of red gory jelly beans that had melted and stuck together.

At night, the fine citizens of Denver were treated to its full effect as it was lit from within, so the dribbles of red paint down its side looked like the innards of a demon that had been put through a Star Trek transporter accident. She walked up to it now and touched the cherry red protuberances. And quickly pulled her hand away as they pulsed faintly under her hand. The electrical source used to light the monstrosity must have been buzzing, she thought, but didn’t try to touch it again. ‘Crimson Love’, it was named. Now she had to shut her eyes and press her fingers into her sockets, as a sexual connotation was added to the demon intestine image.
She sighed, checked her phone again in case Jobie called, and headed down the path to the river.

When she got there, she pulled her pad out of her bag, tore the charcoal drawing out and ripped it into pieces, smearing charcoal across her hands. The feeling of loathing she got as she looked at it was irrational, she knew. I still don’t remember drawing that. What if I didn’t? All this started after that strange night. What if it’s the drawing? What if it let something in? Or what if something else drew it and cursed me? Everything went wrong after that.

She thought about the sequence of events. She had never been a artistic prodigy, so why all of the sudden had she suddenly started drawing and sculpting pieces that got people’s attention so strongly? A chill ran down her spine as she thought about the lights in the water that night. What if I did draw it, and whatever was here that night got into me? What are those things I’m creating?

She shivered, and threw the shredded picture in the water. The shreds hit a stagnant pocket of water behind a brake of river debris, so the shreds just eddied around instead of being swept away. As the water soaked through the paper, the images ran and blended together. The eyes in the paper rolled and the faces convulsed and then they were gone. The river exhaled a belch of vegetal air and the breeze whistled a sigh around her ears and through her hair.

Someone wandered by with a dog. It was friendly and explored Eliza with a wet nose, a snort and a wag of its coppery tail.

“Sorry. Down, Chassie! I’m Meg.” She held out her hand.

Eliza shook it. “It’s ok.” She ran her fingers through the dog’s fur and let his drooling tongue comfort her. A tear leaked down her face.

“Are you ok?” Meg came and squatted by her.

She nodded. “I’m just having a bad day. Your dog is nice.” “Well, I hope things get better. You’re an artist? That’s pretty good!” The gray-haired woman peered at the picture exposed in her pad now that the dark charcoal was gone. It was an ordinary mountain scene in watercolors.

Eliza nodded, “Well, I’m taking a class. It was fun, but lately…it feels like it’s been kind of taking over.”

The woman smiled, her crafted earrings swinging as she spoke, “Touched by the Muse, eh? That’s how one of my artist friends in Sedona talked about her art. Like it came from someone else besides her. She also said the liquor fairy breathed life into the things she made. If she stopped drinking and partying, her art started to suffer.” She laughed. “Listen to me, You’re not underage are you? How old are you?”
“Twenty-four.”

Meg batted her hand in the air. “Ah, you’re legal. Anyway, you just look so serious. I’m not saying you should go get liquored up or anything. Just don’t forget to have some fun, eat and drink, before the time goes by, and you get to my age.” The dog began pulling the woman away. “Nice meeting you.”

“You too,” Eliza nodded. She sat until the sun set, not wanting to face her empty apartment. Jobie hadn’t called. The police hadn’t called either. Their friends only called to check in with her and make sure she was alright.
Her fear of the art pieces seemed silly now. Despite the woman’s talk of spirits, it seemed more firmly in the realm of folklore. The police will figure it out. Just let him be ok.

She dangled her feet in the river as the light faded. The trickle and the crystal cool swell around her shins was comforting. The sand swirled around her toes and shaped into furrows around her feet. She flopped out of the water and found a stick, and sat where the beach met a lazy part of the river, next to the sitting rock. There she drew spirals in the sand until the stick broke. Nothing was strange about the doodles. They were just swirls of sand. Just to prove her point she took handfuls of the sand and built a little mound with a moat.

The water shimmered and lapped at her fingers like little velvet tongues and deepened in the moat. The sound of the waves were hypnotic. The twinkles of light in the water were so beautiful and cool. They whispered and sang in high sweet voices that everything would be fine as a cool mist kissed her eyelashes. She relaxed and let the sand settle around her feet and arms. Something in the back of her mind was screaming at her to move, but the troubles with Jobie would still be waiting, and one more minute in the water felt nice.

Her arms had sunk into the sand and dark water. The waning moon was barely a sliver in the sky. The sodium lamps didn’t penetrate the mist that had risen in the trench of the river where Eliza crouched in the pungent water and drank, as the heat ebbed from her limbs.

#

A dog sniffed around the new sandstone sculpture by the sitting rock, and decided that it was not a good candidate for marking his territory. It was too…alive.
The squat amphibious creature sat, almost in the water. It looked like it was made of eyes. The eyes covered its head in clusters, even lining its wide full lips, as though it were a creature that was always watching the world from the sidelines. Long columns of stone drooped down its hunched form, almost like brown thin-braided river-weed hair. And it was surrounded by silence and sadness. Insects moved and chattered about, and the river flowed as always, but there was a stillness around it that dampened the air. As though it were waiting to breathe. Another dog’s owner trotted over. “What the hell is that? What a weird place to put a statue,” her ponytail bobbed as she jogged around it.

The jogger’s companion took a swig from her water bottle and kept jogging in place on the rock. “Have you ever looked around Denver? We’re in the city of weird sculptures. It’s that push to be ‘cosmopolitan’ whatever that means. I think it means you’re acceptably hoity-toity if you have weird art. Haven’t you ever noticed the ‘cosmopolitan’ statues around the city?”

“True. Like that demon horse with the red eyes outside the Denver Airport. There’s something I want to see before I get on a plane. I heard the artist died just before he finished it.”

“Actually, it killed him. That’s what I heard.”

The first woman snapped her fingers at the dog and the two women sprinted up the slope to the trail and ran on.

End Story

 

After all of the depictions of Muses, what is your favorite? Which one are you most affected by? How do you get past your own blocks and lure the Muses back into your life?

Undead Bucket List

Posted in book reviews, horror, indie, indie authors, mythology, urban fantasy, writing, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi fellow indies,

 

It’s been a while. It’s been an interesting eventful year so far. Rosa, my daughter was recruited to a major wu-shu (kung fu and gymnastics) team. We’ll see if it’s for real! I don’t know where that kid gets her flexibility. Not from me. Could be from her dad’s side, but if it isn’t, I’m glad the mystery DNA exerted itself. I whack my own head on the door of my car, getting in.

In addition to Rosa’s new hobby, I was sucked into the latest Harry Dresden novel, Skin Game. I think the laws of physics have indicated that time is relative. Well, I think that theory is correct. It speeds up once your child turns 8, once the clock reaches 5 o’clock on Friday, and once your turn 40. And also when you are reading a page-turner when you are supposed to be doing other things, like sleeping to go to work in the morning. Butcher really captured the dynamics of …let’s just say many different parenting styles. His portrayal of the Underworld was epically vivid, and his portrayal of Hades was perfect, in my opinion. The way, I always would have imagined him. Solemn, dangerous, powerful, matter-of-fact, not all that interested in ingratiating himself with anyone, but fair, basically the last chance for justice some people would ever get. And Mab is her usual bitchy bucket of awesome. But now I have to wait for the next book…:(

Speaking of kids, I think every parent wonders what the limits are of what they can do for their kids. What about when we’re technically not around anymore? Can people become guardian spirits for people they love? This next story meanders into the realm of the dead.

Undead Bucket List
By Rachel Coles

Jerrod watched as the doctors, nurses, and assistants swarmed around his body, inserting lines, pushing various liquids, and checking various bodily signs. They were all saying the same thing. He was dead. For the moment, everything seemed surreal and dreamlike, and he didn’t feel much of anything. So he just kept watching.

He heard the nice young red-haired doctor that he’d fantasized about yell, “Clear!” and jolt his body with the AED paddles. With nothing else to do, he perched himself on a wheeled table nearby and tried to stay out of the way, until the frenzy subsided.
The steady tone of the monitor continued, and Red-haired Doctor frowned and after a few more tries, put the paddles away. She put her hand on Jerrod’s neck, at his non-existent pulse. “Time of death, Oh-one-hundred hours. This sucks, he was one of my favorite patients.”

“He was a horny bugger.” A dark-haired nurse with an olive complexion snorted.

“Yeah, but he was a cheerful horny bugger. All the way to the end. You gotta appreciate persistence.”

Most of the staff who were cleaning up the equipment nodded, or shook their heads and crooked a half-smile before they dispersed.

Red and the nurse who had called him a bugger stayed for another minute and gazed at his body, after paging the pathologist in the morgue.

“He was stubborn. If anyone could have beat that cancer with the treatment, I thought it would have been him. He was too much of a pain in the ass to die.” The dark haired woman put her hand on Jerrod’s foot and gave it a squeeze.

“I know. But it was experimental. We don’t even know if he got that treatment or if he was on the traditional meds. It was a double-blind study. I guess we’ll find out soon. Not that it matters now.”

Jerrod hopped down from the table, a move that would have had him panting and sagging to his knees a month earlier. He stuck his chin out over their shoulders and looked between them from one to the other.

He wondered if they would be able to hear him in the death-dream. “Can I get something to eat? I’m starving. Even that nasty cream of wheat you got here would be nice. A beer would be even better.” Neither of them twitched at his presence.

“He used to tell me he’d marry me, once he got out of here because he loved hummus. I told him, ‘I’m Punjabi, not middle-eastern.’ And so he’d say, ‘That’s okay, you can make me curry instead. I need some spice in my life!’ And then he’d make a kissey-face at me.”

“That has never been more true than now, doll,” he grinned.

The red-haired doctor broke into a horse-whinny laugh, accompanied by a sudden burst of laughter from the Punjabi nurse.

“I’ll have to inform his family,” the doctor said. “This is going to be a crappy morning.” Then they both grew silent, nodded at him, and returned to their shifts.

He stood alone, staring at the body that had plagued him with infirmity for the past few years. He reached out and touched his own foot as it lay motionless on the table. His hand went through it. The foot looked real enough though, as though the man on the table that was supposed to be him would start wiggling it. He didn’t. He looked asleep. Is that what I look like when I’m asleep?

But there was an emptiness to the cast of the face, like no one was home. The body was just an object. He realized in that moment, somehow, that it wasn’t a dream. The body was his body, or had been. And he was not going to wake up from this.
He sat down again on the table. The shock and grief never came though. He had regrets of course. Who didn’t? Having more sex, eating more ice cream, telling his incompetent manager to fuck off. But there hadn’t been anything he could do about those things when he was alive, so now, at least he didn’t have to sit in a slowly collapsing body, like sitting in a house where the roof was falling in and the walls were molding.

Well, I’m not in hell, like Lila said I’d be. And I don’t see no angels, so I must be here on Earth still. What the hell do I do now?
He walked out onto the ward and stood as people ran right through him.

Okay, that mystery is solved. I’m invisible and not solid. He waved his arms around and started singing “Get Your Motor Running” at the top of his lungs. No one held their ears or told him to be quiet. So they didn’t hear him either. He saw a chocolate cupcake on the counter with a bite out of it. He figured at this point that undead people who couldn’t get attention couldn’t be choosy, so to further the experiment, he went to lick the frosting off. His tongue went through it without any frosting sticking. The cupcake looked the same as it had. Oh, crap. I was afraid of that. Maybe I really am in hell.

He confirmed his suspicions by walking up to a pretty medic and grabbing her boobs. His hands went through her shirt and she ignored him and kept filling out paperwork. Yup. In hell. What now?

Dead people were supposed to take stock of their lives at some point, so he meandered back into the room with his body, stared at it and waited for some revelation. None came. So he wandered through a few other rooms. People sometimes had revelations in hospitals, didn’t they, on the brink?

In one room, a car accident victim surrounded by his family talked about suing the teenager who had been slammed into his car. She was somewhere in the hospital too. The driver who’d caused the wreck had run. But he blustered along to his relatives and the lawyer on the phone about the girl. So what if she wasn’t the initial driver, her car should have been farther from his, so she was partly responsible, right? And those bills weren’t going to pay themselves.
God, was I that much of an asshole when I was in an accident ten years ago? His spirit sunk a little as he wondered again if this really was hell, and these were the damned souls. But the nurses and doctors still seemed nice, and the young women as pretty as always.

In another room, a middle-aged woman yelled at her son over the phone to stop being useless, and then moaned about her aches, and demanded more pain medication. Then she resumed her tirade over the phone. “Honest to Christ, James! I let you live in my house after school, for five more years, and this is how you act toward me? Ungrateful piece of garbage! I should have known that all you want is my social security check and my pain pills!” A muffled voice issued from the cell, and she yelled right over it, “That’s not the point! I couldn’t work because of the pain, but I still get your father’s check, and rightfully so! That bastard never treated me like anything but a whore. So I worked for that money, and you’re not getting it!”

Jerrod tiptoed from the room. No one had heard him so far, but just in case she was special, he sure didn’t want to start with that one. He wondered what God, if He/She/It existed could be trying to show him, other than the recollection that people were total snaky bastards, at least when the outside world wasn’t looking.

In the next room was a young woman. The doctor had just left. She started crying and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. He bent close and looked at her chart. Stage 4 breast cancer. After a brief flash in his mind of the ‘Save the Tatas’ bumper stickers he’d always admired, he stood back up and saw the tears streaming down her face. She sighed, and he wished for a second that he could slip into people’s minds. Maybe he could with practice, just like on Ghost. He screwed up his ghost face in concentration, but all it did was make him feel like he had to poop, which was strange because he had no colon. His own experience with cancer had shown him that at this stage, excising her tatas hadn’t saved her. Nothing would. He sat by her bed for a little while as she cried, and wondered what he could do to get through to her. At least this was something he knew a little about.

“It’ll be okay, girl, uh, Gia.” That was her name from the chart. “It really will. Dying wasn’t so bad. In fact, I feel great! No pain. Now I just have to figure out what to do next. So if you don’t mind, I’ll sit here with you for a spell. I don’t have anywhere else to go. And maybe you could talk to me. I’m listening…If you want to do it naked, that’s fine with me too.”

She didn’t hear him, but she sighed and wiped her face, and she looked toward him. Her tears dried up and she looked a little better. “That’s my girl. It’ll be okay.” He rested his hand on where hers appeared to be. His fingers went through hers, but he left them there anyway, half in and half out of her palm. She laid back on the pillow and closed her eyes. In a few minutes, she was asleep, and her creased face smoothed. He stood still for a long time.

***

In the morning, she stirred, and he moved. He realized he had been sitting there all night, motionless. And he wasn’t even cramped. At some point, his thoughts had wandered. They were a jumble of memories from as early as five years old to now. But everything seemed clearer than it ever had in life. Yesterday, he’d had trouble remembering what he’d eaten for breakfast. Maybe because it was always accompanied by jello and mush for that last stretch until the end. Not much to remember there. But now he could remember each grain in the mush, and each flop and wobble of the jello body on the spoon, as though he were seeing it now.

He drew his attention back to more enticing pastures, as he watched the still-attractive young bald woman reach across her bed to the nighttable for her phone. It was one of them new-fangled smartyphones. She tapped it into life but didn’t talk on it. Instead a screen popped up with a keyboard that she typed on. It was a memo. The heading was Bucket List.
She began typing bullet points of the things she wanted to do before the end, under the heading: Hate Disney, Kennedy space center instead, see the shuttle launch, eat ossobucco in Little Italy, New York, want to have sex with Egyptian guy from The Mummy, want to eat a new flavor of ice cream every day, want to see brother’s new baby, and say goodbye, want to ride a Ducati motorcycle down the Autobahn, want to do a striptease at a club and have all the guys want to put money in my g-string…
The list went on, and if he hadn’t already felt bonded to this young woman through her similar ailment, he sure did now.

“Ossobucco, oh Honey, if I were alive, I’d take you myself. That and the striptease, I’d love to help you with. If you change the Ducati to a Harley, you’d have a deal on that one too. A Bucket List. Wish I’d made one of those sooner,” he said to the air.

“You still can. Don’t you have somewhere to be? Family you can haunt?”

Jerrod leaped and turned around. There was a bald man around his age, with rheumy blue eyes, standing in the doorway.
“Who are you, and where did you come from?”

“I’m Daddy. Can’t you see the family resemblance?” The man rubbed at his bald head and glared at Jerrod. “Stop staring at my daughter like that or I’ll send you out the window. I can touch you, you know.”

Jerrod swallowed on an absence of spit. “How can you see me?”

“Because I’m a ghost, you dumb redneck. Just like you.”

“But I didn’t see you earlier.”

“This is a hospital. Did you think you’d be the only ghost around?”

“I didn’t see anyone else.”

“That’s because you were stuck in Bitch One and Bastard Two’s rooms, watching them make everyone else’s lives miserable. Fortunately for us, they aren’t likely to cross over any time soon…unless someone murders them.”

“I was only in there a few minutes.”

“No. Go look for your body if you don’t believe me.”

He ran down the hall, and this time he noticed other spirits everywhere. Some of them were milling around aimlessly, others followed people around, still others hovered over people in the beds. Along the ceiling of the hall near his room, he noticed darkness in one of the corners. It was not black, but gray. It was so gray and devoid of any color that the air seemed to be sucked into it. He caught the briefest glimpse of eyes from the center. They blinked, and the fog around the entity began seeping through the air toward the people going in and out of the double doors. As they passed through the fog, the color drained from their cheeks and eyes and a bewildered expression crept across their faces. Then they shook it off and kept moving.
He ran past the gray octopus ghost, wondering what it was. As he passed, a freezing chill gripped him, and the milky eyes latched onto him. He felt numbness spread through him, and the gray eyes began dissolving his memories. He broke away with a jolt, and then ducked into his room and prayed it hadn’t followed him.

Then he noticed that the place he was now wasn’t his room anymore. There was a young gay man and his partner whispering to each other. The chart indicated that they’d occupied the room for a week.

He sucked in air that didn’t exist, held his breath and looked out the door. The octopus was still there. And there was no way back to Gia’s room except past it. So he kept his cheeks inflated and his head turned away as he ran past it again. When he had been a kid, he remembered hiding under the covers, convinced that the creeping fingers under the bed couldn’t grab his feet if he was all covered up. And if he couldn’t see them either, he’d be even more invisible. His no-lookey trick seemed to have worked and he burst in on Gia and her dad. Gia was typing away on her text thing. Her dad looked up.

“Well?”

Jerrod shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“You were in here a while.” He regarded Jerrod intently. “I didn’t thank you for what you did for Gia the other night by the way. Just stop looking at her like she’s a stripper.”

“But that’s on her bucket list.”

“I don’t care, I’m her father, and you’re my age.”

“How long was I remembering, sitting here?”

“A week or so, give or take. I see you ran into the Grays. You look a little pale around the gills.”

“There are more of them? What the devil was that? Was there an octopus in the hospital?”

“It was once a person.”

“What happened?”

“It got lost. Half the buggers you see around here are headed that way.”

“What do you mean lost?”

“They never figure out what to do with themselves. I’m here for Gia. Folks who have families have it easier sometimes. They wander away and find them. We can follow them around forever, helps us stay together.”

“How long have you been following them?”

“For them, it’ll be nine years next week. Where’s your family? By the way?”

“I’d chased a lot of them off, I guess. My son came to see me, but not my sister. Or my ex-wife. My parents were dead a long time ago across the country, and I have no idea where they are now.”

“Well, maybe you better get moving on your own bucket list. Don’t you think?”

“I doubt they’ll be interested in having me around. They didn’t even stay to see me gone. They checked in, and then went back to their lives.” He slumped down against the wall, realizing how much that hurt. Losing his body didn’t. It was that no one he cared about had noticed.

The other old geezer came and sat next to him in silence for a few minutes. “Tell you what. If you behave yourself, you can stay here with us until my daughter joins us. In the meantime, you figure out what you’re going to do next.”

Jerrod nodded. “Thanks. How about I help her with her wishes?”

“The ones without sex.”

“Of course. What about the ones with food? And the space shuttle launch?”

“If you can find a way to arrange that, I’ll give you a kiss myself. I think a motorbike ride might be a tad more realistic if it were around here. The Autobahn might as well be outer space.”

“Well, sir, you’ve got a deal. I don’t know how to arrange it, but it seems like a few pints of Ben and Jerry’s shouldn’t be out of reach.”

***

Gia shifted in her sleep with her laptop on her legs. Her blog page was still up. The two ghosts peered over her shoulder at the text.

“So here I am. This is the end of the road. I guess I was an optimist, and I really thought that everything would work out if I just hung in there. Well, I’m probably radioactive enough to power a nuclear plant for a year. A head of hair, no tits, and lots of chemicals later, and the cancer won. I wish I could be more cheerful, but at this point, what difference does it make? As you know, my boyfriend ditched me last year because the process was too hard for him, and I’m done making excuses for him, and done taking crap.

On the up side, I guess I can eat anything I want now without worrying about getting fat. So the first thing on my list is ice cream, every flavor, pints and pints. I want to be Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, without drowning myself prematurely in a sea of chocolate syrup, of course. And then, before I get too huge to fit on a bike, I want to ride a racing motorbike, preferably a Ducati. I suppose going to Germany to ride it, is out. But maybe old Route 66 will do. Cuz who cares about speeding tickets, woohoooo! Suck my road dust, coppers! Maybe I can ride it right into Little Italy and get a nice Italian dinner.

Also before I get too huge, I’d like to screw the mummy guy from The Mummy, if you’re listening Mr. Actor out there. Free sex from a still reasonably attractive girl in a punk-rock, shaved-head kind of way. Free sex and no strings attached, but you’re not getting my X-Box in my will, so don’t even think about it. Finally…I’d like to watch the shuttle launch, so I can imagine myself on it. I mean right there.

When I was a little girl, I dreamed every night of looking back at the Earth from orbit, and seeing how little we were and how big the galaxy was beyond that when I turned the other direction, away from Earth. Knowing everything is so vast, it kind of helps, you know? Sometimes, being insignificant next to a freakin star is kind of comforting. Makes me think that all those atoms and quarks and bosons and whatever else they’ve named, that they are alive somehow, and that we all just get recycled. Maybe next time, I’ll be a star, literally. That’d be cool.

Anyway, that’s how I want to say goodbye. I’ll probably only get to do all those things in my head, except for the ice cream. A trip to King Soopers isn’t really a tall order for my mom. But, maybe if I aim hard enough with my thoughts, after the last blog you hear from me, you’ll hear about a new star discovered somewhere in a nearby galaxy. That’ll be me. Signing off for now, Gia.”

Jerrod wanted to cry, reading her blog. “I like this kid, Pops. She’s a smart cookie. What is your name anyway?”

“Mick Slater. Yeah, my girl was always special. If this hadn’t happened, maybe she would have made it to space. She was planning on joining the Air Force, and she was going to go for engineering or physics once she got her GI bill. My wife can get her the ice cream, and the Italian food. But if it were my last act as her Dad, I’d get her that view of the shuttle, or space.”

“I’ll do whatever I can think of. Her list is mine.” Jerrod looked at Gia, asleep, and decided that if he had to hunt down the ghost of Neil Armstrong to help, he would.

***

An hour later, neither of the men had any idea how to put Gia close to space. And hunting down Neil Armstrong’s ghost didn’t seem any more likely. Jerrod wandered out to the nurse’s station to try for food again, or make himself heard, while Mick stayed with his ailing daughter.

There were more sweets behind the counter, crème rolls this time. He put his fingers right through the sticky glazed brown frosting. He hung his head and concentrated on the taste of the crème and chocolate glaze on his fingers, as it melted with his touch. When he looked up, his hand was right through the roll and part of the counter.

I’m not going to be outsmarted by a bunch of Ho-hos! He stared at one of the nurses as she picked up a roll and took a bite. He thought about being in her mouth and tongue, and tasting the sweet that way. He didn’t get a rush of white creamy sugar, from her taste buds. He didn’t see from her eyes, or find himself in her head. But he felt an echo of flaky, waxy chocolate and smooth crisco cream, as the taste faded in the back of his mouth.

As with Peeps, he realized that they didn’t taste as good as he remembered from life, but he stood still in shock as it sunk in that he had taken something, some experience. Maybe he couldn’t communicate to the living yet, but he could get something from them. And that meant that he was half-way there. What if that bridge could go both ways? What if just as he could taste the ho-hos a nurse ate, a ghost could share an experience too? But if they couldn’t actually taste anything except through the living, how would that work? Square one.

Then as she devoured another ho-ho, and he tasted it, the memories of his childhood sugar treats came back to him, the marshmallow fluff, the pixie stix, the spun sugar Easter eggs, all the things that he thought tasted great at five years old, or seven or ten, but the vivid memories betrayed his fondness for them now. They hadn’t been so great, just like the ho-hos Nurse Pleasantly Plump was eating now.

When he was halfway back to Gia’s room, the idea struck him as he sifted through memories trying to find a one of good Halloween candy. Ghosts had memories. Hell, that’s probably all they were, strung together with a personality and old habits. That was what he had to share. Well, not him, he didn’t have any memories that a young woman like Gia would be interested in, but maybe someone else did.

He blazed into the room to find Mick crouched by Gia’s bedside, a frown marring his features, matching the one on hers. She was repeatedly pushing the pain medication button. Apparently, it wasn’t doing much good anymore.

“I hate this. I hate seeing her like this. I’d love to talk to her again, but I don’t want her to come over like this. I’d rather see her get married, give me some grandkids I can spook. Join the military and go into space. Anything but this. Everyone says you should never survive your kids, but I didn’t and I still have to watch her go like this.”

Suddenly, the loneliness of the Grays and the lost looks of some of the other ghosts around here didn’t seem like much of a mystery. And even the ones who had families didn’t always want to hang around them, like him, so they hung around where they died instead. Jerrod pictured what kind of ghost the cranky abusive woman from the other room would make someday. He felt sorry for her son. And he recalled suddenly, that there had been no other ghosts in that room. No one wanted to be around her, alive or dead.

He continued, putting the revelation away for later. “I found something. I tasted ho-hos when I pictured myself in the nurse’s mouth. It wasn’t like possession. It was just kind of vicarious. I wonder if it would work in reverse? If we could picture something and send those thoughts or tastes or whatever.”

“Yes.” Mick let go of Gia’s hand. “I do that sometimes with Gia. When the pain is really bad, when she’s crying. I sometimes put thoughts in her mind of our fishing trip when she was eight. She loved fishing. Never caught anything but boots, weeds and other fishing lines, but she’d get so excited when they nibbled. That was one of the happiest times I remember.”

Jerrod’s jaw dropped, and since he was a ghost, might have dropped through the floor if someone had been watching. “You knew about this?” His voice was incredulous. “And you didn’t say anything? If you already had the manual, why didn’t you share that with me before I went out again and started trying to lick the nurse’s food?”

Mick’s face sagged, and Jerrod noticed the strain, how drawn and faded the man’s face seemed. He was exhausted. “I didn’t think of it. I’ve been a little busy.”

Jerrod shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. You’re right. Well, what now? She wants to see a shuttle launch. I never saw one, except on television. You?”

He shook his head. “I’ve never been much of an advertiser, but maybe it’s time we start recruiting help. The odds are against us that someone’s been to Kennedy, but many heads are better than two.”

***

“You’re out of luck.” A droopy-jowled ghost named Ted muttered as he looked out Gia’s room at the far corridor, where a gray hung from the ceiling, perched in a corner like a great transparent spider. “Old Kaleb saw a launch once, but he’s nearly a goner. He’s more like one of them now.” He nodded toward the Gray. He used to be pretty well-off, traveled everywhere. Took the wife and kids on vacation all the time. Lost a bunch of investments in the crash after 911. He couldn’t take living like a normal person and working for a living, so he offed himself. He kind of screwed it up, so it took him a while to cross over here. His wife and kids visited, until he died, but he never recovered after crossing. He’s always been a little…off.”

Mick stared out the door at the Gray. “Where is he?”

“In the basement, the morque, with the other weird ones. There’s a lot of Grays down there. Nests of them.”

“I don’t care. I’ll go talk to him.” Mick’s eyes burned and his face grew brighter.

“I ain’t coming with you, not past those.” Ted backed down the hall away from the Gray-haunted corridor.

“I’ll go with you.” Jerrod said quietly.

“Who’ll stay here for Gia?”

“She’s not going anywhere right now. Hey Ted?” Jerrod chased the man before he disappeared down another hall. “Be a man right now. At least stay and watch the girl.”

Ted looked uncertain and then nodded and cautiously followed Jerrod back to Gia’s room. He took up a post by her bed. “Okay. I’ll secure this area then.”

“Brave soldier.” Mick replied drily.

“Thank you.” Jerrod glared at Mick. “He’s here, so let’s go.”

***

Ted was right about the nesting Grays. After they scooted past the one in the corridor, and edged past three more on the way down, by the ICU, they arrived at the morgue. It was a dim cold unpleasant place, and there were a hell of a lot of unhappy ghosts. The temperature was below what it should have been, even aside from the refrigeration. Grays lined every corner of the rooms, and hunkered along the ceilings of the hallways, watching and stewing in whatever strange thoughts crossed their minds. Their dull white eyes sought Jerrod’s attention, pulled at him, but he steeled himself from looking at them.
The pathologist bustled about, bopping and dancing to a tune he was playing on Pandora radio. The sound seemed to fall muffled into a well, muted by the soft filaments surrounding the Grays. Ghosts that appeared halfway-Gray hunched along the floors, ignored by the pathologist. Jerrod stared at him in wonder. He seemed unaffected by any of it. But he also seemed unaffected by the bodies he autopsied. He was lost in his own thoughts as he measured and peered at organs, engrossed in his work and the music.

“How do we find this guy? I don’t know what he looks like, aside from the description Ted gave, which was kind of vague. He said he won’t even look like that anymore.” Jerrod ventured.

Mick looked nervously around the main examining room. “I don’t like these odds. We don’t even know if he’s here. Just Ted’s assumption. But Gia’s running out of time. Ask and ye shall receive.” He cupped his hands, and spoke into the room. “Is Kaleb here? Kaleb, any of you Kaleb? We need your help.”

Some of the ghosts ignored him, some of them watched with hollow eyes in almost transparent faces. Some had filamentous material oozing out of their orifices, and they scuttled toward the two men on limbs that had become gaunt and spindly. One reached out toward Jerrod’s foot. He drew it back in alarm before the creature could touch him. “This is nuts. What was I thinking? How are we even going to communicate with these people…or whatever they are?”

The creature that had reached out to him tried again, and Jerrod jumped. It looked at him with its hideously deformed visage. Jerrod could feel the emptiness in its eyes, and he avoided looking, but it scuttled after him. It made a noise when he retreated. It was a groan. He looked. For the moment, its eyes were no longer empty. Its face was intent. It had been trying to get his attention. And Jerrod noticed that it was a he, or had been. The creature’s cloudy eyes were full of floaters and film, but Jerrod could see the man’s former humanity, and that he was struggling for another moment to maintain it. He and Mick looked at each other.

“Are you Kaleb?” Jerrod avoided the eyes still. But the creature shook his head, and extended one of his arms toward the dark right corner behind the examining table. Then his eyes went blank again and he crept toward Jerrod in a way completely unlike his earlier purposeful communication.

Jerrod dodged the reaching limbs, and went to the other side of the table where Kaleb was supposed to be, the last place in the gloom he wanted to be. It seemed backwards. He was a ghost. Weren’t people supposed to be scared of ghosts, instead of him being afraid. But he was. Terrified.

He could feel Mick next to him, but neither of them took their eyes off of the mass of fibers floating in the corner like a cobweb wafting underwater in the deep ocean. Within the half-cocoon, a spindly insubstantial body rested. The eyes that peered out at them were almost devoid of humanity.

“Oh, you have to be kidding.”

“I’ll talk to it. She’s my daughter.”

“Talk to what? There’s nothing there that can help us, I don’t think. It can’t even remember being human…if that’s even Kaleb. I’m not sure what you’re going to get out of that, except being turned into something from the phantom version of War of the Worlds. I’m sorry.”

Mick turned to Jerrod as the half-Gray phantasms scuttled and bumped around them and crab-clustered in the corners. His haggard eyes were tormented, not the same eyes as the seasoned spirit who had calmly introduced him to the weird world of afterlife, earlier in Gia’s room. “She’s my kid! I don’t care how this ends. I told her when she was a little girl, on those fishing trips, that I’d bring her the moon if I could. Well, I’m going to do just that.”

“But she’ll be able to talk to you soon.” As soon as the words left his mouth, Jerrod knew it had been the wrong thing to say. Apparently being a ghost didn’t improve social skill.

“Then it’ll be too late. I’ll still have failed her.”

“But if you disappear here, then she’ll lose you all over again!” Jerrod almost yelled. His words fell into a room that despite the loud rockabilly music, seemed too quiet, listening.

“If that happens, take care of her for me, okay?”

“Stop being a stubborn jackass!”

“Promise me.”

Mick approached the creature that had been Kaleb. He stared into the depth of the gray mass, into the milky eyes. Their look sucked the remaining color from Mick’s appearance. He shivered and started talking to it. “Kaleb, I need your help. I need you to remember. I need a memory from you, you selfish bastard. Snap out of it and do something for someone else for a change!” As he spoke, his color drained and he sank to the ground, weak. His phantom limbs thinned until they were skeletal. But he kept talking. “ I heard about you, you chicken-shit asshole. You couldn’t take living like the rest of us, so you abandoned your wife and kid. Well here’s your chance to make good. You’re going to help my kid!”

The Kaleb creature had been staring at him. The cataract lenses bore into him, sucking him into the grayness like an insect being wrapped in sheets of web. But as Mick yelled at him, the milky eyes unfocused and closed and then opened, roaming the room. They blinked as though trying to clear fog from the creature’s thoughts. Then the eyes started to clear slightly. They were the dull eyes of a drunkard, but they were no longer whitish-gray. They were muddy brown, and belonged to an addled man, twenty years older that he should have been. Only the eyes had changed.

Mick scrambled back and closed his eyes and kept hollering at the creature. “This is your chance to be something useful. You lost a bunch of money, who cares! You had a family! I got a daughter. She needs to see something good before she crosses over to here, or to wherever she’s going. She needs to see the space shuttle. Like you did. Remember? You were happy. Remember that, the shuttle? You couldn’t just have bought that!” He rasped from the ground.

“Hey Kaleb,” Jerrod chimed in. “The shuttle launch! It must have been amazing! You were one of the only people in the world ever got to see one of those.” Jerrod could feel the soft nudges of the other ghosts against him as they began to crowd in on him. He closed his eyes, refusing to leave.

And suddenly the air vibrated with energy from great fires coming from the tail of the rocket in front of them. The huge metal tube rose into the sky, a few fragile humans invisible in its tin can hull. He saw the deep blue of the sky and knew that beyond it was the velvet black of the abyss and the fires of the myriad distant stars. The rocket would stretch toward them until the people inside could see them unobscured by oxygen.

Jerrod opened his eyes in shock and a strange vision faced him for a few seconds, where the Kaleb creature had been. It was a ragged man’s face formed roughly from the lumpy whitish substance of the spidery mass. But his eyes were fully human. He gazed at Jerrod and Mick, nodded once slowly and then his eyes closed.

Jerrod didn’t wait to see what would happen next, he grabbed at Mick with both hands. It was like trying to haul a bag of loose cement powder. Mick’s form ran around his fingers like quicksand. But slowly Mick rose from the mire of the surrounding ghosts, and fled for the exit with Jerrod at his rear.

***

Gia’s face was sallow and drained as she lay on her back. Her arms were too weak to hold her smartphone anymore and but she had it by her. The annoying music of Angry Birds penetrated the room as she moved her fingers against the screen and smiled. Hers was truly an alien generation, Jerrod thought as he watched the dying young woman. Her mother hovered at the foot of her bed to make room for her friends who helped her to finish her internet game. Several pints of specialty ice cream were scattered about with chunks scooped out into a bowl in front of her. Dabs of ice cream decorated her pale dry lips. She licked them with a true beaming grin that for a few seconds took years away from her face, so she might have been sixteen again. Next to her bed, on the other side of her, a life-sized cardboard stand-up of the actor in The Mummy glared down at her with his sultry eyes. Someone had inked a speech bubble next to his mouth, “I must have you Gia, my Anaksunamun!”

“Thanks, guys! You’re all dorks.” She snickered until she coughed, and then rolled over and looked at the cut-out. And her friends grinned back at her and squeezed her hands, maintaining their smiles until her eyes slowly closed in sleep. Then their mirth faded. They looked at each other and filed out while she slept.

Mick sagged by the side of the bed, still recovering, as Jerrod sat by him. He put his hand on Mick’s hand, with the strange sensation of resistant magnets. Mick put his hand on Gia’s face. His thin fingers floated through her. She didn’t move or give any indication that she knew the men were there. The two men closed their eyes and pulled up the memory of the rocket shooting into the intense blue sky, the heat from the blast even from a mile in the distance, the long silver gleam with a fiery tail as the rocket shot toward the stars. As they imagined sending the memory into Gia’s head, her heartbeat fluttered and the brain waves on the monitor rose in jagged wild peaks, and she smiled.

***

Jerrod stared at the young man in front of him as he popped open another beer and chugged it and then put it on the pyramid. A dirty coverall smeared with a day’s worth of grease from cars and the logo for Rick’s Auto on the breast, was strung from a kitchenette stool of the tiny apartment. Sitting on the table underneath the beer can pyramid and underneath a bag of weed, was a textbook about how to score well on the SATs. The spine hadn’t been cracked. Scattered around the room, intermixed with posters of girls on shiny cars, were images of the ocean, more specifically of life in the ocean, shots the young man sitting in front of the Playstation, had taken with an underwater camera and scuba gear that sat packed in the back of the crowded closet. There were scattered application packets from a couple universities lying around, brochures for marine biology programs. Mick and Gia gazed around them at the mess. Gia grinned and reached for the bag of weed under her father’s glare. Then Mick’s face shifted to amusement as her fingers went right through it, and he just stood and enjoyed her frown. “Oh, have fun with that, Sweetie.”

“I’m dead, give me a break! It’s not like I’m breaking any laws! You gotta be shitting me!”

Mick just smiled.

Jerrod looked into the face of his son engrossed in the video game as he ignored the practice tests that were soaking up beer on the table.

“Hi, Sam. Get off your sorry ass, and pick up that study book.”

Sam looked around the room and then scratched his head, a puzzled look on his face.

End Story

Ah, parenting. Maybe it never gets simpler, even after we die…but afterlife would never be boring. I’ve always been fascinated with notions of afterlife, different cultural ideas about what happens when we go into the real Final Frontier.What kind of beliefs were people raised with, and what do they believe now? What are some of your ideas about death? Share in comments, if you like. I always like hearing about different perspectives.

Happy Late Passover and Easter!

Posted in discrimination, history, indie, indie authors, politics, racism, urban fantasy, writing, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hello fellow Indies!

I recently did a Facebook quiz, God those are addictive, about which circle of Hell I would fall into…Yay! I got Heresy. And no one who knows me was surprised. Though I could have done with some nice Lust or Gluttony. Those are always fun. I’m a big fan of those. I recently discovered, after going with my family to San Diego and visiting the Ghirardelli’s chocolate store that no chocolate can escape my event horizon.

I also recently visited a museum in Salt Lake City displaying the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran. Other interesting things were displayed in that exhibit. Among the interesting things I learned, thought already read about some time in the past was that the kohanim of the Temple during at least part of the Roman Empire would only accept coins with…get this…the head of Herakles on them…yep, you heard correctly. The head of a pagan Greek/Roman demi-deity. The Maccabees took the Temple back from those greeks some centuries before that because of the naughty statues of Greek gods erected in the Temple, that some of the priests were secretly worshipping too. Well, at least politicians of every nation throughout eternity are consistent…And finally, though worship of the one God was the official state religion of the Kingdom of Israel, the same way that Islam is the official state religion of Iran, though there are a million other religions practiced too, the ‘peasantry’, like me, just went ahead and worshiped whoever the hell they wanted as they had all along, including their ancient Canaanite pantheistic gods, as observed by the booby goddess dolls found in their apartments by archaeologists. Most of them never gave up worshipping Asherah/Astarte/Ishtar, the wife of El–thunder god extraordinaire, or Jewish Zeus, if you prefer. That’s right. The WIFE of ‘God’. Hmmm. Wherever did she go?

Needless to say, I have a hard time believing in organized religion for religious purposes. I think it’s great for getting together with family. So I do enjoy Seder, for the food and the company, and especially the discussion. To that end, and because I’m a complete heretic, I’d like to share this Exodus story I wrote a while back. A slightly different take on the Exodus than in most Bibles…

Plagues

Dom: Blood

The crimson water trickled out of Miryam’s amphora, as the brutal sun rose in the sky. There would be much suffering today in Miztrayim, among the slaves as well as the free. Though the situation would not be as dire for the pampered artisans and craftsman, most of the unskilled labor slaves she knew couldn’t keep much water. And the only water to be had needed buying. Many laborers would die today in the simmering heat. She looked out across the wavering expanse of scrub and sand toward the city of Ra’amses. The ululating wail of women bounced across the alleys from the city, as everywhere people found the blood water. Even the clean water in the city had been polluted. She sighed and sat down at the water’s edge, not caring that her skirt had fallen in the river. She ruminated as Egyptians and Hebrews ran back and forth, her water jug empty, her face burning in the sun. They were doomed by an incompetent god.

According to her crazy brother, Moshe, God had promised to lead them from bondage, but hadn’t enough foresight to save them clean water in his great smiting of the Egyptian ‘majority’. It was these great planning skills that were supposed to sustain them in the desert should they follow him, as Moshe kept suggesting. He never shut up about it. She sat staring at a gory reflection of herself in the puddle into which she had emptied the jug. A rail thin man, his rib-cage prominent and laced with scars, dropped to his knees next to her and looked at her with cavernous eyes before leaning down and slurping from the puddle with his lips. He sat up for a moment, sated, and then clambered to the river and vomited bloody water onto the rocks. We’re all doomed, she thought.

Tzfardeah: Frogs
The kids ran back and forth throwing frogs at each other. Miryam skirted the guard outpost near the palace, trying not to draw the guard’s attention by staying still too long. She watched the ruckus in amazement, until one of the bare-chested painted guards, swiping at the frogs, decided the kids would make a better target, and strode forward, sword drawn. The children scattered, fearlessly pelting the guard in a rain of amphibians and then vanishing. Kids could make games of everything. And after living under a pall of violence, nothing phased them, not armed soldiers with a hatred of their kind, and certainly not frogs.

At first it had been cute. Yehoshuah, her eight year old son, had brought in a little brown frog, as she pulled the morning bread from the oven, sweating. She hadn’t paid much attention. Another stray thing Yehoshuah was going to adopt and let loose in the little brick apartment.

“Outside!,” she had ordered, and followed him outside to make sure he let the slimy thing go.

It had been a little cute, staring at her with round black eyes, and round little toes. As soon as she got to the door, she dropped the bread tray in astonishment, spilling the bread to the dusty earth. She cursed. There were frogs everywhere, carpeting the road, roofs and every other surface. She turned and looked back inside. Frogs of all sizes leaped and bumped and pushed into her dry goods with abandon, burping and croaking wet little sounds. Shouts began issuing from every house on the block. She took a squelching step, and almost slipped on a bump and the ichor that oozed from the frogs that had appeared underfoot.
“Arrgh!” She yelled, casting a venomous look toward Heaven and stormed into the house just as her foolish brother approached with purpose.

She rolled her eyes. Moshe’s ‘purpose’ was getting ridiculous, an affectation only the privileged could afford. The rest of us have purpose to say alive, she thought. He had grown up in the Palace, adopted by the Princess who had decided that he was too cute to be a laborer, she thought bitterly. While the rest of us sweat and toil and die by bits. Mother encouraged it! She spent more time with Moshe in the palace, than with me and brother Aharon. First-born boys! Think the world owes them!, she thought savagely as Moshe barged in. Yocheved, their mother had convinced him that he had a ‘mission’ to help his people in his position, instead of fucking exotic slave girls. Trouble was, she never really aimed him in a particular direction or defined ‘helping’, so away he went. Now he ‘has visions’. God save us from visionaries! His newest crusade was only the latest attempt at self-imposed ‘redemption’. She faced him with her feet planted and her hands on her hips. It did nothing to diffuse the fierce light in his eyes as he entered, his breath ragged with passion.

“Do you see! Do you see that our God avenges us? Now do you believe me?”

“I believe you’re an idiot with delusions of atonement. Frogs? Really? What kind of idiot drops frogs on people?!” She held her hands out, surveying the chaos.

“Hush your blasphemous tongue! Don’t speak of God in that way! He’ll deliver us from bondage!”

“Us who? Saving you, from perfumed whores and sweet water and slaves with fans?”

“I have never used slaves. My women are willing.”

Miryam snorted.

“I am a Hebrew! I am your brother. Have you no care for me?” He suddenly looked as forlorn as the young toddler the princess had pulled from the rushes, glancing back toward the family who had left him there, hidden. “I gave up all that.” He gestured at the plain tunic and breeches that had replaced the gold-woven linen finery.

She relented, her dark angry eyes softening, “I guess. Thermusthis, your ‘mother’, must be angry. She’s probably wishing she left you in the river.”

He shook his head. “She loves me like our own mother. Why do you expect so ill of her. She is a kind woman. She understands why I must do this.”

Miryam sighed. “Ok. Right, your mission. Here’s a little blast of reality: you live in the palace surrounded by people who aren’t too fond right now of the other side of your family. You need to be more careful or you’ll wind up crocodile food at the bottom of the Nile. Don’t think you’re untouchable just because the Princess wanted a son and ‘saved’ someone else’s. Her Daddy doesn’t think you’re so cute, I will wager you a week of food on that!”

“He will not move against me right now. In fact, he is considering my proposal to release the Hebrew laborers from their contracts, if not all bondsmen of Hebrew descent. He fears us.”

“You can’t possibly believe that. Fear is why people try to destroy us, not keep us alive.” A frog dropped onto her head. She smacked her hand down with a squish, made a face and wiped her hand on her dress. “So He couldn’t have come up with a plague that was less…slimy?” She grinned.

He put a burly arm around her, towering above her by the length of her forearm, and shrugged. “I’m not turning down His help. Things can’t go on this way. Ramses has lost his mind, he’s genocidal.” He looked at her with sharp brown eyes. “I heed your warning. I know the only reason I’m still here is because of Thermusthis. He dotes on her. She watches out for me like a hawk. But now he knows what I am, he is just waiting for an opportunity. I will not give him one.”

Miriam put her hand on the side of his face. Dumb-ass brother! They turned at the sound of retching from one of the nearby hovels, and then looked down at the ground, helpless. Following the blood plague, scores of their already weakened people had died right alongside the Egyptian citizenry, sickened from drinking the poison when there was nothing else to drink. Even the beer had turned. The smell of sick was everywhere. And now this.

Kinim: Lice

She woke up with a raw scalp from scratching in her sleep as though insects had been burrowing beneath her skin. There were the same raw patches all over her body when she whipped aside the clothes from her body.
“Moshe! Moshe! Call Him off! He’ll kill us!” She yelled, but no one answered.

She sat at the side of her pallet with her head in her hands. It took all of her effort to resist squirming and screaming. Something crawled all over her, and she could tell by the shrieks that had become commonplace in the city in the past couple weeks, that her experience was being repeated everywhere. Instead of easing their lot, these plagues were making things worse. The government didn’t believe they were in real danger, and it only made the hatred against her people seem justified. Acenath, her Egyptian neighbor, had faithfully brought food over every week when Miryam’s family hadn’t enough. But yesterday when they had met in the street, there was an uneasiness in the woman’s eyes, and she had pulled her son Kosey to her, subconsciously, as though Miryam would snatch him or turn him into an animal, the child she had helped watch since he was an infant. Acenath had caught herself in her reaction, and gave Miryam a vague apologetic glance and then hurried into their home. The soldier raids had intensified, and three more Hebrew families had been arrested in the past two days. No one would ever see them again. Yocheved remembered when they had been considered ‘Egyptian’, with slightly different customs. And then in the space of a few years, following Ramses ascendency, they had woken up ‘Hebrew’.

“Auuuugh!” Miryam tore her clothes off, baring herself, scratching at her genitals frantically. The infestation was even in her womanhood. She ran and ran until she reached the river and threw herself in.

Arov: Flies

She wiped the bile from her mouth, almost tipping over the stinking pot. The frogs had made the food bad, and fevers had begun throughout the city from the lice. Miryam flopped back on her pallet and wondered how she was going to get up for work. Badness was coming from both ends, and if her mistress was in a foul mood, she’d get beaten for her lovely aroma.
Yehoshuah burst in, darker every day from the field. His wide chocolate eyes took in her condition.
“Eema, there’s something coming! From the desert.” He ran to help her up.
What now? She thought sourly, stumbling to the doorway. There was a thin dark growing line on the horizon. A deep hum vibrated in the air. Dread filled her belly.
“Get inside, Yehoshuah! Now!”
They ran in and Miryam began pulling cloth across the windows sealing every possible crack in the hut. The hum got louder. Miryam grabbed her child and drew him in her arms into the corner behind the pots. He struggled, but stopped and let her cover him, as soon as he saw the fear in her face. Something like a wall of air hit the side of the hut and a droning buzz swarmed around walls that seemed thin as papyrus. Flies boiled in through the cloths she had wedged quickly in the windows. They swarmed over everything, wiggled through her hair as she shielded Yehoshuah, and covered her face against his small back. The buzz drowned all other sound. She coughed out a fly in horror and contemplated that maybe death by the lash or by the guards, was preferable to anything their ‘guardian’ God could provide.

Dever: Cattle Pestilence.

Ramses was scared. The flies had covered everything, a dark plague born in the empty wastes between lands, evidence of an angry god, one that seemed to be gaining in power every day. One from which his own gods, indeed his own divine father seemed unable to protect them. For weeks, Ra, Horus, and the others had been silent. And this new Hebrew god was insane. His followers hadn’t been spared the plagues that had befallen his land so far. This god didn’t seem to care that they suffered, just that they were bonded as slaves when they did it. Their god would rather kill them himself, it seemed. Well, maybe that was the answer. He, Ramses, would kill them all before their god killed the proper Egyptians. He beckoned to the nearby Greek slave, who brought him the scroll he’d ordered. He dictated the edict that on this night, all Hebrews would be exterminated. And then he paused, his hand over the seal. Instead he grabbed the scroll and threw it in the flames of a brazier, a holy fire to Horus. This new god was too unpredictable. Bastard Mo-ses, the sorcerer threatened to call down more plagues if his birth people were not released into the desert. Something in the man’s eyes gave Ramses a needle of fear. One he shouldn’t be feeling as the son of a god. He couldn’t give in to terrorism, but the prospect of loosing the laborers to the desert, where they would die of exposure seemed more and more appealing. That might kill a number of birds with one arrow. But if he released them on demand, he’d look weak. Damn that Mo-ses, and may the Soul Eater devour him after death! He complicated everything.
A slave ran in, his head shepherd, a black wa-Lemba tribesman from the nearby Cushite kingdom. He was sweating and trembling. He bowed before Ramses, his god.

“My god…” he stuttered. He seemed unable to continue.

Ramses fidgeted with impatience. “Finish what you came here to tell me.”

“The, the cattle. They have fallen ill.”

“With what? How many?”

The man kept his head down, shuddering. His voice was muffled. “All of them I have seen. They are dying. It is the pestilence, my holiness. It is claiming them all.”

Ramses kicked him in the face, and then grabbed the sword of a guard and ran him through the gut as he grabbed his bloody nose. “No one threatens me! Blackmail! Trying to terrorize my people will not be tolerated!” He stormed to the palace entrance.

The city was in disarray as people ran through the streets wailing at their misfortune. Dead and dying cattle were wheeled through on carts, the corpses destined for the midden heaps to be burned, so their pestilence wouldn’t poison whatever herds remained. The only meat for the markets tomorrow would be the cured reserves that were supposed to last through the drought. He snapped orders to his ministers to release a portion of the drought provisions from the royal storehouses to see people through the next few weeks until more animals could be purchased from the kingdom of Punt and other allies. That might help quell the panic for the moment. No stores would go to the god-damned Hebrews. They could starve for bringing this on his kingdom.

Shcheen: Boils.

The violence had increased threefold. The Pharaoh had gotten Moshe’s message about releasing Miryam’s people, and instead of complying had decided on a show of strength. Which was exactly what Miryam had expected. A political genius her brother was not. He had spent his entire life embroiled in palace politics, yet people’s reactionary nature seemed to have washed over him like the Nile. The raids had doubled, with every other family, including children declared traitors and enemies of the kingdom. But more disturbing was the civil unrest. She cleaned up the camel dung spattered on the outside of the house from the teenage mob that had gone from Hebrew house to house last night. Four of them had stormed in through her front door, yelling expletives at them. One of them had knocked Yehoshuah unconscious, while the other three held her down and pulled up her dress. Ari, her husband, accompanied by Har-An, Acenath’s husband, had run in from the quarry and struck the young man with his mattock. Two intruders fled, as the mattock felled the attacker who was about to violate her, and Har-An dropped the last assailant with a meaty fist. The two men looked hard at each other. Har-An took his mattock with a deep breath and ended the one still alive that he’d knocked down. Ari grabbed bed cloths, tossed them over the remains. They hefted the bodies over their shoulders without another word and left in the direction of the river. Miryam scrubbed the stains on the floor.
A day later, the Egyptians had reason now to be scared. Following the riots, very few Egyptians were on the streets, and moaning could be heard from the houses Miryam passed on her way to collect water. Of those she saw, every visible piece of skin was suppurating with sores upon sores. These walking horrors stared at her clear face in supplication, begging someone whole to do something to relieve their condition. None of the Hebrews had been affected, it seemed, at least not by whatever affliction this was. Maybe God’s aim was getting better, she thought sourly. Except, she liked most of her Egyptian neighbors. It was having money that made people act like idiots, not the gods they worshipped. And nobody she knew had any, so they were always perfectly nice. After putting down her load of water, she stopped over Acenath’s house next door, with some of her meager food and water. The place stank. Both Acenath and her husband and Kosey were curled on their pallets. Miryam rushed to the child. His face was erupting with pustules, and she could feel the heat from him without touching his forehead. She wet a cloth in clean water and laid it across his forehead and trickled more onto his lips. She did the same for his parents. Acenath just stared at her with dull eyes. Miryam sat with them until she had to leave for her mistress’ home.

Barad: Hail

The thatch roofs were burning and collapsing. And the ones that weren’t alight were being pulverized by fist-sized hailstones along with any fool who tried to save them. Lightning cascaded down in three different places as she watched. El, the storm-God of the Hebrews was doing what He did best. Miryam flinched as she peered out the window in time to hear the punctuated squawk of a chicken that had run in panic, and see a puff of feathers stained red. Acrid smoke drifted in and a strand of fiber and gray ash floated in midair. She bolted upright, the fire was close. She peered as far out as she could without getting beaned by hail. A conflagration was three houses away, and Acenath’s roof was starting to catch from the drifting embers of other fires. A woman ran down the street, trailing smoke and fearing fire more than the physical assault from the black sky. Everywhere people were yelling, covered in welts and bruises as water for the fires was handed in from the river. Miryam grabbed a partly full water jug and hoped for the best as she ran to Acenath’s house, climbed to the roof and doused the growing flame. Hailstones slammed into her, and she fought to keep moving and tried to block blows to her head with one hand holding the jug. Apparently there was no special shield for Hebrews out in the open. Brilliant. Maybe their reprieve from the boils and sores had just been luck or different food or something. Acenath ran out, covering her head with her hands, but a carbuncle blossomed above her eyebrow as an ice ball pelted into her. Having survived her illness, she wobbled on her feet, looked up at Miryam and ran back inside. A moment later, she emerged, climbed to the roof and handed Miryam a full jug of water.

“You!” Acenath called back into the chaos on the street, to anyone. There was no husband to help her now. Har-An had not survived. “This fire will be yours if it spreads! Help me!”

Water came, by Egyptian and Hebrew hands scratched and shredded by the pounding hail. Within a few minutes, her fire at least was out. Lightning cracked into a house down the street, sizzling the water in their cistern, and making Miryam almost lose her hold. People melted back into whatever shelter they could find. As Miryam slid down, she noticed sparks landing in the thatch on her own roof. Acenath did too. Tendrils of smoke curled up and then extinguished. A hailstone almost took off Acenath’s nose as she stared, then shook her head and grabbed Miryam’s arm and ran into her own house.

“Maybe your house would be safer,” she said sourly to Miryam. “But I can’t leave Kosey here by himself.”

“I’m fine, Mum! I’m almost a man.”

“Just because you’re the man of the house doesn’t make you a man yet! And you shouldn’t be out of bed!”

The boy sat up, sores healing on his face. He rolled his eyes.

Miryam shook her head. “I’m as confused as you are. Trust me.”

“Your house didn’t catch fire.”

“Yet. Day isn’t over yet.” Miryam reminded her.

Acenath glared at her a moment, then burst into laughter, slapped Miryam on the shoulder, right on a bruise, and handed her a cup of weak beer, and piece of bread. “Thank you, friend. I never thanked you for helping us before either. I almost lost my Kosey…Har-An…” Her huge dark eyes filled with tears, and she choked. Miryam put her arm around the tiny younger woman’s shoulders, and played with Acenath’s long black braid. Tears dripped down Acenath’s cheeks, but the lines in her face relaxed a little.

The boy bit down on his trembling lip, and put his arm around her other shoulder and gave the women a very manly look. “Mama, it’s ok. I’m fine. And I’m almost as tall as you, see. I can handle man’s matters.” He stood above them and extended his skinny chest. The women looked at each other, stifling smiles.

“Yes, well as far as my height, you didn’t have far to go.”

He looked crestfallen for a second, then grinned. Miryam snorted and went to the window, rubbing at her numb fingers. The hail had stopped, and the lightning flickers receded into the distance. “Clearing up,” she said. But their quarter of the city as far as she could see looked like it had been through a battle, with debris littering the street and smoke from fires dotting the buildings here and there.

“Why does your god hate us so much?” Kosey’s voice came from behind her. Miryam turned to his clear amber eyes. Acenath watched, quietly chewing on a crust.

“I think he’s just angry with Ramses.”

“Because Ramses is a donkey’s b–?”

“Kos!,” His mother yelled, glancing at the door fearfully.

“But you said–“

“Do you want to get us killed, boy?” His mother went to the door and peeked out.

Miryam stared at her. Acenath shook her head at Miryam. They both let out a long breath.

Unabashed, he continued, “Then is it because he hates Hebrews? We don’t hate Hebrews. Yehoshuah’s my friend.”

Miryam ruffled his hair. “I know, boy. We weren’t spared most of this either. Maybe I just haven’t kissed His Heavenly …rear-end enough. I’m not very good at worship, regardless of the god. At least you have more than one to choose from.”

“That just means more…rear kissing,” Acenath muttered. She gave Miryam a relieved smile.

Miryam kneeled by her and took Acenath’s and Kosey’s hands in hers. “I will never be your enemy.”

Acenath wrapped her arms around Miryam. Kosey huffed in relief. “So I can still hang out with Yehoshuah? He has the best snail collection.”

“Ok, what?”

“Nuthin.” He coughed, and darted out the door to find his friend before the women could stop him.

Arbeh: Locusts

Ramses stared at the growing cloud on the horizon. The city had weathered sandstorms before, but the tremor in his belly spoke of something far worse. He gave the orders to cover whatever structures might be damaged by the storm, and sent runners from region to region of the city, warning his citizens to shelter in their homes. Except none went to Goshen, where one of the oldest neighborhoods of Hebrews still resided. All work in the city was ceased. One of his foreman, a Canaanite from the outlying area arrived, out of breath. His guard stepped forward to block the man’s rushed approach, but Ramses waved them back, and motioned the worker into his presence.

“My Lord,” the huge man kneeled. Even through his almost black complexion, his skin was blanched with worry. “It is a plague from the Hebrews! It must be! They have called locusts, my Lord! They have called Pazuzu, demon of the wastes. Their god works with demons!”

Dread froze like a stone in Ramses belly, even as he rolled his eyes at the mention of foreign gods. El, Pazuzu, god or demon, it made no difference who or what had brought the locusts. Non-Egyptian gods and superstitions did not belong here. He snorted in derision. “Your heathen gods do not interest me. This is sorcery, and they will pay.” He decided on mercy today and dismissed the man to see to his own business. The swarm would be upon them in minutes. He sent runners to the fields to gather what could be carried to the grain houses, but the swarm descended as he watched. Large flitting forms blotted out the sky and settled on the fields and roofs, as he retreated to the inner courtyard. Within minutes they had edged impossibly in through every crack. The long coppery bodies were like no locusts he had ever seen. They were three times the size, their paper wings twitching even in rest, and making their outlines blur as though they flickered in and out of the living world. And then the sound of their mandibles filled the halls with scratching. He ran at them, crunching them under foot, stomping and sweeping around with his arms. With each stomp, their bodies held his weight for far too long before collapsing into mush. And as he swept some away, he could see gnaw-marks everywhere there was vegetable material, including wood. Pazuzu. Demon of the wind, demon of empty places. The name echoed along his nerves as he stared at the creatures. But it is a foreign god! Osiris, Lord of the Harvest, why are you suffering this foreign god to invade your land and torment your loyal followers?
When he arrived at the grain houses, the keepers were in a frenzy. They lit huge fires of aromatic woods before the doors to smoke the insects out, but the golden swarm seethed through the grain. Ramses sent away all available servants to fetch the priests and bring the finest animals from his personal herd to sacrifice to the gods that he had somehow offended. As he waited, he stood before the fire, and gazed at the sky towards his Heavenly Father. Why are you doing this to me? My first job as a god is to lead my people, and now I cannot even feed them. Our meat rotted on the herd, our stores from our allies are depleted, and now there will be no grain. By the end of today, my people will be eating sand. Why are you not intervening, Great Ones?

Choshech: Darkness

Two days after the locusts, the hunger in people’s eyes matched the hunger of the swarm that had enveloped them like a bronze papery rain. Incidents of robbery increased as the most desperate, young, and angry people broke. Just when Miryam thought it couldn’t get any worse, a black fog fell that wasn’t like fog. It was like a miasma poisoning the air, smelling like rotten eggs and making it hard to breath. Torchlight could only be seen a couple cubits away. Miryam didn’t think it was night, but no glow from the desert sun penetrated the fog. By her estimation, it had been late afternoon when the cloud descended, and her sense of time told her that evening now fell. Acenath, Kosey and Yehoshuah huddled on the extra pallets she’d set out in the crowded center of her apartment. She lost track of time, but Ari should have returned home from the quarry by now. Shrieks and blood curdling screams issued out of the dark and everyone looked at each other with wide white-rimmed eyes. It had seemed very close, but it was impossible to tell from what direction. The boys flinched and then recovered. No one spoke, but Kosey, older than Yehoshuah by two months retrieved a sickle from a hook on the wall and stood by the door.

“We are cursed. This land is cursed,” Acenath said.

“Maybe it’s just us,” Miryam replied quietly. “If this is caused by our god, as my brother believes, than this will follow us into the desert if we leave.”

“But your god will protect you. He will not curse you. He is only angry with us, with my people. That’s what everyone says.”

“What if everyone is wrong.”

No one said anything for a long time. The only sounds were furtive shuffling outside the walls and periodic bouts of screaming, somewhere outside.

Makat B’chorot: Slaying of the First Born

Ari had returned from the quarry, where they’d hunkered down until the strange fog had passed. But the sight of him alive did nothing to quell Miryam’s anger for the next few days. Her fist slammed into Moshe’s nose as soon as he barged in her doorway three days later. “That’s what I think of your stupid crusade!” She rushed him and kicked him in the long shin, flailing at his chest and clawing at his face. He grabbed her and shoved her back. She stumbled across the sleeping pallets and jugs and fell. Otherwise, he ignored her as though she hadn’t even spoken or moved against him. His eyes were burning with anger. Something else was in his eyes, fear. “Slaughter your lamb. And cover the door lintel in its blood. Do it now.”

She stared at him and sneered. “I’d ask if you’d lost your mind, but that seems redundant.”

He grabbed her and hauled her to her feet by her dress. “Do you want Yehoshuah to die? Do as I say!”

She slapped him across the face. “So now you’re threatening me?”

He slumped. “No. Death will come tonight to all Egyptian heirs, and there is little time left. The sun has set.” He pointed to the horizon outside the window.

“Moshe…What did you do?” She swallowed hard.

“Nothing. I know things. I know you never believed me. But, it is El. I…” he wiped the blood trickling from his nose and looked down. “I told you, I know things.”

She sighed and sat down, gazing at her god-touched brother. That was what some people said. That was what the rest of her family believed now. They’d scoffed at him at first, his wild eyes, his rich pompous mannerisms. But he didn’t look pompous now. He looked scared, and tired. He sat down next to her, and touched her face. He took her numb left hand in his and frowned.

He pleaded and bowed his head. “Miryam, please. I know you think I’m crazy–“

“I don’t know whether you’re crazy, or a sorcerer. And I’m not sure which is worse. Har-An died because of these curses. He is our neighbor and friend. Don’t you care? Doesn’t our god care about the innocent?”

“I’m not a sorcerer! How could you think that,” he spat. “Ramses refuses to listen to God and let us leave.”

“To go where, exactly? Into the desert? You have been outside the city, right? Here’s a flash of insight: There’s no water out there.”

“He will take care of us, we are His Chosen.”

“He’s doing such a superb job so far! I couldn’t keep anything in my belly for three days, I nearly died, and that was before He nearly burned my house down, and killed my friends! I like them and I don’t care what their parentage is, and I don’t want to follow any God who does!” Her voice had risen, until Yehoshuah covered his ears and ran next door.

Moshe’s face was sad. He didn’t call her out for blasphemy or any other such nonsense. At least he was learning. He just stood, and touched her face and left. The torchlight increased. She shivered. Death will come to all Egyptian heirs, her shiver became a shudder. Me and my temper. What does that mean? In her belly, she knew the curse would happen, but she didn’t know how. Yehoshuah was still next door. Yehoshuah. She grabbed a long knife from the table and marched outside to the tethered lamb. Ari was coming down the road as she slit its throat. Blood spurted all over her hands, and into the bowl she’d set under it.

“What are you doing, woman?” Ari ran to her. “That was the last lamb we’re likely to have! The ewe’s too old for more!” he wrenched the knife from her hand.

The torches and rushlights went out. The night in the street was black and there were no stars. Something dark and massive gathered in the shadows, all around them. A ruckus of yelling came from Acenath’s house, and several other houses on the street. Yehoshuah ran out as Acenath’s panicked voice shrieked from their house. He was panting and clutching his throat, and then he collapsed into a seizure at the feet of his parents. Miryam screamed and wrapped her arms around him, as tendrils of darkness reached from the shadows. She thrust the bloody bowl at Ari. “Splash this over the door, now!” her face brooked no argument. She hauled Yehoshuah inside, and Ari did as he was told. He entered, but before he could utter another word, she ran and shoved him out the door again. “Go put some on Acenath’s home. Cover every door you see! All our Gyptian neighbors! The curse is coming for them!”

He powered past her and dropped to his knees next to Yehoshuah, his only son. The gory bowl spilled liquid into the dust of the floor. Miryam wrapped her arms around her son’s heaving shoulders. He leaned over and vomited onto her feet, but he was breathing. Her and Ari grabbed him and held each other and sobbed.

“Eema, Abba, you’re crushing me.” Yehoshuah pushed at them, fighting to sit up, his face a nauseous green. Kosey, Mama, Kosey is sick–“

Miryam grabbed the bowl, but only a spoonful of liquid remained. She ran next door and smeared it on Acenath’s door with her hands. It left a dark smudge. There was sobbing inside. She rushed in. Acenath was clutching Kosey, screaming and shaking him. He was prostrate on the ground. He was deep purple under his dusky skin, and silent. Darkness filled the room as flashes of light flickered here and there in the air like a thousand fiery eyes, and wisps of smoke wrapped around the two in the center of the room like giant dark hands. Miryam’s heart almost stopped, but she dove for the dark mass which parted and surrounded her with a roar, like an inferno. Tiny red eyes surrounded her in a million wing-like puffs of feathery smoke. She held her sticky palms out around her and yelled defiantly at the top of her lungs, “I am a Hebrew! Stay away from this boy! He’s mine, Demon!”
She covered him with her trembling body, still brandishing her bloody palms. The smoke creature blinked its thousand malevolent eyes and withdrew silently from every crack and crevice in the room. The room was dark, but it was gone. Acenath sobbed and laid her head on Miryam’s shoulder. Miryam could feel the faint throb of the boy’s heart pick up speed. He took a shuddering breath. Acenath kept sobbing. Miryam laid back onto the floor and stared at the ceiling.

The line of refugees wound into the desert as far as Miryam could see. Acenath hefted her pack and ushered the boys in front of her.

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want. Though I’m glad for the company. The order was only for us to leave,” Miryam said.

The younger woman shrugged and glanced back at her half-empty house. “You claimed my child in fosterage. The least I could do is help you raise him. My man has gone on to the afterlife without me. There’s nothing here for me now.” Her eyes teared for a moment. She stared at a wiry young man walking past to join the trail. “Maybe a Hebrew man won’t be too bad.”

Miryam grinned, and shoved Kosey’s face around as he turned to stare at his mother. There were empty huts up and down the dusty streets, some Hebrew, some Egyptian.

“We need to pick up the pace before Ramses sends the army to hurry us up.” Acenath commented as she followed the slow winding throngs of people.

Miryam snorted, “Hardly our biggest worry after last night.” She tugged her bag over her shoulder, sighed and began walking.

End Story

 

Whenever someone tells me that ‘such and such’ are enemies, I have to wonder about regular shmoes like us, the Hebrew and Egyptian equivalents of Joe from the Seven Eleven. How many of those Egyptians were our enemies, and how much political maneuvering did it take between the government and dissenters to cultivate that hatred so far into the future that we still celebrate plagues and suffering thousands of years into the future? It’s definitely a good thing to celebrate freedom and the winning of freedom, I just wanted to take a step back and look at this from a different perspective…Discuss…

 

Back for VD Day!

Posted in blogging, Denver, horror, indie, mythology, urban fantasy, young adult fiction with tags , , , , , , on February 14, 2014 by rachelcoles

Hi Indies,

I’ve been away for a while, failing to manage the work-life balance…Never been good at juggling. But I’m back! And while I used to scorn VD Day (yes, pun intended, from someone who used to do infectious disease surveillance) as syrupy Hallmark yuck, I’ve at least come to appreciate that it is a great excuse for a date with my husband at great restaurants. All holidays are all about food sooner or later. Food=love. Restaurants pull out all the stops on VD Day, with new menus etc. And my husband and I are both foodies. So yay! I can appreciate that level of capitalism at least, if it includes Second Breakfast, Elevensies, Luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Dinner, and Supper…

And I have a VD Day story to share, full of kisses. Always beware when a horror writer tries to cover a Valentine romance story…

Kisses

by Rachel Coles

 

Terry tried hard not to kick the side of the automatic door as it opened on an explosion of scarlet and bubble-gum satin and lace. The menagerie of heart bedecked stuffed animals crowded the aisles like a cupid-struck taxidermist’s fantasy, and Terry’s worst nightmare. The stacks of chocolate boxes waited, like Gretel’s witch in her candy house, to tempt her into a sugar feeding frenzy that would use up every drop of insulin in her diabetic body for the rest of her life. Valentine’s Day sucks! Fuck Valentine’s Day! she thought, as she savagely shoved the grocery cart ahead of her. It nearly careened into a stand of skimpy thong underwear with curly “I Love You” script littering the tiny triangle of fabric.

She tossed packets of lettuce and other veggies in her cart haphazardly, and then buried them under bags of chips and other snack food. Two minutes and counting, she thought as she reached for the rice cakes around a portly woman blocking the entire aisle with her cart. If I don’t get out of here soon, I’m going to shoot these people, she vowed. Two days until Venereal Day. I’m not going to survive this time without multiple homicide.

The woman giggled and grabbed a third box of frosty angelic white Valentine’s Day Little Debbie cakes. “Oh, I just love these things! I buy out a whole shelf every Valentine’s Day to decorate for everyone I know. I put messages on the top. They taste so much better than those chalky candy hearts, don’t you think?”

“I’m diabetic.”

“Oh, well, no cakes for you, then!” She waggled a puffy finger at Terry. “I bet those rice patties would decorate up nice. Lots of room to write, ‘I wuv you’ on those! You can whip up a batch of sugar free frosting in a jiffy with that Splenda now.”

But I don’t love you, I hate you, and your little teddy bear too. “Thanks.” Terry grimaced, pulled a box of angel cakes into her cart and ran.

***

Her one-bedroom apartment smelled like stale cigarette smoke again, and her lungs tightened a little as she entered. She left yet another message with the landlord about changing out the ratty carpet that seemed to emit a growing smorgasbord of nasty scents every week.  She took a puff of her nearly empty inhaler and opened her lap top and email. There was a message from her mother. When she opened it an e-card popped up and waited for her click. I’m a masochist, she realized as she clicked on it. It literally exploded in a shower of animated hearts and dancing bunnies singing something that she didn’t catch because she slammed the computer lid closed. Now it was probably broken. Another expense she couldn’t afford, but she didn’t care, as she sat, shaking in anger and staring at the empty space above the computer. That’s it, I’ve had it.

She stormed into the bedroom and grabbed the picture of George, her late husband, by her bed and went into the kitchen where the grocery bags were still sitting in the middle of the floor. She grabbed the angel cakes and opened a package and stuffed one of the treacle-sweet cakes in her mouth. She nearly gagged as she inhaled sugar glaze and crumbs, but she swallowed a giant gulp as she flung open one of the kitchen drawers and grabbed a lighter. It still had fluid, thankfully. She put the rest of the box of Valentine’s Day cakes in the sink, poured lighter fluid on the box and then lit them up. As she watched them burn, she put the picture of George next to the blaze, propped against a soap bottle. It was three years to the day that he had died in the car accident. He stared at the blaze with his playful blue eyes.

“I curse Valentine’s Day. To all the gods of Heaven or Hell, I offer this sacrifice of Little Debbies. May it and everyone who chases love and smothers people with kisses and hearts on that day be damned. May they be followed and haunted like I am, every time they look at one more stupid card or one more stupid fluffy bear with a stupid message on it that doesn’t mean anything except ‘Give me money.’  Fuck all you people! I’m done with you!” She swallowed the last dregs of cake, and looked at George. A tear rolled down her face and she swiped at it and flicked it into the fire. “You were the only one for me. You never gave me a card, and I never needed one with you. Fuck you too for dying on me.”

The smoke alarm blared, and she jumped. She grabbed the fire extinguisher and doused the flames and half the counter in foam. She put it down just as there was a pounding at the door. She went to the door and opened it a crack.

The landlord’s squinting eyes peeked through above the chain. “What’s going on in there?”

“Nothing,” she said as smoke drifted around her head and through the crack.

He sniffed. “Like hell. What you been smoking in there?”

“Nothing illegal. You going to replace the carpet?”

“Not if you’re smoking in there!”

“Then bye.” She shut the door almost on his nose.

He called her name outside the door for a minute, threatened to evict her, which she knew he couldn’t do, and then there was silence.

***

Sweat leaked onto the sheets in rivulets as she sat up with a start. The bedroom was dark, but she could see a shadow at the foot of the bed. She grabbed the baseball bat from under the bed and leaped at the form. Then she tumbled over the edge and fell to the floor, as she swung the bat. The momentum twisted her body in the air and she landed on her back with a thud. She stared up into empty space, expecting a gunshot or the slice of a knife from the intruder, but none came. She sat up, trembling with adrenaline, and looked around in the darkness. No one was there. She stood up shakily and climbed back into bed. She left the bat beside her near her pillow. What a horrible dream, she closed her eyes and willed her heart to stop racing. After an hour, she drifted back into dreams. They were filled with shadowy images and talking teddy bears.

At dawn, she woke up to pee. In the faint light, the tall shadow was back at the foot of her bed. She leapt up again with a shriek, bat in hand, but this time, the growing dawn illuminated the figure. It was a man. She got the impression of maturity, if not advanced age. His eyes were dark in his gaunt scar-pocked face, and his hair was long, black, and tied back. He wore a thigh-length tunic and leggings. She couldn’t tell the color of his clothes in the gloom. And then he vanished.

“What the hell!” She jumped off the bed and ran to where the figure had been, but no one was in the room. She ran into the hallway, and living room. Her door was still chained and locked, and the windows closed from the inside.

She sank down onto the worn mustard yellow couch and put the heels of her hands in her eyes. Then she got up and went into the bathroom to look at the side effects listed for the Celexa she’d been taking. They didn’t include hallucinations. She popped two pills and got ready for work.

***

“You look like shit.” Donna swung her head around the door of the stinky core room refrigerator.

The smell of something rotten wafted past her and almost made Terry gag. “Is anyone ever going to clean that?”

“It’s the exec department’s turn, according to the chart. We filled in for them last time. I’m not doing it again.” Donna wrinkled her nose. “I ain’t their mama. And stop changing the subject. Why you look like shit?”

“Bad dreams.” She edged around the stocky African American woman and wedged her lunchbag in on top of the mound of other bags.

Donna put her hand on her hips, displaying her elaborately painted nails. “Are you still going on about Valentine’s Day? You do this every year! Girl, you got to stop with that! Find yourself a friend with benefits, if you have to. You goin’ to drive yourself nuts. It’s just a national excuse to get candy and diamonds from your boyfriend. Work it! Or what about a girlfriend?”

Terry scowled at her.

Donna held up her hands. “Hey, I’m not biased. Whatever gets the job done.”

Terry glared around the room at the shiny foil hearts the ‘Cheer Committee’ had hung from the ceiling. She couldn’t even tear these ones down, let alone light them on fire, or she’d be branded a spoil sport at work, which translated into ‘not a team player’. She left the core room to go back to her cubicle.

Donna caught her look and followed her. “Hey, I thought you were seeing somebody about that, about you know, anxiety. You okay?”

Terry didn’t say anything for a few minutes, just stared at her computer screen. “It’s not that.”

Donna plopped onto the floor, pulled the cardboard divider across the entrance to the cubicle and whispered. “Well what is it?”

Terry looked up over the top of the divider and sat back down. She sighed, “I just had a bad dream. About a guy in my house. Nothing big.”

Donna’s eyes widened, “Shit, you check to make sure it wasn’t real? What if someone’s casing you out. That’s creepy.”

“To steal what, my million year old laptop?”

“No, your skinny White ass! What if he’s a rapist?”

“Thanks, I feel much better now.”

“You got to be careful in that neighborhood, woman!”

“It wasn’t like that. I—I could see, he wasn’t…real, and he wasn’t, like, from now. There was something about him, like he was dressed for another time.”

“So maybe you got a Ren Fair rapist.”

Terry rolled her eyes, and cracked a smile.

Donna grinned. “Feel a little less crotchety now? Why don’t you call the police about this guy? I got a date on V night, maybe he could bring a friend. He’s got some hot friends too. Once you go Black, you never go back, that’s what I’m sayin’. And I don’t like you sitting in that crappy apartment when you could be out eatin’ lobster and steak! The restaurants all have great deals on V Day!”

Terry nodded. “I’ll think about it.”

Instead of getting to her day’s debt collection cases, she stared at the screen and ruminated. How long before I get a call from someone like me? Her bills were piling up, the growing medical bills, and the funeral still had payments left, and interest. She’d footed the cost of that, since George’s parents were dead, and he’d been an only child. Every time she looked up on the screen, she could almost see her name, though her accounts weren’t for a lush department store.

Her thoughts strayed from her bills to the mysterious man. He wasn’t a rapist. He’d had no sexual intent in his face. Instead, his eyes had bored into her as though he wanted to talk to her. She shivered and picked up the stack of files for the day.

***

When she opened her eyes in the middle of the night, the dark figure was there, in the light cast by the closet bulb. She drew breath to scream and grab her bat, but he spoke first. His voice shivered through the air, a vibration of something harder than human vocal chords. He did not speak in English. She realized with a shock that the speech sounded faintly like Latin. Before she could wonder any more, the man advanced and touched her arm. She swung the bat, but it went through the man’s image. The pressure on her arm had been no more than a static electric buzz. When he spoke again, she understood his speech.

“You summoned me.”

She backed against the wall behind her bed, grabbed the blanket and pulled it up to her chest.. “Who are you? What are you? I didn’t summon anyone!”

“You called a curse. I exact the curse.”

She stared at him in horror. You mean yesterday? That was just, I was pissed. It didn’t mean anything!”

He gazed into her eyes. His own eyes were dark rheumy wells from which a nightmare peeked. “The curse had intent. You did mean it. All things that are meant persist. I will show you.”

She fell into those eyes and a scene unfolded in her mind.

George laughed and shoved her into a pile of crackling leaves as she swung the rake at his ruddy face.

“Look what you did, bozo! Now I have to rake it all up again.”

This only made him laugh harder. “Aw, I’ll help you babe! If you can dig yourself out!” He buried her under the two bags of leaves she’d set aside for the trash.

“Aghhh!” She burst out of the pile and chased him around the back of the small stucco house, grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked.

He whirled around and pulled her down with him into the pile of leaves she had collected in the back . And then his mouth was on hers, his hands sliding into her jeans. “Screw the leaves.”

“You mean ‘in’ the leaves.” She grinned and rolled him under her.

Terry relaxed into the memory and sagged against the wall, but the memory changed.

George stared up past her. His crystal blue eyes were blank. The tubes sticking out from under the white sterile sheets didn’t shift with movement. The lines on the monitors showed her that there was no one home in his head. He looked like a man-sized doll. She sunk down beside his bed, tears dripping onto the chrome bar, and realized that no matter what she said to this body, it wasn’t him. And unless there really was a beyond, he would never hear her.

“Fuck you! Who the fuck are you!” She hurled the pillow at the phantom, followed by the bat. A brief image appeared in her head of a gaunt prisoner kneeling before a burly man dressed in a tunic with a gold border. They stood in sand as the prisoner was bent to the man’s sandals in a Roman-style coliseum. The prisoner spat at the man’s feet, before he was yanked back by a soldier holding his long dark hair. The soldier swung his sword and opened the neck of the prisoner. Blood spurted across the sand as the prisoner collapsed. The soldier swung one more time and the head separated from the body.

Terry gasped and stared around the empty room. The man was gone.

***

Terry tried to keep the coffee from spilling all over the counter as she poured it into her travel mug. Her wrist shook, even when she braced it with her other hand. There had been no more sleep after her nocturnal visitor. She tossed her Metformin in her mouth, grabbed her coat and headed out to the car.

It was 9:00 before she made it to work. She slunk to her cubicle. As she pulled her chair out to sit down, a cascade of perforated mini-cards slid to the floor onto her computer mat, with the penned names of most of her office mates. On her keyboard was a mini box of chocolates. Everyone in the office knew she was diabetic. She growled and pulled the wrapping off the box, and opened it. There were four filled chocolates inside. One of them leaked nuclear pink fluff. She sighed and tossed the box in the trash can, gathered up the cards and displayed them carefully around the desk so that the senders’ feelings weren’t hurt seeing those in the trash can too. The folded paper notes took up most of her work space. One note was from Donna. In her neat curly cursive it said, “7:00 tonight, my place. We’ll go from there. Leron’s got a friend. Javeed, he’s yours. Dress to the nines.” Terry put her head down on the keyboard and closed her eyes.

She was interrupted a moment later by her annoying neighbor, Kendall, in the next cubicle.

“Happy Valentines Day, Terry! You got a hot date tonight?” His snaggle-toothed grin appeared around the wall of her cubicle, while he teetered on the edge of his chair. “I do!”

“I think Freud would have something to say about that kind of relationship with your mom,” she replied, not in the mood.

“Oh, Haha. It’s not my mom! I’m just helping her out with the mortgage, that’s why I moved back! I told you already!” His fair face flushed pink. “Boy, you’re in a shitty mood. You get dumped?” he shot back.

Terry opened her mouth to reply and then noticed a motion behind his head, a tiny shape that flitted from view as she stared at it.

“What?” Kendall ran his hands over his greasy thinning brown hair. He looked down at his shirt for stains.

Terry realized she’d been staring with her mouth open. “Sorry, just thought I saw something behind you.

He swiveled around to look behind him, and then turned back to peck at Terry again.

“You’re a grump, you’re like the scrooge of Valentine’s Day. Have a chocolate! It’ll make you feel better.” He flipped her a chocolate coin,

The coin he threw her fell to the floor after bouncing off her shirt. “I’m diabetic, asshole.”

He popped one in his mouth. As his mouth closed on the chocolate, a finger of gray reached up from under his clothes and tried to snake between his lips, but withdrew as he bit down on the sweet morsel. “It’s okay, they’re sugar free. I remembered you.”

She blinked, astonished first, that he had thought of her, and second, that he clearly hadn’t noticed the creature that had just tried to enter his mouth. “Uh, thanks!”

She turned back to her screen and put her head back down. I’m losing my mind, I’m seeing things now. I gotta get back to work before the boss comes by too.

A minute later, a string of drool seeped from the corner of her mouth onto the gel pad as she slept.

It had been a year now, since George had been buried. She sprawled face-down in the queen-sized bed that she’d wrestled into the tiny room. It was one of the only things she hadn’t sold with the house. It smelled like him. Her arm lay across the dip on his side, worn down by his butt. She crawled into his spot, curled up, and cried.

When she looked up from the mattress, the sheet beneath her was covered in filth and blood, and looked like stone. She scrambled to her feet. A soldier stood beside her. Chains in his hands clinked as he finished removing them from her wrists. He addressed her in a desperate tone. “Can you help her? She will never find a husband to look after her if you don’t cure her.” She blinked at him, trying to get her bearings in the strange dream. She felt herself say, “Bring her to me. If it is the will of God, her sight and hearing will be restored.”

The soldier went around the dark corner behind them and pushed a mousy teenage girl forward. He guided her so she would not stumble. Her eyes stared before her. She didn’t acknowledge anything around her. But her pupils were wide and dark. The girl saw.

“Leave us, jailer. I must speak with her alone.”

The rough man nodded and left.

When the sound of his feet faded, Terry-in-this-other-body spoke quickly. “I know you see, girl. And I know you hear me. Why do you trouble your parents so with this false sickness?”

The girl scowled and said nothing, only stared ahead.

“Do you wish to stay in your father’s house forever? And what will become of you when he dies? How will you earn a living? If you remain ‘sick’ your father may yet find you a husband, but it will not be a man of quality. Is this the life you wish? Think on it, the next time he brings home a match.”

The girl frowned, and was silent. Her father’s footfalls began around the corner at the far end of the hall. She screwed her eyes shut and then opened them wide, looking around her. She yelled, “Father! Father, your prisoner’s god has given me my sight back, and I can hear you coming too! I am cured!” She ran to him and threw her arms around him as he rushed around the corner.

He stared wide-eyed at her, and then at Terry in the dream. “Valentine!” he exclaimed.  He stalked to her and put his hand on her neck and leaned to her ear, as he gazed toward the entrance. The roar of the crowd in the coliseum filtered in through the heavy iron and wooden doors. “I cannot save you from Claudius. But when the time comes, I will be quick, and I will see to your family, if you have any.”

The coliseum faded, and the voice of the jailer resolved into the voice of her boss, Thomas, as he stood in her cubicle. “Long night? I can’t really have you sleeping on your keyboard, so if you need to go home, just take a sick day.”

Her eyes flew open. “Oh crap, I’m so sorry, Thomas! I’ve just been having trouble sleeping.” She swiveled to face him, overshot in the spin and almost threw herself off the chair. And then she stared at him. There were a few gray blurry forms crawling on his cheeks. He just nodded, and walked to his office, calling over his shoulder, “Sick day is fine.” She kept staring after him. Before he got in, the department slut, Brenda, sauntered up to him, dressed head-to-toe in hearts and wearing a pink feathered tiara with red plastic heart rhinestones. She wore a red shirt that said ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ across the front. Terry wouldn’t have been surprised if the same words were plastered on her red pants across her ass. Dagmar Department Store’s own Holy Whore wrapped her arms around him and planted a loud sloppy kiss in the middle of his cheek.

Terry blinked and her mouth dropped open. As Aphrodite’s pink pearly lips left Thomas’s cheek, gray matter oozed from her lips and slid across his face to his mouth as Terry watched. The gray shapes. They came from the kisses. Did they only come from Venereal Girl, or was it anyone’s kiss? Then she shook her head and rubbed her face. This is insane. None of this is real. Kisses do not come to life as little gray life forms. I’m still dreaming. Oh, who cares! At least it’s something to think about other than the dreams. And well, good! Creepy things running around on V-Day. How damn appropriate. And not less creepy than some people on V-Day! She pointedly stared at  Brenda from around the corner.

As Thomas detached himself and walked into his office, she meandered after Brenda, waiting for the floozy to give her another opportunity to observe the kissy creatures. She only had to wait about three seconds until another co-worker encountered Brenda in the hall between the cubicles. Terry watched as Brenda plastered a wet one on the man’s cheek. As before, a gray amoebic shape seeped out from between their lips and oozed across the man’s face and probed around his mouth. She watched Brenda a couple more times before veering into another hallway toward the water fountain, to avoid looking like a voyeur.

As she sipped the water, a young man and woman, interns, wandered by to the snack machine. Gray shapes teemed across their faces and upper bodies, like moving plaques of mucus. She stared at their backs while water dribbled down her chin. If they were the embodiment of kisses, she was going to be celibate for the rest of her life. But what were they, and what were they doing? They seemed to be reaching toward people’s noses and mouths as though they would crawl inside. If so, what happened when they got there? She shook her head and returned to her desk.

***

At about one-thirty, just after the Oh-God-I-Ate-Too-Many-Carbs-For-Lunch hour, a commotion began on the other end of the floor. Terry heard a siren’s blare come closer and then die just downstairs. She saw flashing rotating lights reflecting off the ceiling and went to the window. An ambulance was parking outside. She wandered down the hall as EMTs came up.

She didn’t want to disturb them in their mission, so she asked a fellow gawker, “Do you know what’s going on?”

The woman shook her head, “Not really. Guy stopped breathing, I heard.”

“What, like a heart attack?”

She shrugged, her pale blue silk shirt shimmering with the motion. “I don’t know. I hope he’s okay.”

“Who was it?”

“Jim Fenton, from financial. Do you know him?” She spared a glance for Terry. “Finally, someone else not decked out in red or pink.”

Terry shook her head. “No, don’t know him. Kind of chunky, tall guy with the kinky red hair? I’ve passed him in the hall a lot. Hope he’s ok.”

“Me too. He’s got three kids! My husband went college with him a long time ago.”

Terry opened the door back into the cubicle jungle, and indicated the woman’s clothes, “By the way, welcome, fellow hater.”

As she passed Kendall’s desk, his Space Invaders screen saver was pinging, and the soft buzz of his snore fluttered past his nostrils. A soft finger of gray seeped into his open mouth. As she stared, horrified, the rest of the small mass followed and disappeared into his mouth. She thought about shaking him awake. Even if this weren’t strange and wrong, the boss could walk by, and as irritating as Kendall was, he’d done that favor for her enough times.

But she stood, transfixed. Nothing more happened for a few moments. But then his chest started hitching, as if he were having trouble breathing. His brow creased, and his eyes flew open as he clutched his throat and began coughing. He whooped and sucked air as though he’d been choking.

Terry grabbed his water bottle and handed it to him. “Kendall! Are you all right? What the hell was that?”

He shook his head, his hands trembling as he took a frantic swig and then gulped more air. “I think maybe my sleep apnea’s gotten worse. It’s never gotten me like that during a nap though.” His eyes betrayed fear.

“I thought sleep apnea was only when you’re lying down?”

“Guess not.”

She stared at him while he downed the rest of the bottle.

“I gotta get back to work. Thanks, Terry.”

“For what?”

“Being there.”

“Uh.” She backed around the corner into her cubicle and just sat for a minute. She shivered and rubbed her arms. A freezing chill slid down her spine as she thought of the gray shape slipping between his teeth. It had been the kiss. She knew that as certainly as she knew that Jim Fenton hadn’t stopped breathing because of a heart attack. She stood and peered over the sea of cubicles. Some of them clicked with the sound of keyboards, or rustled with papers moving. But what about the ones that were silent? How many innocent after-lunch snoozes would turn into the quiet choking she had just seen?

This is the curse, my curse. She sat down. It’s real. What the hell do I do? How can I tell people that they’re being choked by kisses?

She rolled her chair to the edge of the wall and poked her head around. “Hey, Kendall!”

Kendall looked at her, a swizzle-stick poking from his mouth.

“I know this is going to sound weird, but don’t let anyone kiss you, got it?”

“Right. Hot date, remember?”

“Tell her you’re a gentleman, pretend. That hot date will turn into many hot dates, trust me. It’s the new thing, for men to be chaste for the first few dates.”

He squinted at her. “Yeah, what makes you think that it’s supposed to be more than a fling?”

Terry looked him up and down and raised her eyebrows. “Do you ever want to move out of your mama’s house?”

“Ouch.”

“Listen to what I’m telling you then.”

He rolled his eyes and sighed.

“And Kendall? Be careful. Don’t fall asleep again with your mouth open.”

“I get it. I snore.”

“Damn right. Women hate that.”

She rose again, and went all the way out to her car. She got in, though no one was in the lot to see her talking to something invisible. “Whatever the hell you are, call off the curse. I never meant for people to get killed. I don’t want people to die. Call it off!”

A breath of air blew her hair, and a figure appeared in her rear view mirror on the back seat. She whirled around. A man sat. His neck dripped with blood, though his head remained on his shoulders. It was the man from her dream.

“Valentine. You’re Saint Valentine, aren’t you? You were killed by Rome for marrying people in the first church. I heard of you.”

His hollow dark eyes drilled into her. “No. I am merely a Christian. I did not refuse my God at Claudius’ feet, or show loyalty to the Roman gods. Some people thought I could heal them.”

“Did you?”

“Perhaps I healed some people of foolishness, or anger, or other kinds of pain than that of disease. The disease of the soul.”

“Why did you come to me? Will you take back the curse?”

“I cannot. Only you can.”

“I don’t know how!”

A sharp rap at the window jolted Terry around to stare out of her driver side window. Donna stood there.

She cupped her hands and peered in. “Hey Girl, what are you doing?”

Terry turned back around. The back seat was empty. Damn!

She opened the car door. Donna backed up and let her out.

“Donna, listen. You have to help me. I screwed up. You’re not going to believe this, but I think I started something really bad, and it’s going to get a lot worse before the day is over.”

Donna’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”

“I…I made some kind of a curse, a Valentine’s Day curse. I was really pissed, and thinking about George, and I think I called something here that isn’t supposed to be here. Well, I know this sounds crazy, but kisses have been coming to life, and choking people when they fall asleep!”

Donna’s black eyes stared at her, flat. “Okay, girlfriend. I think you better check up on that medication of yours.”

“No! The guy in my apartment last night was a ghost, a really old one. It was Valentine, the Roman Christian saint guy. He said I summoned him with the curse. What do I need to do to get you to believe me?”

“I’m not sure. Are you listening to yourself?”

“Kendall, he almost choked while I watched him. I saw what slid into his mouth! You can ask him about the choking at least.”

“That oily guy next to you…choked on kisses. Whose kisses, Miss Thing? He lives with his momma.”

“Hers! I saw Brenda kiss Thomas and this gray thing came out of her mouth when she did it. And the same kind of thing crawled into Kendall’s mouth when he choked.”

Donna sighed and leaned back against the car behind her. “You nuts, woman. But I think, I guess it’s possible. My crazy grandma would believe you anyway. She always believed in weird things down in that Florida swamp.”

“What does she believe?”

“That thoughts you speak can come to life. If you speak bad thoughts, bad wishes, you make ‘em real. That’s sorcery.”

“I didn’t mean it. How do I take it back?”

Donna shrugged. “I didn’t talk with her much about that stuff.”

Terry sagged against her own car.

“You really think you made a curse, huh? Okay, well, what you want me to do?”

“You believe me? You’ll help me?” Terry gazed at her.

“I believe that you believe, and I guess anything you come up with isn’t much crazier than she used to have me do. But I ain’t slitting the neck of no chickens!”

“Do I need chickens?”

“What do I look like, a voodoo priestess? How the hell should I know?”

“Well, can you think of anything your grandma used to do?”

Donna sighed, “You owe me for this, girl. I’ll get some info from her. But I got to call her, crazy bat! That’s why you owe me! I’ll come to your house after work.”

***

Terry spent the rest of the day roaming the cubicle halls and socializing wherever she saw a drowsy person. She generally made a pain in the ass of herself asking inane questions and speaking loudly to jar everyone out of any chance of sleepiness. She introduced herself formally to about ten different people in other sections. Since she was a classic introvert, it was exhausting. But there were no more calls to 911 that afternoon.

A half hour before quitting time, Thomas strode to her cubicle, just before she zipped off on another round of Wake Up.

“Oh, nice to see you at your desk. Decided to do a little work today?” he cleared his throat.

His face and head were swarming with kisses. Either Brenda or some other employee had been very busy, or he was having an affair. None of my business! She reminded herself. “You don’t have to be snide. I’m just trying a new program.”

He leaned against her wall and crossed his arms, and then almost toppled onto the floor as the flimsy wall moved back from his weight. “New program?”

“After Jim Fenton had his incident earlier, it occurred to me that not enough of us know each other. So I was introducing myself. Business might flow better if we all knew each other. You know, synergy.”

He stared at her. She tried to keep her attention focused on his eyes and not on the gray moving blobs. “Nice buzz word. Are you on something? You seem to be having trouble concentrating.”

“Nope.”

“You’ll have to work on Saturday to make up for the time you spent on your new program.”

“Okay. Give your wife a big smooch for me. Happy Valentine’s Day!” Dickhead!

He turned around and headed back to his office with a wave.

***

On the way home, the radio news reported that there were strange incidents of respiratory failure during sleep, throughout Phoenix. Especially affected had been hospitals, day care centers, kindergartens during the nap periods, and adult day cares. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health had been notified and engaged in the investigation. The public service message urged anyone with sleep apnea or other sleep disturbances or disorders, to call the health hotline.

As she passed pedestrians, or stopped at lighst and peered into other cars, the kisses teemed everywhere. They crawled through people’s hair, probed gray wisps of matter into people’s ears, and danced tentatively around people’s noses, and mouths as they spoke or inhaled. One afflicted man sitting on a bus bench, scattered kisses across the pavement and garbage can near him, as he sneezed. But they swiftly slithered back to congregate around the holes in his face, shadows waiting for an unguarded moment to sneak in.

Donna waited in the parking lot of her complex when she pulled up. Her face was clear of the creatures.

Terry asked through the window, as she parked the car, “Why don’t you have any kisses on your face? Mostly everyone else does.”

Donna’s eyebrows rose in surprise, then she recovered. “Because I don’t want no one else’s nasty-ass mouth all over me, unless they plannin’ on going all the way. And then you better give me a nice dinner and chocolate! Otherwise, stay the hell away from me and keep those germy lips to yourself. I don’t know where they been.” She stared at Terry. “You really can see that shit, huh?”

“Yup. So do we have everything we need?”

“Yeah, everything that you’d want to do in an apartment with a deposit, anyway.”

They went up to the apartment. Terry closed the door behind Donna and followed her into the center of the living room.

Donna she pulled out pink valentine cards from her red leather handbag and pinned them around the walls of the room. In the blank center spaces of the cards, she drew a symbol with the strawberry stinky marker Terry had seen on the whiteboard at work. The symbol was an elaborate crowned heart with a staff and curlicues coming from the sides.

“Oh V-Day cards, really? Come on!”

“Shut up and let me work!”

Once Donna was done with her drawing, she pulled three silver rings off her fingers and gave them to Terry. “Put those on. But I get those back after, bitch, those are mine! And go get a piece of your jewelry that’s nice.”

Terry went and got a bracelet that George had gotten her.

Then she laid a pink cloth in front of the television. On it she put a couple of packages of Little Debbies, unwrapped.

“God, those things are everywhere,” Terry moaned.

Donna gave her an irritated look and pulled a long bottle of Irish Cream out of her bag, laid Terry’s bracelet on the cloth next to the cakes, and poured the cream on the cakes. Finally, at the head of the cloth, she laid a picture of a Madonna.

“What is all this?’

Donna nodded to all the symbols. “Grandma says you might have offended Erzulie. You’re just pissin everyone off today. She’s sort of like our version of a love saint. You’re a lot like her, actually.”

“No, I’m not. I’m the opposite of a love spirit, I hate this shit.”

“Yeah, but Erzulie is said to never get her heart’s desire: love and regret. You two will get along just fine.”

“Bite me!”

“You want my help or not! I should be gettin’ ready for my date, but I called that fine African man and put off my own shit, for you.”

“You’re right. Sorry. What now?”

“Well, I ain’t no voodoo priestess, so don’t expect results. Maybe you should ask Erzulie for help. And no whinin’. It’s called prayin’ respectfully. How long’s it been since you prayed?”

Terry thought for a second. “Long time. Every time I pray, I’m in my own head, someplace I really don’t want to be anymore. I just…went round and round.” She sighed, kneeled and gazed at the picture of the Madonna.  Her face must have betrayed her dismay.

Donna interrupted, her voice gentle now, “Well, now there are other things in there with you, so you ain’t alone. Look, I know you had a rough time. Maybe this is what you need anyway. Just focus on what you want. What you want most? What’s in your heart?”

A tear slid down Terry’s face. “I want George to be alive.”

“Ain’t nobody but Jesus can help you with that, girl. Not until the end time. What do you want that somebody listenin’ can give you?”

“I don’t know.” She looked at the picture of Erzulie/Madonna. Tears streamed down her face now. She closed her eyes.

“Yes, you do.”

A scent of delicate perfume wafted through the room. It smelled familiar, but she didn’t think she had smelled it in a long time. Her own voice sounded strange, as though it came from a long way away. And the tone was different, a husky contralto that came out once when she had met George and was three sheets past the wind. “I wanted to say goodbye.”

The last evening light in the city faded into night. As dark fell, emergency response sirens blared to life in multiple places in the city. Terry didn’t hear them.

Valentine stood in the dim hospital room. The florescent light from the medical displays cast a washed-out light across his ghastly figure, making him look even more corpse-like. Next to him lay George, unmoving and white against the sheets. His flaxen hair silky against the pillow. “Why do you keep showing me this?” she screamed at the gory phantom.

“You wanted to say goodbye.”

“Not like this, he can’t hear me!”

“Not if you don’t talk.”

She sunk down to her haunches by the bed, sobbing. Then she slowly rose and stared into his face. His eyes were closed, and his face unlined by everyday cares, the cares of normal life. She wiped her face, leaned over and kissed his cheek, not caring what weird creatures came out of it. “I love you. I miss you.”

Something was behind her. She whirled around. It was George. He was smiling and his blue eyes were as mischevious as ever. Her jaw dropped open, and she swiveled back to the bed. The figure on the bed was gone.

“What—How did you…Oh God, George!”

He grinned. “Hi.”

“Are you real?”

“Real enough.”

“Are you in Heaven?”

“No, I’m here with you.”

“You know what I mean!”

“I know. There’s not much time, Babe. Only a moment.”

She put her hands on either side of his face and kissed him deeply on the lips. He kissed her back, and then pulled away, his eyes sad. “I’m sorry I had to leave. I have to go again. But I love you too, always will.”

She swallowed hard. “I know. See you next time around, maybe?”

He faded into the darkness, and his teeth flashed in a wide smile. “I’d chase your ass through the universe.”

The room was empty, except for the dark solemn figure in the corner.

“What about the curse? What do I do about that?”

“You lifted it.” Valentine said as the wall became visible through him. “Thank you.” Then he too was gone.

The room was dark, and Donna sat next to Terry, shaking her head. “Do you want me to get you some insulin or something?”

Terry felt something moist. She looked down on a pile of sticky crumbs in her lap. She’d eaten all the cakes covered in liquor. The bracelet twinkled on her wrist. She held her picture of George in her hands. “What the fuck?”

“Do you remember anything? Grandma says that when people are ridden, they don’t remember it. Erzulie likes sweets.”

“Well, I remember everything. Besides manging on enough sugar for a year, did I do anything weird?”

“You had a conversation. It sounded like there were a couple people in the room, and one of ‘em was George. For a second it looked like there was a couple people in the room too, scared the shit out of me. One of them was right next to you. I almost grabbed a knife from the kitchen, but one, I was too scared to move, and two, for a second, it looked like it might be George, and I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Thanks.”

“So, is the craziness over now? No more kisses running around killin’ people? Can we get on with our lives?”

Terry nodded. “I think so.”

“Good, maybe we can still catch a V-Day burger at the diner. You coming?”

Terry shook her head.

“Oh no, Miss Thing, you are not gonna start that moping again. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place!”

“No. I’m not. I’m okay now. I just need to clean up.”

“All right, well, you meet us there then?” Donna grabbed the bottle of Irish Cream, stashed it back in her bag, pulled the rings off Terry’s fingers, and propped open the front door.

Terry nodded. “Give me an hour.”

Donna tapped her nails on the lintel and left. Terry returned to the altar, picked up the picture of George and sat for a while, smiling.

***

The diner was bright with florescent 50s colors as Terry found the table and sat down in the booth with Donna and Leron, and a tall muscular man. He spoke with an African accent that rolled off his tongue like music.

“I’m Javeed.” He extended his hand, politely.

“I’m Terry. Wow, Donna was right. You’re really hot.”

He grinned. “And you are also as lovely as she said.” His smile had a mischevious glint that reminded her of George.

End

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